Karl Rove and Jorge Luis Borges

Have you ever experienced the strange feeling you get when two people from totally different aspects of your life are introduced to each other in your presence?  I got that feeling when I walked into the Asian Bond Markets Summit and heard my beloved Sigur Ros playing as background music (and not even their pop-oriented music, the more avant garde stuff.)  I heard people telling the DJ to turn it down, whereas I wanted it to be much louder.

I also got that feeling when reading this strange article on the connection between Jorge Luis Borges and Karl Rove by Alec Nevala-Lee.  It’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar people.

Yet it isn’t hard to see why Rove is drawn to his work. The great theme in Borges, among all those labyrinths and mirrors, is how the world can be shaped, and even physically transformed, by the intellectual structures we impose on it. In his story “The Secret Miracle,” a man waiting to be executed pictures all the possible forms that his death might take, as if by imagining the worst, he can prevent it from happening””an attitude that many Democrats assumed before the recent election. “The Lottery in Babylon” describes a government so powerful that its actions can no longer be distinguished from the operations of the universe, which seems like a conservative’s nightmare of Obamacare, but which might also appeal to a man who once dreamed of a permanent Republican majority. (On his website, Rove refers to this story as involving “a lottery in Baghdad,” a Freudian slip of epic proportions.)

These ideas find their fullest expression in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In the fictional world invented by Borges’s army of scholars, the only science is psychology, and an idea, or even a physical object, can become real if enough people believe it exists. Rove has put this principle into action more aggressively than any other political figure in recent memory. It lurks behind the push polls in the South Carolina primary calculated to plant the rumor that John McCain had fathered a black child, and in the White House Iraq Group, chaired by Rove, designed to sell the public on the supposed threat of Saddam Hussein””a more targeted version of Orbis Tertius, with its secret group of intellectuals “directed by an obscure man of genius.”

The essay is quite good; I recommend you read the whole piece.  But as is often the case with progressives, he overreaches:

And then there’s Fox News, for which Rove has long served as a sort of spiritual godfather. Borges notes that mankind was seduced by the fictional universe of Tlön because its rules were more elegant than reality itself, which is precisely what Fox News provides. Its vision of the world is compellingly clear: it’s easier to believe that the president is a Muslim socialist who secretly wants to take our guns away than to understand the perplexing truth, which even many observers on the left have trouble accepting, that he’s a political moderate who draws much of his policy from the conservative playbook of the past. And unlike the shadowy cabal of Orbis Tertius, this systematic reordering and simplification of reality has taken place in plain sight.

I’m sure that most liberals who never watch Fox News actually believe this stuff.  Yep, Brit Hume warns the viewers each night that the President is a muslim socialist.   And if Obama’s a “moderate,” then so was George Bush.  (All Presidents must compromise, that’s not the same as being a moderate.)   I guess we all live in our own “fictional universes.”

And was Rove actually behind those push polls?  I have no idea, but here’s the very liberal Vanity Fair:

Nothing has ever been turned up, however, tying the Bush team to an underground-smear “master plan.” Identifying who ordered push-polling in a campaign “is like nailing Jell-O to the wall,” as Howard Kurtz put it.

Speaking of fiction, the author is on much stronger ground here:

Rove’s love of Borges has gone mostly unremarked, perhaps because it seems so incongruous. In general, members of the conservative establishment aren’t known for their taste in literature. Mitt Romney once acknowledged, in what is probably his second-most embarrassing online video, that his favorite novel is L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, and the identity of Paul Ryan’s novelist of choice is a matter of record. As a result, it’s surprising, and superficially encouraging, to find a prominent figure on the right who openly admires a writer numbered among Joyce and Kafka as one of the essential authors of the modern age.

I shouldn’t criticize a novel I’ve never read, so let me just pass along an anecdote about HP Lovecraft.  I recall he once wrote that under no circumstances should a story ever be entitled “The White Ape” unless it contains no apes at all, white or otherwise.  So if the Hubbard novel contains a battle for Earth, then I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t care for it.  If it’s about the dissolution of a marriage . . . then maybe.

But enough snobbery–is there a more serious point here? Here’s Milan Kundera:

Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice; accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac””that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it. Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop””that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws. Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own. In this sense E. M. Cioran is right to call European society “the society of the novel” and to speak of Europeans as “the children of the novel.

