Excess Sentiment

The tale of two bicycles, linked by Instapundit and commented on by Volokh, makes broad economic points. Advocates often complain about the punishment meted out to those who prey on the poor. This seems wildly disproportional. It reflects a certain lack of imagination; caught up in the moment, sympathies extend across the room but not across time.

Tangentially, I remembered an experience from the early seventies. My children laugh at our life in Austin before they were born – but now they live in similar places. Then, Austin reflected both red neck and hippy culture and was brought together in that first Willie picnic, at Dripping Springs. There was less of the Yuppie culture that came (and went) with the dot.com boom. We spent our first married years in a house previously rented by a drug dealer. People would show up at odd hours trying to score dope and we were repeatedly robbed, in a petty sort of way. (Once, for instance, a sheet and blanket disappeared from the waterbed, although the other sheet and quilt remained.) We didn’t have much, so it never bothered me. And a nice thing about the old drug dealer was that his incontinent monkey had left the house in such bad repair the landlord repaneled & painted. We loved Austin; it was quirky and fun. Once we started thinking about children, our perspective broadened and lifted. We wanted a bit more control and were willing to take on some responsibility–we needed to grow up.

One night my neighbor wanted to talk. She saw a couple of guys on campus stealing some bicycles. Someone else scared them off, but this had posed a problem, she said, for her. She didn’t really care, she thought. But watching them, she realized the owners might need those bikes, would be sorry to find them gone when they got out of class or off work. My neighbor stared at me earnestly and kept repeating that that was the only reason she would stop the theft. She really, really wanted me to understand her dilemma and she was having trouble making the distinction with words. Probably she was misreading the disbelief on my face. Well, yes, I thought – I guess that is a way to look at property rights. But I was struck that weighing her sympathies with the thieves – who were real people she could see – against those with the property – whom she couldn’t – had apparently been a big step for her. Thinking of those specific victims, she might almost turn to “the man.” This thought meant phoning 911 might not mean she was nasty, judgmental and vengeful but, rather, sensitive.

That talk remained in the back of my mind this week. My youngest daughter asked me why so many performers were liberals. I don’t know. I’ve seen opinions but have no context. Ben Stein observes that Hollywood is like high school on steroids, so being “in” becomes terribly important. Seeing Barbara Streisand as cheerleader or Rob Reiner as football hunk does seem a bit odd. But, then, those castings are Hollywod, all right. After all, Reiner did play a pro (if not very good) football player on a Rockford Files—the absurdity was part of the joke. The question is, how did that ideology become “in” in the first place?

Was this a backlash to McCarthyism? Certainly, that was a bad moment for Hollywood and for the country. Of course, it might also be the result of the quite real sympathies of many of those in Hollywood for the Russian “experiment”? Stein would argue that that weight is slowly being lifted over time, but was quite real. We might ask, what did Hollywood think when those grand experiments of the twentieth century failed? But introspection is not the filmmaker’s art. It is difficult to “show” the confusion and pain of awakened consciousness to how misplaced these loyalties were—although such a movie might have real potential. (If, indeed, Hollywood understands such pain.)

Perhaps, however, it is because actors (and writers and directors) are in the business of capturing intense, fleeting emotion. These artists are their work; they identify with others viscerally and immediately. A (modern & American) liberal sees an injustice and, with that immediate sympathy, reacts–publicizes and sympathizes. For a moment, perhaps, some birds were saved; in the long range, many humans die from malaria. The American conservative (who is often as much pragmatist as tory) is struck by the latter but the liberal has moved on to some new cause. Conservative (modern and American) says, let’s get a wide angle lens and watch what develops over time. More often a person of practical skills (what percentage of engineers are conservative do you figure?), the conservative is at least as likely to act but chooses a more stoic response to life.

