Category Archive • This and that
December 23, 2004
Happy Christmas

Just to say, I've been pretty busy today, and am out this evening, and will be busy Christmasising over Christmas, so don't expect regular stuff here for the next few days.

I just did a posting at Samizdata, with some surprise architectural speculations at the end about what JK Rowling should do with all her mountains of money.

Plus, I watched this movie last night, and enjoyed it immensely. Great performance by Campbell Scott in the title role.

And that's your lot for today, and maybe also for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (creeps on this petty blog from day to day to the last syllable of recorded blogging ...). Shakespeare. Macbeth. Towards the end. When things are really starting to depress him.

Anyway, Happy Christmas to all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:22 PM
December 01, 2004
Bunny Smedley on politics and art at the SAU blog

I have already today done a piece linking to two SAU blog postings. Here is another such link, this time to my friend Bunny Smedley's review of this book.

I particularly like Bunny's teasing out of the relationship between art and politics:


Part of the problem here may simply be a case of double standards masquerading as something else. Because Kimball regards art as having an autonomous existence beyond, if not actually above, the stuff of politics, he presumably further holds that if, say, a radical socialist and a High Tory were confronted with an elegant society portrait by Sargent, the two ought to feel more or less exactly the same thing in front of it – that the socialist, certainly, should not feel anachronistic resentment of the world of wealth and privilege reflected in it, or worry too much about gender inequality or sexual politics, or obsess about issues of patronage and power. The Left-wing lexicon of political correctness, in other words, should not be brought to bear upon what's actually there (as Kimball would put it) in the painting. To which most of us would, I imagine, as much out of visceral dislike of political correctness as anything else, nod sagely and say 'fair enough'.

But what if the positions were reversed? What if, for instance, the same two viewers were placed before The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David? Would it really be incumbent on the High Tory to bite her lip and admire the indisputable formal qualities of the work – while at no point condemning it as a highly proficient, highly regrettable slab of morally unpleasant agit-prop, in which the iconography of a Christian martyrdom is placed at the service, by one of its more creepy if technically competent foot-soldiers, of a murderous and contemptible political regime? David, after all, personally signed death-sentences for something like 300 people, which makes his celebration of the demagogue Marat even harder to stomach. And anyway, he didn't intend his work to be admired in formal terms – he intended it to persuade us to take a positive view of Marat, the Jacobins and the politics they espoused. Are we supposed to forget all that when faced with a strong composition and a brilliantly schematic use of colour? Are we really expected to treat it on equal terms with, say, the Louvre's great Van Dyck portrait of Charles I? Is it somehow wrong to mention Sargent's politics, but right to mention Richter's?

Kimball would, I think, say yes: 'enjoy the work, eschew the politics'. We've seen that already. But there is, surely, at least another possible conservative position, in which it would be possible to comment on the political content of a painting (whether that apparently intended by the artist, or apprehended by the viewer) from a conservative, rather than from a socialist or liberal position. And here it is striking that all the instances of the 'politicisation of art' cited by Kimball involve critiques emanating not from the Right, but from the Left. Boime, Derrida, Alpers, Pollock, Clark: the politics they bring to the enterprise of criticism are no more attractive when focussed on visual culture than they would be were they directed towards, say, solving the problems of poverty or confronting the realities of social hierarchy. Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that Kimball has done this not simply because virtually all such attacks come from the Left anyway, but also because his audience might not find a conservative political critique as patently fatuous and factitious as a politically correct one, which is to say Left-wing one, must invariably sound to them.

As I've said here before, the SAU blog is your fully fledged Culture Blog, in the exact way that this blog is not. Culture with a Capital C. I do bits of Capital C culture, but not in a very Capital C manner, and of course, I intersperse it with personal flummery and chit chat, and my photos of course, and lots of other small c culture titbits about flat screen TVs, computer graphics, and such like. I absolutely refuse to make any kind of lunge for Internet hegemony. This here is not Clapham Junction, let alone Grand Central Station. That's not what I'm trying to do, not what this blog is for. But the SAU blog has real possibilities along those lines.

2 Blowhards is probably, still, the Instapundit of Culture with a Capital C Blogs, but suppose the SAU blog were to have the occasional posting (say one in every half dozen or so) with loads of links in it, to other cultural bloggage (much as the 2Bs do), then they'd have themselves a real Capital C Culture Blog well placed to hegemonise in all directions.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
November 27, 2004
Democracy for foxes

This is only very tangentially describable as culture, but it made me howl with laughter:

You are a British fox. How would you most like to be killed?

- I would like to be shot by a farmer.

- I would like to be chased cross country by posh people, then bitten by dogs.

- I would like to be dug out by terriers, then bashed on the head with a shovel.

- I would like to be mown down by traffic.

- I would like to be caught in a wire snare.

- I would like to be trapped in a cage, then stoned to death with champagne bottles in an Oxbridge college.

Go here (scroll down, it's in the column on the right) to vote. But hurry, it will soon be replaced by something else equally tasteless.

This is a laugh too. At present that takes you exactly where the last link took you, but trust me, this will change in the future.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:42 PM
October 25, 2004
English is shorter

I'm listening to the new LSO Live Falstaff conducted by Sir Colin Davis, or at any rate to the sound it makes, and this sound makes me want to pay attention to it seriously some time very soon, perhaps by watching the DVD of Falstaff by some other people that I picked up very cheaply a few weeks back.

Meanwhile, here is a picture, of the back cover of the Davis/Falstaff CDs, which perhaps goes some small way towards explaining why English is doing so well these days. It occupies less space. It uses fewer letters to say the same thing. It is shorter.

I have sort of known this for a long time, but this really brings it home:


I took it out of the plastic case to reduce reflection. (No self portrait this time, I'm afraid.) As often here (but not always), click to get it bigger, i.e. in this case somewhat easier to read.

The opera itself is sung in Italian. Where would Italian come in this comparison? In the middle, alongside French, I'm guessing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:39 PM
October 02, 2004
A street name that rocks

This is great:

THE City of Melbourne will today rename a back lane in the city centre after legendary Australian rock band AC/DC.

Guitarist Angus Young, a founding member of the band, had a special message for fans and users of the lane: "Welcome to the Highway to Hell".

City of Melbourne councillors on Wednesday agreed to change the name of Corporation Lane, which runs off Flinders Lane near Swanston St in central Melbourne, to ACDC Lane after considering the proposal since June this year.

Council workers will today erect new street signs proclaiming the name change.

The band resided in Melbourne during the 1970s and filmed a video for its 1975 classic It's a Long Way to the Top on the back of a truck rolling down Swanston St.

Two members of the band were also born in Melbourne.

In a brief recorded statement, Angus Young and brother Malcolm thanked the City of Melbourne and fans for the honour.

I love it, although I think I would have preferred it if they'd kept the forward slash. Now that rock and roll is so respectable, there must be lots of other such roads, including some equally bizarre ones.

Next, road names taken from vicious gangsta' rap ditties. You-can-be-my-bitch Avenue, etc.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:24 PM
September 28, 2004
Another inappropriate edition

First it was potato crisps (see five below), now it's chocolate bars:


Obviously this stuff works. And it can't all be people buying them because they're stupid and photo-ing them and putting the photos up on their blogs and having a laugh.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:28 PM
September 15, 2004
I'd rather be wearing pyjamas

We over here in the UK have not had much to say about the CBS forged document proving that President Bush stole an airplane while on drugs and flew to Mexico for a holiday instead of doing his basic training being shouted at by Louis Gossett Jnr., or whatever it was he was supposed to have been doing. Well, apart from this.

Rather.jpgMy problem is doing superscript. Let me see if I can do it. Rather. Worth a try. Well I told the "th" to go up a bit higher then down again, but nothing. NoUPthDOWNing. Oh well, apparently Mark Steyn did the same thing and that joke got lost in the final version on the "MSM" (that's main stream media) website that published it.

Also: you say pajamas, we say pyjamas.

Natalie Solent reckoned the "forgery" could have been a draft which got out of control and got passed off as the real thing before the forger could finish his work. Her original surmise included that he was going to put in the proper address later, but that his obvious nonsense PO Box ("34567") became the final version. But apparently, as an emailer to her later reported, that address is genuine.

My favourite cock-up along these lines, and apologies if I've mentioned this here before, is to be found on my version of a CD of Mahler's 7th Symphony by Rattle and the CBSO for EMI. In among all the stuff about who did the technical work (Producer/Produzent/Directeur artistique: whoever, Balance engineer/Tonmeister/Ingénieur du son: whoever, etc.) it says "Technical Engineer/?????????/Ingénieur technique: Andy Beer". In other words "I don't know the German for Technical Engineer I'll find out and stick it in later", but instead that became the final version.

Be it duly noted that I composed this entire post while wearing pyjamas.

And thank you Instapundit for this.

UPDATE: This is fun.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:00 PM
September 11, 2004
Cronaca on forgery

Interesting comment at Cronaca about the documents re GWB's military record, forged or what? (Can't make copying and pasting from the original post work - deliberate on his part or just me being techno-dumb? - so here is the plain link.) His point is: the defenders of the documents sound to him just like people stuck with forged art, and trying to prove (if only to themselves) that they're genuine.

If there are seven reasons to think these things were probably typed in the nineteen nineties, even if they just about could have been typed in the seventies, then they almost certainly were typed in the nineties.

The forger's problem is suppressing the "impress of his own time".

ADDENDUM: RC Dean has an interesting Samizdata posting about how the blogosphere went to work on these forgeries-or-not-as-the-case-may-be-but-probably-they-are. One blogger does not a New York Times make, but the blogosphere does, more than.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:41 PM
September 08, 2004
Anthony Daniels on the silliness of self-expression

In case I don't manage anything else today, let me at least manage a link to this piece by Anthony Daniels about what a bad idea self expression is.

I first encountered the idea that self expression might be a bad rather than good thing when reading one of Karl Popper's works, about thirty years ago or more, and the thought has stuck with me ever since. I have always thought the "self" to be a somewhat vacuous notion, meaning only, roughly, the personal experience we all have at the heart of … ourselves, but not itself any different from the identical experience of selfhood that everyone else has. It is the things that assemble around the self, like memories, experienecs, and so on, which are the stuff of artistic communication, rather than the self itself, if you'll pardon the expression.

Daniels is right. If "self expression", in fact, on close examination, turns out to mean very little indeed, which is exactly what it does mean, then the expression becomes a license to express any damned old rubbish you care to settle on. It becomes an excuse for nonsense and tastelessness (and evil) of every imaginable kind.

Popper's point, if I recall it correctly, is that it is precisely the self that is not expressed in artistic, but more especially scientific activity. There is you, and there is your theory, and they are not the same thing. That being so, it is possible for someone to take a felling axe to your theory without you taking it personally. Such conjecture and refutation is the essence of science, and of scientific progress.

Self-expression is to art what modern individualism is to individuality: a pale and much distorted simulacrum, based upon a romantic rumour. According to this rumour, each person carries within him, by mere virtue of drawing breath as a human being, something not only unique, but of imperishable value, of which the world stands urgently in need. It must be expressed in public, or it is lost forever.

Daniels then goes on to defend convention against the menace of self-expression.

In practice, the need to express oneself, irrespective of whether one has anything worthwhile to express, leads to a rejection of convention and mass antinomianism. Of course, the rejection of convention is itself a convention, but this is not a thought that frequently crosses the mind of those desperate to express themselves. Nor is the fact that conventions may often be, without being always, of social and ethical value. When a writer in the Times Literary Supplement listed the late A J Ayer's virtues, he included among them that he was unconventional. This might indeed have been a virtue, but it might also have been a vice, indeed it might have included the very worst vices possible. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, after all, were unconventional.

Quite so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:48 PM
July 15, 2004
A little social climbing

And this really isn't very cultural at all, but I'll say it here anyway, namely: I'm coming up in the world.

This posting, linking to a Samizdata thing I did yesterday about where oil comes from (if you're interested don't miss the comments because that is where the real argument is argued, by people who actually know what oil is), has me number two in a list of four writers linked to.

Writer one is Charles Krauthammer, writer three is James Lileks and writer four is Victor Davis Hanson. I am strictly fourth in this company, because you wouldn't catch any of these three boasting about being in a list involving the other two, and me. But even so … score.

This reminds me of when I subbed a couple of times for David Starkey (i.e. as one of the in-house interrogators) on the Moral Maze.

