19. Left Conservatives - In the last ten years, we've seen the deaths of Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, Oriana Fallaci, Norman Mailer, Jean Baudrillard, Kurt Vonnegut, Tony Judt, Howard Zinn, Christopher Hitchens, Alexander Cockburn, and now Gore Vidal. It's beginning to look as though a particular type of figure is dying out - the man of leftist letters with the education of an aristocrat, and the inclinations of a revolutionary (can Noam Chomsky be far behind?), utilizing the methods of Marx to achieve the ends of Edmund Burke. Each of these writers was part-brilliant, part crackpot - espousing revolutionary causes with such fervor that they picked up some conservative causes along the way as a means to expedite their visions of justice more swiftly. For large parts of almost all their lives, they were either Europeans living in America or Americans living in Europe. The result was that each arrived at their own vision of a progressive pseudo-liberalism that had a special kind of obsessive love-hate of the United States as its core. Their record of bringing about revolutionary change is frankly the opposite of impressive - for the last 45 years, the most influential governments have largely been run by neo-liberals and conservatives who want to cut government programs and roll back all the progressive gains made post World War II. Theirs is a generation that has, however, done a fantastic job of showing people how a wide-ranging education has failed to create the better world to which we should all aspire - making them perhaps the last generation of writers for whom a wide-ranging classical education is a given. We now live in a world of their making, where conservatives rule because progressives are not willing to make the compromises necessary to govern, and an 'intellectual' is a person of such narrow specialty that none of their successors have read widely enough over a diversity of subjects to see connections across disciplines. They did not bring us closer to the better world they wanted us to envision, they drew us further away.
These figures had at least as much in common with conservatism as liberalism because ultimately they came to views of the dispossessed which only a rich person could have - glorifying the oppressed's travails in the abstract without serious thought as to how those pains could be remedied. In each of them, there was a marked streak of entitlement group-think which so many over-privileged feel and then assuage any insecurity over it by claiming that all people deserve the privileges they have. Well, yes, other people deserve their privileges, but do they give serious thought as to how it can come about? Responsibility is a terribly difficult thing, and it's all too convenient to blame people in power if they're clearly trying their best against people who wish them ill and all the people which good politicans try to help. Nearly all of them came to despair of the next progressive generation, which instead taking up their struggle to banish tyranny from the world, finds the smallest outrages at which to take offense as a means to implement a forced, ersatz form of multi-culturalism where every special interest can claim special privileges and attention which would inevitably come at the expense of every other interest group. But they were kidding themselves, these were the creators the next progressive generation. And the real liberalism espoused by the followers of Rossevelt, Truman, Atlee, and Helmut Schmidt might actually involve sacrifice, and therefore was nowhere near as attractive because it had a chance of working, and therefore might compromise their privileged status. How very conservative they were. Which brings us to...
20. The Expatriot - There is a specific type of first-worlder particularly given to extensive travel, to living abroad, and using such an act as an excuse to reject everything about whence they came. It's one thing to leave a place where one has deep roots because it's become truly impossible to live there happily, or because of a good opportunity in work or love elsewhere, but it's quite another to leave home because living in the place where one has roots is merely irritating. Driving this sentiment is often both a childish wish for instant gratification which insists on rejecting everything because some things don't work, and a kind of dangerous superficiality that allows people to give up on their roots and chase whatever new system comes their way for the simple reason that any system has to be better than the allegedly dysfunctional one in which they grew up. The truth remains that in their minds, they are still living in their homelands, perhaps more than they ever would be if they still lived in their home town/country. Roots are not something nearly so easily shorn, and the more one runs them down the more mental space they occupy. Staying as close to home as possible to be under the monolithic control of roots is not a legitimate option for happiness, but neither is the shedding of all allegiances.
21. Why I Get Mad at the Left - One
of the things which has long troubled me on this blog is how much of my
political ire seems reserved for left-wing causes rather than
right-wing. It’s a habit that’s long since grown ingrained in me, and
try as I might, I can’t seem to shake it. There was a time, about
five-minutes long as a high school senior after Bush v Gore, when I was
utterly leftier than thou - trying to be a vegan, helping bring in
leftist guest speakers for politically active students (one particularly
memorable one told us to inspect our tap water for fluoridation), and
perhaps most embarrassing of all to me now, claiming that all holocaust
remembrances were a fetishizing excuse to neglect all the genocides that
are still happening. I don’t doubt part of this ire is an unconscious
form of penance.
a habit which goes back at least to college when I saw so many other
students spouting slogans with no thought deeper than 5 words at a time.
