One year ago this month, Helen Rittelmeyer came to one of the monthly Manhattan Project gatherings that I’ve hosted for about three years now. For the first time, I went on to date someone I met there. For a period of about ten months, she was mentioned so many times on this blog that you deserve some sort of final summation.
You don’t need embarrassing personal details (avoiding those saves me having to rehearse the doubts, perhaps deserved, that she had by the end about my verbal comedic timing, intellectual curiosity, and general intelligence — probably exacerbated by the thing that several not-yet-menopausal women have seen as the real Todd problem, namely that I don’t ever want to have kids but they yet may, which is only natural). You do, however, expect me to philosophize on this site once in a while, so a (fairly objective) look back at Rittelmeyerism, as I came to understand it, might be warranted.
Helen’s not simply a textbook example of a conservative, libertarian, moderate, multiculturalist, or paleocon (though there’s some traditionalist affinity to the last of these creeds). She’s also young and fond of ironic conjectures and will no doubt change her mind about some things, so everything I say here should be presumed tentative — and possibly just flat-out wrong, in which case, of course, I defer to the real source, whose byline I hope and expect we’ll be able to follow in major publications for years to come, a boon to periodicals ideological or non-ideological, of any persuasion.
Labor Day is an apt time to examine the riddle of Rittelmeyerism, since Helen’s fondness for labor unions might be the first thing to strike (no pun intended) many rightists as not fitting the usual ideological formula. The easiest way to understand a right-leaning person looking fondly upon labor unions might be to start by imagining the paleo attitude that local tradition is a good thing — rather than the vague, almost-globalist neocon love of “the West” as a whole. Now extend that love of the local — of one’s own little niche or tribe or social class — into a more sweeping, less predictably-Republican admiration for almost any group willing to mount a spirited — and inspiring — defense of itself. If miners are willing to pull together and make great sacrifices on each other’s behalf, even sing songs about their solidarity, they must have something going for them, even if the dry calculus of free-market economists says unions’ costs outweigh their benefits.
Well, but can’t everyone mount a spirited defense of themselves if they put their mind to it? Often, yes — and they should. Indeed, paradoxical as it might sound to someone seeking the One Best Way for everyone, Helen was also developing a fondness, last I knew, for strike-breakers. That’s only a contradiction if you start from the premise (which she decidedly does not) that conflict is a bad thing. And for four centuries, of course, almost all political thinking has been based on the assumption that it is bad — that Hobbes’s “war of all against all” is the worst thing that could possibly happen, the nightmare scenario that leads us to prefer the rule of law and even big dopey welfare states to chaos.
But libertarians, of all people, have to acknowledge the great danger of letting anyone claim to be the arbiter of the peace, the spokesperson for “reform” who will end conflict and impose some regime — however mild — that ostensibly fosters a bare-minimum standard of conduct that “we can all live with.” As the postmodern philosophers rightly complain, people are always trying to smuggle their own values into the “meta-narrative” that ostensibly explains and polices diversity itself. I certainly think libertarianism makes a tempting meta-narrative, for instance — but if no such philosophy can ever really get the upper hand and make everyone happy without squelching many of those things they consider worth fighting for, maybe “Everyone fight it out — forever” isn’t such a bad approach. Think of it as the tragic/pessimistic (yet quite possibly more realistic) cultural analogue of the liberal tradition’s effort to maintain legal checks and balances (and decentralization).
And while the various resultant conflicts might sometimes turn bloody (unlike full-fledged libertarians, Helen isn’t promising peace and quiet), they needn’t always be bloody. Indeed, her fondness for certain ritualized forms of combat such as boxing — violent but carefully constrained — starts to make a bit more sense. So, too, though, does her contempt for some of the favorite things of those of us inclined either to moderate conservatism or liberalism in any form: utilitarianism, “reform,” a focus on the amelioration of suffering, and general efforts to make sure we all just get along.
