Flicking through my Guardian app on my way to work today, I came across David Mitchell's Sunday column, which opened with the following vignette:
My old flatmate, as I've mentioned here before, was fascinated by the question: "Which would you choose, the washing machine or the vote?"... To clarify, I don't mean a washing machine. It's not just swapping your vote for a free washing machine – not many of us would do that. And neither is it the invention of the washing machine. You're not being asked merely to live washing machineless in a world where such things don't exist so you couldn't miss them. No, you stand to permanently lose access to a labour-saving technology, which you will still observe everywhere, in exchange for a continued ability to minutely influence the democratic process.
Mitchell's old flatmate is clearly a 'clever' man (don't try and tell me that kind of smart-ass clever question didn't come from a bloke). Maybe he met Mitchell at Cambridge. He probably studied a difficult subject, like mathematics, or one of those subjects that requires lots of memorising, like law. Something tells me he didn't study politics though. And reading the opening of Mitchell's article, I immediately wanted to punch Mitchell's old flatmate, mostly in the face.
The main reason why I felt this way was that David Mitchell's old flatmate (DMOF heareafter) had successfully planted this thought in my head, like an irritating sonic logo, from where it then refused to budge. If his task was to pollute perfectly good minds with irritating problems that might have fallen out of MENSA-branded fortune cookies, he had delivered on it with gusto. Faced with DMOF's challenge, my instinctive response was to put my head in my hands and wish it would go away. How can I possibly know which I'd choose, the washing machine or the vote you bastard? But what made it worse was the image of the glee that would come over DMOF's clever face, as he witnessed another victim snared in his clever net. Clever old DMOF.
One of the problems with clever people is that they transport their cleverness around like confetti, to chuck at people whether its wanted or not. They turn up at perfectly pleasant parties and events, with pre-prepared conversational gambits and questions, aimed at unsettling people and putting them to the test. They only start cleverness contests that they suspect they will win. They sit at the interface of computer science and bad political philosophy, offering Nietzschean interpretations of the Starwars trilogy, and then changing the subject once somebody starts actually talking about Nietzsche's writing. I suspect that DMOF has already worked out his answer to his own challenge, and that his answer is 'washing machine', for cleverly nihilistic-mathematical reasons that he will explain to an attentive audience, if only he can get one.
But lets suppose, for DMOF's sake, he actually has a background in political philosophy. Then what is he doing? Presumably he is helping us to interrogate many of our most deeply held beliefs, illuminating what is at stake when we claim to be 'in favour' of something. He is using his clever device to put history and social reality on hold for a moment, and helping us explore our priorities. He is doing so for 'heuristic' purposes, maybe even for our benefit. He means to help us, does that generous DMOF!
Or perhaps DMOF has some neo-conservative or neo-liberal sympathies. His games are less innocent than they appear, seeing as they force us to admit how perillous our 'Western' luxuries are. Only through intense work in securing the pillars of Western civilisation might we have either a vote or a washing machine, and we should be damned happy with either. One can imagine Milton Friedman pointing to a 1960s socialist nation, and arguing that we liberals patronise them with our assumption that it is votes that they most want, and not washing machines. DMOF's little games are a reminder of so much that we 'Westerners' take for granted, the 'killer apps' which keep tyranny and hand-washing at bay. Hang on a minute... did David Mitchell once share a flat with Niall Ferguson??
Yet while DMOF can doubtless give endless ingenious explorations of what his choice means, would he have anything to say about the world he has completely erradicated from his clever little trope? If he is interested in the choice between political and economic values, does he then explore ways in which the two are in fact traded off, the policies which promote one over the other, the intellectual shifts through which one colonises the other? I fear not. And yet through his sheer cleverness, he has made political philosophising his own personal terrain, and struck depression into the heart of all those who once aspired to practice it.
One of the reasons I've ended up doing sociology is because it's a good way to avoid people like DMOF. The fact that they no doubt view the feeling as mutual only strengthens that view.