The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Matt Crawford as Steampunk

There is a not-so-spot-on review of Matthew B. Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, up now at The New York Times. I have no time to wonder right now why this particular reviewer had this particular reaction, so let’s get into the meat of it:

Mr. Crawford needed to hear things gurgle and roar, and so it is perhaps not a surprise to learn that he grew up to own his own motorcycle repair shop. And in “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” his passionate argument for a brand of hands-on self-reliance, and a plea for the dignity of the manual trades, he comes on like Ralph Waldo Emerson in a “Mad Max” get-up — leather jacket, fingerless gloves, sawed-off shotgun, the works. It’s an appealing combination.

A better reference — help me out, here, Peter — would be that one comic book, where a future civilization of neo-Victorians comes in second only to the super-Chinese, or to Steampunk, which is sort of like being a DIY Amish Sherlock Holmes from, yes, the future. Bear with me as I sort of explain why.

As “Shop Class as Soulcraft” rumbles along, however, a few bolts begin to fall off the machine. His calm, confident tone grows strident. (“What the hell is going on? Is this our society as a whole, buying more education only to scale new heights of stupidity?”)

Our reviewer seems not to catch Matt’s sense of humor. (It’s a bit dry.) This is not just a shame but an impediment to understanding:

What began as an expansive, mind-clearing argument begins to feel smaller, more pinched. Mr. Crawford fixates on “what is sometimes called ‘the 1968 generation.’ ” It isn’t exactly clear what an attack on the “easy moral prestige of multiculturalism” has to do with his argument, nor his soggy caricature of the “sushi-eating, Brazilian-girlfriend-having cosmopolitan.” One can’t eat raw fish or date South American women and still like to fix things?

Sure it’s clear. The cosmopolitan Matt laughs at (and you can’t get the character of his attack without putting it this way) has written off the messy, ‘primitive’ duties that someone takes on who sees inherent worth in the kind of manual competence that is best described — though Matt doesn’t put it in these terms — as analog, not digital. The closest the cosmopolitan gets to analog mastery, Matt leaves us laughing, is his tactile enjoyment of Toro and Carmina. There is a manner — admittedly, but appropriately — left to the reader to piece together, in which the manly analog competence Matt describes functions as a disciplinary hedge against the contemporary man’s slide into effete cush.

He pleads for a matey kind of “yeoman aristocracy” in which men are free to tell dirty jokes because “the order of things isn’t quite so fragile.” Well, O.K.. I like dirty jokes too. But they are complicated things — less complicated if, as in Mr. Crawford’s book, there are virtually no women to be found.

[…] Sentences like this one begin to pop up like dorsal fins: “People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful.”

About this passage I have (at least) three thoughts. One, “this thing that we do”? What is this, “Goodfellas”? Two, this type of gonzo romanticism does not fit the reality of the lives of most of the workers he purports to champion — dishwasher repairmen, plumbers, locksmiths. Three, hasn’t a vibrant and all-too-visible subset of the people who ride motorcycles — the noise freaks who omit their mufflers, the high-speed weavers through close traffic — definitely gotten something wrong?

One, yes — what is this, That Thing You Do!? Next question. Two, Matt’s thesis is incomprehensible once deprived of its insight into the way admiration factors into the maintenance of the practical discipline of manual competence across generations, not to mention across the social boundaries of boys and men who would otherwise be strangers, if not adversaries. Three, there isn’t a phrase in Shop Class as Soulcraft that leads a fair reader to even suspect that Matt would praise the ego-tripping hotdoggers our reviewer describes. Their ethos is roughly ten light years away from Matt’s — as would be clear to any competent reviewer of this book, to whose mind should immediately spring instead the closing passage of Hunter Thompson’s _Hell’s Angels. The ‘war’ Matt is talking about, unless I am badly mistaken, is a lot less about penis-measuring-by-proxy races and a lot more about the worth of the experiences a man can produce for himself in relation with a machine that he has come to know by handling it inside and out. That’s Steampunk, baby — the idea that technological ‘progress’ should ‘stop’ at the point of man’s diminishing returns in the production of that relationship. It’s not an arbitrary line. One might disagree with it — say, in the spirit of liberating women from household chores (a task that has at least sort of failed, right?) — but one cannot dismiss it as ‘mere aesthetics’ or self-satisfying pomo arbitrariness.

So much for my snap defense of the book. I do have criticisms, yes, but they’ll have to wait for another day. After all, they come second to these remarks in a deeper way too.

Ezra Dyer, Hero

Forget Conan, gimme this guy late nights:

My view on bringing wacky Japanese-market cars here is that companies should strive to keep the product as un-Americanized as possible. Offer a shrimp-scented air freshener and a holographic hood ornament and a GPS system that includes maps of other planets: the whole appeal lies in cultural authenticity. This kind of car should be so Japanese that it makes me want to wear a Hello Kitty backpack, watch incomprehensible game shows and eat whales. I mean, research whales.

The Cube is undiluted Tokyo chic, from its asymmetrical rear window to its shag-carpet dashboard pad to the bungee cords on the doors, which Nissan says are useful for holding “stuffed driving mascots.”

Speaking of stuffed driving mascots, Nissan is prepared for a couple of those to occupy the front seats, as one of the Cube’s available accessories is an eight-inch seat belt extender. I suspect that this option isn’t popular in Japan.