Indeed, I wish I knew one year ago about a particular pet peeve of hers, which is the Northeastern establishment of which I’m inescapably a product (though she is, too). Witness this (nicely crafted) paragraph she wrote back before we met:
There’s a long-running thread in Southern literature that suggests “Can Meritocracy Prevail?” is not a question that [one] can ask and expect to get a sensible answer. William Styron, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe all wrote about disillusioned young Southerners who headed northward in hopes of finding a place with more appreciation for book-learning (Lie Down in Darkness, The Sound and the Fury, and Of Time and the River), and all three came to the same conclusion: Harvard and Yale are primarily capitals of New England culture, not capitals of academic learning, and New England doesn’t actually care about academic learning any more than the South does. The elite New England way of speaking sounds intellectual, but at the end of the day the resemblance is superficial. The fact that Ivy League graduates all talk like professors doesn’t indicate real erudition any more than the fact that Southern politicians all talk like Baptist preachers speaks to their individual piety.
It is, I suppose, a great testament to my mojo that we managed to last ten months with some of the cultural fissures between us (and me making comic book jokes) — even though on paper we’re also two of the very few publicly self-declared pro-punk traditionalists on the planet, a reminder that intellectuals will never want for hairs to split (one nice side effect of her old-timey Old Worldiness fusing with a New Wave-like sensibility, by the way: she introduced me to the weirdly hip world of contemporary Helsinki fashion).
You can easily deduce from all this the Rittelmeyerian aversion to people who falsely claim to stand above the conflicts of the grubby masses and niche ethnic groups, determining (as if scientifically) how to settle all their problems. The Northeastern WASP establishment — with its countless reform movements and influence within modern liberalism — is of course guilty of too many crimes to name, by this standard. More broadly, though, it is worth noting that Helen’s not too fond of the bourgeoisie in general (initially shocking to me, as a child of the Cold War keen to defend bourgeois America against the class-conflict-loving Soviets). Better the proudly white-trashy folk of North Carolina whence she came or the handful of self-conscious aristocrats left in the world — dressing like fops and recognizing that they are products of tradition, not a largely-imaginary pure-individualist meritocracy concocted as a self-aggrandizing myth by the bland middle class.
Similarly, she notes that (although boxing has surely become a bourgeois, money-fueled sport), boxing began as something beloved by both the upper and lower classes but denounced by the bourgeoisie — the middle class, after all, likes to see conflict settled peacefully, through the exchange of goods and services, occasionally through lawsuits, but not by an old-fashioned brawl. Brawlers are OK with Helen.
Such views, I have to admit, seem at least as natural and human as, say, G.K. Chesterton’s valorization of sentiment (vs. rationalism and science), though even with her love of irony — and defense of ideas that sometimes sound perverse to the modern ear — Helen doesn’t really like to be compared to Chesterton. Fair enough. We’ll get back to him in January. (I’m a cold-blooded, long-term planner, not a brawler, what can I tell you?)
Anytime you talk to someone who is very fond of both Nietzsche and Jesus, you know you’re dealing with someone who is difficult to categorize, but the two strands of thought aren’t as difficult to reconcile as they might at first appear, especially if you approach Jesus via a sort of mutant version of the Catholic valorization of suffering — a theme that blogger Eve Tushnet did a great deal to promulgate back around 2000 within Yale’s Party of the Right, from which Helen and many other conservative writers have emerged.
In Eve’s more quiet and gentle formulation, suffering tends to take the form of dutiful self-denial — something of which we all need to be capable at times, after all. But in the almost frat-like or Fight Club-influenced atmosphere of the Party of the Right since then, suffering has come to seem more like a Nietzschean virtue: a brutal self-overcoming amidst constant testing — the kind of thing that leads to getting tattoos or, in conservative Catholic circles, proving your badassedness by taking a month-long vow of silence.
(Fight Club isn’t the only recent pop culture text to push the dangerous idea that the only alternative to lameness is violence, by the way — listen to the lyrics of the recent Jay-Z song “DOA (Death of Auto-Tune),” which, taken literally, says that the only way to avoid fake, lame rap is to turn off those voice-levels-equalizing synth programs that make every young female singer these days sound like a cross between Nelly Furtado and Cher doing “Life After Love” — and instead go rob and kill people. Surely, there are some overlooked options in between.)
