“I can’t tell if you’ve accepted me as a student or not,” I said.

“No, I’ve rejected you,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to either one of us if I were to take you on.”

I was angry. “You’ve rejected me on the basis of some high-flown theory you just made up,” I protested.

“Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “I rejected you before I thought of the theory.”

– from Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard, p. 189.

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Blah Blah Single Mothers Blah Decline of the American Family Blah Blah

A lot of conservatives are circulating this New York Times opinion thing arguing that social conservatism is vindicated by the spread of gay marriage. The larger point of this man’s argument is that conservatives have been correct in all of their predictions about how social permissiveness leads to family breakdown which leads to bad social outcomes, and that liberals are now catching on, since when it comes to gay marriage liberals can’t stop talking about the crucial social benefits of marriage.

The first point to note is that liberals are being dishonest when they use the supposed benefits of marriage as an argument for gay marriage. In reality, they don’t care. If the evidence showed marriage produced bad outcomes, they would distort it, because they just believe gay people should get married for equality reasons. All of the invocation of sensible policy reasons is conducted in complete bad faith, deployed only because it could be effective in achieving the spread of gay marriage. Liberals believe in gay marriage largely for equality reasons rather than empirical benefit reasons.*

But what about the social conservatives’ vindication? Does all the evidence now show that they were right all along? Well, there are a large number of issues. Let me choose one of them that looms fairly large and is kind of the central one for the debate: the “breakdown of family structure and traditional marriage.” Here is a quote from the gentleman:

“The fairly-ancient conservative premise that social permissiveness is better for the rich than for the poor persistently bemuses the left; it also persistently describes reality.” 

This contention is supported by a hyperlink to the description of a book, which argues the following:

“While for decades feminists and academics toyed with the myth of the strong single black mother supported by kinship networks, black men drifted into fatherhood without being husbands, without even becoming part of a family,** while black children were left behind. When Americans began their family revolution, they forgot to consider what American marriage was designed to do: it ordered lives by giving the young a meaningful life script. It supported middle-class foresight, planning, and self-sufficiency.”

With this, we can be a little clearer on what the gentleman is trying to argue, which is (as he says) an old conservative talking point: as marriage became more permissive, poor black people were hurt, because black families with single mothers have bad social outcomes that hurt children. The “better for the rich” part refers to the fact that in rich families, nontraditional family structures are not associated with these bad effects. Thus: if you have widespread single motherhood among rich people, it doesn’t matter very much for social outcomes. If you have it for poor people, there are a lot of bad social outcomes.

Here’s why the conservatives are all heartless bastards: they see this as an indictment of single motherhood, rather than an indictment of poverty. Every single time. The reason poor single mothers do worse than rich single mothers is obvious: because it’s incredibly difficult to raise a child well as a poor single mother! But instead of seeing this as a resource problem, they see it as a family structure one. Of course, their answer is that the resource problem would be solved if we foisted unwanted husbands on these women to earn money. But that’s precisely what makes the right such heartless bastards. Instead of believing that every mother should be able to raise a child decently whether she chooses to get married or not, they want her to face a choice between suffering through impoverished motherhood and suffering through a marriage they wouldn’t have chosen were it not for economic necessity and the pressure created by a marriage-incentivizing norm. Of course, I see the bad social outcomes of being a single mother as being associated with poverty (since it is; once you make people wealthy, being a single mother doesn’t end up with kids who are neglected and impoverished) rather than single motherhood. But these evil shits want to solve the problem by cajoling the poor into loveless marriages instead of redistributing wealth.

Of course it’s true that single motherhood is associated with bad outcomes for poor children. That doesn’t indict the breakdown of the marriage norm; that breakdown itself is liberating and should be preserved. What it indicts is the failure to provide adequate resources for a woman to raise a child on her own. This miserly country ensures that a woman trying to raise a child on her own is doomed to a nearly impossible struggle for subsistence!

However: yes, the gentleman is right that conservative pessimism about single motherhood for poor people is more accurate than liberal rosiness. Unfortunately, the correctness of the prediction does absolutely nothing to advance the social conservative argument. It does, however, make a compelling case for combining nontraditional family structures with socialism!