An actor’s job is to feel as the character does, to become that character. The best of these do that very well. But it is not a discipline that leads to taking the broad view. The extraordinary talent of Meryl Streep is not matched by deep understanding – nor need it be. Willie Nelson is quite capable of complaining about (and not paying) his taxes, campaigning for Kucinich, performing the most irritating of vigilante songs (“Whiskey for my Men and Beer for my Horses”), doing charitable work for the dying family farm, and advocating drug legalization. These do not seem (at least to me) the sign of a coherent thinker, though each is an interesting gut response and have in common his visceral sympathy for the “little man” (especially, of course, himself). Nonetheless, I am moved by his work; I hear “Bloody Mary Morning” and say, ah, he captured that feeling.

Of course some actors and writers do take the long view; the question is, does this form of art – the embodiment of emotion – help develop that tendency; I suspect it doesn’t. (Obviously, having both the ability to intensely analyze the fleeting emotions and place those emotions in a broad context may not be detrimental, it just seems less necessary.)

For those of you less enthusiastic about country/western music or even movies, we can look at Emily Dickinson, who captured the intensity of psychological responses with a power few writers can touch. The Civil War tore the nation apart, her friends marched off and some of them marched back, her father and brother represented their region in state and even federal legislatures. But she went on, examining herself, with a power we respect (and feel) today. The brevity and intensity of her lyrics focus on feeling first of all. If Whitman’s strength is panoramic, hers is tightly circumscribed, subjective and narrow. Hers is the art of psychological representation—a quality that the colors, music, script and acting of modern movies also tries to capture.

Such subjectivity is artful; it helps us understand ourselves. But when we say an actor “becomes” someone else, it is that he feels as the other, not that he thinks as that other. So is it surprising that, looking at a criminal, an actor would sympathize with how that other feels and his heart would go out to the one behind bars. And this, too, is good. Too little of an actor’s skill makes us insensitive, narrow. However, too much makes us near sighted.

Villainous Nazis have long outlived their role as anything but a cliché; they continue to appear in American films. Faceless corporations, too, come readily to the cinematic mind. Apparently, it has been harder to deal with the gulags, aimed at Utopias but building hells. As Stalin observed, the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic—and he should have known. For modern cinema, those millions have, apparently, remained a statistic as the victims of the holocaust, given depth and precision by specific narratives, have not. Does that wealth of gulag statistics overpower or is it that portraying that world would require a look into an abyss Hollywood is not prepared to take. Is it ideology? Is it a lack of imagination?

It is hard for our minds to grasp the abstract. We love literature because it conveys that abstract, the big truth in depictions of the concrete, the specific, the real. I can reach my students through a character they have come to love. Our minds understand through metaphor. I notice the difference on this blog. My mind immediately goes to anecdotes and experience; others begin with the big picture, appear to have been trained to think in those broad sweeps. (Economics and philosophy, I’m beginning to understand, disciplines the mind in quite useful ways.) I haven’t been trained and my mind needs those symbols and examples more than most; still, big concepts are generally best conveyed through figures of speech. The Puritans preached the gospel of “plain style” but they understood “teaching” metaphors were central to our understanding.

To return to my neighbor: abstractions were difficult for her. “Others” didn’t exist if they weren’t in front of her; if they weren’t, she didn’t “feel their pain.” In her late twenties, she had for that moment a glimmer of those “others.” Her responses were derived from an excess of sentiment and a lack of imagination. But, always, we need to note the power of the heart & the gut can take an immediate response for a broader truth. We are, quite simply, moved.

Broader vision needs cultivation. I suspect we have to start early. One of my father’s favorite allusions was to the great Donne meditation –

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of that continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I’m sure his affection came partly because, like so many men of his generation, he had a passion for Hemingway. I suspect it was also because he was a rural mailman; as he drove his daily route, he knew how connected we all are. My parents were bound (sometimes uncomfortably but always quite consciously) in the specific web of our small community but they always saw its relation to the whole. My father’s love for that great metaphor also came because he knew it on a parochial and daily basis – when the Lutheran church bells rang, my parents would pause and count, at the end turning to one another and saying, ah, so Augustine died. But they also believed it in a general one – their conversations moved between the local and international over the dinner table. Both enlisted during World War II. Both learned practical skills (my father’s degree in engineering, my mother’s in home ec.) They saw their loyalties to enlarging circles, but understood the form of even the largest (like so many in the fifties they saw great hope in the UN) because they knew so well the shape of that first ripple.