The interior is rife with interesting touches. The headliner is imprinted with a ripple texture that spreads in concentric circles from the dome light. Available LED ambient lighting bathes the footwells and console in the hue of your choice. To the left of the steering wheel, there’s a small cup holder that seems so narrow as to be useless. I wondered what would fit in there and then it dawned on me: a slim can of Red Bull.

No more trying to keep your Red Bull in a standard cup holder only to have it tip over and spill on your extreme downhill freestyle unicycle equipment.

[…] There are four Cube trim levels, beginning with the $14,710 Cube 1.8 and culminating with the $20,090 1.8 Krom. The largest standalone option, available on the midlevel models, is the $2,550 “Ginormous package,” which includes an exterior aero kit and interior accessories like illuminated door-sill kick plates.

If you don’t see the point of tacking aerodynamic gear on something named the Cube, then maybe your appetite for accessories is neither gigantic nor enormous enough for the Ginormous package.

[…] On one hand, you might want your high-school or college-age progeny driving around in a Cube because it’s slow, has six air bags and a stability-control system. On the other hand, it also features a “Jacuzzi lounge” interior layout. I’m not sure what a Jacuzzi lounge is, but I don’t think I approve.

The Cube is cheerfully bizarre, and I appreciate that. It’s not a riot to drive, but in this case, the driving experience is really beside the point. The kids don’t care about that noise, pops. They want connectivity. They want a car that’s a rolling Tweet about a new iPhone app from the Jonas Brothers.

I, however, want a car that doesn’t look like a myopic washing machine, but I’m a lame old guy of 31 who remembers listening to CDs and saying things like, “My modem is taking forever to load this Kozmo.com order.”

It is simply impossible to write better reviews of futuristic Japanese imports. My great love for Ezra Dyer has been no secret for some time. I now demand that you share that love, and greatly. As Homer Simpson might warn: Shar-r-r-re it…

Tribal Pride

Pouloses: they keep people from killing themselves when huge trucks carrying ether crash on freeways.

The tire assembly first hit the 18-wheeler hauling ether in the right lane eastbound, bounced off that truck and hit the front of the van in the left lane head-on, Poulos said.

Poulos interrupted his interview twice at 7 p.m. to pull over errant vehicles trying to cross the median.

”Do not do that again,” Poulos hollered to one driver.

Returning to the interview, Poulos said. “That’s how people get killed. That’s what we’re dealing with right now.”

Taper Legged Blues

As James Joyner intimates, George Will’s contempt for jeans is really stupid. As a self-styled public intellectual unafraid of dripping contempt on other people’s aesthetic choices, I feel relatively safe in being heard in the spirit I’m speaking on this. Not the blue jean but the light-washed, taper-legged blue jean is the real social problem in America — exacerbated gravely by the pairing of said taper-legs with big clunky white ‘athletic’ shoes of the sort routinely worn by our decidedly unathletic.

Yet, notably, this getup was all the rage among girls in the ’80s (cf. Demi Moore in About Last Night…). As hideous as it might have been even in that context, somehow it was less of an issue. What can’t girls pull off? The problem is that men don’t look manly enough in this getup; the question is whether they can in jeans of any kind; and the answer is yes.

The real venom should be sprayed in the general direction of khakis and chinos, especially ones with pleats. A story for another day.

Nemesis II: The Footnote

Damon Linker has a followup to Ross’s reaction to the original post that I remarked on below. I recommend this followup post highly. Linker is right about intellectuals and distinctions, in a way that can be extended to emphases. I wouldn’t make some of the emphases Linker makes, but I am on record in various places arguing, in good pomocon fashion, on behalf of a foundationalist culture and a nonfoundationalist politics, so this bit struck me as extra important:

…Moralistic Therapeutic Deism looks like a comparatively promising alternative. But only if we assume the United States can’t get along without any civil religion at all.

Yet Ross’s own post hinges on the insight that at least one prominent strain of MTD tends especially to colonize politics. In the mind of, say, a Michael Gerson, the reality of human suffering, and the guilt associated with recognizing that reality, is unbearable without throwing ourselves into the arms of a moralistic, therapeutic Leviathan. Thus Ross’s critique of Bush’s Second Inaugural.

But there are details going obscured here. MTD can be more or less Christian. Some might look upon Joel Osteen as one of America’s foremost practitioners of MTD; others (ahem) might be a lot more concerned that, say, Richard Rorty’s vision of pragmatism as romantic polytheism comes much closer to realizing the full potential of MTD:

A Christianity that was merely ethical — the sort Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers commended and was later propounded by theologians of the social gospel — might have sloughed-off exclusionism by viewing Jesus as one incarnation of the divine among others. The celebration of an ethics of love would then have taken its place within the relatively tolerant polytheism of the Roman Empire, having disjoined the ideal of human brotherhood from the claim to represent the will of an omnipotent and monopolistic Heavenly Father (not to mention the idea that there is no salvation outside the Christian Church).

