Jonah Goldberg, Calvinism, Genre Literature, and Anthropology

In response to Eugene's post "Dancing Girls," I am moving this post (from 2008) to the head of the line! It has been only slightly edited. The comments (and objections) are still relevant.

I just finished Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. In Liberal Fascism, Mr. Goldberg traces the historical link between progressivism, fascism, and liberalism. The history is interesting, Mr. Goldberg's points are more than a little valid, and the tone of his tome is relaxed, intelligent, and much less in-your-face caustic than, say, Ann Coulter. He's readable plus you don't feel like you're in the middle of a screaming match like with so much political pundit writing.

And man, is he insightful! While reading the book, I kept going, "Yes! Yes, that's exactly how I felt in my master's program!" This particular quote caught my eye:
[O]ne of the main reasons I've written this book [is] to puncture the smug self-confidence that simply by virtue of being liberal one is also virtuous. At the same time, I need to repeat that I am not playing the movie backward. Today's liberals aren't the authors of past generations' mistakes any more than I'm responsible for the callousness of some conservative who championed states' rights for the wrong reason well before I was born. No, the problems with liberalism today reside in liberalism today. The relevance of the past is that unlike the conservative who has wrestled with his history to make sure he does not repeat it, liberals see no need to do anything of the sort. And so, armed with complete confidence in their own good intentions, they happily go marching past boundaries we would stay well clear of. They reinvent ideological constructs we've seen before in earlier times, unaware of their pitfalls, blithely confident that the good guys could never say or do anything "fascist" because fascism is by definition anything not desirable. And liberalism is nothing if not the organized pursuit of the desirable.
I concur. There are few things in this world as bizarre as listening to a liberal tell you how horrible and close-minded and disgusting conservatives and Republicans are and then, in the same breath, tell you how much the said liberal hates various groups. (And no, I'm not exaggerating.)

In my master's program, I referred to this attitude--"whatever I say is tolerant no matter how intolerant it sounds because what I'm saying is de facto tolerant"--as Calvinism although maybe that's unfair to Calvinists. Still, the approaches bear a similarity: rather than behaving a certain way, one adopts certain attitudes or positions. If I gain a conviction that I am saved, I must be saved.

And this attitude, oddly enough, dovetails into a completely different subject I've been thinking about lately: the belittlement of the science-fiction and fantasy genre by "sophisticated" writers.

I used to read articles by Orson Scott Card and Stephen King about so-called sophisticated writers belittling genre literature, and I'd get all worked up about it, but in my heart of hearts, I didn't believe it was that big a problem. However, in just the past few years, I've had similar experiences whereby I've encountered "sophisticated" writers declaring that fantasy and science-fiction pieces are just soooo childish--not real and reputable and profound and sophisticated like the stuff they write and read.

I have found these statements bewildering, to say the least. I've always assumed "sophistication" to mean something like "a broad knowledge of the world" which, unless one ignores most of history and World Literature, includes fantasy and science-fiction (the first English novel was a fantasy: Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and one could argue that The Tale of Genji is fantasy although in a somewhat different vein).

Knowledge, by the way, doesn't equate to "liking." I have no trouble with someone who doesn't care for fantasy, who prefers, for example, Henry V to Midsummer Night's Dream, but there is little to no point in saying, "Midsummer Night's Dream would be so much better if it wasn't for the fantastical elements." What, the lovers are supposed to take a road trip across America and find themselves instead? I'm sure Shakespeare could have written that sort of thing if he'd known about it, but it would kind of ruin the play. (And despite assumptions to the contrary, it wouldn't automatically make it more insightful.)

I think that what Goldberg defines as "smug self-confidence" is at work here. Rather than formulate intelligent, sophisticated arguments about the immaturity or non-insightful nature of fantasy and science-fiction, supposedly sophisticated critics and writers have simply decided to define fantasy and science-fiction by those terms. (This is marked by the fact that when they do decide to like a piece of fantasy, they redefine it as "magical realism.")

But why, I've asked myself, create the definition in the first place? It is hardly necessary for someone who likes contemporary, "realistic" (see this post for my discussion of what constitutes "realism"), hanging-out-suburbia fiction to even have an opinion about fantasy and science-fiction writing.

I've decided (and this brings us back to Mr. Goldberg's criticisms of modern-day liberalism) that humans have an intense fear of not-being-cool.

Yes, yes, I know, we all of think of that fear as an adolescent trait, but I believe the fear of not-being-cool is simply more vocalized, more honestly admitted to, in the teenage years. The hold of "the cool" never really leaves us. It is the fear that somehow one will fall out of favor with others of one's tribe if one supports that which is not tasteful, profound, appropriate, sensitive.