Why all this strife and struggle? (“Because it’s fun to watch?” one baffled libertarian-conservative friend of mine asked.) Well, it makes a bit more sense if you’ve already dispensed with happiness as a goal. Imagine instead a world full of people fighting each other and themselves because their goal is excellence, intuited to be something important regardless of whether it brings suffering (like a prize fighter risking his own death because he does not question the paramount importance of striving to be champ).
Now, I’d argue that most of the things we intuitively recognize as excellent or virtuous are in fact utile. Courage, for example, may be needed to defend against sources of suffering, and we’ve therefore evolved (both culturally and biologically) to respond positively to signs of courage in others and in ourselves. If the virtues led with certainty to suffering, after all, why heed them? Why call suffering not merely a necessary evil but a positive good — and happiness little more than a source of weakness?
(Helen did hang with the goth chicks for a while in high school, I must note — and her favorite director is Lars von Trier, which may tell us a lot. I also notice it happens to be Pain Awareness Month in my original home state of Connecticut, but I suspect they aim to ameliorate suffering, not promote it. Indeed, Will Wilkinson, one half of a couple with whom Helen and I have sparred online, once mocked Helen for implying that we should avoid socialized medicine because it might reduce suffering — which, as Will said, would be considered a great sales pitch for socialized medicine by most people. Now I see just how important a point in the Rittelmeyerian philosophy he’d lighted upon — no mere rhetorical misstep.)
The short answer to the “Why pain?” question seems to be: a fear that the drive to excellence can come only from some form of stern testing and shame-wracked self-hatred — of the sort that also ostensibly produces the best quick-witted yet insecure verbal comedy, in an Aaron Sorkin (or Woody Allen) vein. The alternative is laziness and complacency — and God already thinks we’re a bunch of sinful moral failures and slackers, in some sense. This whole worldview begins to sound so dark in some respects that I suspect the divide here is not, as it might have first appeared, between secular utilitarians like me (who honestly just want everyone to be happy and sane) on one side and spiritual strivers on the other — but rather between virtually everyone who wants the world to be a nicer place on one side and those who think struggle and strife are the only honest way of living on the other.
(Statistically speaking, there’s not much evidence that unhappy or angry people are more productive, despite the well-known tortured-genius exceptions — but I’m willing to accept that we may be measuring such things by the wrong criteria, or even that we ought to stop measuring things.)
And so we end up with an almost sado-masochistic view of the world, in which people deserve punishment but can achieve excellence (through conflict) and redemption (through suffering), a view radically different not just from the relatively boring utilitarian description of things but even from most garden-variety Christians’ notion of what constitutes a pleasant life. (As Helen said, somewhat disturbingly, when she cast a vote in favor of religion in our Weinstein/Dacey Debate at Lolita Bar on that topic several months ago, religion arguably makes people better by making them less nice.)
Of course, it’s easy enough for Ivy League alums (regardless of their region of origin) to say the world needs some hardship and suffering to make it great (and un-p.c. and non-boring). Meanwhile, out in the wider world, other people lead lives such as those of, say, pygmies in Congo, on the run from rival armies of normal-size, machine-gun-toting soldiers all of whom believe eating the pygmies will magically enhance their odds of victory in combat. In short (no pun intended), I’d say life is hard enough as it is.
And you might think all this pro-suffering stuff is so alien to my own pro-market, pro-science, proudly bourgeois way of thinking that I should simply recoil in uncomprehending horror from it — but keep in mind, I started out as something of a moderate conservative intuitively drawn to Platonic ideals and quasi-medieval notions of honor myself — and moved away from such thinking (while in college) largely by wrestling simultaneously with the contradictory appeals of utilitarianism and Nietzsche. I couldn’t really have both, but I could, in the end, sign onto a system (the libertarian conception of property rights) that offered both the hope of increasing the general welfare and leaving individuals the greatest possible scope for their big-souled, free-spirited experiments. Beats a kick in the head, I think, but what do I know?
