Sunday, July 19, 2009

A provocative book review leads to more provocative thoughts...

In the NY Times Book Review this morning, there is a provocative review of appears to be a very thoughtful book about the Romantic poets of the early 19th Century and their seemingly incongruent adoration of science and scientists (Richard Holmes' "The Age of Wonder"...). To our modern minds, this remains hard to fathom--though the recent attack on science by Republican leaders, and the rise of computer-based animation and art, have led both scientists and artists into common cause, which may portend good relations among future artists and scientists (unlike the imbroglio that accompanied the Sokol hoax).

Another highly useful book to overcome the false philosophical dichotomy of scientists vs. artists is E.P. Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class,". One of Thompson's many insights was that the Romantics label often attributed to the early 19th Century British poets was twisted by powerful economic and governmental leaders during that time to delegitimize those poets as being hopelessly naive, and/or ignorantly isolated from the rest of society. This is because the poets tended to come from aristocratic backgrounds, and therefore had a platform to express their outrage at the economic oppression being pursued by the rising business class and government in early 19th Century England. That these poets were highly engaged in the affairs of the larger world of economics, and that they saw art and science as mutually compatible and extensions of each other (much like Jefferson and Franklin) was something obliterated over many decades of analysis of their love interests and the economic elite's attacks on their quaint mercantilist sympathies.

In the last sixty years, our corporate media has successfully conflated capitalism and democracy (pardon the lack of quotation marks around all these weighty terms) in the minds of most folks as to make it relatively easy--seemingly intuitive--to attack critics of capitalism's excesses. In high brow business circles, whether it be the Wall St. Journal or Fortune magazine, critics of capitalism have continued to be described as naive or aloof by polite writers (such writers, writing for elitists, find it too difficult to use the term elitist as an epithet). However, what has made the Cold War era--and our presesnt time--fairly different from the early 19th Century is an additional layer of deligitimization of capitalist critics. I speak here of the virulent attack by self-proclaimed "morning Joes" (O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, et al.) who accuse critics of corporate dominance and economic inequality of siding with whatever foreign enemy of America our corporate media may muster. In this decade, criticism of capitalist oppression is seen as a sign of sympathy for Muslim terrorism--just as in the mid-20th Century, criticism of capitalist excesses was seen as sympathy for Soviet and later Maoist Communism.

The reviewer deserved a chance to write a longer essay, but I sense the NY Times Book Review editor still suffers from what C.P. Snow decried as a modern era's essential separation of science from the arts. That is bad enough. However, not having a way to critique capitalism the way people critiqued mercantilism or feudalism (or continue to easily and glibly critique socialism) makes it difficult for us as a society to analyze public policy when confronted with the information in this review of another book, "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture" by Ellen Ruppel Snell. If our corporate media would regularly include voices who can critically analyze capitalism the way its usual analysts analyze other economic relations, I guess it would not be corporate media, would it?



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