In Praise of Dull Things

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"In Praise of Dull Things"

Tunnel Boring Machine (wikimedia)

Tunnel Boring Machine (wikimedia)

E.J. Dionne review of a new book by Alan Wolfe is worth reading in full. I particularly liked this part:

Compared with Marxism, romantic forms of conservatism, and assertive varieties of nationalism, liberalism can seem terribly boring. For Wolfe, this is an asset, not a liability. While we all like poetic speeches, Wolfe is right to warn about the dangers of allowing poetry to define politics. “Let the passions reign in the museums and concert halls,” Wolfe writes. “In the halls of government, reason, however cold, is better than emotions, however heartfelt.” Is Wolfe channeling No Drama Obama?

Like Obama, Wolfe gives Reinhold Niebuhr’s realism its due. He also embraces the two classic formulations appreciated by all–notably but not exclusively liberals–who do not expect politics alone to save us: Immanuel Kant’s view (often cited by Isaiah Berlin) that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” and Max Weber’s definition of politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

This is, of course, a real dilemma for the liberal view. In practice, more romantic approaches often have a lot more appeal. And successful basically-liberal political movements tend to succeed by grafting some romantic elements on top of them. Certainly you saw that in the Obama campaign. Still, on the merits Wolfe’s view is correct. Seeking a certain kind of emotional fulfillment from the political process can be a very dangerous thing. I think this kind of mistake is very characteristic of a lot mistaken approaches to national security policy. Actually serving in a combat zone requires a lot of physical courage, and because of the danger it involves being in an exciting, adrenaline-filled situation. Which seems to lead a lot of people to conclude that advocating on behalf of starting or escalating wars is a courage and exciting adrenaline-filled situation. But of course since it’s not actually dangerous, people become all the more inclined to go overboard with it.

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