* The empirical benefit reasons may strengthen their resolve, but the key question is whether liberals would still support gay marriage if the studies showed children in these marriages had worse outcomes, instead of showing that they don’t. I think they would, and I think that’s fine (although I do not myself support gay marriage, for esoteric but obvious reasons.)

**By the way, I have a hypothesis as to where some of these absentee black dads went, but let’s not get into that at present.

Are we doomed to repeat this forever?

Is this really just going to recur every four years for the rest of time? This whole election business? This massive expensive eighteen-month spectacle where we bet on presidential horses and read a thousand stories about the personal minutiae of all the various cretinous office-seekers, most of whom we will instantly forget when it’s finished? The conventions and the primaries and the photo ops in New Hampshire diners? Yes, I have gotten used to it. But is it really going to happen forever? We’re just stuck with it? Marx said history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. But what comes after farce? 

It’s not that Michael Eric Dyson is being “personal,” it’s that he’s a liar, a hypocrite, and an apologist for the powerful

An abbreviated version of this appears at the Huffington Post.

The volume of commentary about Michael Eric Dyson’s attack on Cornel West could fill a stadium or two by now, so forgive me for adding to the heap. But many of the criticisms of Dyson’s essay have missed the mark, which has allowed Dyson to claim victory. That should not be permitted.

First, here are the criticisms of Michael Eric Dyson that are foolish: (1) The piece was published in the New Republic, which has a horrible record on race relations. Who cares? It’s in some magazine,* the point is whether it holds up. (Similarly, stop criticizing it for being 9,000 words long. It doesn’t matter if he wrote a book about Cornel West; in-depth writing should be celebrated.)

Bad criticism (2): The essay was “personal.” I don’t even know what personal means here, because the personal/political/public are all jumbled up here. If I criticize my former adviser publicly because of his personal choices of his public political activities, and his personal nastiness about my public political persona, am I being personal or political? I haven’t a clue. I don’t know what’s personal and what’s not, but this criticism allows Dyson to say “Ah, my critics just fling the word ‘personal’ at me without responding to the substance!” I agree, let’s stick to the substance. However let’s also remember that personality is inevitably intertwined with this debate, since for public intellectuals those lines are so blurry.

I say that because I think one minor thing to note (and I don’t know whether this is personal or public) is that it’s hilarious for Michael Eric Dyson of all people to be the one calling Cornel West a frivolous celebrity pseudo-scholar. Glass houses, M.D.! I really can’t imagine a person less well-positioned to make that criticism. Dyson has the audacity to go after West for producing lightweight books instead of serious scholarship, but my God, when was the last time Dyson put out anything remotely scholarly? This criticism is laughable coming from the man who literally bundled a collection of transcripts of his MSNBC interviews between hard covers and released it as a book. Dyson goes after West for reducing his output and writing with co-authors, when Dyson’s most recent book came out five years ago and was a co-authored book about Nas! Dyson says West spends too much time hanging out with celebrities, yet spends his own time with Nas! Some scholarly distance from his subject Dyson maintains. (Oh, and here he is giddy at meeting Jay-Z. And in case you think that’s a one-off, here he is again giddy at meeting Jay-Z, about whom he created a course. Oh, and one more time, this one with Lebron James as well! Sorry, what was that about Cornel West’s celebrity obession?) He criticizes West for egotism and for releasing books of his own quotes, when he released Can You Hear Me Now?: The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson, which features no less than FOUR photographs of himself on the cover! Michael Eric Dyson is the epitome of vacuous egotistical pop-scholarship, the absolute apogee of the media-hungry pundit-professor, and dares to chastize Cornel West for the same tendencies!

Now look, giving someone the ol’ tu quoque doesn’t do anything to their argument, I know. But it does show them to be making it dishonestly. Dyson can’t possibly actually have a problem with professors who favor the media spotlight over their scholarly endeavors, since no academic in America eats up more television time than Michael Eric Dyson! Perhaps Michael Eric Dyson really does believe academics should devote themselves to their research, and perhaps he’s right that Cornel West doesn’t, but he has a bit of self-examination to do before he should go about deploying that particular line of criticism.

