Sunday, September 09, 2012

Read These
One reason the frequency of posting on this blog has declined so much in the last few years is because it's now pretty rare that I post just to highlight writings elsewhere that I think are very worthwhile. (The biggest reason is that I started working full-time again in early 2010, followed by a rise in my own standards of what I thought was worth setting down words about, but ending the "hey, isn't this cool?" posts is in there somewhere.) I'm doing it today, though, because, one, these two pieces are just that good, and two, they both align to things I've been thinking about but haven't bothered to fully articulate.

  • I think Joe Posnanski is generally recognized as one of America's best sportswriters, but this undersells him: the guy is among our best writers, period. Yesterday morning, while enduring one of those episodes of concentrated misery in which the Metropolitan Transit Authority specializes, I found this piece through Posnanski's Twitter feed, and by the end of it I was laughing, smiling and much less interested in killing everyone else on the shuttle bus. Pretty much every word of it, from the paean to Electronic Football to the dread engendered by the Alcoa commercial and the ritualistic invocation of "The executive producer of CBS Sports is..." rings true to my experience between about 1981 and 1986. Note that the Eagles (whose new season starts in about an hour and forty-five minutes) mostly sucked in those years, plus there was a strike, plus my parents split so my exposure to my dad, a huge football fan, really plunged. It was probably those other aspects of football fandom that left me a fan for life. Posnanski, who I think is about five or six years older than me, just nails it. And he's right that while the fan experience is unquestionably better today, it's somehow less intense and special precisely for the wealth of options now available to us. (I have added Posnanski to the nav bar of AIS, replacing Glenn Greenwald who recently left Salon.)

  • Then there's Timothy Snyder's identification of Paul Ryan as the exemplary ideologue in American politics today, and his perceptive trace of how Ryan's extremism is grounded in earlier totalizing philosophical traditions including but not limited to his infamous veneration of Ayn Rand. A few weeks back, after Romney tapped Ryan as his running mate but before the Republican convention, I was contemplating a post here about how bad ideas resonate down through history, creating vicious cycles of reaction and counter-reaction that serve to multiply the original harm done to actual humans. Rand's Objectivism emerged from her visceral (and justified) loathing for Soviet communism, which itself was a reaction to the absolutism of tsarist Russia focused through the lens of Marxist theory. (Hayek, the other intellectual touchstone Snyder names for the Republican ticket and about whom I know much less, evidently had the same sort of intellectual response to Nazism as Rand did to the Soviets.) Snyder makes a compelling case for how Romney and Ryan complement each other as embodiments of the current Republican Party:
    Romney provides the practice, Ryan the theory. Romney has lots of money, but has never managed to present the storyline of his career as a moral triumph. Ryan, with his credibility as an ideas politician, seems to solve that problem. In the right-wing anarchism that arises from the marriage of Rand and Hayek, Romney’s wealth is proof that all is well for the rest of us, since the laws of economics are such that the unhindered capitalism represented by chop-shops such as Bain must in the end be good for everyone.

    The problem with this sort of economic determinism is that it is Marxism in reverse, with the problems of the original kind. Planning by finance capitalists replaces planning by the party elite. Marx’s old dream, the “withering away” of the state, is the centerpiece of the Ryan budget: cut taxes on the rich, claim that cutting government functions and the closing of unspecified loopholes will balance budgets, and thereby make the state shrink. Just like the Marxists of another era, the Republican ticket substitutes mythical thinking about the economy for loyalty to the nation.

    What they all got wrong and continue to get wrong--Marx, Lenin, Rand, Ryan--is that the proper response to a failed system claiming absolute truth isn't an opposed absolute truth, but an empirically based philosophy of doubt and restraint. Don't overstate your own capacity to know and do; experiment, doubling down on what proves effective and cutting back on what doesn't. At one time, this approach might have been described as "conservatism."

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