Monday, May 19, 2014

BOOK NOTE: “For Common Things” by Jedediah Purdy

Nature’s Purdy -- that’s what these ten thoughts should remind us about. I mean nature’s spokesman Jedediah Purdy, who was a wunderkind of twenty-five when I put this book on my to-read list in 1999. Terrifyingly, fifteen years have somehow passed now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, and we are both old.

1. There are certainly people warning about changes to the planet who are far fringier than the centrist, moderate-toned Purdy. Why, Batman artist Neal Adams, for example, is notoriously the promoter (in his spare time) of the view that the Earth is expanding (not just outer space in general but the planet all by itself) and that geologists are covering it up by fabricating aspects of plate tectonics.

Of course, he may look as prescient as Jor-El if we believe the mainstream climate-change scientists who are now warning that a melting Antarctica could actually change the shape of the Earth down to a depth of 250 miles. Then again, comics have also taught me that some scientists are mad.

2. Purdy’s most interesting argument in this book is one worth contemplating even if you don’t share his environmentalist or political leanings, namely that society has become so snarky and irreverent that it’s virtually impossible to make serious arguments or get people to commit to serious philosophical and political projects.

And this was back in the old-timey year 1999, after all -- though I’ve argued before that the machines in The Matrix may have been right to call 1999 “the peak of your civilization” and thus that that year may have been an especially optimistic one, with the tech bubble and 9/11 not yet having happened. Maybe we have both more irreverence and more serious-worrying-to-do fifteen years later. (The list of major institutions and cultural factions seemingly discredited in the interim is impressive, and it may be for the best.)

Purdy isn’t just denouncing a few online wiseacres, either (though it may be time for him to do a sequel lamenting cat memes). He laments the tone of Wired and Fast Company for encouraging “free agency” instead of solidarity. By contrast, the paperback edition is covered with praise from Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, and others bothered by the scourge of free agency.

Purdy laments as well the evaporation of “world-changing politics” in favor of the hope that markets will encourage peace. Like at least one leftist I’ve met, Purdy manages to think at length about the “tragedy of the commons” in economics (the observation that unowned things tend to get overused, since each person is tempted to take a bit more than his neighbor and no one has a clear personal incentive to police the resource) while reaching the exactly-backwards conclusion that what we need is more commons, less individualism -- that is, remold our basic ethics to manage the perpetual tragedy instead of (God forbid) dividing the commons into individual parcels of property to preempt tragedy.

3. Purdy, who incidentally has gone on to become a Duke law professor since then and laments that the Roberts-era Supreme Court is supposedly a return to Lochner-era laissez-faire, is working with the same super-duper-earnest but simple-minded dichotomous worldview that gave us the horrendous David O. Russell film I [Heart] Huckabees (five years after For Common Things).

That is, rather than acknowledging that people might sincerely disagree with him about how to make the world a better place, he condescendingly assumes, like Russell, that he merely needs to teach them how to choose between two philosophical options: (A) an environmentalism rooted in the discovery that all things are connected and (B) jet-black-nihilist capitalism unconcerned with others or consequences. Quick, now everybody choose!

It’s become fashionable (or just well-subsidized) the past couple years to denounce libertarians in terrible venues such as AlterNet and Salon as people whose “brains will explode,” etc., if they are made aware of certain basic facts about the universe (income inequality, what have you), but I don’t think Purdy’s gray matter will fare well if he ever has to contend seriously with the free-market environmentalism movement or other ideas challenging his own (gently, earnestly stated) yeoman-farmers-vs.-coal-mining-demons dichotomy.

4. This is passive-aggressive anti-market propaganda disguised as salt-of-the-earth, sermonizing poetic longing, and Purdy puts his rural West Virginia upbringing to great rhetorical effect in the process (do not question his conclusions -- he has witnessed the blight of strip-mining, etc.). If we truly faced a dichotomous choice between Purdy and cat memes, though, you know where I’d stand.

I, for one, am being quite earnest: irreverent Internet trolling entertains millions. Visionary, world-changing politics of the sort Purdy wishes would return killed about a quarter-billion people last century. Not that that sort of thing ever gives sanctimonious little moral narcissists like Purdy second thoughts.

4. Purdy has been influenced by the environmental activist-farmer Wendell Berry as well as Ken Kesey, both hints that he’s not quite the traditional farmboy he at times sounds. By contrast, he explicitly denounces Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and post-Soviet Eastern European leaders such as Vaclav Klaus.

Such anti-market warnings were certainly a common thing to do in the 90s -- though the impulse to warn about the risk of excessive capitalism so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union always struck me as being almost as tacky as warning people about excesses and errors of Judaic theology in, say, November 1945.

