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January 30, 2003

Morning Detritus

Friedrich --

I suspect I'll never be a PPP (primarily political person). For better or worse, I seem more prone to contemplating and taste-testing the qualities of moments as they pass by than I am to joining in power frays and rooting for power teams. Is this, or something like it, true for you too? That said, even my brain spends a little time chewing over vaguely-political questions. A sampling -- lucky you! -- of what was rattling around today on this morning's walk to work:

  • Much as I prefer the idea of a smallish and limited government, there's no way I'll ever be a hardcore libertarian. I've found some of them to be as dogmatic and utopian as Marxists, and as hopelessly unrealistic about human nature too.
  • One for-instance. I'm listening on audiobook to Paul Johnson's "History of the English People." This morning he was telling the story of the reform movement in Victorian England, and focused for a while on chimney sweeps: young kids who were made to spend their days scrambling up and down dirty, narrow chimneys, often forced to do so by bosses who jabbed at their feet with pointed instruments or lit torches. The kids grew sick from the soot, and sometimes died young from it. A national disgrace, in other words, yet there was resistance against even the most modest kinds of reform; when a law was passed specifying that new chimneys had to be of certain dimensions, it was largely ignored. Finally, after decades of trying -- decades! -- Shaftesbury got a law passed protecting the kids. Is it possible to argue that this law was a bad thing? It seems to me that, even if a genius hardcore libertarian could come up with a persuasive hardcore libertarian argument against this law, such a hardcore libertarian would be missing a couple of key human points. One is that it's human to want to do something about such an awful situation. Another is that there are situations that are so terrible that it's probably human to want the government to do something about them, if only for symbolic, declaration-of-principles reasons. (Perhaps people need such symbols. More on that in future postings.) And if hardcore libertarians can't talk me -- someone who's strongly in favor of solving as many problems as possible in non-governmental ways -- out of my attachment to such a law, do they really think they'll ever talk the bulk of population into disliking such a law?
  • But maybe the real reason I can't be a PPP is that -- yet another personal failing -- I tend to see and enjoy good points from all over. On his blog Junius (here), Chris Bertram, who writes from a modestly-lefty point of view, has made some arguments against going to war against Iraq that strike me as remarkably good. From what I take as a decent-rightish point of view, Thomas Sowell (here) argues for going to war against Iraq. He seems to me to make some good points too. Where do I stand on the possibility of war? I'm not sure I know, and I'm not sure it matters. One way or the other the war's going to happen or not, and it's going to do so no matter what my opinion is.
  • It's not entirely true that I'm prone to appreciate good points from all over the political spectrum. I spent a few years not long ago educating myself -- finally! -- in the basics of economics, economic history, and political philosophy. And, while nearly all the major thinkers seemed to me to add a little something of worth the conversation, there was one exception: Marx and the Marxists. Reading them, and about them, I found myself thinking, over and over again, That's not history, That's not economics, That's not philosophy. Then what was it? Hmmm. "Mythology," was what I finally decided. A religion for those who have lost their traditional religion yet still have a powerful need to believe. And Marx himself? Charismatic, brilliant, eloquent, and a complainer of genius, peddling a redemptive secular religion, a guru figure who (like Freud) wanted to be thought of as a scientist. The Marxists always seem to me to be more interested in conducting revival meetings than in taking part in any larger, let alone more grounded, conversation.
  • One of the benefits, I found, of immersing myself in political philosophy, econ and philosophy for a few years was that it helped clarify where I stand. (An arts education, an arts life, and maybe the arts themselves can leave a brain in an awful muddle.) Not that this matters, except to me. And, in fact, what matters (even to me!) more than clarifying my point of view is that A) I'm a bit better-informed than I once was, and B) I've developed a bit more perspective on my own tastes, urges and preferences. Why? Because I now take them to be largely a matter of temperament. I remember reading a piece by someone who'd done a study and concluded that an individual's political and economic preferences have a basis in his biology. I'm happy to accept that. In the arts, one fundamental polarity (particularly in Western art) is between the romantic approach and the classical approach, and over the years I've come to think that the real reason you prefer one or the other come down to matters of body chemistry. Some people simply seem to have a heating-the-situation-up (ie. romanticizing) kind of temperament, while others have a cooling-things-off (ie., classicizing) kind of temperament. Why shouldn't something similar hold where politics is concerned? If I prefer a modest and limited kind of relatively non-interfering government, I can now (thanks to my informal studies) summon up a number of pretty good arguments to back me up. But when I'm being more honest I have to admit that the real reason for my political preferences is my personal temperament. Certain points of view suit me, and certain other ones don't.
  • Which makes me reflect about George W. Bush, who's clearly a competent leader of some sort. Funny how so many lefties, addicted as they are to the idea that he's an idiot, won't let themselves admit the fact. He's also done almost nothing to rein in the scale and ambition of government. Funny how few righties will let themselves admit that fact.
  • Are you as amazed as I am at how many political blogs there are? Thousands and thousands, it seems. May political discussion flourish on the web, of course. Still, I'm even more amazed by how drastically they outnumber culture blogs. Are there so few people interested in cultural matters? Could it be that culture-minded people still hesitate to use computers? Or that computer-ish people are unlikely to be interested in matters cultural? (Always excepting sci-fi and fantasy.) I wonder what the best explanation might be. My current suspicion is that it comes down to the sheer fun of drinking some morning coffee, getting pissed off by the morning's headlines, and heading to the computer for a good morning's blogging.

