Friday, October 30, 2009

Book Selection: Randian GQ, Lyrical Left

I suppose I deserve my ironic fate, trying to scrounge up a leftist for next week’s debate, since I’ve spent this “Month of Utopia” (a) being skeptical of mostly-left idealism, (b) arguing against left-leaning libertarians, and (c) saying nice things about Ayn Rand in GQ.

However, I should note, lest I seem too narrow-minded, that I am not saying there is nothing to be learned from the left — or even utopianism — merely that these things do not become, simply by virtue of being good and useful, elements of libertarianism per se.

As it happens, libertarian architect Dave Whitney recently e-mailed me an article about basic principles of architecture making someone less rigid and “objective” (if you will) in his philosophy: “Fudging Symmetry” by CCNY architecture professor Bradley Horn is a review of the book Poetics of a Wall Projection by Jan Turnovsky, which describes how Wittgenstein’s attempt to build a house according to overly-rigid rules of symmetry failed — during his two years frustrating years as an architect — and how this was followed by his philosophical turn away from pure logical deduction to a more practice-oriented, socially-informed view of language and thought.


Dave Whitney and the Rand-bashing writer of that GQ piece have something in common with me — we were all at Brown around the time of the collapse of Communism (as were some of the undergrad Objectivists insulted in the GQ piece). There as a grad student just a few years earlier, as it turns out, was the author of a book I picked up at a DC used books store (once more semi-coincidentally fumbling my way toward the familiar, in a way that suggests far more complex and subtle filters at work in this world and in our psyches than we are consciously aware of): Edward Abrahams’ The Lyrical Left: Randolph Bourne, Alfred Stieglitz, and the Origins of Cultural Radicalism in America surveys Greenwich Village radicals circa World War I and stresses the interesting point that they were in some ways more libertarian (even with John Reed and other revolutionaries among them) than the Progressive/liberal crowd over at the then-new magazine The New Republic, then located a few blocks north of the Village in Chelsea.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned recently that changes in the past century can’t really compare to the far more drastic changes that occurred in the two centuries prior, and the familiarity of that century-ago Village milieu (described by Abrahams in 1986) reinforces my suspicion. One could time travel back to a hundred years ago in NYC — into the world of antiwar writer Randolph Bourne and avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz — and find people at parties in the Village arguing about whether progress required (as the Bourne/Stieglitz/radical crowd believed) bold, uninhibited experiments in art and living or (as the TNR crowd believed even back then) more centralized political power, regulation, and standardization, which was rapidly becoming the more respectable, “mainstream” view — stifling American culture to this day.

It pleases me greatly — as someone who wants people to realize that a punk-rock attitude should not yield loyalty to the bloated welfare/regulatory state — that there was a time when the artists saw liberal regulators as their enemy. May that day come again. (One thing that helped drive a wedge between the two factions back then: the Progressives, having pinned their hopes on homogenization, were anti-immigration, whereas the avant-garde, though nationalist in its own way, was fascinated by European artists and included many immigrants in its ranks.)


I hope when people go see the new movie Pirate Radio (originally released in the UK as The Boat That Rocked) when it opens in a week or two, they will keep in mind the tension between rock and regulation (regulation enforced by Labor when the real events transpired, not the Tories, despite some shameful revisionism in the script — and let us not forget that those 60s boat-rebels helped inspire today’s floating-county-envisioning libertarians at Ephemerisle and the Seasteading Institute). November will be a month of Pirate Radio vs. Ninja Assassin at the cinema, come to think of it.

(And speaking of movies, I hope some of you will show up fifteen minutes before show time tomorrow to join me and Helen in seeing Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day, set in decidedly non-utopian Boston — though New England, whence my ancestors and I hail, certainly has its own tension between Puritans and occasional transcendental mystics on one hand and rationalist reformers on the other — and Lars Von Trier’s avant-garde and likely just plain gross Antichrist, the former at the 3pm show at 84th and Broadway, the latter at the 5:35pm show at IFC, which lets out right on Sixth Avenue just after the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade begins, where surely someone will recognize and appreciate our Buscemi/Birch Ghost World costumes.)

My old professor Mary Gluck, who taught a popular three-semester course on European intellectual history when I was there circa 1990, is thanked in the acknowledgements of The Lyrical Left, another surprise that makes perfect sense, since she was always very keen in her lectures to emphasize aesthetic radicalism — even sometimes using the term “libertarian” to describe such impulses — and to draw parallels between our own post-Communist, millennial period and the “fin de siecle” of the late nineteenth century.

And if you want some readings that go even farther than that — and farther than today’s “liberaltarians,” much as I pick on them for deviancy — in bringing together libertarianism and the left, I’ll bet you could find them by joining this intriguing NYC meet-up group: yes, it’s the Classical Liberal and Socialist Philosophy Reading Group, covering Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and everything in between.

Finally, in another seaborne reminder that pragmatic allegiances sometimes trump philosophical purity, Helen notes that people (many of them paleocons) like to point to Robert Taft as though he were a principled non-interventionist conservative in foreign policy matters, but if you look at what he actually said, it’s weirder and less ideological (as is usually the case when troublesome historical details are brought into the picture). He felt full-scale continental warfare was too expensive for the U.S. and thus liked to tout a list of peninsulas that he thought, with our fine Marines and Navy, we’d be better suited to invade. It’s a complex world.

P.S. Actually, leaving complexity aside for a moment, why don’t I give the last (non-Halloween) word of this “Month of Utopia” to Andrew Corsello, from one of the most heated passages of his GQ Rand article, just to show I let people who may disagree with me philosophically have their say:

Fuck you, Ayn Rand.

Fuck you for turning some of the most open and interesting people I ever met into utopian dickheads.

P.P.S. Even arch-radical Randolph Bourne, most famous for saying “War is the health of the state” (in an essay manuscript found in his trashcan after his death) eventually turned against feminism, by the way, saying it sought not to free women but to turn them into men.

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