Sunday, May 03, 2015

Are Leftists neophiliacs?

Neophilia -- love of the new -- has popped up as a concept on a number of occasions but it mostly seems to occur in a marketing context. Buyers of Apple products (iPhones, iPads etc.) are often branded as neophiliacs, for instance.  Apple has made big money out of it, as new Apple products seem to come out all the time and the neophiliac has to have the latest at all times so lines up for every new release.

Since my cellphone is an old push-button one that I bought for $50 some years ago and which has no touch facilities at all, I would appear not to be a neophiliac. I have certainly not contributed to the vast profits of the Apple corporation.

Marketing is, however, only one context in which neophilia has been seen. Wikipedia gives a useful definition based on the "cult" writings of the quite eccentric Robert Anton Wilson, who popularized the term. It is as follows:

"Neophiles/Neophiliacs have the following basic characteristics:

The ability to adapt rapidly to extreme change

A distaste or downright loathing of tradition, repetition, and routine

A tendency to become bored quickly with old things

A desire, bordering on obsession in some cases, to experience novelty

A corresponding and related desire to create novelty by creating or achieving something and/or by stirring social or other forms of unrest.

A neophile is distinct from a revolutionary in that anyone might become a revolutionary if pushed far enough by the reigning authorities or social norms, whereas neophiles are revolutionaries by nature. Their intellectual abhorrence of tradition and repetition usually bemoans a deeper emotional need for constant novelty and change."

Wilson was not however the first to use the term.  Christopher  Booker attempted to summarize the '60s in a 1969 book called "The neophiliacs".  One summary of the book:

"Around the mid-1950s, on a wave of technological advances, Western civilisation moved into a period of prosperity dwarfing anything that had ever gone before. How golden was this age of affluence? How did it come to spawn a legend? The Fifties and Sixties are said to have witnessed sexual, artistic and scientific revolutions, the explosion of youth culture, the creation of a classless society. The New Aristocrats were pop singers, clothes designers, actors and actresses, film-makers, photographers, artists, writers, models and restaurateurs. Christopher Booker disentangles fantasy and reality, the ephemeral from the enduring. He charts the rise and fall of a collective dream."

And concepts related to neophilia have appeared rather a lot in personality psychology: Sensation-seeking, experience-seeking, openness, tolerance of ambiguity etc.

The most explicit focus on the concept in psychology would appear to be in the work of Robert Cloninger.  Of his work we read:

"It's within this context that the personality dimension of novelty-seeking first emerged.  In a recent New York Times interview (link is external), Cloninger argues that the quality of novelty-seeking can be one of the brightest spots on our personality horizon.  A number of years ago, he identified novelty-seeking as one of four basic "temperaments," meaning that it is an automatic emotional response that primes us to seek out new experiences.  The other three temperaments are harm avoidance (aversion to risk), reward dependence (being sensitive to social situations and reinforcement), and persistence (ability to persist in pursuit of a goal).  Cloninger believes that these temperaments are largely inherited, meaning that they are built into our biological makeup.  Some of us are programmed to embrace the new; others to run as far away from it as possible."

And the work of Jerome Kagan deserves a mention.  Of that we read:

"Largely thanks to technological advances, biologically informed research on temperament is providing the best insights into neophilia. In his classic research on boldness and shyness, Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard University, exposed infants and small children to mildly stressful forms of novelty -- noise, sour tastes, unfamiliar objects or people -- while he monitored their behavioral and physiological responses. He found that certain fearless tots, most of them boys, clearly warranted the label of “bold.” Their physiological markers are a very low heart rate and a more active left brain. Their active, spontaneous behavior and zestful, bring-it-on attitude toward new things bespeaks the instinctive energy and drive that Freud called “libido.”"

Amid all that interest in the concept it seems to me quite strange that its political relevance rarely seems to be explored.  Why? Leftists presumably find the concept gets uncomfortably close to the bone and most psychologists are Leftist.  Being an inveterate breaker of Leftist taboos, however, I HAVE researched the subject. And I found that, among the general population, Leftists tend to be both sensation seekers generally and even experience seekers -- i.e. lovers of new consumer products.  If they ever hear of the latter finding (They'll try not to) they will surely be rather embarrassed, given their frequent condemnation of "consumerism" etc.

But I don't think my research was really needed.  Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.  The reason I have put up various excerpts above is to make plain what I think stands out like dog's balls (with apologies for the army expression). Descriptions of neophiliacs could very well be descriptions of Leftists.

So, Yes.  Many Leftists are neophiliacs.  They want change for change's sake.  Mr Obama's 2008 campaign had a very obvious appeal in that regard.  He made "change" his theme and offered the absurd but obviously exciting promises that he would make the oceans recede and the planet "heal"

So while the defining characteristic of a Leftist is great dissatisfaction with the status quo, the reason for the dissatisfaction is not always the same. Most Leftists seem to be angry about some aspect of the status quo but the neophiliac is simply bored by it.  Whatever the motive, however, sweeping change is advocated.  And Obama certainly delivered that, with Obamacare being merely the most obvious example of big and sudden change.

Interestingly, the Italian Fascism of Mussolini was to a considerable degree similarly motivated.  He drew heavily on and largely incorporated the "Futurist" movement of the early 20th century.  Futurists were very clearly neophiliacs. Of the Italian Futurists we read:

'We shall sing the love of danger, energy and boldness!" the Futurist Manifesto shouted from the rooftops in 1909. "We declare that the world's splendour has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. There is no more beauty except in strife, no masterpiece without aggressiveness, a violent onslaught upon the unknown forces, to force them to bow to the will of man ... "We wish to glorify war -- the only hygiene of the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the anarchist, the beautiful ideas that kill!"

Much more at the link.  Clearly, excitement is what the Futurists craved.  Many Leftists of today seem to crave the same.  Since modern-day Leftism is a form of Fascism, that is not exactly surprising.

And for young people at least, Nazism seems to have been largely  motivated by a hunger for change and excitement and consequent hatred of the status quo. This is reinforced by the now famous account of life in Nazi Germany given by a young "Aryan" who lived through it. Originally written before World War II, Haffner's (2002) account of why Hitler rose to power stresses the boring nature of ordinary German life and observes that the appeal of the Nazis lay in their offering of relief from that:

"The great danger of life in Germany has always been emptiness and boredom ... The menace of monotony hangs, as it has always hung, over the great plains of northern and eastern Germany, with their colorless towns and their all too industrious, efficient, and conscientious business and organizations. With it comes a horror vacui and the yearning for 'salvation': through alcohol, through superstition, or, best of all, through a vast, overpowering, cheap mass intoxication."

So he too saw the primary appeal of Nazism as its offering of change, novelty and excitement. Modern day Leftists sure are in good company.

Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

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