Friday, October 04, 2013

George Will's Marxian Serenity

Convention holds that our political axis extends left and right from the moderate center in opposite directions, with extreme left and right extremely distant from each other. But what if the left and right are not divergent but instead tend to converge at their fringes, exhibiting similar traits in their most extreme forms.

I first encountered evidence of this in a talk in April, 2012 by columnist George Will at Princeton University's Whig Hall. He had recently joined the Board of Trustees for the university.

Will's tone of choice is supercilious, relieved periodically by some wit or even a moment of self-deprecation. The life of the mind, he said, should be fun, and then offered his "beer-centric theory of civilization", beginning with the Egyptians. Beer saved the Middle Ages from water-borne diseases. Benjamin Franklin offered beer as "proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." But he primarily devoted his energies to denigrating government and skewering liberals like Pelosi and Biden as feeble-minded. He ridiculed the New York Times one minute, quoted it as an authoritative source the next. But he also offered students some advice.

Mr. Will ended his talk abruptly, calling for questions. I was becoming impressed by how many questions he was taking when, as he began responding to a questioner's doubts about our nation's future competitiveness with China ("It is a great nation, with problems, but...), he suddenly began coughing. His face turned beet red. His authoritative voice shrank to a near whisper, and he paced back and forth on the stage, telling the audience he would quickly recover. A woman offered him a pill. He looked at the container and said he was already full of the stuff.

He seemed, suddenly and for the first time, vulnerable. He who had bristled with cutting remarks, with nothing but contempt for government and liberals, was suddenly speechless, coughing, voice shrunken. I felt for a moment some sympathy for this man. We waited for him to recover. When his voice had mostly returned, and after having expressed uncertainty about what will remain once the government bashers have fully exercised their passions, he finished by saying he has "almost a Marxist serenity..." And there it was, laid bare, the kinship with Marx, the shared certainty that the great evil, be it capitalism or liberalism, will collapse of its own weight. It was the serenity of a warrior prepared for come-what-may, armed with a nihilist's willingness to risk all, including country, on the certain truth of his ideology.

Where had I heard this before? I was taken back to 1973 and readings of Marx and Engels in a college economics course. Some students in the class, who were ready to turn Yellow Springs, Ohio into a miniature Soviet state where socialism could prosper in all its glory, made the argument for revolution. Capitalism has internal contradictions that will surely bring about its collapse. We must act now to overthrow the system. The insights of Marx and Engels had power and appeal, but my disillusionment came when the fearless student revolutionaries were asked who would assume power after the revolution. "We will," they declared. It sounded all too convenient.

One could speculate on how a rightwing columnist could adopt characteristics of those on the extreme left. There are the distorting requirements of his pundit's calling--the need, under the glare of stage lights to project certainty, the polarizing format of point/counterpoint, the threat to his niche, career and following posed by admitting error, expressing moderation or changing his mind. One could wonder at the privileged position of pundits like Mr. Will, who are given such ample space in multiple media to ascribe political and moral failings to others while their own training and cumulative track record remain unquestioned, their backgrounds and personal failings unexplored.

Now, in October, 2013, with the federal government shut down and an even more debilitating default looming, we see the fruition of a nihilism that George Will, and the pundit culture he inhabits, has done so much to cultivate.

Note: In a recent column, Will tries to pull Republicans back from the brink ("The government should not close."), while at the same time egging them on, encouraging them to complete "the neutering of this presidency."

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