Alright, so the charges of massive glaring hypocrisy are pretty well-substantiated. But what of the case against West? As I can see, there are a few points. First, that West’s scholarship has diminished and he has absorbed himself in vain side-projects. Second, that West has a personal grievance against President Obama, whom he felt spurned by, and that this has caused West to issue unwarranted hateful invective against the President. Third, that West arrogantly calls himself a prophet and positions himself as an outsider, ignorant of the fact that prophets can come in many forms. Fourth, that West himself had an Obama-esque pragmatism for a long time (and even a “conservatism”), further reinforcing the idea that his hatred is personal. There are other peripheral points as well. It’s 9,000 words, after all.

First charge! Vanity, celebrity-love, and diminishing scholarly output. Look, everyone knows Cornel West has stopped producing academic work. But look at the presumption here, which is that academic work ought to be produced and a person like West ought to spend his time producing it. Yet consider the position of a person who finds himself in academic life, but strongly pulled by what he feels is a moral imperative to repair a political system he finds ruinous. Why on earth should such a person (as a human rather than an academic) feel any committment whatsoever to writing journal articles that nobody will read? I think to produce important scholarly work in your young years (and West definitely did so, as Dyson concedes) and then to devote yourself to more pressing pursuits is absolutely acceptable. And Michael Eric Dyson must think so, too, because as noted above, this is what he does. Scholarship is one thing a person can do, but it’s not the only thing. (The difference in their choice of extracurriculars is that while Dyson sips drinks at the White House, West is getting handcuffs put on him.)

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History from “Below”

A.J.P. Taylor is known both as a great historian and a “populist” one. He is celebrated for challenging Great Man theories of history, and for emphasizing the role of ordinary people in making the times, as against powerful single individuals. He positioned himself explicitly as a “people’s” historian.

Because of that reputation, it’s worth reflecting on a passage in Taylor’s English History 1914-1945 that shows precisely the wrong way to be “populist.” Taylor is discussing the First World War, and the soldiers who fought in it:

After the [Battle of the] Somme came a new school, poets who saw in war only horror and suffering, tempered by the comradeship of the trenches. Edmund Blunden expressed this spirit sensitively, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves more savagely. Most of them remained war poets, not – as later readers inclined to regard them – anti-war poets. Sassoon, indeed, turned against the war altogether, after winning the Military Cross, and claimed to be a conscientious objector… In any case, these poets spoke only for a minority. All except Isaac Rosenberg were officers – and Rosenberg was by no means a representative ‘other rank’. Even Wilfred Owen, incomparably the greatest poet of either war, saw his ‘men’ from outside.

The ‘Tommies’ have left few memorials. One or two, such as Frank Richards and David Jones, became writers and published reminiscences many years later. Otherwise the Tommies speak in the songs which they composed on the march or to beguile the tedium of the trenches – songs which survive mainly in oral tradition. The tunes were usually adapted from contemporary music-hall ‘hits’. The words were self-depreciatory and often obscene. No other army has ever gone to war, proclaiming its own incompetence and reluctance to fight, and no army has fought better. The humble Englishman found his voice, and these songs preserve him for posterity.

In many respects, this passage exemplifies Taylor’s populist approach. It looks beyond the generals and statesmen, to the people who actually fought the war. And in evaluating the literature of the war, it does not just consider the famous war poems of upper-class officers like Sassoon and Graves, but looks at the rank-and-file Tommies themselves. Taylor champions these ordinary men, who were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, as brave and humble. He insists that their legacy should never be forgotten, that their songs should still be sung.

It’s easy to see what kind of historical technique Taylor is opposing here: a history that purely looks at the words of politicians, without considering the important message found even in obscene music hall songs. In this respect, what he’s doing is vital.

