This is what happened: I am working on fiction, at the moment, and because of that I am trying to read only fiction, because that sometimes helps. Other times, not so much. But you see what I mean.
What got me started thinking about rereading The Fountainhead was something unrelated to either Rand or the fiction I’m working on that reminded me of a Rand character named Ellsworth Toohey.
This particular Rand character is a villain, which you can sort of tell by the name. And I’ve always thought that no matter what else Rand did right or wrong, she was pitch-perfect in her villains, and Toohey is a type almost everybody has met somewhere along the line. In The Fountainhead he is a newspaper journalist. These days he would almost certainly be an academic. He’s vile virtually everywhere he’s found, and if you’ve ever met one, you’ll remember.
But the truth is that even though The Fountainhead is a novel, I almost never think of Rand as a writer of fiction. I got through the novels and on to the nonfiction early enough, and from then on I tended to think of Rand as a writer on ideas. By the end of her life, she thought of herself as a philosopher. Her critics didn’t like to accord her the title, but I think she had a point. I don’t see what else you would call what she did.
I was thinking of Rand at all because there are dozens of people on my FB friends list who post the most ridiculous, cartoony nonsense about “Randism,” which I sometimes try to counter, and which I mostly just ignore. It’s obvious that most of these people have never read Rand, and not only because they’d know better if they had. You’d be amazed how many of them post absolutely spot on Rand sentiments (stand by your own values and beliefs and don’t be influenced by the crowd!) that they just don’t know are core Rand ideas.
But whatever got me started thinking about this, what I want to take about here are not Rand’s ideas, but her practice as a writer of fiction. She did, after all, write two of the best selling novels in the history of US publishing, and those novels are still selling in six figures today. I don’t think there are that many people out there who would be willing to buy novels that don’t work as novels just to get at the ideas.
And, I have to admit up front, on some levels Rand’s novels work very well as novels. Her plots are intricate, innovative and coherent. And, as I said once before on this blog, the woman is to narrative drive what Sherman was to marching through Georgia.
But although the plots are outstanding and the portraits of the villains are nearly perfect, I never liked Rand as a writer of fiction because I never liked her heroes and heroines.
Like John Milton, whose only compelling character in Paradise Lost is Satan, all the talent Rand had seemed to desert her when it came to writing good guys. I was interested in what happened to Howard Roark and Hank Reardon because I was conceptually interested in the positions Rand put them in. Otherwise, I found them all a little tiresome and annoying.
The copy of The Fountainhead I had at home to read was the 25th anniversary edition, and that one started with a special forward by the author, explaining what she had been tying to do with the novel.
That was a help, because it gave me information I hadn’t had before. First and foremost, it told me that Rand’s purpose in writing fiction was to portray the idea kind of human being, and that she was (deliberately) working in the tradition of Romanticism, and not of naturalism.
If those words make no sense to you, my best guess is that you’ve probably read naturalism most of your fiction-reading life, since naturalism has been the primary mode for fiction for over a hundred years. Every mystery novel I can think of is an example of naturalism. So is most science fiction. So are Dickens, Shaw and Heminway.
There’s a fair amount of fantasy that could be called Romantic in the literary sense–Lord of the Rings is in many aspects. Interestingly, most Romance novels are not examples of Romanticism in the literary sense, especially not the ones set present day.
If you read a Romantic novel in school, it was probably Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.
And no, Romantic in the literary sense has nothing to do with love stories.
I tend to find Romantic (in the literary sense) novels less congenial than I do naturalistic novels. That’s not a value judgment but a statement of taste. I find them less congenial in the same sense I find pork chops less congenial than turkey breasts.
But reading through Rand’s introduction made it possible for me to hone in on some particulars, and here they are.
1) I have nothing against works of fiction (or nonfiction) that try to portray ideal human beings, I just tend to define “ideal” differently than Rand does. Both Apollo 13 and Band of Brothers each portray at least one ideal human being and I find both of those not only more believable than Rand’s heroes, but more ideal.
I am not talking, here, about the silly notions of what Rand stood for (she wants people to be selfish! she hates the poor!) that some people substitute for what she actually said. Both Dick Winters and Jim Lovell could easily be Rand heroes on all the points that mattered to her: having the courage of their convictions; taking responsibility for themselves and their circumstances; having work ethics out the wazoo; basing their decisions on their own ideas, desires, and beliefs and not on whether or not other people will like them.
There’s a difference in tone, though, and the tone really matters to me.
And part of that is due to the fact that I’m an American.
And part of my problem with Rand as a novelist is that Rand was not.
2) Since all of Rand’s writing is in English and all of it was written here, she’s an “American writer.”
But she isn’t, really.
In tone, style, intellectual orientation and a whole lot of other ways, Rand was and is a Russian writer.
This comes out in two ways in particular.
First, all that talking about ideas in the middle of the novel. Tolstoy did it. Dostoyevski did it. Gorki did it. Turgenev did it. Russian novels are novels of ideas.
And if you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend a Woody Allen movie called Love and Death, in which he sends up the form hilariously.
All writers are strongly affected by the things they read as children and adolescents, and I think that what we have in Rand’s novels is Rand trying to replicate what she admired in the first novels she did admire. In a similar way, hardboiled detective writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Chandler and fantasy writers sometimes seem to be trying to channel Tolkein. I keep trying to channel Hemingway, but I’m not very good at it.
But there is a second way in which Rand is more like a Russian novelist than an American one, and that is in her approach to humor.
It is not only that she has no sense of humor (which she doesn’t), but that she is inherently suspicious of humor. Like Dostoyevski and Tolstoy before her, she seems incapable of imaging that humor could ever be anything but belittling and antagonistic. Like all the classic Russian writers, and like Solzhenitsyn as well, humor is never anything but a weapon.
I think this is why I’ve always found Rand’s nonfiction more easy to read than her fiction. I don’t need funny in an essay about aesthetics or the foundational principles of moral behavior.
But I do prefer funny in books, even in very dark books. And fiction without it feels cramped and rigid to me.
This is, I suppose, pretty much the way I feel about life. A day without something to laugh at is not a pleasant day. A day when I am too pressed down by things to worry about to be able to laugh when I’m given the chance is worse.
