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Why is modern American entertainment so grim?
(I forgot to mention this in the clip above, but here is the tweet that originally set me thinking about this.)
I think the trend towards fatalism in American art is problematic. Our stories about politics and entertainment are very dark.
— GothamGirlBlue (@GothamGirlBlue) July 2, 2017
Say “hullo” to Oswald Spengler
Say “hullo” to Oswald Spengler,
The philosopher of doom.
Step out of your offices
And listen to his prophecies
And you’ll be overcome with gloom.
Say “hullo” to Oswald Spengler,
Sit with him and drink some wine.
Listen to him quoting Goethe
As you look out on the Erde,
And watch the West decline.
Say “hullo” to Oswald Spengler,
World’s first Prussian Socialist;
He called for interactions
Between these sep’rate factions,
And alas, he got just what he wished!
Say “good-bye” to Oswald Spengler;
He’s a rather Gloomy Gus.
I don’t like him, nor need you,
And I think it’s also true
He would not think much of us.
“The Bad Old Days”
I was watching The Dick Van Dyke Show on TV last night. The episode I saw was called “The Bad Old Days“. In a nutshell, it went like this: one of Rob’s colleagues tells him about an article on “the decline of the American male”, and how men are becoming more subservient to their wives. This worries Rob, who starts to fear that Laura too often tells him what to do. The episode culminates in a hilarious dream sequence, in which Rob imagines himself as an overbearing, bullying 19th-century-style husband, who makes his wife do all the housework and forces his son to work in a factory. Of course, Rob wakes up and realizes that this wasn’t such a great way to live, after all.
It’s kind of funny to me, because you often hear this complaint of “feminized” men being subordinated to their wives these days, especially in conservative and “alt-right” circles. Often, the 1950s and early ’60s are considered the archetype of a more restrictive and socially conservative era, and to some extent the setup of The Dick Van Dyke Show is emblematic of that. I remember my blogger-friend Thingy contrasting Mary Tyler Moore’s accommodating housewife character on Dick Van Dyke with her independent, single, career-woman character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ’70s.
But then, here we have an episode of Dick Van Dyke from 1962 that addresses this same “men are too subservient to their wives” idea. So, it seems like that idea must have been in the air even back then. Which, in turn, suggests the possibility that perhaps there is an ever-recurring nostalgia among authoritarian men of every era, that they had it better in, as Rob says, “the bad old days”.
Well, that’s enough sociological musing! The point is, it was a very funny show. It does amaze me that the best thing on TV some nights is a show from 50 years ago, but there you have it.
It’s become the style lately to call the Republicans “Social Darwinists”, just as it has for some time been the style for Republicans to call Democrats “socialists”. I’ve often said in responding to the Republican charge that, by their definitions, virtually everyone is a socialist. And I have to say, from what I read, by any definition, everyone is a “Social Darwinist”.
“Social Darwinism” means using the idea of “survival of the fittest to justify social policies which make no distinction between those able to support themselves and those unable to support themselves”, according to Wikipedia. Whenever I hear it, I think of Mandalore in KotOR II saying “the purpose of the weak is to feed the strong”. That’s what it boils down to: “Go Team Strong! Crush the Weak!”
The thing is, “the Strong” and “the Weak” are rather nebulous concepts. I mean, people are strong in some areas and weak in others.
For instance, here is a list of the most athletic Presidents ever. I bet Rob Gronkowski is a better athlete than any of those guys. Compared to him, they’re weak athletically. Yet, Rob Gronkowski will never be the Commander in Chief of the World’s most powerful military. And that’s because he is probably one of the weakest people in the world when it comes to politicking. Bill Gates can’t bench as much as Ryan Kennelly, and yet he has done alright for himself in the world. Who is “weak” and who is “strong” depends on the situation.
“Survival of the fittest” is practically tautological: “Who survives?” “The fittest!” “How do we know they’re the fittest?” “They survive!” (Before anyone gets excited, note that this does not disprove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, much as some of my religious friends wish it did.)
In the broadest sense, “Social Darwinism” could be said to just mean “the world needs more good people and less bad people”. Everyone agrees with that. The difficulty comes in defining “good” and “‘bad”.
