That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun

by Henry on December 10, 2018

Tyler Cowen suggests that Tom Lehrer would have been a member of the Intellectual Dark Web.

Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

This is provocative – but it seems basically wrong to me. The more trivial reason why is that Lehrer seems to have stayed on the American left.

“I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.” In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to “Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama”

The more useful answer is that whatever you think about their respective political positions, their orientations to politics are fundamentally different. Lehrer was an iconoclast. The IDW people, in contrast, are iconolaters. IDWers don’t just want to push back against what they believe to be an emerging orthodoxy. They want to defend a pre-existing orthodoxy of their own (which roughly coheres around a common mythology regarding the ‘Enlightenment’ was and what it still has to offer) against it, and they take their own dogma seriously.  This is why the style of IDW tends more towards thin-skinned self-seriousness, and heavy hectoring. You need a sense of the absurd to be funny.

Perhaps a modern Tom Lehrer would indeed skewer the pieties of the left. Any broad social movement tends towards dogma. All dogmas produce some absurdities, and for that matter, tragedies. But the left is hardly the only source of such pieties, or, perhaps, the most important one. The piece that Tyler links to also has this section:

On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the ‘we’re only interested in the neutral scientific inquiry’ line that many IDWers take on race and IQ, and the Left’s Hostility and Open Debate.*

Lehrer was entertainingly impatient with the people whose politics he agreed with, but his true venom was reserved for an altogether more important set of shibboleths. Not political correctness, but the Cold War fusion of unthinking patriotism and technocratic politics. There are analogies to that fusion today, but I don’t think they’re on the left.

Update: as happens pretty well every time that I write a post responding to Tyler, whether agreeing or disagreeing, there’s a raft of comments with personal invective aimed towards him, and/or complaining that I shouldn’t be engaging him. And as before, I’m deleting all such comments – opinions about my engagement have already been amply expressed, and there are plenty of other places on the Internet you can express your derogatory opinions about him (or, for that matter, me).

  • When I once had the misfortune to be criticized online by Jordan Peterson, I spent several days dealing with multitudes of politely insistent followers demanding that I engage them in lengthy debate on race and IQ, to the point that I eventually had to write this post to fend them off). NB that I am quite sure that Tyler is no more enthusiastic about race-IQ nutters than I am.

{ 51 comments }

1

jsrtheta 12.11.18 at 12:21 am

I grew up listening to Tom Lehrer (who is still with us at 90-maybe he’ll chime in!), if only because he was a local hero. The only reservations my parents had was to forbid us to listen to “Smut,” an injunction defied the minute they left the house to go out. Pretty much all the adults in the neighborhood were fans.

“Political correctness” wasn’t a thing back in the 1950s, nor was there even an analog in the sense we’d recognize it today, so Cowen’s full of it. He was, and apparently still us, on “the Left,” so I don’t see how Cowen justifies his argument.

Tom Lehrer always struck me as a very brilliant man who did pretty much as he wanted and didn’t give a toss about who cared. And he would be just as cutting of Cowen as he was to his contemporaries. Particularly Kissinger.

2

Lobsterman 12.11.18 at 3:45 am

Your first mistake was still reading Tyler Cowen in 2018.

Trump got elected; Cowen’s irrelevant forever.

3

R.Porrofatto 12.11.18 at 5:04 am

Cowen: his main enemy or target was political correctness…
For what it’s worth, here’s the man himself on the subject in a terrific (and rare) interview with Stephen Thompson of The Onion back in 2000:

O: Is there more danger to free speech from the PC left or the far right?

TL: Ah, I don’t know about that. I don’t know if it’s a matter of danger. That’s the problem here: People on both sides take the other side very seriously. There are people who get really mad if they say “fuck” on the television, or they won’t let you say it, or something like that. It’s just minor when you look at what’s going on in the world. So I don’t know which is worse. I doubt there’s any danger there. The people get very upset on either side when somebody attempts… People claim First Amendment and all that. But I don’t think these are really important issues as long as there’s poverty and hunger and a lack of education and people dying and children starving. This is important, not political correctness. I tell people, “I’ll call you women instead of girls, just so long as I get paid more than you do.” That’s the issue, not all that PC stuff.

4

WLGR 12.11.18 at 6:20 am

If the best capsule summary of the “intellectual dark web” and its anti-“PC” anti-“SJW” antecedents is “edgy without being subversive,” then Tom Lehrer at his best is the exact diametrical opposite: subversive without being edgy.

5

bad Jim 12.11.18 at 7:37 am

I first became aware of Tom Lehrer watching “That Was The Week That Was” in 1964, when Nancy Ames sang his songs. One of my father’s colleagues loaned us an LP of a live performance, and his tunes, and his insouciance, took root in my teenaged brain.

