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September 23, 2005

The Whatever Dude

Matthew Yglesias is onto something here.

Namely, the intelligent, well-educated aristocrats of 19th century Russia, "informed by idealism and goodwill" believed they were the beneficiaries of a fundamentally unjust social system dependent both on political autocracy and what amounted to chattel slavery. Something similar could be said about young, urban, educated white men in contemporary America who, unlike other brands of white men, are politically liberal.

He's not quite so sure, but it sure is a knockout to read this observation of American anomie right next to a blogad on his site that reads 'There Is No Crisis'. Yglesias informed me a while back that he's from the third person school of social observation, and I am reminded constantly by another irritating commenter that 'just-so' stories are insufficient to be convincing. But the trenchant observer often finds himself in the trenches and should be counted upon to speak of the consequences of speaking up. In other words, if you can't be passionate about it, why write?

I happen to think that America suffers from an overabundance of snark. No one quite embodies this surfiet so much as David Spade who is launching a new comic broadside on Hollywood which cannot be so much more than inside dirt served up with a heaping helping of snide. It's likely to be a hit. Spade's witty dishing is the flipside of the Alpha SNAG, and yet you know that Spade's characters are never far from Joe Dirt, incapable of being truly uncaring. But is the SNAG a myth? No, just a clearly identifyable character defect posing as something attractive.

It has been several long years since I last took a peek at my copy of Iron John, but I've been thinking about passing it on to my son recently. But I'll certainly want to reread it in light of my search for the character of the Classic Citizen as I read on in VDH. We can be fairly certain that a sarcastic passivity won't be high on the list of values, an inaction borne of guilt is not likely to be there either.

Once again, I think Baldwin is instructive here:

"For several years it had been his fancy that he belonged in
those dark streets uptown precisely becuase the history written
in the color of his skin contested his right to be there. He
enjoyed this, his right to be being everywere contested;
uptown, his alienation had been made visible and therefore,
almost bearable. It had been his fancy that dangere there, was
more real, more open, than danger was downtown and that he,
having chosedn to run these dangers, was snatching his manhood
from the lukewarm waters of mediocrity and testing it in the
fire. He had felt more alive in Harlem, for he had moved in a
blaze of rage and self-congratualation and sexual excitement,
with danger, like a promise, waiting for him everywhere. And,
nevertheless, in spite of all this daring, this runing of risks,
the misadventures which had actually befallen him had been banal
indeed and might have befallen him anywhere. His dangerous,
overwhelming lust for life had failed to involve him in anything
deeper than perhaps half a dozen extremely casual
acquaintanceships in about as many bars. for memories, he had
one or two marijuana parties, one or two community debauches,
one or two girls whose names he had forgotten, one or two
addresses which he had lst. He knew that Harlem was a
battlefield and that a war was being waged there day and night
-- but of the war aims he knew nothing.

"And this was due not only to the silence of the warriors --
their silence being, anyway spectacular in that it rang so loud:
it was due to the fact that one knew of battles only what one
had accepted of one's own. He was forced, little by little,
against his will, to realize that in running the dangers of
Harlem he had not been testing his manhood or heightening his
sense of life. He had merely been taking refuge in the outward
adventure in order to avoid the clash and tension of the
adventure proceeding inexorably within. Perhaps this was why he
sometimes seemed to surprise in the dark faces which watched him
in a hint of amused and not entirely unkind contempt. He must be
poor indeed, they seemed to say, to have been driven here. They
knew that he was driven, in flight: the liberal, even
revolutionary sentiments of which he was so proud meant nothing
to them whatever. He was just a poor white boy in trouble and it
was not in the least original of him to come running to the niggers."

James Baldwin - Another Country - 1960

Now ain't that something?

Posted by mbowen at September 23, 2005 07:33 AM

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I agree with you on David Spades show, it is Finchesque ala Just Shoot Me...

Anyway...on to Matthews statement...

I don't subscribe to the theory that recognizing that social inequities of the past positioned you to be where you are today makes you an idealistic left winger (if you are the group he suggest). Nor do I think your categorizing it as 'American Anomie' is a good fit. It implies that this belief is what leads to social decay when instead I would argue it can lead to true social progress. For example, historically a view could be taking that this very form of thought and idealism is what lead to the successive progress of blacks in this nation from slavery, through Jim Crow to our current state which we are still working to improve.

And the acceptance of the historical realities and the idealistic pursuit of implementing solutions doesn't necessarily have to be a liberal only position and I don't think it should be.

Posted by: Dell Gines [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 23, 2005 08:15 AM