Cultural Caviar

Antagonism: The Overlooked Value

April 13, 2018

Multiple Pages
Antagonism: The Overlooked Value

“But I am DeGroot,” I objected with DeGrootesque dignity, “and what is more, I write for Taki’s Magazine!”

Taki’s Magazine!” the burly black bouncers parroted back, and now further enraged, they threw me out of the Harvard Club. I landed square on my buttocks, luckily cushioned by all the weight I had gained over the winter. Some way to treat a journalist and a man who is committed to the most honorable of professions! Nor will Mr. John Derbyshire be happy to learn that “he’s next,” according to those cruel fellows.

Having received a few blows as well, I am a little nicked up, alas, but my loyal female readers, especially you feminists, shall rest assured: I remain handsome and—somehow—single. (Note to some of my unfortunately impolite fans: Please stop writing to ask about the rumors concerning me and Tomi Lahren, and when Tomi’s outta town, the virtual prostitute Claire Lehmann: Some things are private; besides, this is a progressive age.)

There is more good news. Before the abuse occurred, I was able to obtain knowledge of a most important subject, one that certainly justifies my martyrdom. In view of the increasingly antagonist character of our politics, some of our most eminent philosophers, led by Bill Kristol himself, are teaming up with the Ivy League universities to create a PhD degree program for future leading public intellectuals. Having successfully exported democracy throughout the Middle East, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, and David Frum are rightly confident that our beloved neocons, through their incomparable wisdom, can finally end the antagonism that, for example, prompted a left-wing journalist to disgrace the hallowed walls of the Harvard Club by calling Frum a spineless pretender, Podhoretz a conceited hack, and Kristol an oblivious, perpetually smiling, self-satisfied ass.

“Wonderful things derive from strife. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci would insult each other in the streets.”

But ah, the American public is terribly hardheaded. After all, in spite of the dissenting NeverTrumpers, the Deplorables elected that damnable pussy-grabber with the orange hair and orange tan. And so, with my usual goodwill, I will now give my dear readers some words on the value of antagonism, for it is only reasonable to believe that it shall be some time before the splendid neocons can make the rest of us as peaceable, wise, and happy as the three philosophers named above after their five o’clock yoga classes in Manhattan. (Whether we all can ever be as attractive as those fine gentlemen in their skintight leotards is, sad to say, unclear. Indeed, let us, my friends, not get too excited, lest we should become fanatics, like those irksome paleoconservatives who insisted, among other unprogressive things, that democracy is not for towel-heads.)

My best friend and I have long had a productive antagonism. Like me, he is a writer, and competitive, direct, and aggressive. Throughout our discussions, arguments, and the writing of our respective works, we have spurred each other to do better than we would have if we had lacked a worthy adversary. We have pursued the truth more diligently and applied ourselves to our compositions with greater care.

So we have learned the truth of Blake’s maxim that “opposition is true friendship.” Indeed, I am so fond of my best friend that every time I see him I want to punch him in the face. But then I get near him, and my God, his breath… The man is from New Jersey, so he must be pardoned for his inevitable vulgarity.

This story is, of course, nothing new in the world. Wonderful things derive from strife. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci would insult each other in the streets. Such brutal opposition can be far more valuable, in the long run, than many a friendship. For the trouble with friends is that, because it is disagreeable to be told of a weakness or failing, they often serve to reinforce our darkness when we need to see ourselves in cold light. Antagonists, whether friends or no, motivate us in a unique way: It is not just that we want to do a thing well; we want to beat the other person.

Thus scientists frequently strive to publish their research before someone else does. Although they feel obliged to be collegial toward one another, academics are well aware that beneath all the politeness and amiability a current of fierce competition runs.

Magic Johnson said that when he used to feel fatigued while practicing during the off-season, he would imagine the obsessive Larry Bird hard at work in Indiana, and then he would feel inspired to push himself even more. The best point guard of all time, in the 1980s Johnson had his own private Jacuzzi room at the Los Angeles Forum. After games he would be joined in it by a group of stunners—and the man who would contract HIV was not leading a Bible study. When not motivated by the desire to win over women, male achievement has often found attractiveness to women to be a very welcome effect.