Lehrer, I’ve read, reveres Sondheim, and anyone tickled by one’s odd way with words is likely entranced by the other. They play different games, use different tools, but alike toy with the ears of listeners eager for the delight of surprise.

6

Hidari 12.11.18 at 8:39 am

I quite like reading MR (does that mean I’ll no longer be invited to certain dinner parties? Oh wait I wasn’t invited anyway). But that statement caught my eye, and bamboozled me so much that I didn’t realise what IDW meant until this post.

As you say the comparison is utterly bizarre, but does indicate that when the Right attack the Left, they almost literally have no concept what they are attacking. To the Right , Left is really just a bunch of kill joys who want to stop people from smoking, eating meat, drinking alcohol, beating their wives, bombing foreigners….all the fun things in life.

It’s particularly bizarre in that, as implicitly noted above, none of the members of the IDW are known for their sense of humour. Indeed, Peterson is renowned for never smiling or laughing. I’ve seen Steven Pinker smile, but have never heard him crack a joke. All the others self-consciously adopt (now old fashioned) personae as ‘intellectuals’. i.e. ‘serious’ ‘po-faced’ ‘deep’.

This reminds me of Philip Larkin’s reminder that ‘there are depths of seriousness which only someone with a sense of humour can reach’ (it might have been Clive James, not Larkin).

In the IDW, it’s safe to say that these depths go largely unplumbed.

Tyler’s use of the words ‘political correctness’ incidentally reminds one that this is another phrase that has been emptied of whatever semantic comment it might once have had and now just means ‘views with which I disagree’ (following Orwell on the word ‘fascism’).

7

J-D 12.11.18 at 9:28 am

He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.

Which of Lehrer’s songs is that a reference to? ‘Be Prepared’? ‘Lobachevsky’? ‘Clementine’? ‘The Masochism Tango’? ‘Alma’? ‘I Got It From Agnes’? I don’t think he has a main enemy or target.

Lehrer was entertainingly impatient with the people whose politics he agreed with, but his true venom was reserved for an altogether more important set of shibboleths. Not political correctness, but the Cold War fusion of unthinking patriotism and technocratic politics.

No, not even that, although there ‘Wernher Von Braun’ and ‘So Long, Mom’ and ‘Send The Marines’. It’s still less than half the time, as best I can make out, that he’s being venomous, about anything.

8

Chris 12.11.18 at 9:51 am

Lehrer seemed to skewer lefties and their intentions quite a bit. Folk Song Army and National Brotherhood Week are two examples off the top of my head. But maybe the context was different back then? I certainly think Lehrer could have gone to town on both Lobster Boy and the “sushi is racism” crowd if he were performing today.

9

WLGR 12.11.18 at 10:40 am

On a more serious note, I’m not familiar enough with Cowen to know if he has any redeeming qualities, but at first blush I’m inclined to agree with the “raft of comments” from your update, given the extent of sheer willful ignorance necessary to misinterpret Lehrer’s objection to “political correctness” as badly as Cowen does. It’s perfectly clear from any remotely astute good-faith reading of Lehrer that he’s criticizing the PC strain of left-liberalism not for its excessive commitment to social justice (the “IDW” critique) but exactly the opposite, for its superficial commitment to social justice — one could even directly map Lehrer’s critique in “National Brotherhood Week” (“Be nice to people who / Are inferior to you / As long as you don’t let ’em in your schools!”) onto its near-identical equivalent in Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” (“Ah, the people of old Mississippi should all hang their heads in shame / Now I can’t understand how their minds work; what’s the matter, don’t they watch Les Crain? / But if you ask me to bus my children, I hope the cops take down your name!”).

If one of the basic demands of the “IDW” is that mainstream left-liberalism engage more substantially and respectfully with the know-nothing anti-intellectual reactionary right than with the radical left, then one could read this post in part as a capitulation to their demands.

10

oldster 12.11.18 at 12:53 pm

As one of the raft whose comments were deleted, I have to admit that WLGR’s invective is mixed with far more insight and subject-specific knowledge than mine was.

Fair enough.

Next time I’ll try to increase the ratio of insight to invective.

11

Alison P 12.11.18 at 1:31 pm

National Brotherhood Week is a left-wing song, taking the mickey out of superficial feel-good centrism, or the weedy well meaning right (same thing). Platitudes are no good. Major change is needed.

‘Brother hood week… it’s only for a week so never fear… be grateful that it doesn’t last all year’

Folk Song Army, exactly the same target actually.

“Some people may prefer action,
But give me a folk song any old day”

12

WLGR 12.11.18 at 1:54 pm

Also by the way, one of Lehrer’s lesser-known songs (which is apparently a more or less sincere account of why he quit the music business, quip about Kissinger’s Nobel aside) doubles as a direct repudiation of the hypercapitalist boosterism someone like Tyler Cowen might claim to stand for.

