Tyler Cowen suggeststhat Tom Lehrer would have been a member of the Intellectual Dark Web.
Lehrer represented the IDW of his day. He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness. It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed. Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left. (Shades of Eric Weinstein!) He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era. In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).
This is provocative – but it seems basically wrong to me. The more trivial reason why is that Lehrer seems to have stayed on the American left.
“I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.” In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to “Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama”
The more useful answer is that whatever you think about their respective political positions, their orientations to politics are fundamentally different. Lehrer was an iconoclast. The IDW people, in contrast, are iconolaters. IDWers don’t just want to push back against what they believe to be an emerging orthodoxy. They want to defend a pre-existing orthodoxy of their own (which roughly coheres around a common mythology regarding the ‘Enlightenment’ was and what it still has to offer) against it, and they take their own dogma seriously. This is why the style of IDW tends more towards thin-skinned self-seriousness, and heavy hectoring. You need a sense of the absurd to be funny.
Perhaps a modern Tom Lehrer would indeed skewer the pieties of the left. Any broad social movement tends towards dogma. All dogmas produce some absurdities, and for that matter, tragedies. But the left is hardly the only source of such pieties, or, perhaps, the most important one. The piece that Tyler links to also has this section:
On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.
It’s hard not to be reminded of the ‘we’re only interested in the neutral scientific inquiry’ line that many IDWers take on race and IQ, and the Left’s Hostility and Open Debate.*
Lehrer was entertainingly impatient with the people whose politics he agreed with, but his true venom was reserved for an altogether more important set of shibboleths. Not political correctness, but the Cold War fusion of unthinking patriotism and technocratic politics. There are analogies to that fusion today, but I don’t think they’re on the left.
Update: as happens pretty well every time that I write a post responding to Tyler, whether agreeing or disagreeing, there’s a raft of comments with personal invective aimed towards him, and/or complaining that I shouldn’t be engaging him. And as before, I’m deleting all such comments – opinions about my engagement have already been amply expressed, and there are plenty of other places on the Internet you can express your derogatory opinions about him (or, for that matter, me).
When I once had the misfortune to be criticized online by Jordan Peterson, I spent several days dealing with multitudes of politely insistent followers demanding that I engage them in lengthy debate on race and IQ, to the point that I eventually had to write this post to fend them off). NB that I am quite sure that Tyler is no more enthusiastic about race-IQ nutters than I am.
Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh. I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals. I was struck by the following:
1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day. He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness. It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed. Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left. (Shades of Eric Weinstein!) He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era. In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).
2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.
3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate. Might that be the central theme in his thought?
4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.” He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.
5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher. His audience seems to take this interest in stride. This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.
6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original. And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics. I still enjoy hearing them as music. And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?
7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”). He once said: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”
It would be hard to pull this off today. Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended. Plus he is flat-out funny. He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.
8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.
9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent. He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.
10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements. Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.
11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA. He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.
What is going on right now in Wisconsin (and Michigan, and in North Carolina after the 2016 Election) is the logical progression of the erosion of democratic norms that Newt Gingrich kicked off in 1994 and Mitch McConnell elevated to an art form. If you can't win, change the rules. The Democrats are not without blame, indirectly, since the strategy relies on the knowledge that the dopey-ass decorum addicts will always change the rules back (hamstringing themselves) when in power. It is a perfect example of the Republicans as Air Bud and the Democrats standing there futilely pointing at the rule book shouting "A DOG CAN'T PLAY BASKETBALL!" while Air Bud dunks on them over and over again.
But there's another, deeper component to the justifications the Wisconsin GOP is trying to lay out for its naked power grab. The briefest, yet totally accurate, summary is that rural Wisconsin voters are the ones who actually matter so they should get what they want. That's it. That's all it boils down to. Sure the Democrats won the statewide elections, but only because – seriously, this is the argument – people in Milwaukee and Madison voted for them.
The city people (wink!) don't count. They're not real. They exist and sure maybe even they have the right to vote, but they're fundamentally lesser. Their preferences are subordinate to the Real Wisconsinites. Like in the deep south after Reconstruction, Wisconsin's GOP sees its politics as a state with x population but only a small fraction of x that should rightly be making decisions and exercising rights for the whole.
This is the language of European far-right ethno-nationalist parties. We know we are not the majority, but we are the only people who matter.
That's where we are. I reiterate that there is no world in which this era of American politics has a happy ending.
Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.
This may sound melodramatic, but it’s not. The “browser engines” — Chromium from Google and Gecko Quantum from Mozilla — are “inside baseball” pieces of software that actually determine a great deal of what each of us can do online. They determine core capabilities such as which content we as consumers can see, how secure we are when we watch content, and how much control we have over what websites and services can do to us. Microsoft’s decision gives Google more ability to single-handedly decide what possibilities are available to each one of us.
From a business point of view Microsoft’s decision may well make sense. Google is so close to almost complete control of the infrastructure of our online lives that it may not be profitable to continue to fight this. The interests of Microsoft’s shareholders may well be served by giving up on the freedom and choice that the internet once offered us. Google is a fierce competitor with highly talented employees and a monopolistic hold on unique assets. Google’s dominance across search, advertising, smartphones, and data capture creates a vastly tilted playing field that works against the rest of us.
From a social, civic and individual empowerment perspective ceding control of fundamental online infrastructure to a single company is terrible. This is why Mozilla exists. We compete with Google not because it’s a good business opportunity. We compete with Google because the health of the internet and online life depend on competition and choice. They depend on consumers being able to decide we want something better and to take action.
Will Microsoft’s decision make it harder for Firefox to prosper? It could. Making Google more powerful is risky on many fronts. And a big part of the answer depends on what the web developers and businesses who create services and websites do. If one product like Chromium has enough market share, then it becomes easier for web developers and businesses to decide not to worry if their services and sites work with anything other than Chromium. That’s what happened when Microsoft had a monopoly on browsers in the early 2000s before Firefox was released. And it could happen again.
If you care about about what’s happening with online life today, take another look at Firefox. It’s radically better than it was 18 months ago — Firefox once again holds its own when it comes to speed and performance. Try Firefox as your default browser for a week and then decide. Making Firefox stronger won’t solve all the problems of online life — browsers are only one part of the equation. But if you find Firefox is a good product for you, then your use makes Firefox stronger. Your use helps web developers and businesses think beyond Chrome. And this helps Firefox and Mozilla make overall life on the internet better — more choice, more security options, more competition.
Been using firefox for since around version 1.0 it has had it's ups and downs but still my prefered browser. Although I have started using waterfox at work which seems like the best parts of firefox without out some of the not so good parts.