I have a lot of sympathy for Samuel Beckett’s obsession with the question of when to stop writing or speaking, of how to know when — if ever — you’ve said enough to sum things up aptly, or whether we’re doomed to keep blathering and uttering little snippets of half-meaning without really conveying the most important points.
He was mainly interested in art and emotion, but the same goes in spades for scientific and political controversies, obviously. I’m taking a brief break while putting the finishing touches on a piece meant to sum up nanotech in 3,000 words, and I see a link on Drudge to a story about CNN’s Broken Government being threatened with legal action (as most TV news shows probably should be with great regularity) for misleadingly labeling a fairly mainstream political group a “fringe militia” and for using bits of an interview with the group’s representative out of context, which is essentially how all TV news is created (with “heroes” and “villains” for a story chosen in advance of the relatively ornamental fact-gathering and those people/characters even framed and lit to subtly remind viewers who’s on which “side” — start watching for it if you don’t believe me).
Even when one means well and hopes to represent everyone/everything accurately, though (as I always strove to when I was in TV news, contrary to one sniping article in the late, unlamented Brill’s Content — as biased as any venue it criticized — by a writer named Ted Rose who went from journalism to setting up deals whereby mainstream businesses prove their green credentials by funding wind farms), there’s never time to squeeze in every footnote and counter-counter-argument imaginable, just as there’s no time at a party to convince someone who has barely heard of your political philosophy that he should adopt it after hearing a thirty-second explanation (which runs counter to what he’s been thinking twenty-four hours a day for forty years). Yet plenty of people will still demand the thirty-second explanation and then get angry when you fail to persuade them.
So what’s the correct course of action? Do what most sane people do and never talk about politics or religion? Write long books that may be true but never get read? Write short articles or blog entries that risk becoming brief cheap shots? Give up on argument and just run for office instead?
My five-pronged solution right now is:
1. stick to objective scientific standards at the day job
2. blog with humor — and Responses enabled — by night
3. work on a book (Conservatism for Punks) that itself will not answer all questions but will answer many (and will address the issue raised in this blog entry at greater length, since the book will be all about the tension between long-term stability and immediacy, between richness and radical breaks)
4. socially gather with politically likeminded folk once a month to breathe the pleasant air of an environment where people can agree or disagree without feeling the pressure of having to prove which side they’re on (I’m reminded of my friend and fellow Phillips Fellow Nick Slepko’s belief that ideas spread through open-ended social networks rather than rational argument, an idea that seems increasingly relevant in an era of social-networking sites and unphilosophical distractions; as it happens, Nick may attend next month’s gathering, on the night of Jan. 16, of the so-called Manhattan Project of which I write, so if he meets enough nice people there, perhaps he can be enlisted to some new cause or opinion — and if I really, really enjoy myself at this week’s Food for Thought gathering and next week’s NYSalon event, maybe you’ll find effusive praise of environmentalists or British post-Marxists creatively incorporated into this site later in the month)
5. and, of course, host monthly live debates at Lolita Bar (like the one this coming Wednesday, 8pm, between a Clintonite hawk and a Buchananite dove), but even if hearing two sides beats hearing only one, it might be argued that shoehorning issues into two sides — when the topic might be better served by dividing it into seventeen — does violence to the truth.
I had an otherwise pleasant date more or less fall apart early in the year over the question of whether even trying to turn a complex social issue into a two-sided debate is appropriate (a question that someone who hosts monthly debates can be expected to have a personal stake in). My date was anti-debate (again, for anti-reductionist rather than dogmatic reasons) but didn’t see this as reason to soften her own positions or to treat mine as remotely plausible, of course (this is sort of a subtler, more sophisticated version of the “I’m completely open-minded about everything, but what you’re saying offends and shocks me even if half the country agrees with you” attitude common among the liberal-yet-ostensibly-apolitical folk who may well be the majority of the population in New York City, or at least common in media/intellectual circles — most of them, like my ill-fated date, genuinely nice people).
But if methods of rational persuasion and debate fail us, there is always the far more popular solution of outright demagoguery. Indeed, it’s not clear that democracy can avoid degenerating into rule by demagogues — or that TV discussion shows about politics, if they are to maintain their ratings, can avoid devolving into shouting matches over the long haul (unless the whole population gets smarter, which I think can’t happen absent genetic engineering or cybernetic implants, though school choice would certainly help — advocacy of that third approach being the thing that alienated the aforementioned date).
As long as the flashy and the passionate (or the scary) is, for hardwired biological reasons, more attention-grabbing than the nuanced and cautious, what hope do we have? Will the Putins and the Chavezes and the Ahmadinejads, who talk tough but fear competition, always tend to rally the mob behind them — conveying their own fear of loss of control to the ever-paranoid mob by scapegoating foreign threats and internal traitors? Will it always be easier, say, to summon a phalanx of savages who want to murder a teacher for letting children name a teddy bear Mohammed than to get people to sit still long enough to absorb the long, rational argument for atheism they so desperately and manifestly need to prevent that sort of thing happening over and over again?
We may have little choice but to create intellectuals who recognize their demagogic power without abusing it, which will require a degree of elite moral self-discipline that we do not currently possess and that neither democracy, market pressures, nor religious passions tend naturally to create (instead spawning triangulators, advertising, and preachers, respectively), and which tradition is too slow and calcified to deploy on an urgent case-by-case basis. This is, to put it mildly, a big problem — maybe the biggest.
If we nonetheless hope to go some sort of populist route, can we — should we — create a world where calming lessons about the importance of tolerance, individual rights, respect for property, and thoughtfulness itself are somehow, paradoxically, conveyed through media with the flashiness of, say, this quintessential 80s video by Duran Duran (or this similar-looking one by Elton John, one of the very few of his I like, which may in turn have been influenced by this older Rod Stewart number, in which, not coincidentally, the mob runs through the streets [but in a good way, naturally, which was not always the case with the century-ago movement that gave the song its name])?
Anyone who is inclined to think that passionate pop appeals to become politically active are plainly and simply a good idea must keep in mind how many of those Rock the Vote spokesmusicians turned out to be non-voters or even unregistered to vote — how easy would it be for one of those artists to become a dangerously ignorant — and very popular — demagogue?
And while I’m trying to second-guess the hip media elites and perhaps exaggerating their influence, is this parody of the hip New York neighborhood of Williamsburg, brought to my attention by Elizabeth Terrell of the National Taxpayers Union, fair, and does fairness even matter when you’re dealing with comedy? I think it sometimes does (even though I’m probably far more tolerant of “offensive” humor than a lot of people would be, recognizing the need for artists to have creative and experimental latitude) — but surely the hipsters are fair game.
Finally, is it better to raise these questions in a 1,500-word blog entry or a much shorter blog entry, since people or busy — or await the chance to write an even more lengthy treatise? Or just shut up about the whole thing? Like Beckett, I’m not sure (and here, ideally, there’d be a footnote explaining that I’m not saying I’m like Beckett, etc., etc.). I’m still hosting that debate on Wednesday, regardless, if you can make it.
UPDATE 12/3/07: Chavez lost the vote on revising the Venezuelan constitution to allow him to run for president indefinitely, so there are limits — and teaching Venezuelan school children to chant “Fatherland, socialism, or death!” may be beyond them — which is somewhat reassuring. Even better would be a system where nothing the majority votes for affects the rest of the population, of course.