I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about what it means to match your ambitions to your ends.
The DuckTales Doctrine
Probably the most telling conversation of our time took place on Larry King’s final talk show series, just a few months before he died. In February 2020, Larry (I almost followed convention and wrote “King” but I have never thought about him as anything other but “Larry”, such is the nature of parasocial relationships) was interviewing Danny Pudi, best known as Abed on Community, about Pudi’s celebrity lifestyle:
King: [so what’s] a luxury you can’t live without?
Pudi: … Coffee. I really like good coffee.
King: That’s not a luxury, you can get it anywhere.
Pudi: I guess, yeah …
King: I love good coffee too.
Pudi: I like nice socks.
King: Socks. Your socks, that you put in your shoes?
Pudi: Yeah. I really love them. I like cozy feet.
King: You’re attracted to your socks.
Pudi: I’m attracted to really nice running socks, like I’m always looking for good running socks.
King: That’s not a luxury, though. Coffee and socks are not a luxury.
Pudi: All right, give me a luxury. Which—what luxury should I have?
King: Private plane.
Pudi: Larry, I’m on DuckTales.
There’s no way to write about Larry King without slipping into his famously idiosyncratic punctuation style and random topical jumps from his USA Today column … The whole interview with Pudi, worth watching on the World Wide Web … Becoming a metonymy for an entire generation’s relationship with the old … Larry’s column was canceled more than 20 years ago, making this joke older than my undergraduates! … My thought: Emma Stone in Cruella marks a big change for the Asian-American actress … Would it be an exaggeration to say that the Pudi-Larry dialogue is the most important since the Athenians met the Melians? Maybe not.
There’s something about the matched set of Larry’s incredulity at what Pudi considers luxury and Pudi’s incredulity that Larry doesn’t understand what the industry is like that evokes conversations a good number of folks my age and younger have had with people in our fields aged, say, 60 and over. People who came up in a seniority-based system where institutions still redistributed a lot of wealth don’t grasp that the economics of superstar-based industries are way different.
(A quick aside: some of you may think that the government wasn’t redistributing wealth a generation ago, and sure, but I don’t mean the government: I mean that even private companies had so many rent-extracting opportunities and wealth-spreading inefficiencies that entire classes of creative types could make a good living doing something useless essentially through parasitism, as this oral history of the Columbia House catalog discusses:
CW: There was this way in which it was remarkable how much manpower there was to make something so small. That those music catalogs required 30, 40, and 50 people to proofread them and write the content. You think now how few resources you use to do something equivalent. It is sort of breathtaking there was so much time on our hands.
AA: There was so much money floating around. …
SFJ: One of the millions of reasons that I’m probably almost on the verge of leaving New York and being yet another person in L.A. is the intensity here to just make rent. Especially looking at my younger friends in their late 20s, I feel bad for them, because they’re grinding. They’re working their asses off. They’re working so much harder than we did, and they’re barely having time for their own projects. One thing about the fat, Clintonian, CD money years, is that in New York, you could still skim off some of the industry money and be an artist. Now, the financial demands of the city are so absurd that it is squeezing people left and right, even people who make reasonable money.
This sort of story feels absurd to me, and I work in a university, a setting almost comically inefficient by any standard. The organizational logic of the universe I’ve always inhabited is that even when people are doing tasks that are obviously absurd they’re nevertheless performing them under circumstances that make them feel stressed out and burned out and undervalued—and they are, because if someone has hired you to run the Basket-Weaving Therapy Program and then not given you any wicker to make baskets, that’s still stressful even if basket-weaving is a dumb way to do therapy. That goes triple, of course, for people doing actually useful stuff who are also underfunded because of all the money being wasted on basketry.)
I was thinking about Larry and working on DuckTales not just because of the class and generational war axes it taps into, though, but because of the more general mismatch between ambition and resources it relies upon. This sort of mismatch is pervasive in how activism entrepreneurs (the kin to policy entrepreneurs) bombard us with messages to fix this or that great societal ill, subtly negging us constantly about how we, personally, have not yet dismantled systemic [insert ill here].
Something like this has been floating around as people, either devastated by Texas’s electrical grid failure or emotionally devastated by witnessing it, have called on all of us to do something to help. (And, just to be clear again, this is just the most recent example of a pattern that repeats more or less weekly at this stage in the anthropocene—it could have been wildfires, flooding, inland hurricanes, any number of tragedies that come on a depressingly regular schedule.)
What are you doing to help? the activism entrepreneur asks.
I don’t know, paying taxes? Giving to the Red Cross? Voting against Trump?
That’s not helping.
All right, give me an example? What’s helping?
… I’m on DuckTales.
It’s easy (and frequently justified!) to demand that there be Big Structural Change. It’s wildly unfair—and a grave misdiagnosis of how any individual relates to society—to expect any individual person to personally effect Big Structural Change. It’s impossible to do. And elevating that to be the standard misfires in three ways. First, you get burned out. Second, it makes actions that can be taken seem so small (and burdensome) that there’s no reason to undertake them. Third, it makes all of this into a morality tale, a Sisyphean boulder of individual action, rather than focusing on how relatively marginally costly individual actions undertaken collectively can work.
This isn’t a revelation. It’s a recognition that for problems like these money and resources can be distributed most efficiently through a collective institution, allowing us to socialize risks and reap economies of scale (making us all better off individually to boot). And there’s little likelihood that I can reliably—as an individual—do more than distribute donations inefficiently (even if I don’t get scammed by fake groups), and I’m certainly not going to be making those donations over the long term because, well, I’m not rich.
The government faces fewer of these problems. (Fewer, not none.) A functioning state should be able to make these systems work without my having to consciously think about them. That’s a huge advantage! Something is always going wrong, and having routine and well-functioning systems to address them is more reliable and effective than having to pass the hat and shame folks into giving to fix whatever the crisis du semaine is. Individuals shouldn’t be absolved from thinking or taking individual actions, but collective actions matter a lot more—which is why, by the way, it’s okay to politicize this crisis and pretty much every other one, too.
All of this, weirdly, makes me think of the rectification of names, a Confucian concept that squaring rhetoric and action will lead to a virtuous, well-functioning polity. Normally I’m skeptical of Confucian thought as the basis for political action (give me Han Fei any day), but in this rare case it seems warranted. “Larry, I’m on DuckTales,” is a brutal example of the rectification of names—a reminder that concepts like “luxury” are relative to status and means. In the same way, demands for social change should not ask too much of an ordinary individual, so much that they burn out, but only as much as possible (which is, to be clear, more than nothing).
And in the meantime, if our government could actually get around to fixing itself and the infrastructure we need, that would be great, too.
What I’m Reading
This week, I’ve been reading Virginia Postrel’s The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.
At its best, this breezy guide toward a fundamental technology of human society—right up there with agriculture, and in fact possibly older—takes us through the fabrication, innovation, and production of textiles. Textiles, Postrel implies, have been overlooked in grand stories of civilization because for thousands of years they were “women’s work”—and yet that work was essential to civilization, producing everything from innovations in commercial organization to the sorts of increasingly systematized bioengineering that yielded American cotton plants expertly adapted to the soils of Mississippi, an advantage that Turkish or Indian producers couldn’t match. At its worst, Postrel overhypes the advantages of capitalism in making and perfecting textile technology without noticing the damages that such innovations entailed for laborers, especially (and conspicuously) slavery.