13

sherparick 12.11.18 at 3:01 pm

Well, someone could still call or write Tom Leherer, who may be 90, but is still quite alive, and ask him what his views are rather than create a strawman Tom Leherer to create a false argument of authority for one’s hippie punching as Tyler Cowan so cleverly does in his little piece.

P.S. the laziness of these folks to not just “Google” a name and look at the Wikipedia entry is amazing.

14

PatinIowa 12.11.18 at 5:46 pm

It strikes me that the topic illustrates Americans’ unfortunate tendency to dichotomize, which leads to absurdities of the form “if you criticize liberals, you must be a conservative.” It works on the right, too, I suppose, although the ground to the right of the American conservative movement grows smaller every day.

Pretending there’s nothing to the left of JFK is killing us.

15

LFC 12.11.18 at 5:52 pm

‘Folk Song Army’ (“We are the folk song army/ Guitars are the weapons we bring/ To the fight against poverty, war and injustice/ Ready, aim, sing”) is a very gentle satire, poking affectionate fun at what was, at the time, a significant cultural feature of some social movements. I mean, it would be hard to deny that music did play a role of some importance in the civil rights movement, for example, though “we shall overcome” is more a spiritual than a folk song.

16

anon/portly 12.11.18 at 7:50 pm

OP: Tyler Cowen suggests that Tom Lehrer would have been a member of the Intellectual Dark Web.

I don’t think this is quite right. It’s not the IDW of our day Cowen assigns him to; it’s the IDW “of his day.” I don’t think he would say that a member of the putative IDW-of-then person would necessarily have the same or even a similar take on things – or concerns – that a member of the putative IDW-of-now person has.

So when he says that Lehrer’s “main target” was political correctness, I think he’s really suggesting that what was “PC” then is very different from what is “PC” now. As usual he writes sort of elliptically and tersely and it’s hard (for me, at least) to be sure exactly what he’s saying.

That said, I don’t think Cowen really has Lehrer pegged very well – Lehrer was a comedian, not just a satirist. I think he analogizes better to comedians of our own day, who, like Lehrer, often make fun of political correctness on the left.

Currently 9: …[Lehrer]’s criticizing the PC strain of left-liberalism not for its excessive commitment to social justice (the “IDW” critique) but exactly the opposite, for its superficial commitment to social justice

Currently 11: National Brotherhood Week is a left-wing song, taking the mickey out of superficial feel-good centrism, or the weedy well meaning right (same thing). …. Folk Song Army, exactly the same target actually.

I think these comments are off the mark, I think in NBW and FSA Lehrer is satirizing phoniness and hypocrisy and smugness and self-satisfaction. Like in many of his other songs.

You have to admire people who sing these songs, it takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or college auditorium, and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a folk song is that it makes you feel so good….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOWdXCOaWQ8

Of course his targets were/are often oblivious to their status as targets, a point Lehrer makes himself in the linked WP article from 1982:

On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.

17

J-D 12.11.18 at 7:55 pm

In the boxed set (The Remains Of Tom Lehrer) I inherited from my parents there is a CD-sized hardback compilation of liner notes including a 1997 chatroom Q&A in which Tom Lehrer is asked about his use of the word ‘wetback’ in ‘In Old Mexico’ and responds, in part, that ‘… when I had a chance in 1980 to replace the relevant line in the script of the revue Tomfoolery, I did so. It is certainly not a word I would use today, nor would I have in 1980, not because it wasn’t appropriate in the context of the song, but because people (myself included) have gradually become more sensitive to certain words.’ I stress that ‘myself included’.

18

Kiwanda 12.12.18 at 12:50 am

WLGR:

…criticizing the PC strain of left-liberalism not for its excessive commitment to social justice (the “IDW” critique) …

The “IDW” is a silly notion, but if it means these people, that’s not the “IDW” critique.

If one of the basic demands of the “IDW” is that mainstream left-liberalism engage more substantially and respectfully with the know-nothing anti-intellectual reactionary right than with the radical left,…

It isn’t.

19

steven t johnson 12.12.18 at 2:42 am

“You have to admire people who sing these songs, it takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffeehouse or college auditorium, and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a folk song is that it makes you feel so good….”

Tyler Cowen reads this? “You have to despise people who sing these songs, it loses a certain amount of income to play coffehouses or college auditoriums, just so you can come out in favor of things these small audience are also for, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a folk song is that it makes so few people feel good…”

People for some reason don’t include Sunday mornings as a part of real life. But hymns are vastly more popular than folk songs.

Perhaps I’ve missed something but are folk songs as a rule in favor of unions, woman suffrage, gay liberation or for that matter nondogmatic spirituality, vegetarianism and bipartisanship?

