Friday, February 29, 2008

Retro-Journal: Tradition and Modernity in Early 1997

HEREIN IS EXPLAINED why you may not hear from me about various previously-discussed work or social plans (ones for which no contract, promise, or precise date was made, I mean) — since I really need to focus on writing a book first planned back in 1997 (eleven embarrassing years ago), even if it means much shorter blog entries henceforth (which may be a great relief to many readers anyway). ACSH, Debates at Lolita Bar, and Manhattan Project will be unaffected, though.

I swear I am not a contrarian in the usual sense of simply opposing other people’s views for the sake of opposing them. On the other hand: I tend to feel that seconding some already-stated opinion is usually a waste of time — the opinion’s already been stated, after all — and therefore usually find myself focusing on areas of disagreement, even with people I very much like and largely agree with.

(I refer to philosophical agreement and disagreement, not at all to the sorts of everyday emotional and practical matters that people normally bicker about — when it comes to these things, I try to stay almost infinitely flexible and not complain unless something causes physical pain or comes darn close to it. You’ll never hear me say “But dammit! I had my heart set on going to that restaurant!” I will quietly, civilly object if you insist that astrology or socialism work, though.)

This quasi-contrarian bent may have contributed to me formulating a plan in early 1997 — right at the peak of the dotcom boom, when everyone was in love with technology and the future like they hadn’t been since the days of Flash Gordon — to examine the important role that tradition plays in civilization. Ironically, this idea actually began as a plan for an ABC News broadcast, which would have been hosted by libertarian correspondent John Stossel if he and the producers had liked the idea. It was correctly pointed out to me by Stossel and the Stossel executive producer at the time, David Sloan, that getting people to tune in to news broadcasts filled with eye-grabbing flashes of sex and violence was hard enough — getting people to tune into a primetime hour about tradition was nearly hopeless.


Luckily, the Phillips Foundation, started by conservative publisher Tom Phillips and then led by a board that also included Al Regnery from Regnery Books and conservative columnist Robert Novack, had recently started giving out annual grants for ambitious year-long journalism projects, so I submitted a proposal for a series of articles on the interplay of tradition and innovation in various fields — architecture, music, medicine, psychology — and got funding that helped me travel a bit, interviewing people and visiting locations relevant to those disciplines.

I turned in each quarter of the project to one of the higher-ups at ABC News, since they understandably had to make sure I wasn’t writing anything too partisan (and the grant itself was awarded prior to me going from freelancer to contract staffer at ABC), and their willingness to let me keep writing, for which I’m very grateful, was an interesting reminder of what counts as “political” in the eyes of journalistic organizations. To us intellectuals, if I can say that, a statement like “Edmund Burke had some very important insights about the inherent flaws in the French Revolution” is about as bomb-lobbing a political statement as could ever be uttered — but to TV viewers and TV producers, it’s about as dry and harmless a statement as “Texts can self-undermine in a way that unveils their own chronology, in the fashion of a deconstructed hermeneutic calendar,” assuming you see that statement as harmless and/or meaningless.

By contrast, if I’d said I wanted to write a completely factual, non-philosophical series of articles about Kennedy family sex scandals, ABC — again, understandably — would have gotten very, very nervous. Two very different ideas of what politics is about — and the latter perhaps more relevant in many ways, but I’m a philosophy guy and will remain so.


Somehow, eleven years have passed since then without me yet putting the capstone on the tradition project, a book — though I’ve had articles from the project published on,, Spiked-Online,, and (the site I edit by day, for the American Council on Science and Health), and in Skeptical Inquirer and Reason (and this project ain’t done giving yet, if I have anything to say about it). It was also the basis of my arguments in one of the series of monthly bar debates I’d go on to host, a debate about the relative merits of tradition and individualism against a very courageous Jacob Levy, who got shanghaied into doing the debate while in New York City on vacation.

My fellow Phillips Foundation fellows — of whom there are now over sixty — are such a talented and productive bunch, though, that I still feel like a bit of a loser seeing them gather three times a year and knowing something like a third of them have gotten books published about their chosen topics, while I have not (yet). And friends occasionally complain as well, so I may as well leap ahead of early 1997 a bit to explain — with luck, for the final time — where those eleven years and that manuscript went.

First of all, this isn’t precisely the first book manuscript I contemplated.

•With little awareness that I was treading ground already well covered by William F. Buckley (to whom I’m dedicating a month of blog entries starting tomorrow) and Dinesh D’Souza (who I’ve insulted repeatedly on this site but nonetheless has his good points), I considered writing a tell-all about wacky liberalism run amok on the Brown campus the instant I graduated, with the working title Ivy League War Journal.