But this passage also has a serious flaw, a flaw that is almost certainly completely overlooked because Taylor’s approach stands so far apart from that of the other historians of his day. Consider the sentence “The Tommies have left few memorials.” What does this mean, to have “left” few memorials? Well, we’re in the context of discussing war literature, and Taylor immediately afterward lists two authors as exceptions, so it seems like he means the Tommies produced few written testimonies that we still have. But this is extremely strange; of course it’s true that the poets published books and very few of the front-line infantry veterans did. But that doesn’t mean they just sang songs! In fact, they wrote countless diaries and letters home, which could be mined to find their voices. That’s obviously a far more difficult task, since the small percentage of these that will have survived are often personally kept by descendants. But the historian’s task isn’t supposed to be easy! Also, we do have plenty of these letters home.

It’s also false to suggest that all of these men somehow disappeared. In fact, some of them outlived A.J.P. Taylor, and were living all across the world as he wrote about their lost perspective. The “Last Tommy,” Harry Patch, who died only in 2009, had a very strong voice. In fact, he was stirring in his opposition to war even after reaching the age of 100:

When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?

So what does Taylor mean when he suggests that the voices of the Tommies cannot be heard except through their songs, while the voices of officers come to us through literature? Well, he means that this is how the voices have been passed down so far. The Tommies’ written voices, rough and un-literary and often mundane, have not been lost because they do not exist, but because historians do not emphasize them. Look, here’s a letter from a 17 year old Tommy to his mother:

Dear Mother

Just a line to let you know that I sent you all a photo of myself outside a tent door with two of my mates. Hope you will get them safe. Hoping you are in the best of health as I am myself. Goodbye for the present. I remain yours truly,

Stephen

It’s not exciting, I know. But it’s very human. (It is also the last letter Stephen wrote before being killed in the Battle of Ypres.) So the problem is that Taylor is compounding the very problem he seeks to correct. By saying that the officers’ voices are with us still, but the Tommies exist only in song, he continues to make that true. But it doesn’t have to be.

One of the reasons I don’t like Taylor’s approach is that it seems like the patronizing attempt of an elite historian to elevate the “noble proletariat.” Taylor fawns over the Tommies, those brave and humble souls. But they are still just a nameless blob to him. The people who have names and who speak are still the statesmen and generals.

True history from below is different. It mines these letters to create a picture of the experience of the front-line individual. It gives the names of people who did not sign publishing contracts after the war, instead of those who did. It makes those millions who were fed into the death-machine of World War One human beings with families and aspirations, instead of just a collective entity of British working-class pride. The whole point of “people’s” history is that it’s about the people as people, not the people as their class or rank or as pieces on the chessboard. Taylor says “the Tommies have left few memorials,” but we create our memorials. If he said they had left few mementos, then he would be right that we had to rely on oral history. But memorials are created after the fact, they are the ways in which we honor the dead. And I do not believe a few raunchy songs are an adequate way of memorializing the endless dead infantrymen, who did in fact have actual voices.

Whats-Your-Solutionism

Every so often I attempt to promote some sensible utopian idea, and I am met with a series of replies that take the form not of opposing the idea’s necessity and wisdom, but of asking me how precisely the idea is to be implemented. “Ah, yes, your idea for a prison-free world of gentle cooperation and harmony sounds lovely and all, but how exactly is it feasible?” Good in theory, impossible in practice and that sort of thing. Mad dreams of an eccentric out of touch with pragmatic realities, etc etc.

All of this criticism is completely mistaken. It’s perfectly acceptable to be hazy on the path from A to B. Why? Because no individual has ever designed an entire massive long-term social change alone. The way these things work, and what I am usually arguing for, is that the society is turned toward some major goal, and then the vast engine of its collective energies and intellects is directed toward figuring out the feasible path to that goal. That is the process by which the path is found. It was perfectly fair, and not at all a cop-out, for Russell Brand to reply to Jeremy Paxman, when asked how his idealism would work in practice, that he wasn’t “going to sit here in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.” It is similarly reasonable when Noam Chomsky makes the same dodge. Idealists are constantly being asked to produce blueprints, but this is a foul trick. The questioner knows the idealist can’t produce a blueprint, because the task would require understanding every single social force in the entire world and the entire direction of human history. It’s as if I say “We ought to find a way to build a bridge over that river,” and you insist that my opinion is invalid unless I have an in-depth knowledge of truss design and caisson placement. It’s bloody unfair is what it is!