It would be interesting to know whether liberals are more likely to read complex literature, and whether conservatives are more likely to read books that emphasize good vs. evil.  Jonathan Haidt has argued that liberals hold more utilitarian values, whereas conservatives also focus on values like authority, purity, sanctity, honor, patriotism, religion, etc.  Of course there are conservatives who are very well read, but many of them are better thought of as right wing liberals (favoring capitalism for utilitarian reasons) not as true conservatives.  (Here’s a test–do they favor legalizing marijuana, more immigration, and gay marriage.  If so, then they obviously aren’t conservatives, they are libertarians or classical liberals or neoliberals or some other L-word.)  I’d be interested if anyone knows of any systematic studies of the reading habits of liberal and conservative politicians.

PS.  Are there any economists who love literature who don’t like Borges?  I’ve never asked Tyler Cowen if he likes Borges—why would I bother when the answer is obvious?

PPS.  Please don’t buy Sigur Ros on my recommendation.  I have terrible taste in music—for all I know they’ll sound like The Moody Blues in 20 years.

PPPS.  Don’t take this as a defense of Rove—I was astounded by his embarrassing performance on election night.

PPPPS.  Hah!  When I google “Milan Kundera” I get Miles Kimball’s blog—not an English professor!



31 Responses to “Karl Rove and Jorge Luis Borges”

  1. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    23. November 2012 at 19:39

    interesting post. Rove knew that to win in USA politics one frames the issues and then frames the opponent.

    And here is a Rovian tactic that perhaps Scott Sumner will appreciate:

    I say we re-brand the Austrian School as the “Austrian School, also known as the Afro-Brazilian School” of monetarism or economics.

    Once established, we consistently refer to the “Austro-Afro-Brazilian School” of economics, formerly known as the “Austrian School.”

    There is no doubt in my mind that many adherents to the Austrian School are initially attracted to it by the name, for the Teutonic rigidity and resolve suggested.

    Once the school is re-branded as the Austro-Afro-Brazilian School,” it will collapse for lack of followers.

    Really, would Major Freedom ever say, “If you follow the Austro-Afro-Brazilian School, then you know blah, blah, blah….”

  2. Gravatar of edeast edeast
    23. November 2012 at 20:10

    In Canada, one of our authors, mailed in books to our conservative PM, to ensure, he was well read or something. http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca/
    He was genuinely concerned.

    Apparently Obama likes his stuff. And I think americans are going to get a visual interpretation of his work, this thanksgiving weekend. Btw, Happy that.

  3. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    23. November 2012 at 22:02

    Scott, you do realize that Hubbard is the Scientology guy? Unfortunately, the book is in fact about the battle against the evil Psychlos race for control of earth.

    That is a truly fantastic quote for Kundera. Really symbolizes the liberal-humanistic point of view that has dominated acadamies. That point of view has also been put forward by none other than… Richard Rorty

    You like Lovecraft too??

  4. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    23. November 2012 at 22:46

    “Are there any economists who love literature who don’t like Borges?”

    Why restrict it to economists? Is it because he was a libertarian/classical liberal?

    I had quite a strong Borges “phase” myself as a teenager. But then I had a lot of “phases”.

  5. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    23. November 2012 at 22:47

    People, don’t buy Sigur Ros on anyone‘s recommendation. Watch them for free on YouTube if you have to, that’s more than enough.

  6. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    23. November 2012 at 22:55

    edeast, that blog was hilarious, I used to follow it. He was on a spiritual quest to open up Harper’s soul, but his secretary calmly brushed him off and ignored him since. But he still kept sending letters. Some good picks in that list, though.

    Aren’t they making a movie out of his book now?

  7. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    23. November 2012 at 22:59

    Ben, I think the Austrian Afro-Brazilian school has produced some valuable work, and played a useful social role, but on the whole find it to be misguided…

  8. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    23. November 2012 at 23:50

    FTR, I’m not a massive fan of Kundera. Unbearable Lightness of Being made me throw up a little.

  9. Gravatar of CJ CJ
    24. November 2012 at 02:57

    Robert Sapolsky at Stanford has a short nod to the personality traits of liberals vs. conservatives in his Behavioral Genetics lecture from his Human Behavioral Biology course (the entirety of which is on youtube), and says basically that the reason that people tend to inherit very reliably the political views of their parents has to do with their feelings about ambiguity (with conservatives being more ambiguity averse), which makes sense with your feelings on this. Kundera’s quote gets at this a bit, but I think it’s true of the best literature that it is less about right vs. wrong because it recognizes the complexity and ambiguity of human morality and takes as it’s subject the examination of those complexities.

