Blue Mud, or the Dubious Virtues of Hipness

Noted Wise Old Man Robert A. Heinlein observed that the most essential survival skill may be knowing to rub blue mud in one’s navel when everyone else does. But if the blue mud turns out to be poisonous, it may well be counterproductive over the long term.

More directly, it is often difficult to resist fashionable ideas, particularly when they are romanticized ideas that, as my dad would have said, “blow sunshine up your skirt.” For example, over the weekend a friend of mine spoke of a moral arc that bends, however slowly, towards goodness — which might in some ways be the position of some intellectually honest Progressives, giving them something toward which they can progress. It might be pretty to think so, but I remain dubious; indeed, I tend to think efforts to hurry the bend of the arc lead to terrible consequences more often than not. For this and similar aspects of my tragic view of humanity, the Mad Dog goodnaturedly chides me from time to time as the voice of doom.

I’m led to think of all this because of an article I read this morning. At National Review Online, John O’Sullivan mentions that the punditocracy often argues for a position because it appears to be the cool thing to do, rather than because the position is borne out by any resemblance to reality. Conservatives in particular are urged to shed their stodgy images and abandon principles in the name of seeming optimistic or forward-looking.

He cites a British example:

[Andrew Cooper] argued there that it was culturally obtuse and politically risky for the Tory party to argue in favor of the traditional family in a society that included so many single parents. Politically risky? Fair enough. One should always handle such topics sensitively and intelligently, with a view to avoiding any stigmatization of those who fall short of an ideal. But culturally obtuse? The evidence is unambiguous that single parenthood is worse for children than a family that includes two parents. Are we not to notice this, not to point it out, not to ensure that it influences social policy, because it might wound those who don’t live in such families? If so, then we are sacrificing the life chances of innumerable children on the altar of sensitivity. Surely that goes too far.

Likewise, I’ve heard it said that Chief Justice Roberts  cast the deciding vote in the recent Obamacare case so that SCotUS would appear evenhanded and curry the favor of an elite class. Not being a mindreader, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that such an idea can gain credence says something about the power of the desire to appear a certain way to one’s peers.

Journalists and opinion writers often claim that their duty is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” However, they should also beware of the comfort of being seen as sensitive or optimistic, particularly when the alternative entails seeing things as they really are. That comfort, like the poisonous blue mud I mentioned earlier, may itself prove to be an affliction.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to Blue Mud, or the Dubious Virtues of Hipness

  1. Alpheus says:

    I think it absolutely *is* an affliction, in the long run. Unfortunately, rapid social and technological change, including the development of an economy in which the individual producer is severely disadvantaged relative to large organizations, has made rapid adjustment to new social norms a much more important survival skill than it’s been in the past. If you want to be safe, and especially if you want to flourish, it really helps nowadays to be an adroit crowd-follower. I’m not saying it’s impossible to succeed on one’s own, or that one can’t build a life outside the “system” — but it’s more difficult. As it’s become more and more important to build quick connections with one another by signaling desirability as allies, the penalties for eccentricity and nonconformity have increased. (And what liberals celebrate as “individuality” or “nonconformity” is often just the ultimate conformity with what the cool kids are doing.)

    The irony for conservatives is that while we’re saying success shouldn’t be punished but celebrated, liberals are, in general, better at precisely the sorts of behaviors — efficient adaptation to the herd, willingness to redefine oneself to fit in — that for most people are most readily conducive to success in contemporary America.

  2. Jeff says:

    Breaking from a herd is also more difficult these days because herds send unceasing signals through social media and 24-hours news, to an extent unthinkable 20 years ago. It takes incredible effort now to pull away and kick around a new idea in private–voting for the other guy, for example, or thinking the side you’re usually inclined to take may be dead wrong on one particular issue. The same tools that help us spot glaring partisanship and ideological inconsistency also make it dangerous for people to express a simple and honest change of heart.

  3. The Ancient says:

    And what liberals celebrate as “individuality” or “nonconformity” is often just the ultimate conformity with what the cool kids are doing.

    Can Alpheus be given some sort of super-secret prize for this?

  4. Alpheus says:

    Can my prize be that the “cool kids” finally like me for myself? 🙂

    What Jeff says about social media etc. sounds to me depressingly right. We hear so much about how the newer technologies have expanded the available range of information and ideas, and I think it’s all true, but most people seem to use the internet mainly as a means of keeping in closer touch with the herd.

    An addendum to my original comment: another reason crowd-following has become so important is surely the decline of traditional communities that defined a person’s identity: families, small towns and neighborhoods, etc. When people have known you for years and automatically tend to see you as one of themselves, earning their approval is easier, or at least requires a lower level of skill.

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