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« Magazine Culture Redux | Main | Getty vs. Acropolis »

October 19, 2002

Free Reads -- Philosoblog and Envy

Friedrich --

A new find: Jim Ryan's engrossing Philosoblog, here. It's a robust and invigorating pleasure going along for the ride as Ryan pulls questions apart and turns issues over. Action philosophy!

Sample passage:

Is there ever something wrong with forcing someone to do his duty? Is there always something wrong with it? Clearly the answer to the latter question is no. It's not wrong to force someone to fulfill his contracts, for example. Is it wrong to force someone to go take his aged parents a hot meal once a week? Is it wrong for the state to do that? Yes. Because it's too intrusive? Or because the state is likely to botch the job? The latter. There is nothing wrong with a perfectly wise and good entity applying pressure to slackers who are lax in their duty. The state is too far from wise and good, however, and shouldn't be trusted with certain intrusions into personal affiars.

That bouquet thrown, on to the fun. Ryan has a couple of brainy recent postings dealing with moral relativism, and with leftie-ism more generally. Where do these tendencies come from? Here's Ryan's theory:

Misfits will envy the happy and well-adjusted. The poor and their leaders are not the only elements of the progressivist left. The movement needs a middle management class, and it has one. These are the college-educated middle class who donít fit in and who have been hoodwinked by the leadership into feeling guilt about their wealth. They join the movement because they are bored and restless.

It comes down to envy and resentment, in other words. (Aaron Haspel at God of the Machine, here, adds some brainiac words of his own on the subject.)

I've run across this "envy" explanation before, for example in Helmut Schoeck's book "Envy," and while it's clearly a contribution and explains a lot, I've never found it entirely convincing. I think a more nuanced and sympathetic explanation is called for.

I live, play and work among vast crowds of lefties and find their motives for being leftie fairly numerous. A common one: the desire to fit in with a certain group. Lots of people don't give the big questions much thought. Wanting to lead a certain kind of life, they take on the colors of that life. If the crowd you want to run with is leftie, you'll probably go along with leftie-ism. Why not?

So: Where's the envy?

There's also the fact that being a leftie seems to make a lot of people feel young and rebellious. For whatever reason, it's a cooler, hipper attitude than rightie-ism. As lefties, they can feel that they haven't given totally in yet -- fuck the Power and rock out, man. An amazing number of people cling to this attitude even after they've got houses and kids and sit in the boss's office.

Again: where's the envy?

But this is a cultureblog, so the motivation I encounter that interests me most is this one: leftie-ism is attractive.

That's spelled a-t-t-r-a-c-t-i-v-e, and I think it's a huge mistake not to take it seriously.

Far-out art? Good food? Bookstores with personalities? Performers who take wild chances? Glamour and sex? Snazzy design? If these things mean much to you, you're going to be spending more time exploring the left-hand part of the room than the left-hand part. And the more time you spend there, the more likely it is that you'll take on leftie coloring.

And again, where's the envy?

I'm hoping you can explain to me why so many people on the right, libertarian or conservative, discount the question of attractiveness. Are they puzzled by it? Do they think it's pussy stuff? Are they even aware of it?

As you and I, arty maniacs, both know, beauty and pleasure play big roles in people's lives. People -- and not just artsy-fartsies -- make life decisions based on feelings and tastes. Aesthetic preference is a powerful engine that can affect which neighborhood you choose to live in, how you dress and feed yourself, where you shop and travel, and how you make a living.

Too bad the right refuses to wrestle with the question of aesthetic preference. In doing so, they risk alienating everyone who's attracted to attractiveness. (And who isn't?) Seductiveness, glamour, sensuality, entertainment, food: are righties really willing to let the left own all these potent issues and qualities?

Whatever the behind-the-scenes truth of the matter, the left looks -- and knows how to look -- generous, attractive, and warm. And that's important. Clinton's sex appeal sees him through much that would end the career of a less-sexy man. Why sneer at the power of that kind of sex appeal?

Meanwhile, the right seems willing to let itself be associated with ugliness. A small example: that National Review/Republican shade of blue -- it's a hard, cold, uninviting color. It could use a little more ... well, sex appeal. Actually, it could use a lot more sex appeal.

