Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Medium Is the Message

Nate Silver has an interesting and fairly convincing post at FiveThirtyEight, arguing that modern American conservatism's dependence upon talk radio has, after almost twenty years of paying real dividends, finally begun to fatally undermine their ability to compete against a resurgent liberalism. I would have liked to analyze Silver's argument by putting it into the context of Marshall McLuhan's (another Canadian!) arguments about the material effects of media. (I once taught McLuhan in a journalism ethics class, and the students just stared blankly at me. I admit it was far from my strongest teaching outing, but I also have a pretty low opinion of journalism majors. Worse even than education majors in my humble opinion.)

Anyway, I was going to do that, but then I got sidetracked by this effort to spin out Silver's argument into a whole series of correspondances between political ideologies and communication media. There I found the following (intentionally) provocative claim:
The libertarian medium is the doctrinaire treatise (or treatise pretending to be a novel). There is no liberal or conservative equivalent to The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. There are, of course, Marxist equivalents. This is one reason why sectarian libertarians and Marxists find arguing with each other more congenial than engaging with viewpoints that have real political importance. The two sides agree on what kind of thing political debate should aim to discover: the right Book.
This seems to grasp a kernal of truth only to lose hold of it as quickly as it has grasped it. I agree that real libertarians (as opposed to glibertarians like Glenn Reynolds, et al) share many characteristics with Marxists--including a propensity to give away books for free on the internet. But I don't think it has much of anything to do with the desire of proponents of either ideology to discover "the right Book." I would say instead that libertarians and Marxists are the most rationalistic of contemporary political ideologies, and those most devoted to a robust notion of truth. Hence, both are frequently given to grand exercises of polemics and are naturally disposed to sectarian schism.

Interestingly, the other ideology most congenial to Marxists is, in my opinion, Straussianism. Interestingly, Straussians tend not to feel the same respect for Marxists. Except for Kojeve, but he was barely a Marxist anyway.