Friday, February 24, 2006

Shuddup 'n' Play Yer Guitar

Before he was felled by his stroke, H. L. Mencken was working on his autobiography. In it, he recounted an episode where Ezra Pound, well into his brownshirt phase, was firing angry letters at Mencken for not publishing Pound's stuff in Mencken's magazine. Mencken replied:

You made your great mistake when you abandoned the poetry business, and set up shop as a wizard in general practice. You wrote, in your day, some very good verse, and I had the pleasure, along with other literary buzzards, of calling attention to it at the time. But when you fell into the hands of those London logrollers, and began to wander through pink fogs with them, all your native common sense oozed out of you, and you set up a caterwauling for all sorts of brummagem Utopias, at first in the aesthetic region only but later in the regions of political and aesthetic baloney. Thus a competent poet was spoiled to make a tinhorn politician.
-- H. L. Mencken, letter to Ezra Pound, Nov. 28, 1936

That is as good a description as any of artists--and academics--who get the idea that their eminence in their own specialities translates into political perspicacity. You can name a half-dozen such immediately, the same as I can. Maybe the same half-dozen.


  1. Just out of curiosity, why do businesspeople never get criticized for this?

    I don't actually disagree with your (or Mencken's!) basic complaint, but I would like to know why this same criticism is never leveled at businesspeople when they comment on politics?

    I also wish this complaint weren't so often stretched from "the fact that you're a brilliant linguist doesn't mean that you're more than a mediocre politician" (which is a perfectly reasonable position) to "artists and academics shouldn't get involved in politics" (which isn't--being famous or talented doesn't suddenly revoke your rights as an American to whine about politics).

  2. "brummagem Utopias"? Any ideas?

    Roger R. the English, please not 'Briton' keeper of the ROFTERS weblog. Incidentally, I DO enjoy your weblog... I particularly enjoyed the Beatles piece... and I saw them on stage in a 1,000 seater in 1964 (didn't hear much though!)

    Roger R.

  3. "brummagem" = cheap and showy, meretricious, according to Yes, I do love the Fabs. I keep feeling the urge to go into rock critic overdrive here sometimes, and maybe I'll do more, if I can find a suitable pretext.

  4. The prominent entertainers who lend their fame to this or that political cause are business people, in a lot of cases. That's why they earn the scorn of more worldly types: you can't respect someone who loudly agitates for taxing the rich out of existence while employing lawyers and accountants to keep their own stash safe.

    Incidently I did post a halfway admiring rumination on Bono and his charity work some time back, in case you missed it.

    Professors who fail students for turning in insufficiently Marxist compositions in their freshman English classes are another matter.

  5. But to address your question less flippantly:

    Just out of curiosity, why do businesspeople never get criticized for this?

    Probably because politics impacts business--for good and ill--much more than it does some celeb's fame & ego or academic's sagacious self-image. How far away from schools should liquor stores be? To what millionth of a part should some impurity in a foodstuff be restricted? How much of the market should a successfull mega-corporation be allowed to dominate? How far up and out of the business chain does product liability extend? The answers to questions like this are usually ultimately produced by the political process, hence the keen interest of business people in that process.

    Note I'm not saying that "business" is always right; I rather think that they aren't right any more often than any other political actors. But they will be more involved in the political process, since it disproportionately affects them.

    Put it this way: if you felt that the government might at any time come and take food out of your family's mouths, wouldn't you want to keep tabs on what's going on?

  6. Don't forget, though, that it's academic researchers that usually provide the basic information that informs the sort of arguments you're talking about.

    How far from schools should liquor stores be? You'll want to know how far the increased crime levels around liquor stores extend. That's a statistical question, probably best answered by the statistics department at a university with a lot of pre-law or forensics students.

    How much should some impurity in a foodstuff be restricted? You'll want to know its biological effects--a good med school can work on this. You'll also want to work out ways to remove the impurity, which could either be a job for an agricultural researcher or a chemist, depending on the details of the impurity.

    How much of the market should a mega-corportation be allowed to dominate? That's a macroeconomics question--give it to the U. Chicago, Harvard, or UC Berkeley econ departments and let them chew on it. Because this is a "softer" question than the previous ones, you'll get a range of sharply contrasting opinons, but they'll give you a much better idea of just what it is you're deciding to do.

    Academics often (but, admittedly, not always) bring a whole lot more our their egos to questions like this. When we're government-funded, we bring information that's as unbiased as you're likely to get.

    Remember, the government could in prinicple destroy most academics in the hard and social sciences by defunding us, or by putting political restrictions on our publications. Generally they don't--the system simply works too well to risk tampering with it.


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