The point is that if we followed this logic in other spheres, nobody could ever recommend anything that they could not design every single part of themselves. Since nearly everything gets designed in vast teams, from films to iPhones to highways, why should “a society without war” or “the elimination of unpleasant work” be any different? Don’t ask me for a solution, because that’s not how these things work. The solution takes a vast search in order to find; I’m recommending the search be conducted. Now, usually at this point people say “Yes, yes, we’d all love to find out how to create perpetual peace, you’ve added nothing by recommending it be looked for.” But most of the time this is a complete distortion, because if you probe people, they do not believe greater energy should be expended trying to find perpetual peace, they do not really think we’re all thinking carefully about how a classless society might be achieved. Most of the time, in fact, they’re resigned to things as they are. So it is a change to recommend a search be conducted. “Yes, we’re all interested in having a bridge over the river, unless you know how to build one, you’ve added nothing.” “But then how come nobody seems to be looking for a way to build a bridge over the river, and most of you just sit around saying ‘it’s impossible to build a bridge over that river?'”

In conclusion: To say “What’s your exact solution?” to the idealist is totally ignorant of how the process of solving problems. You begin with the question and then together find the answer. The point that the idealist is making is that nobody is really serious about the question.

Value-Driven Science

I am apparently a sociologist now, and apparently one of the criticisms made of the discipline runs as follows:

By explicitly positioning itself as a field that empathizes with the unfortunate (and by its favoring of liberal policy prescriptions) does sociology not relinquish its claim to be performing value-neutral scientific investigation?

As far as I can tell, this question makes sociologists squirm, and often eventually exacts a concession that they are not performing value-neutral research; that they perform science, but informed by values.

That’s extremely worrying, of course, since a major point of science is supposed to be to minimize the extent to which one’s values influence the reported results. It’s very easy to say that one’s conclusions do not have less validity simply because the investigation was motivated by personal moral values, but in practice it creates a worrying problem of trust. If someone’s research is value-driven, what do I believe would happen if the facts conflicted with the value? Does the scientific aspect prevail, or the moral? If, say, a researcher considers their work to be driven by their opposition to U.S. imperialism, and I go to Country X to show the devastating consequences of U.S. policies, but then uncover strong evidence that the devastation was caused by an internal factor, what do we expect of that researcher? At best we would probably expect them to abandon the case and go looking for another one where U.S. policies did cause harm, at worst we would expect distorted and untrustworthy results. The former could be acceptable or not, depending on what the question is. If the question is “How, in cases where U.S. policy caused harm, did that harm occur?” then it’s perfectly fine to switch subjects, because one is being explicit that the question focuses on cases where something did happen rather than where something didn’t. But if one’s question is “Did U.S. policies cause harm?” then obviously, searching for cases where they did is bias. Or to take another example, if one’s pro-labor politics influence one’s research on labor unions, what happens when the researcher studies a union, only to find that it is corrupt and inept? It’s hard to think that a pro-labor researcher, with a personal investment in the success of the union movement, wouldn’t at least do some fudging.

That is a massive problem. But I think there’s a very easy way out of it, that allows one to both have value-driven research and be scientific and trustworthy. Of course, if one’s value is producing evidence of U.S. harm to other countries, that creates a bias problem. But surely the reason one holds that value is that one wants people not to be harmed, and wants to expose harm where it exists. All that is necessary is to prioritize the underlying value that informs the surface value. My values are not “I want Union X to succeed.” Why would I be interested in Union X succeeding, if it was corrupt and harmful? I shouldn’t be afraid to criticize Union X if it ceases to serve my underlying value. I want it to succeed if it helps make the lives of working people better, and I don’t if it doesn’t. It’s always been very bizarre to me that people will cling to something that is actually in conflict with their political beliefs simply because it is supposed to be on their “side.” For example: I join the Communist Party because I want the liberation of humankind from its miseries. Then I see that the Communist Party is actually reproducing exactly the miseries I detest. But, often, instead of jettisoning the Communist Party because it has ceased to serve my value committment, I jettison my value committment!