In the end, I think Rand’s focus was much more on her ideas than on fiction as a form. And if somebody asks me what they should read of Rand’s, I always recommend either the strictly nonfictional, or the excerpts of those long philosophical tracts from the novels that might as well have been nonfiction.
Even so–the villains are perfect. And everybody should know them, because they help to recognize the real thing in real life.
And I have finished the reread and gone back to detective novels.
It’s been so long since I logged on to this blog, I thought I’d forgotten the password. But I hadn’t, which is interesting, since I’m constantly losing the ones for my bank account and that kind of thing, and especially for school. On the other hand, the blog doesn’t make me change the password every 48 days, so there’s that.
I have been called in the pick up the second half of one of the courses that were being taught by a fellow faculty member who has now gone on medical leave for the rest of the semester. It’s the same course I taught last term, but with a different book (don’t mind) and a LOT more students. The faculty member is someone I’ve known for a long time and always liked very much, and also one of the very few people I see around when I’m not in school. That’s not because we do things together, but because we do the same things and run into each other.
She’s in very bad shape medically, and around my age (more or less), which makes her the third person in the same category I’ve had bad news from or about in the last week and a half. Ellen Conford, a long time author of children’s books and a long time participant on RAM, died a couple of days ago, after a heart attack. I heard for the first time that a woman I went to high school with died of breast cancer a couple of months ago.
This business of people I know dying is becoming a little edgy, I think. I suppose the first time I got the news that somebody had died that I’d known “my whole life,” it was my brother, who was three years younger than I am, which meant I had known him his whole life. Literally. I can still remember him coming home from the hospital.
For some reason, that didn’t hit me in the same way the death of the first of my kindergarten class did. My reaction was made stronger by the fact that this woman was one of the people I was very much aware of when we were in class together. I didn’t know her well, but I knew of her. She wasn’t one of the local “popular crowd,” but she was distinctive, and we road the same school bus where she got off a few stops ahead of me.
I don’t think of myself as old, although I probably look it, but there are more and more of these cases these days. This is especially true of catastrophic illnesses, something I got familiar with early. Bill was only 46 when he died. His sister JoAnn was only in her early 50s when she died a few years later, and of the same thing, a type of cancer so rare, there are no known risk factors for it.
But there have been other people, more and more of them, and most of them would not fit into the category of “really old now and what can you expect?”
There seems to have been a kind of staircase effect, staring when all these people were in their mid Forties.
Most of us these days can expect to live at least until we’re 80. In my family, we’ve done a fair bit of living into our 90s.
But starting around the time the people I knew were 45, there seems to have been a small but steady drumbeat of people dying–and not in accidents, either. The most common cause has been one or another kind of cancer. But there have been other things, including early heart attacks, which is what got my brother.
And there isn’t much of the lives of any of these people that would necessarily have predicted what happened. My brother was notoriously cavalier about not taking care of himself, but Bill and my sister in law did nothing anybody could have used to predict what happened to them. The women I know who have fallen to breast cancer didn’t have much in the way of risk factors, either. As to the early heart attacks–in at least two cases, they hit the people you would least expect, the ones who ate right and got a lot of exercise and never smoked anything.
The whole thing seems so completely random, at the moment, that I’m wondering if the precautions we all take do any good at all. Maybe they’re like the prayers of atheists who send up pleas for help to something they believe isn’t there.
It’s a thought that runs afoul of “risk factors,” which are instances of correlation we all agree to accept as causation. It probably feels better than to accept that we’re all at the mercy of chance.
I think, though, that it is getting harder and harder for most of us to believe it–and that’s why we’re all becoming more and more strident at imposing rules.
It’s like a lot of other faith-based initiatives, the ones that real life disproves no matter how much we try to ignore the disproof. When the first level of control doesn’t change human nature, we pile on another and then another and then another.
First smoking was going to kill us all, and knowing that would make people quit. When lots of people refused to quit, we raised prices and banned the practice in public and then declared (against all the evidence) that “secondhand” smoke would do as much damage. When that didn’t stop everybody, we started talking about “thirdhand” smoke.
Under Stalin, the attempts to build the “New Soviet Man” first required “better” education, then “oversight” of the family, then… But you know how that one ends. These days we have schools where whole swaths of ideas have been declared unthinkable, and it doesn’t occur to anybody that the reason people aren’t turning out the way we want them to is that–they can’t.
Human nature is inborn. There are some things we cannot make human beings be, or stop them from being.
Apparently, one of those things is being free from early death.
So, it’s Sunday, and because it’s Sunday, I’m spending my morning trying very hard not to think of anything serious, and failing.
I’ve got The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Gustav Leonhardt, playing in the background, and Thomas Aquinas talking about Aristotle waiting on the loveseat, and I just–I don’t know.
Let me start by saying that this is going to get back to something contemporary, but first I want to highlight something I noticed in the Aquinas a couple of days ago.
If you go off today and buy a few modern books by modern philosophers talking about ethics and morality, you’ll find volume after volume that concerns itself with WHAT we should consider moral.
If by killing one person we can save five, what is the moral thing to do? If we know that a child we are about to give birth to will be born with severe illness or disability, are we morally obliged to give birth to him and care for him, or to abort him and save him a short life of pain?
These are the kinds of things modern moral philosophers spend their time thinking and writing and teaching about, and this is the kind of thing we think of moral philosophy being about.
This is not, however, what either Aristotle or Aquinas thought moral philosophy was about.
It would not be entirely true to say that Aquinas and Aristotle agreed on all the particulars of what a moral action was. There are a couple of places in Aquinas’s commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics that are almost funny. For instance–Aquinas’s attempt to prove that virginity and celibacy are a mean between two vice and not vices in themselves by being an extreme, the “too little” sex as opposed to the “too much,” each less worthy than “the right amount.”
In spite of that, however, neither Aquinas nor Aristotle feels any need to discuss IF some actions are moral and under what circumstances.
The general moral landscape is simply assumed to be everywhere evident to everybody. One of the reasons it was possible for Aquinas to “baptize” Aristotle is that, with the exception of a few squiffy places on the edges, everybody pretty much “knew” the difference between right and wrong.