20

WLGR 12.12.18 at 4:49 am

So then, anon/portly or Kiwanda or any other “IDW”-whisperers perhaps present in the house, how might one define the “IDW” (era-specifically or transhistorically, take your pick) in such a way that including Lehrer would be anything but a bad joke? Perhaps we should take the word of today’s race-scientist, anti-feminist type folks that it’s not about opposing social justice per se, it’s not about defending entrenched privilege, in fact it’s not about any prior ideological agenda at all, it’s about nothing more than pursuing rational intellectual inquiry and disinterestedly following the data (about Hamitic skull sizes or hysterical feminine bodily humours or whatever, but set that aside) no matter where it might lead?

If that’s even a remotely fair recounting of at least a good chunk of the “IDW” self-description, then for fuck’s sake, listen to Lehrer himself describe exactly what he thinks about that disingenuous style of affectation in the complete stanza quoted in Henry’s title: “Don’t say that he’s hypocritical / Say rather that he’s ‘apolitical’ / ‘Once the bell curve goes up, who cares where it comes down / That’s not my department,’ says Werner von Braun.” That’s exactly how the lyric goes, don’t @ me, and regardless, anybody to whom it’s not crystal clear how comprehensively Lehrer in that entire song is skewering the “i’m not bein’ all ideological or nuthin’ like that, it’s just facts ‘n’ logic all the way down” brigade should go back to grade school, and certainly has no business running either a moderately popular economics blog or a hip iconoclastic new movement of bold truth-seeking intellectual rebels.

With apologies for putting a couple extra syllables into a line and not even rhyning: “Call them all Nazis, they won’t lose their step / ‘ha ha, Nazis schmatzis’ say the Intellectual Dark Web.”

21

J-D 12.12.18 at 8:56 am

One comment has mentioned ‘National Brotherhood Week’, another ‘The Folk Song Army’, and three others both of them, and they are directed at the same target, or at any rate at closely related ones. But go past those two, and which others has the same target, or a closely related one? None, I think. Those two spring to mind repeatedly as examples of Tom Lehrer’s attack on that target (whatever label you choose to use to describe it) because they’re the only two examples.

A point worth making, I think, is that whatever made Tyler Cowen think that there is a relationship between Tom Lehrer and the Intellectual Dark Web, obviously what made him draw attention to it is that he thinks the relationship reflects creditably on the Intellectual Dark Web. However, if there really were a connection between Tom Lehrer and the Intellectual Dark Web, it would not reflect credit on them, it would only reflect discredit on him.

22

J. Bogart 12.12.18 at 10:04 am

The IDW? Well, the dark web is where one gets stuff like child pornography, stolen identities, and such. So why would one want to be part of the IDW? The Resistance, while ridiculous, at least comes from something more or less positive.

23

Sonny Jim 12.12.18 at 11:12 am

It’s clear from the 2014 Buzzfeed interview Lehrer did that the crossover between some of his material and contemporary “anti-PC rhetoric” stems from his beef with certain elements within the ’60s New Left. He occupied, as the article puts it, the “cultural cul de sac that was the anti-hippie, anti-folk music square left,” one that went in for button-down shirts and short haircuts and typically stayed off the ashram. While he agreed with the political positions of the New Left (to the extent that it had any), for the most part, he couldn’t stand their aesthetics. Or, to be more exact, he couldn’t stand their tendency to put aesthetics first—to make politics about music and youth culture and attitude and coolness, primarily, and not about concrete material benefits.

If you read his comments in the AV Club piece posted above, the position is consistent. His attack on the PC attitudes of both left and right boils down to the same thing: that it places culture, aesthetics, language, and etiquette first and elides any discussion of what he calls the “important issues[:] … poverty and hunger and a lack of education and people dying and children starving.”

I do think that, despite Buzzfeed’s contention that Lehrer represents a “cul de sac,” his critique has contemporary relevance. What passes for the Left in the US (the #Resistance) is still obsessed with aesthetics, primarily. It has no coherent policy programme or theoretical underpinning, for the most part, but it’s very invested in certain aspects of mass popular culture (Beyoncé) and it mistakes fandom and fan expression for political speech. And, thanks to the internet and social media, that essentially New Left obsession with surfaces, aesthetics, posture, and language to the exclusion of anything else has colonized and forced out any other form of critique or analysis in Left movements internationally.

Beyoncé, Macklemore, and Childish Gambino are our own equivalents of the folk song army, and they’re just as useless against the political and existential challenges of the twenty-first century (inequality; technocratic hubris; climate change; nuclear re-proliferation; Great Power maneuverings in the South China Sea) as the folk songs of the ’60s were against American aggression in South East Asia. But you wouldn’t know it from Twitter.

24

Nishu Chauhan 12.12.18 at 12:53 pm

It strikes me that the point outlines Americans’ sad inclination to dichotomy, which prompts absurdities of the shape “on the off chance that you censure dissidents, you should be a traditionalist.” It deals with the right, as well, I assume, in spite of the fact that the ground to one side of the American moderate development develops littler consistently. http://www.nishuchauhan.in/

Imagining there’s nothing to one side of JFK is slaughtering us.

