Everything isn’t Going to Hell Quite Yet

So, to recap:

  1. Liberals have been very effective at excluding incongruent ideas and people  from elite institutions.
  2. As a result, conservatives may still win individual elections but are bad at shaping policy and governing.
  3. The dominant ideology (ie, political correctness)  rightfully cares about preserving its control over ideas and elite institutions more than it cares about winning individual elections or policing non-elite speech.
  4. Capitalism is more than happy to coopt this ideology,  both because it is dominant and because its emphasis on dissolving boundaries and upending received hierarchies allows for greater movement of capital, expansion of demjand.
  5. Power and wealth are happy to bow before this ideology, even if it inconveniences individual powerful or wealthy people, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience the system as a whole.

But, still everything isn’t yet going to hell, and complaints about “Cultural Marxism” from people like Jonathan Chait are mostly off-base. Colleges may become more boring places, Hollywood movies may become more ideologically uniform, the intellectual flavor of the week may become ever more specious and silly, but between a still huge middle class and a political system that blocks action nationally and delivers a great deal of power locally, the destructive power of ideology remains more limited in the United States than in most places or times.

National and local politics in the US are analogous to Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow; national politics can run riot with our best intentions and our worst fears, and especially when it comes to the military can do great damage for almost no reason at all. Local politics is slow, corrupt,  frustrating, and pervasively hypocritical, but it is rational: it advances local interests and local power, step by inexorable step.

Some colleagues and I won a $500,000 grant once to put in a science lab in my school; the school construction authority stole the money to do unnecessary asbestos abatement in the building rather than do almost any improvements at all (really, the same gum wrappers were sitting under the same broken air conditioner, next to the same broken sink in the “science lab” when they were done and the money was gone). That’s local politics for you: corrupt, failing to accomplish its stated goals, but coopted by interests rather than ideology, nine times out of ten. (Which is why Educational Reformism, the dominant ideology seeking to upend local governance, has ultimately run out of steam.)

In times and places when wealth and power were more highly localized and less cosmopolitan, or when local interests were sufficiently identified with a single violent ideology, I’d worry about this more, and be more sympathetic to elite whining about NIMBYism and the cruelties of localized power.

In the meantime, all hail, James Madison, savior of civilization.


5 thoughts on “Everything isn’t Going to Hell Quite Yet

  1. Mr. Spotted-Toad,

    Once again I had the privilege of reading some of your essays. Rather than commenting on your back-catalog it probably makes most sense to put it here. Perhaps this isn’t a bad place after all because in this installment you bring your usual moving blend of melancholy, cynicism, hope and personal energy that resonates with me. I really admire observant eye and your voice and style in writing. Something else that makes what you share so special is that it’s clear that you are quite capable of getting outside yourself and connecting with others to understand their situation and perspective. Even when it’s personal for you, your contributions never succumb to a distorted solipsism that afflicts so many other contemporary voices.

    In this essay I really like the example you shared about the grant for the science lab. I was trying to explain to some immigrants from more classically “corrupt” regimes who are very enthusiastic about how clean and transparent things operate here that the US is actually also corrupt but in its own unique style. Of course you don’t give the bureaucrat a fat envelope to expedite whatever project you have in mind. Every bit of American corruption is more or less transparent, mandatory and codified… from the shakedowns… I mean the “voluntary” contributions… to the right non-profits up to the procedures of no benefit to society that just enrich the rent-seekers in protected business sectors.

    Sorry about that, I’ll get off my soap box. If I want to be as enlightening and persuasive as you are, I should practice on my own time and turf. Perhaps at some point you’ll share something about how you developed your gift for writing? In my formal education, I feel like I never got any real structured feedback and coaching. It was sink or swim and I did neither and just thrashed about until I didn’t need to anymore.

    Finally I appreciate your pseudonymity. Of course as a teacher having these thoughts linked to your public professional persona would mean that you have to be much more careful and wouldn’t be able to experiment with novel ideas that might cause complications without patient reading or considering context. I wish more journalism were pseudonymous. So often what commentary I read is unimpressive or boringly innocuous. If it weren’t a “celebrity” name brand on the by-line probably nobody would read it. The Emperor’s New Clothes indeed… I know it’s a tough time for professional journalists, but I think your amateur musings measure up quite well to what I read from the pros. What’s more in an era dominated by identity politics, if you don’t have the right complexion or genital plumbing, certain topics are probably off-limits for you and your remarks might be so unwelcome to be career ending. It’s peculiar that even though so many claim that racism and sexism is so terrible that under-privileged / oppressed classes don’t get taken seriously but at the same time that in the public arena these will take great pains to flaunt their membership of this groups. Perhaps the allocation of privilege isn’t so clear cut as claimed. Whatever Spotted-Toad is, black, white or plaid, his words stand for themselves. A more widespread use of the veil of pseudonymity would allow us to evaluate ideas on their merits more than by who is saying them.


    1. Thanks very much, TSMB: I really appreciate your taking the time to read the blog, and your praise, though undeserved, is good encouragement to start blogging again this week. I’ve always been more of a reader than a writer, so I don’t have a strong sense of what “works” for writing, though I think that having an imagined audience and a sense for how they might react is probably important. Your observations about writers and pseudonymity seem right to me, too: we have a tendency to want to see the man behind the curtain, even more than we want to hear what Oz has to say. Thanks again!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s