I’ve been invited to contribute here at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, even though, as you can tell from my name, I don’t quite fit the “gentleman” label. That aside, I’m proud to join and I hope I can add something to the excellent work being done by each of the other authors. For the past couple of years, I’ve been blogging at Free Silver, a forum I set up primarily as a personal outlet in an effort to stop trying to coax my friends into lengthy email discussions. My intention, at this point, is to continue posting there, and cross-posting items that fit in with the L.O.G. mission of “sustained discussion.”
In a 1905 address, George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall defended “honest graft” by arguing that “every good man looks after his friends, and a man who doesn’t isn’t likely to be popular.” To me, that first half is an unchanging value, but the tricky job of gauging popularity shows how much things have evolved since 1905. We spit “cronyism” as a curse word, the way Jimmy Stewart snarled “liar” at the press corps in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We imagine that there are objective measurements that determine who is worthy of reward. Rewarding friends has no place among the new values.
Part of the change in values is due to the fact that loyalty is, at its core, irrational. It requires a person to stick by her friends when her friends are wrong, stay with a job when another job pays more, live in her hometown when there are better opportunities elsewhere, follow a tradition that serves no tangible purpose beyond its own perpetuation, and support a particular baseball team when said team begins the season 16 and 41. Such is the nature of loyalty, the one value I most want to rescue from the long list of out-of-fashion ideals.
Of course, Oscar Wilde had a different take on the value, describing loyalty as “lethargy of custom” and “lack of imagination.” But he would, the dilettante. The assumption that imagination can only be stimulated by constantly changing settings itself betrays a stunning lack of imagination. The world traveler is downright dull in comparison to the local fixture who knows all the rhythms and eccentricities of a particular place and the life histories of the people who inhabit it.
Here in Baltimore, that could mean the old-timers who weathered some tough years in the city throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, survived the later gentrification boom in the neighborhoods near the harbor and spend summer evenings sitting on their front steps, chatting it up with neighbors and passersby (the marble steps in front of this city’s rowhouses are every bit as iconic as the front porch in the rest of the nation.)
There is certainly a political translation here. While I always have been, and always will be, a loyal Democrat, finding an ideological niche has proven much more difficult. I mostly identify with the small (but growing?) “Laschian Left;” some mix of personal and cultural moderate conservatism, economic and democratic populism and a genuine regard for historical continuity.
With much of today’s tiresome debate on the Left knotted between the DLC centrists and Netroots progressives, there is little recognition of even the existence of left-leaning reactionaries. But as oxymoronic as that term is in today’s ideologies, it was standard fare for the 19th century Populists, who (usually rightly) feared that “progress” meant greater concentrations of wealth at the top and the upending of a life that may be, in market-terms, inefficient or even irrational. Also, like all good loyalists, the Populists saw no use in an objective view of politics. They knew who they were fighting for, who they were fighting against, and they concerned themselves with particularities rather than abstractions.
Personally, life circumstances have made populism a bit of an odd fit for me. I grew up not in Kansas, but in a planned community between Baltimore and Washington D.C., the kind of place in which people move to raise the kids, and leave when the kids go to college. So much for historical continuity. And as for the romanticism of those “old-timers” on their marble steps? Well, I moved to the city four years ago, and am sadly just one of the passersby they encounter throughout the day. It is my intention, however, to stay in this city (which I am proud to say is the most provincial on the East Coast) until I become the kind of custom-bound, unimaginative person Wilde would scorn.
I imagine many of my posts here will apply that populist and loyalist perspective to whatever topic has sparked my interest on a particular day, whether the topic is politics, history, culture, economics, religion, movies, or anything else that comes to mind. I appreciate the chance to play a part in these discussions, and I’m looking forward to the give and take that will follow.