25

Kiwanda 12.13.18 at 1:24 am

Update: as happens pretty well every time that I write a post responding to Tyler, whether agreeing or disagreeing, there’s a raft of comments with personal invective aimed towards him, and/or complaining that I shouldn’t be engaging him.

But what if Cowen is a troll? After all, it’s not just that he’s wrong about a particular point, that you might correct with argument and evidence. It’s not just that he’s misguided on some issue, where you might try to get to the differences in principle or perspective that lead to your own better view. It’s not that his worldview is so different that all you can do is “agree to disagree”. It’s that he’s a monster, so corrupted by evil that all who interact with him will forevermore carry his taint. Nothing he ever says will have value; right-thinking people are best kept safe from the violence of his words by shunning him, now and always. By not doing this, you lend legitimacy to him, you support him, you harm the most vulnerable, you literally commit murder.

26

bob mcmanus 12.13.18 at 7:02 am

18: Perhaps I’ve missed something but are folk songs as a rule in favor of unions, woman suffrage, gay liberation or for that matter nondogmatic spirituality, vegetarianism and bipartisanship?

Sure, unless I am misunderstanding. Not all, but a lot, sometimes in nostalgia often in activism. Holly Near, Rosalie Sorrels, Malvina Reynolds, Utah Phillips. Have we forgotten Seeger and the Weavers? Indigo Girls? Jimmy Lafave? Roy Harper (“I Hate the White Man” 1970) lives. Only a segment, I can’t do justice to black political music or modern feminist music here. All struggles create their soundtracks.

22: I like this comment, but I am still historical materialist and compassionate enough to assign causes to material (historical, demographic, technological) elements rather than fashion statements moral failings and lack of individual initiative.

(Just finished Michael Kazin on the Rise and Fall of the CIO, it’s inability to maintain momentum after WWII.)

27

J-D 12.13.18 at 7:27 am

Sonny Jim

If you read his comments in the AV Club piece posted above, the position is consistent. His attack on the PC attitudes of both left and right boils down to the same thing: that it places culture, aesthetics, language, and etiquette first and elides any discussion of what he calls the “important issues[:] … poverty and hunger and a lack of education and people dying and children starving.”

He may think that language and aesthetics are not as important as poverty and people dying and children starving, and he would be right to think that; but it’s unmistakably clear, nonetheless, that he does care about aesthetics and language, and he is also right to care about them; it is possible to recognise which things are of the highest importance and still, at the same time, care about things which are not of the same degree of importance. The caring about aesthetics and language is right there in ‘The Folk Song Army’:

The tune don’t have to be clever
And it don’t matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line
It sounds more ethnic if it ain’t good English
And it don’t even gotta rhyme… excuse me: rhyne!

28

john c. halasz 12.13.18 at 8:01 am

OK. This is enough for me:

29

Lawrence Maggitti 12.13.18 at 1:04 pm

So I’m a Cowen reader, but I definitely understand the hate (and for the same reasons I’m trying to break the habit). I’m more and more convinced that he’s compulsively dishonest. He has some rather opaque core beliefs, and many of his expressed opinions are insincere statements meant to bolster those core beliefs. Either that or he’s just incredibly blinkered about a whole host of topics. Or both. This is an example – he can’t REALLY believe what he’s saying about Leher, can he? It’s just too absurd. Of course it’s of a piece with his other writing about “political correctness.” Not that there aren’t arguments against some of the excesses of what gets characterized as political correctness, but Cowen’s arguments are sloppy, superficial, and likely disingenuous.

I find that reading him has made me LESS sympathetic to libertarian beliefs. His fellow blogger Tabbarok, OTOH, strikes me as much more honest and sometimes persuasive. Of course many of his posts are also absurdly wrong, but I get the impression that he sincerely holds those wrong opinions.

30

LFC 12.13.18 at 2:41 pm

Sonny Jin @22 seems to be confusing the New Left with “the counterculture.” Two different (albeit not unrelated) things.

31

anon/portly 12.13.18 at 7:49 pm

So then, anon/portly or Kiwanda or any other “IDW”-whisperers perhaps present in the house, how might one define the “IDW” (era-specifically or transhistorically, take your pick) in such a way that including Lehrer would be anything but a bad joke?

I wasn’t meaning to put myself forward as an “IDW-whisperer.” I know very little about them as either individuals or as a group. If anything, I was putting myself forward as a “Tyler Cowen whisperer,” although part of my point was that TC writes so “elliptically and tersely” that’s it’s often hard (for me) to figure out exactly what he means. He doesn’t exactly flesh out his point about Lehrer and the IDW but I thought it might help to understand his point by thinking about what he meant not by “IDW” but more specifically (emphasis mine) “IDW of his day.”

