Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed has died, having surprisingly lasted until 71. Andy Warhol liked him, and that is to his credit. But he always struck me as a poseur, someone who acted the part of the artist as opposed to getting down to doing the hard work. If indeed he was capable of it. He cannot have had much of anything to say, since he often contradicted himself. Over a 40-50 year career, he turned out maybe three memorable songs. This is not impressive in the rock medium, where you need three chords and three minutes and you're good to go.

On top of that, he was an artistic bully. He played snob, trying to build himself up against other artists through scorn. He talked down punk; he talked down West Coast bands. To my mind, he talked down anyone more successful than he was. To be popular was, for him, an artistic sin. This is always, in the end, an appeal to class. Appeals to class are intrinsically offensive. But they are especially so when you are trying at the same time to portray yourself as an oppressed outsider. And they are an easy refuge for someone who is, simply, a bad artist.

And of course, on top of that, his personal life and behavior certainly did not speak well of him. Much can be forgiven of someone who is struggling with depression, and perhaps he was. But that cannot excuse marketing his immoral behaviour as glamorous and the cool thing to do.

Lou Reed was a good example of my thesis that art divorced from religion is a bad idea. Beauty without truth and morality is a monster, a thing without either a brain or a skeleton.

Much as I love art—I consider it one of the three essential goods of life—one must face the truth that both Hitler and Mussolini were artists, with an artist’s sensibilities. The former was a painter and amateur architect; the latter wrote short stories. Fascism in Italy owed much also to the rather good poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Mao Zedong too was at least an adequate poet; Ezra Pound, Fascist, an extremely good one. Art can go well with Fascism, because the latter tends to conceive the state as a vast work of art.

Of course, Vaclav Havel, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, and Ronald Reagan were also artists. Artists in power are not a bad thing; more often a good thing. But art without a moral and ontological compass can be massively destructive.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Where Great Leaders Come From

Put him in power, and who knows what he'll do?

A generation ago, Ronald Reagan was president in the US; Margaret Thatcher was PM in Britain; and John Paul II was in charge at the Vatican. All three generally acknowledged as great leaders. How did we happen to get all three at once? And, by comparison, nobody of comparable stature since?

This is not the first time this question has come up in my lifetime. In the seventies, people were feeling about the same way. A generation of great leaders had passed on, and nobody of comparable stature had appeared since. Churchill, FDR, De Gaulle, Tito, Nehru, Kenyatta, Adenauer, Ben-Gurion, had all been in power at the same time.

Then suddenly, just when we had despaired of it all, along came a new wave of greats.

How come? And why do great leaders seem to come in waves? The answer seems to be that they are always available, but rarely reach power. Churchill, for example, was always there, and well-known, but never put in charge. Politics as usual does not produce the best leaders, because politics is the art of compromise. It produces able tacticians, deft compromisers, but not men or women of vision. Yet vision is what is needed for true leadership. Warren G. Harding, Neville Chamberlain; these are the solid compromise choices.

It takes a time of crisis for the ordinary math to be set aside. People need to be desperate to give someone strong the helm. Of course, this does not always work out well; but when it does, it does.

A striking resemblance to Meryl Streep.

World War II threw up a good share of strong leaders. So did the independence movements that followed. Then things were going well, and there was no need for strong leaders. The Churchills were left painting and bricklaying. The crisis of separatism in Quebec threw up Pierre Trudeau; perhaps a mixed blessing. The crisis of stagflation in the Seventies threw up Thatcher and Reagan. The crisis in the Catholic Church following Vatican II threw up JPII. They went on, once in command, of course, to win the Cold War into the bargain. But it first has to get bad, for anyone to take the risk of putting them in power.

With all respect to our American cousins, I have always thought that the Westminster system was better for this task of putting the best leader in power when needed. If the times call for a certain man, the matter can be accomplished in Britain in a matter of days, as it was with Churchill. In the US, you have to hang on until the next scheduled election, and hope the country holds together by dumb luck until then.

Fighting them on the beaches.

Which brings us to the present. The prolonged period of recession, the ongoing financial crisis, the US’s growing debt, seems to suggest that this is a time when people might again turn to strong leaders, for good and ill. Ted Cruz, for one, seems to fit the bill in the US. Maybe also Rand Paul. In the UK, this is why Nigel Farage is making such inroads. Since Jack Layton died, I cannot think of any comparably commanding figures on the left. But it is a bad time to be middle-of-the-road. The usual logic of seizing the centre, I suspect, does not currently apply.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Libertarianism vs. Feminism

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding regarding the political doctrine currently called Libertarianism. A left-wing friend of mine recently referred to Ayn Rand as the “high priestess of libertarians.” This is certainly wrong, since Rand condemned libertarianism. Another complained of the semi-libertarian Canadian Reform Party, some years ago, that it violated the traditions of Canadian conservatism, and was a foreign import (i.e., from the evil United States). Yet an American friend objects to the libertarians on the grounds that they have no history there, unlike the mainstream Republicans.