    You can see the Sapolsky clip from his lecture here: http://www.tubechop.com/watch/695397

  10. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    24. November 2012 at 07:11

    An important new post from Krugman, which Scott should really respond to: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/24/a-meta-modeling-meditation/

    CJ, Sapolsky is awesome. But this theory would imply that eg. Bertrand Russell should have been a conservative…

  11. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. November 2012 at 07:47

    Ben, That’s a great idea.

    Edeast, That’s funny.

    Saturos, I like Lovecraft, but not horror stories. Just as I like Lord of the Rings, but don’t like fantasy books. Each rises above their genre.

    I’m afraid I’m not well read in literature, but I do kind of like Kundera. I’ve read about a half dozen of his novels, and also the essay that this quote is from. His essays might be stronger than his novels, and indeed he sometimes works essays into his novels. Oddly, my weakest area is modern American fiction and 19th century European fiction. I’m a bit more well read in modern European and 19th century Anglo-American. Not sure why. If I had known I would be a blogger, I would have spent much more time on reading, and much less on things like construction projects when I was younger. But now it’s too late–no time to read.

    I wouldn’t call Borges a libertarian. He reminds me of Conrad, skeptical of any political enthusiasms. He did like America however.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. November 2012 at 07:54

    CJ, Thanks for that link–very interesting.

  13. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    24. November 2012 at 08:13

    Scott, not even Stephen King? I guess you like Twain and Melville, good writers. For modern America read Fitzgerald’s other works, read Henry James (I consider him American), and of course read Faulkner (my favorite). If you ever get the time, that is.

    Borges not libertarian? Well according to Wikipedia:

    In an interview with Richard Burgin during the late 1960s, Borges described himself as an adherent of Classical Liberalism. He further recalled that his opposition to Marxism and Communism was absorbed in his childhood. “Well, I have been brought up to think that the individual should be strong and the State should be weak. I couldn’t be enthusiastic about theories where the State is more important than the individual.”

    I’ve actually seen the Burgin book on a shelf, so that doesn’t sound completely made up.

    And what about the Krugman post?

  14. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    24. November 2012 at 08:13

    Oh, and Graham Greene, duh.

  15. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. November 2012 at 08:39

    ‘And was Rove actually behind those push polls?’

    Oh, it’s much worse. There were no such push polls. It’s a story someone made up.

    And, Karl Rove merely says;

    ‘I enjoyed dipping back into Borges, with his stories about the encyclopedia on a nation that doesn’t exist to a murder mystery to a lottery in Baghdad at the dawn of civilization….’

    And that becomes; ‘(On his website, Rove refers to this story as involving “a lottery in Baghdad,” a Freudian slip of epic proportions.)’

    Speaking of setting yourself up to be judged as lacking in logical skills.

  16. Gravatar of wm tanksley wm tanksley
    24. November 2012 at 08:40

    No true scotsman would be that type of conservative!

  17. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. November 2012 at 08:44

    I judge most liberals to be syllogism impaired. Here’s a good example;

    ‘”The Lottery in Babylon” describes a government so powerful that its actions can no longer be distinguished from the operations of the universe, which seems like a conservative’s nightmare of Obamacare, but which might also appeal to a man who once dreamed of a permanent Republican majority.’

    Wanting a Republican majority that would (presumably in Rove’s mind) permanently limit government = totalitarian government. Worthy of Orwell.

  18. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. November 2012 at 08:48

    ‘I guess you like Twain and Melville, good writers.’

    Et tu, Saturos?

    Mark Twain was a hack who couldn’t even finish his one promising novel, ‘Huck Finn’, the second half of which is deeply embarrassing.

    Though both men did leave a valuable record of the wasteland that Palestine was before the Jewish emigration there.

  19. Gravatar of CJ CJ
    24. November 2012 at 09:15

    No problem. Thank you for that Kundera quote. Great stuff. His thoughts on literature are always spot on. The Art of the Novel is really great (http://www.amazon.com/Art-Novel-Perennial-Classics/dp/0060093749) as is his paris review interview: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2977/the-art-of-fiction-no-81-milan-kundera

  20. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    24. November 2012 at 09:33

    Patrick, ok I probably shouldn’t have implied that Twain was as good as Melville…

  21. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    24. November 2012 at 09:46

    ‘Oh, and Graham Greene, duh.’

    Whew! Greene was a Brit of course, and a curiously anti-American one at times. But, ‘The End of the Affair’ is genius.

  22. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    24. November 2012 at 10:51

    Actually, I’ve only read Our Man in Havana and The Heart of the Matter. I know he’s English, I just always put him together with James. For some reason.