•Deciding a couple years after graduation to expand my scope, I began writing a manuscript making an Austrian economics-informed, anarcho-capitalist argument against all government.

•Cannibalizing parts of that manuscript for my weekly New York Press column in the mid-90s and deciding the rest was too political to publish while working at ABC News (even working for Stossel, who has a bit more leeway than a mere associate producer), I moved on to the tradition project.

The first of these three books-in-progress really lives on as the weekly Retro-Journal of which you are now reading my twentieth installment — the halfway-mark of our twenty-year, forty-blog-entry journey from late 1987 to early 2007 (when this site really began). The first eight entries of the Retro-Journal are about my four years at Brown.

The second book-in-progress was partly cannibalized, to the universal acclaim of New Yorkers and NYPress readers everywhere, converting NYC to the free-market, untaxed, unregulated utopia it is today.

The third book-in-progress evoked the strongest nibble of interest from, among the tiny handful of editors who saw it in its earlier from — believe it or not — my Marxist (and now 911 Truther) friend Sander Hicks, now the owner of Brooklyn’s Vox Pop Café but before that the founder of intellectually adventurous but breathtakingly left-wing Soft Skull Press (since somewhat tamed but more fiscally stable under new management). My plan was to reformulate what had been an admittedly dry and academic-sounding look at tradition and innovation when the other editors saw it as a more hip tome for Soft Skull, called Conservatism for Punks — a dialectical combo that interested Sander since, say what you will about his politics, he’s open-minded enough to read about Burke, religion, and Gandhi along with his Marx and Green Party screeds. And he’s a punk.

Sander was effectively ousted from Soft Skull around 2000, though, while I literally had a not-yet-signed book contract in my hands — and the mind reels at the thought of what a bizarre professional odyssey I would have begun had I attempted to publish the book through Soft Skull without him, since his co-workers were prone to refer to the project as “this fascist’s book” — and that was the guy who would have been overseeing distribution and delivery for me, so things might have gotten a tad tense. Made a certain amount of dialectical sense at the time, though, and still does.

In any case, the next thing you know it’s 2001 and suddenly people are so focused on foreign policy — and mere survival — that the idea of doing a comparatively fluffy domestic-politics book about why it’s cool to be in the GOP and have a mohawk seemed a bit stupid. My heart wasn’t really in it at that point.

But now — this week — Buckley’s dead, the likely GOP presidential candidate has been accused of not even being a conservative, one of his two remaining nationally-active rivals for the nomination is religious-right and still doesn’t really qualify as a conservative in some ways, libertarianism hasn’t made much of a dent in the race, and it seems like the candidates generating the most excitement are all, in one way or another, ones who claim not so much that they can fix America as that they can fix politics and overcome the ugly left-right divide — which is sort of what my book would be meant to do, since I see the left-right divide as a symptom of that older divide, born around the eighteenth century, between defenders of tradition and proponents of progress. We need both — and if I ever sound insufficiently partisan, that’s why.

Like the “fusionist” conservatives who want to blend markets and tradition — but on an even broader, more inclusive level — I know that no one political faction can hope (or should desire) to completely vanquish and eliminate the others, so some sort of blend is inevitable, preferably one that draws upon the various factions’ best, not merely most popular, elements.

But in talking about all this grandiose philosophizing — which will continue in earnest here throughout March, so get used to it — I’ve given the events of early 1997 somewhat short shrift in this Retro-Journal entry, so let me just add:

•Disliked Rent.

•Loved seeing the original Star Wars trilogy return to theatres.

•Had absolutely nothing to do — I swear — with the fact that a Stossel piece that season called Brown University a “dictatorship of the politically correct.” But it’s true, you know.

ADDENDUM: Oops — I left God out of the final “Month Without God” entry, but I meant to add that in the course of my reading about tradition back in 1997-1998, I read an essay by Nick Szabo — a libertarian who writes about law and computer programming and is or was a GWU law student, I believe — arguing (in a fashion that sort of blends Judaism and open-source Extropianism) that the value of the God concept derives precisely from the fact that it provides a single, unified metaphor for all the good things we get from tradition.  I’m more sympathetic to that claim than you might think — I just think it’s important to remember that your metaphors are metaphors, not real things.

Can the valuable elements of tradition be retained without perpetuating the delusion that the God metaphor is a real sentient thing?  Well, I’ll start the attempt tomorrow, at any rate, as our “Month Without Buckley” begins…

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