And even the squiffy areas around the edges were fairly easily taken care of–if Aristotle and the agents didn’t realize that when they sacrificed to “secondary divine” powers they were worshipping demons, that was because the demonic nature of those entities was one of those things that could not be discovered by reason alone and needed revelation to point out.
Therefore, the ancients, not having access to a revelation that hadn’t yet occurred, could not be faulted for their worship, because they didn’t intend to worship evil but to give glory to God, and acted as best they were able to know.
Yes, I know. We don’t worry much about this stuff anymore.
My point here, though, is that there is a continuity in Western moral thought, one that lasted certainly well into the 20th century, at least among the vast majority of the people living in every Western culture.
I’m not talking here about specifics like, say, whether we should consider homsexual sex to be morally right or wrong, but about big ticket items like justice and truth, guilt and innocence.
Not only are there virtually no points of contention between Aquinas and Aristotle about these things, there are virtually no points of contention between anybody about these things. The same standards of justice and truth, guilt and innocence were used to excoriate Nazi behavior as had been used by Aristotle to excoriate the tyrants of his own time.
And even the people who wanted to be allowed to cheat–say, the fellow travelers and other Communists sympathizers of the years after 1917–assumed that the first necessity in their cheating was to hide what the Bolsheviks were actually doing, because everybody (including themselves) knew it was morally wrong. The fellow travelers had just decided that they needed to do wrong to get what they thought was a greater good.
At the same time, they experienced that cheat as shameful, and did their best to hide the reality of it from the rest of the world.
What is going on now, though, is something very different, and I find it difficult to figure out either how we got here or how anybody can think this way without having their head explode.
In one of the articles I’ve posted over the last few days on the Rolling Stone rape story and the Lena Dunham mess, a student at Oberlin College refused to allow a Breitbart reporter access to the files he needed to corroborate a portion of Dunham’s story by saying that at Oberlin they weren’t “so much into justice” as “supporting the victim.”
I mean, look at that for a minute, and tell me if it even qualifies as linear thought.
If the allegations are not true, there is no victim to support.
How do you “support the victim” unless you know who the victim is, or if there even is one?
This goes well beyond the common modern abomination of simply insisting on believing that all allegations must be true unless they are somehow proved not to be.
This is a declaration that the speaker inhabits an alternative universe where the real has become irrelevant.
I am fairly sure that the young woman who said these things does not actually believe what she seems to be saying she believes.
My guess is that she’s latched on to the less esoteric doctrine–the idea that all rape allegations must be true.
That is hardly something to celebrate, but at least its in the realm of the sane.
To declare that somebody is a victim even though they have not in fact been victimized is the sort of thing that makes doctors prescribe heavy duty meds.
Granted that bad thinking drives out good, and that this young woman had not only not be taught “critical thinking” or any other kind–how, exactly, did we get here?
The train of thought is almost instinctually wrongheaded.
It is not only wrong in a way that I don’t think any other culture has ever been wrong, it’s practically gibberish.
The problem is not that not enough people take rape seriously and so people who do have to insist on ideas and procedures that make it more possible for victims to prevail when they make accusations.
That’s a debatable issue, although the standards these people want are not the ones that anybody with half a brain could support.
The issue is a “moral” construct in which the most virtuous thing to do is to punish people who not only haven’t done anything wrong, but who haven’t done anything.
It’s like a morality made from quantum mechanics–things appear and disappear at random, without rhyme or reason.
It’s obvious from the text that this young woman thinks she is behaving morally.
In truth, she isn’t even behaving immorally.
It’s like you asked her how far it is to her house and she said,
At the moment, I’m sitting in this office desperately attempting to put the finishing touches on this final exam, so the students can read it beforehand, which they won’t do, even though they all say they want an A.
In the meantime, though, I’ve been watching the whole rape allegations mess, and it has been getting messier by the second.
In case you haven’t been paying as obsessively close attention to this thing as I have, there are actually three centers to this particular storm: the UVA thing, the Cosby thing, and this:
If I haven’t said anything about this so far, it’s because Lena Dunham, as a person, leaves me completely befuddled.
She apparently has a successful cable TV show about–well, about “girls.” I haven’t seen it, and the descriptions of it I’ve read don’t make me want to see it.
She’s also written a memoir for which she received a seven-figure advance. I have read some excerpts of that, and all I can say is that the damned thing seems bizarre to the point of…I don’t know what.
In one place, she seems to describe a set of incidences that happened when she was a small child and her sister was even smaller, where she performs a set of sexual acts on that sister that, these days, would be unambiguously labeled criminal rape.
It’s possible that I’ve gotten that all out of context, so we’ll leave it be for the moment. The l ink above concerns another possible incidence of rape, this time the rape of Lena Dunham herself by a college Republican named Barry while they were both at Oberlin College.
And, like the story of “Jackie” at UVA, the story is coming apart at the seams.
By now most of you must know that Rolling Stone has at least partially retracted its story about UVA, hemming and hawing a lot about how it turned out that “Jackie” wasn’t credible.
A number of commentators have pointed out that the fault in the story is not what “Jackie” said, but RS’s handling of it–that the blame falls not on “Jackie” but on the fact that RS’s editorial staff can’t tell the difference between journalism and pumpkin pie.
And that’s true enough–but I think it’s secondary to what is probably going on here.
I think RS is “throwing ‘Jackie’ under the bus’ (as one article put it), but to divert attention from something that is potentially much more series–not that “Jackie” fabricated a rape story, but that the RS reporter fabricated “Jackie.”
Before you start jumping up and down yelling “but people have talked to Jackie! People have talked to Jackie!”–one of the more egregious incidents of the Stephen Glass mess at The New Republic concerned its editor talking to the head of a firm called Jukt Micronics, thereby “corroborating” the story (“Hack Heaven”) that finally brought Glass and his fabrications down.
The problem was that there was no such firm as Jukt Micronics, and the man TNR’s editor was talking to was Stephen Glass’s brother, who had agreed to play pretend to try to save Stephen’s ass.
