Thursday, March 04, 2010

Sentiment And Politics

It is a rare bird who isn’t sentimental about something. From the inside, affected by an emotional appeal, we view those unaffected with suspicion. There is something wrong with them. Something heartless, cold, not-fully human. From the outside, when a particular emotional appeal isn’t of much interest, we view those inside as not very bright, rather shallow and easily manipulated.

Judging from my emails, lots of people find animals sentimental. Puppies in costumes; kitties with captions. I am relatively immune to that, though not entirely with the puppies.

In politics, progressives tend to stand outside sentimental patriotic displays. And as above, with any display one stands outside of, they find those moved by such things shallow and not very bright. Yet progressives have their own areas of sentiment, equally opaque to their political opposites. Lyrics of popular music, especially from the 60’s or other cool categories, figure prominently here. Progressives find these so meaningful at times. I like U2 well enough, for example, but I just don’t see anything profound in what they say. They’re okay, but banal, obvious. Whatever that brand of sentiment is, it’s opaque to me. Thus, I have to fight hard not to regard those so moved as shallow and not very bright. Because generally, they read books (only the right ones), are reasonably intelligent, and educated.

Yes this is related to my soapbox about tribalism, but I’m not going there.

One of neo’s regular commenters, Occam’s Beard, referred to a liberal friend and the emotional appeals which moved him, causing the penny to drop for me. The friend is a Scandinavian from the upper Midwest. I know lots of those. Anyone who followed that great sentimentalist Garrison Keillor knows that type of liberal as well. To that group, flags and most country music are bad sentiment and they mock it; bumper stickers and folk music or light classical are good sentiment. (I don’t know what the music equivalent for later progressives is, other than U2. Anni DiFranco? Green Day? World music?).

In case it wasn’t clear above, I’m not saying that all conservatives are one type of sentimentalist and all liberals another. Many aren’t sentimentalists at all. Plus, there’s some crossover which I’ll touch on at the end. Personal nostalgia, telling little stories about themselves, are a major source of sentiment for this brand of liberal upper Midwest Scandinavians. Check out the nostalgia movies and sitcoms, all with pretty much the same politics.

They tend to gravitate to performance musicians, often marrying them. No surprise there, that sentimentalists would be moved by music. The Germans were known as overly sentimental long before they were stereotyped as coldly efficient. The musicians themselves, as they grow older, are less reliably sentimental, politically or otherwise. I’m thinking of half-a-dozen specific friends who fit that category. No, up to a dozen – and it’s most of the progressives I know.

Crossover: Here’s something interesting. Those who are strongly moved by sentiment can sometimes be moved by other brands of sentiment, so long as it’s not too far out of range. That type of conservative can be moved by some types of emotional appeals to social justice. That type of liberal will respond to some types of patriotic display. Just so long as it isn’t too obviously from “the other camp.” Keillor is an excellent example here.

I’m sounding a bit condescending to both groups, which is unfair. I have little of the sentimentalist in me now, but I have in the past, and it has been formative for me. And even in me, some easy soft spots remain. Eowyn’s speech to the Nazgul, Sam’s farewell to Frodo, Peter’s plaintive response to Jesus – “Lord, to whom shall we go?”, Bigwig’s defiance to Woundwort in the tunnel on Watership Down. I can barely think of these things without tearing up.

Not music so much anymore. Also, I like my sentiments separate, not mixed in a casserole. I like the meaty religious sentiment to be entirely separate from the patriotic potatoes, not even touching. (Gravy confuses that metaphor, but maybe it’s culture, or philosophy or something. And I have no idea what the vegetables are. Have fun with that.) The slideshows and videos people send me have the god-thing, the family-thing, and the country-thing all together. It has kind of put me off all those categories.

That’s worse than kitties, I think. Because that’s not my kind of sentiment.


karrde said...

For what it is worth, country music can be a learned pleasure.

(And Eowyn's speech to the Nazgul is quite is the music composed for the most recent film version of The Last of the Mohicans. Likewise Sam's musing about grand stories, and his and Frodo's own place in the tale of History...)

We should be wary of someone who dismisses sentiment as "just sentiment", as if the emotional connections that are not shared are somehow less important.

We should also be wary of those who replace thinking with sentiment.

Ben Wyman said...

I thought for a long time who would be the next emotive rallying band for progressives, and came to the conclusion that it's still U2. Let me put it this way: if U2 isn't available to commemorate a ceremony, next on the docket is generally Neil Young singing "Long May You Run."

I'll float above emotionalism for brief periods and then find myself impossibly moved by something without warning: Joanna Rochett skating this last week, for example.

Gringo said...

The best reply to "progressives" who put down country music is the story about Charlie Parker glued to a jukebox listening to C&W songs.

Why are you listening to those, asked an acquaintance.
Charlie replied,"The stories, the stories."

That being said, I prefer my C&W jazzed up with swing, be it Bob Wills or what Willie can do.

Donna B. said...

I dislike people who seem compelled to share their sentiments with me... assuming because they feel something, I should feel the same.

And I have little tolerance for the overly emotional... even myself occasionally.

The things that make me cry are split between those that make me angry and those that make me happy.

Most things don't fall into either category... or fall into both.

GraniteDad said...

Eowyn's speech still makes me cry after 26 years.

Anything with a dog dying will make me cry. Except "A Dog Named Kitty."

mr tall said...

Extremely perceptive post; couldn't agree more.

Now try to adding in some cross-cultural elements into that sentiment stew. I live in Hong Kong, and the far Eastern tendency to go gushy over Hello Kitty and other under-formed cartoon characters is a perfect example of a sentimentality that seems unremarkable to people here, but initially bizarre if you're foreign.

mr tall said...

PS: I agree with Jonathan: let's just leave Old Yeller out of this, shall we?