The thing about social climbing is that when you are a low-to-middle ranker, then if you want to socially climb, you probably need forget worrying about being seen to be socially climbing, because you probably will be. So, just do it.

One of the world's more annoying things is those extremely grand people who don't have medals or wear fancy uniforms, and who are tremendously gracious to "ordinary" (which gives the game away) people, and who imagine themselves to be above social climbing, or who are sold to the world by their devotees as above social climbing, just because they don't wear a suit and a tie or a chest full of stupid medals or make sure everyone calls them Sir Blah Blah, if Sir is what they are. Bollocks. They are just at a different level, the posh bit nearer the top where low-to-middle rank social climbing like I just did isn't how you get higher any more. i.e. where they are competing with other grandiosities like Lenin or Gandhi or Mick Jagger. You can bet that when they were still hussling their way up out of the huddled masses, they hussled.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:59 PM
June 27, 2004
Culture is a game of two halves

An interesting cultural angle from Michael Jennings, writing about the European Football contest for Ubersportingpundit, re the fact that, now, all the big countries (England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy) are out of it:

Meanwhile, the tournament sponsors and advertisers will be unhappy. Most of the population of Europe come from countries that are out of the tournament. Most of the star players commonly used in advertising are headed for the beaches of the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Hollywood will be happy. This kind of tournament eats into cinema admissions quite badly, but now people will once again be going to the movies.

And this posting by David Carr is quite funny too. Did you know that before he became a sit-down comedian David Carr used to be a stand-up one?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:42 PM
June 15, 2004

No time for anything much today. Just a picture of your not so humble Culture Blogger, aged about five, in water colour, done by, if memory serves, the late Miss Elizabeth Scott-Moore, of somewhere not far from Englefield Green, where my mum still lives.


I visited Mum yesterday, for some strawberries. She isn't getting any younger, and I suddenly realised that that house could all be over, so to speak, very suddenly. So I took a couple of hundred pictures, inside and out, what with the weather being so fine, including a few more great ones of Mum herself.

Here's what the house looks like.


Circa 1900, I think. And there's a big garden, by current suburban standards.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:26 PM
May 20, 2004
Describing a feeling versus presenting an argument

This comment from Peter Reavy, which was actually just the final bit of a comment (on this), got me thinking:

That said, I was thrown by Brian's argument, which is to insist that the film be judged by the reality of the world we live in.

And this is how it got me thinking. It got me thinking that there are really two kinds of artistic reaction, namely the presentation of an argument, and the attempt to analyse a feeling. And the trouble is that the second is liable to be confused with the first.

I was trying to explain what I, Brian Micklethwait, found unsatisfactory about a film I'd seen, which I found unsatisfactory but which Peter Reavy liked much more. And I was trying to explain, to myself, as much as to anyone else, why I found it unsatisfactory. And, although Peter may have understood very well what I said, he actually did not get what kind of thing I was trying to say. I certainly didn't think of myself as "arguing" that he ought to think of the film in the way that I was thinking of it, instead of in the way he did think of it. In this sense, I wasn't presenting an argument at all. I'm very happy that others enjoy this movie. I certainly don't think they should stop enjoying it on my account.

I want to emphasise that I intend no criticism of Peter Reavy here. I am sure that I am at least as much to blame for any confusion along these lines as he is. Peter, please do not take this posting as a criticism of you. It was merely sparked off in my mind by what you said, which means that I am grateful to you rather than in way resentful. (I might have got resentful if I had not understood what had happened, but ... well, see below.)

So anyway, does this distinction – between self-analysis and argument – matter? I think it does, because if people make an honest effort to respond to a work of art, and are then in their turn responded to as if they had presented an argument about how others should think (in the manner of a political manifesto), they may then be deterred from being honest about their feelings next time around. They may just clam up.

This may be especially so if the distinction that I have just offered is something they were not aware of. Our "critic" listens to what he just said (when he was trying to explain why he didn't enjoy himself), and it does indeed sound like an argument about what others besides him should think. So, he either pursues the argument, in territory which he did not originally intend to invade (the responses of others), or, he retreats in confusion, saying: "Well, that's what I think, so there. Take it or leave it."

The situation is complicated by the fact that describing your own feelings is – especially if you are a man? – often quite complicated. To be jumped on conversationally at the exact moment when you are trying to do this as best you can is to be caught at a rather vulnerable moment, which is why it feels like being jumped on even when the jumper didn't think they were jumping at all. Another reason to respond by clamming up.

You are especially vulnerable (because even more confused) if, when you are describing your feelings (rather than presenting an argument), you do not yourself quite grasp this distinction, and accept that, even as you grapple with all your other confusions (your feelings), you have to defend your non-argument as if it were a real argument.

Thinking about it some more, I do believe that I have heard this kind of argument a lot, and been involved in it myself, quite often, and on both sides. It can cause a lot of grief. We're not just talking about rows in newspapers or on blogs. We're talking failed relationships, unhappy marriages.

It will not amaze you to learn that I intend to go on trying here to describe my reactions to cultural objects, as honestly and entertainingly as I can, despite the danger I daily risk that I will be misunderstood as saying that everyone else ought to feel and think in the same way about all the stuff I write about as I do.

But, I will try to write more accurately in the future, so that you know better what kind of writing it is. ("It seems to me", etc.)

And, I will also try to avoid making the same mistake about the critical responses of others that I believe Peter Reavy made about my little piece the other day (with my help and encouragement - see above - blah blah). I will try not to jump down other people's throats and stomp all over their "arguments", when they weren't actually "arguing" at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:48 PM
May 15, 2004
Photos and TV commentary on Samizdata

Off to my Mum's Ninetieth so expect no more today. But I've been quite busy at Samizdata lately doing cultural type things.

I've done a couple of recent photo postings. Natalie Solent was kind enough to say of the first lot that they made a nice change from other photos that have been much on people's minds lately, and in general they seemed to be well received. So I've just done another little set.

samizmay12adetail.jpg  samizmay12cdetail.jpg  annsumsmall.jpg

I'd be interested to know what people think about the size I've used to display these photos. In deference to Samizdata stylistic requirements, these pics are nearer 300 across than the 500 I tend to use here. Is that bad because detail is lost? - or good because loading time is shortened?

I've also done a couple of pieces at Samizdata about a most interesting TV series.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:35 AM
May 12, 2004
Quiz clue

Regarding the quiz, everyone seems to have given up, which officially proves that I am cleverer (and in particular more cultural, because the answer is cultural) than everybody else in the world, because I know and they didn't. No not really. But ho ho anyway.

Here's a clue. Look carefully at its name.


And if that isn't enough, I will simply tell you all. If you get it now, don't be afraid to say.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:11 PM
May 11, 2004

Yes. Today: a quiz!

What do all these pictures have in common?

It will still make a quite interesting posting even when you know it.


rem7.jpg   rem8.jpg


rem6.jpg   rem12.jpg


rem9.jpg   rem11.jpg


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:35 PM
April 07, 2004
The country of Art

This is fun:

In one of the most intriguing sections of The Literary Mind, Turner discusses "the concept of a concept." Bringing together elements of his argument, he says that parable involves “dynamic construction” which links and blends the spaces in which stories occur, with the resulting projections and analogies creating meaning, often quite new meaning. In this kind of process, meaning and inference "are not bounded by a single conceptual locus. Meaning is a complex operation of projecting, blending, and integrating over multiple spaces. Meaning never settles down into a single residence. Meaning is parabolic and literary." To many of us this seems counterintuitive. We like to think of meanings as discrete packets with circumscribed boundaries, abstractions which refer to appropriate entities, while we regard parabolic extension and blending of meaning, with all its potential for both warping and enriching sense, as something "poetic" and exceptional.

But we do not "have" concepts in this way, he says. In the spirit of Turner’s book, let's parabolically imagine concepts as countries. These countries are often distinguished from each other by borders that appear as clear, natural divisions, like rivers or mountain ranges. Sometimes they are divided by unmapped wastelands, or by swampy and disputed marshes. Some are islands, with the sea such an obvious natural boundary that no one even thinks to question it. Over on the continent of mathematics, borders are laid out in straight, stipulated grids, which at least makes foreign relations tidy. Concept-countries have centers of life, major cities and capitals. The country of Art, which interests me especially, has many, some inhabited by the likes of Homer, Lady Murasaki, and Shakespeare, while in others are to be found Praxiteles, Bernini, and Rodin. There are less powerful towns as well, and on the frontier you can find dusty settlements of refugees from the nearby country of Craft. Some cynics claim these illegals are nothing more than economic refugees who ought to be sent home. At a border post, Marcel Duchamp argues with the guards. They are confused whether to let him in, while he laughs, telling them their post is not at the border at all, but a hundred miles inside it.

If you want to, read all of it. I didn't. I just read the beginning, then that bit, and laughed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 AM
Quentin Crisp – quoted at Alice's and the rescuer of John Hurt

I'm guessing that not all of my regular readers are regular readers of Alice Bachini. (And vice versa of course.) If so, had I not linked to them, they might have missed these Quentin Crisp quotes, of which this one is my favourite:

I simply haven't the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds.

And my personal favourite Crisp quote of all, if I remember it right, goes something like this. He was accosted in a bus or some such public place by a group of belligerent young men, or it may have been a belligerent middle aged lady, who asked, belligerently, "Who are you???" His reply, clearly much used and like his appearance something he prepared earlier:

Who indeed?

A few more Crisp quotes here.

You get the feeling that, provided he was all kitted up, Crisp liked being photographed. In fact I believe he regarded being photographed as a kind of public service. (Crisp was also a quite good graphic artist, which I didn't know until now.)

Which reminds me that, in Britain (and elsewhere?), many of us fondly remember the TV play called The Naked Civil Servant, not least because it kick-re-started the acting career of John Hurt. This was shown in the days when starring as a very obviously homosexual homosexual would be "career suicide" for a leading man of the Hurt sort. Said Hurt at the time: "What career?" He has been interestingly busy ever since (most recently as the star of the TV Alan Clarke Diaries.)

Not long after doing Crisp, Hurt got the on-the-face-of-it completely non-Crispian part of the bloke from whose stomach the Alien first emerged. I wonder, did he get that part because he had played Crisp? Did the John Hurt persona, from The Naked Civil Servant onwards, suggest a normal looking guy who harboured a monster within?

Now they're all at it. The last time I observed Michael Douglas at work, he was doing a turn on Will and Grace as a gay police detective. The publicity profile of a leading man cannot now be said to be complete until some suggestions of gayness have been sprinkled into the mix.

This obviously means that Western Civilisation now teaters on the brink of collapse. But doesn't it always? Isn't that part of its charm?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:01 AM
March 06, 2004
Why are so many people dressed in black these days?

I'm noticing it all around me, wherever I go. People entirely dressed in black.

I'm now watching a chamber music concert from the Barbican, on BBC4 TV. And all the musicians are wearing entirely black.

This works well. Black is black. There can be no argument about whether a garment is or is not black. It either is black, or it is not black. So, provided all their visible garments are black, they end up looking like team players, even though in all other respects their garments are completely of their own choosing. Convenience, and style.

But it isn't just classical musicians; it's everyone. Take a random picture of a crowd in London. What you get is black.

I never realised I had a blog posting in this until now, so I haven't been opportunistically snapping people in black. I have just been doing it anyway, in the natural course of photographing other things. It took me about one minute to dig out this picture from my photo-archives, which shows you exactly the kind of thing I mean. It was taken at Victoria Station, just near where I live, because I liked the way the station framed the view of the distant cityscape and because I had some idea of blogging about how the camera sees very warm and very blue colours when the eye sees only grey. But in the process I snapped a typical clutch of People In Black and here they are:


It's not total. There are some guys in light coloured trousers, and another guy in a beige top. But on the whole: black, black, black.

I can't be the only one to have noticed this. Come to think of it I have girl readers, who probably know about fashion and all that. Maybe they can enlighten us all. I.e. me and my boy readers.

What is going on here? Does 9/11 have anything to do with it? Is Nazism on the rise? (Guess: no. Another guess: the memory of Hitler's Black Shirts had to dim as a precondition for this happening.)

Is it something to do with the Baby Boom getting old, and needing something Dignified yet Not Done Before to do with their clothing? It is noticeable that black clothing and the grey hair of the rather elderly piano player do look rather good together.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:09 PM
March 02, 2004
"Aesthetics matter"

Patrick Crozier, basically talking about safety, tangents interestingly into aesthetics, here.