I think we’re about to see both these stories explode in a very spectacular way.
The Cosby thing I don’t think will work out as well, for Cosby or for us–not because I think the women accusing him are telling the truth, but because that whole thing is about money. The lawsuits have already started being filed, and that won’t end until they’ve bled the man dry.
Although want to note one thing–am I REALLY the only person who finds something creepy about a black man whose life is being destroyed by a bunch of white women claiming rape?
And given that that trope has history, shouldn’t we be even more diligent in demanding substantive evidence than we would be otherwise?
But what I always come back to is this–
You could say that people like administrators at colleges and universities or prosecutors or people at the DOE take up these claims because they’re looking for power.
You can’t say that about the people who MAKE the false claims–that is the people who claim to be victims.
And there are a lot of false claims out there, by no means mostly about rape.
In the last five years or so, there have been a slew of claims of racial hate crimes on college campuses that turned out to have been committed by the complaining “victim” his or herself.
And then there was the professor in Wisconsin who claimed to have been run off the road and threatened after he’d had a letter published in the local paper about the evils of religion.
By and large, the people who make these false complaints have no chance in hell of attaining power of any sort, and no chance in hell of getting Lena Dunham’s seven figure advance.
And that’s part of the reason why such people are usually taken seriously at the beginning–why would anybody do that if they weren’t going to get money and power from it?
One reason, of course, is that although these people do not get power or money, they do get lots and lots of attention, and it’s wrong to underestimate the need some people have to get other people to notice them.
But I think there are a couple of other things going on here that would make sense to pay attention to.
1) This is a perversion of Christianity, or possibly Christianity and Judaism.
Most societies do not valorize victims. Almost everywhere in the world but in the West, to be a victim is to be dishonored and contemptible.
Even when victims are pitied there’s no relief from the general opprobrium–pity is not a good thing to evoke from other people in societies where it is the stamp of your own failure and worthlessness.
For complicated reasons, we have taught a generation of people–and maybe more than one–that “victim” is a status to be aspired to, especially if you haven’t got much of anything else to offer.
2) Faith based system that rely heavily for their legitimacy on their ability to explain the world engender a lot of panic in their believers when reality refuses to get in line.
One of the reasons why these false accusations fail so often is that one of their underlying assumptions–not the one that says rape and racism exist (they do), but the one that says that the rest of the world is so misogynist and racist it just doesn’t care–is false.
The first thing that happened after the RS article came out was NOT that people started questioning “Jackie”‘s allegations, but that both UVA and the local police launched serious investigations.
It was only AFTER those serious investigations began to turn up not just discrepancies but outright impossibilities that anyone started questioning “Jackie”‘s story.
And once people start questioning the faux victim’s story, it’s all over but the shouting.
3) And that brings up a somewhat depressing point.
More than somewhat, really.
Indoctrination trumps experience.
These things have played out often enough by now that the faux victims OUGHT to have noticed–getting all the attention you want means getting a lot more attention than you want.
And the play isn’t going to work.
4) But even more depressing than that is the inevitable reactions of so many of the people who were taken in by the hoax.
Instead of realizing that such hoaxes actually CREATE the very indifference that doesn’t now exist, they decide that the truth doesn’t matter at all.
We’ve just got to keep on believing and supporting the victims.
Even if they aren’t actually victims of anything.
It’s Sunday, and I’m still reading Thomas Aquinas and getting agitated over on FB, which seems to me to be what FB is doing to me at the moment.
But right now, I want to go back to a different FB conversation, one I started on the day before Thanksgiving, and that sort of dropped off the radar.
Except that I’ve been thinking about it.
While I’m doing it, I have Anonymous 4 doing medieval Christmas music behind me (The Holly and the Ivy at the moment) and snow in the back yard.
My impossible world seems operational, at least for the moment.
In the possible world, this started when somebody posted one of those FB image cards with a quote from Ayn Rand on it, saying that the settlers in North America had been entirely right to move in and take the Native Americans’ land because the settlers had art and science and philosophy and whatever while the Native Americans “didn’t even have property rights.”
What ensued was a small hail of comments of the kind that make me hold my head and wonder how we’re ever going to survive into the 22nd Century. Or even to next week.
These started with declarations of what an evil woman Rand must have been to think these things, followed by derisive comments of the “and she must be stupid too” variety–mostly chortling over the idea that “they didn’t even have property rights!” was a significant point in the argument.
It amazes me, really, that so many people these days seem to have NO idea what things were like in even the very recent past.
The idea that there was something wrong–never mind “evil”–in what Rand said in that quote dates back less than a century, and as a commonly accepted idea it dates back to less than half that.
What’s more, even today, when we in Western Europe and the United States think that such an attitude to indigenous peoples is completely unacceptable, most of the rest of the world simply and emphatically disagrees with us.
As far as China, Russia, the Islamists and most other societies are concerned, there are superior societies (their own) and inferior societies, and the superior societies have the right to conquer, occupy and control the inferior ones.
How we got to a place where we in the West think it’s wrong to conquer and control other societies is a long story, and not the point for the moment.
What got to me was this–it’s not as easy as people think to look at the history of this and say it shouldn’t have happened, that in every case the unambiguously right thing to do would be to leave the people as they were and not “interfere” in their cultures.
To begin with, cultures and societies are not only not alike, they are not even close to being equally capable of providing the people living in them with advantages, comforts, and the opportunity to live even a minimally decent life.
Contrary to the romanticization of all things indigenous and primitive, life in preliterate or nonliterate societies is not a romp of wonderfulness feeling one with nature.
Hobbes called it solitary, nasty, brutish and short, but even he underestimated the sheer awfulness of living through the daily grind in such societies–the nearly endless warfare, the deaths in childbirth that take almost half of all women, the epidemics, the famines.
And that’s just the problems brought on by impersonal nature. Any unbiased investigation of such societies uncover evidence of practices that should make any modern Westerner cringe.
For instance, analysis of the skeletons of Native Americans (yes, even the Iroquois) shows the stereotypical brittleness found in the bones of people who do not get enough protein–but it shows that only in the women, who were considered to be inferior to the men.