There’s an obvious sense in which Lehrer, who had to be his own record label, was saying “things you can’t say” or “things that cause others to object strenuously to what you are saying.” And obviously for many people who read this blog the obvious difference between the IDW folks and Lehrer – even the iconoclast vs. iconolater distinction of the OP, however smart, is just a variant of this – is that the IDW folks are saying bad/wrong things and Lehrer was saying good/right things. Maybe so. I still agree with my own point that Lehrer was saying “things that can’t be said” not in the way the IDW people are, but in the way that comedians of our own day do – this type of comedy is more routine now.

Actually beyond the point that Lehrer was funny and the IDW folks aren’t is the point that Lehrer’s comedy arose from a time when the ideological and political distinctions may have been clearer and more distinct, a point Lehrer himself makes (from the Buzzfeed link in 22):

Everybody knows that lynching is bad. But affirmative action vs. quotas, feminism vs. pornography, Israel vs. the Arabs? I don’t know which side I’m on anymore. And you can’t write a funny song that uses, “On the other hand.”

In any case, if Lehrer does or does not belong in some sort of as yet undetermined or unclear IDW of his day, does Lehrer belong on the side of those who feel it worthwhile or necessary to issue the personal invective and complaints described in the update? My guess is no.

32

anon/portly 12.13.18 at 8:16 pm

What do Nico, Kiss and Tom Lehrer have in common?

https://www.headheritage.co.uk/unsung/albumofthemonth/tom-lehrer

As far as I know – but surely there must be others? – Barbara Manning is the only person to think of doing something like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJhNTc8mmiE

The Tom Lehrer of his day? (I especially like the Harvard/California affinities – too bad Martin Gardner didn’t do an “Annotated Lehrer”).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Thayer

33

martin schafer 12.13.18 at 9:14 pm

One of the songs I would think was most relevant to the current culture wars is on exactly the opposite side from the IDW. “I want to go back to Dixie”

34

lowell75 12.13.18 at 9:26 pm

Other than having a talent for coming up with self-assured sounding click-baitey article titles, I haven’t seen any reason for giving this troll anything more than then 2 seconds it takes to read any of his article headlines.

It’s an old trick to hoist an entire worldview on someone based on a single off-the cuff remark or quote:

https://thismodernworld.com/archives/8537

Seems to me the world will be a (slightly) better place the sooner Natalie Wynn’s “decryption” video reaches a million views:

35

anon/portly 12.14.18 at 12:00 am

One comment has mentioned ‘National Brotherhood Week’, another ‘The Folk Song Army’, and three others both of them, and they are directed at the same target, or at any rate at closely related ones. But go past those two, and which others has the same target, or a closely related one? None, I think. Those two spring to mind repeatedly as examples of Tom Lehrer’s attack on that target (whatever label you choose to use to describe it) because they’re the only two examples.

According to the Buzzfeed article, or from adding up the tracks on his three albums of new material, there’s only 37 extant Lehrer songs. 2/37 is a lot more than, say, Neil Young’s Inca/Aztec song percentage or Zappa’s improbable sex act song percentage, and none would deny those as important themes of their work. With Lehrer, 2 songs on a topic is a lot.

36

Ebenezer Scrooge 12.14.18 at 1:43 am

Wowsers are and were everywhere: on the left and on the right. (To me a wowser is a person who obtains pleasure from being censorious.) Wowsers are not that common, but they’re noisy and very annoying. They are therefore very easy to satirize. “PC” is the term that today’s right wing calls today’s left-wowsers.

Lehrer, to my knowledge, was never interested in wowsers of any description. He attacked hypocrisy and bigotry with gusto, but a hypocrite is not a wowser. So I think that Cowen’s very categories are wrong.

37

Kiwanda 12.14.18 at 2:14 am

WLGR:

So then, anon/portly or Kiwanda or any other “IDW”-whisperers perhaps present in the house, how might one define the “IDW” (era-specifically or transhistorically, take your pick) in such a way that including Lehrer would be anything but a bad joke?

I don’t know or care.

If that’s even a remotely fair recounting of at least a good chunk of the “IDW” self-description,

It isn’t. I wouldn’t characterize most of these people in the way you did. Nor are they known identity thieves or “iconolaters”.

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bad Jim 12.14.18 at 7:35 am

We’ve caused some anxiety
and gained notoriety
from the Audobon society
with our games.
They call it impiety
and lack of propriety
and quite a variety
of unpleasant games.
But it’s not against any religion
to want to dispose of a pigeon!

As it happens, it fell to me to care for my aged mother, and in such situations it’s common for onlookers to suppose the male is her spouse; even my mother in her dementia reached that point, perhaps because I share her husband’s name. So of course these words cut a bit close:

So be sweet and kind to mother,
now and then have a chat,
buy her candy or some flowers or a brand new hat,
but maybe you had better let it go at that!

