Cultural Reactionaries

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Jesse Larner New York-based writer on politics and culture

I'd like to start by mentioning a piece that I wrote for Dissent magazine, on the influential economist Friedrich Hayek, a hero of the right. It's in the current edition, Winter 2008. I'd been wanting to write about Hayek for a while, and I was pleased with how it came out. The article talks about what Hayek gets right, what he gets wrong, and where he is just a crackpot; but most importantly, why it is disingenuous of the modern right to use him in the way that it does.

The piece is not yet available online, so you'll have to actually buy the magazine if you're interested. I'll let you know in this space when it goes up on the internet. If you don't already have one, I'd highly recommend a subscription. The magazine is a great pleasure, being a serious but jargon-free voice of the thoughtful left. It carries pieces on a wide range of political, historical, and sociological topics, and the editors are not afraid to publish people who disagree with them, as long as they make their points in a reasonable and interesting way - which is a great virtue in a magazine, in my opinion. You can get a subscription at if you're interested. They mail overseas.

And now to work.

First up is Thomas Sowell, another hero of the modern right. Sowell is an economist, syndicated columnist, and Hoover Institution fellow who has written widely on history, sociology, education, race and ethnicity - many things. He's a nasty free-market maximalist (not all ideological free-market maximalists are nasty ones, but Sowell is) and he's been unremittingly hostile to environmentalism. That one always gets me; after all, the anti-environmentalists have to live on this planet too.

Right-wingers tend to think of him as a blunt spoken genius, a prophet of what they already know to be true, and I guess that's why they never ask for too much empirical confirmation of Sowell's subjective prejudices. Still, the obvious, stubborn ignorance of Sowell's random thoughts in this recent piece kind of blew me away. Consider this idiotic comparison:

Since electricity is generated mostly by burning coal, has anyone calculated how much pollution is created by electric cars, even though none of that pollution comes out of their tailpipes?

What's so odd about this -- and remember that his legions of acolytes consider Sowell a genius - is that one doesn't have to be an expert, or even have any formal education, to see the flaw in the logic here. Sowell is saying that electric cars generate a great deal of pollution, even if they have no tailpipe emissions; and he's suggesting, therefore, that developing them is silly feel-good liberalism, a subject on which he regularly holds forth.

But while burning the coal that powers the generators that power electric cars certainly releases a lot of pollution, it does so in one place. This pollution is therefore immensely easier to capture and neutralize than pollution being produced by millions of tailpipes in the open air. The net effective pollution of electric cars - the pollution that can do things like warm the globe to levels that might eventually destroy the civilization that supports Sowell and his writing -- is far lower.

More on the environment from Sage Sowell:

The next time somebody in the media denies that there is media bias, ask how they explain the fact that there are at least a hundred stories about the shrinking arctic ice cap for every one about the expanding antarctic ice cap, which has now grown to record size.

Talk about two birds with one stone! A global warming denial coupled with a swipe at the "liberal media"! But as Sowell's fellow National Review contributor Jason Lee Steorts admits in a discussion of the work of environmental scientist Curt Davis, Sowell's reductionist formula is nonsense. Steorts is an agnostic on global warming, but he's honest enough to treat the issue as the complex one that it is, and his analysis of the meaning of the condition of the Antarctic ice cap is quite interesting. Sowell, again, is the hero of the know-nothings.

Remember I said that Sowell is a nasty guy?

Being murdered is not painless, so why all the hand-wringing about trying to make the execution of murderers painless?

Umm...because we're not barbarians? Well, those of us who oppose the death penalty, anyway. Because we generally no longer subscribe to that Old Testament eye-for-an-eye business?

Now for Sowell's idea of the big picture:

The culture of this nation is being dismantled, brick by brick, but so gradually that many will not notice until the walls start to sag -- just before they cave in.

What's hilarious about this is that Sowell apparently doesn't realize that old men of every generation since speech was invented have said the same thing. It's a kind of self-indulgence, as well as a fear of the unfamiliar. This silly, self-important harrumph from Sowell reminded me of another piece of reactionary cultural criticism from another cultural reactionary, Mark Steyn, writing in The New Criterion about yet another, Allan Bloom. Steyn quotes Newsweek from 1964, on The Beatles:

Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified, Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near-disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah!") are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.

Steyn makes it clear that the attitude of 1964 Newsweek represented the good-old, solid-citizen, meaningful-culture days. O, if only we hadn't been so corrupted by nonsense since then! But reading the Newsweek passage, one has to wonder: has the writer ever heard The Beatles? Has Steyn? "... a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody..." Whatever else you may think of it, this simply does not describe even the very early Beatles. While the critic was moaning about the "nutty" shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah!" did he happen to notice the vocal harmonies? The subtly, wonderfully diminished, unresolved chord on which the song ends, completely upending the pop expectations of the day?

Consider "All My Loving," the Lennon/McCartney hit that was the band's opening number on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. The harmonies again, of course. But pay attention to that rhythm guitar. What John Lennon is playing throughout the song are triplets, three notes in a single beat. Anyone who has ever messed around with music will understand that this is very hard to do; the human sense of rhythm doesn't naturally function like that. Even numbers of notes to a beat, easy; odd numbers, very hard indeed. It takes either intense concentration or enormous dedication to practice. Watch the old footage from The Ed Sullivan Show. John is perfectly relaxed as he plays, even making a remark to George.

And this is the early Beatles, before they went into the studio with George Martin and began changing the way the world hears music, before Sgt. Pepper, before Abbey Road. To take just one example out of hundreds of possibilities: check out George Harrison's guitar solo on "Hey Bulldog," recorded in 1966, when George was 23. Where did that come from? It's strikingly original, not rooted in blues, rockabilly, jazz, anything that had come before. And Harrison tweaks each note with tremendous care, sliding, bending, buzzing, rolling, to give it a very particular character. Just three years earlier, The Beatles were doing Chuck Berry knockoffs -- doing them very well, but doing knockoffs nonetheless. By 1966, they had made the pop song their own.

By the way, I've always interpreted this song as being about psychoanalysis. But that's another story.

Steyn, along with the 1964 Newsweek writer and many other cultural reactionaries - William F. Buckley wrote at the time that The Beatles "are not just awful, they are godawful" (wonder if he ever repented of this, much as he repented of his anti-Civil Rights stance?) - simply can't hear the genius, the innovation, the hard-won skill of The Beatles. He's committed to a sense of the valuable that stays within certain cultural parameters, and stepping outside of those parameters makes him too uncomfortable. He'd rather just deny that there's anything worthwhile happening there at all. It's sad, really.

The other night I went to a wonderful performance at Joe's Pub, the bar stage of Joe Papp's Public Theater. It was a cabaret night, with many different acts, among them Sxip Shirey of The Luminescent Orchestrii. Without getting too bogged down in a digression, the Orchestrii plays spine-chilling interpretations of Balkan and Gypsy music, with respect for tradition as well as some modernist touches; and Sxip himself composes experimental and circus music, among other things. At Joe's that night, he demonstrated some wild sounds he got from children's toy instruments, as well as some creations produced by an amped and feedbacked flute. I'd never have thought of using a flute in this way, but it really brought out the crashing quality of air, the substance of it, out of which Shirey coaxed brave and strikingly melodic patterns with unexpected overtones. It was very beautiful.

I'm sure Mark Steyn and Thomas Sowell would have simply considered this childish, indulgent, not valuable at all. This is one of the things that really scares me about the warriors of the right, maybe even more than their addiction to class warfare: their inability to appreciate beauty on any terms other than their own. And their desire to impose those terms on everybody else.