In an ideal world, political discourse would consist only of logical arguments backed by empirical evidence. Visual persuasion would have no place.
There would be no fireworks on the Fourth of July; no pictures of the president speaking from the Oval Office or grinning at children or greeting soldiers or reaching over the sneeze guard at Chipotle; no “Morning in America” or “Daisy” commercials; no “Hope” or “We Can Do It” posters; no peace signs or Vs for victory or Black Power salutes; no news photos of gay newlyweds kissing or crowds celebrating atop a crumbling Berlin wall or naturalized citizens waving little flags; no shots of napalmed girls running in terror or the Twin Towers aflame; no Migrant Mother or dreamy Che Guevara; no political cartoons, Internet memes, or Guy Fawkes masks; no “shining city on a hill” or “bridge to the future”; no Liberty Leading the People or Guernica orWashington Crossing the Delaware; no Statue of Liberty.
In this deliberative utopia, politics would be entirely rational, with no place for emotion and the propagandistic pictures that carry it. And we would all be better off.
At least that’s what a lot of smart people imagine.
It’s an understandable belief. Persuasive images are dangerous. They can obscure the real ramifications of political actions. Their meanings are imprecise and subject to interpretation. They cannot establish cause and effect or outline a coherent policy. They leave out crucial facts and unseen consequences. They reduce real people to stereotypes and caricatures. They oversimplify complicated situations. They can fuel moral panics, hysteria, and hate. They can lead to rash decisions. Their visceral power threatens to override our reason.
In 1904, the great sociologist Max Weber toured the United States, doing research and making contacts that proved influential on his later work, particularly
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sociologist Lawrence Scaff reconstructed the journey in his fascinating 2011 book Max Weber in America (summarized pretty well in this New Republicreview by Alan Wolfe). I've never been a fan of The Protestant Ethic, but Scaff made me want to go back and read it again.
Reflecting a decade later on his conversations with skilled blue-collar workers in America, Weber wrote the following about why they tolerated the corrupt appointees of political machines rather than embracing the technocratic professionalism championed by educated reformers, including Weber.
Whenever I sat in company with such workers and said to them: “How can you let yourselves be governed by these people who are put in office without your consent and who naturally make as much money out of their office as possible...how can you let yourselves be governed by this corrupt association that is notorious for robbing you of hundreds of millions?”, I would occasionally receive the characteristic reply which I hope I may repeat, word for word and without adornment: “That doesn’t matter, there’s enough money there to be stolen and still enough left over for others to earn something—for us too. We spit on these ‘professionals,’ these officials. We despise them. But if the offices are filled by a trained, qualified class, such as you have in your country, it will be the officials who spit on us.” That was the decisive point for these people. They feared the emergence of the type of officialdom which already exists in Europe, an exclusive status group of university-educated officials with professional training.
They weren't wrong.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on June 13, 2014 • Comments
It’s April 15, a day that reminds us that the difference between December 31 and January 1 is enormous. Or, in my case, the difference between December 31 and January 24--the date in 2013 on which I received a book payment I was supposed to receive in 2012. That delay doubled my book income for 2013 while leaving some of the offsetting expenses, as well as a large charitable trust contribution, in 2012. It also meant that all of my book payment, instead of part of it, was taxed at a higher (though far from the highest) rate.
In other words, I wound up paying extra taxes on the same amount of money.
The difference between one year and the next wouldn’t matter so much if all income were taxed at the same rate. Before the 1986 tax reform flattened rates, people with fluctuating incomes could in fact average their incomes across years for tax purposes. Abolishing averaging went along with a simpler, less-progressive tax system.
But the tax system has gotten more complex and progressive in recent years, making the arbitrary distinction between this year’s income and last year’s all the more unfair. (Year-to-year fluctuations don’t make a significant tax difference for the relatively few people who are always taxed at the top rate.)
One special class of people still gets to escape the tyranny of the tax calendar. In 1997, Congress restored income averaging for farmers and ranchers. It’s even more galling to be taxed extra for Simon & Schuster’s slow payment knowing that if I were growing corn instead of writing books I’d be able to offset the good years against the bad ones.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on April 15, 2014 • Comments
The following correction ran in the April 18, 1903 issue of the Dry Goods Reporter, a retailing trade publication:
In an article by Mr. J. F. Phelan of the Phelan Dry Goods Company, Galesburg, Ill., under the head "Ladies' Ready-made Garment," that appeared in the "Reporter" some weeks back, Mr. Phelan desires the following corrections: The expression "women do not attend so carefully to their business as do the men" is an error. The remark that "women get married when valuable as salespeople" is also incorrect. The words "married men are even more reliable and usually more respectable than single men" should have read "I believe they are more reliable and more responsible."
Thinking that the correction might be satirical, I found the original article, which ran January 3. The correction was no joke.
