Thursday, April 19, 2012

800 Words: Bad Culture Part 2


I love the idea of coffeeshops, I just hate most of them. The moment you find one, you’ve already shot your wad with excitement because you’ve found a place that isn’t Starbucks – the excitement is all downhill from there. You go in and you see that the coffeehouse has a single sad bookshelf with some giant art books on it and a bunch of forgotten political hack-books from 2004 with titles that double as leftist catchphrases. If you’re lucky, you can get a good but overpriced smoothie and an apple-brie sandwich with a waxed apple and cheese that’s melted enough to make you forget that it’s a month old. At your table, you’re surrounded on both sides by grungy white chicks with dreads and nose-piercings who’ll probably inherit more money than you’ll ever make in your own lifetime. Once upon a time, you may have even found those girls attractive, but you quickly realized that they don’t find you attractive. Instead, they go for the super-sensitive pony-tail dude sitting in the corner with a guitar, a microphone, and a triangular beard. He’s playing his bumper-sticker addled guitar and singing a bad song he just wrote yesterday about the plight of a migrant worker he once met during his month-long trip to Central America on which he really got to know himself. In the other corner sits a group of black girls who look at you conspiratorially as you walk by, as if to say, ‘don’t worry, we know you’re not all like them.’

I don’t even like coffee, it gives me indigestion. But the very idea of a coffeehouse seems to me like the most incredible social gathering place the world has yet thought up. For hundreds of years, the coffee-house has been the very apex of civilization. Bars are designed to take us out of ourselves, coffeehouses are designed to make us more ourselves than we ever were. Bars are meant to be places where we create diversions for ourselves and indulge in trivialities, coffeehouses are places where we’re supposed to be surrounded by books and newspapers, discussing the most fundamental questions of existence in both the actual world and the eternal one. Bars serve drinks that make you slower, duller, dumber. Coffeehouses serve drinks meant to heighten your senses and make you more cognizant and interesting. Except in various parts of the Middle East, the coffeehouse seems to have ceded its primacy in our lives to the privacy of our own homes, our televisions, our computers. Even if we live in cities, we now live in suburbs in which a journey to socialize with others often seems more work than it’s worth. With so many potential ways to communicate, what purpose is there for the coffeehouse?

Nothing lost is nothing gained, and the contradictions of coffeehouse culture are such that perhaps it had to end. There are plenty of reasons to declare that perhaps its disappearance was necessary – and if the dysfunction of the Middle East isn’t evidence of that, what is? The bonds created through conversation can be so powerful, so lasting, that all of us can easily sooner believe anything a friend tells us rather than to come to our own conclusions. Rather than consider other points of view, the coffeehouse can become a kind of insular clubhouse in which rumors and conspiracy theories spread from person to person are automatically considered more truthful than anything one can read from an expert source. For centuries, coffeehouses were meant to be places where people can aspire on their own towards great learning, yet it may have imprisoned human beings in precisely the insular bubble for which they were created to liberate us.


 There are all sorts of reasons that I’ve always been a terrible student, but there is no one who ever wanted to be a good student more than I. Yet somehow the powers of concentration and patience which methodical study requires never came to me. Any education I appear to have gotten was purely from curiosity and dumb luck – not that I have any more higher education than a bachelor’s degree from a mediocre music program. For reasons I can’t seem to understand, there is a quota against bad students getting into good schools.

Well, if top-tier universities didn’t want people like me, screw them. If a better school than American University had ever let me in, they’d have done right well by me. I’m smart, I love to write, I have good ideas, and I fetch slippers on command. But they’ll never know what they missed. If a kid as intellectually curious as me couldn’t get into a first-rate school, the schools probably aren’t that good to begin with. I have hundreds of acquaintances who graduated from top tier schools, and about 50% of them are morons. Brilliant morons in some cases, but morons nonetheless.