And now, back to the arts. What's rattling around your noggin these days?



posted by Michael at January 30, 2003


I think it's easier to write about political angst and popular news topics than culture. And it attracts more attention and discussion. Whereas cultural based sites take time to research and require focus.

Posted by: Greg on January 30, 2003 12:22 PM

There is a problem with your links. Both of them lead to the Thomas Sowell article.

Posted by: Lynn S on January 30, 2003 3:55 PM

Hi Greg, I think you're onto something. Plus it's kind of flattering to think of us arty types as more reflective than most. Not sure it's true, but it's certainly flattering.

Thanks for pointing out the dud link, Lynn. I've fixed it now.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 30, 2003 4:06 PM

I'm not sure I would say reflective is the right description. Do write about culture takes a lot more time and effort than just visiting or, reading a brief (already opinionated) story and then re-writing much of what was just read with a personal spin. That takes little to no effort at all, like scraps from the dinner table.

Now finding, reading, and then reacting to a man's opinion on the selection of a replacement design for the World Trade Center, well that takes commitment, passion, patience, and practice.

You can tell that a lot of reading and thinking is done around here. And I have always appreciated that.

Posted by: Greg on January 30, 2003 4:43 PM

Good points all Michael.

A thought...

You wrote: "Are there so few people interested in cultural matters? Could it be that culture-minded people still hesitate to use computers? Or that computer-ish people are unlikely to be interested in matters cultural? (Always excepting sci-fi and fantasy.)"

Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy ARE the culture, and it's a "dirty secret" no one wants to admit. Of what genres are most of the biggest box office hits? Most of the early classics of English literature were fantasy, too.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 30, 2003 5:56 PM

I think Greg's right in what he says. From reading 2 Blowhards I've had cause to marvel at the knowledge and research and experience that goes into some of the longer essays on offer (I particularly enjoyed the Hudson River School posts). Not to say that there's not knowledge, research and experience involved in political blog work; it's just that it doesn't always look that way. A bit of culture blogging might need a couple of days or even a couple of weeks to prepare properly; a bit of pundit blogging might need a couple of minutes to read and digest an article before typing up a pithy statement on the subject. I'm sure there's a reason why Glenn Reynolds calls himself Instapundit and not Carefullyconsideredpundit, after all..

Posted by: James Russell on January 31, 2003 6:45 AM

I think also what you say about "getting pissed off by the morning's headlines" is interesting. The political blogosphere seems to be full of remarkably angry people...

Posted by: James Russell on January 31, 2003 6:54 AM

I think you'll find that the blogshpere is just full of angst, political or not.

Posted by: Greg on January 31, 2003 10:50 AM

Greg wrote: I think it's easier to write about political angst and popular news topics than culture. And it attracts more attention and discussion. Whereas cultural based sites take time to research and require focus.

I think this is an interesting statement. It almost dismisses political discussion as a lower literary art. But what gives culture higher sway, and further, how can the fabric of culture truly be revealed?

I see a simpler truth. Politics and culture act symbiotically, and through their very existance they shape each other ... or perhaps someone can name an example where "culture" hasn't felt the impact of "politics" (and vice versa).

Posted by: shale on February 1, 2003 2:52 AM

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