Linker’s brief against MTD hinges on his contempt for its ‘anemic’ theology. But moralistic deism that isn’t therapeutic would revolt Linker as equally anemic (right?) — while it would, in fact, carry a whole different set of cultural and political implications. Our American heritage of moralistic untherapeutic deism points toward a cultural life that prizes personal nobility over a political life that prizes universal dignity. I am guessing that Ross, Linker and I all agree — along with more radical critics of this business like Daniel — that the thing to be avoided, politically speaking, is seizing upon the state as the most powerful tool to save us all from cruelty and suffering. I’d agree with Linker that not all varieties of MTD always seek to commandeer politics in this way. But I’d do so in order to underscore what seems like the as-yet-unspoken heart of the matter: the real problem with MTD is not in its political side effects but in its cultural primary effects — and not because it’s moralistic, or because it’s deist.

My Enemy

I have few enemies, intellectually speaking — enemy ideas, that is; real nemesis visions. To qualify for nemesis status, a vision must be coherent, compelling, and viable on a mass scale. So I am not particularly worried about, say, the rise of actual Socialism in America, or the eventual transformation of everybody into militant atheist scientists, or most of the larger bugaboos upsetting our supposed public mind on the wide cultural right. There are only a few plausible destinies we face that I find deeply troubling — that is, only a few ways in which I really think we, us now with all that entails, could go wrong.

In consequence, I am sometimes apt to harp on certain apparently marginal themes, to the detriment of apparently more central ones. The net effect may be a certain initial opacity as regards what is known in academe as my Broader Intellectual Project. But then an exchange like Friday’s between Damon Linker and Rod Dreher comes along, and suddenly my assorted remarks on therapy and transgression, liberaltarianism, pink police states, and the sex vote take on, if not new relevance, the cast of a greater unity. I have more to say about some of these things in in other venues, but a few comments, here, are in order.

Read the full article

Dreck and Resurrection

These are not characters: they are excuses for doing something — Philip Rieff, The Crisis of the Officer Class

On the occasion of Good Friday, a story about the new Seth Rogen flick.

Read the full article

The Anxiety of Optimism

Hume had been concerned in all his writings with the superiority of a modern society based on commerce over an ancient society based on naked individuality, but he had reached the point of imagining a society so far in debt to faceless creditors that the value of all property, the liberty of every individual, and the meaning of every thing or idea, would be reduced to its capacity to persuade creditors to continue an economy based exclusively on speculation. — J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment

Against this headlong rush into the Rule of Contract, under which citizens enjoy “an equality of rights,” Pocock, in Arendtian (and Aristotelian) fashion, counterposes the discipline of republican virtue, through which citizens practice “an equality of rule.” But no matter how deep the tension between law and politics, the closest to civic republicanism that America has come in recent years is Christopher Lasch. And Lasch’s offering isn’t selling — not just because we’ve grown corrupt, or because Lasch’s offer rejects the whole model of buying and selling, but because of our deep culture and our American souls. Even for Tocqueville, the possible virtue of democratic politics had little to do with representation — either of others or of the self. Unlike Arendt and Pocock, Tocqueville declines to view politics as a special, privileged site for the construction, performance, and maintenance of selfhood. Democracy in America services not the self, which can get by just fine under soft despotism, but the other. When citizens are forced to plunge over and again into the details of shared governance, says Tocqueville, they are pulled out of themselves; they are made to keep up relationships with people — neighbors — whom they neither sired nor self-selected (cf. Facebook, eHarmony). Though this be salutary for political liberty, it is, we conclude with Tocqueville, incidental to the success of a typical modern liberal’s self-actualizing personality projects.

Note: this approach hints that a certain sort of capitalism isn’t the cause of our cultural contradictions but rather their consequence. Can a culture based on relentless speculation in varieties of selfhood help but produce, and reproduce, a civilization — and thus economy — based ever-more-exclusively on economic speculation? So we ask in our anxiety of optimism. The apparent affinity and harmony of our speculative ends suggests an uncanny antagonism. In modern, democratic times, do our techniques of selfhood produce a social order that always calls our personal authenticity into question? If so — what do we do about it? How do we react, or lash out?

Obviously not through politics. Americans who really do the work of citizenship are usually the ones least anxious about their selfhood. (Contrast those who agitate for legal, not political, recognition.) Our beastly reactions to our sense of authentic autonomy lost are severely unpolitical. They intensify the trouble facing those who call for a renaissance of republican virtue … and intensify the need for a nonpolitical substitute. Of course, we already have one: therapy, which works so well as an economic model against, yet parasitic upon, our ‘charismatic economy’ of amateur and professional star transgressors.

Democratic Mores and the Hospital-Theater of the Absurd

“As a school, we’ve done a lot of work with human rights,” said Michael McDermott, the middle school principal. “But you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has to go together.” — The New York Times

Nonsense. It doesn’t have to, and it doesn’t, go together; in fact, it pulls in different directions that each intensify as we oscillate between them. Tocqueville was very good on the way mores grow more gentle in a democratic age, but Constant showed better, even as it saddened him, how it’s public mores that improve while private ones are free to decay. And, to the extent that legalism comes to fully supplant our political space, decay they do — not because politics is, in Arendtian fashion, some privileged realm for the disclosure and display of one’s True Self, but because legalism ‘officializes’ everything, including mores. As political public space wanes and legal public space grows, legalism transforms the very definition of public and private space — or, that is, supplants them simply with official space and unoffical space. In terms of mores, it’s no surprise that the official aligns itself in a liberal democracy with gentleness, relegating beastliness to the unofficial space we awkwardly still refer to as ‘private.’