And so, in Austin, years later, I was shocked that my neighbor struggled with a concept that seemed basic to life in a civilized society. Her struggle tells us why some have little problem cheating an insurance company or stealing from the till; such sentimental identification is at the bottom of the worst excesses of personal injury awards and the objects of such lawyer’s arguments.

In one of those stupidities that mark a life of bad choices, a quite verbal, witty, but somewhat feckless woman became my business partner. One day I remarked on my (admittedly sentimental) affection for Casablanca and she responded that it was a horrible movie; indeed, she argued, it was a fascist one. Of course, the movie does put duty above passion, it “privileges” the state over the personal. I’d always found that, well, uplifting, heroic. This should, however, have been a clue. Such thinking was not likely to mean she felt much compunction about making passes at the Xerox tech rep nor that he was likely to do such a great job of fixing our machines under such circumstances.

Duty may appear dull, but it is a real virtue. It acknowledges our responsibility to the larger community. Isn’t her set of priorities the one that feels sorry for the real criminal staring at her out of a jail cell but is unable to think of the numerous victims of his petty theft or the unseen victim of his violence? And isn’t it, at least in part, derived from a lack of imagination?

Last night, I signed a pile of permission slips; in my daughter’s first year in high school, she will watch many movies. These are not bad ones, but they are also not Bergman. All are sentimental, filled with clichés. She set herself to watching the Godfather trio in her last “free” weekend, aiming at a somewhat higher aesthetic in her leisure time. Her school’s apparent celebration of feeling seems at odds with the goal of education. It is not my experience that modern society is so guided by the long-term and rational that we need help in developing the short-term and emotional.

Perhaps this emphasis upon immediacy, upon feelings, this impatience with patience leads to more crime but I’m not sure. Glenn Reynolds likes to talk of “a pack not a herd” in terms of crime fighting. He contrasts those moved by pure instinct, by ad populum arguments and band wagon appeals (herds) with those powered by the instinct of self defense but relying on initiative and responsibility (packs). He refers to those who “saw” – who put the dots together, took initiative, and rushed the cockpit on 9/11. They acted consciously, making choices, after their first, frightened reactions.

What is striking about the people who defined our culture–both the early Puritans and the founding fathers—was the emphasis they placed upon the future, upon the far horizon in time. The Puritans thought in terms of typology; the founding fathers in terms of “human nature.” Both studied history to see what it could tell them about patterns; both wanted to project those patterns into the future. A society that sees not the broad sweep of “human nature” but the factions and responses of the moment is more likely to miss the big picture, less likely to contribute to the wisdom that comes from the ability to truly see rather than merely feel. A disproportionate life is not a conscious one. Chillingworth or Casaubon are not good husbands; they are not, indeed, good men because they weigh the head too heavily. But our society encourages fewer of these than a Wickham or Willoughby who lives with immediacy and passion but very little duty.

The marketplace of ideas, of economics and of religion require not only a vision of the long run, but a faith in it. This is Edward Feser’s argument. In the end, that marketplace requires humility – a willingness to listen to others, to accept their rights, their arguments – and a certain healthy pride – the belief one’s truth will win out in open discussion. Patience comes with confidence.

It is true that among our nation’s founders, a firm belief in the marketplace was coupled with a belief in Providence. It is fashionable to think of the founding fathers as not religious and certainly many were not conventional believers, adherents of fervent sects. But, as Michael Novak points out and even the most cursory readings of their works note, they did believe in what many described as Providence. They believed that the world had an order and a meaning. That belief leads us to look farther, to assume the dots out there can be connected, and only slowly (perhaps never) will we be able to connect them all, see the immense pattern.

Traditionally, history – through parallels and analysis, through the depiction of heroes and tyrants, through its ability to offer tentative and partial patterns– has helped us see that meaning. With it, we take as a matter of course that there are “someones” out there who own the bikes, future someones and past someones a part of the web which, at this point, we are doing the spinning. How we look at history (indeed, how we are taught to look at history) can be important. It can have a bearing on our confidence.