Now, "cool" isn't the same as "legal." We are not talking about murder or theft or even breaking a religious commandment here. In other words, we are not talking about actual crimes or deeds that result in a literal outcasting. Rather, breaking the rule of "cool" results not in ostracism but in a lack of empathy. Dissonance occurs. One is no longer "one" with one's group.

This happened to me in high school on several occasions. On one occasion, I was reading Izzy Willy Nilly by Cynthia Voigt. The cover of my edition was "teen friendly," a well-coiffed girl sitting in a chair; the cover blurb was, for lack of a better word, "teen-fantastic." In other words, the book didn't look even vaguely sophisticated. All the "sophisticated" people I hung out with then were reading Thoreau. One of them picked up Izzy Willy Nilly and said, "Oh, what are you reading?" in a "this is just toooo pathetically teeny-bopperish" tone.

I wasn't being ostracized, but I was being informed of the "right" tastes of the group. However, another student spoke up and said, "It's a good book," and the incident passed. It wouldn't have worked on me anyway. I was as susceptible to peer pressure as the next teenager, but it never occurred to me not to read exactly what I wanted. (I got "uncooled" again when I read Gone With the Wind, which to be honest, was rather a waste of time. I never did read Thoreau.)

But I still wonder, Why the need to "uncool" people? To say, "If you do this, you aren't a neat, sophisticated, with-it person like us"?

From an anthropological standpoint, the need for people to hold certain tastes in common could bind the group together; still, you'd think the need to eat and not die would have a slightly stronger hold. I suppose people are more likely to find food together and not die if they hold ideas in common, but an excess of common ideas could also stagnant the group.

And I think, too, such "cool" agreement (as opposed to blatant ostracism) is largely superficial as a binding mechanism. I have remarked elsewhere that I found the supposedly uniform culture of Brigham Young University (a church-run university) more conducive to open discussion than other more liberal institutions (hey, BYU had protesters of the Gulf War and protesters of the protesters!). A society that holds fundamentals in common seems to be more ready and more tolerant of dissent than societies that don't. (Update: actually, from a historical perspective, the key to tolerance seems to be size and a fluctuating population; Salem, Massachusetts burns witches; larger towns and cities don't.)

So, while I haven't solved the purpose of "uncooling," maybe it explains why fantasy/science-fiction writers seem to be more open to different types of writing than "sophisticated" writers. Like conservatives, fantasy and science-fiction writers are forced to defend their beliefs so often, they learn what they believe. Rather than being grounded in an "I say I'm saved, so I am saved" mentality, they are grounded in something tangible. Which is a much healthier place to be than the mindset of "I'm so tolerant, everyone fall down and worship my tolerance!"


Anonymous said...

Yes, you're being unfair to Calvinism. But the rest of it's pretty much right on.

ZZMike said...

From the Goldberg:

"The relevance of the past is that unlike the conservative who has wrestled with his history to make sure he does not repeat it, liberals see no need to do anything of the sort."

There's a post from a few days ago, by someone who was an interviewer for a White House intern program having something to do with the State Dep't - they'd be working with international policy-makers &c. They came from the cream of the crop of elite Unviversity graduates. He decided to throw in a few questions about recent European history (since they'd be working with NATO questions). Things like "When did WW II start? What was the Yalta conference?" He said that of all the applicants, only one was able to answer most of the questions. Most of them couldn't understand what any of this had to do with their internship.

""sophisticated" writers declaring that fantasy and science-fiction pieces are just soooo childish--not real and reputable and profound and sophisticated like the stuff they write and read."

Like, f'r'instance, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien? And H. G. Wells?

If any of those sophisticates came anywhere near close to Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, I'd be stunned.

"... but to say, "If you don't believe this, you aren't a neat, sophisticated, with-it person like us"?"

That's it exactly. It's much like dressing alike. From what I read, in high school, fashion marks you as either one of Us, or one of Them.

They may be Calvinist in their approach ("I'm saved and you aren't"), but one of the tenets of Calvinism is that we are Totally Depraved (the "T" in TULIP); the elite sophisticates could never even begin to approach the notion that they were even a little bit depraved.

ZZMike said...

Oops. That should have read "...only one was able to answer any of the questions".

All but one scored Zero.

Kate Woodbury said...

