Short Note Defending Politics As Entertainment

by Benjamin Marks, Capitalism.HK and Economics.org.au editor

George Jean Nathan is a credible judge of the entertainment value of politics. He was a brilliant theatre critic and a long-time co-editor with H.L. Mencken, who is the most famous U.S. journalist and libertarian. One of Nathan’s claims to fame is fighting for the right of theatre critics to leave after the first act.

He criticised the entertainment value of politics on the following grounds:

The slapstick that lands to the rear of a politician, however eminent, and the one that lands to the rear of a stage pantaloon are, to me, one and the same, and the respective seats upon which the slapsticks land are no less one and the same. And when it is argued that politics provides the greater and lewder show because in the theatre one has to pretend that the slapstické is someone of dignity and consequence in order properly to appreciate the humors of his embarrassment consequent upon the receipt of the wallop, I argue in turn that one has to pretend exactly the same thing in the case of politics … If the essence of humor lies in the sharp contrast between dignity and importance on the one hand and sudden disaster and ignominy on the other, one may inquire as to the dignity and importance of the politician. That dignity and importance exist simply in the mind of the spectator, through a voluntary remission of judgment, exactly as in the case of a good stage actor. [The Autobiography of An Attitude (London: Knopf, 1925), p.34-35.]

But his criticism does not stand up, even if we take a look at Nathan’s own observations.

Here is the most cutting and amusing observation on populist focus-group census-based election-campaigned government:

Politics is a peep-show the particular low humor of which is derived from the circumstance that the performers have their eyes glued to the other end of the same keyhole that is used by the onlooking customers. [The Autobiography of An Attitude (London: Knopf, 1925), p.38.]

Nathan made that observation of politicians, not stage-actors! Only someone who finds politics highly amusing could have written that. And surely everyone who merely reads it would find politics amusing also.

Here is a wide-ranging condemnation of many areas of society, where clearly Nathan himself chose politics for the punchline because it is the most amusing:

Over a period of eighty years, hundreds of critics have been laboring to improve the taste of the American people in music, literature, drama and politics. And today, as a result, Nevin, Tobani and Tosti are program favorites over Brahms, Beethoven and Bach; James Oliver Curwood is thirty thousand times more popular than James Branch Cabell; Anne Nichols is fifty thousand times more popular than Hauptmann; and Calvin Coolidge is President of the United States. [The House of Satan (London: Knopf, 1926), p.99.]

In conclusion, these samples, at the very least, are a good start to countering Nathan’s own attempts to slight the entertainment value of politics. We aim for Capitalism.HK to finish the job.

Postscript: The Nathan quote above about politics being a peep-show also applies to those who proclaim what is “realistic” or “unrealistic” policy espousal in terms of potential for acceptance, ignoring the extremely unpredictable force of ideas. This results in discouragement of uncompromising stances. Here is a passage reminiscent of Nathan’s from Clarence Philbrook:

Major economic policy, in so far as it is influenced at all by economists, apparently [according to “sensible” “realists”] ought to be the product of infinite involutions of guesses by each about what others are guessing about what he is guessing about what they will advocate! [“‘Realism’ in Policy Espousal,” The American Economic Review, vol. 43, no. 5 (December, 1953), pp. 846-59.]

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Editor of Capitalism.HK

Posted on March 8, 2012, in Marks, Nathan and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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