Friday, August 01, 2003

The Deep End etc.
The problem is that the sense of individuality that dominates our economic and cultural life puts those who see themselves as intellectuals at a remove from the rest of their community, a remove that is not good for either. Libertarianism is simply the most extreme example. But this country isn't known for it's intellectuals, except for those it imports, while its most important products, both cultural and economic, have come from other parts of the community. We gave the world both Hollywood and Jazz, and Europeans understood them before we did. Our intellectuals are always playing catch-up. That's as it should be, but they should not have to be taught respect. Hollywood may have been a dream of consumerist utopia, but that doesn't mean it wasn't profound entertainment, and Ellington and others may have elevated popular music, but in doing so they brought a new life to the moribund classical tradition, saving Rachmaninoff from kitsch, adding structure to what had become cheap sentiment.

Any society will have an intellectual elite, and this was my complaint with Nathan Newman (see below). But that elite cannot afford to take itself for granted. As I've said before, the genius of society is not in it's individuals but in it's systems. The English language is more complex than any novel. And what writer doesn't wish s/he could compete with the authors of The Odyssey, which after all Homer did not write but polish.

Of course many conservatives make a similar criticism of the 'shallowness' of liberalism. But their moralism expresses the arrogant superiority of household servants towards the rabble, with their servitude being to a conflation of knowledge (as defined by dogma) and the rich. [This explains why so many neocons are gay. More than one friend has complained to me about how few real tops there are in New York. "Faggots are all bottoms." ] The opposite of this is found in Chomsky, who argues with a similar simplicity that everybody not only wants to be free, but wants to and is capable of committing themselves to the responsibilities of freedom.

What I like about political writing in the mainstream British press, though it shares something with all good writing, political or not, is an awareness within all but the most absurd arguments of both the stupidity of our tribe and of its ability to produce brilliance in out of the way places and at unexpected times. The mixture of ironic detachment and curiosity that results from this sort of assumption would be considered almost unpatriotic here: one may be a cynic or an idealist but ambiguity is a still a sign of moral weakness. The only writer born here I can think of who extends this sort of inquisitiveness to politics is Joan Didion.

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