From conservatives I expected this - it’s a political movement like any
other and needs nothing more than to surrender your mind to groupthink
to be accepted in the group (which I suppose explains why so many
seemingly intelligent Republicans seem to turn into slogan machines when
politics come up). But liberalism is supposed to be a philosophy that
requires education, skepticism, and self-reliant thought - and yet all
around me I saw people falling for Howard Dean’s demagoguery, conflating
Israel with the most evil regimes the world had ever seen, and boiling
the complex (and still nefarious) motives of the Iraq war down to
nothing more than war profiteering. What I saw from so many people was
not liberalism by any definition I understood, it was the exact same
groupthink of the overprivileged which one finds in conservative
circles. If you read no books, you can still be a member of the hard
right. If you read one book, you can be a member of the hard left.
many emotionally bruised right-wing relatives and friends can attest, I
haven’t a conservative bone in my body. But I can’t deny that I don’t
feel much inspiration in writing about what’s wrong with right-wingers. I
know what’s wrong with the Right, nearly everybody who regularly reads
this blog knows what’s wrong with the Right. Would there be a single
person who’d be more enlightened at the end of a post about why
Republican beliefs are mendacious than they were at the beginning? Even
if I agree that at least 90% of conservative beliefs run contrary to any
sense of a positive society, what could I possibly add to understanding
those beliefs that can’t be found on a thousand different blogs by
people much better credentialed (and occasionally better informed:) than
like to think that in a well-functioning society, I am a liberal
squarely in the center of discourse, neither socialist nor conservative.
I want a government run by reliable people who can give the facts on
any issue then find the best possible (and never the ideal) solution.
But contemporary America is not that society, it is clearly a society
run by disproportionately conservative values - and therefore by the
American standards of 2012, I am quite to the left-of-center.
political spectrum isn’t a straight line from right to left, it’s a
sphere in which some forms of conservatism resemble socialism and vice
versa, a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative may well have many
more beliefs in common than two left-wingers, and the amount of
commonality may pale in comparison to the amount which two extremists
from opposite wings have. When Hitler was looking for brownshirt
recruits, the first place he looked was the Communist party, for whom he
instituted a complete forgiveness policy because he knew that
Communists would make far more devoted converts than any ex-democrat.
there is one thing which left-wing and right-wing share, it is
expectations of life that are far too high. Has anyone taught these
people yet that nothing in life will come as we hope it does?
21. What Was Lost
(Tchaikovsky's Manfred - an extremely imperfect work that will haunt your dreams for decades after you hear it. From the last time it was performed at the Proms, just as great, though different...more on that in a later mini-post.)
On Saturday I went to the first of four nights of Proms in a row. I saw the amazing Vladimir Jurowski conduct the London Philharmonic and the main work on the program was Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. For the first time in too long, I had a few truly transcendent, out of body moments while listening to music. The performance of the first movement particularly was so perfectly controlled yet so passionate that parts of it seemed like frozen moments of animal agony, yet those moments made you feel completely alive - obliterating any wall that distances you from the music. It's generally good not to have those moments too often, which would turn you into the musical equivalent of an adrenalin junkie (go to any punk show to see what that's like). But to be without them is to live in a prison of your own thoughts (which is in some ways why I imagine the 19th century bourgoise needed music like Tchaikovsky's and Wagner's which let them escape that prison so easily).
I subscribe very much to that antiquated 19th century belief that music exists to express emotions. Music is a language like any other langugage, but it is the langugage of suggestion and hypnosis - with different sounds resounding in our ears as redolent of various emotions. There is plenty of music in the twentieth century that is just as expressive of emotions as anything in Tchaikovsky - but what I miss terribly in so much of 20th century music is the sheer articulate specificity of what romantic-era music expresses. So many popular musical genres depend so much on spontenaiety, and while it's a wonderful experience in its particular way, it's a completely different experience from music written in the 19th century (which we mistakenly call 'Classical').. When we listen to jazz, or rap, or heavy metal, we are partaking in the enjoyment of indistinct, spontaneous emotion from each fleeting moment, caught utterly on the fly. And perhaps that's exactly what we need to feel most in our hyper-regimented, exactly organized societies. But in such an environment, it becomes that much harder feel a diversity of emotions, and to associate different sounds and chords with happiness and sadness, laughter and tears, compassion and anger.
It's the same with our transfer of allegiance from literature to cinema and TV. Novels, short stories, non-fiction, and even certain types of poetry (back when poetry was narrative) and theater (at least in the age of the solilioquy) allow us to articulate the thoughts of characters as they happen; because in a sense, everything which happens to these characters also happens to us. We are literally thinking along with the other person, and like classical music, it is a technique that brings us as close to telepathy as the world has given us. But in the age of screen entertainment, the best we can do is read the implications of what the director is telling us. The characters no longer describe their feelings, they transmit them by facial expressions and what remains unsaid, and it's up to us to read between the lines.
Emerson has that great line I keep quoting on this blog, why stop now? 'In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a sort of alienated majesty.' It's a quote I've come to love more and more as I get older. The most important thing which 'great art' does, regardless of genre, is to bring us out of our shelves and make us realize that other people have experienced those things we have experienced. Vladimir Nabokov called this sort of identification of the self with works of art an 'adolescent pleasure.' In Nabokov's world, art is no different than an ingenious game or puzzle in which all that truly matters is the mechanics - if all of us were like Nabokov and had no need for an unsterile version of art that lets us identify with what we see, perhaps we'd have no need for drama and poetry because we'd all be too busy playing chess and jigsaw puzzles, or collecting butterflies. But apparently we need music and stories and pictures nearly as much as we need to breathe, and we need them because they make us less lonely. If a person had no struggles in his life, he would have no need for anything that consoles him. As it happens, we have struggles. And the result is that we still listen to Tchaikovsky.