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« New Blowhard: Francis Morrone | Main | Moviegoing: "The Brown Bunny" »

September 07, 2004

Joining the Conversation

Francis Morrone writes

Dear Blowhards,

I'm more than delighted that Michael asked me to join the Blowhards. This has been my favorite place on the Web for some time now. I'd go so far as to say that in the last year some of my deepest thoughts (for what that's worth) have been prompted by Michael's and Friedrich's postings, and by the comments left by the uniquely appealing group of men and women drawn to this site's essays in the arts, mores, and culture. I think that one of the most significant things about the Web is how it has liberated a high level of ''amateur'' discussion of such subjects, rescuing them from the often obfuscatory treatment they are accorded by professional critics and academics. Not that I'm not an avid consumer of the writings of professional critics and academics. But in the end, what's valuable to me is discussing how art and culture affect us as individuals coming to terms with our mortality. At a certain level, we are all amateurs of the arts.

I also love the civility of this site. Again, that has as much to do with the commenters as the posters. As I begin to post, and use the salutation ''Dear Blowhards,'' I hope readers take that to mean not just Michael and Friedrich and Fenster and Vanessa, but all who leave comments as well.

Civility is in short supply these days. I myself have had my moments of high incivility. Michael mentioned that I once ran a blog dedicated to the writings of the architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. I stopped maintaining that blog after 9/11. Odd, considering that's when most bloggers took up the sport. But I had some soul searching to do in those days, when, faced with the precariousness of my life here in New York City, I decided to write less about things I hated, and more about things that pleased me. We all cope in different ways.

That said, I wonder, in the wake of Republican week here in New York, how you all deal with the people in your lives whom you disagree with politically. I have no stomach for political debate, but I have a passion for political discussion. Without giving away my own subtly nuanced politics (by which I mean I am inclined and happy to change my opinions as often as I change my socks), I wonder at the mutual hostility of Republicans and Democrats, ''conservatives'' and ''liberals,'' particularly at a time when the categories of ''left'' and ''right'' seem to make so little sense anymore. We have ''paleoconservatives,'' ''neoconservatives,'' ''libertarians,'' ''communitarians,'' ''New Democrats,'' anti-globalization ''anarchists,'' and James Howard Kunstler, to mention just a few political flavors.

Nowadays it's all the rage in Manhattan to profess one's hatred for ''neoconservatives.'' Yet, as a current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York reminds us, many of these same haters adored the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Do you remember a book back in the late seventies by Peter Steinfels? He's the guy who writes about religion for the New York Times. But his book back then was called The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics (out of print, alas). It's significant that already by 1979 we had ceased inserting the hyphen between "neo" and "conservative," indicating that the term had gained currency. Everybody knows that Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were among the original neocons. And they appear in Steinfels's critical analysis. But one of Steinfels's principals was Moynihan. Back then he was known as our hard-headed man at the UN (he had the effrontery to denounce Idi Amin), and as someone who in the 1960s created such a controversy with his ideas about family breakdown in the African American community--ideas that, within 20 or so years, came to be accepted by just about everyone. But Moynihan never forsook the Democratic Party, and when later he ran for the Senate from New York he ran very much as a liberal. Indeed, some of his fellow neocons felt he had betrayed the cause. Yet in 1993 Moynihan was at it again, with an essay in the American Scholar called "Defining Deviancy Down." (You can read it here.)

What's my point? It's that Moynihan's heterodox politics were pretty much how most people really are. Most people are not ideologues. Most people are combinations of "blue" and "red"--a point that the similarly heterodox Andrew Sullivan often makes on his blog. Frederick Turner, no stranger to most readers of 2Blowhards, wrote an essay last year that makes much the same point. Linguistics professor Deborah Tannen says we live in an "argument culture"--and wrote a book with that title. In his capsule review of that book, Stewart Brand wrote:

We sense it everywhere--attack journalists, pit-bull lawyers, pit-bull graduate students, online flaming, endless shouting on TV, political opponents no longer capable of going our for a drink together, a whole culture that would seemingly rather fight than switch (especially when "switch" means "learn something"). It is no longer charming rowdiness. It is full-on cultural dysfunction....
Optimist that I am, I think the trend toward interpreting everything as combat is so universal and self-defeating that it will reverse. Whether it does or doesn't, this frame for understanding our times has deep value.

