The dead want most of all to be forgotten. By those flickers and wisps of their lives that still animate the thoughts of the living, the dead are denied their ultimate peace. Poor old Achilles is exhausted. Every schoolboy with toy sword and the gate of Troy burning before his mind’s eye; every thin-lipped professor of the classics; every casual reader of the Iliad, even the readers of comic books and watchers of DVDs, sends another ghostly pulse through his incorporeal veins. Homer, the sado-masochist beside him in the limbo of imperishable fame, chuckles with a self-satisfied rasp that echoes in the great tombs of the remembered.
In a recent New Yorker article by Nathan Heller on the tech boom’s effect on residents of the Bay Area (do read the whole article, it’s pretty interesting), this section struck me as bizarre:
What’s going on in San Francisco has been called a “culture war,” and yet the values each side espouses can sound strikingly similar. Protesters like those outside Davies Hall have fought for open and eclectic urban life. They want broader social-support systems; they’re angry about the Man’s systemic abuses. These are, at least in theory, values on which tech’s pursuits rest. Techies tend to have strong feelings about immigration barriers (they’re against them), universal health care (for that), and environmentalism (a big deal). In their minds, there’s no industry more closely aligned with the quirky culture of San Francisco—so why now, after decades in the region, are they being attacked as interlopers from the wrong side of the ideological divide? The difference appears to be less one of substance than of style: tech, with its young billionaires and arcane skill sets, does stand apart from the culture of the city.
That highlighted phrase (emphasis mine) seems to get it exactly backwards. The conflict emerges between Silicon Valley interlopers who are using their wealth to buy up houses in San Francisco, from whence they catch the Google bus to commute to work, and longstanding San Francisco residents whose rents are being jacked up, or turfed out in ‘no-fault’ evictions, as a result.
What do these two sides have in common? Heller is correct to point out that their values are aligned in certain ways; and he’s correct to be wary of calling it a ‘culture war’.
But how does he conclude that it’s a question of style over substance, when the material circumstances of the two groups are polar opposite?
It’s a wrong-headedness one encounters too often in American media to be simply a failing of the individual writer (whose article is perceptive and intelligent in many other ways). It’s a remarkable category error: to subsume a political & economic problem into a cultural divide, to confuse a difference of interests with a clash of values or cultural signifiers. Cultural ‘substance’ is values, ideology, lifestyle; so in this framing, it’s puzzling that the techies, with their liberal values, should be in conflict with the longstanding residents, who also have liberal values. Most absurdly, the wealth and specialised skills of the techies - the economic power that is spoiling the lives of San Francisco locals - are then designated a difference of ‘style’.
Of course, there’s nothing puzzling about the conflict at all. Being a billionaire, or a network engineer able to sell one’s labour for a rate of pay vastly higher than the average worker, has nothing to do with ‘style’. It’s the real political substance of class conflict. This, I think, is the blind spot of liberalism.
—My review of Emily Apter’s Against World Literature is up now on the Sydney Review of Books.