But, of course, as legalism thrusts the ‘public’ realm into the private, and increasingly beastly mores thrust heretofore ‘private’ conduct ever more brazenly into public, liberalism’s rather cherished public/private distinction becomes rickety, dilapidated, perforated, and porous, increasingly both official and absurd. As is well known to writers who have outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted our 20th-century totalitarian regimes, common folk increasingly recognize officialdom wherever absurdity is found, and come to associate the public realm with the realm of the fictitious and fraudulent. Officials congratulate themselves when certain lessons ‘stick’, but at the same time they are intensifying and concentrating a beastliness that shifts even further into ‘private’, which is to say other, residually ‘unofficial’ (and ever more embarrassingly so) public realms.

Sarah Frohman, 13, said that she catches herself when she is about to call someone who annoys her a “retard,” and that she has told her soccer coach in a youth league not to use the word.

Annie Gevertz, 12, said that she is more careful of what she says about other students. “Sometimes, I think about how it would feel if it were said about me, and I’ll keep it to myself instead of sharing,” she said, though she expects gossip will probably never be gone for good “because we’re teenage girls and that’s something we do.”

Yet the regulation of the sexual mores of the young, with or without condoms, continues to lose steam and confidence justified by any standard other than official gentleness — with all the efficiency value, as a constant in the risk-calculation factor of resource-allocation projections, that mass gentleness has for officialdom. But our public obsession with security and health parallels our ‘private’ tastes for risk and self-poisoning, and our loving, de-eroticized pieties concerning Respect for All grow apace with our beastly appetite for erotic impieties.

In the face of all this, small-l liberal politics largely bites its lip. The ultimate hero of our civilization is a sixteen-year-old sexpot who saves Darfur and bitchily destroys her rivals, all in a day’s work — Lolita Borgia in a reality-TV production of Legally Blonde 4: Barely Legal Bottle-Blonde Beasts of Prey.

The Cultural Paradoxes of Capitalism

If this agenda comes to pass, it will mark this period in history as the moment America turned European. — Rep. Paul Ryan, The Wall Street Journal

Earlier this month, Rep. Ryan indicated (also in the Journal) that in “a nutshell, the president’s budget seemingly seeks to replace the American political idea of equalizing opportunity with the European notion of equalizing results.” To be sure, the idea that equality is best appraised according to outcomes draws from a social-justice tradition far more alien to America than Europe. Nonetheless (as at least some red-blooded Americans insist), even more than an irrational exuberance for Europeanism, Obama’s budget reflects an unsustainable surplus of Americanism.

Americans, argue critics from the crunchy, paleo, pessimist, Catholic, Orthodox, and/or communitarian Right, suffer from the market distortions of an ideology of optimism — an ideology which inevitably causes distortions in the market because it depends upon a deeply distorted psychology. While TIME magazine wrote of Keynes that “his radical idea that governments should spend money they don’t have may have saved capitalism,” the alt-cons (not to be confused with the heterodox cons, and for lack of a better word) suggest American optimism requires that our government must spend money we don’t have in order to have the capitalism we consider not just a luxury but a right.

From this perspective, Republicans aren’t so much wrong about the Old World quality of the Obama budget as missing the point — for we wouldn’t be in this mess had Americans been substantially less, well, New World in their unreasonable longing to have it both ways when it comes to prosperity and responsibility. It’s important to recognize here that both alt-cons and heterodox cons tend, when ranging across this intellectual territory, to be hard on Locke and Nietzsche. Both supply Americans with a kind of recklessly individualist creed. Although much divides Locke and Nietzsche, of course, the practical Lockeanism and practical Nietzscheanism of the American people tend to blur together: we take on huge burdens pursuing happiness, and we tolerate all manner of small sadnesses and miniature tragedies — especially where the geographical, emotional, and legal breakup of the family is concerned — in order to get it. We even know that the happiness we seek is sort of a will-o’-the-wisp; obviously, we seek the basic well-being of the not-super-human City of Pigs that Socrates describes in the early pages of the Republic — health, peace, community, feasts, wine, festivals — but we are more advanced than that, meaning more refined and more degenerate. Despite the essential soundness of, say, Will Wilkinson’s work on quantifying happiness, as any good libertarian knows, a life of ‘mere’ well-being is not a life spent truly exploring one’s personal capacities for self-actualization. Wealth helps get you there, but, as many a bobo can testify, not always, and, past a certain modest point, not necessarily.

The Locke/Nietzsche detour is important because it turns out that we Americans are too democratic to really own up to the social costs incurred by letting a thousand Lockean geniuses or Nietzschean superpeople bloom. We would much rather have a million semi-geniuses and awesomepeople — ten million, a hundred million, and when the inevitable mistake is made, rushing perpetually as we do toward ever-greater prosperity and ever-higher achievement in the prosperity business, we’re simply not interested in paying the price personally on anything like a mass scale.

Enter government. Our huge federal bailouts are better understood as a doubling-down on Americanism than a capitulation in favor of a U.S. of Bavaria.

We’re simply too proud to let our high-risk behavior result in big pain for the average American. There’s nobility in that — despite the blows our critics of optimism land. The sad part is how ignoble our pride in the virtual value of status symbols has become. Don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing necessarily wrong with buying a Lexus for your garage instead of planting an olive tree in your front yard. The trouble is that leisure time, enjoyed without reference to even a vague concept of noble and ignoble, tends to erode interest in higher forms of entertainment — namely, higher forms of education, comportment, and socialization. (What’s happened to Trivial Pursuit over the past quarter-century is as gross a testament to this turn of events, in all three of its forms, as any.)

