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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Review: "Style as Ideology / Ideology as Style" by Pierce Timberlake

“Style as Ideology, Ideology as Style” is one of four “meditations”—as I call them—penned by Pierce Timberlake. It is the second of the four that I have read, having previously reviewed "The Art of Living Forever."

In this outing, Timberlake delves into the way we develop our political leanings. Along the way he detours to the mechanics of history’s great political conundrum: Left vs Right, vis-à-vis how they each view the “other,” and offers suggestions for developing a balanced and nuanced approach to forming opinions about the various issues of the day that confront us. We get a fair and balanced in-depth observation of the political spectrum—all the while digging deeper into the theme of the book, an exploration of why and how we form our opinions.

“Style as Ideology...” is divided into three parts. The first deals with Timberlake’s experience at a heavy metal concert that he attended as chaperone for his young (at the time) son.  It’s these observations of the crowd behavior that initially led him to this particular philosophical journey. He is drawn to the sociological implications inherent in being in a crowd of like-minded enthusiasts. Their shared realities. The need to conform? Can even a heavy-metal “artistic” milieu serve as a reference point to discovering how we form our ideological worldviews?

The second part of the book begins with Timberlake’s experience judging a high school debate contest.  Sure enough, one from the Left and one from the Right prove to be the choices Timberlake has to choose between.

Using this school debate over the military presence of the US in Europe as a springboard, Timberlake eventually wades into the ultimate debate between “liberal” and “conservative” viewpoints.

This leads to comparisons between two single mothers of Timberlake’s acquaintance: Janey and Maria. Two women of vastly different character; each serve as caricatures for Left and Right tropes of liberal indulgence on the one hand and righteous compassion for the working poor on the other.

“Janey,” the deadbeat abuser of the system is everything that is wrong with the welfare mentality, according to conservatives.

“Maria,” on the other hand, the hardscrabble single mother working multiple jobs to make ends meet for her and her brood, epitomizes the raison-d’être of the Left’s social compact.

From these observations, Timberlake launches into an in-depth analysis of liberal and conservative worldviews.

He cuts to the nub with his this bit of analysis:

The conservative’s ideal person is the self-reliant rugged individualist.
The liberal’s ideal person is the beneficent sharer.

It is hard to argue with this, seemingly simplistic reduction. It rings true. And perhaps it is here that the dissection can be most fruitful.

The beneficent sharer. An ideal. Can there be anything inherently wrong with this? But what happens when there is not enough to share? Where does the sharer’s obligation end? A Randian (Ayn Rand devotee) might argue that every iota of energy spent not producing inevitably detracts from the total availability of goods and services. What about those that are selfish and don’t want to share? Do the sharers then have to overcompensate, further diluting their own productivity?

As far as the conservative’s ideal man, the self-reliant rugged individualist, I find this too utopian. The problem with libertarians is that they envision a world of self-enlightened, individualist ‘type A’ performers who are always looking to create something. But supposedly the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Aren’t there more people in the world who just want to have a “job,” with all life’s securities that used to come with one, rather than an opportunity to explore their own capabilities and leave a mark on the world?

The realist has to acknowledge this mass of people. I don’t think libertarianism does.

I do have one bone to pick with Timberlake’s analysis of liberal vs. conservative.
The Left now eschews the label “liberal,” in favor of “progressive.” Because of this, the waters have been muddied. Are today’s “progressives” really “liberal,” in the classical meaning of the word?

Timberlake claims that liberals are, generally speaking, opponents of censorship (while acknowledging their favoring of government control in other matters such as gun control).

But is this really the case? Many conservatives argue that it is the Left that is the overwhelming threat to freedom and free speech in particular. Just look at any of the myriad cases of college campuses silencing dissenting voices on any speech that contradicts the accepted politically correct narratives on any of the “social justice” issues du jour.

This new anti-free speech movement is chilling, and has led to a new phrase bandied with growing frequency: “liberal fascism.” Classic liberals should be appalled at how their offsprings’ generation has misappropriated their philosophy.

The middle section of the book includes a thoughtful examination of communism versus capitalism, and raises good questions regarding our own mixture of socialism and capitalism in relation to such critical concerns as health care.

The last section of “Style as Ideology...” begins with a frightening hiking experience. Timberlake uses his experience getting lost on the trail to illustrate a fundamental feature of the human condition: the need to make sensory information conform to our own predetermined thought patterns—and how that serves as a metaphor for how we collate and filter information to fit our preconceived worldviews. 

Timberlake uses a childhood experience viewing homes in the distance from his window as another metaphor for how the mind misplaces and misjudges distances, both physical and ideological.

How can we develop balanced, measured opinions? How do we walk the line between self-examination and self-corroboration? It is the latter which we do far more often, as people

endlessly cross the t’s and dot the i’s of what they think they already know, further refining their ideology without ever questioning it

as Timberlake eloquently puts it.

Timberlake does arrive at a solution for avoiding ideological purity. But you’ll have to read the book to find the answer.

-- Mark Charalambous