Monday, August 31, 2015

The High And The Low

     JOHN TANNER: And that poor devil is a billionaire! One of the master spirits of the age! Led on a string like a pug dog by the first girl who takes the trouble to despise him. I wonder will it ever come to that with me. [From George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman]

     I’m an anomaly in several dimensions, one of which is that my capacity for enjoyment bridges many categories that others disdain to cross. I enjoy both Beethoven and Van Halen. I delight in the paintings of both Rembrandt and Dali. I’ve taken great pleasure in both the dark imaginings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the light-hearted romantic science fiction of Linnea Sinclair. I love filet mignon braised in garlic butter, but I’ve often derived just as much enjoyment from a hamburger. I’ll serenely sip Mouton-Cadet or gleefully guzzle Bully Hill Banty Red. One’s choices in those domains are not a matter of “high” or “low” quality, but of one’s capacity for enjoyment.

     For the above reason, I’ve often been sneered at by persons who pretend to “higher standards.” While I can’t argue for my tastes – who can? – it’s often seemed to me that the devotees of those “higher standards” are more interested in elevating themselves over others than in what they claim to enjoy.

     The problems arise when the standard of enjoyment is displaced by airy notions about quality, an elusive thing impossible to define intensively or tabulate extensively. In part that arises from the presumptions and machinations of snobs: critics and cultural commentators who command the media heights. Snobs they are, nothing more. All snobs desire the same thing at base: to feel that they’re superior to others, as is demonstrated by their membership in an exclusive group.

     We may call this “Cool Kids Syndrome.” It’s founded on some persons’ desire to feel superior to others, and other persons’ irrational desire to enter their circle...often for no other reason than to prove that they can.

     In this connection, Nicki at The Liberty Zone provides some recollections:

     I was never invited to cool kid parties in middle school – you know those parties where everyone plays “spin the bottle” and hooks up with members of the opposite sex. I did go to some, but I felt awkward and weird, and when I invited kids in my class to my own birthday party, one person showed up, and embarrassed, I never wanted another party.

     I did find my voice, so to speak, in high school choir. I participated in concerts and plays. I loved the stage. But ultimately, we were choir and theater geeks, and my husband likes to remind me that I was the type of kid he would have beaten up in high school. I wasn’t a cheerleader. I didn’t play sports. I was a music geek, and I was expected to and did hang out with my own kind.

     Frankly, I like it that way.

     Even though I’ve begun this rant with observations about entertainments and enjoyments, it has a wider focus: the use of an arbitrary “exclusion” mechanism, reinforced by frequent expressions of disdain for “outsiders,” to assert superiority. It operates in virtually every setting in which people congregate. It’s especially obvious in the arts, but it also has applications to social groupings and politics.

     Politics in our era has become so noxious that I can hardly bear to write about it any longer. It’s become an unceasing carnival of contempt, in which those who hold conviction X feel perfectly free not merely to dismiss those who hold other convictions but to slander them mercilessly, for any value of X. The most prominent voices in the tumult are the ones casting characterological aspersions and accusations of evil intent. Rhetorical savagery is rampant; literal violence is not unknown.

     Since it should be clear to anyone with three functioning brain cells that one cannot defeat an idea with slander or violence, we must ask why anyone would adopt those tactics.

     I provided one answer in this piece. When confronted by disagreement, he who cannot allow that he could be wrong has no recourse but combat, whether in words or deeds. But there are other factors in play, which we’ll explore with a brief visit with some old friends.

     Smith won’t allow that he could be wrong for practical reasons: he’s “done a corner” in some Cause-based organization that provides him wealth, power, and social status. He might even know, intellectually, that his position has been refuted. The perquisites he derives from it outweigh any such consideration.

     Jones is inept at arguing for his politics, but he’s tied his sense of self-worth to it. Objections to his position constitute attacks on his self-esteem. Therefore, he cannot accept objections to that position. He’ll lash out accordingly.

     Cool Kids Syndrome becomes most important at the bottom of the intellectual pyramid: with Davis, whose politics he acquired from admired others, or adopted out of a desire for admission to some circle. He cannot argue, because he didn’t come to his politics through a rational process. But the social value of his politics to him demands that it be upheld. Failure to do so would result in losing his place among the Cool Kids.

     If your place among the Cool Kids matters more to you than your preferences, tastes, opinions, experience, reasoning, or status as an honest man, you’ll suppress all those things to maintain it. You’ll counter arguments against your espoused convictions with a fusillade of invective. That, in a nutshell, explains the greater part of the acrimony that afflicts public discourse today.

     I’ve spilled a lot of pixels recently on the “Sad Puppies” / “Puppy Kickers” contretemps in the somewhat insular world of science fiction and fantasy. If you haven’t read those pieces: principal reason for writing on the subject was that to my eyes is constitutes a perfect demonstration of the power-tropism of the Left: what Leftists will do to get power and to keep it. They’ve been unusually successful in the entertainment media, of which SF and fantasy are branches. Indeed, the contest over the Hugo Awards is so pure an example of Leftist viciousness in protecting acquired power that acquaintance with it should educate anyone, including persons entirely uninterested in SF and fantasy fiction, about the Left’s agenda and tactics.

     Leftists have a natural advantage in any power struggle. When the subject matter is as subjective as what constitutes high-quality storytelling, that advantage becomes decisive. They care more about winning than anyone else cares about the Hugo Awards, and they’d rather see the Hugo Award utterly destroyed as an emblem of good entertainment than allow their grip on those awards to slacken.

     Yet as Leftists go, the ones obsessed with the politicization of the Hugo Awards are very, very minor league. Some have attained a modicum of material reward and / or prestige. Others are emotionally committed to Leftist politics in a way inextricably intertwined with their self-worth. But for the great majority of them, what matters most to them is “being one of the Cool Kids:” i.e., being identified with the group in power.

     The Leftist clique that has dominated the Hugos will not be displaced by any other faction unless that faction is as obsessed with gaining power over them as are the members of the Leftist clique. But no such faction could possibly arise from persons who’ve come to the SF and fantasy genres out of love for imaginative entertainment.

     From this correlation of forces and the dynamics behind them, all non-rational struggles over power can be analyzed and the ultimate results deduced.

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