I have several times observed on this blog that the rise of modern social science can be viewed as a series of brilliant attempts by imaginative thinkers to wrest interesting and important insights from materials considered at the time to be beneath the notice of serious scholars. The first example of this phenomenon is the development of economic theory by Adam Smith and others in the eighteenth century. The “higgling and jiggling of the market place,” as Smith called the bargaining over the price of commodities, was widely thought to be infra dignitate, but Smith and his successors, most notably Ricardo and then Marx, wrested from this unpromising material theories of great power, beauty, and world historical significance. E. B. Tylor transmuted the popular reports of seventeenth and eighteenth century South Sea travelers into the discipline of Anthropology. Freud made dreams, jokes and slips of the tongue a highway to the unconscious. And literary scholars, long restricting themselves to the elevated genres of poetry and tragedy, descended into popular culture to find profundity and beauty in the novels that served as light amusement for the middle classes.
With all of these inspiring exempla, I feel that I ought to be able to find Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the daily reports of the current political campaign, or at least – as Esther Terry, my friend and former Chair of the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, would have put it – to make Chicken Salad out of chicken shit.
But I do not have the greatness of spirit that allowed Smith, Tylor, Durkheim, Freud and so many others to transmute the commonplace into the ennobled. This political cycle, I fear, is making me stupid. Day after day, I listen to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – and Joe Scarborough and Mika Bzrezinski and Chuck Todd and all the other commentators and surrogates and opinion makers – and my mind turns to sludge. Each morning, as I walk, I try out in my head themes for a daily blog post, striving for insight, for depth, or at least for wit, and like as not I come up short. The election is too important to ignore, but too debased to inspire.
This morning, I carried out elaborate mental numerical calculations in aid of a hopeful revision of Sam Wang’s rather discouraging discussion, but by the time I had returned home, my elaborate bandwagon and parade of facts and figures had dwindled to “just a horse and a cart on Mulberry Street.”
This too shall pass, as in fact it does not say in the Good Book.