Obviously, many people think libertarianism is something new. I am not sure why this seems to them to be a telling, indeed a decisive, criticism; I am not sure what they really mean by this. But the claim is certainly false. Only the name is new. It was coined by HL Mencken in the 1930s, as a new term for the doctrine traditionally called liberalism, because that term had been co-opted by FDR to describe his New Deal. The New Deal was essentially the opposite of liberalism, which had always stressed personal autonomy and limited government.

In other words, libertarianism is simply liberalism. It is the political stance championed by Thomas Jefferson, and, more broadly, the founding assumption behind the US Declaration of Independence. Hardly something foreign to the American experience. In Canada, it is plainly the same political creed held by Laurier, the Clear Grits, Baldwin and Lafontaine, and Joseph Howe; certainly within the Canadian mainstream. In the UK, it is Gladstone’s program. If you doubt this, simply check the policies they campaigned for, the party platforms of the day: smaller government, freer trade, less regulation of our daily lives, no foreign adventures. The consistency of the liberal/libertarian doctrine over time is in fact striking.

Lafontaine and Baldwin.

Far from being new, therefore, this thing currently called “libertarianism” in the US can be traced directly back to the philosophy of John Locke (17th century). He in turn had his clear antecedents among the early Jesuits, who built on St. Thomas Aquinas, who built on some principles clearly stated in the Bible. You don’t see a longer philosophical pedigree for any other political stance.

So why does it seem to so many to be something new and radical? Because in the US, the general public was subjected to a verbal shell game in the 1930s, when a political approach that really was new, the New Deal, was marketed with the euphemism “liberal.” This was done because its proper name was unsalable. The British euphemism of the day was a bit more direct: “labour.” On the continent, it was called “socialism.” But at the time, the proper moniker in current use might even have been “Trotskyism”—that’s what Orwell called his own brand of democratic socialism. Bit of a tough sell in the USA, then or now. So they used, and still used, “liberal” or “progressive” in the US.

This illegitimately appropriated a fake pedigree for social democracy, as if it were the culmination of the ideas of Jefferson and Jackson. At the same time, it left the ideas of Jefferson and Jackson looking like orphans. This may be behind the insistence that libertarianism is something “new.” The modern left does not want to accept the truth that their own pedigree is bogus. But the plain historical fact is that it is. The pedigree of the modern left goes back to Marx.

The influence of American culture is such that the same verbal sleight-of-tongue has confused political terminology elsewhere, although in most of the world even now liberal still means liberal. In Canada, more influenced by the US than anyone, it has led to the myth of the “Red Tories.” 

Last of the red-hot Tories.

There are not now and never have been any “Red Tories.” The “Red Tory” program is simply the Tory program, traditional conservatism, Burkean conservatism, which likes big, paternal government. The non-Red Tories are the traditional liberals, the Clear Grits. There is a reason why, in Laurier’s day, the Liberal party dominated the Prairies, while today, the non-Red Tory Conservatives do. The politics of the West have not changed; only the party programs.

If all of this is clear so far, a further interesting question arises. What caused this major political shift, which seems almost like a switching of roles between left and right? What caused a political philosophy that used to regularly command about 50% popular support, in Canada, the US, and the UK--liberalism--to fall back to a minority movement—libertarianism in the US, the Liberal Democrats in the UK? And in all three countries, at about the same time? The last clearly liberal administration in the US was Calvin Coolidge’s, elected in 1924; although Reagan ran as a liberal, he did not succeed in actually reducing the size of government. The last large-l-Liberal Prime Minister of Britain, Lloyd George, resigned in 1922. In Canada, Mackenzie King went from being a traditional liberal, in his early years in power, to a New Dealer in the 30s. But by that time, he was actually imitating RB Bennett's conservatives in the switch: if the Liberals had not occupied this new turf, the Tories would have.