… Last week I walked into a shop in Twickenham’s high street and bought myself a throw and two cushions. I could have spent that money on health insurance but I didn’t. Why not? Because aesthetics matter. They matter to me. Do the test for yourself. How much do you spend on clothes, CDs, pictures and soft furnishings? How much extra do you spend on cars, houses and stereos in order to get a better looking one? Plenty, I should think. Why? Because aesthetics matter. Because they matter to you. Remember, you could have spent that money on health insurance or a safer car/house/stereo. But you didn't. Why not? Because the marginal aesthetic benefit was more important to you than the marginal benefit to your health or personal safety.

Amen. Very Postrelian. But what is a "throw"?

Tangenting (a useful verb I think - it eliminates the need for the misleading, because suggestive of out-of-controlness, word "flying", as in: off at) myself, I think and have always thought that Patrick writes well. And I think he has a definite preference for short sentences, if this quote is anything to go by. I'm sure there's a connection.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:28 PM
February 27, 2004
The voluntary city in action

I want a copy of this book. (Thanks to this guy for the link.)

volcity.jpgBlurb quote:

The Voluntary City assembles a rich history and analysis of private, locally based provision of social services, urban infrastructure, and community governance. Such systems have offered superior education, transportation, housing, crime control, recreation, health care, and employment by being more effective, innovative, and responsive than those provided through special interest politics and bureaucracy.

However, although perfectly willing to pay for things, I have never mastered the art of purchasing things on the internet, one of the reasons being that a very good and dear friend of mine does this for me, so I've never needed to learn. Also, I've never been that brilliant at embedding urls (?) into emails. Plus, I want to share this email with the world.

You know who you are. Please get in touch, and tell me you are onto it. The paperback, please. Many thanks.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:11 PM
Face doodles

Who do you reckon did this, and while doing what?

engdoodl.jpgThe answer is here. And this is who put me onto it.

She comments on it also. Concluding wisdom:

… we are deeply programmed to find the human face interesting.


I like doing these little "how about that" postings. Such things enliven any blog, and don't take long to do. You don't always want to be ploughing through elongated profundities.

I've had quite a bit of positive feedback about this posting, also involving faces, and also a quicky.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:08 PM
February 26, 2004
"The right to get on with the job"

To be rather more serious about the Norman Lebrecht piece linked to in the posting below, here is his final paragraph:

The lyric arts will never thrive until executive directors are allowed as much executive freedom as the managers of any industrial installation. The key to running a good arts centre is not a bottomless budget or flow of singing talent but the simple, straightforward right to get on with the job.

Which is one way of looking at it.

Here is another. When you have a job that a lot of people understand, or think they understand, your hands are bound to be bound more tightly than if the job you are doing is one that hardly anyone else even realises exists, let alone even pretends to understand.

Suppose you are the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, circa 1970. You get to rule the roost, unless you are content to let someone else run your life for you in the manner of Elvis Presley, simply by virtue of being the only person who really knows what you are doing.

I did the pamphlets for the Libertarian Alliance for twenty years. I got paid nothing, but the principle still applies. Before the Internet, most people had no clue what I was doing. Why all those stupid pamphlets Brian, that no one is reading? Everyone else was obsessed with publishing, in large numbers, and distributing, in large numbers. If they couldn't do that, then what was the point? I knew that the important thing was that stuff was getting written, that some people were reading them, and that around all this writing and reading a London libertarian scene wasforming itself. Distribution would happen, by one means or another, some day. So long as the pieces were written in a way that would survive the delay, I knew I was doing something valuable, if not immediately so than some day. And because only I really understood and believed in what I was doing, I was pretty much left to get on with it, as I thought best.

Then came the Internet, and suddenly there was a mass distribution channel available, and everybody suddenly saw the point of what I had been doing. Also, lots and lots of people started writing (because now they could instantaneously publish) similar stuff to what I had been editing.

At which point I stopped enjoying it, because at that point I was suddenly surrounded, like Norman Lebrecht's beleaguered arts administrators, by people who understood what I was doing. I started to feel like a slave, doing what everyone expected. If lots of others could now see what needed doing, they didn't need me to be doing it any more. One of them could do it. And since, as I say (and unlike Lebrecht's arts bosses), I wasn't even being paid, I said to myself: enough. I made way for someone who doesn't have my problems doing what is expected of him by others.

And now I'm doing something else that lots of libertarians think is a waste of time, and which most of them have no clue about, and I am back to enjoying myself and doing things as I want.

So now back to those arts managers of Lebrecht's. The reason their hands are tied is because the institutions they manage have been part of the scenery for many decades, and have accumulated supporters and donors and helpers and underlings, all of whom know what is being done at least as well as whoever is nominally in charge, and all of whom have opinions at least as valid – or so they think – as those of the supposed boss.

The idea that somehow, in circumstances like these, the boss can be magically given more authority than reality will actually allow him is, well, unreal. To run such institutions as these, you need people who positively expect their hands to be bound up in bureaucratic tape and procedure, and who know how to live within such limits and make the best of them.

For Lebrecht to get the kind of arts managers he wants, they would have to be doing something radically different and new, and whatever he may say about it, the people now running opera houses and symphony orchestras are not and cannot be doing anything radically different from one decade to the next. "Radical" doesn't mean putting on slightly different operas in slightly different ways, or daringly deciding that the LSO should produce its own CDs. These moves are business as usual, slightly adapted for the changing times. Good business, admittedly, but hardly radical. Radical would mean something like completely rethinking the meaning of opera, and that isn't going to happen in a conventional opera house. It can't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:31 PM
Dying in perfect health

I missed this, from Norman Lebrecht, about the recent and clearly much to be regretted demise of the boss of Carnegie Hall:

Harth was 47, a softly-softly manager who, over two and a half years, rebuilt confidence in America’s premier concert venue and inaugurated its underground Zankel Hall with an enterprising programme of jazz, solo recitals and world music. A fitness fanatic, Harth worked out daily in the local gym. His death, of a heart attack, sent shock waves through the upper echelons of America’s performing arts.

Am I the only one who feels a deeply ignoble thrill of pleasure when a health fanatic drops dead, very possibly as a direct result of his obsession? I fear not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:49 PM
February 22, 2004
More from Virginia Postrel on the aesthetic economy

Here is a New York Times article by Substance of Style author Virginia Postrel on the rise of the aesthetic economy.


The official job counters at the Bureau of Labor Statistics don't do much to overcome our blind spots. The bureau is good at counting people who work for large organizations in well-defined, long-established occupations. It is much less adept at counting employees in small businesses, simply because there are too many small enterprises to representatively sample them. The bureau's occupational survey, which might suggest which jobs are growing, doesn't count self-employed people or partners in unincorporated businesses at all. And many of today's growing industries, the ones adding jobs even amid the recession, are comprised largely of small companies and self-employed individuals. That is particularly true for aesthetic crafts, from graphic designers and cosmetic dentists to gardeners. These specialists' skills are in ever greater demand, yet they tend to work for themselves or in partnerships.

So read this blog regularly, and make yourself more employable.

Personally I prefer a world in which the government doesn't spend its time counting people, or come to that doing anything very much. To make her point, Postrel sounds like she'd actually like her government to go snooping around among the ranks of the self-employed, aesthetic and of every other sort. That aside, the point she makes is a good one.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:29 PM
January 26, 2004
Does government arts and culture spending stimulate economic growth? – no says Steven Malanga

Steven Malanga of City Journal pours cold water on the idea that public arts and culture spending can revitalise the economy of a city. Boring things like anti-crime measures and lower taxes do this. Arts and culture spending does not, says Malanga. And if arts and culture spending spawns tax increases, then it does harm. And even if it were economically advantageous for a city to be hip, that doesn't mean that governments can contrive this, any more than they can run other industries successfully.

I'd add that although Malanga doesn't say it, his article reads like a prolonged spanking of the notion that because the wives of millionaires often sport diamond necklaces, the way to get rich is to buy your wife a diamond necklace. The man in Malanga's crosshairs, Richard Florida, developed his theories about creative cities just before the internet boom turned into the internet bust. Florida was describing, in other words, a culture not of wealth creation, but of wealth dissipation, not of getting but of spending.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:34 PM
January 15, 2004
Not a squiggle – Jackie Stewart perfects his autograph

Cars are an obvious focus of aesthetic fascination, so I'm sure (as I said here) that I'll be linking to this guy in the weeks and months to come, especially if he has lots of pictures. However, the bit I read today at CarBlog that really hooked me was about the art, if art it be, of signing autographs:

… The way it worked out this year, I spoke with not one but three pretty famous car guys at the NAIAS this year.

First, I was coming or going to somewhere and stopped by the Bentley stand to get another look at the Continental GT. The hood was up and three men were discussing the engine compartment. It didn't take me long to realize that the guy with the Ford pin was Sir Jackie Stewart, three-time Formula One driving champion and inspiration for a million bad vocal impressionists ... "this is Jack ... ie Stewart". At a break in their conversation, I asked him if I could trouble him for his autograph on a Bentley press cd.

Now some guys have class. …

Digression about somebody else with class. Then back to Jackie Stewart.

When I asked Stewart for his autograph, he whipped out a Sharpie and graciously signed not one but two Bentley press cds in a beautiful, distinguished autograph. The Sharpie and legible autograph are not a coincidence. Eoin Young described how Stewart refined his autograph and why: "He felt that if someone granted him the honour of asking for his autograph, it should be worthwhile, and he practised his copperplate autograph. No disinterested squiggle, looking away, talking to someone else, here." …

Interesting. Sharpie, presumably, is some kind of fountain pen, yes? I'm a total keyboardhead myself. I used to be able to hand-write but it's almost gone now, for all but scrawled notes to myself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:54 PM
Illuminated sign at Channel 4

I've just got back from a night out, and on my way home I spied this striking illuminated picture, inside the (very transparent) Channel 4 TV Headquarters Building in Horseferry Road, just opposite the (highly visible) lift. Out came the digicam, snap snap snap, and here it is.


I like it, even though I'm not sure what it means. Perhaps that's the idea. I must be grabbed hold of, stopped short, and made to think. (Which normally I don't do, is the insulting implication of art works like this.) But I like this image too much to be annoyed by its cryptic nature. It is a combination of a clearly legible (if not understandable) message and lots of decorative skill to back it.

I think what it means is "we don't take orders and we don't give orders". That doesn't rule out being influenced by or influencing others, so if that is the message, I disagree with it, in the sense of disagreeing with the assumptions behind it. Can anyone tell me more about this thing?

As I say, it is illuminated. Hence the clarity of my picture. Maybe it's just a light box with a tacky poster in it, and if I got close to it in daylight I wouldn't be nearly so diverted.

UPDATE: What was I thinking? Here is a picture that can be googled after. So I did and here it is.

Mark Titchner

Phrases borrowed from miscellaneous sources and found text feature prominently in Mark's work. These seemingly random texts and slogans have resonances that can be found in once radical, but now outdated, philosophies, the territory of the avant-garde. Divorced from their original context, the meanings of such catchphrases and cliches become ambiguous and the appropriate response is perhaps bewildering – should we interpret these works with humour, sincerity or cynicism? Mark presents these 'cod-philosophies' in the forms of light boxes and banners, which in themselves possess a slick advertising aesthetic - the radical consumed by popular culture. Mark appropriates styles that originate from diverse sources such as the high street, interior decor and abstract art. For example the work 'WE WILL NOT FOLLOW. WE WILL NOT LEAD.' uses images taken from Andy Warhol and William Morris, whilst the text paraphrases an aphorism by Nietzsche. In his practice Mark tries to deal with the difficulty or contingent nature of assuming a position in relation to 'large themes'.

So now I know.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 AM
December 21, 2003
More painted ladies!

You wait for ever for a website with painted women, then two come along in one day.

Thanks to

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:24 PM
Why the absence of style?

As you can see from Michael Jennings' report on Samizdata, I have finally got my hands on a copy of a book which should probably have been a founding text for this blog, namely Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style.

The picture of me and Michael is particularly gruesome, is it not? And it raises the more serious question of why it is that geezers like me and Michael, who are not at all indifferent to matters aesthetic, are nevertheless content to attend social events and to be photographed at them, while contriving themselves to look like … well, invent your own put-down. Seriously, there really does seem to be a tendency for people to compartmentalise their aesthetic endeavours. The extreme case probably being the stereotypical artist, who paints genuinely beautiful paintings or makes genuinely beautiful sculptures, but whose home is a dirty shambles and who dresses like an ugly old tramp.