But there are only a few durable American sources for an ethic of nobility. Aside from our troublesome ‘Lockean-Nietzschean’ inheritance — which, in fact, isn’t an import but home-grown Emersonianism — we have our religious inheritance and our deist inheritance. The religious inheritance is an ethic of the heart. The deist inheritance is an ethic of the head. (Not being a Catholic people, we lack an inheritance — for good or for ill — in which these two are deeply fused and united.) Unfortunately, look around today, and what dominates? On the one hand, forms of spiritual emotivism least concerned with noble comportment; on the other, commitments to education that worship sci-tech proficiency and upward mobility at the miserable expense of philosophy, high culture, high art, and the humanities. The big hearts and big brains that dominate our public spaces are nothing like the big hearts of and big brains of not so long ago. We get Glenn Beck on the one hand and Malcolm Gladwell on the other, with freaks like Richard Florida as their mutant offspring.

Clearly, there are chicken-and-egg issues at work, and nothing I’ve said here breaks terribly new ground. It is true, however, that few voices today are connecting up our economic and political troubles to a broader and deeper failure of the imagination: a failure to imagine the noble, or, more precisely, to reimagine American nobility — in accordance with both our religious and our not-so-religious heritages. We really can expect a warm welcome for Europeanism without it.

No Pun is Adequate

to describe the seriousness of the Pot Issue in America today. If it is good enough for President Obama, it is good enough for Me. There are those who would hold, with Andrew, that

It is about freedom and it’s deadly serious.

But this is true about many things. Wearing certain attire to school is about freedom. Smoking cigarettes indoors is about freedom. Public urination is about freedom (especially urination atop patches of ground that could benefit from some energy-efficient fertilization). Freedom itself does not decide the issue, even when it is weighed against harm.

There are also many things that are deadly serious — like, I am warned, talking on the cell phone in the car, even with a hands-free set. Policy settled? No — no matter how adamant The Experts and The Science may be about the probabilities and the correlations involved. Don’t like it? That’s politics…in a society, anyway, where politics is About Freedom, which is to say where freedom raises so many of the important issues instead of settling them.

We are stuck with the fact that some degree of criminalization of pot is, to some degree, reasonable — from the standpoint of political freedom, if not microethics. (And it’s the former standpoint that counts.) The Pot Empirics are different from what they were back when pot was first outlawed — and yes, back then, as my alma mater’s star lecturer Charlie Whitebread (RIP) explained, the process by which pot was banned, and the ‘reasons’ behind it, were incontrovertibly ridiculous.

But this is not enough to create a Matter of Life and Death. There can never be a Tom Paine of Pot.

But if there was…

Who can doubt that even a Ron Paul of Pot — even a Sarah Palin of Pot — could, with a motivated enough group of devotees, cause a cascade effect among indifferent, permissive voters? Then why not? Why not already? Because, like all too many Paulites and all too many Palinites, the Pot People are too kooky. Too adamant. Leaflet-pushers. Acid-legalizers or no. If pot is a matter of life or death, people will keep on choosing death. Pot will never be banal enough to sell its own decriminalization.

UPDATE: Yes, I left medical marijuana out of the picture here, by accident although it is a separate issue. Yet again, it’s regular folk, not partisan activists, who are decisive in shaping public opinion on the matter. And the plain facts of (serious) medical relief militate much more strongly in favor of decriminalization. Finally, read this post again if you think I’m firmly opposed to broad decriminalization.

UPDATE 2: I do recognize that a growing list of people have been killed (see comments) in pot raids, etc. If we agree that (1) this is grossly disproportionate and unjust and (2) aggressive raids are not a necessary consequence or even a vital part of criminalization regimes, the natural conclusion is that to avoid these tragedies we needn’t decriminalize, but rather stop their proximate cause — the raids themselves. Probably there is already a latent majority in favor of this. But, as I’ve suggested, that isn’t to say there aren’t better arguments to decriminalize. It offends our moral sensibilities to realize that a relatively small but significant number of deaths at the hands of law enforcement agencies isn’t anywhere near a slam-dunk case against the criminalization of pot. But it’s true. And there won’t be anywhere near a pro-pot majority in this country, or in most states, until the argument shifts to the practical ground of potency and impairment. Once many regular people who aren’t college students start emerging to reveal their steady, more or less responsible uses of pot, things will change, and probably not before then — not because that will destroy some moral taboos (which it will), but because that volume of reliable testimony will turn back the basic doubt as to whether, given potency and impairment, large numbers of Americans can behave themselves well enough.

What to do in the meanwhile? How about an internet petition for commentators and ‘opinion makers’? “I’m OK With Decriminalization.” (As opposed to, say, legalization and taxation.) See who signs, and how many, all in once place. Forgive my ignorance if this has already been done. Regardless, the results would be of interest, no?

No Pun Is Adequate

to describe the seriousness of the Pot Issue in America today. If it is good enough for President Obama, it is good enough for Me. There are those who would hold, with Andrew, that

It is about freedom and it’s deadly serious.