Righties: Why not compete on these (attractiveness, sex appeal) terms? Claim art, claim food, claim pleasure, claim generosity. Wish people's pleasure centers well. It's heartening the see the frat-house rowdiness of NRO -- at least a sense of fun is being projected. And I'm delighted to encounter such British libertarians as Natalie Solent (here), and the group at (here), who bring (in addition to brains) some slyness, elegance and perversity to bear. Hey: style and flair! Because being disdainful of pleasure is suicidal -- any businessperson would know it's like alienating your own marketing department. What's the point of having a great product if you refuse to sell it?

I've gotten 'way off track, for which I hope you'll forgive me. But one final thing? And thanks for indulging this rant, which has nothing to do with you (although I'm very eager to know your thoughts about leftieism, envy and beauty). I'd humbly suggest that resorting to "envy" as one's only, or root, explanation for leftie-ism, is itself unattractive. It has its validity, of course. But it'll never sell.



posted by Michael at October 19, 2002


It seems Mr. Ryan has lifted much if not all his ideas from Eric Hoffer, and Nietzsche before him -- with nary a note of credit.


Posted by: acdouglas on October 19, 2002 08:16 PM

I think that the "right wing" (for lack of a better term) has attempted to "compete" in the aesthetics department -- if my readings of articles in the National Review can be said to be a source. Of course, the problem isn't so much that the Left has all the pretty, sparkly stuff, while the Right is left at home with the ugly faded chintz -- it's an argument over just what constitutes beauty and art. The conservative will argue that a lot of what the "left," or the avant garde, or whatever you want to call them -- the In Crowd -- has presented to the world as being art is just ugly chaos. Think of the reaction to the Ofili Madonna (the elephant poo painting -- actually, I am not sure what offended more, the poo or the fact that the artist used cutouts from porn magazines in his collage*). Anyway, to many conservatives, art should adhere to certain standards, and we all know how artists react to the idea of rules...

Or do they? I think part of the problem is that artists are no more immune to orthodoxy than anyone else. For instance, what is the opinion on realistic representation in art these days, or artists whose idea of the beautiful echoes that of the Classical Greeks or the pre-Raphaelites? Didn't I read an article on this blog about the Victorian painters and how their work had been consigned to the kitsch bin?

To tell you the truth, I do not find much of the "leftist lifestyle" that I have observed very attractive. I'm not sure what you mean by that anyway -- I don't know what you mean by the beauty and sensuality of the leftist lifestyle; do you mean that they have nice things and rightwingers only have ugly things, and that only leftists enjoy sex while rightists are uptight prudes? Surely not! I don't know that the things you list -- bookstores with "personality" (it seems to me that the Big, Anonymous retail books have something better than personality -- they have books), performers who take "wild chances" (bad, boring acting is more often found among groups who think discipline and stagecraft are dull), and so forth. Even though I think you are right about a lot of people wanting to espouse leftist causes and ideas because it's a way of fitting in with a crowd perceived as "cool," I sense a stereotyping of conservative people as being the Sears-Robuck, plaster-ducks-on-the-wall set. William F. Buckley Jr. is a pretty arty-farty guy, or so I've heard.

*I thought the Ofili work was one of the ugliest things I had ever seen, but that wasn't what really struck me about it. I've seen a lot of art that might be called "ugly" that nevertheless said something important, and didn't feel like an attack. What it made me think/feel was that it expressed an absolute feeling of hatred, for the religious, for the "art connoisseur" who dares to have an opinion on art without doing any himself, on Western culture, and perhaps all culture in general. Another aspect of it was the sense of mindlessness -- I can't put it any other way. I couldn't help but think that whatever this work was trying to express, it was really something petty. I am not saying I am "right" -- this is my own opinion only; and I did not see the work in person, but in a color picture in a book. But one of my college instructors showed us a slide of another Ofili work -- elephant dung again, this time carefully shaped into two conical mounds, and with the tops painted in gold leaf. Some connoisseur had paid thousands of dollars for this matched pair of mudpies. I got the humor, but it's humor with an edge of malice, and I am not sure that it's healthy to encourage this sort of malice towards oneself, and even pay money to have it done.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on October 19, 2002 11:24 PM

Michael, I'm delighted that you like Philosoblog. Thank you for the kind words.

ACD: You are right about Nietzsche, and I'll note as much on my blog. I've read loads of him years ago. On the other hand, my reflections on envy derive from the life I lead long before reading Nietzsche. I think I've given the topic my own spin. (I've never read Hoffer, or Schoeck).

Michael, I'm from the aesthetic fringe: Coltrane, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Chuang-tzu, parties of weirdos. (Albeit the earthy, sandal aesthetic rubbed me entirely the wrong way. I hated The Dead and John Lennon.) Oddly, this does not disprove your point. You may be right that envy does not explain it all. Because my moral values and aesthetics both changed together toward the conservative.