I toook quite a few pictures myself at that Samizdata do, but I think my new Canon A70 digital camera is wrongly adjusted for indoor stuff, indeed for anything which moves, even a little. Can anyone suggest which nob or setting I might need to twiddle? Once I get that right, there may be no more artistically blurry pictures to show off here, but there may be better pictures of people. Thanks for all the kind feedback about those pictures by the way, in the comments, last night, and in emails.

UPDATE: Oh dear.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
December 04, 2003
Culture in another place - and vanishing kittens

Nothing much today, but I've been culturally busy on other blogs, most notably in this Samizdata posting, which mentions a movie and a TV advert. If I didn't have Samizdata to write for, the piece might have appeared here. It's about the way that the big social distinction nowadays is just above the bottom of society, whereas in former centuries it used to be just below the top.

I was going to link to some wonderfully sweet kitten pictures, which mentioned, but the kitties are now gone. I was going to talk about soft focus photographic backgrounds and the differences between non-human camerasight and human eyesight. It will have to wait.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
November 27, 2003

This post by Alice B, about the Israeli version of Big Brother, goes a long way to explaining what I am also on about here. I find most reality TV shows to be never ending excruciation myself, so I mostly don't watch them. But I don't despise them. And I completely agree that you'll never get politics if all you ever obsess about is politics:

I am constantly raging on about how political pundits only look at politics and ignore the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist is what really matters, when you want to understand a culture, and it's all around and also in the mainstream.

On the other hand, I do genuinely love this kind of thing, which is the same very approximate principle I think, but expressing itself a little differently, and I guess not quite in the mainstream. But this is also a very (in the deep and philosophical sense) political statement, I think, by Mr Wheely Man.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:47 PM
November 24, 2003
Lego Escher!

I'm not quite sure how this works, but I love it. It's Andrew Lipson's version of MC Escher's Ascending and Descending (that's the one where they are going around in a square but upwards all the time) but done with Lego!

Presumably it has to be photographed from exactly the right angle.

Ah. It's all explained here.

I rather think you may have seen this before and that I'm the last one to notice. Oh well.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:54 PM
October 19, 2003
Otherwise engaged

Busy weekend, obsessing and writing about rugby, and also spending a great gob of time watching Whit Stillman's movie Metropolitan, one of my all time favourites. So, not a lot here, in other words.

Various websites I've looked at have described Metropolitan as containing lots of sitting about and talking about nothing. There is indeed lots of sitting about and talking, but it is not about nothing. It is merely about things that most people can't be bothering with, but which some people can, like writing, downward social mobility, and so forth. Also, in extreme contrast to your average Hollywood non-left-wing movie, people say interesting things about once every two minutes instead of about twice in the entire thing. I hereby nominate Metropolitan as a key blogosphere work of art, because in it the heroine falls in love with the hero entirely on the strength of what he has written.

I also did a bit yesterday about plastic surgery, another of those pieces which began as something for here (or for here) but which ended up on Samizdata. This painful picture is of the British actress Leslie Ash, who used to look like this but who now looks like this:


The horror, the horror.

In the rest of my blogging time today, I'm going to try to write something More Serious for Samizdata.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:53 PM
October 10, 2003
Ceremonial angst – radio delight

Well there goes the opening game of the Rugby World Cup. Australia 24 Argentina 8. Not a classic. But it will not surprise Brian's Culture Blog readers that Wendell Sailor scored the opening try of the tournament. Not that any of you care, you Pommy-loving Pansy Poofders.

Is it just me or are sports tournament opening ceremonies getting more and more of a pain? It probably is just me, but I found this one especially dire. Working on my computer to take some of the pain out of it, I thought for a brief moment that I saw a burning swastika out of the corner of my eye, but it was just some Aboriginal figure, burning symbolically, or something. The Australians are apparently still at the Bogus Dancing Natives Stage of their relationship with their original locals.

In general, the thing reminded me of the rubbish that briefly went on inside our Dome on millenium night. Remember The Dome? The show was indeed dazzling, i.e. it had lots of colours and costumes and arsing about by huge gangs of people marching this way and that, and overweight women singing, but so what? It was a huge relief when ageing blokes in normal suits appeared, to make short and forgettable speeches about the forthcoming tournament that actually had something to do with the forthcoming tournament. I ought to watch Grumpy Old Men tonight (BBC2 – no link that makes sense and you don't have to search through for ten minutes – bloody internet), which is not the Matthau/Lemon movie, but a "documentary" of grumpy old Moaning Heads moaning grumpily about speed bumps, designer labels the internet, etc., but I'll be out.

My new digital radio continues to delight, so I switched the TV sound down (off if any music was involved) and listened instead to Arthur Schnabel playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto (I now realise I already possess this on CD but no matter), one of Rob Cowan's morning picks for Radio 3. It was followed by William Schuman's Third Symphony (not to be confused with Robert Schumann's Third Symphony). Cowan chose the early Bernstein New York Phil CBS (now Sony) recording, which sounded beefier and more effective than the later DGG remake by the same team that I have. It's a splendid piece and it quite cheered me up.

Have a nice weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:32 PM
September 30, 2003
The new fashion statement



Look in the first three comments.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:30 PM
September 26, 2003
Every planet on earth

I just love this. I got it from Capitalist Magazine, but I'm sure I could have got it from 12,482 different places. Now here it is at number 12,483:

"My vision is to make the most diverse state on earth, and we have people from every planet on the earth in this state. We have the sons and daughters of every, of people from every planet, of every country on earth ..." (September 18, 2003, Gray Davis, talking about why he should remain as Governor of California, San Franciso Chronicle)

On the strength of this, I think he should remain Governor of California.

This is my favourite internet meme just by now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:52 PM
September 25, 2003
More on Solitaire and music listening – and another Micklethwait's law

Natalie Solent doesn't have a commenting system, so I will (rather ungratefully) correct her here. She very kindly refers in passing to a piece I did about "half listening" (her phrase) to music. She goes on to talk about how I and Steven Den Beste (Natalie offers no link to a particular posting by him) "try to tease out why exactly people can half-listen to some music but not other music". This may have been what Den Beste was writing about, but I was writing about what activities can be combined with listening to any music, not "half" but almost completely, and what can't. Solitaire can be combined with listening to music perfectly, was my central point.

In my earlier post I did an afterthought update, but I still didn't get it right. I said that Solitaire has the psychological effect of causing you to listen to the music, and that it creates a kind of psychological barrier to any distractions. The Solitaire blocks out Third Party notions that might take your mind off the music. I now realise from alert introspection that this is wrong. It is perfectly possible (a) to be doing Solitaire, (b) to have music on but not to be listening to it, at all, because (c) one is thinking about something else. What Solitaire does is physically, in the external world, reduce the chances of such distraction from the music. You can't play Solitaire and simultaneously get wrapped up in a book, because your hands cannot physically pick up the book and open it if they are occupied with Solitaire. Your eyes can't look away from the screen. So you don't read, because you can't. The internal workings of the brain have nothing to do with it. But it is perfectly possible to just think of something else, and go awandering mentally. After a spell of doing exactly this I realised that the Solitaire thing had to be clarified yet again.

So: to sum up. Solitaire combines extraordinarily well with listening to music. You go into an automatic Solitaire trance, just like an automatic driving a car on a dull motorway trance, which enables another part of your brain, the more conscious part, to give full conscious attention to something like music, which is not competing with the same bits of your nervous system. But Solitaire doesn't guarantee concentration. It merely alters the odds in its favour.

As for the type of music my whole point was that while Solitairing I was able to listen carefully to a rather trivial Beethoven piano sonata, but while doing a blog posting, I completely ignored the Hammerklavier Sonata. That's not the music making the difference. It's what else I was doing.

Nevertheless, I am genuinely grateful and flattered by Natalie's reference to this stuff about Solitaire. It obviously, pun intended, struck a chord. It was a good piece. Too bad it has been so chaotically presented, in what amounts now to three separate postings.

There's another Micklethwait's law: the better the idea, the more chaotic will be the manner in which you present it. This sounds like merely a particular application of Murphy's law. But Murphy's (otherwise known as Sod's) laws are about how purely random events will go against you. This inverse ratio between quality of concept and clarity of expression has a cause, namely that when you get hold of an interesting and new idea (a) you haven't lived with it long enough to get it throughly organised in your head, and (b) if you know it's an interesting idea you are liable to get excited, and that deranges your presentation even more. My Solitaire stuff was not afflicted by (b) because frankly I didn't think anyone would give it a second thought. But it was affected by (a). I hadn't ever said it before, so my first attempt to say it was a muddle. And perhaps I should add (c) I was still thinking it through, even after I had started to express the idea.

End of posting sign-off joke: the second half of the above paragraph was also afflicted by the very law which it attempts to describe. Hah!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:19 PM
September 22, 2003
Virtual community

No time for profundity (i.e. excessive length). Just time for a quick rumination on the strange places that human instinct takes the solitary but connected human in these electrical times.

Do you often watch movies on television or listen to music from the radio, at times of their choosing, not your own, which you already own in a form that you could play to yourself at a time of your own choosing?

I first noticed this odd syndrome when I caught myself listening on Radio Three to a recording of Elgar's First Symphony which I already owned on CD. And not only was I doing this, but a fact to add is that my CD player makes far better sound than does my radio.

Last night, which was what reminded me of this, I watched large chunks of one of my favourite movies, The Right Stuff, which I already own on DVD, on television.


It occurs to me that these two works, Elgar One and The Right Stuff, are rather similar. Both embody the confidence of a Great Power at the height of its power, and with an undercurrent of nervous laughter caused by the uneasy feeling that maybe it won't last. Both are very public pieces, especially the Elgar. And I've chosen a picture from The Right Stuff to illustrate this post which also captures the public importance of those First Seven astronauts. The Right Stuff is at least as much about the supreme social niche that those men briefly occupied in American society, down there on the ground, and about the earthly society they inhabited, as it is about their astronautical achievement. As Dennis Quaid's grinning Gordo Cooper says, he's got all manner of deals going, and a "free lunch from one end of America to the other", and all this before he ever ventured into space. And who could forget the scene where John Glenn, played so beautifully by Ed Harris, proves that, at least for that brief shining moment, he and the other astronauts between them outranked the Vice-President of the United States?

And of course those rocket expeditions were immense public events.

So both the Elgar and The Right Stuff, being public pieces, are the sort of things you want to witness at a public event. So is that why I wanted to witness them on the radio and the TV? At least I join a virtual "event", instead of it being a private event of my own, as the next best thing to a real public occasion.

Or is it that if there is a major terrorist incident in some big western city with huge loss of life, I want an emergency news bulletin to interrupt the proceedings and tell me about this straight away? This can't happen when you listen to a CD or watch a DVD, and in this respect the public media are an improvement. Do I want the potential connection with History, should a slice of it erupt while I'm watching or listening? Closer, maybe.

Is it simply that I'm human, and as such, am a social animal? I simply like to huddle together with my fellow humans. But actually huddling together with fellow humans brings me slap up against their imperfections, and mine in their eyes. In the sort of audiences I am usually a member of, they aren't the people I'd really like them to be. And I'm very rarely the person I'd like myself to be. But if I listen to the radio or watch it on the telly, I can imagine my ideal audience, and be an ideal member of it. I think it's more like that. Sociability without all the bother and sweat and annoyance of actual socialising. The idea of other people, as opposed to the actual fact of them. Mankind, rather than other people.

Forgive me. I profounded on rather more than I intended to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:51 PM
September 17, 2003
A serious post about the alleged right-wingedness of humour

Today the new Adam Smith Institute blog is officially launched. Most of it is political, to the effect that there should be a lot less politics. Strongly agreed.

The nearest thing to a culture-related posting is one by Dr Madsen Pirie entitled Laughing all the way to the market:

Is a sense of humour right-wing? I think it is. I know the BBC uses right-wing to mean simply bad, but I use it to indicate support for a spontaneous society made by the free economic and personal decisions of its members. Left-wing implies support for a more centrally planned society which seeks to reproduce in the world a vision of what some people think society ought to be like.