One of my heroes is the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott. In his magisterial essay "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind," Oakeshott wrote:

It may be supposed that the diverse idioms of utterance which make up current human intercourse have some meeting-place and compose a manifold of some sort. And, as I understand it, the image of this meeting-place is not an inquiry or an argument, but a conversation.
In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument.

(Oakeshott's essay is in this book.)

So, I'm here to converse.



posted by Francis at September 7, 2004


An Oakeshott buff! I knew we were a match made in heaven. How'd you run across his work?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 8, 2004 8:14 PM

"I wonder, in the wake of Republican week here in New York, how you all deal with the people in your lives whom you disagree with politically."

Alas, I no longer know any.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 8, 2004 10:44 PM

I seem to disagree politically with about 99% of the people I know. (Of course, I'm pretty changeable myself, so that percentage goes up and down according to my mood.) Mostly I smile tolerantly, or so I like to suppose. Really, I'm probably just sheepishly beaming like an idiot. I'd love to have some more tricks to fall back on. Living among rabid lefties, many of whom I'm fond of, can sometimes take it out of me. I'd love to compare notes with more people, but where politics is concerned an awful lot of people can't seem not to explode in wrath. If you disagree with them, then you must be evil and wish humanity ill. So back I go to beaming like an idiot and hoping the moment will pass. Any tips for me?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 8, 2004 10:49 PM

Narcissist that I am, I am always reflecting on how my own general sort of political outlook appears to other people. I tend to use Michael's strategy of smiling and being generally approving of other people's opinions, even if I don't agree-- rather-- especially if I don't agree.

I make it a point never to endorse a political party or a candidate in such conversations and express my general cynicism about the entire political process, but I'm not entirely sycophantic in that I'm willing to belabor issues where common sense just pulls the rug out from under political dreaming.

I suppose I come off as apathetic, which is an accomplishment I suppose. It does seem disingenuous not to clearly articulate everything I believe in political terms, but it's probably better for me to have to maintain a level of separation between politics and other aspects of life. Even if I weren't surrounded by people who seem to brook no opposition, I'm much more prone to fighting about politics than having a conversation about it. Going around making enemies of friends for the sake of a Grand Vision that will never come about whether my immediate circle believes it or not is not sensible or humane.

Posted by: . on September 9, 2004 2:56 AM

-- I wonder, [...] how you all deal with the people in your lives whom you disagree with politically. --

I wish I knew how. I think I'm still too emotional about certain things. It's pretty easy to rant and strangers but when you discover that a friend or relative - someone you're very fond of - holds opinions that you find naive, misguided and even despicable.... well... what do you do? You can try to avoid the subject but it will always be there between you.

Posted by: Lynn S on September 9, 2004 8:02 AM

oops. How did "rant at strangers" turn into "rant and strangers"?

Posted by: Lynn S on September 9, 2004 8:05 AM

It's pretty easy to rant and strangers but when you discover that a friend or relative - someone you're very fond of - holds opinions that you find naive, misguided and even despicable.... well... what do you do?

In my case, it was just something I had to grow up with - I had three close relatives (including two grandparents) who achieved positions at a very high level in a political party that I've not only never voted for in my life but which I've actively voted against more often than not.

So, of necessity, I just had to learn to tune it out, and did it so successfully that when my grandfather died, I barely recognised him from the obituaries.

Posted by: Michael Brooke on September 9, 2004 4:13 PM

"... at a time when the categories of ''left'' and ''right'' seem to make so little sense anymore."

Perhaps "The Pounelle Axes" would help

Posted by: Gene Horr on September 9, 2004 5:01 PM

I elicit the most ranting and raving when I let on that I don't vote, so I've learnt to keep mum about it (except here!) Doesn't the right to vote include the right of abstention? I'm so tired of self-righteous lectures. As far as I'm concerned, it's the same old BS no matter who's in office.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 10, 2004 9:03 PM

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