The arrival of literate invaders bringing not just agriculture but rationalized methods of farming, reading and writing and figuring that meant that knowledge learned could be stored, and the protection of persons and property in codes of conduct and law almost always resulted in a rise in the safety, security and standard of living of those of the conquered that managed to survive.
Of course, not all the conquered managed to survive, and sometimes none of them did–but genocides and near genocides were not invented by literate peoples. They have existed throughout history. Before the people we call Native Americans arrived here, there was an indigenous people already in place in North America. They were wiped out–completely. No trace of their DNA has ever been found in any living person.
When civilizations spread, they open up possibilities that we don’t even notice any more, but that are crucial if we want people to lead materially decent lives, or spiritually decent ones, for that matter.
A society at peace and protected by law is one in which individuals with ideas can try out those ideas and disseminated what they learn from the tryouts–better, more reliable, more efficient ways to grow crops; the way the human body works and what that means for treating disease; strategies for defending borders against raiders looking for loot; strategies for conquest that, if successful, meant that your society could grow and prosper even more.
It’s to the conquest and the growing and prospering that we owe things like the germ theory of disease, the principles of crop rotation; the understanding of such public health innovations as the scientific management of human waste; and a whole lot more.
To say that it was always and unambiguously evil when a more developed society conquered and controlled a less developed one is to say that such societies were always and ambiguously better off when their people starved half the time, were exposed to the elements and helpless in the face of natural disasters, and died in childbirth at rates that defy understanding.
To do this at least as much to deny the humanity of the people of the less developed society as conquering and controlling them is.
It is to say that these people–unlike you and me, unlike everybody else on the planet–do not value comfort and security, good health and healthy children.
There is no indication, even now, that indigenous peoples, given the choice, would choose their traditional societies over material progress.
In fact, when they ARE given the choice, they ditch their traditional folkways with a haste that would make the Road Runner look slow.
We aren’t losing the Amazonian rainforest because big, evil corporations are ravaging Mother Earth. We’re losing them because the local indigenous tribes have figured out that clearcutting means money which means a better and more reliable supply of food, and education so that that modern medicine stuff can move in and stay and…
Indigenous peoples are not pets. They want the same things we do.
And they’re not going to thank us for forcing them to be “authentic” in misery.
None of that, unfortunately, answers the question of whether or not it should be considered wrong for more developed societies to conquer and control less developed ones.
“It’s for your own good” is not a rationale I usually accept for initiating the use of force.
Among other things developed and developing societies bring with them is religion, and one of the things this developed society brought with it was philosophy.
Religion and philosophy brought with them chances in the way we define the human and the understanding of the obligations we owe to our fellow human beings.
I think I’ve come to this conclusion:
In antiquity–really until relatively recently–conquest was the only way civilization COULD spread.
Capitalism didn’t invent the creation of wealth–successful agriculture is a way to create wealth–but it came damned close, and it is only after the rise of capitalism that any societies create enough wealth to lift the vast majority of their peoples out of destitution.
If what you need to do to advance is marshall enough resources to allow a solid little segment of your population the leisure to think and invent and take risks, to acquire knowledge both practical and theoretical–if that’s what you need, and no wealth creating machinery exists to provide it, what you have to do is go out and conquer it.
I can’t say I’m sorry they went out and conquered it. I am benefited by too much of what they produced as a result of their conquests–books, medicine, food all year round without ever having to worry about it, a rate of death in childbirth so low that nobody even thinks about it any more…
At the same time, we’ve gotten to the point where we can afford to worry about the ethics of the thing, and I think we should.
We don’t need to go out and conquer somebody to acquire the resources we need to find the cure for cancer or send a manned mission to Mars.
We also understand, in ways in which we didn’t before (and which societies like China and groups like the Islamacists don’t even now) the sense in which we are, as Mr. Jefferson put it, created equal.
So I think I would say, right now, that we should not be in the business of conquer and control, that we should leave other people to make their own decisions about how they want their own societies to develop.
But we should do that in full knowledge of the consequences of what we are advocating.
Decisions like this are not neutral. They have immediate effects, and some of them are really, really bad.
There are, as we speak, societies in Africa whose governments deny their citizens polio vaccine and AIDS drugs–both considered plots by Western nations to render their men sterile.
There are societies in Latin America that are truly “rape cultures”–the Yanamamo, for instance, treat gang rape as a sport for young men.
There are all those African Muslim countries where female genital mutilation is passed off as female “circumcision.”
Never mind the ones that execute people for being homosexual.
I have absolutely no compunction in saying that my society is not just different from these, but objectively and demonstrably superior.
To say that, though, is not to say that I have the right to go in and fix what’s wrong.
I admit that I think that, in the long run, if we can keep from committing cultural suicide, most of the people of the world will vote with us, one way or the other.
Many of them already are. That’s why we have an illegal immigration problem. I spent half an hour the other day watching video of mothers and children marching steadily over bare ground to get to the Texas border, just walking, wearing backpacks, not knowing if it would work, not really knowing where they were going, only absolutely sure that they wanted something better and they wanted something else.
But while I’m waiting for people to choose voluntarily, there are people in the world today–right now today, right this minute–who will suffer at least in part for my fastidiousness.
There are girls in Africa who will have their clitorises sliced away by rusty knives, children in Southern India who will go blind for lack of beta carotene, women who will be stoned to death on mere accusations of adultery and gay men who will be beheaded for simply being themselves.
I think far too many of us get our kicks feeling morally superior to people whose politics we don’t understand and whose commitments we declare “obviously” wrong without ever having thought about it, or even tried.
But I’d like every one who wants to play that game–all cultures are equally valid! anybody who says one society is superior to another is an idiot! anybody who says superior societies have the right to conquer and control inferior ones is evil!–that the people they’re sneering at may have looked at the reality o n the ground and decided it might be even less moral to let all of that go on.
So, it’s Black Friday, so named in honor of the mood you’ll be in if you try to go out and shop today.
I did it once years ago, by accident, and it’s beyond my comprehension why anybody would want to do that, ever.
A bargain good enough to get me out into that mess again would have to be on the last few doses of a miracle cancer drug.
