Simple and Sophisticated Pleasures in the Capitol

While he was driving me to Toronto a few months ago, Jon and I were talking about YA fiction. Somehow in the course of that conversation I mentioned that I understood the Hunger Games films as containing a libertarian subtext, and that I had read an article about how many YA dystopia books have such a subtext. After Jon pressed me for further explanation, I interpreted The Hunger Games as a libertarian film for him; I was certainly not the first to notice its ideological commitments, and you can see some examples linked in my combative annotated bibliography on libertarianism. But part of my explanation is rooted in how The Hunger Games and its sequels depict the wealthy people of the Capitol as both gender-non-conforming and decadent. The luxury and sophistication of the Capitol citizens are intrinsic markers of their moral corruption above and beyond those pleasures’ costs to the poorer Districts, I said, and I went on to allude to a history of anti-luxury and anti-sophisticated-pleasures sentiment in Protestant and American conservatism. Jon has since asked me to write this up further for use in a high school classroom, but it might also be useful to others too.

an image of several elaborate chocolate cakes, including some with rabbit decorations

Karen Roe’s “The Making of Harry Potter 29-05-2012”

I have attempted to write this post a few times with little luck. A large part of the problem is that I do not remember how I came to understand this history of opposition to sophisticated pleasures and its relationship to American-style libertarianism. I do know of a few bits and pieces. There is a passage in H P Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness which used “decadence” in a way then unfamiliar to me which only afterwards made sense. There was an academic article I read about the characters of Falstaff and Prince John in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV which referred to competing economic theories of luxury goods (especially “sack,” meaning a fortified wine) in Elizabethan England. There have been perhaps a half-dozen posts on the blogs of Roman Catholics like Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry which observe that Catholic countries have better food than Protestant countries because the former know how to enjoy life’s physical pleasures. I remember less well the dozens of broad generalizations of the effects Protestantism has had on the Low Countries, England, and North America I must have read between high school history classes, undergraduate courses at Queen’s, and graduate courses as UBC, or the lectures on the history of belief in the rise and fall of civilizations, or the articles about the effects all these have American culture today. Moreover there is the pattern of observations I have had in my own rural working-class childhood and in the time I spent in Fort McMurray.1 I cannot begin to summarize all of this. And if I cannot marshal all of these sources appropriately, I cannot make an argument, exactly; I do not expect anyone to just take my word for all of this, and yet I don’t even really know what my own sources are. What I can do is sketch out my position, and gesture toward some related material, and hope that I can supplement this with a better-researched piece later.

I have spent enough time in academia and then in a museum to be leery of making broad claims without substantiating them, but this is a blog post after all; if I cannot do this provisional kind of writing here, I cannot do it anywhere.

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A Partial Apology for Liberalism, or, A Partial Criticism of its Critics

Before I begin, a note is warranted: I will be dropping a lot of names in this piece and I want to put you at ease before you have to deal with them. I don’t expect that any of my likely readers will be familiar with most of the people I mention and I am trying to write specifically so that you can still understand what’s going on without knowing who they are. Anything I need you to know about them, I will tell you myself. I will also provide links should I fail in this endeavour or should I succeed in piquing your interest, but I do not intend for you to rely upon them. That said, let’s begin.

A statue of the Godd of Democracy, holding a torch aloft, behind whom are evergreen branches.

The Goddess of Democracy at UBC. Source: Carl Mueller at flic.kr/p/5cNvQY

A few weeks ago I found Love of All Wisdom, the philosophy blog of Amod Lele. There’s a lot going on with Lele’s work that I find interesting and compelling. An academic philosopher with a PhD in the subject, he describes himself as working in the Aristotelian, Buddhist, and historicist traditions and his work is wide-ranging, bringing a huge variety of both Western and non-Western philosophers to a problem. (His header has pictures of his major influences: Santideva the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Aristotle the ancient Greek empiricist, Hegel the German historicist, Confucius the traditionalist communitarian, and Martha Nussbaum the contemporary academic philosopher.) He also uses a few different categorization schemes for philosophies, two of which he’s organized into a quadrant system that I am thinking of adopting: integrity vs. intimacy and ascent v. descent. (If I was still at my old blog, I’d add it to my Taxonomies of Religions list.) His thought is new to me, but I admire his precision, erudition, creativity, and seriousness–a rare combination of traits in a thinker.

Although I would love to just list the things I’ve learned from Lele, what I want to focus on for this post is where his ideas intersect with those of other people whose thought I’ve encountered lately, who explicitly reject the anthropology, and therefore politics, of liberalism.* Continue reading