Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mark Helprin: wonderful author, total tool

"Winter's Tale" is my second favorite novel of all time. And Mark Helprin's other novels are wonderful, too. But I hate loving his work when the guy is such a, well... dick.

I've known forever that we held different political views. He was a speechwriter for Bob Dole, among other conservative activities. That's cool. I can put up with disagreement, especially when a dude is so bloody brilliant at fiction.

But since his (in)famous op-ed piece in the NYT, "A great idea lives forever. Shouldn't its copyright?" came out, I've been hard pressed to put aside my dislike of the man. Most recently, what caught my attention (ire) was a story on NPR with a longish snippet from his recent book, "Digital Barbarism," a manifesto against, basically, the vaule of community.

I don't want to get into too much detail here. I need to sleep soon, and I'll just get all worked up.  But Helprin ends with the following, and it just makes me kinda throw up a little in my throat:

The assault on copyright is... based on the infantile presumption that a feeling of justice and indignation gives one a right to the work, property, and time (those are very often significantly equivalent) of others, and that this, whether harbored at the ready or expressed in action, is noble and fair.

It is neither. It is, rather, a cowardly self-indulgence and a depredation of the public interest as much as it is destructive to the interest of the individual, for in truth these are in many respects one and the same: that is, the public interest is served when the rights of the individual come first rather than vice versa. When individual rights are pre-eminent, everyone is served. When they are not, the only thing that is served is an abstraction. Whereas community can be only an idea, concept, construct, or fiction, the individual actually exists in flesh and blood. One can claim to love the collective or the community, but it is the sterile, sick love of one who can love nothing, or, rather, no one. Love that is not echoed in a human heart is apt to petrify into tyranny, and so often in history a devotion to the abstraction of man has been a blind for hideous oppression.

Property is to be defended proudly rather than disavowed with shame. Even if for some it is only a matter of luck or birth, for the vast majority it is the store of sacrifice, time, effort, and even, sometimes, love. It is, despite the privileged inexperience of some who do not understand, an all-too-accurate index of liberty and life. To trifle with it is to trifle with someone's existence, and as anyone who tries will find out, this is not so easy. Nor has it ever been. Nor should it ever be.

Lots to disagree with here, but let's pull one out: " can only be an idea, concept, construct or fiction... the individual actually exists in flesh and blood."

First of all, the idea that ideas, concepts and constructs (and possibly fiction) are worthless (or at least "worth less") because they aren't individual, fleshy people is odd, especially when discussing property. Yes, my rights to my self -- my own body -- are the ultimate expressions of liberty. No other rights can be very important if you lock me up or kill me. But if the flesh-and-blood individual is all important, as Helprin argues, doesn't property only matter when it relates to your own personal, biological survival? And if that's the case, then property that doesn't improve the survival of the body is, I would argue, is as conceptual an idea, construct or fiction as Helprin says community is.

I mean, for example, property above-and-beyond basic necessity. I'll give you this: if I'm starving, and you have just enough food to live, and I steal it... my expropriation of your property is, indeed, infringing on the rights of your flesh. On the other hand... if I'm starving, and you have a big bag of gold coins that are abstract representations of wealth that can be used to, among other things, buy food... well, my taking of your gold (whose value is quite conceptual and constructed) in order to buy myself food would certainly be OK, right? Because your fictional property, as embodied in symbolic wealth, is "trifling" (to use H's word) with my existence.

Of course I'm yanking Helprin's argument way over to the left. But not illogically so. In some societies, the idea of *personal* property is downright offensive. Everything belongs to the group. In which case, the individual is more of a concept, inasmuch as property is concerned. If we share work, housing, food, material rewards, etc., then I am stealing when I try to force my own ownership over that of the group.

It just boggles my mind that somebody as smart as Helprin could say something about property so patently self contradictory as, "Love that is not echoed in a human heart is apt to petrify into tyranny, and so often in history a devotion to the abstraction of man has been a blind for hideous oppression."

Love of "stuff" is echoed in a human heart? I earned my paycheck, yes. I bought my house, my car, my toys, my food... but the only heart that love of those things would echo in is my own. That's a lonely love, I think.

And since when has property been anything but an "abstraction" built upon chains of abstractions. I take abstract value chits (money) to a place where an abstract entity (Wal-Mart) has applied abstract costs to various products. I pay for a thing and, by dint of my debit card working properly, take that thing and move it to my house. The only things about this process that aren't abstract are "me" and "the thing." My ownership of it depends on a collective concept. One that, ironically, is grounded in community.

Abstractions aren't fictions, Mark. We drive on the right hand side of the road in this country. There's no scientific, empirical reason. Cars don't get better mileage on the right. But if you want to drive on the left, despite our collective, social, community construct... you'll end up with a real assault on your person.

Copyright is a tough nut, yes. I very much support the idea that the creator of a work should reap rewards from that effort. But *all* the rewards? Well, only inasmuch as the creation was enabled and affects just the creator. If I cook and eat an egg, I should, yes, get all the calories and protein. If I wear a coat, I get all the protection from the cold. But when the rewards of my efforts are generated further and further from my physical person... well, odds are that they are generated by someone else.

If you live on a farm by yourself on an island of your own... sure. What you sow is what you should reap. But if you live downstream from me, and I piss from my property in your drinking water... well, we'll have to have some conceptual, social, fictional constructs, I suspect.

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