Left-wingers see how far the world falls short of their ideal, and are impatient to put it right. They are very political, for they see problems to be solved by collective effort. Right-wingers see opportunities for enjoyment and fulfilment by people of all stations, through social interaction and enjoyment of art or nature. They have time for wry comment, irony, and an appreciation of the funny side of things.

I think this is wrong. The claim "humour = right wing" reminds me of the many philosophical reductions of ideology which say things like "moral relativism = leftism" or "natural rights = non-leftism" or "utilitarianism = leftism". The ones that particularly annoy me are the ones that say "libertarianism is based on this philosophy blah blah blah", implying that all libertarians agree about this philosophy (when libertarian me doesn't) and that all who agree about this philosophy are libertarians (which they aren't). That's all rubbish and so is this attempt to create imaginary correspondences between one ideological camp and being humorous.

All ideological camps contain their jokers and their humourless dorks, their open-hearted team players and their bitter and twisted failures and maniacs. Look at all the lunatics who oppose the European Union to see just how crazed "right wingers" can be. (Many of these maniacs are also doctrinaire libertarians. I agree with quite a lot of what these people say, but luckily the triumph of the anti-European cause won't mean us being in any way ruled by these lunatics, the way that the triumph of the pro-European cause does mean us being ruled by those lunatics.)

Part of the problem is that we have here two different definitions of "right-wing" here, to mean (a) relaxed about things having to change and actually being rather happy if they don't change, and (b) a belief that things should change for the better, and that this better should be in a free market direction. Relaxed or even opposed to change versus free market change. Not the same thing.

If right wing means opposed to change, then where does that leave a New Labour supporting grandee like Stephen Fry? He is both (depending on your definitions) left wing in that he supports Labour and despises the Conservatives, and right wing in doing this in a lordly and snobbish and humorous and self-deprecating and self-sending-up way and in wanting left wing rule to continue for ever and not ever to be changed back into Conservative rule. Does Stephen Fry have no sense of humour? The Alternative Comedians were left wing, and funny. And extremely numerous. And also they're getting rather "right wing" and relaxed and content with how things are as they get older.

I have friends who insist that Alternative Comedians are not funny. But if you have a guy at the front of a room telling jokes, and a room full of people listening to those jokes and laughing, you definitely have humour there, even if you don't share it. And by this definition (a behavioural one) there's plenty of left wing humour.

In fact, you could probably lash together a better case than Madsen makes for his thesis to the effect that these days the left has bugger all going for it except humour.

Similar thoughts must have occurred to Madsen while he was writing his first two paragraphs, because the third and final one starts with a U-turn:

Left-wing humour is heavily loaded to satire, and is but another weapon in the unending fight to make the world conform to their ideal. They see too many problems and injustices to allow time out for light-hearted observation on human follies and absurdities. Most right-wingers also want a better life, but even in the world's present, imperfect state, they find space enough for laughter.

The claim that the "right wing" contains no unrelaxed ideologues stressing and straining to make the world conform to their ideal has already been distrousered above. But now we learn that, yes, there is "left wing humour" after all. It's just a bit different. It's humour for ideological fanatics.

But is humour that is bitter and an ideological weapon not humour? Another definition hop. Humour as relaxation from the battle is humour, but "humour" that is part of the battle isn't humour. It's … "satire".

But does the "right wing" have no satirists of left wing folly, no writers who use humour as a weapon in the ideological struggle? No writers who are anxious about the future, deadly serious about trying to improve things, and screemingly funny with all that? Richard "you couldn't make it up" Littlejohn? P. J. O'Rourke?

In my opinion a lot of P. J. O'Rourke's imperfections as a humorist happen when he tries to be too relaxed, too deliberately "homorous". When he says to hell with the jokes, I've actually got something I want to say about this – in other words when he gets serious – that's when his real jokes happen. But when he pulls back from serious and tells a "joke" instead, you cringe at the unfunniness of it. He lacks confidence. I'm not joking. P. J. O'Rourke lacks confidence in his own opinions, and he is frightened of not being as funny, now, as everyone says he is. So he tells a lame joke instead of saying the next satirical, bitter, serious thing he really wants to say that might if taken seriously change the world for the better. And get a huge, huge laugh on account of being so seriously funny.

This posting of Madsen's is a muddle, but it has at least provoked me into some worthwhile ruminations. On balance, therefore, it was a good thing.

Ah, I think I get it. It was a joke.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:12 PM
September 13, 2003
Tom Utley on cultural false consciousness – on only being happy afterwards – Richard Strauss

The central skill for liking culture is not to let others bully you into pretending to like what you do not like, or into pretending to dislike what you do like. To live a happy life, in other words, try to avoid cultural false consciousness.

And if one of the skills of excellent writing is to confess to a sin that lots of others know they are guilty of too, but hadn't yet got around to admitting to themselves until the excellent writer confessed it out for them, then this Spectator article by Tom Utley is truly excellent.

It is by no means a bad thing that so many of us (if I am right) go around pretending to enjoy the finer things in life, when they don’t really do all that much for us. We do far less harm than the unashamedly philistine, beating each other up on the terraces at Millwall. But one can push a pretence too far. If Buccleuch gets his 'Madonna of the Yarnwinder' back, as I earnestly hope he will, the Dumfriesshire and Galloway fire brigade should be given new instructions: in the event of a fire at Drumlanrig, save the Duke, who seems a nice old buffer, and let the Leonardo burn.

The sad thing is that Tom Utley still seems to confuse the aesthetic and the moral. There is no necessary connection between deciding that you don't much like Leonardo's paintings and assaulting people at football matches. If you don't like Leonardo, don't bother with him, and don't fill the newly empty hours by assaulting people. Is that really such a hard rule to follow? Most "philistines" are not bad people. I don't much like sitting through concerts, staring at paintings except in attractive female company, the operas of Rossini in any circumstances or on any medium, Baroque music played in an excessively authentic style ditto, so I don't endure these things. Nor do I beat people up. Nor do I write Spectator articles recommending that Leonardo paintings be left to burn just because I don't personally care for them.

The same kinds of things can be said of Patrick Crozier, who also picked up on this piece.

It is a bad thing that Tom Utley has wasted so much of his life making himself unhappy with what others consider to be great art but which he didn't like. Unhappiness is bad.

However, the news for Utley is not all bad. His time wasn't completely wasted. What Utley and I clearly both enjoy is writing cleverly. He even gets paid to write cleverly, but he does it cleverly enough to suggest that he would do it for nothing if no one paid him, and probably he does in such things as clever letters and emails to friends and family. And now that Utley has trudged through all those art galleries and castles and sat through all those concerts, he has all kinds of things to write about cleverly, as this article of his proves. He will have learned things. Even so, it's a bit sad that he had to wait until he's middle aged (and thus qualified to write for the Spectator) before learning one of the basic rules for how to enjoy yourself.

I have a category of experience which I label something like: didn't make me very happy but happy to have done it. When David Carr took me to a Premier League football match at Stamford Bridge, frankly, my mind did wander a bit, Utley style. And of course there was lots of annoying travelling involved, as always when you actually go to things. But the recollection of that event is pure pleasure, and I would hate now to be without that memory. It was Roman Abramovich's first home game as the owner of Chelsea. Fascinating. I was entertained only on and off at the time, but afterwards I loved it.

At the risk of going on far too long, I do want to add one more thing here, which is that I do truly love to listen to classical music CDs. There's no false consciousness there. I love them. If you're happy to take that on trust, if you already see the point of this point, if you don't give a toss about Richard Strauss, and if you have other things to do now, fine. Stop reading this now.

A long time ago, I once, for those of you still with me, had a little spell of worrying that perhaps I didn't really love classical music and that I only pretended to myself that I loved so as to feel superior to all the people who didn't love it. And then I went to the cinema and saw a frankly rather dreary (I later decided - Utley style) film called 2001 A Space Odyssey. But the start wasn't dreary. And it had this fabulous music. At the time I had no idea about Richard Strauss tone poems, and the habit of stitching unaltered classical music (or for that matter unaltered pop music) into movies was not nearly as common then as it is now. So I just thought that some Hollywood hack had had, so to speak, a rare on day. Most of Hollywood made-for-the-movies music strikes me as dull, dull, dull – whether orchestral, jazzified, poppified, or, now, I suppose, danceified or hiphoppified. But this 2001 music struck me as genuinely arresting. I thought: Wow, can I buy it?

Well, of course, it turned out that I could. It was one of my team, and I've loved all those grandiose Richard Strauss tone poems ever since, not just the opening of Also Sprach Zarathusthra (the now famous 2001 music), but also the Alpine Symphony and Heldenleben. Even the much despised Sinfonia Domestica.

And there's another taste you aren't supposed to have, according to some snobs who like to make subtle distinctions between kosher classical music and the rest. And if you do like Richard Strauss, you are supposed to like the strident and decadent and often rather discordant early stuff like Elektra and Salomé, but you aren't allowed to like the mushy stuff like Rosenkavalier or the somewhat ridiculous stuff (in the sense that the programmes are ridiculous) like Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica. The sublime Metamorphosen and the equally sublime Four Last Songs are also verboten because by the time Strauss wrote them the style he used was way out of style, so you can't love those either.

Oh yes I can. As Alice Bachini might put it: Our Hero now waves his wooden sword at a gang of gibbering Culture Snobs who withdraw from the stage in disarray.

I apologise if this posting has been rather long and a bit grandiose and self-centred, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:21 PM
September 06, 2003

Prodded by a couple of comments, I took a(nother) look at The last time I looked, I vaguely recall thinking: any pretty buttons from this hippy bird which I could feature on my Culture Blog? Can't see any. And I was away, or distracted, or something, and that was that. The internet is a cruel space to operate in. Fail to make a connection with the net wanderer in three quarters of a second, and he's gone. It isn't right, but it is reality.

Anyway, this time I gave it several more seconds, and the point is that is not about buttons. It's about badges. Here in England, which as everyone knows is the centre of the world (look at the maps), buttons keep your coat on. It's only badges that are merely attached to the outside of the coat and have propaganda messages on them. So these are badges.

What I did was I browsed the catalogue and then picked THE ARTS. Then I copied and pasted the entire list of Arts slogans and culled it, leaving my favourites. Which are:

Americans love tragedy as long as it has a happy ending

Being a pain in the ass is a prerogative of the creative mind

The cow ate bluegrass and mooed indigo

Fear no art

Go not to the surrealists for counsel, for they will say both blue and hippopotamus

God created music so people could pray without words

Imagine Escher drawing his own bath

The mome rath isn't born that could outgrabe me

No one ever built a statue to a critic

Opening night – the night before the play is ready to open

Scottish country dancers are reel people

Those who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music

Welcome to heaven. Here's your harp and your tuning key. Welcome to hell. Here's your harp.

What do you get if you play New Age music backwards? New Age music

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Music is my drug of choice

People complain about "soundbites" nowadays. What do they think a book of ancient quotations or aphorisms is full of? This is the jealousy of the waffler, of one who can write entire bad book, but who can't turn a single memorable phrase.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:28 PM
August 31, 2003
Is there life on earth? – probably not because there is not enough red dust on it

This is good fun. First paragraphs:

Hello, and welcome to Mars South-West Tonight. I have with me in the studio one of the planet's most distinguished nerds, Groink, and I'm going to be asking him all about Earth. Groink, just how close is Earth to us at the moment?"

"Good evening, Kerpow. Lovely to be with you. Earth is currently a mere 26 million eeks away, which is the closest it has been for 60,000 Earth years – which is roughly 150 splatts, if you can imagine such a thing. That means the last time in our history it was so close was just after the Mildly Interesting Occurrences and shortly before the Third Anticlimax."

Read all of it, some of it or none of it, as you please.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:25 PM
August 27, 2003
Postmodernism at 2 Blowhards

Every time I have something here that they like, the 2 Blowhards link to me. Thank you 2 Blowhards. If I linked to 2 Blowhards every time they had something I liked, there'd be nothing here but links to 2 Blowhards.

But I did especially like this posting about Postmodernism. This is one of the cleverest bits of anti-Frenchness I have come across lately, and God knows, there's been a lot of competition in that department recently. The basic thesis is: Postmodernism doesn't make much sense of the world, but it sure as hell makes a lot of sense of France.

Final fraught-with-further-significance paragraph:

I guess the real question is not why the French see something of themselves and their situation in Postmodern thought, but rather what American academics see in it? Whatever our own issues are, America clearly lacks that peculiarly French culture-schizophrenia. Is it possible that our academics miss it, or do they perhaps actually long for it? Or have they simply not read enough history - either French or American?

