In “Coolidge biography shows how little American politics has changed” Philip Greenspun points out that “Coolidge is primarily about events that occurred roughly 100 years ago, but the political debates often seem as though they could be in tomorrow morning’s news.” Greenspun points out a large number of similarities, though I do think there are more notable differences than he lists; one of the more prominent is the calls, whenever something bad happens, for the federal government to Do Something. Many of those calls in Coolidge’s time were directed at the local or at most state level.
Still, most of what he says is correct and to me the many similarities between 1910 – 1930 and the present imply that a lot of political posturing is wasted signaling. Energy towards politics would probably be better directed towards art, science, and technology—the latter fields at least move unambiguously forward, and in my view the first field does too.* A really good book lasts for decades or centuries while political opinions are almost always of the moment The effort expended in fields that make progress move not just the individual but the whole of humanity forward; most energy spent on politics is just a circle and maybe even a circle jerk.
Science and technology in particular increase the size of the pie that politicians (and the voters who elect them) can fight over.
* When I hear people—usually professors or wannabe professors—argue that art doesn’t move forward like technology (sample, from Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: “There is no progress in the world of letters, as there is, say, in science or manufacturing. As the centuries pass, we do not get better or smarter at reading, and the authors among us do not get better at writing”), I usually ask them why people keep creating so much new art and why so many people want the new stuff, not the old stuff. By now, there are an infinite number of books to read and an infinite number of songs to hear. If art really didn’t move forward and become better over time, at least as defined by popularity, we wouldn’t see people constantly move towards the new. I haven’t heard a really good response to this point.
* A Man of Parts is surprisingly dull despite H. G. Wells’s salacious, important life; there are too many passages like this:
Amber seemed to him a golden girl that summer and autumn, an almost mythical creature, such as the gods of classical Greece coveted and descended from the heights of Olympus to ravish in human disguise or in the form of some animal or bird.
The novel is dutiful yet has a limited feeling for what it’s like to be a writer; the novel deserves comedy but it isn’t particularly funny. There are good moments:
“You hear so much talk about sex, and read about it in books, and you don’t know what or who to believe, and anyway, words can never tell you what it’s actually like. Is it wonderful, or just ordinary?”
“It’s both wonderful and ordinary,” he said.
which capture the feeling of much of life; so often it’s two or more contradictory things at once, and the question of ordinariness or extraordinariness say much about the temperament of the consciousness doing the observing.
* The travails and politics of the Fabian Society arise in so many novels set in the 1890 – 1929 period, but in this novel their machinations are dull. Something like A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book covers similar territory but much more effectively, and more strangely.
* Science itself is mostly absent, as it is not from, say, Ian McEwan’s Solar or Peter Watt’s Blindsight.
* Novels about people who really know things are surprisingly rare.
“Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility.”
—Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Reading it today, I can’t help but get a bloggy feeling.