When Salon recently referred to crappy but well-connected movie director Robert Altman as "Hollywood's ultimate outsider", the self-styled maverick news operation and 1996 TimeWeb Site of the Year was doing more than just filling out a subtitle with a blatantly false bit of aggrandizing hyberbole. It was participating in a grand American tradition every bit as far-fetched and fishy as the four-time Oscar nominee's latest flick, the gynecological flop Dr. T and the Women.
Something there is in American culture that loves "outsiders." Or at least ones who can get tables on demand at chi-chi Beverly Hills bistros (like O.C. & Stiggs auteur Altman), flash Ivy League diplomas (see below), or regale audiences with personal anecdotes about the rich and famous (like that self-styled exile who never fails to mention that his family owned slaves in the good old days and that he snapped Jackie Kennedy's bra during the Camelot years, Gore Vidal).
How else to explain that the Flab Four of the current presidential campaign have all either described themselves as "outsiders" or have been thus characterized? It's commonplace to note that you can become anything you want in America, regardless of your origins. What's less remarked upon is that such a dynamic allows you to become an "outsider" even — or perhaps especially — if you're more connected than John Gotti, Jr.
Hence, George W. Bush has consistently billed himself as a political renegade who only happens to share not only the name but the gene pool of a recent POTUS (let's skip that education section on Dubya's resume: Andover, Yale, and Harvard). Al Gore's many recent biographers describe the lonesome, poorly performing Tennessee senator's son as a regular misft at fair Harvard who just didn't fit in with those Northeastern elite types (it seems that Al Jr., who actually grew up in a D.C. hotel and attended the ritzy St. Albans Prep, was more of a Southern elite type). In discussing the Art Garfunkel and Andrew Ridgely of the Big Race, The Hartford Courant mentioned in passing that Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney, who both matriculated at Yale some 40 years ago (only local booze kingpin's son Joe would finish up there, alas), were "two outsiders in the bastion of Eastern elitism." Which is to say, of course, that they were total insiders (at least to the poor saps doing time across town at New Haven's other college, Southern Connecticut State University).
A favorite of rock star royalty (e.g., Jakob Dylan), Hollywood legacies (e.g, Angelina Jolie), and the occasional cable news channel host cum bestselling author (e.g., Bill O'Reilly), the outsider shtick is as remarkably versatile as it is tricky to pull off. Tricky because it requires a massive dose of Establishment juice that inevitably undercuts the pose. It's a safe bet that whenever anybody puffs up with pride and/or faux-laments their outsider status, they're more inside than you'll ever be (the true outsiders, it goes without saying, never catch our attention in the first place). That in the end is the basic appeal of the outsider pose: It's a sign that the speaker is in like Flynn. There's a reason, after all, why novelist Richard Wright published his novel The Outsider when he wasn't one any longer, some 13 years after he'd become famous as the author of Native Son (1940).
As a result of the basic contradiction in publicly asserting outsider status, there's something inherently and hilariously phony about its invocation, whether it's coming from the likes of helmet-haired politico Al "I'm still an outsider" Sharpton or Harvard-trained unintentional ironist Jedediah "I was an outsider" Purdy or goggle-eyed bazillionaire Steve "I'm an outsider" Forbes or Dudley Do-Right star Brendan "I feel like an outsider" Fraser or even Nazi schatze Dee Dee "I'm an outsiderOutside of everything" Ramone.
None of this, of course, is new. Indeed, it's centuries old and speaks not only to the narcissism of public personalities but to the romantic ethos that has long informed America. The Outsider is simply the Rugged Individual with a leather jacket, a recording contract (or equivalent), and a good publicist — or, in the case of trust-fund radical and Ivy League fancy lad Henry David Thoreau, an aunt with the do-re-mi to bail your ass out of jail. Nathaniel Hawthorne — the college pal of a president (Franklin Pierce, best known then as a northern supporter of slavery and now as the source for Hawkeye's name in M*A*S*H), recipient of a customs house sinecure via political connections, and the darling of Boston's powerful literary mafia — famously bitched and moaned constantly of being marginal to the "damned mob of scribbling women" who somehow managed to move more product than he did.
As with many things ascribed to the "American character" (or lack thereof), the outsider pose received perhaps its first full-fledged articulation via the fella that D.H. Lawrence once dubbed "the first dummy American," Benjamin Franklin. Old Ben's autobiography, we learn early on, is all about being an outsider, about being "the youngest Son of the yongest Son for 5 generations back." Which is to say that Franklin had little to no hope of ever inheriting wealth or position. Like that other great American some years later, Mary Tyler Moore, he was going to have make it on his own. After being apprenticed to his own bastard of a brother, young Ben flees Boston and scampers down to Philadelphia, where he "knew no Soul, nor [even] where to look for Lodging" but nonetheless becomes rich and famous.
To his credit, however, and unlike modern "outsiders," Franklin openly acknowledges that the whole point is really to become an insider deluxe. Written in the form of advice to his son, Franklin's memoir kicks off thus: "From the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, I have raised myself to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World … the conducing Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated."
Frankin has no qualms about his move from outside to inside. Which not only makes his autobiography still fun to read (it remains the basic how-to manual for those of us not born into wealth, position, and privilege) but coherent in a way that discourse about outsiders rarely is. To wit, Salon's final summation on Robert Altman, which is a bigger crock of shit than Brewster McCloud and Ready to Wear put together: "The ultimate outsider is at long last the Big Daddy of American Cinema."
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in Suck, and can be viewed in that format here.