Good values have nothing to fear from the truth, and therefore should never lead to bias. I state the “value” driving my sociological research as follows: Human  life should be made as good as it can possibly be, and I want to conduct research that aids in that. So if conservative policy prescriptions end up making human life better, I should be happy to embrace them, because they are serving my value! Why would I ever entertain a bias in favor of liberal policy prescriptions? My only bias is in favor of human wellbeing, but that’s not a bias that troubles the scientific nature of the research at all. (I happen to have a political belief in what I call pragmatic utopian libertarian socialism, but that’s because I believe such a system would best serve human ends, and I modify the conception of my political ideal as I learn new facts about human beings.)

One’s values can even be more specific than that. For example: as part of my committment to human wellbeing, I believe that finding and rooting out racism is important. But a committment to ending racism should not cause one to be biased in one’s research on the amount of racism that exists. I should be perfectly happy to conclude that racism is less bad than I thought (in fact, this should be cause for celebration). I certainly don’t want there to be more problems in the world. Now, I suspect there is still a great deal of racism, but the point is that I’m not invested in that conclusion by my personal values. I wouldn’t resist evidence that I was wrong. Why would I? I’ve nothing to be afraid of, my committment is only to human wellbeing, so facts about the world are never going to trouble it and I’m thus never going to need to hide evidence. Bring on the facts! (I certainly have unconscious biases, but I’m trying to root those out too.)

Thus, it is perfectly fine to have research driven by moral values. It can still be trustworthy. It just has to be driven by certain kinds of values that are not invested in having the facts come out one way or the other. But I don’t know why any value worth holding would want to distort the facts.

Capitalism versus Individualism

It’s often supposed that capitalism is somehow “individualist,” that is to say that it values the individual over the collective. Anticapitalists are interested in the wellbeing of that amorphous blob “society,” but capitalism prioritizes the actual people who comprise this blob.

This is false. Capitalism couldn’t care less about the individual, and it regularly eats individuals alive.

Individualism is an appealing term, even if it’s vague. Look at each person rather than the society, since a society doesn’t actually have sentience (if you’re Margaret Thatcher, this ends up meaning that “there is no such thing” as society.) And after dozens of brutal failed communist experiments, it’s also obvious why we might want to return to prioritizing the actual people that comprise the entity we’re interested in improving.

I agree with this perspective entirely. But taking it doesn’t do much to justify capitalism. Let’s think a moment about the Ayn Rand hypothesis: all that is great and good comes from individual visionaries and innovators, who are at every turn opposed by an ignorant collective that wishes to destroy them because it does not understand them. Rand believes this fact should lead us to support capitalism, which allows individual genius to be recognized, as opposed to socialism, where a Procrustean mediocrity is enforced.

The problem with people who think this is that they are generally only interested in examining the case of business innovation. If they expanded their examination to other spheres, they would see that capitalism and individualism are constantly in tension.

Consider the Beach Boys. From recording sun-n-fun pop in the early 60’s, the Beach Boys became some of the great musical innovators of the mid-60’s. In 1966, Brian Wilson began creating his masterpiece, SMiLE, which was to be a monumental artistic statement, a panorama of American music, or a “teenage symphony to God,” as Wilson called it. Unfortunately for Wilson, lone visionaries do not do especially well in a profit-driven record industry. Nobody quite understood what he was trying to do, and instead of being just left alone and given whatever resources necessary to let his genius flourish, pressure to release an album quickly and to secure a hit helped contribute to his mental breakdown and abandonment of the project. The Beach Boys would ditch their artistically bold aspirations and return to recording million-selling garbage like “Kokomo.” As Carl Wilson later put it:

 “The hard truth is you don’t have forever to tinker around with this stuff. The pressing demands of business sometimes interfere with artistic indulgence. Business-wise, you want to get the goddamn album out when things are gelling. Commerce and art, man, that’s a tough thing.”

Or, as Brian sadly remarked, “Sometimes I feel like a commodity in a stock market.” Such is the fate of the individual genius under capitalism. So long as it sells, he can do quite well. But the moment the public fails to understand what he is trying to do, the individual genius is out on his ear.

