Idiots and Maniacs


Tony Comstock, writing about his “Sputnik Moment“:

Okay, I pretty much wonder “What the fish have I done with my life?” every time I have a set major back (which is pretty much a weekly event,) but one moment stands out above all the rest.

It was the Spring after 9/11. The New York loft office? Gone, let the lease run out in January. The coop apartment? Rented for the foreseeable future. The house in Montauk? Sure, still have that, but it was a dilapidated fixer-upper when we got it, and it still was in April of 2002; only now money is tight (I haven’t had a paying gig in nearly a year) and not having digs or a work place in the city isn’t helping.

I am in my 1992 Honda Civic CX, east-bound on highway 27, right near Cyril’s Fishhouse. There’s a big dent in the driver’s side door because some asshole hit me at the airport and then drove off yelling “Nobody saw it! You can’t prove a thing.” (I got his plate and a photo of my paint on his bumper, but when I went to the cops I found out he was right.)

Anyway, I’m eastbound, doing the speed-limit, cause I have a fetish about that, in a car that I used to be really proud of (first/only car I’ve bought new) but now it’s looking pretty hump, and some guy driving an ENORMOUS black BMW is about 6 inches off my rear bumper.

This is pretty much par for the course if you drive the speed limit on the Napeque stretch — some asshole with lots of money, but no time, thinking he’ll improve the quality of his life by driving 75 instead of 55 and arrive in Montauk two minutes sooner. And most of the time I feel pretty damn smug about it when one of these jaggoffs is on my tail, “I’m not in a hurry because I’m already here, asshole.”

But not this time.

This time my car feels little and shitty. My life feels little and shitty. I feel little and shitty. I feel like a complete loser. (A month later I got a commission to do a small film about 9/11, which righted us financially, and was a pretty good little film too. )

That was what, eight years ago? And I still remember it vividly. I can remember it like it happened this afternoon.

My Thermomixed Up series of posts from last Winter was largely concerned with values, priorities and signalling, and sprang from observations by Megan McArdle and Reihan Salam about consumerism and career choices respectively.


One of the running themes of the economist Robin Hanson’s excellent blog is that arguments like the ones found in these books are actually an elite-status proxy war. They denigrate the one measure of high-visibility achievement—income—that public intellectuals don’t do very well on. Reading “Shiny Objects,” you get the feeling that he is onto something.

And Reihan:

Recently, for example, I had an exchange with several friends on Twitter (which comes up a lot) over whether or not Harvard graduates who take lucrative jobs in the financial services industry should be the objects of moral condemnation…

[W]e are in a sense living through a cultural war in which some who’ve chosen, say, more leisure and prestige are waging a symbolic struggle against those who’ve chosen more income — the object is to devalue the accumulation of material possessions, to characterize it as “greedy,” etc.

On issues of values, priorities and signaling, my wife, (smarter than me, Megan and Reihan put together) is fond of stealing from the philosopher George Carlin : Everyone who drives slower than me is a idiot. Everyone who drives faster than me is a maniac.

Speaking of idiots and maniacs, James Poulos, new colleague to Erik Kain has a worthwhile read over at his Rough Trade column over at Forbes:

Neither Republicans nor Democrats can figure out whether they are leading the charge or playing the victim. It’s a pathetic display — most of all because many among both parties seem to realize they are arguing over an issue that no amount of political warfare can ever adequately resolve.

There is a joke about academia that I’m fond of telling.

Q: Why do academics fight so viciously? A: Because there’s so little at stake.

But the truth is more personal: Anyone who fights less viciously than me is an idiot. Anyone who fights more viciously than me is a maniac.

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6 thoughts on “Idiots and Maniacs

  1. There’s an infinity of ways to find happiness in life, and on an individual level I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their specific choice. But in aggregate I think it’s pretty reasonable to assign different value to pleasure from amassing income versus pleasure from, say, helping fellow humans. It should not be controversial to say that the latter is generally a more lasting and fulfilling, at the very least so we can avoid getting depressed every time some asshole drives by in a nicer car. It is interesting to see conservatives appropriate the post-modern relativism of the left and claim that values are just team signaling in a political culture war. But I hope we haven’t gotten to a point where I’m the same as Bill Donohue if I tell my kids that teaching is generally more rewarding than trading stock.

    By the way, If Reihan sees a teacher or a nurse and thinks only “leisure and prestige” then why are we listening to him at all?

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    • “It is interesting to see conservatives appropriate the post-modern relativism of the left and claim that values are just team signaling in a political culture war.”

      Indeed. Interesting. Ironic even. But I’m not sure they’re wrong (Disclosure: I’ve never voted for a Republican for national office)

      But ultimately my interest is more personal. I was very proud of that car, and felt patriotic when I drove it. I thought I was doing my part to liberate my nation from dependence on foreign oil.

      But then though the 90s and 00s cars got bigger and bigger and bigger, and I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t just Republicans driving them. And I’m pretty sure exceeding the speed limit is not a partisan practice.

      As for Reihan, he’s another who is very much admired by people who I admire and like, but I just don’t get him. When I read his post, I always end up thinking, “This fellow could have made a lot of money being a lawyer, but instead here he is pursuing prestige.”

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  2. McCardle and Reihan write as if the criticism of consumerism and status are a recent phenomenon, as if nothing had been written on this topic until some whiny college students began criticising their $1500 mixers.

    That St. Francis! He’s so high and mighty, denigrating the one measure of high-visibility achievement—income—that clerics don’t do very well on!

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    • I’d hazard that with the exception of using plywood as a hull plating material in a certificated vessel, very few new ideas are post here, or on any other blog. As NBC used to say about their Summer rerun schedule: if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!

      I like Megan, a lot actually; and I finally think I understand why I’ve found her writing so infuriating since I first encountered it. Or at least I understand a little.

      At any rate, masticating on why a Thermomix (or a catamaran) seem ostentatious, but a trip to Disneyland does not seems worthwhile to me, though clearly doing it publicly has it’s hazards, or at least it does if you care what other people think.

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