And I won’t bother to go into the stuff about people trampling each other nearly to death in order to be the first ones at the Barbie doll display.
And yes, of course, there are people who need to save money if they are to have any Christmas presents at all, but–sheesh.
So let’s just say I’m not going out anywhere today, and instead I’ve got Anonymous 4 in the background, because I’m reading Thomas Aquinas.
The book I’m reading is a translation of Thomas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and all I can say is that I wish I’d had it back in college when I had to read the Ethics for a course.
And yes, I know, I read very strange books sometimes.
But I really enjoy creating a world for myself that doesn’t actually exist but that I used to think must exist–welcome to my childhood–and that I still think should exist.
My need for an imaginary world waxes and wanes, but these days it’s been mostly waxing.
And as to the reason for that, you only need two words: Bill Cosby.
I’ve been following the Cosby thing for several days now, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only one who find the whole thing eerily familiar.
In fact, I find it familiar on two counts: the Duke Lacrosse case, and that mess with Paula Deen.
The correlation with the Duke Lacrosse case may seem easier to find, at least on the surface.
That, also, was an accusation of rape, and those accusations also lead to a cascade of consequences for the accused before any actual evidence had ever been established about anything.
In other words, it was completely unnecessary for the charges to be proved true for punishment to be meted out.
The accusation was enough–in fact, even ACTUALLY proving the charges false (as in the case of Duke Lacrosse) didn’t solve much of anything, since a lot of people handing out the punishments (including the Duke faculty) insisted that those punishments were just EVEN IF the charges were untrue.
In the end, though, I think the Paula Deen cases has more parallels, because in the Paula Deen case, there was no involvement of law enforcement whatsoever, and therefore no venue in which the accused could defend him/her self.
But let’s look at this for a minute.
The present frenzy over Bill Cosby started a few weeks ago when a woman who had accused him of rape decades ago came forward to accuse him again.
Her accusations were investigated when she first made them and determined to be lacking in enough basic evidence to bring charges, which is the best the accused can do in cases like this.
The woman then faded into the background for many years, until she surfaced recently to make the accusations again.
And now, of course, no investigation can be profitably undertaken–witnesses, physical evidence, anything that MIGHT be there (although it looks like it wasn’t) would be gone or corrupted.
But it’s a different time, and a different place, and it’s no longer necessary for the accuser to prove anything to get her what she wants.
In fact, these days, it can get her more than she ever dreamed possible when she first made the accusation–not only can she be sure that Cosby is punished (evidence or not), but she can turn herself into a media heroine, interviewed on cables news and invited to give speeches to women’s groups.
Once she started on the media round, though, she got company–I think we’re up to fifteen other women making similar claims.
In the media narrative as it now exists, the emergence of these other accusations is supposed to make it more likely that the original charges against Cosby are true.
For me, the emergence of these other charges make it LESS likely that the original charges are true.
Maybe it’s the suspiciousness of the mystery writer in me, but I can’t help thinking that we’re about to see a slew of lawsuits, making it possible for these women to charge Cosby with rape under a much lower standard of proof (“preponderance of evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt”).
Such cases are much easier to win than criminal cases.
And that’s why they exist–before the 1960s, criminal charges and civil charges were more strictly defined, so that it was most often the case that you could not bring a lawsuit against somebody for what would normally be a criminal charge.
We changed that because, during the civil rights movement, all white Southern juries were refusing to convict white guys who killed or otherwise harmed civil rights activists. See Cheney, et al.
The results of this innovation have been almost completely negative. In many cases, the process of trying criminal complaints as torts has led to the complete collapse of the protection against double jeopardy.
And that’s just for starters. The far worse thing is the fact it gives the patina of due process to what is actually a form of mob rule.
So I think there are going to be lawsuits, and Cosby is going to be out a lot more money than he is even now.
And I think that this is, in fact, what this is about.
But even if you believe Cosby’s accusers, you shouldn’t like what’s happening here.
Because what’s going on here really IS mob rule–pure and simple.
Bill Cosby has been accused of some heinous things. But those things have NOT been proved, and they have NOT been supported by ANY material evidence.
And yet, he has lost his endorsements, had his work jerked out from under him, had his alma mater repudiate him–he could not have been more severely punished if he’d been captured on video murdering a baby.
And there is, at this moment, no way for him to fight back.
And every single male in the public eye who is perceived to have enough money to loot–or even not in the public eye, even every small town big fish–is in danger of being in the same position, anytime, anywhere, if somebody decides she wants to go for him.
For ANY reason.
All you need is to wait enough time so that your accusations cannot be definitively proved to be untrue.
And, after all, the US government itself says that we should skirt the protections of criminal trials in cases of “sexual assault.”
Colleges and universities who want to receive any money at all from the Department of Education–including money from Pell Grants, and guaranteed student loans–are require to try sexual assault allegation on campus and to stick to a preponderance of the evidence standard.
In fact, the DOE positively advises AGAINST turning sexual assault allegations over to the police.
And it’s not hard to see why. The police and the courts will provide the accusaed with due process protections. They will not prosecute nonsense. And you always run the danger of finding that the charges CAN be proved to be untrue.
See the Duke Lacrosse case, where the alleged victim identified as one of her rapists a kid who actually appeared on timed surveillance video at a bank ATM several miles away at the time the rape was supposed to have occurred.
And the Duke faculty, of course, refused to retract its denunciation of the kid, because–well, because all men are rapists. Or something.
Observing due process in criminal accusations sometimes gets us results we don’t like–Darren Wilson, Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman.
They do, however, limit the occurence of something much worse than a (possibly) guilty person going free–an innocent person being condemned.
Cosby has been afforded no such protections. His life has been destroyed because of accusations alone. And I’m willing to bet you anything that if he actually manages to refute any of these allegations, the response of the media and academic will be: well, maybe, but we still excoriate him.
I hate to use the phrase, because too many people get too damned self righteous when they do (although on other subjects):
But this is not my America.
I am sitting here on a day that feels like spring, a little groggy from having stayed up late to watch the election results–except it turns out I didn’t stay up late enough, because I went to bed assuming that things would go as they had been and the Republicans wouldn’t get a majority in the Senate until after the run off election in Louisiana, and I woke up to find that the Republicans had pretty much swept the field.