In fact, the history of 20th century music is largely the history of parasitic record company executives squeezing as many sales as possible out of geniuses. Buddy Holly was forced to go on his fateful tour because his royalties were being withheld and he couldn’t do what he wanted, which was to sit in the studio writing and recording. Professor Longhair singlehandedly created New Orleans R&B, yet spent most of his life in poverty. (After his death, a court gave his royalties to the record company instead of his heirs.) Berry Gordy of Motown made his label into a “machine,” milking great performers for their talent and leaving them with nothing. In his autobiography, Chuck Berry describes the constant struggle he had to reap the compensation he was due; every incentive of the industry was to maximize his sales and minimize his profit share.

Or look at Orson Welles! Poor, poor Orson Welles. Welles spent almost all of his post-Kane years in desperate negotiations with studios, trying to make the great pictures he envisioned. Even though his first film is widely agreed to be the best ever made, he was never again given free creative rein, with studios hacking off all experimental aspects of his films in order to make sure the paying public wasn’t alienated. Welles had 1000 brilliant ideas floating around his head, yet he spent the 60’s and 70’s trying to hustle foreign investors for cash, and debasing himself in television commercials. We lost countless potential Welles films because the director had to waste his time convincing people that his films could make a profit (a difficult prospect, since many of them probably couldn’t; securing investment in a film that will inevitably be an artistic triumph but a financial catastrophe is all but impossible.)

The same fate has befallen Terry Gilliam, a true innovator whose brain constantly fizzles with fantastical new concepts. Gilliam was J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct the Harry Potter films. Anyone familiar with his work knows he would have created something truly unique from them that captured their spirit perfectly. Alas, the studio adamantly refused. Gilliam’s films are notorious money-losers, and his daring approach to Harry Potter would almost certainly have alienated audiences. Warner Brothers needed someone who could be counted on to bring in the fortune that the franchise promised. So instead of the man who directed Brazil, they hired the man who directed Home Alone. And the resulting Harry Potter films were safe, predictable, and extremely profitable.

When a genius artist comes along, a society that knows what’s good for it will simply give them everything they need to create, and let them go at it. Instead, capitalism forces the genius artist constantly to be catering to the shifting whims of popular taste. Otherwise they starve. Even artists and musicians with some level of success are often poor, gigging constantly to pay the bills. Because Ayn Rand focused entirely on people who build railroads, she didn’t see what happened to those who produce society’s creative output. (This may be explained by the fact that she had terrible taste in music.)

This is why Oscar Wilde said in advocating socialism that “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.” Wilde saw that capitalism did not free the artist to be an artist, but made him struggle after his material well-being. Socialism, for Wilde, was the condition under which all people would be free to develop their personalities and capacities to their highest level, to serve their visions rather than profit, and thus socialism was the only true form of individualism.

It would be easy enough to guarantee that artists never starve, by guaranteeing a basic income and standard of living. It’s somewhat harder to devise a system to adequately nourish true genius; if nobody realizes Brian Wilson is a genius, how do we know to give him the time and resources that his genius requires? That’s certainly difficult. But the main point is the idea that capitalism respects the individual creator is nonsense. Capitalism killed Buddy Holly.

Dream Diary: Tofu Fireman

I told them I could no longer take care of the greenhouse, that it had become too filthy and the creatures inside it too unusual. When the creatures heard me tender my resignation, they tried to wrap me in vines. I fled to a hotel room, and thought I was free of them. But I soon realized that an orb-shaped bug had hidden itself in my anus. I yanked it out and shattered it into hundreds of petals. There were two conventions being held at my hotel, one about gardening and one about bondage. I was supposed to go to the gardening convention, but decided the other would be more useful. The leaders of the bondage convention were skeptical of me. They told me that if I wanted to prove myself, I would have to do something I was completely unaccustomed to: sit in the driver’s seat of a stick-shift Volvo, complaining about the baseball team. I sat for four hours. When I eventually became bored, I tried to see if I could wear the brakes out through dangerous maneuvers. A fire engine’s siren annoyed me, so I rammed it off the road. The fireman confronted me, furious, but I noticed he was made of tofu so I just began tearing pieces off him and eating him. His hair was grated cheese.