It is said that women dress for other women. Many beautiful women, finding that other women can’t stand them, are compelled to have only male “friends” (more hypergamy, at bottom). “Oh, she thinks she’s so cute” is a common thought that occurs to women all over the world, and it is rather amusing to see a kind of politics of beauty at work among women in the workplace, with a particular hostility being felt by older women for younger ones. That women want to play fair is one of the silliest of the many delusions that feminists would have us believe. In fact, what women want from men is power and wealth, confidence and charm—in a word, inequality—and let anybody observe women among themselves to see the lie of the male-oppression narrative, which acts as if life would be so much better if only men would stop being so very unjust.

“Great fighters are supposed to have something called ‘heart,’” writes Paul Beston,

but it’s not easy to understand where it comes from or what its limits are. In Joe Frazier’s case, it came from a rural upbringing replete with bootleg whiskey, one-armed fathers, and enough poverty and mysticism to keep a stable of Delta bluesmen busy. As for limits, no man found his inside a boxing ring….

....Frazier went into those fights with Ali, his old friend and confidant Dave Wolf said, prepared to put his life on the line—and he did. He nearly died after the first one. He saw his blood pressure spike to terrifying levels not long after his victory. Doctors kept him on a sheet of ice for 24 hours as they tried to stabilize him. He spent weeks in the hospital, a fact Ali wouldn’t let him forget.

Although few people have had “heart” like Frazier’s, anyone who has spent much time playing sports will understand that excellence in them depends on an antagonist spirit. This is true even of an unmanly sport like golf, wherein Tiger Woods demonstrates a ferocity of which one would not have thought him capable. Nor is it surprising that so many of the greatest athletes have been difficult, combative personalities.

About earlier epic poets and their shared theme of war, John Milton the poet-theologian wrote: “Me, of these/Nor skilled nor studious, higher argument/Remains….” Of course, Milton was a devoted student of those poets, to whom his skills certainly owed a good deal. Still, the point remains: In his pride Milton was driven to try to outdo his predecessors. Now this sort of inner virtue is not to be obtained from an MFA program, which is little more than a networking affair for committee people and literary mediocrities.

There is not a writer alive who approaches the inventiveness of Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift. Tellingly, those men were savage, and that made for extremely inventive work. Like athletes, the greatest writers are by nature somewhat monstrous; and Christianity does not necessarily change this, as we see from Dante and Milton, both poets whose primary characteristic is pride. The highest satire derives from a spirit of antagonism, and—as the moralist Dr. Johnson, who was wary of the genre, understood—in some cases, from sheer wickedness. There are now few editors who will publish strong satire, and almost nobody can write it. That is a reflection of our feeling-centric therapy culture, and of the fact that more and more, “literary standards” are determined by the petty prejudices of bluestockings who, on account of the maternal instinct that they are probably too anxious about status to recognize, would rather have literature represent “the marginalized” than be superbly wrought.

In our time, God knows, people are endlessly touchy. So it happened that Kevin Williamson, of whom I am quite fond, was able to write just one article for The Atlantic before Jeffrey Goldberg, typical weak American man that he is, chose to fire the writer who believes that abortion merits the death penalty in the form of hanging. In an earlier time, Goldberg would have been a yes-man. Under the Matriarchy, he is a yes-dear-man. Moral smugness and indignant cowardice, these common bedfellows, are of indispensable value for many, because they afford relief from the unspeakable dullness in which many people pass their genteel days. If, though, you want to live a higher sort of life, and to accomplish something exceptional, even, then you would do well to recognize the value of antagonism.

Besides, there is now a tragic obstruction on our neoconservative progressive path; for while I was finishing this column, sources informed me that infighting has broken out among our noble leaders. Certainly, one would not have thought that men as gentle and refined as Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz would have gotten into a tiff over the last marigold-colored bow tie at Saks Fifth Avenue, but that is just what happened. And though they followed David Frum’s terrific advice, taking their wives away with them for a weekend retreat of couples therapy, it turned out that as they endeavored to settle the dispute, the two gentlemen were diverted by their evident need to vent their “repressed Oedipal anxieties.” As I write, they remain deep in the woods of Maine, even as the caring David Frum fruitlessly calls and emails and texts them nonstop: “Please don’t hold this against me. I only meant well, you know. Come back ASAP—the movement needs you!”


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