Noah Millman has a provocative and interesting post up at The American Scene titled "Notes Toward* a New Political Taxonomy." He argues that writers ought to use a three axis system for classifying political writers and thinkers. First, "liberal" or "conservative" to classify the writer's attitude toward individual ability and authority. Second, left wing or right wing to indicate whether one is more animated by failure than by success. Third, reactionary or progressive to define one's attitude toward the future and past.
Only #2 is easy for me. I'm unabashedly right wing.
Axis #1 is hardest. What if one is generally impressed by individual capacities, but also deferential to authority?
Take Pnin and me. While I'm prepared for the possibility that he might vociferously disagree with me, I would say that he is much less impressed than I am by individual capacities, but also far less deferential to authority. It's manifested itself to some degree in our professional lives. Most of my scattered professional endevaors to date have involved sticking up for plucky little guys against the system -- Up with hairbraiders and non-licensed tour guides! Down with racial and gender preferences; their intended beneficiaries can make it on their own, thanks! Much of his scholarship, on the other hand, involves voter ignorance -- an endeavor that necessarily involves taking a dim view of individual capacities.
This difference also manifests itself in our daily lives sometimes. I imbibed some kind of red state can-do optimism in childhood that I have a hard time shaking. Of course I can learn how to bake rhubarb pie this weekend! Or do yoga! Or look fashionable! Or, possibly, Japanese or German or Russian (or all three at once!) Only physical collapse is an excuse not to keep going with new projects. Pnin, on the other hand, has a much more focused conception of his abilities and interests. He wants to be a good scholar, a kind person to his family, and pursue a few selected hobbies (like following sports statistics and science fiction.) Outside those selected realms of expertise, he's much more deferential to those he recognizes as experts; I, on the other hand, am more likely to try to compensate for lack of real knowledge with frantic Google searches and crash courses consisting of a few books. I've seen it also when we talk about the nature/nurture debate. We've seen much of the same social science. Yet at some gut level, he seems to find nature explanations, with all their limited capacity explanations, infinitely more interesting than I do.
Each tendency has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of mine is that it gives my life variety. But sometimes vaa taste for variety turns into dilettantism, which is one of the reasons why I On the other hand, the down side of thinking that one can do anything if one works hard enough is that it seems all the more crushing when one can't. I take umbrage easily at the suggestion that I can't be all things to all people. He doesn't. Yet he takes slights harder when they come in his areas of focus, from what I can tell.
Yet our views on deference to authority diverge. This emerges at a grand philosophical level when we've debated the individual duty to obey unjust laws. My position: yes! Otherwise, anarchy. How can most people know if their resistance to the law is justified? His: of course not! Law is merely an instrument to an end!
As with the individual capacity split, the authority split manifests itself in interesting ways in everyday life. He's much more willing to argue with authorities about some small injustice -- say, debating a parking attendant charging us for three hours when we've parked in place for two hours and five minutes. My instinct is along the lines of "The rules are the rules! If we've parked there for more than two hours, then we should pay for more than two hours. We shouldn't expect the rules to be bent for us." Ditto my weird anxieties about interacting with people more important than me, which he doesn't share to nearly the same degree.
I'm not sure how to classify myself along Axis #3 either. I think scientific and technical progress is wonderful, and so long as just a few wealthy societies stay basically politically and economically free, I can see it making life infinitely richer and better. That's a kind of Whiggishness which should make me a Progressive on Millman's axes. But I'm not nearly so sanguine about political and economic freedom. And I have deep reactionary tendencies when it comes to culture. I don't think that there's much that can be more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace or the Venus de Milo. Not to mention my weakness for the Victorian novel. Likewise, I don't think that human nature can be fundamentally changed or revamped, as some true Progressives do.
1 hour ago