(Similarly, in our post-communist Bizarro World, a producer
I knew at ABC News was pointing to Russia as evidence capitalism brings misery by about 1997. It’s all a bit like warning a 400-pound man who loses five pounds not to become anorexic.)

5. Purdy is on more solid ground, so to speak, criticizing the haphazard -- and often crony-capitalist -- nature of environmental regulation and (public! governmental! common!) public land management. In his genuine respect for the locals’ knowledge of the land and capacity for stewardship, he does show hints of being educable by the free-market environmental types.

He can do a great deal of damage in the interim, though, and progressive types who think Purdy leads nowhere more dangerous than a bird sanctuary ought to think carefully about his lengthy condemnations of biotech (and of my friend biologist Lee Silver). A great deal of Luddism can slip in under the cover of a little none-of-us-hates-science rhetoric.

Purdy sees the danger of Frankenstein and bio-based class stratification even in the utilitarian musings of John Stuart Mill (and Purdy warns of “the reckless attitude of Lee Silver and Wired”). He hopes many will choose to remain “Naturals” amidst the near future’s biotech and cybernetic temptations.

6. In his mixture of rural folk knowledge and cosmopolitan political thinking, Purdy also shows more than a passing resemblance to the “crunchy conservatives” who would arise (probably not coincidentally) a few years after him, mixing things like old-fashioned moral traditionalism with old-fashioned organic farming.

The whole culture was so tech-optimistic around the turn of the millennium that many of us (I am no exception) thought that putting a word in for traditionalism -- and reading the occasional issue of the paleoconservative magazine Chronicles -- might be a healthy counterpoint. Within a few years, though, I was also a full-time science defender, since I can see the forest despite the occasional (imaginary!) biotech tree running amok and killing villagers.

Perhaps fittingly, it appears that the de facto leader/namer of the crunchy cons (among whom even Rand Paul has numbered himself), Rod Dreher, is now one of many feuding with Amazon and urging people to use Barnes & Noble instead (h/t Roger Ream). It’s not exactly a return to monasteries and parchment, but it’s pushback of a sort, I suppose.

7. Purdy, Dreher, paleo factions, 90s “communitarianism” (remember communitarianism?), and me at my most Hayek-traditionalist back in the day were all, I suppose, attempts to balance compassion and the logical dictates of the market, as are so many philosophical subcultures -- including the more recent Bleeding Heart Libertarians phenomenon, of which I am a critic, according to the current version of the Wikipedia entry, in which I am literally the last word.

And for all the feuding implied above, few think that balancing act is unimportant (or easy and obvious), I should say. Purdy, to his credit, had already matured enough between the time he wrote this book around age twenty-five and the time of the paperback edition around age twenty-six that he added an afterword assuring people he likes Star Wars and other normal twentieth-century stuff and didn’t mean to sound stuck up. 

Fair enough. He was probably a good kid and may now be a decent middle-aged man.

8. As for me, I retain enough of that vintage-90s longing to find a touch of local community amidst high-tech cosmopolitanism that I at least do things like take Kevin Walsh’s Forgotten New York walking tour of old Hell’s Kitchen sites yesterday. It is believed the neighborhood got its name from the days a mere couple centuries ago when, I kid you not, a hobo lived in a cave under a bluff over in that area and kept a hellish-looking fire burning at night. You might wanna sign up for Kevin’s next tour.

9. Meanwhile, Dear Reader author Michael Malice writes in the Guardian about how even as modern and impersonal an environment as the New York City subway could do with a bit more awareness of shared common space -- so Purdy’s not completely out to lunch wanting us to think of others, obviously.

10. But lest we think that high-minded intellectuals are the ones best suited to guide us toward civility and ethics, recall, for example, an important but forgotten phenomenon that bearded sage Fred Siegel has written about in his recent book The Revolt Against the Masses: The masses were growing to love the classics and philosophy in mid-century (and buy large amounts of popular editions of classic works) -- and the intellectuals, preferring irony and trashy modern pop culture, derided the masses into giving up that sort of thing!

Nowadays the intellectuals, aside from Purdy, are more worried about things like the (virtually non-existent) grim-faced, irony-free, purportedly undereducated “American Spring” militia armies converging on Washington last week. The barbarians are always at the gate even as the definition of “barbarian” radically changes.

I think we can gradually learn to combine the serious and the ironic -- just as we can see silly Godzilla movies (as I have periodically since about age four) and have a serious conversation about Godzilla’s changing symbolic import (a tiny bit like the one I had on YouTube with Gerard Perry recently).

And with that in mind, in my next blog entry, I will attempt to derive some serious epistemological lessons from the purported flying saucer crash in Roswell.

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