Why are they morons? Well, some people can’t form a coherent sentence that isn’t on a test, others can write beautiful prose in support of the most dangerously mindless concepts. Some people can cram and study as though it’s the only thing in the world that matters, yet once the test is over you realize that there’s little but wind between the two ears. Since their entire childhoods are made up of no experience except for studying what teachers tell them to learn, it’s in their programming to believe everything they’re told. They develop no real critical faculties, just a reflexive conditioning that tells them to parrot what they hear. And it’s thanks to many of these overachievers that such intellectually simplistic drivel as supply-side economics, originalism, neoconservatism, libertarianism, libertarian socialism, transhumanism, and anarcho-capitalism have the intellectual credibility they clearly don’t deserve.

Of our current Supreme Court – perhaps the most conservative since the Taney court of the 1850’s – there is not a single member who did not attend Harvard or Yale Law (in fairness, Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law to be near her husband). No doubt, when the Individual Mandate of the Affordable Care Act is shot down – and is there any real doubt it will be? – there will be a persuasive justification by Antonin Scalia in immaculate prose, demonstrating exactly why the very idea of such a mandate is offensive to the United States Constitution. And many people, many intellectually ‘serious’ people, will believe him – forgetting that every one of his arguments are based on a paper-thin fundamentalism that can be explained in a single sentence fragment (‘it wasn’t in the original constitution’).

And why is this the case? Because conservatives possess the secret liberals have long since forgotten – the battle of ideas is only won when it’s fought. Liberals were obscenely lucky that John Paul Stevens stayed on the court until his ninetieth year, Stevens was a writer of Scalian stature and a far more compelling thinker. But once Stevens finally retired, a problem was made abundantly clear: why did the Supreme Court’s liberal side have no figure of Scalian gravitas (no fat joke intended) in his generation? Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s writings are apparently functional, nothing more. Stephen Breyer’s are apparently far better written, but Breyer is not given to waging open conflict, his sunny temperament being almost the polar opposite from Scalia’s combativeness. Many people said that Scalia’s true match was Richard Arnold, Scalia’s classmate at Harvard Law who beat him out to be first in their class and would have been nominated by Bill Clinton had he not already been diagnosed with the lymphoma which would kill him a decade later. But if there were no Antonin Scalia, there would have been a dozen more judges exactly like him who could fulfill his role (the Supreme Court already has one in Samuel Alito). But after Richard Arnold was no longer capable of serving on the court, there was no liberal equivalent to be found.

What can explain this except the fact that there has been a divorce between liberal ideas and the public for which their ideas are meant? Liberal intellectuals spent the sixties occupying college buildings, and in many ways never left those buildings. It’s difficult to imagine how many promising academics with liberal views have wasted their talents on obscure doctoral theses and pedantic articles of no interest to anyone except (allegedly) to their colleagues in the same obscure specialization. The supremacy of liberal, progressive, and/or leftist views in higher education is absolutely unchallenged, yet it’s conservative ideas which capture the imaginations of the public. The answer to why this is is all too simple…

Having felt ostracized in higher education, conservative intellectuals had to take their arguments to the citizen public if they wanted to be taken seriously at all. Whatever American Conservatism’s defects, their intellectuals are bankrolled by patrons for the express purpose of justifying policies in a manner that wins over a general audience. Many conservatives were denied the respectability of writing obscure journal articles that nobody reads, and in their place they had to write for a general public in prose that can be readily understood. If Scalia’s ideas weren’t rendered in entertaining, conversational prose, nobody would take them more seriously than a John Birch Society Newsletter. Unfortunately, he is as great a writer as an American political figure has ever been, and there is as yet no liberal to counterweigh him with better ideas in equally great prose. It’s true that the necessity of entertaining readers can destroy scholarship, and no greater argument exists for that point of view than the eminence of Antonin Scalia. But it’s not nearly as destructive as writing as though nobody will read what you write except for other professors who write in the exact same manner as you.

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