Monday, April 15, 2013

Farewell to Two Cold Warriors

Kudos to Johnny Rotten for denouncing the people exulting about Thatcher’s death last week.

Similarly, the Saturday Live Sketch about a punk who alienated his bandmates by liking Thatcher touched on one of my favorite topics: the tragic (and ultimately unnecessary) divide between people who love freedom for essentially left-anarchist reasons and people who love free markets.  Not that their differences aren’t real or important, but consider, for example, that the most notorious anti-Thatcher riots back in the day were still (long story short) riots against taxes.  (By the way, a free-marketeer must respect SNL’s right to ban troublemaking performers, but an anti-authoritarian might still find some amusement in how prestigious the list is.)

I wrote in the anthology Proud to Be Right about bridging the punk/conservative gap in my own youthful, Reagan-era mind.  But I haven’t harped on that specific theme too much since then, mainly because I increasingly think that if I take the idea to its logical (and in some ways far less fun) conclusion, I need to go far beyond stitching together a few ironically-compatible elements of the culture – and far beyond the tradition-plus-markets “fusionism” those on the right often laud. 

I need to tackle the much more daunting task of figuring out how to “reconcile” the whole culture to itself, so to speak, patiently and diplomatically finding ways to draw upon the best elements of every major political tradition without simply denigrating them or combating them. 

(By contrast, Proud to Be Right may well end up being remembered most for combat, namely the C-SPAN2 panel on which I condemned fellow PBR contributor Helen Rittelmeyer for being a closet nihilist – but she’s settled down, moved to Australia while still blogging wittily for First Things, and gotten engaged, and I wish them both well.  I honestly don’t like to fight.)

So much of human life is about performative ruts: People’s brains aren’t just making arguments, they’re constantly asking, “Should I be in aggrieved-party mode now?” and “Is this a right/left this turning into a city/rural I need to defend my favorite sports team now?” etc.  As Jonathan Haidt’s psychology-of-conflict book Righteous Mind suggests, needlessly escalating clashes may be more than just a troubling footnote to politics, it might be the main story, and not one we should be proud of endlessly retelling.

And that story probably won’t change much as long as politics resembles Crossfire and, perhaps worse, the short sniping of Twitter, Facebook, and online comments threads (which so quickly seem to turn everything into cycles of abuse that sound very much like two-party politics).  Now, I could try just mastering the quick-insult art form – I think you know I could – but I basically vowed back when the troubling show Politically Incorrect first became popular that I didn’t really want to go that route.  I have tried not to, but conflict is pervasive...and instinctually satisfying.  But no matter how risky it is to abandon that familiar game, I have to say no to it. 

Coincidentally, the same week various punks, anarchists, and even comic book creators in the UK were playing their assigned roles by celebrating Thatcher’s death (probably feeling a bit nasty about themselves, not just her, in the process), a study reportedly suggested that social media is tending to make us still nastier – and more shallow. 

I’ll soon try other approaches, then, reflected in the near future in a few projects that’ll take me away from Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger most of the time (really – reach me via e-mail if you need me).  I know I recently tried to exit a few times before, but the timing wasn’t quite right for both exiting and explaining myself.  The near future, though, should bring, among other things, (A) essays about reconciling political factions, (B) a site for libertarian pop culture (more decisively entertaining rather than argumentative), (C) an article about gold, (D) the moderating of ever-civil Dionysium debates, (E) possibly the moderating of much larger debates, and (F) various bits of ghostwriting (for you too, if you like).  More about all that as warranted.

The combat model of politics was well-suited to the Cold War era and is perhaps well-suited to a two-party system, but it’s healthy to take a step back and ask whether it’d look ridiculous in, say, a healthy system of twenty parties in a world with minimal threat of violence.  If it’d seem jarring in that world, wouldn’t it be nice, and probably quite productive, to behave right now more like a citizen of that imagined world than like one forged by the tragic conflicts of the twentieth century that molded minds from mine to Thatcher’s?  (Even punk has by now been tamed, after all – and I’m definitely going to see that museum exhibit, without shame or griping about lost “authenticity.”)

Of course, different mindsets are appropriate to different eras:

•A few years after the Cold War ended, I was pleased to see Howard Stern running for New York governor in part because libertarian ideas were still so obscure in the early 90s that court jester seemed like a pretty good gig for our kind, perhaps the best we could hope for. 

•A long-overdue switch in the dominant party in Congress in the mid-90s made a calm, economics-oriented “consultant” vibe seem more apt (thinktanks and the like).  

•Slightly more familiar in the 00s but still reckless-sounding to most mainstream listeners, libertarians were perhaps then best suited to play the badboys, a la Tony Stark and his faux-callous capitalist arrogance, or the vaguely-related gadfly vibe Ron Paul occasionally aimed for. 

Rand Paul, though, seems to understand the need to combine principle and outreach, at least in his best moments (which may or may not be frequent enough, hinging in large part on how many women flock to Hillary’s banner in 2016 and how cozy Paul is seen to be with his party’s waning religious right and fringe elements, if he tries to be the GOP nominee – but so far, I think he’s mostly doing quite well). 

I think I could do a sort of grand-fusionist outreach – not just within the right but beyond it – fairly well, and I’d be more proud of that than of just “winning” a few nastier arguments (for all my criticisms of Occupy, for example, I suspect a brainscan of me would show they do not set off my “enemy” neural patterns – nor, certainly, do some other anarchically-inclined recent factions like WikiLeaks and Anonymous, not to mention the very left-wing and gender-bendy protestors who turned out here in support of Pussy Riot several months ago). 

So, much as I hate to ruin all the fun, the overarching mature, grown-up project of conflict resolution has to be the next step (but then, much of what I’ve done over the years has happened on the border between productive communication and fighting: involvement in the Skeptical movement, majoring in philosophy, writing columns, co-producing unusually polemical TV, debunking unscientific claims, moderating debates, etc.).

My apologies to a few friends who’ve said my goal should be to sound even snarkier.  I could, I really could.  But something tells me that’s the last thing the world needs right now.

Take North Korea, for example: the conservative temptation might be to focus on how awful that regime is, and the liberal temptation might be to support Obama, but if my limited scraps of info are anything to go on, the complex truth – which does not speak particularly well of any faction and doesn’t much lend itself to snarky sparring – may be that the U.S. and others are sabre-rattling at the deranged North Korean regime in hopes, essentially, of securing better terms for potential U.S., South Korean, and Saudi business investment and even shopping malls in North Korea if it opens up a bit.  Stick a situation like that in a simple right/left combat model – or worse, just a good guys/bad guys model – and you just end up deforming reality and probably saying something stupid.  Maybe even causing a nuclear war, which would not be cool.

And I increasingly think that our main domestic task must be untying the very messy corporatist-governmental knot that the Progressives of both parties created a century ago.  The old, perfectly-balanced right-left tug of war sure won’t accomplish that (it may not accomplish much of anything, really).  It’s going to require much more thoughtful picking and finagling – which is not to say passivity.  Radicalism may be called for.  We may just need to spend more time imagining what it would look like if all the radicals were cooperating for a change.

P.S. I double-majored in philosophy and English literature back in the day, and if I’ve sounded pained at times about how to put in the most apt “final word” for a given chapter, fellow literature majors will understand why I always had a soft spot for Samuel Beckett.

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