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. November 2012 at 17:03

    Patrick, I doubt many would agree with you on Huck Finn, but I’m certainly no expert.

    I agree the Baghdad thing was silly. It’s simply the modern name of Babylon.

    Saturos, As far as 19th century writers I like Melville, Hawthorne and Poe the best, but Twain is also good. As far as British writers, my favorite is Conrad (technically Polish and 20th century, but lived in Britain and began in the 1800s.) I also love Stevenson, Chesterton and Kipling. Some of the genre writers like Doyle and Wells are also quite good.

    From the 20th century I like Borges and Max Sebald best. Lovecraft is my guilty pleasure. I tried a Stephen King novel (The Stand), but gave up after 100 pages (it was 1000 pages long.) I also love travel writing, but won’t try to list all the names.

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. November 2012 at 17:06

    Saturos, What part of the Krugman post intrigued you?

  25. Gravatar of Al Al
    24. November 2012 at 20:00

    What definition of “liberal” are you using when you say that Obama is liberal?


  26. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    24. November 2012 at 23:08

    Ah, yes, W.G. Sebald is someone I should get around to reading. I don’t understand why so many smart people like Poe that much, I merely think he’s alright. As for Hawthorne, House of the Seven Gables inspired Lovecraft, didn’t it? But there is much more (and better) to speculative fiction than Wells…

    About Stephen King, you should read Man in the Black Suit, which was based on a Hawthorne story and won tons of awards. You would also like On Writing.

    What part of the Krugman post intrigued you?

    All of it, but especially the penultimate two paragraphs, where it turned out he’d been building up to a defense of himself. Does it work, do you think?

  27. Gravatar of Hugh Hugh
    25. November 2012 at 01:59

    Interesting idea. But didn’t Borges say that “all writers create their own precursors.” Perhaps that should include political strategists too…

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. November 2012 at 07:29

    Al, Someone who virtually always puts more weight on distribution than efficiency (unlike Bill Clinton.) I agree he’s not liberal on civil liberties–but he’s still “big government”. He doesn’t have a libertarian bone in his body. Maybe I should have said anti-libertarian, not liberal.

    Saturos, So Krugman doesn’t have a predetermined political or policy position? Hmm, could have fooled me. In any case the 1950 and 60s are one single data point in this sort of analysis.

    Here’s another data point—Europe has a model that Krugman seems to prefer over the US, and much higher natural rate of unemployment and much lower steady state RGDP per person, PPP adjusted.

    Wells is an underrated sci-fi writer. If I want interesting speculative ideas about science, I’d rather read actual science–which is far more mind-boggling than sci-fi. I’ll take your word for it on Stephen King. I’m sure Hawthorne influenced Lovecraft, but don’t know the details. In general, I’m interested in writers who create their own style, not those who are very skilled at existing styles.

    Poe and Lovecraft are perfect examples of talented writers who look bad because their style is so over the top. Think of them as being analogous to powerful painters with styles that seem primitive and childlike. Having said that, I suppose both appeal more to the young than the old.

    Hugh, Good observation.

  29. Gravatar of Saturos Saturos
    25. November 2012 at 08:52

    Wow great comments Scott. But speculative fiction is often more about philosophy than science, as Wells himself illustrates.

    Hugh, yes of course!!!

  30. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    25. November 2012 at 21:35

    “Here’s a test-do they favor legalizing marijuana, more immigration, and gay marriage. If so, then they obviously aren’t conservatives, they are libertarians or classical liberals or neoliberals or some other L-word.”

    Scott, you are engaged in a caricature of conservative thought as being against all change. There are good, conservative arguments for favoring all of those things (and there are aslo conservative arguments against, I must add).

  31. Gravatar of J Govie J Govie
    25. November 2012 at 23:03

    Having lived in D.C. for awhile I can say that anyone there, or anyone living in the Virginia countryside near there, is the last one to know what American voters are really thinking. Rove was destined to lose and will keep losing as long as he’s given credibility. What makes D.C. a different place than the rest of the country is that credibility is nearly impossible to achieve and, once achieved, is nearly impossible to lose (even if well deserved).

    Hollywood is similar of course (having lived there too). A whole generation of boomers changed cinema in the 70’s and 80’s and now they green light remakes of Red Dawn. That same generation is firmly in control in the GOP, well past its prime, and yes, Romney’s campaign was a remake of Red Dawn. A generation is like a bee. It stings once and hard and then just lingers with its guts torn out.

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