In the end, though, the mere fact I’m trying to work out a system that might accommodate nearly everyone’s wishes may be enough to brand me a reformer — and thus no fun. Add to that, of course, the fact that no matter which policies I choose, I’m focused on alleviating earthly suffering instead of coping, in pained humility, with the God-shaped hole I should have in my heart (but don’t — nor, lest I sound like I’ve gone soft altogether, do I have a UFO-shaped hole, a Sasquatch-shaped hole, or a valuable swamp land in Georgia-shaped hole — and, crucially, if I did, it would make me all the more cautious and skeptical if someone came along claiming one of those things were real, not more eager to lose myself and my pain by believing in them).
Some of the practical fallout of the political views described above is quite libertarian, I should say, including the educational warning that for all our vilification of “corruption” in government, self-interestedly ethno-promoting political machines like those in Boss Tweed’s day actually spent far less money and created far less bureaucracy — simply by having humbler aims of no broad appeal — than did the so-called reformers (with their pristine clear consciences and world-transforming aims) who displaced them. That’s worth keeping in mind — as are the property-violating, often legally unchecked, aggressive acts of corporations crushing unions back in the early twentieth century, I should say, a horror that ended rather abruptly, and one might almost say conservatively, only when the New Deal institutionalized union-management bargaining in the 1930s, arguably an improvement over the days of machine guns and dynamited coal mines (depending on how much you really do like combat).
I once told Helen I thought I could write a whole book explaining elements of her philosophy — and it appears I nearly have — but as she said, it would make a lot more sense for her to write that book, and I should move on to other topics. Indeed, this fall will be a fresh start for me in many ways: Just before summer, I had TV reception, a comic book collecting habit, a caffeine-consuming habit, a trad girlfriend, and a tendency to websurf. I appear to have left all those things behind and with luck will be more productive for it (in some respects). Wish me luck.
Before the end of the Rittelmeyerian episode, she made one final visit to New York that was almost too fitting: We watched Last Days of Disco, the final film in Whit Stillman’s Young Bourgeois in Love trilogy, with Stillman and star Chris Eigeman in attendance to answer questions, and attended Catholic conservative John Berry’s wedding, with me and Helen ending up seated next to none other than Dawn Eden, who some might regard as part of a pattern of theologically-troubled blondes in my life. (Various young DC wonks can Twitter with amusement about that theory if they like — I’ll likely never know.)
APPENDIX: Todd and Religion
More generally, many people probably wonder why I put up with religion and religious people at all if I disagree so completely with religion’s underlying supernatural claims (though I don’t think it was the deal-breaker this time around). Well, it gets back to fusionism in a way — and shows just how intuitive fusionism seems to me (whereas it seems like a phony cobbled-together philosophy to some people).
I think government is so awful that I am willing to look for redeeming qualities in just about anything that isn’t government, by which I mean anything that might offer people alternative, non-coercive guidance in life. Self-help books can be annoying, but for many people they’ve provided advice that kept them off welfare. Hippie co-ops might make weird green or spiritual claims I don’t like, but it beats putting more strain on Food Stamps programs, if some people are able to stay off them with help from their hippie pals.
And religion comes with moral/psychological instruction and social networks so powerful that some Straussians recommend just pretending the whole thing’s true, to keep the system’s benefits alive (and if it’s really so beneficial, after all, then presumably there are elements of it that actually are true, though that doesn’t oblige me to give the supernatural claims a free pass).
I’m quite tolerant, really — even of Democrats. I just don’t want there to be a government, and I thus prefer almost any other social arrangement or cultural influence. (While government remains, though, would budget cuts and deregulation be too much to ask for?)
One potentially controversial upshot of my fusionist attitude toward religion, though: unlike so many people who admire religion but dislike the religious right, I see the political and social applications of religion as its most valuable aspects. If religion really were kept out of the public square and exerted no moral influence, then I’d have no more patience for it than for stories about fairies. So here’s one atheist who hopes religion keeps moving rightward (in some sense) even as he hopes society moves away from religion. It’s a complex world, full of conflict [UPDATE Oct. 2009: And now we're back together -- still interesting political stuff, though].