For those of you who have no interest in the US elections, or who do but are always confused as hell about what is going on–which is most of us–this may not sound like a very big deal, but it is in fact a VERY big deal.
It is a big enough deal that there ought to be several of my friends running around with their hair on fire.
I don’t know, because AOL seems to be down this morning, so the only way I can get to my e mail is on my son’s phone, which is of minimal help.
I HATE touch screens.
That being said, a few notes on last night, and going forward:
1) Exactly how much trouble is the Democratic Party in if it couldn’t manage to unseat Sam Brownback as governor of Kansas?
Brownback honestly deserved to lose that election, not because of his ideology, but because his governance of Kansas has been a train wreck.
Deficit up, jobs down, revenue flatlining–you name an indicator of how well a state is doing, and Brownback failed at it, and he failed at it in a way that can be traced directly to his policies.
He’s also been ideologically rigid to the point of silliness.
One of the reasons former governors tend to do better as Presidents than former senators is that governors have to run what amounts to a small country, and you can look at what happened while they were in office and see what happens when they do the things they want to do.
Apparently, the people of Kansas didn’t care.
2) A fair number of the races that were supposed to be really close ended up not actually being close.
It was a little confusing, because a lot of those races were close at the beginning of the night but ended up as blow outs–Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Cory Gardner in Colorado, whoever the Republican was who took Georgia away from Sam Nunn’s daughter.
I went up to sleep and they started calling these things with really significant margins.
3) The media, including Fox, spent half the night pretending that races that weren’t close were. You’d look up at the screen and it would say R 66%, D 31% and wonder why anybody thought that race was too close to call.
And I do realize that it’s probably best not to call a race with only 23% of the vote in, but in some of these cases…well.
4) As I write this, the Senate race in Virginia is still up in the air. The Democrat has declared victory, but the Republican hasn’t conceded, and the vote is close enough that this makes sense.
But that race WASN’T supposed to be close. which means that even if the Republican eventually loses, this will still not be unalloyed good news for the Democrats.
Virginia is the place where a great big whacking hunk of federal government workers live.
Democrats are in favor of expanding that workforce and paying them more money, while Republicans are not.
A Democrat should be able to win in Virginia if he sleeps through the election.
5) White House spokespeople really, really, really have to stop going on the cable news shows talking about how this was not a referendum on the President.
The only way what just happened here makes any sense is if this election WAS a referendum on the President.
I’ve spent months reading about how the Republicans couldn’t hope to win anything on a platform that amounted to “we’re not Obama,” but they did.
6) The Democrats (and Democrat-leaning news media) really, really, really have to stop saying that the election wasn’t a referendum on Obamacare.
It was for 23% of voters who went to the polls. That’s only about half the number who put the economy as their first and most important issue, but it’s still a great big hunk.
7) There was no indication, one way or the other, that anybody cared at all about Ebola.
8) If the Democratic Party dies in the next few years–which a couple of friends of mine has worried it will–it will die because its supporters insist on “explaining” events like last night by the supposed “fact” that the American people are a pack of racist, sexist, nativist, homophobic idiots who don’t know their own best interests.
That nonsense had already started by the time I woke up this morning, and the truth is that it’s only likely to get worse.
9) In the run up to this election, the Obama administration deliberately delayed the implementation of several provisions of the Affordable Care Act–the most notable being the employer mandate–thought to be unpopular with the voters.
Having done that, however, those provisions are now set to go into effect in 2015, which means…
…right in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election.
Which seems to me like very bad timing.
So here it is, Sunday, and after a really long time of not being able to take the day the way I like to, I’ve decided that today is it–I do have work to do, because I always have work to do, but I’m also in that dangerous place where it’s too easy to burn out and blow everything up.
So right now seems like a good time to let some things ride for the morning and try to relax a little.
Given the way my fiction sounds at the moment, I figure it can’t hurt.
So first I put on the Pachibel Canons, and now I’ve got Handel’s Water Music, and everything would probably be hunky dory except that I’m obsessing about this book.
Not a book I’m writing. A book I’m reading.
The book is Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, and if you don’t like spoilers, stop now.
The first thing is that, if you know anything about this book, you know it’s not new.
It was published in 1959 in what seems to have been intended as a one-off. It became the first book in a long political series that was widely considered “conservative” because it took a hard line on the Russians in the cold war.
If you read it now, you won’t find anything we’d consider “conservative” in it EXCEPT the hard line with the Russians–and that little thing with liberals and Alger Hiss.
Okay, let’s back up a little.
It isn’t actually the Hiss story.
It concerns the attempts of an ailing (and probably dying) President of the United States attempting to get a man, named Robert Leffingwell, confirmed as secretary of state.
Leffingwell is the sort-of Hiss character. Okay. More than sort of.
This is an enormously complicated book, so enormously complicated I hesitate to outline the plot.
Instead of doing that, let me back up yet again, this time to my experience of this book.
I read it as a teenager, and later read through the entire series, which actually had two separate endings, published as two separate novels.
Many years later, I recommended this series to Bill, in the spirit of showing him that even novels that weren’t in genres had plots.
Bill read the entire series, wrote to Drury, and eventually carried on quite a correspondance with him before the cancer got in the way of it.
At the time all that was going on, however, I did not reread the series myself, and didn’t reread any of it until this past week, when I started in on Advise and Consent again.
What I did do over the years, though was to watch the movie, several times.
And in the end, when I started reading Advise and Consent this time, it was the movie I remembered, and not the book.
So, a couple of things:
1) There are a lot of things related to the passage of time. Some of them are obvious–no cell phones (a key event in the plot comes about because our hero, Brig Anderson, is unable to get in touch with anybody over the course of a particular twenty-four hour period); the Russians and not the Islamists; women who stay home and housewife; attitudes to homosexuality.
2) Part of it is that thing I keep missing in modern work. Drury seems to have been, like Erle Stanley Gardner, a man who honestly and sincerely believed in the basic decency of almost all people. There is so little political rancor here of the kind we’re all used to that it can be disorienting.