The obvious answer, and I think the traditional one, is that the Depression changed our perspective on traditional laissez-faire liberalism. John Maynard Keynes's new economics supplanted the traditional liberal economics as a response to this crisis. A re-evaluation of both Keynsian economics and traditional liberalism in light of the stagflation of the Seventies then led to the revival of classic liberalism under Reagan. But this explanation does not really work. Look again at those dates: the shift was already apparent in the 1920s, before the Depression hit. 

In the long run, he's dead.

We may even be reversing cause and effect here.

There is another major political event that seems be be a better contender in explaining the shift. There a sudden doubling of the electorate at about this time in all these countries. It should hardly be surprising if this had some effect. Women got the right to vote in Britain in 1918. No Liberal government has been elected since that date, although they were in power then. Women got the right to vote in the US in 1922. Only one further liberal government, two years later; the re-election of an incumbent. After that, never again, with the possible exception of Reagan.

In Canada, the franchise was extended in 1917. In the very next election, 1921, there was an unprecedented electoral earthquake. A new party, the Progressives, formed only the year before, came from nowhere to win the second-largest number of seats in parliament.

Their program was ideologically mixed: they have traditionally been painted as a regional party representing the West, and an agrarian party. But something obviously had changed. They called for freer trade, a liberal position, but rather more radically, for the nationalization of key industries, notably communications and transportation. They wanted fixed grain shipping rates. In other words, their program was largely socialist. The great majority of the “Progressives” then melded into the Liberal Party, while the more “radical” among them became the CCF/NDP.

There you have it. Men and women are different, and want different things. Men in general want freedom and independence. They want government to stay off their backs, and the right to manage their own affairs. Women in general want to be taken care of. They want security and seek to avoid personal responsibility. No surprise if this is reflected in their voting patterns, and has changed the political landscape.

Prohibition: A good way to raise prices.

The original and overriding “feminist” issue was Prohibition—in itself, whatever its other merits, a major intrusion into daily life. Its failure briefly held back the progress of the “women’s movement,” but by the Sixties feminism was back on track. The personal is again political. And, while serious liberalism could command 50% of an all-male electorate, it manages only about 25% of a mixed male-female electorate.

So what? Don't women have the same right to choose their own government that men do? Surely yes, as a question of natural right. However, this may be a big problem for practical purposes. There may, in the end, be a practical reason why our ancestors so often sought to ban women from the council fires. Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab historian whom Arnold Toynbee has called the founder of the social sciences, collated a great deal of evidence in support of a theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. Civilizations inevitably decline, he theorized, because the burden of government inevitably grows to the point at which it drains the vitality of the state.

Restricting the vote to men only might have been a practical way to slow this decline. Extending it to women might be a good way to hasten the process.

Indeed, it seems clear that Western Civilization as a whole has been in some kind of a funk since about 1918. Another obvious correlation with votes for women...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Where All Those Zombies Are Coming From

Danse Macabre: German, 15th Century

Here's my latest relaxation tip: The Walking Dead. Cheaper and faster then a vacation, much healthier than drugs. When I really need to get away from it all, I just cue up another episode.Very soothing.

Eh? The Walking Dead is a horror series. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? I've noticed the effect for a while, and I suspect it is behind the whole zombie thing; but I haven't been able to figure it out until recently.

I think it’s a memento mori. This a traditional theme in Medieval art was, broadly, something to remind you that you were inevitably going to die, and it could happen at any time. Skulls on the table, Death with cowl and scythe, that sort of thing. I suppose to some people this is disturbing. I'm not sure why it should be. It helps you rise above all the things that are unimportant: “how much of all this will matter after I’m dead?”

Meme chose, French, 15th century.

So it is with zombies: just a whole lot of dead people rising from their graves to remind you of the fact of death. The zombies of The Walking Dead are the traditional Dance of Death: always moving on, touching one or another person at random, and they too die. The random victim might have been a bishop, a king, or a peasant; it does not matter now. Death comes to all.

For no obvious reason, modern zombies, since Day of the Dead, move quite slowly. There is also no malice in them; they are automatons, animated fungal growths. This is not the way to make them frightening. It is the opposite: a way to make the mask of death seem as normal, natural, and non-threatening as possible.

Death poses for Hans Holbein.

Thinking of death as ever-present keeps life simple. Just as life is simple for those people in the zombie movies: just a matter of avoiding the walkers and scrounging what they need for another day. No more vanities or pretense. Come to think of it, the same dynamic is probably behind the current popularity of Breaking Bad as well. For too long, thoughts of death have been a taboo in our society, and that is very spiritually unhealthy. We may well see much more of this as the demographic bulge of the Baby Boom tips into its twilight years.