Thanks for the comments! One thing I should have added to my post is the difference between religious salvation and political "salvation." In religion, a sense of salvation is expected to reflect itself in the individual's behavior—i.e. my testimony or conviction will be reflected in certain behaviors/actions on my part. The troubling aspect of political or liberal "salvation" is that no personal action is expected to follow; as long as one vocally supports the right (acceptable) agendas and uses the right language and applauds the right people, one's personal behavior is pretty much up for gabs.

It reminds me of the movie Sneakers where a homeless man asks Robert Redford's character for money. Robert Redford's character points to a politician's face on a billboard and says, "Take it up with him." When I first saw that scene, I thought, "Do you really want to give yourself away like that?" It's quintessential liberal thinking: I don't have to do anything because the government should do something, and as long as I support the idea of the government doing something, I'm a good person.

Too, as zzmike says, religious salvation begins with a sense of sin. Which, by the way, I think is one of the most important aspects of good literature! See this post for more of that.

Note: I'm using "liberal" here to indicate the current state of the liberal party, not in the classical liberal sense.

Anonymous said...

Liberals pride themselves on their multiculturalism. Would they also sneer at the Ramayana and Mahabharata, in which it was written:

"The Vimana...., a Pushpaka chariot that resembles the Sun and belongs to my brother was brought by the powerful Ravana; that aerial and excellent chariot going everywhere at will ....and the King [Rama] got in, and the excellent car at the command of the Raghira, rose up into the higher atmosphere....
"Gurkha, flying in his swift and powerful Vimana, hurled against the three cities of the Vrishnis and Andhakas a single projectile charged with all the power of the Universe. An incandescent column of smoke and flame as bright as the thousand suns rose in all its splendour...An iron thunderbolt, a gigantic messenger of death, which reduced to ashes the entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas....The corpses were so burned as to be unrecognizable. The hair and nails fell out; pottery broke without apparent cause, and the birds turned white....After a few hours all foodstuffs were infected.... To escape from this fire, the soldiers threw themselves in streams to wash themselves and their equipment..."

Sure sounds like science fiction to me. It's not quite what we think of as religion--when humans are at the controls.

My point is that since the dawn of our civilization, humans have always tried to imagine scenarios involving new powers, new machines, new capabilities, that would change our world. Today we call it "science fiction," but that's only because science has now advanced to the point that we can do more than just imagine--we can establish a scientific foundation for these ideas too.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's so much "Calvinism" as it is "Calvinball" -- "open-minded" means you agree with me, "closed-minded" means you don't, it's "intolerance" when you critique me, but not when I critique you, since I am by definition open-minded, and therefore tolerant.

Unknown said...

You've never actually read the work of a Calvinist, have you? Would you describe, for example, William Cowper as smug?

Kate Woodbury said...

To be honest, I haven't. (Mostly Calvinist-influenced works, such as Jonathan Edwards who isn't smug.) I admit, that is a flaw with this post.

I started using the term in my American & New England Studies program when I became annoyed at students distancing themselves from "those overly religious people in the past," especially since the college environment seemed to be fairly "religious" in its own right.

I started tracking a number of corollaries between the beliefs of the past and the beliefs of students in the program. My favorite is here. But my object, which I should have made clear in this post, was not to "show up" Calvinists but to "show up" the attitudes in my program. I personally don't think higher education can save me, but there were students in my program who appeared to believe exactly that.

Anonymous said...

You really don't know what Calvinism is.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your explanation on the use of Calvinism, KW. Incidentally, Jonathan Edwards wasn't "Calvin-influenced"; he was just a Calvinist, full stop. In your defense, this is a mistake Paul Johnson makes in his History of the American People. "Calvinist" is one of those words, like fundamentalist, that have taken on lives of their own. It doesn't mean what people customarily think it means. Calvinists, in the 16th century and in the 21st, have never been obsessed with predestination, for instance. I was disappointed to find that even Theodore Dalrymple, a writer I admire greatly, inveighed against Calvin (in the book Our Culture, What's Left of It) as though he were talking about some sinister buffoon or murderous maniac. It's too bad. The Institutes is as much a work of Christian instruction as an elegant 16th-c polemic worth reading whatever one thinks of Protestantism or, indeed, Christianity.

What an excellent blog, btw.

Kate Woodbury said...

Thanks for your compliment and your explanation! (Incidentally, I read Paul Johnson's History of the American People before I entered my program which, overall, provided a good balance to my other reading.)