But this is true about many things. Wearing certain attire to school is about freedom. Smoking cigarettes indoors is about freedom. Public urination is about freedom (especially urination atop patches of ground that could benefit from some energy-efficient fertilization). Freedom itself does not decide the issue, even when it is weighed against harm.

There are also many things that are deadly serious — like, I am warned, talking on the cell phone in the car, even with a hands-free set. Policy settled? No — no matter how adamant The Experts and The Science may be about the probabilities and the correlations involved. Don’t like it? That’s politics…in a society, anyway, where politics is About Freedom, which is to say where freedom raises so many of the important issues instead of settling them.

We are stuck with the fact that some degree of criminalization of pot is, to some degree, reasonable — from the standpoint of political freedom, if not microethics. (And it’s the former standpoint that counts.) The Pot Empirics are different from what they were back when pot was first outlawed — and yes, back then, as my alma mater’s star lecturer Charlie Whitebread (RIP) explained, the process by which pot was banned, and the ‘reasons’ behind it, were incontrovertibly ridiculous.

But this is not enough to create a Matter of Life and Death. There can never be a Tom Paine of Pot.

But if there was…

Who can doubt that even a Ron Paul of Pot — even a Sarah Palin of Pot — could, with a motivated enough group of devotees, cause a cascade effect among indifferent, permissive voters? Then why not? Why not already? Because, like all too many Paulites and all too many Palinites, the Pot People are too kooky. Too adamant. Leaflet-pushers. Acid-legalizers or no. If pot is a matter of life or death, people will keep on choosing death. Pot will never be banal enough to sell its own decriminalization.

Toothless Fairey

Let me get meta on the following quote:

Despite its rousing first impact, the exhibition leaves you with a sense of dismay at the devolution of a certain avant-garde dream into a kind of visual easy listening for the college-educated masses.

[…] Mr. Fairey has acknowledged his debt to Ms. Kruger, but he seems cheerfully oblivious to how his ideas about being subversive through art are fatally familiar, not to say naïve. They were radical half a century ago; now they are the stuff of college art history courses. Does anyone not realize that capitalism is contradictory? Is anyone’s world really rocked by something that can’t be immediately categorized? Every day we are swamped with images and ideas that pretend to confound conventional thinking. That’s popular culture.

This line of criticism, against Obama iconographer and longtime illegal artist Shepard Fairey, is, as sound as it is, well…fatally familiar (right down to the ‘sense of’ dismay, unable somehow to reach actual dismay). For me to say of this criticism “I like this” is not blogging, right, but what else is to be done with such not-so-new information? Celebrate it ‘for its own sake’, is one answer, meaning celebrate it for ours — cultural criticism as ritual. To complain about Shepard Fairey is to reperform the thing complained about.

This is the distressing prospect that provokes bloggers — especially young, smart bloggers — to reach for the overthink. Surely there must be something extra-new, extra-penetrating, all-too-insightful to say about this fleet phenom, that speck of mental dust. What virtuosity, skewering a speck of dust! Analyze ye rosebuds while ye may, be not coy….

The only way out (it seems) is up. Meta-criticism offers the hope of novelty at an upshifted scope that wards off triviality. Not coincidentally, the same is true of electing Barack Obama. And here we are again at Fairey.

The New York Times reviewer from whom the above quote came has a pretty limp recommendation for pulling the artist out of the kaleidoscope:

What is missing from his work is a deeper, more personal and therefore less predictably formulaic dimension. What might that be?

It would be, predictably, casting himself as a character in the same glamorama that now jumbles up Andre the Giant, Lenin, some Arabian women, Mao, etc., etc. Like reaching for the overthink, going ‘personal’ in an effort to go ‘deeper’ throws the pop artist into the most formulaic of dimensions. Every day we are swamped with images and ideas that pretend to confound the line between creator and created. That’s popular culture.

But I can’t stop here, right? Those who offer only potent criticism are at risk of allegations of Negativity and Underthinking, implying as they do that perhaps the most needful kind of critique for some subjects is silence. In such a culture as ours, that kind of pessimism is too easily mistaken for nihilism. Too irresponsible! And, still, any meaning is better than no.

So consider Brian Thomas Gallagher, who beat the Times to punching Fairey earlier this year at n + 1:

Staring into the deep blues and reds of the “Person of the Year,” one fears that in skewering Fairey, one is potentially pinning down who Obama might turn out to be: a mere bundle of associations, linked—inevitably and irretrievably—with movements he did not start, a politics he does not support, and a transformation he cannot possibly represent. In the image, past ideologies and present branding beautifully fuse in a political tableau distant from any actual politics.

Well, maybe, right? One might actually hope that this is so. Who wants a transformation that can be adequately represented? What I fear is a generation or two of conscious and unconscious beneficiaries — meaning non-beneficiaries — of ‘trickle-down politics’: something is going on at the top, something vast and administrative and expert, and what matters is that it supplies resources for an aesthetics of endlessly novel contradictions (including, only for the purposes of later contradiction, noncontradiction) — and, of course, that it maintains the conditions of peace and stability necessary to conduct this kind of aesthetic practice indefinitely. And profitably?

In Faireyland, abandoning ‘actual politics’ to a distant managerial class is an act of aesthetic pragmatism, the better to traffic in HOPE than in Obama himself. (The apotheosis Fairey never achieved: replacing the word HOPE with REAL.) Gallagher describes Fairey in cutting terms as a radical shill, but the real question is whether he’s simply a particularly inspirational kind of liberal (small and large L). As Jim Ceaser has remarked:

Pragmatism is the magic word to describe what liberals want, but do not want to argue for. It is at this point, as Burke might have said, that we enter “the fairy land of philosophy.”