Regarding help, I find that men are much more satisfactory. Ladies do not attend so carefully to the business, I find, as do the men. Men folks seem to be more reliable. The girls are often interested in outside matters, and they are not able to concentrate their minds on the business so closely as are the men. They are getting married when valuable. Married men are better help than unmarried, as I believe they are even more reliable and usually more respectable.
I'd love to know what transpired in the three months between the article and the correction.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on March 25, 2014 • Comments
In this one-hour C-SPAN video, I answer Brian Lamb's questions about relations between Washington and Hollywood and, I hope, dispel the notion that rounding up some over-the-hill movie stars equals glamour, at least anywhere but Washington.
For a fuller discussion of glamour and politics, see my talk at the John Locke Foundation here.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on March 03, 2014 • Comments
“It’s impossible to walk from this book not thinking differently about things.”
That's what Weston Cutter of Corduroy Books said in
his review of The Power of Glamour, and it's a theme that comes up again and again in comments about the book. “Reading this book made me look differently at the role glamour has played in my own life,” wrote Leslie Camhi in The New York Times Book Review.
Reading the book gave Kate Bolick
an explanation for why she loves the Vermont Country Store catalog but never wants to visit the real store. It gave Autumn Whitefield-Madrano insight into a beauty puzzle: "If women’s magazines make women feel so bad about themselves, why do we continue to buy them?" For Ken Silber it crystallized a unifying theme in what he likes "to write and read about, what sorts of art and design I tend to enjoy."
It might change how you think too. And to celebrate the new year, I'm giving away three signed copies of
The Power of Glamour. To enter, post a comment telling me why you should win one. I'll pick winners on January 10. My decisions are final and they may be arbitrary or random. You do not have to be a U.S. resident to enter.
UPDATE: Since Facebook comments don't give me your email address, please be sure to check back on Monday to see if you've won. Also, I will choose one winner using Random.org so everyone has a chance.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on January 02, 2014 • Comments
The New Yorker has put online James Thurber's classic 1939 short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," once a favorite of elementary and middle-school literature anthologies but now largely unknown by younger people. In an earlier draft of The Power of Glamour, I included the following passage about the story, which is all about the protagonist's glamorous, but ridiculous, daydreams.
Just as a single glamorous object may evoke different desires, different objects may reflect the same underlying yearning, as illustrated in the comic 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Author James Thurber contrasts a series of glamorous daydreams with the protagonist’s real life as an infantilized, bumbling husband. The story opens with a scene pieced together from movie clichés. Though technically ridiculous, its dialogue makes emotional sense. We meet Mitty as the brave and competent commander, respected and obeyed by his crew.
“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-
pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The old man will get us through” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!”. . .
Suddenly Mitty’s real life breaks the reverie, as Mrs. Mitty berates her husband for driving too fast, then nags him to buy overshoes and wear his gloves. Over the course of the afternoon Mitty imagines himself as a series of glamorous masculine archetypes, with each daydream broken by some mundane, ego-deflating interruption. He’s a world-renowned surgeon operating on a millionaire banker and able, in mid-surgery, to repair a broken anesthetizer with a fountain pen. He’s a crack shot on trial for murder, shocking the court by destroying his own alibi—an injured right arm—when he declares, “With any known make of gun, I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.” He’s a gallant British aviator, taking his bomber up over Germany against impossible odds. Finally, he becomes a spy being led to his execution: “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” None of these scenes has a coherent plot. They are all glamorous snapshots, portraits of yearning fulfilled. And all reveal the same longing—for competence and respect. Each allows Mitty to escape a reality in which he is constantly reminded of his failings: “He was always getting something wrong.”
As varied as these daydreams are, however, they not only express the same underlying desire but do so in a relatively narrow way. They are all masculine, and several of them are martial, not surprising in a story published in 1939. We could imagine many more archetypes with the potential to express the same longings—and to be punctured with the same glamour-deflating humor. In another era, a similar character might picture himself a sports star winning the championship with a well-placed shot, a scientist rushing to intercept an Earth-destroying asteroid, or a CEO doing multi-billion–dollar deals from his private jet. The desire for competence and respect could express itself in daydreams of Martha Stewart–style domestic perfection or in that common fantasy, the Oscar acceptance speech. Depending on their personalities, and cultural contexts, different people will respond to different glamorous objects reflecting the same desire.
The passage made the chapter drag too much, but I do like the example and am glad
The New Yorker (and the new movie) have given me an excuse to share it. Go read the story now.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on December 30, 2013 • Comments
Last night I gave a talk on The Power of Glamour at the Getty Institute, and the sponsoring organization, Zócalo Public Square, has done a fantastic job of pulling together video, audio, photos, and a writeup--all of which you can find here.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on November 21, 2013 • Comments