People do tend to fall all over the predestination issue and admittedly, that was what I was thinking of when I used the term--the popular idea of one's election being pre-determined (which doesn't really bother me in terms of religion but bothers me a lot in terms of politics!). However, due to the the responses I've gotten, I looked up Calvinism on Wikipedia (I know, I know, not the BEST source, but quick and easy). Under "Predestination," the author wrote the following:

"The doctrine of unconditional election is sometimes made to stand for all Reformed doctrine, sometimes even by its adherents, as the chief article of Reformed Christianity. However, according to the doctrinal statements of these churches, it is not a balanced view to single out this doctrine to stand on its own as representative of all that is taught. Unconditional election, and its corollary in the doctrine of predestination are never properly taught, according to Calvinists, except as an assurance to those who seek forgiveness and salvation through Christ, that their faith is not in vain, because God is able to bring to completion all whom He intends to save. Nevertheless, non-Calvinists object that these doctrines discourage the world from seeking salvation."

Eye-opening! And now I have to apologize because I am always telling my students to NEVER use Wikipedia as a reliable source!

S.D. Smith said...

A fascinating post. I agree with the statements that you do not appear to have a clear picture of Calvinism (aka: the historically Christian/biblical understanding of justification before God), but your words really resonate. Have you ever read Dave Wolverton's defense of fantasy over sophistry? "Rant Fantastic", I think it's called.

I appreciate your words and your blog. The desire to be "cool", or relevant, or "meaningful" has led to many perversions of truth.

I had the experience with my Graduate program, wherein the inability to see outside the blinders of liberalsim of my liberal professors was astonishing.

Keep up the "cool" blog.

Anonymous said...

Well I'll say this: after the teenage years of overt ostracism, not being "cool" means having to be comfortable with being alone in your views.

If you're right, it doesn't matter. It can still get lonely though. Which is why this libertarian loves the internet.

Anonymous said...

"...'sophisticated' writers declaring that fantasy and science-fiction pieces are just soooo childish--not real and reputable and profound and sophisticated like the stuff they write and read."

Isn't this just another form of an ad hominem logical fallacy?

Anonymous said...

I recently picked up Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends.

I got pointed to it by someone who pointed out a review of it saying, basically, why does Chabon complain about genre fiction getting no respect when he's a respected writer himself?

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that much of the commentary has focused on the one, rather off-hand comment regarding Calvinism. But that comment is not at all central to your argument.

What you're really noticing is that, for liberals/leftists, the objective is always self-oriented. The problem they seek to solve is not whatever suffering or evil they point out. The problem is that they feel bad about it. What they propose or do is then judged not on the basis of whether it eases the suffering or fights the evil, but merely on whether or not it makes the liberal feel better.

Conservatives, however, raise irksome questions concerning results - questions which invariably make liberals feel bad again. Therefore conservatives are intrinsically evil, hateful, intolerant, and - most pressing of all - need to be silenced in this massive effort to make leftists feel better.

The "ribbon" phenomena, for instance, is a quintessential expression of this as are "hunger awareness" activities that do nothing to alleviate hunger (and really do nothing to increase awareness, since the people there are already fully aware of hunger) and all the other knee-jerk responses of those on the left. All of these point out the over-riding narcissism of the entire left/liberal project.

In the process, the leftist may in fact ease the suffering of an individual here or there, but that's not his object. He, himself, is his object. But don't tell him that, you big evil mean-spirited conservative.

Kate Woodbury said...

Thank you for your analysis! That is the point I was trying to get across--that with modern-day liberalism, the "righteousness" of the individual is decided by the self rather than by an outside objective standard; it's religious, but it's not religious as many conservatives understand religion.

I was exposed to a great deal of this at my last workplace before I started teaching. (The particular issues I ran into while in grad school had more to do with labeling stuff.) I heard some of the most slanderous negative comments I've heard in my life from people who claimed they were tolerant. I also ran into a situation where a woman took for granted that ALL women are pro-choice. I have very ambivalent Libertarian reactions to the politics of abortion, but I think there are solid moral and ethical points to be made by pro-lifers, and I couldn't believe that a supposedly "open-minded" person would just dismiss that because pro-choice is the "right" way to think.

So thanks again although I think I'll have to change my analogy!

You may be interested in this post where I talk about the use of bumper stickers to accomplish the kind of thing you refer to--angst without action.

Anonymous said...

It is religious. It is an idolatry of the self.

There's a great Opus comic by Berke Breathed in which the character Oliver is discoursing at length on the magnificence, grandeur and simple magnitude of the universe. He concludes by asking "What's the center of it all?" Nobody dares say it, but all the other characters in the comic are thinking "me".

I liked the bumper-sticker post, too and left a comment there if you're interested.