The New Crass

In short, the United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It’s addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise. After periodic pauses, the country inevitably returns to its elemental nature. — David Brooks

I think this is right, and my remarks in Sunday’s Globe should be read accordingly:

Though some in the United States fear the adoption of “European-style socialism,” Americans who think seriously about the future of our foreign policy should understand how the two halves of the West are in fact most likely to grow less similar.

The deep cultures of Europe and the US point in very different directions, both economic and political, because the matchup, there and here, between psychological longing and environmental reality have created such different sets of problems and opportunities. The kind of chastened — and, yes, collectivist — austerity that we’ve seen follow bad times in Europe just isn’t likely to take shape in America.

This is so for good and for ill, of course. So Brooks is correct to point out that “the financial world is abashed” as “members of the educated class explore and enjoy the humiliation of the capitalist vulgarians.” But a prime result of this downward turn is the further rise of vulgarian capitalism — the aspirational slumming behind what today I call the Scumbag Millionaire economy.

Europe's Problem and Ours

Europe longs for unity, not ‘ancient hatreds’, I argue in today’s Boston Globe. But if confidence in the ‘European project’ continues to fail — and the EU along with it — the way that longing expresses itself will make for a rude awakening in America. Our foreign policymakers and thinkers should prepare accordingly.

Bottoms Up

In other Atlantic-related news (as I refine my Encomium of Ross), the Food channel has now been launched. Clay Risen is boozeblogging. His first post is on schnapps. I’m excited that Risen has already, with a single post on a liquor no one should have any use for, transcended the joylessness that is the Times’ booze blog (Proof, which usually seems to be a blog about formerly drinking). But I do have some requests.

1. If schnapps is in bounds, talk about sherry, which has been relegated to old lady status for too long. Amontillado is full-flavored without being syrupy on the one hand and flinty on the other. Plus it’s stronger than wine but weaker than Wild Turkey.

2. A month or so ago, I realized my appreciation for (Spanish) sherry was part of a broader love for Mediterranean booze — ouzo and limoncello in particular. There’s something sun-imbued about the liquor of southern Europe that you just don’t get in the north. When you feel like unwinding, the southern spirits are relaxing, not soporific. When you’re ready for action, they’re easy to sip but never chugworthy. Yet Americans tend to ignore these tasty, good-natured drinks, reaching all too often for the suds, the vodka, or the Jägermeister. The time is ripe for a good inspirational polemic.

3. There is a bar in Adams Morgan that serves avocado martinis. (Conor, Californian that he is, tells me it’s delicious. Californian that I am, I believe him). There is an Italian liquor made from artichokes. (it’s called Cynar, and I can report that the second glass is better than the first.) Surely a drink-your-greens top ten list is just waiting to be penned.

4. The world has no need for further comment on single malts.

5. Classic cocktails: not faddish. This principle needs vindication.

6. On a sociological note, I wonder how microbrews are being affected by the Tab that Ate America. Might we face a future in which boutique beer is rarer, better, and crunchier? More of a vocation, less bourgeois? Less like making sport bicycles and more like making pipe organs? Are there any beer-savvy New Monastics in the house?

I could go on, of course. Until next time, cheers, Food channel.

The Promising Animal

Megan alludes to an interesting question about moral foundationalism and bourgeois society.

Call me bourgeois, but I think that when you sign your name to a document promising to repay money you’ve borrowed, you have an obligation to repay the money you’ve borrowed.

[…] the bourgeois belief that an honorable man repays his debts if he is able is one of the unnoticed underpinnings of a stable, prosperous democracy. Countries that believe that one can pick and choose whom one is obligated to repay on the basis of how good a person the lender is, how tight their relation to you, or whatever, are low-trust societies with extremely high transaction costs and underdeveloped markets. If you think you’re only obligated to repay regular folks like yourself, then no one but your close friends and family will lend you money. This makes capital formation tricky.

There are two arguments at work here, and the genius of western liberal democracy has indeed derived in part from its ability to keep certain social conventions going on multiple levels of justification. The first argument holds that the good life collapses and becomes unattainable unless we decide that promise-making and promise-keeping is honorable, and then enforce that code of honor. The second argument holds that, since promise-making and -keeping redound to the good life, we owe it to one another (or ‘everybody’, or ‘society’) to make and keep promises, regardless of whether or not doing so is honorable.

Since these arguments play so nice together in the hubbub of everyday life, it’s hard to recognize that the second argument leads us to discover that, at its root, it denies the relevance of honor to social order. A good social order, that is, needn’t be honorable at all; in Kantian terms, even a nation of devils could govern itself with the right set of information and institutions. One could object here that honor is really just being shifted under a Kantian schema from residing in persons (“I am an honorable man”) to institutions (“Megan honored her debt to Weber Corp.”) But Megan’s claim heightens the tension between honoring people and honoring institutions because it strongly, and correctly, implies that honoring people is really about honoring oneself, rather than honoring others (i.e. “institutions”).