39

WLGR 12.14.18 at 9:18 am

J. Bogart @ 22, the symbolic parallel between the faux-iconoclastic “IDW” and the actual “dark web” is more perfect even than that, because (as elucidated by the genuinely iconoclastic muckraking investigative journalist Yasha Levine) the “dark web” was conceived and is still to this day maintained as a project of the US military-intelligence establishment, a.k.a. the “deep state.” The original purpose was as a tool for hiding US espionage activity in a noisy cloud of non-subversive illegal or otherwise illicit activity (for example, allowing an undercover CIA agent stationed in Iran to log into Tor without flagging themselves to Iranian counterintelligence as doing anything more serious than low-level drug dealing or prostitution or whatever, and certainly without revealing that they’re communicating with an IP address based in Langley) but these days it arguably also doubles as a sort of honeypot for inchoate anti-establishment ideological energy, channeling its users’ potentially subversive political impulses into toothless forms of faux-subversive pseudopolitics that can much more easily be subjected to establishment surveillance, misdirection, and ultimately control.

In that sense, characterizing this gaggle of edgy-but-not-subversive, pseudointellectual pseudo-iconoclasts as an intellectual equivalent of the dark web could hardly be more appropriate.

40

Antonin 12.14.18 at 2:56 pm

WLGR at #9 says it all, really. The “sheer willful ignorance” demonstrated time and again at the ideological level by almost every figure on the center to right, from clownish Tom Friedman to wonkish Matt Yglesias, is never consequential, it seems. Their stature and centrality to political discourse is never really challenged, only enabled, by this need to ‘respond’ or ‘critique’ their latest propaganda, on this blog or elsewhere. They deserve ridicule not self-seriousness, their pedantic cover blown and their self-interested, priviledged ass exposed to the wind.

Also, WLGR’s distinction between superficial and material/redistributive social justice (between tokenism and real emancipation) is another one of those fundamental thing that obtains only fleetlingly in the discourse. Serious critics and and thinkers should abstain from engaging in pseudo-arguments with people willfully misleading readers about fundamental concepts.

41

J-D 12.14.18 at 7:55 pm

anon/portly

With Lehrer, 2 songs on a topic is a lot.

Then three thematically related songs (‘When You Are Old And Grey’, ‘The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz’, and ‘I Hold Your Hand In Mine’; or ‘I Wanna Go Back To Dixie’, ‘My Home Town’, and ‘Bright College Days’; or ‘It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier’, ‘Send The Marines’, and ‘Wernher von Braun’) is more, four (‘The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be’, ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’, ‘MLF Lullaby’, and ‘Who’s Next’) is a lot more, and five is the most (‘L-Y’, ‘Silent E’, ‘O-U’, ‘S-N’, and ‘N Apostrophe T’).

42

Eli Rabett 12.15.18 at 12:47 am

Tom Lehrer was a math teaching assistant at Harvard with a side gig.

43

J-D 12.15.18 at 12:58 am

anon/portly

There’s an obvious sense in which Lehrer, who had to be his own record label, was saying “things you can’t say” or “things that cause others to object strenuously to what you are saying.”

The category of ‘have been strenuously criticised for statements they have uttered’ is so broad as to have little or no analytical value.

I have been strenuously criticised for statements I have uttered, sometimes in comments on this blog. So have you. (In my own case I will stipulate that over the course of my life the aggregate of the criticism I have received for my statements has been largely although not invariably fair.) I would hazard a guess that being strenuously criticised for some statement is an experience that has befallen the majority of the world’s population at one time or another.

Tom Lehrer has been strenuously criticised for some of the things he has said, or sung, but–unlike the members of the Intellectual Dark Web–he has not taken that criticism as a rare badge of distinction that marks him out as one of a lonely breed of embattled champions.

The reason the members of the Intellectual Dark Web have chosen to take being strenuously criticised for their statements as a rare badge of distinction that marks them out as members of a lonely breed of embattled champions is that, unlike Tom Lehrer (whatever his other faults), they are full of shit.

44

anon/portly 12.15.18 at 9:31 pm

43 The category of ‘have been strenuously criticised for statements they have uttered’ is so broad as to have little or no analytical value.

You’re right, the “strenuously criticized” part isn’t the point, it’s only part of the point . I didn’t express the idea very well. It’s really the “shut out of mainstream media outlets” part that (arguably) makes the analogy work. Lehrer, although popular, had to turn to alternative channels. The IDW, although popular, have to turn to alternative channels.

Of course, you can say the analogy doesn’t really work very well, because Lehrer’s songs weren’t banned or shunned in the 1950’s because of political content so much as “bad taste” type issues. Also Lehrer’s more political material, from his last album, was actually written for the American version of That Was the Week That Was, which aired on NBC.

