Prayers for the Gulf Coast

The Literary Spirit In Politics

Harvey Mansfield, in “A New Kind of Liberalism: Tocqueville’s Recollections” in the March 2010 New Criterion, has this to say about Tocqueville’s view of the failures of political judgment on the part of “literary men:”

The literary spirit in politics consists in seeing what is ingenious and new more than what is true, in preferring an interesting tableau to a useful one, in showing oneself sensitive to actors who play and speak well regardless of the consequences of the play, and in deciding on the basis of impression rather than reasons.

For “literary men” substitute “artists and intellectuals,” and you have a pretty good description of something very noticeable in our politics, especially if you expand “artists and intellectuals” to include those who wish to associate themselves with or be thought of as artists and intellectuals. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I once thought poets and novelists—ok, I’ll go ahead and make the full confession—and even, in some cases, pop musicians had some sort of special insight into politics. Now I think that if they differ at all from the average person, it’s for the worse. The average person may operate mostly on emotion and impression; As & Is add a very powerful sense of fashion and aesthetics to that. And the fashion component seems usually to be unconscious and therefore unresisted.

Of course Mansfield himself is most definitely an I (Harvard government professor).


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Don't be embarrassed. In a better world, novelists and poets would have a special insight into politics, because their writings (or rather the reflection that would generate their writing) would have given them insight into human nature and the good life, hopefully untainted by the dirty business of politicking.

Well, okay, be embarrassed about the pop musicians part. ;-)

I think that better world is not this one. Your suggestion is pretty much what my line of thinking was, but I'm not so sure that even in a much better but still recognizable world they would in general be wiser about politics. Thing is, a lot of them really do have impressive insight into human nature at a very specific level, but not where the bigger picture is involved.

Of course it wasn't just any pop musicians, it was people like Dylan. Still.....

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