Libertarians often seek to square the circle here by playing up the way in which maximum freedom and maximum equality make a positive feedback loop, as I suggested above. Friendly critics of libertarianism from the right, however, tend to worry that the logic of equality will squeeze out the logic of liberty, such that nobody will tolerate the enforcement of promises by promise-keepers on the grounds that only they, in virtue of their honorable promise-keeping, are entitled to enforce promises dishonorably broken by others.

This will happen for two reasons: one, such a hierarchical dependence of law on personality is repugnant in democratic times; two, and much more pragmatically, in democratic times there will be more promise-breakers, and requiring leaders to be honorable in order to be leaders is too big and too costly a risk. The honor of making promises will, on the account I’m describing, be pushed further and further into relatively more trivial areas of life — politically speaking; and the breaking of promises itself will be reinterpreted as an honorable ‘promise to stop promising’, especially if it is ‘retrospectively consented to’ by whichever party doesn’t think of it first. Public promises, however, will increasingly all become promises to the government, the making and keeping of which will have no relevance to even remotely honor-like concepts. You will make and keep government promises in the name of equality itself, invoked precisely against the notion that the honorable people should rule and the dishonorable should be ruled: democracy over aristocracy.

The result, on this critical telling, will be, simply, liberaltarianism, which purports to make of politics a uniform realm advancing the interest of equality over unequal honor, and to make of non-politics a similarly uniform realm in which all inequalities are inherently trivial and contingent enough to be always respected, revolvingly celebrated, but never honored. At this point, it will no longer make sense to speak of public and private, for the government will intervene regularly in what was once considered ‘private’ life, and what were once considered private acts will regularly take place in what was once considered ‘public’. There will simply be politics and non-politics, which is to say government and non-government. From today’s vantage, when most of politics has been completely captured and defined by those interested in politicizing (that is, getting government respect for) heretofore non-political behaviors, the liberaltarian utopia seems absurd in thinking that the political and the non-political could ever so clearly and concisely be separated. But the contentious hodgepodge and category confusion of today — otherwise known as ‘the culture wars’ — is considered by liberaltarians only an uncomfortable prelude to getting everything sorted.

Whether or not this is true seems to me to come down, at the moment, to whether or not the definition of honor as honoring oneself can get the better of the definition of honor as honoring others.

For a look in on the even deeper (and ‘strangely’ mirror-image) issue of whether honoring oneself is impossible without honoring God, see Simone Chambers at The Immanent Frame (thru Andrew).

News I Can Use

I haven’t spotted Ezra Dyer in the New York Times auto section for a while, but he’s back, in fine form, reviewing a Japanese car — his life’s true calling.

In Acura’s case, the “power plenum” design idiom works for the MDX and RDX crossovers, but its naked, futuristic aggression doesn’t sit right with the sedans. A sedan’s grille should not look like a weapon used by ninjas from the year 2350.

[…] the TL might prove to be a hit, a tech-forward performance sedan whose sales numbers eventually validate its challenging aesthetics.

Or Acura might slap a new grille on it in a year or two and lay blame for this whole “power plenum” business where it rightly belongs: with the ninjas from the future.

I recommend chronojingoism as well in our struggle to assign responsibility for the nation’s economic downturn. If it wasn’t for our children and grandchildren, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Big Girls

Harvey Mansfield and Ayaan Hirsi Ali puzzle out our feminine ideal today. Mansfield:

Responsible choice guided by the inclinations of human nature is abandoned, and social science offers partial and partisan studies supposedly proving that women are either prisoners or conquerors of their inclinations. Social science sets itself against the impressions of common sense, yet studies in social psychology and evolutionary biology tend to confirm those impressions, otherwise known as “traditional stereotypes.” Social science blunders into popular discourse, destroying the authority of common sense and replacing it with confusion. Not to be excluded from anything open to men seems to be the most powerful desire of women today. Women want to be able to say they can do anything. Men do not feel this about themselves, vaguely aware as they are that women are indispensable. Perhaps the best contribution they can make now to understanding between the sexes is to refrain from asking women to prove they can do anything.

To be sure, our competing demands of our young women for hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity make for a stressful tension. But it wouldn’t be our age, would it, unless we sublimated this tension into yet another case of having our cake and eating it too? If Mansfield is right that social science tells us one thing or the other when it comes to the truth about being female, our anti-science — the pop-culture humanities departments of Fantasy, Celebrity, and Personality — tells us one thing and the other. Be more manly, girls! — And more womanly! Nietzsche wept.

Coincidentally, my piece at AmSpec today says a lot more about roughing and toughening up our girls in the age of Rihanna.

There wasn’t room to size up our boys today, but Ali herself suggests a place to start:

As for the males who are uncertain about their position in the gender divide, their preoccupation is not with courage but is a different kind of permanent struggle: the one to find oneself, or in other words, navel-gazing as a state of mind.

On Rooting

Michael Gerson:

Obama is not likely to be a Roosevelt. But conservatives remain in a difficult position. Since they favor economic success, they must root for Obama to be a Clinton — even as they suspect and predict he will be a Carter.

Elsewhere, he remarks that Obama is (already) driving intraparty adversaries on the right closer together; this post suggests that’s true. The way to spin out Gerson’s even-keeled rumination into a political slogan for Republicans is to say “Even if we succeed, we’ll have failed” — even in Clintonian terms. Such a line would be fair, sane, and also true.

Newer articles ↑

Older articles ↓