It’s during the White House years that Mr. Meacham’s story takes hold. We see Andrew Jackson making the hard trip east from Tennessee to Washington where the political permanent class waits in judgment, wary of Jackson’s frontier background and fearful of the source of his power. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1828 marked the first time that a president was elevated entirely on the strength of popular support, and the Founders’ low regard for the common intelligence still percolated through Washington.
Malcolm Gladwell argues that perhaps we are too extreme when it comes to policing plagiarism. In an article in this week’s New Yorker (link expires), Gladwell tells the very personal story of a profile that he wrote being plagiarized by Bryony Lavery in writing her Tony-nominated play Frozen. The experience led Gladwell to wonder if plagiarism, far from being the literary equivalent of a capital crime, is actually a necessary ingredient in many a creative endeavor. Gladwell, by the way, has new book coming out in a couple of months, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, excerpts of which you can read here.On a similarly counterintuitive note, The Economist has decided that our obsession with intellectual property is misguided (link expires), and, in fact, “in America, many experts believe that dubious patents abound, such as the notorious one for a ‘sealed crustless sandwich.'”Speaking of sandwiches, In an interview with Wired, Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco continues with the intellectual property theme by declaring that “Music is not a loaf of bread.”
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
Reuters is reporting that several prominent publishers, currently tethered to larger companies and media conglomerates, could be the target of bids from private equity firms looking for the steady cashflow that their backlists would provide. At the top of the list is Penguin, currently owned by Pearson, but News Corp’s HarperCollins and CBS’s Simon & Schuster could be separated from their parents as well. So far Houghton Mifflin is the only major publisher to have been extracted from its parent (Vivendi in this case) by private equity firms.Is this good news for publishers? Since they’re not very profitable, publishers are often forgotten alongside the other holdings of these large media companies. At the same time, however, private equity firms’ primary motive would likely be getting a return on their investment, so cost cutting could probably be expected.