No I think it's simpler than that Friedrich. I think that American academia (at any rate the bit of it that worships Postmodernism) is a little slice of La France in America. At any rate in the sense that France is described in the rest of Friedrich Blowhard's posting.

Postmodernism is what happens when you let appearances get way out of hand. It is one thing to say that you can manipulate reality by manipulating its appearance. (You definitely can.) It is quite another to say that it is only appearances, only the way things look, that matter, and that what things are is just a trick of the light.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:16 PM
On changing how things are by starting with how they look

My friend Alice is battling away to make her blog look nicer. Good luck to her. And I feel that this is a quite profound comment on how a lot of us feel about the role of aesthetics in everyday life:

Yes, this is drivel. As soon as I get my new look, everything will change.

She's talking about the blog, not herself. But something very similar could be said about the relationship between how well you you talk and how good you look. (Improve your speaking by getting a new suit.)

Things are a shambles. But as soon as we can make them look nice, they will be on the mend. Start with appearances, and reality will follow. There is much truth in this.

In armies, a classic way (see the movie Patton starring George C. Scott) of turning loser soldiers into Real Soldiers is to start by making them look like Real Soldiers. Start with the appearance of things. Next thing you know, they'll feel like Real Soldiers, and before you know it they'll be Real Soldiers, and fighting like Real Soldiers.

Many – including me, here, I'm sure, often – speak of beauty and good-lookingness as being entirely separate from everyday Real Life and its struggles. Not so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 AM
August 26, 2003
Solitaire and listening (and I mean really listening) to music turn out to go together very well

I've had little time for culture today, but here's another of my little insights into the nature of the musical listening experience, to put alongside earlier postings of a similarly inconsequential sort such as this one.

My starting point is Solitaire (the electronic game that comes packaged with Windows), to which I am addicted. I'm not proud of this, nor am I desperately ashamed, and maybe "addicted" is a bit strong. I just find that from time to time I like to have a little session of Solitairing, and while doing this, I have made an interesting discovery. While playing Solitaire, I can actually listen, and listen properly, to classical music.

Contrast this with something like writing, even writing something as light in weight as this little piece. When I'm doing something like that, entire movements of volcanically wonderful music can go by without me paying any of it the smallest attention, and electrodes planted in my brain would, I am sure, prove this. But when I play Solitaire, the electrodes would be buzzing and swaying in time with even the gentlest and most unobtrusive music, such as the lesser little Beethoven piano sonata I listened to today, opus 14 no. 1.

Presumably this means that Solitaire has become automatic. I'm not getting any better at the game, not the way I play it, any more than some old man out jogging is getting any faster at long distance running. It's just that we like to do it, and from time to time I hear things from those who care for the elderly to the effect that my Solitaire inclinations are very probably good for me, rather than pointless. They keep the brain cells exercised, but without straining them too much. Solitairing means that my brain will last a little longer.

Nevertheless it is a very odd thing to watch myself placing a red ten on top of a black jack, while simultaneously appreciating the phrasing of the piano player in a piece of Beethoven. Asked to guess about such a thing, I would have said that the same part of the brain that plays Solitaire would be needed to listen to Beethoven. But, provided I play Solitaire in a suitably trancelike manner, it is not so. It is the Solitaire that "goes in one ear and out the other", rather than the music, even as my mouse hand continues to go through the proper Soliltaire motions. Odd.

UPDATE next day - August 27: I realise, thinking about it some more, that it goes further than this. Solitaire actually helps me to listen to classical music by being a substitute for concentration. One way to listen to classical music is ... to concentrate. This means preventing any other thoughts besides the music from entering your head. Solitaire does this automatically. It erects a mental barrier that stops me thinking about anything else, and thus I listen totally to the music. (That Solitaire puts me into a Solitaire trance obviously helps also.)

I noticed this just now. I had finished working on one of the postings above, and I decided to do a burst of Solitaire to recharge the batteries, or something, and immediately I started to listen to the music that I had on. Which previously I had been completely ignoring.

And what was that music? It was the final piece of the three Beethoven piano sonatas on the CD that I was also playing yesterday (Alfredo Perl on Arte Nova for those interested), and which I found on pause when I got up this morning. And whereas last night I had been paying close Solitaire-induced attention to Beethoven's Piano Sonatas No 9 in E major op. 14/1 and No. 10 in G major op. 14/2, this morning I had been ignoring Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major op. 106, known as the "Hammerklavier", and the biggest, grandest and one of the most demanding (to player and listener alike) of the thirty two Beethoven piano sonatas. !!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
August 15, 2003
Art as sport

After all those Art Deco interminabilities yesterday, just a short posting today to tell you that I recently did a piece on Ubersportingpundit about "When is a sport not a sport?"

My personal beef is against those alleged sports where they have a row of judges deciding who did best not only in such semi-sporting matters as "technical merit", but also, if you please, in "artistic impression". That's not sport. That's bloody art. I'm thinking of ice-skating and formation swimming and diving, but I'm sure there are others. Yeah, dancing. But at least they don't do dancing at the Olympics. Yet.

Not only is "artistic impression", sportswise, a crock of four lettered waste matter, so is "technical merit", if it is being indulged in for its own sake, rather than to knock over some stumps, plant a ball on a designated patch of grass, or kick a ball into a rectangle or H, or something along similar lines. There needs to be a place in sport for players who ooze technical merit and who make a huge artistic impression, but this is no fun unless they can come up against cloggers who can scarcely walk and who look like brick, er, waste-houses, but who do the business. There's no romance in sport, if the romance is just a matter of moves, and if non-romance automatically loses you points.

Culture blog material also, I hope you agree, even if expressed in somewhat locker room language.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:32 PM
August 04, 2003
Not crap

Via the latest newsletter from I got to the guy who did this:


I really like the look of his site, with its regular clutches of four sketch excerpts. The one above is got to via the left hand end picture on 5/07/2003. And check out also the link to coloured stuff, just above that date.

Says he ("Crap Juggler"), of the big picture above:

I did this at work abd I think its one of better sketches, in fact I'm going to colour this one up and use it in my portfolio.

Even robots are allowed to be couch potatoes.

Indeed. And that would be "and" and "it's".

Tragically, and like so many sites nowadays, it looks like a blog, but it ain't. You can't link to individual postings. Tragic. He should contact these people and get himself properly sorted.

I'm not sure if the actual stuff itself, if I saw it in the paper, so to speak, would thrill me so much. But I love the way it all looks on a computer screen, with the cream background.

I've just found a bit which says copyright Richard Tingley. I guess that's his regular name, and I hope he doesn't mind me copying his picture to here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:18 PM
July 25, 2003
Men with their shirts out update

Shirt update. (I.e update of this.) A Samizdata commenter (Emmanuel Goldstein no less) says go here to read what Steve Sailer said about it. This is what he said (you have to scroll down very patiently):

Lots of fascinating suggestions from you all about why guys on the prowl for girls these days don't tuck in their shirts:

- To cover up their pot bellies. This is probably especially true for blacks, many of whom have gotten pretty fat in the decade of so since it became uncool among blacks (thank God) to look like some human skeleton on the pipe.

- To not look like some neat freak homosexual

- To look like a bad boy -- "Think of Brad Pitt -- a handsome guy who uglifies himself with greasy, stick-out hair, two-day beard stubble, shirttails out and collar flapping up. This look defuses the deregatory charges of "pretty boy," "Pat Boone," "clean-cut," and promotes a raffish devil-may-care effect."

- Because they're packing concealed weapons. (I don't think this is literally true very often, but certainly the long-term fashion for loose clothes among youths traces back in part to the desire of crack dealers to carry guns without cops noticing. Rappers took this style and diffused it to the suburbs.) Or maybe just a flask for underage drinking.

But you see I didn't have any of this in mind. I just thought I had noticed that smart was being redefined to include having your shirt out. What Sailer and his commenters/emailers/lowlifer correspondents are saying is that the street yobbo style has taken a new twist.

This tells me that in six months it will be gone, and replaced by some other horror. Sorry I mentioned it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:33 PM
July 24, 2003
Men in shirts

Clothing fashions are strange things. I don't mean fashion as in the randomly bizarre things they wear on catwalks. I mean fashions as in general trends, like big ties, big hair, flared trousers, totally bald heads, male hair dyed red, metal attachments to the face, women wearing trousers, women baring their navels, that kind of thing.

The one I've been noticing lately is the male habit of wearing the shirt outside the trousers. It really hit me last night, watching Spiderman film actor Tobey Maguire being interviewed by David Letterman.

For well over a hundred years, and despite severe challenges during the nineteen sixties and seventies, the classic shirt tucked in, tie, and suit, consisting of jacket and trousers, probably matching, has ruled the roost, when it has come to formal male attire. But now suddenly things seem to be changing.

I think it may be something to do with the influence of the East. Those short half-shirt-half-jacket things worn by people like Pandit Nehru and the Chinese leaders seem to me to be the fashion influence here that is finally asserting itself in the West.

But what do I know? Maybe in ten years time masculine shirts will all be tucked back in again, and civilisation as we've always known it will be back chugging along as if nothing had happened.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:59 PM
July 12, 2003
This and that - Harry Potter, frogs, the Internet etc.

Such is the frequency of postings over at Samizdata that culture vultures (of the sort who care about such lowbrow things as Harry Potter) may have completely missed this piece, from as long ago as Thursday, by Andy Duncan about that amazing publishing phenomenon, and this time it's a less than reverent treatment. I'm guessing Andy has no kids whom HP has rescued from illiteracy.

Andy has just taken a brutal hammering at the hands of Politics, in the form of a long coment by him on this posting, in praise of the leader of Britain's Conservative Party saying that he'll lead Britain out of the EU, followed by this emphatic pronouncement from that same leader. So he needs some cheering up.

I'm off to what promises to be a most agreeable dinner. Two entire French speakers will be present, namely host and expert cook Antoine Clarke, and the Dissident Frogman, who is in London just now and whom I hope to entice into cleaning up the aesthetic mess that is this blog.


(I came across this picture, at this site, while googling for the DF.)

Although there'll be nothing else here today, I do touch loosely on matters cultural in this posting earlier today, again for Samizdata. It's about how the Internet changes the way people write and think and politick, by encouraging different, less localised coalitions of interest. Not original at all, but sometimes the stuff that seems most obvious to you (i.e. me) can be illuminating to others, so I stuck it up anyway.

UPDATE: And how about this for cultural impact?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:13 PM
July 05, 2003
I do like a good manifesto

Michael Jennings emails me thus:

There are few things as tantalising as Bulgarian manifestos that you can't understand.

Indeed. I mention it because this "Groove Manifesto" appears to be about how to do woodwork, which is a subject of interest here. Bulgarians, please elucidate.

Meanwhile, this Groove Manifesto is totally incomprehensible and full of long words, so until we learn what it really is, think of it as Modern Art criticism. Freed of the distraction of any clear message, we are able to contemplate the manner in which this (to us) non-message is presented. Again, very Modern Artistic.

Also, there is a blogger bash tonight, and I want to be sure that there is something profound here well before I depart, so there's no last minute rush. You don't want to be having to say something cultural under time pressure, trust me. I mean, it can work, but it's not fun.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:39 PM
July 03, 2003
Jer! Ry! Jer! Ry! Drop! Dead! Drop! Dead!

God how I loathe the Jerry Springer Show. A lot of people say that the Jerry Springer Show means that Western Civilisation is collapsing. When I find myself watching it, no matter how briefly, I become one of them.

The disgusting JS starts it off, reeking of such obvious insincerity that it amounts to honesty.

Hey, we're going to talk about this really Deep Problem, which we don't care about at all, and we've rounded up these morons who are so desperate to be on television that they will talk about their problem and pretend that JS is going to take it all seriously and try to help, for God's sakes, and then they'll attack each other.

The studio audience, cheering and clapping and chanting in unison, knows exactly what's going on. This is not therapy. This is emotional gladiatorial combat. And bye and bye, the real thing.

This is why the lower classes are called "lower". Because they watch this stuff week after week all the way through. Although, a simple "low" would make more sense. Everyone involved in this show is totally disgusting, including me for watching it and writing about it and thus Playing Into Their Hands.