Ayn Rand, as we well know, chose to define good people as “people who had earned a lot of money by selling stuff in the free-market”, and bad people as “people who produce nothing and take government money”. So, the Randian worldview, somebody on welfare is “bad”, but a billionaire author is “good”. I have chosen these examples because I have in mind one person who was both: J.K. Rowling. And she would not have been able to be a billionaire author had she not taken government assistance. This is one of the biggest problems with the Randian worldview.
The Republicans are not “Social Darwinists” as much as they are “Defenders of People with Lots of Money”. Paul Ryan may have repudiated Rand the other day, but let’s face it; he’s just saying that so people don’t start saying he’s an atheist.
Propaganda and Philosophy, both old and new.
Two good pieces on Slate today; one about sociologist/philosopher William Graham Sumner and one about apocalyptic campaign ads. I’ll tackle the latter first.
It’s a good list, but I disagree with the claim that “when candidates get desperate, they try to scare you.” Was Nixon really desperate in 1968, or Johnson in 1964? Scaring people is always an effective tactic, whether they’re desperate or not. All attack ads either try to frighten or ridicule, and those that ridicule usually carry an undercurrent of frightening, as the idea of such a buffoon as the target of the ad taking office is scary by implication.
By the way, it didn’t make the list, but in my opinion the best political attack ad ever is this one, from Nixon’s 1968 campaign against Hubert Humphrey:
That ad is purely visceral. There’s not even any language in it until the very end, which is as it should be. The effective advertisement must appeal to instincts and base, gut feelings, not sophisticated reasoning. Trippy and weird as it is, this ad is psychologically effective.
On to the second piece, about William Sumner. His anti-socialist, “leave the rich people alone” philosophy sounds to me pretty similar to the ideas of his contemporary, Herbert Spencer. And it seems that Sumner was who coined the phrase “the Forgotten Man”, which, as my readers will know, has formed the theme of many a ham-fisted Jon McNaughton painting.
So, I skimmed some of the Sumner essay “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” that the Slate article talks about. I confess, I could only skim because it was quite dull; most of the ideas in it are old hat by now, but it’s important to remember that they must have seemed novel at the time.
Sumner begins the essay by complaining:
We constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact. “The poor,” “the weak,” “the laborers,” are expressions which are used as if they had exact and well-understood definition. Discussions are made to bear upon the assumed rights, wrongs, and misfortunes of certain social classes…
He does not like the phrase “the poor man” one bit:
There is no possible definition of “a poor man.”.. The “poor man” is an elastic term, under which any number of social fallacies may be hidden.
There is an old ecclesiastical prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich. In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism. The prejudices are not yet dead, but they survive in our society as ludicrous contradictions and inconsistencies. One thing must be granted to the rich: they are good-natured. Perhaps they do not recognize themselves, for a rich man is even harder to define than a poor one. It is not uncommon to hear a clergyman utter from the pulpit all the old prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich, while asking the rich to do something for the poor; and the rich comply, without apparently having their feelings hurt at all by the invidious comparison.
Well, if I were rich, people could denounce me as much and as viciously as they damn well-pleased and I wouldn’t complain.
But beyond that, it’s like Paul Graham wrote:
Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by “free.” Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by “exist.
Same problem here. Sumner gets bogged down trying to define things, or show that they can’t be defined, in order to make some point; and it all becomes nearly meaningless.
I’ll try to read more of this essay, but right now my eyes are glazed over. Sumner’s writing is like Ayn Rand’s without any of the animating passion.
A good old-fashioned angry political argument.
Political arguments are interesting things; there’s a lot of passion involved, and therefore they almost always get personal. I don’t think things often get resolved this way, and that’s part of the reason I try to avoid insulting people I disagree with. I also just have an instinctive aversion to that kind of thing, so I don’t do a lot of it. Sometimes–as in the (non-political) video I mentioned in my previous post–it can even undermine your argument.
But, that doesn’t meant that I don’t see the value of a good, insult-filled political argument. Polemics are a legitimate style of argument, albeit with a very different goal in mind than debates or dialectics. In fact, polemics are probably the best ones for persuading an audience, because they are much more exciting and enjoyable. It’s just a style I have little talent or inclination for.
The reason I’m saying this is to direct you to an exchange between friend-of-this-blog Nameless Cynic and a Conservative writer named Mark Mayberry. It is filled with insults, but I found it quite entertaining. Cynic is an excellent writer, and the rhythm of the back-and-forth is awesome. At times, it almost sounded like an Avellonian insult exchange. Read the whole thing.