Inchoate bits and pieces

I know that I’ve been remiss in not posting more often around here. Part of it has to do with other life requirements, but I’ll be honest: it’s mostly laziness.

Also, like many bloggers of course, I get plenty of inchoate thoughts that are too good to discard altogether but not fleshed out enough in my head to make a blog post. Here’s a selection:

Is my generation this century’s boomers? I’ve lived most of my life with a generational chip on my shoulder, and nurtured a grudge (was it Graham Greene who wrote that a nurtured grudge becomes worn, familiar and comfortable like old leather?) against the faceless, egoistic baby boomer generation who treated themselves to an orgy of unsustainable entitlements, chaotic moral trepidations and environmental disaster, stuck us with the bill, turning us into the Augean Generation, while of course insisting that it was all for our own good, not theirs. Watching the orgy of spending that is currently unfolding puts the lie to the notion that the boomers were somehow singular in their solipsism (alliteration, baby!). Barack Obama is, in more ways than one, the president of my generation, and the insouciance with which he digs the fiscal pit strikes me as very worrisome for my generation’s legacy. (I’ve got some choice words for Sarkozy as well but that’s another story.) Will my grandchildren view my generation, the one that worked so hard to put Barack Obama in office and now greets his orgy of hyperleverage with insouciant glee, as those who ruined the party for everyone else? This is deeply disturbing to me. As stunts like this show, if there’s one thing my generation and the boomers have in common, it’s a mind-boggling sense of entitlement…

Is free a free lunch? I’ve been appreciating from a distance the debate around “free” and freemium business models, since the publication of Chris Anderson’s book Free, with Malcolm Gladwell as the main opponent . The reason I haven’t said much about this, even though as a web geek it’s one of the things I’m most interested in, is because I think they’re both right. Gladwell is right that Anderson is (and Silicon Valley geeks in general tend to be) flippant about the details of their grand utopian visions of the future, just as he’s right that information sometimes wants to be “really, really expensive” and that YouTube, Anderson’s chief example of the power of free, is still an inchoate experiment. But then again if we’d talked to one of these visionary Silicon Valley geeks on the eve of the Netscape IPO and listened to him talk about how the internet was to revolutionize the world, most of us would have shaken our heads in bemused disbelief (except for us Frenchies who already had le Minitel — kidding!). The flaw of Anderson’s vision is its sweep, which I’m pretty convinced he made deliberately hubristic in order to drive sales. Freemium is best viewed, at least nowadays, not as the business model to replace all business models, but simply as a marketing strategy that can be very effective for the right kind of businesses.

Love in Truth. Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, Love in Truth (that’s how Caritas in Veritate should be translated, charity being a much more narrower word than caritas) came out and it is, of course, a deeply thoughtful and very profound piece of work. I often half-jokingly refer to my political views as “John Paul II + Milton Friedman” and indeed my convictions about the moral — not just pragmatic — benefits of free market capitalism (also technology) are where the tensions with my Catholicism tend to show the most. Since this encyclical dwells a lot on the fallout from the financial crisis and recession (or he-cession, and I’d really be curious to hear how Ben16 feels about this tremendous Reihan piece), and the Church’s doctrine of social justice more geneally, it brings home to me my ambivalence about the Church’s ambivalence towards free markets. (Yes, that was a lousy sentence.) I do believe Catholic theology and free market capitalism can be reconciled (indeed, the Church is much less hostile to it than is commonly thought), but my thoughts about it are still turbulent and inchoate (yes, this blog post is sponsored by the word “inchoate”), the main thrust being that while free markets may be a means and not an end in themselves, they are the best means to achieve the social justice that God calls on us all to strive for. Also, today’s Ross Douthat column is a must-read on the subject, even though focused more narrowly on American politics.

The flaws of great leaders.

By complete accident, I stumbled on this old tirade against Gandhi, a great read whatever its merits, and this equally excellent takedown of the tirade. If I may sound corny for a second, I’ve always been utterly fascinated by the endless complexity of human nature, and the myriad, endlessly rich, contradictions that weave themselves at the core of every human being. It’s a cliché to say that even the strangest fiction is less strange than reality because fiction has to seem plausible, and I often find myself marveling at the incredible complexities of our lives and psyches. A facet of this fascination of mine is an interest in the great faults of the universally admired, even canonized, great leaders.

Gandhi thought people should generally be nicer to Untouchables but other than that the caste system was just fine, and the best way forward for India was to eradicate modern technology and revert to an agrarian state of proto-nature, a vision which might not unjustly be called totalitarian. Abraham Lincoln played fast and loose with habeas corpus in ways that would make Dick Cheney blanch, famously wrote “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”, and reassured in many speeches that just because slavery could be abolished, don’t worry, it won’t ever mean that blacks will be allowed to marry white people. Martin Luther King let himself be taped by the FBI, even though he knew he was under surveillance, committing adultery and yelling “I’m not a Negro tonight!” Although many people who admire him would, I don’t count John Paul II’s stance on matters of sex as a flaw, but you could pin on him the institutional Church’s indifference to pedophilia scandals, if only because the buck stops at his desk. Henry Ford was a rabid anti-Semite and a worshipper of fascists everywhere and, of course, Margaret Sanger embraced eugenics with gut-churning glee. Charles de Gaulle, one of the men in history I admire the most, lied his way into office, implying as strongly as possible that he was the candidate of French Algeria when he had resolved to end it, and used constitutionally dubious means to advance his political ends. Winston Churchill was a racist and a retrograde, and it was probably as much a blessing for the world that he rose to power in 1939 and that he was voted out in 1946 (in particular, while the NHS is not what I would do if I had to design a health system from scratch, Churchill’s views on the NHS make Ron Paul sound like Peter Orzag). FDR committed countless blunders with damaging repercussions (upon reading the Yalta minutes one gets the feeling that he looked into Stalin’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul”) and lied to the American and worldwide public throughout his public life about his health, picking a crazy guy as VP even though he knew his days were numbered.

I’m not writing this to make any sort of political point — I’m just talking about human nature and its flaws. One explanation for this litany of flaws is to say that those men were really not great men, that we canonize them as such to reassure ourselves, and that these flaws show that the greatness is but in the eye of the beholder. But I think this actually discounts the deep complexities of human nature. Human beings can be great, can be true moral heroes, and still have deep, deep flaws and take part in deeply flawed actions. Great men can have great flaws that are like the mirror image of their gifts, like Hemingway and drinking, which at least provides some symmetry, but they can also have small flaws, petty flaws, with far-reaching consequences, which is much more interesting.

Again, this isn’t about politics at all, and I’m not trying to undermine or attack the character of the people I’ve mentioned, and I’ve tried to make my list as far reaching as possible precisely to avoid this perception. Most of the characters I’ve cited are true, admirable heroes. But their flaws exist nonetheless and it’s just something that’s very fascinating to me, on a purely human level, and that I wanted to share.