Immediate gut reactions are important. What inspired that feeling and that feeling itself make up the raw data with which our minds work — acknowledged, analyzed, they keep us on track. We can’t ignore them; our perceptions and reactions are our primary sources. Still, a short-term horizon leads to a government program that “fixes” a problem in the short run. If, in the rough give and take of verbal exchange, someone is hurt, then the solutions in the short run are speech codes. It takes faith in the long term to believe such ideas will be marginalized – it takes faith in man’s ability to reason, that the “truth” will out if it takes centuries.

Utopian visions want to end history, since they posit the perfect world. Open marketplace advocates see the world in constant flux. They do not see that as a bad thing. Sure, any system is flawed as any man is. It is a vision that requires, as in Feser’s argument is required of the “good” libertarian, humility. None have all the answers; we can just hope some of us have some of them. Such a vision requires faith in what we believe – if we doubt our beliefs or the power of a good idea, we are more likely to want them enforced. Surely, the terrorists are driven by doubt masquerading as certainty, impatience masquerading as obsessive planning. The broader our horizons, the firmer our faith in our fellow man, the more likely we are to see that open marketplace as the ultimate good. And the more we want our children trained to take that view.

4 thoughts on “Excess Sentiment”

  1. “He contrasts those moved by pure instinct, by ad populum arguments and band wagon appeals (herds) with those powered by the instinct of self defense but relying on initiative and responsibility (packs).”

    So what’s required for self defense? Self reliance and self confidence. An individual instead of a drone.

    Good post.


  2. “My youngest daughter asked me why so many performers were liberals.”

    I believe that people become Leftist, especially intellectual Leftist because they live in an economic environment highly divorced from all natural or non-human forces. They inhabit a world where their personal success or failure is determined purely by the opinions and emotional response of other humans. They are never tested by natural forces such as the weather nor do they have to deal with with complex and unpredictable human systems like the stock market of warfare.

    Leftist are parochial. They believe that because their world is governed by completely human factors everybody else’s is as well. In their world, problems are solved by getting enough people to feel or think about a situation differently. Most of the rest of us don’t have that luxury.

  3. The Economic Focus article In the 14 Aug 2004 issue of The Economist, the Economic Focus article “The Evolution of Everyday Life” was on the genetics of cooperation. The web version is premium content, hence no link…

    The emphasizes the importance of two traits in generating cooperation and the trust that makes it possible:
    Rational calculation of personal benefit.
    Valuing reciprocity

    Neither of these two tendencies could support co-operation without the other, and the balance between the two is delicate. Calculation without reciprocity often favours cheating; this undermines trust, so co-operation either cannot get started or quickly breaks down. On the other hand, reciprocity without calculation exposes people to exploitation by others. Again, fear of exploitation inhibits co-operation.

    What strikes me is the importance of co-operation and trust in taking a longer range view of the world.

    Duty exists within the family throughout the birds and mammals. Care for the young, the male leading predators away from the female and her young, and so on. There is also obligation to those higher in the pecking order in packs and herds, and cross family cooperation between different species. But this is not enough to provide long term dependence like specialization of labor.

    So it was not only duty and belief in Providence that led to a longer view, but the ability to calculate personal benefit from cooperation and trust (faith) that the agreement would stand, or perhaps “go the extra mile” to improve satisfaction and prepare the way for the next agreement.

    Ginny posits that perhaps her friend’s ethical dilemma was a problem abstracting from the bicycles to their owners. Perhaps it was also a lack of trust and reciprocity. The 60’s destroyed a lot of peoples’ trust in the police as fair and effective. It also brought the “mind your own business” attitude, that you were more likely to get hurt by intervening in a crime than you were to make a positive difference.

    Perhaps the neighbor did not see any benefit for herself, did not trust the police to handle the situation and saw no chance of reciprocity if one of the bicycle owners saw a break in on her property.

    It’s a sad situation. Francis Fukuyama in Trust points out that some societies foster a faith in cross family reciprocity and some don’t. Those that do seem to be more innovative, entrepreneurial and economically efficient. We are losing that trust, our institutions, media and culture no longer foster it. And our ability to make the world better for our selves, our children and other countries is diminished.

    Matya no baka

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