There are probably a thousand stupid websites I could go looking for to scatter over this posting. Do it yourself. And when you're there, stay there, and don't come back here. I despise you.

Deep breaths. Pause for twenty four hours.

The trouble is that the Jerry Springer Show is a classic example of the lower classes getting ready for the age of Total Surveillance, a topic already dealt with here, and the whole thing posted across to another place because they thought it was so brilliant, as did Alice.

The Jerry Springer Show prepares all concerned for when what we now think of as our private life is instead the business of the entire world, and for when we get phone calls and emails from people in other continents taking sides in the row we had last night with our wife, which a million people tuned into because it was mentioned ten minutes after it started by a radio station in Sydney Australia, and then picked up and linked to by Instapundit, who thought that our wife made some good points about Homeland Security and about American politicians who want to destroy your computer for copying music with it without paying, in among having plates and chairs thrown at her.

But I still hate the show, and if this is the future, I hate that too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:18 PM
June 30, 2003
Fireworks over the Statue of Liberty

Pretty cool, says Dave Barry. As do I.

Although to be literal, fireworks are more pretty than cool. Interesting the double meanings of both those words. " She's pretty ugly." "That fire was way cool." Odd.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 AM
April 24, 2003
This and that

I've just done a posting for Samizdata which began as a posting for here, about the possible influence of kid's toys on later artistic tastes, Modern Art tastes in particular. But since I ended it by saying comments please, I thought I'd put it there rather than here, and the comments have already begun. If you are not a regular Samizdata reader, please make an exception for this posting, if only to enjoy the comments yourself. Samizdata comments can be very good, in my opinion. It cheers me greatly that the comments both here and at my Education Blog are starting to buzz along very nicely.

At Samizdata there's also a very cool looking picture of a spaceship, which reminds me of my posting here about airplane aesthetics. This creature, especially when it is carrying its baby, looks a whole lot more of a muddle than Concorde or the B2. And while you're there, I also did a couple of postings (here and here) about the aesthetics of the new Rolls Royce Phantom. Not nice was the verdict which I and the Samizdata commenters arrived at, although personally I have yet to set eyes on this vehicle.

Being as I am on the subject of culture on other blogs, I've just been to 2Blowhards to catch up there, and I found that Michael had given this blog a(nother) plug. Thanks Michael. 2Blowhards is the culture blogging mothership as far as I'm concerned, and one of the things that had me paralysed into silence in the only somewhat earlier days of this blog was the silly notion that I had to be as productive and informed and all round brilliant as those guys are. Not possible. I particularly like this piece about New York architecture, which reminds me, I need to write up my piece about the Meaningless Triangle". What's that? It's a Modern Movement Architecture effect, which is stupid, but which happens for big, big (and stupid stupid) reasons. Stay tuned.

In general, I realise that I'm not linking to cultural postings on other blogs as often as I might, and especially to cultural postings on other blogs which are not themselves specialist culture blogs which culturalists may accordingly have missed. But rather than correct that now, I'll finish this up before my deadline, and then see how I feel about doing more. I have a busy day tomorrow and it would make sense to do tomorrow's piece tonight, so to speak.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
April 21, 2003
Male genitalia

Ha, that got your attention. I've just caught a really good line, from that TV show called Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I only heard because I had gone to sleep in front of my TV and then woke up during it. I don't actually like it that much, or I thought I didn't. Maybe I should start liking it. No. I shouldn't. The rest of it is complete rubbish and of no entertainment value whatsoever. It's just an old man being stupid and pointless. The fact that it is a really, really accurate portrayal of an old man being stupid and pointless does not make it any more amusing. This is just my opinion, you understand. To the rest of the universe just now, this show is everything that is wonderful. Don't let me spoil your enjoyment of this abysmal slice of foolishness if you enjoy it.

Anyway the line that was good before everything went back to being bad again was about how a man can have sex with any woman, because women a so beautiful. But women have to be in love with a man before they'll have sex with him, because male genitalia are so appalling. This makes perfect sense to me. I've never really understood why all women aren't lesbians. After all, women are just so much nicer to look at nude than men, and why would women feel any different to the way most men seem to feel? But apparently it doesn't work like that. Do all mothers just force themselves to endure sex with men just to have children? Surely not. So, I'm baffled.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
April 11, 2003
On the how and the why of canons

Here is what may be another of those feeble Brian's Culture Blog postings that I warned you about. A quota fulfiller, as I've long been calling such postings on my Education Blog.

In my film list piece, I touched on the Posterity thing. How does stuff make it into the "canon"? This, after all, is why it matters if something is considered to be Art or not. If it is deemed to be art, more people will be told about it in future decades.

Well, I don't now have anything profound to add, but meanwhile, this, from Aaron Haspel, is good stuff, in answer to Michael Blowhard's original question:

Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors features an incredibly annoying TV writer, played by Alan Alda, who keeps repeating, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Well, the Canon is the fashion plus time. It's subject to exactly the same vicissitudes. Shakespeare largely owes his reputation as the greatest English writer to two 19th century German critics, the Schlegel brothers. Nobody read John Donne 100 years ago. In 1921 Sir Herbert Grierson published an anthology, featuring Donne, of "metaphysical" poets, borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson, who used it disparagingly. T.S. Eliot picked up on Grierson, emphasizing Donne's "difficulty" when difficulty was all the rage. An entire generation of academics, steeped in Eliot, began to teach Donne, things picked up steam, and now he is a "classic," and the streets are littered with college graduates who know nothing of Donne except that he is "metaphysical." Note that in this process one critic, maybe two, formed an independent opinion of Donne's actual merits.

The problem with art that is addressed by having a canon is how long it can take to get acquainted with it.

Profound thought. It is much, much easier to get a rough idea of a painting, and of how much you like it, from one minute's acquaintance, than it is to make a similar judgement of a novel, or even a longer poem. Not necessarily easy, but easier. So the relative power of the literature canon-arbiters is likely to be bigger than that of their confreres in the visual arts, a state of affairs that will only be reinforced when just about all paintings of any merit are available for view in decent repros on the Internet, which is surely not the case yet, but equally surely soon will be.

That's one of the advantages that Michael Blowhard has over me, besides being cleverer and more knowledgeable and everything about these things than I am. He likes pictures, and he can show them in a form that gives us a very good idea indeed of what he's talking about. I can do the same with architecture, once I get the aesthetics of this blog semi-organised.

But one of my biggest cultural enthusiasms is classical music, and although I can say that the Brahms Violin Concerto is very nice, I can't show it to you for twenty seconds confident that you will immediately get, at a glance, that it has a longish first movement, a delightful shorter slow movement with a famously prominent oboe part, and a nice upbeat gypsy-style finale. I can tell you all that, of course, but what have I really told you? Not much, frankly.

Thus, we can expect the classical music canon to remain more solidly in place, alongside the literary canon, for a while yet and maybe for ever, and at any rate compared to the paintings canon.

Or maybe, the paintings canon is going to get a lot, lot bigger, and a lot more blurry at the edges, to the point where time also becomes a consideration, the time it takes you to glance at that many pictures. And what Michael is doing is throwing a few thousand more pictures into the canon at this technologically opportune moment. He probably says that somewhere.

Gotta rush now. Tonight I'm giving a talk, about "culture" – wouldn't you know? - and I have to, er, get it ready. So apologies if any typos (and worse) take a bit of a while to get cleaned up.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:32 PM
March 13, 2003
The Voice

I'm listening to an ancient 1950 recording of The Mikado. Naxos have been reissuing them, and I got it (2 CDs of it) for £3 in the market.

I'm enjoying it very much, for many reasons, including that it enshrines the upper middle class English voice in its definitely previous manifestation to the present one.

Some time during or just after the nineteen sixties, the money earning classes of my country did a voice makeover. They squirted a more or less huge dose of Michael Caine into their previous John Mills not to say Donald Sinden vowels. This new voice has since spread throughout the new suburbs, to create a new, truly middle class English accent. You do it and you aren't a toff, because toffs are so weird and isolated from normal life that they still talk like John Mills used to in 1950 and sometimes even the way Donald Sinden still did in 1990. But you aren't a criminal stroke tramp either. You have GCSEs. Your parents understand what a mortgage is, and so do you.

But where does that leave the John Mills Donald Sinden accent? Well, nowhere, now that even the old toffs are dying out. Donald Sinden has run out of steam and is probably officially dead himself by now, and John Mills, although still alive despite being 110 years old, is enough of an actor to have introduced slight but definite modifications over the years, to have kept him in touch and make him an acceptable chat-show guest. But for us made-over upper-middles it's nice to hear The Voice in all its 1950 embarrassingness given an outing from time to time.

However, and here's my point, we made-over upper-middles do quite agree that The Voice was indeed embarrassing. If we didn't think this we wouldn't have abandoned The Voice (either with a Michael Caine Switch or with a John Mills Modified Makeover - my preferred route) in the sixties. Young pin-striped ginks trying to become Conservative MPs who haven't dumped The Voice, or who even deliberately taught themselves to sound like 1950 John Mills (or even Donald Sinden) are indeed truly embarrassing. You can't talk like that and mean it. I recall listening to an ancient BBC radio production of Hamlet, and the security guards at the beginning sounded like they were driving around in ancient sports cars in the 1950 London to Brighton ancient sports car race. Good god man!, as they would say, or, as their grandchildren would say: Give me a break! They sounded like Boat Race commentators, and may well have been exactly that in later years. What ho, Marcellus! Did you see the jolly old ghost last night? Gosh what an absolutely ripping show! Cringe.

But I do want to be able to listen to The Voice from time to time, for old time's sake, in all its unashamed embarrassingness. But I want to hear it in a setting where self-mockery is built in. Hence the pleasure of listening to The Voice doing The Mikado, rather than Hamlet.

"If you want to know who we are!!!! … We are gentlemen of Japan!!!! …" That generation saying serious stuff with The Voice is too much to bear. Noel Coward explaining in all seriousness why he is fighting the Second World War, dressed as a sea captain. Please. Donald Sinden trying to be even more serious, in The Cruel Sea. That is just too over the top, dear boy, and one simply can't, dear boy, take it seriously. But, dear boy, when one is sending oneself up, conceding with one's every inflection that the British Empire is folding its tents even as we speak in this peculiar way, dear boy, and that this whole way of talking will soon be a thing of the past, dear boy, well, that doesn't date. Or rather, it does date but in a completely satisfactory way, that I at any rate can still now enjoy.

One of the huge changes that has come over History, no less, is that we now have genuine recordings of how people really spoke, from about 1900 onwards. In my recent piece about Hamlet on Samizdata I included the guess that Shakespeare as originally spoken probably sounded more like modern American than modern posh English. Wow, said someone, is that what people really now think? I think they think this, but both halves of that are just guesses, I'm afraid, and I hope to muster the guts to admit it over there some time soon. But what wouldn't we give for a scratchy old gramophone record, like my Mikado CDs, of Shakespeare himself reading one of his bits? A photo would be fantastic. But a sound recording, now I think about it, and if I had to choose, would be even better. The pictures of Shakespeare that we do now have give us a pretty good idea of how he looked, but a recording of the man would cause an earthquake in Shakespeare scholarship and Shakespeare interpretation, and probably in History itself.

"Three little girls from school are we, come from the ladies' seminary …"

Gels, that is, with a elongated short "e": "Ge-e-e-e-e-ls". You know. The Voice. The ladies did it too of course.

"We're very wide ar-wake thar moon end ay."

The moon yes, but not you granny dearest, not any more. You're dead. As is the Queen Mother. But you live on in electro-vinyl, I'm very happy to report.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:06 PM
February 24, 2003
Big ideas and how to have them – target readers – and the silliness of the sound in Star Wars

Reading this piece by Alice today (the archiving is up the spout, so just go there and scroll down) has only made me that bit more confused, because everything she says about the wisdom of having long term goals and hanging on to them is true, but I'm still struggling to clarify the long terms goals I have for Brian's Culture Blog. Alice told me yesterday that she thought that as soon as this blog was going, it would just pour out like something horrible from the rear end of an unkindly fed farm animal (not her words but that was the thrust). Yet it hasn't happened. Maybe this is the turning point. Don't know. What am I trying to achieve here? Okay so I know about Mies van der Rohe (see below). But who else cares that I know and what I know about such persons? What am I trying to do?