We might bring our two points together. The fuck-it-all-rock-out-man aesthetic appeals to the bored spirit, the one that cannot find fulfillment in conventional, traditional values. This soul, like any, seeks some sort of fulfillment or deep pleasure. I am the very laboratory specimen for our inquiry (it's the old story of the angry, lefty 20-year-old who gradually found the way to fulfillment in our tradition). I sought fulfillment in the "mindlessness" that Andrea speaks of: the bliss of mentally destroying the conventional values that have eluded one. The Butthole Surfers provided it. And this is precisely the spirit that envies those who find deep fulfillment in tradition.

I was lucky, however. All along I craved Jerome Kern, suits cerca 1960, immersion in Western history and literature, and classical music. Paradoxically, the angry, bored youth immersed himself in these things, while keeping the punk thing going, too. I never knew how to be fulfilled in conventional ways, but I knew how to come to know how, and I wanted this. Then the angry, bored youth got tired and faded away. At 37, I'm selling all my punk albums this Fall. I haven't listened to them in ten years. As a musician of 25 years, I find I no longer desire to play Miles and Coltrane's anger-filled bop. I play standards at weddings: Kern, Rogers/Hart, van Heusen, etc. I have become the people for whom I would feel hatred while listening to Dead Kennedys albums. I now have a deeply satisfying life aimed at fulfilling traditional values. The aesthetic ecstasy of Sonic Youth was only the semblance of this. All along I knew this, and yet didn't know it, both at the same time. The part that knew won.

So, you may be partly right. But it may also be that the lefty aesthetic expresses discontent with the ordinary and gives catharsis to envious rage. The lefty gets his politics from his aesthetics? Okay. But only because he gets his aesthetics from his morals. And his morals come from envy.

There is a human nature. Certain ways of life fulfill it. Certain aesthetics express and consumate the attainment of these ways. Other aesthetics assuage the frustrations of those who fail to find those ways. Van Heusen and Bach are deep. Black Flag is not.

But there is more to unearth here. Chuang-tzu is certainly deep. This weirdo has been quoted with approval by Michael Oakeshott. Conservatives and weirdos can grasp the trans-conventional value of "just being" and the aesthetics that express it. I might keep a Sonic Youth album or two. But I won't be attending any art of the Ofili type. Hatred of conventional value is nothing to me now.

Posted by: Jim on October 20, 2002 01:41 AM

I think that the problem with "Righties" and attractiveness comes from the influence of the "Religious Right". The "RR" doesn't like much of what the average person finds desireable, like sex. The "RR" does like charity, but only when it is done by the individual. The "Lefties" prefer mass charity, so that they can sound, look, and feel charitable with a minimum of personal cost. In addition, the left promises people the world on a platter (Affirmative action, Welfare, etc.). People like sex and the esay way out, and people are lazy. This makes the left more attractive.

Posted by: Byna on October 20, 2002 02:00 AM

Oh, I don't know -- don't you think "TV Party" expresses the paradigm of late Baby-Boomer suburban bliss-out culture meeting the aesthetic aridity of sub-Proustian angst?

Then again, maybe it is just a dumb song about drinking beer and watching tv.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on October 20, 2002 02:27 AM

"Claim art, claim food, claim pleasure, claim generosity."

Good idea, but one that's hard to carry out.

Art: the Right has to do with finding oneself in and through established social conventions, because man is social and the ways people come to live together reflect the greater truths that are at the bottom of what we are. The Left has to do with setting oneself against what is established, because there are no greater truths that can be publicly known, social convention is mean, superficial and hypocritical, and we find ourselves by inventing ourselves and maybe through some sort of abstract or ideal solidarity that sets itself against settled social ties.

The problem is that the left-wing view reflects a general tendency of thought and social change that's been gathering force since the High Middle Ages. The arts today may think they're rebellious but except in particulars and individual cases they're not likely to set themselves against that. What makes the problem worse is that if people think that social conventions are just a matter of prettified self-interest then in time the conventions will come to reflect less and less that goes beyond that. Polite rituals won't do much for you if the rituals aren't there. So the problems the Right has with the arts are an aspect of problems it has with the fundamental orientation of life and thought today and the latter is what has to be dealt with.