…unlike Tom Lehrer (whatever his other faults), they are full of shit.

The category of ‘full of shit’ is so broad as to have little or no analytical value, maybe?

45

J-D 12.16.18 at 5:45 am

The Intellectual Dark Web has not been shut out of mainstream media outlets.

46

maidhc 12.16.18 at 10:19 am

Another Lehrer song that was prescient was (I think it’s called) “Pollution” or “Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air”.

These are songs I remember hearing when my parents took me to gatherings of their left-wing friends. So I sort of imbibed them without considering them very critically.

47

maidhc 12.16.18 at 10:27 am

Another thing about Wernher Von Braun was (film)

I Aim at the Stars (1960), also titled Wernher von Braun and Ich greife nach den Sternen (“I Reach for the Stars”); von Braun played by Curd Jürgens, his wife Maria played by Victoria Shaw. Although it was said that satirist Mort Sahl suggested the subtitle “But Sometimes I Hit London”, the line appears in the film itself, spoken by actor James Daly who plays the cynical American press officer.

[Wikipedia]

48

LizardBreath 12.16.18 at 2:44 pm

Cowen’s reading of Lehrer makes sense if you believe that the narrator of National Brotherhood Week was a straightforward, unsarcastic statement of Lehrer’s own positions — “Be nice to people who, are inferior to you, you can tolerate them if you try.” That’s absolutely in accordance with all of the just-asking-questions about race and IQ IDW stuff: no one feels any racial animus, of course not, they just think that some demographic groups of people are statistically not as good at some sorts of tasks.

Obviously, I think you’d have to be an idiot, dishonest, or insane to believe that Lehrer meant NBW straightforwardly, but if you are, that gets you exactly where Cowen went.

49

anon/portly 12.16.18 at 4:32 pm

The Intellectual Dark Web has not been shut out of mainstream media outlets.

From the NYT article on the IDW (“Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” May 18, 2018):

Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.

I am not in possession of a lot of information as to exactly how much hostility cultural gatekeeper x feels toward putative IDW member y, so I don’t really know the extent to which various IDW people actually have been “locked out” or even “feel” locked out in some meaningful sense from “legacy” or mainstream media outlets.

But that is not really all that relevant to my point, which was to explain why someone might choose to make the connection Tyler Cowen made. To the extent that the shut-outedness of the IDW is a myth, that would obviously weaken the connection, but I still think a stronger objection is that the IDW people are thinkers, Lehrer was primarily a comedian or artist, and the reason for Lehrer’s difficulties – “taste” issues, mainly – don’t really analogize very well to our time or to their situation. Also the way you offend people with humor is different from the way you offend them with ideas.

50

anon/portly 12.16.18 at 6:12 pm

Then three thematically related songs (‘When You Are Old And Grey’, ‘The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz’, and ‘I Hold Your Hand In Mine’; or ‘I Wanna Go Back To Dixie’, ‘My Home Town’, and ‘Bright College Days’; or ‘It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier’, ‘Send The Marines’, and ‘Wernher von Braun’) is more, four (‘The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be’, ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’, ‘MLF Lullaby’, and ‘Who’s Next’) is a lot more, and five is the most (‘L-Y’, ‘Silent E’, ‘O-U’, ‘S-N’, and ‘N Apostrophe T’).

There seems to be a certain confusion here, between categories of “strongly thematically related” and “weakly thematically related” and for that matter “not thematically related” or “related loosely by similarity of topic and/or subject matter” and so on.

Anyway, yes there are many themes Lehrer revisited more than once.

1. He didn’t just hit the theme of “sending up love songs” three times, but at least four – “She’s My Girl” got left out.

2. If “nuclear annihilation” is the theme, I think a better grouping is “We Will All Go Together When We Go” with “So Long Mom” and “Who’s Next,” although the latter is more about proliferation, of course.

3. The “Soldier/Marines/Von Braun” grouping is a mystery to me – “songs that have something to do with the military” I guess. I’d group “Soldier” more with “Be Prepared” and “Bright College Days” (theme: “making fun of institutions”) and perhaps some others. I’d group “Von Braun” with “MLF Lullaby” (theme: “hey, who were the bad guys in WW2?”). I have a hard time grouping “Marines” (theme: American aggression”) with any of the others but if forced to would put it with “New Math” (theme: “American triumphalism”).

51

Warren Terra 12.17.18 at 3:23 pm

Screw this noise. Tom Lehrer – who isn’t fncking dead, and should at least be allowed the grace of resting in his grave before opportunistic assholes try to appropriate his identity for their purposes – had no respect for sacred horses, but – critically – he was never an asshole, never lost his compassion. The so-called “intellectual dark web” is a bunch of sympathy-deficient overgrown toddlers who just want license to be jerks without being called on it. And they should leave Lehrer the fnck alone.

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