Is it spreading libertarianism by proving that we libertarians are dead cultural really, and don't only like Star Wars and heavy metal? But the more I think about this, the less I care about it. It really doesn't matter if libertarians only like Star Wars. What matters is whether they (we – and that might be a clue, that I put they instead of we) are right about how the world should be.

So is it me trying to prove that I like other things besides Star Wars? Actually I don't much like Star Wars at all, any more. I find now that I can't allow myself to get excited about movies where sound is portrayed as travelling through a vacuum. The people who made these movies (or the people who told George Lucas how he was going to have to make these movies, or whatever) were not, when they started out, being serious. It's one thing to get something wrong because you forgot it, or didn't realise that people in those days never wore clothes like that, or that the date of that was whatever it was rather than what you said. It's quite another to get it wrong on purpose, and not care, the way they did with all the noises in Star Wars. But so what? Who cares what I think of Star Wars? Why on earth do I think it matters?

One thing I do know is that it's not me in general, because I in general am writing all kinds of things for other blogs, even as I still struggle with this one.

Tip for writers, which I am now trying to apply to myself. When you are suffering from writers block, which in a moderate form is what is afflicting me here. Try to get it clearer in your mind who you are writing for, and what you are trying to say to them. For example, when I was only writing pamphlets for the Libertarian Alliance, I would often get this wrong to start with, and find that I couldn't write whatever it was. Then I would refocus on my audience, and restate to myself what I wanted to say to these particular people, and when that was done, suddenly out it would all come, and the job would have its back broken in about an hour and a half.

It often helps, when writing something, to actually put at the very start who you have in mind as your target readership. If you are writing for hardcore libertarians, and trying to say something to them, then put that. If, on the other hand, you are aiming the piece at the "intelligent layman", again, put it, and if the hardcores get bored with all the obvious things you are saying to these uninitiates, tough, you've already dealt with that. Once you've put that, you can then get on with writing for the people you are writing for.

But who are my target readers here? I don't yet have it clear in my mind.

Maybe I'm the target reader. Maybe that's the obvious point I'm missing here. Maybe all I really want is a diary that I can read in ten years time, to tell me what I was thinking about just now, and to hell with the rest of you people. Maybe that's the story here.

Final thought. I recently read what I thought was a very good book about How To Have Ideas (called, if I remember it rightly: How To Have Ideas – something along those lines anyway). It said that you have ideas by first doing lots of good but open-minded thinking, where you struggle as best you can to lay out the problem, and to hurl as many notions down on the table that might be steps towards an answer.

Then, and this was the intriguing bit, you forget about it. You think about it, then forget, and do something else. And then, in its own seet time, the answer to what you were previously agonising about presents itself to you.

I'm still at the hurling of ideas onto the table stage with this blog. And maybe that's what I should do for the next few weeks, just fling postings up here, written in all kinds of different modes and aimed at all kinds of different fantasy target audiences, until suddenly – ping!!! – I get it clear what I'm doing.

Anyway, enough for now. That may or may not have helped, but the How To Have Ideas book said that at this stage in the process, all ideas are okay, however confused or however seemingly wrong.

I've just read the first comment from "emma" on Alice's piece, and she says more pithily something a lot like what I've just said.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:44 PM
February 16, 2003
As Bonkers As Possible

I call myself a culture blogger, but I completely missed this, which the BBC reported on over ten days ago:

The first notes in the longest and slowest piece of music in history, designed to go on for 639 years, are being played on a German church organ on Wednesday.

The three notes, which will last for a year-and-a-half, are just the start of the piece, called As Slow As Possible.

Composed by late avant-garde composer John Cage, the performance has already been going for 17 months - although all that has been heard so far is the sound of the organ's bellows being inflated.
The music will be played in Halberstadt, a small town renowned for its ancient organs in central Germany.

It was originally a 20-minute piece for piano, but a group of musicians and philosophers decided to take the title literally and work out how long the longest possible piece of music could last.

They settled on 639 years because the Halberstadt organ was 639 years old in the year 2000.

Peter Simple wouldn't need to change a word of that.

The phrase in the above report that gives the game away is the bit that says "and philosophers". It says something good about the music profession that on their own, and unlike their visual arts cousins, they might not have been capable of this degree of insanity. It took the addition of some philosophers to their number to push them completely over the boundary where it says "one step further and you are officially completely barking bonkers".

But that last bit can't be right. Surely if a piece of music can last for 639 years, there is no particular problem about it going on for a couple of centuries longer. What has the mere age of the Halberstadt organ in the year 2000 to do with the maximum length of a piece of music? Either the BBC has got this wrong, which is possible, or these musicians and philosophers are not only completely mad, but also, and unlike many other completely mad people, rather illogical.

But this report is rather late. Maybe this stunt has already fizzled out. Or maybe April 1st in Germany happens early in February.

My thanks to heavyweight culture watcher Dave Barry for drawing my attention to this extraordinarily silly event.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:45 AM
February 02, 2003
Sean Gabb

My friend and Libertarian Alliance colleague Sean Gabb is one of the best writers and talkers with whom I am personally acquainted. A month or two ago I tried to persuade him to take up blogging, but he ended the discussion by saying: "Blogging is not the solution to any problem that I have." Fair enough.

The basic reason Sean doesn't have a problem that blogging would solve is that he is an extraordinarily fluent producer of quite long essays. He is able to produce pieces in a few hours which are as long as stuff that takes me a week, minimum. The erudition just flows.

Sean became the editor of the Libertarian Alliance's would-be quarterly journal Free Life in 1991, issues of which have been appearing, with variable regularity, ever since. But out of Free Life has emerged Sean's own series of internet based writings, known as Free Life Commentary, written entirely by him, and a source of constant joy and enlightenment to his many thousands of fans and contacts the world over. Free Life, the journal, recycles some of these commentaries for a paper (as well as internet) readership, but nothing like all of them.

Sean's political stance is an interesting one, easily mistaken for modern-day orthodox conservatism, but in fact it is anything but that (as is the case with many who call themselves "conservative"). What Sean calls himself, and very accurately, is an "Old Whig". He is a liberal of the definitely pre-Victorian variety. He is a pessimist about everything now happening in the world except the Internet.

Issue Number 89 of Free Life Commentaries has already been circulating for a week or two, but I waited until it became available as an html file before featuring it on this blog. The subject of this Commentary is the claim now being pressed that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. No prizes for guessing Sean's conclusion:

Anyone who looks for Greece in the modern inhabitants of that country will be disappointed. In almost every sense, the modern Greeks bear as little relationship to the builders of the Acropolis as we do to the builders of Stonehenge. But there is still a Greece - not a nation, perhaps, but a spirit. Wherever there is reason and light and beauty, there is Greece. Wherever people wonder what is truth and how we can perceive it, there is Greece. Without Greece, there would have been no Shakespeare or Milton, no Newton or Leibnitz, no Bach or Mozart, no Descartes or John Locke or David Hume, no Adam Smith. We, the civilised classes of Western Europe and the English-speaking world, are the true heirs of Greece; and, beyond all reasonable doubt, England has been the Athens of that New Greece. The Elgin Marbles are presently in London, and by all that we may regard as sacred, it is our duty to keep them there.

But don't be content to regard that as a summary, for it is not. He has much more to say, and I urge you to read it all. If you find yourself liking Sean's style as much as I do, you will find the effort almost effortless.

Practically everything that Sean writes seems to have a political dimension to it, and often almost nothing but that. "Cultural" issues of Free Life Commentary turned out to be much rarer than I had supposed, when I went through the list of them over the weekend. Culture-vultures who share Sean's interest in the past might care to sample numbers 27 (about the National Maritime Museum), 53 (about Macauley's History of England) and 55 (about the teaching of Latin). As to more modern matters, I could only find 12 (about a particularly horrible TV show that Sean and I both turned up to take part in, but then ran away from in disgust), and 9 (which is a review of the movie Starship Troopers – typically, Sean hadn't and presumably still hasn't read the Heinlein book).

As to Sean's fluency as a speaker, I can only say that the talks he has given at my last-Friday-of-the-month evenings are always treasurable and well attended.

I especially remember a truly wonderful Brian's Fridays talk he gave about the impact upon civilisation of the invention of the printing press. It was quite different from the usual talk that you hear about printing, in which the spread of the presses across the map of Europe is described, the books the pressed printed are reflected upon, and in which the disruptive impact of vernacular versions of the Bible being available to a new mass public is reflected upon especially. Reformation, counter-reformation, nationalism, and so forth. What Sean talked about instead was the way that knowledge was preserved before the printing press existed, i.e. the way that knowledge was only preserved with extreme difficulty and expense. The idea of a growing body of knowledge was pretty much impossible, because it was all they could do to keep the stock of knowledge that they already had. So far as I can tell, Sean did little by way of specific preparation for this talk. He just sat himself down and proceeded to tell us the story. Later he gave the orthodox impact-of-printing talk, and that too was very good.

He has yet to get around to writing out either of these talks or anything resembling them, so far as I am aware. Perhaps this posting will nudge him into doing this. I would certainly link to and quote from any such piece or pieces if he did.

I have also heard Sean give more public speeches many times over the years, and he does that with similar distinction. In a couple of days I am due to attend one of his academic lectures, and I hope to be reporting soon about that on my Education Blog. I'm sure I shall enjoy myself very much.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
January 22, 2003

Funny how great (in my opinion) minds think alike.

Alice Bachini has a little posting about the allegedly excessive use of the personal pronoun. Tim Blair complains that some other person says "I" far too much in something she's written, and Alice hopes Tim doesn't ever read her blog, because she says "I" a lot too.

On the face of it not a very important little notion, is it? Personally, speaking for myself, I like saying "I" quite a lot, for reasons which I explained in comment number one (and so far only) on Alice's posting. Here's what I've just put there:


This is me. Brian. I think that using the words "I" and "me" a lot can actually be a lot less evidence of egotism and self-obsession than is often assumed. Constantly saying "I think", or "in my opinion", is evidence that I understand the difference between what I think and what others might think, and above all between what I think and what is "objectively" true. Is it really any less self-absorbed for me to be simply announcing how things are, with no qualifier that this is only my own opinion?

In persuasive writing, it is often polite to distinguish between things that "I think" and things that you should also think. "Here's my opinion, obviously I want you to agree, but I realise that these are two distinct processes" is a good way to spread ideas, because you can then spread them without other people having to agree with them.

Denouncing constant use of "I" only makes sense if you think that writing should only state facts, never express opinions, or for that matter recount personal experiences.

That's what I think, anyway.

I got to that attitude from a background not in art criticism or cultural commentary but in political propaganda, in trying to spread political ideas (see this tactical essay - which is only a pdf file, I'm afraid, not yet html). But I believe that very similar considerations apply to discussions about art, and if anything even more so.

And on the very same day as Alice's little posting, what does Michael Blowhard have to say for himself? I encountered this essay, modestly entitle Artchat Survival Tips immediately after doing the comment above. Quote:

But are we obligated to love what has been deemed great? Absolutely not, no more than anyone or anybody has obligated you to, say, love Paris or Rome. Still, why not visit? Why not have that experience? But many people make the mistake of leaping from “I love it” to “It’s great” in the blink of an eye. This is understandable -- they’re both ways not just of saying something specific, but also of expressing a general enthusiasm. Nonetheless, doing so will tend to land you in hot and unpleasant waters. Say “It was great!” when what you really mean is “I loved it,” and someone might well respond, “Are you kidding? It’s not great!” Then you feel a little hurt and offended, and defensively/angrily say “Oh, yeah?” And pretty soon the two of you are saying “Sez who?” at each other -- when all you really wanted from the outset was a sympathetic and interested minute or two.

My trick for getting past this kind of pointless unpleasantness is to personalize my opinions and reactions: to say “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t enjoy it” rather than “It was great” or “It stunk.” Doing so makes it much less likely that dumb arguments will erupt -- after all, all you’re doing is informing people about your reaction. Who can argue with that? There is no higher authority than you on the topic of your own reactions. If you encounter someone who disputes your account of your own reaction -- as in, “No you did not love it” -- leave quickly. There are a handful of bossy and intrusive people who will dispute your account of your reactions. (Most of them live not far from me here in New York City, as far as I can tell.) I do my best to avoid having conversations with them -- some people are simply impossible.

I urge you to read the entire piece. I'm thinking of asking Michael if I can reprint it as a Libertarian Alliance Cultural Note. In my opinion, his essay is a classic, and deserves to become part of the canon. My canon, anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:37 AM