Food: home cooking, mom's apple pie, is right wing. Food as novelty and excitement is left wing. The transformation of something as basic as eating from domestic habit to competitive public pursuit of pleasure is anticonservative because it fragments life. It also makes food worse on the whole, but that's not how it seems. It's like the difference between married and unmarried sex. The former is is in fact more satisfying but since it avoids publicity it's difficult for its superiority to enter the public understanding of things in a media-driven age.

Pleasure: If food and sex are a problem, can pleasure be far behind? The media select, juxtapose and overemphasize, and so have trouble showing pleasure as something found within the events and practices of ordinary daily life. They make pleasure a special object of pursuit separated from the general pattern of things. When so viewed pleasure is an attribute of the dissolution of life into shining fragments to be chosen and recombined at will. That can't be conservative.

Generosity: righties give more to charity than lefties. Still, the Left appears more generous from a viewpoint that overemphasizes the side of things that is publicly visible, because it favors using public authority to give people things and getting rid of social disciplines that keep people from doing what they want to do.

So what's the lesson? I don't think the Right can compete by promising art, food, pleasure and generosity apart from presenting an overall way of life of which those things are attributes. When isolated from the rest of life those things do I think support the Left. Still, I agree we should be aware of the problem and not fall into the trap of presenting other things--limited government, traditional values or whatever--as isolated things either. When presented as such they're a lot harder to sell than pleasure

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 20, 2002 09:58 AM

I agree with Michael on this. It does seem that the right has not co-opted as much of the art scene as they might. They really don't seem to care about it the way the left does. It always seems to be the left defending the Mapelthorpes and the Ofili Madonnas against right wing attacks. What has the right defended? Sure, we do have people like the Romantic Realists, but they are a minority, who are not even championed by the rest of the right. Unfortunate, but there you go.

Posted by: Alexandra on October 20, 2002 11:40 AM

I think the right isn't interested in aesthetics because aesthetic values are considered to be relative rather than objective (which I think is wrong), and because right-ism is about having practical demonstrable ideas that actually work in reality, rather than nice-sounding pretty ones that basically don't.

From a right POV, it might seen amazing that leftiness is any more *objectively* nice-sounding and pretty, than rightiness would be to a righty. But righties aren't turned on by aesthetic values in the first place. They want sensible ideas that fit into plain rational language. Their whole meme-set is different.

An example is pacifisim: it sounds pleasing and pretty that being nice to people would make them be nice back to you, that evil can be fought with loveliness and smiles, that we can somehow dissolve violence and destruction just by wearing floaty clothing and sitting around in trees. I mean, if we could, well, that would be *nice*, right? It makes a great fairytale.

But when it comes to real life, righties are better at it. Threaten the bastards with guns, and if they don't respond, shoot them. This is what you actually need to do if you want to protect your floaty dress collection from designer-clothes-robbers, sometimes.

Which explains why it's not just luck that conceptual artist rock-star types tend not to run for government: they aren't interested in practical matters, their heads are in the clouds. Not many people get both aesthetics and rational politics, but the Blowhards are two of them (I like to think I'm another!).

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Alice Bachini on October 20, 2002 01:40 PM

Hmm... sometimes I think it's the job of the right to balance out the left. The right doesn't defend cutting edge art, they defend the status quo- in whatever package it comes.

I tend to think this serves a valuable societal purpose. I could be wrong. But consider the earliest Europeans to sail west. They were adventurers trying to make a bit of cash- and find a new world. Later came the more established religious groups. Now in the present day, you still have the left, adventurers, paving the way so to speak for the right. Heck, the right eventually follows... look at history. (Well, not always.) This is not to say that the right is borish. They provide a sense of societal stability that gives the left its courage and footing, to stretch and question boundaries.

I think however that most of us see that all the stereotypes created for "left" and "right" are a bit outdated... people are more complex than this. But it helps in a discussion to simplify human personality and motives in order to make observations, even though I find it a bit simplistic.

Posted by: Laurel on October 20, 2002 07:49 PM

You'll obviously want to check out Virginia Postrel's new book,
_Look and Feel: How Style Became Substance_, when it comes
out next year. Basic info at:

Posted by: Tom McKendree on October 21, 2002 07:50 PM

The "Left" used to be the side of rebellion, sex, drugs, and rock-'n'roll. Now, it is rapidly turning into the side of Political Correctness, anti-smoking, anti-guns, anti-meat, anti-perfumes, anti-porn, and burqas.

Posted by: Steven Malcolm Anderson on November 27, 2002 09:35 PM

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