3) But although there is very little of that kind of thing, there is some, and the some always comes at the hands of people who have decided that the end is so important, it justifies any means at all.
Drury, who almost certainly would have hated Tea Party conservatism with every fiber of his being, still managed to see the worm at the heart of left-liberalism’s rose more clearly than most modern writers, on either side, can see the thing they’re living in.
What really gets to me, though, is the way the movie whitewashed not the left-liberal villains (there are three), but other characters who are part of the incredible mess this whole thing becomes.
In the book, the hero is a young Senator named Brig Anderson, from Utah. who ends up opposing the nomination of Leffingwell/Hiss for Secretary of State and ends up getting first blackmailed and then driven to suicide when he won’t back down.
In the movie, the hero is the Senate Majority Leader, Bob Munson, who knows nothing of the conspiracy against Anderson until Anderson is dead.
In the book, though, Munson is a reluctant but active participant in the conspiracy, the conspiracy could not have gone ahead without material he supplied it, and you’re really not supposed to admire him.
My best guess is that the movie people couldn’t quite envision making a film where the only truly admirable character dies three quarters of the way thourgh.
That makes a certain amount of sense, and especially commercial sense, but it does skew the message of the novel to hell and gone.
(A note–Munson does redeem himself in future novels of the series and ends up on the side of the good guys, but those novels hadn’t been written when this novel became a movie.)
Since, with one exception, everybody in this novel–including Brig Anderson–is what would have been called “liberal” at the time, it couldn’t be because the moviemakers were trying to make liberals look good at the expense of non-liberals.
In fact, the one actual conservative of the piece tends to come off better than any of the liberals except Anderson himself, in both the book and the movie.
When you sell a book to the movies, the advice everyone gives you is always the same: take the money and run.
They never made movies of any of the other books in this series, and maybe it’s just as well.
But this book is worth reading, as are the books that follow it, and both the endings.
This is going to be a long and convoluted story, so bear with me.
Or, you know, not.
When my younger son was in middle school, two things happened: he began to be mercilessly bullied by a student we will call G, and the school’s health center was taken over by a new head nurse.
We’ll call the head nurse ME.
This was a private school for grades K through 9, with about half the students in grades 5 through 9 boarding.
They bullying student–G–was a boarder, and a right little bastard. His favorite hobby was to lie in wait for Greg when I dropped Greg off at school, and then to follow him around jeering at him: your father died and it’s all your fault; you’re so poor your father just died in the street.
Greg did complain about this a few times, but when he did he was told to deal with it himself, to fight back, and all that kind of thing. Or to stay away from G.
In spite of what follows here, I don’t necessarily think that was bad advice.
Except for the fact that the school had a zero-tolerance policy for fighting, so that Greg wasn’t allowed to do the one thing that might have helped: fight back.
What Greg did instead was to do what he could to keep out of G’s sight. Very often he went to a large tree that lay in the middle of the campus and sit there thinking about the things he was writing.
Yeah. Greg writes.
Anyway, the tree was directly across the center lawn from the health center, and sometimes, if there was no other way to escape G, he would go there and talk to the nurses.
After a while, Greg realized he could fake being sick and get sent home, thereby escaping G entirely. He and I had a load of arguments about this. These included my offer to take Greg out of the private school and send him to the local public school, which was a good one, and where he would be away from G.
Greg didn’t want to do that. So we went on the way we were going, and one day, when he was sitting under that tree devising stories that would curl the hair of H.P. Lovecraft, he got called over to the health center.
And he went over there and, asked what he was doing, he–told them his story.
The story was about a rock on campus and the way it changed into all kinds of things and the way music came out of it and he could hear the chanting of monks saying they were from the dead and I don’t know what else.
That’s the kind of story Greg reads, and that’s the kind he writes.
THIS particular story happened to be stolen outright from a then very popular video game.
The nurses promptly incarcerated him in the health center and called me.
When I got down there, I was told that this was practically proof positive that Greg was mentally ill and that I had to get him a psych evaluation immediately and get him on psychotropic drugs.
Now, you have to understand something.
I wasn’t new to this kind of situation. It had plagued my own childhood, and my mother had cheerfully thrown me to the wolves in the face of it.
Obviously, if you have an imagination that produces something other than treacly replays of the Bobbsey Twins, there must be something wrong with you.
One of the reasons Greg was in this school–and Matt before him–was that I was hoping to protect him from just such people as this.
I was hoping I could get him through childhood without feeling he had to hide who and what he was–that he had to hide what I considered to be the best part about him.
I went down there and listened to the spiel, and then I said, very politely, that this was imagination, that Greg did it all the time, and that I didn’t want to make him feel bad about having an imagination.
I then got–it’s hard to explain it if you’ve never seen it.
ME, the head nurse, was a viscious, destructive bully. She was used to getting her way by hammering and hectoring people until they lost the will to resist.
And she hammered and hectored at me for an hour–and didn’t get anywhere.
In the end, I didn’t lose the will to resist. I just got fed up.
I told her in no uncertain terms that I would not brand my son psychotic that was not only perfectly normal but also pretty much the family business, that psychology was neither science nor medicine, that its affect on people was largely destructive and abusive, and that I wasn’t going to do that to him.
And then I left.
And the fun started.
ME started by talking to Greg’s teachers, telling them that he had “severe psychological problems” and that they should watch out for any “disturbed” behavior.
No, she wasn’t a psychologist or a psychiatrist. She was just married to one.
As a result of her little bulletin, an older teacher at the school reported that he had seen Greg pacing back and forth in the study hall talking to himself.
I was called in on that one, too.
ME had very carefully set up the situation that all my information had to come from her.
It took my four days to finally be allowed to know which teacher had made the report and also to talk to him.
And it turned out to be what I’d expected–at the time of the incident, Greg had been ALONE in the study hall and as soon as the teacher had come in, he’d stopped what he was doing.
Now, both Matt and I ALSO pace around talking to ourselves when we’re alone, normally because we’re writing in our heads, and of course Greg still does that.
But on that day, ALL he was doing was repeating French verbs to himself, because he had a test later in the day.
When it became obvious to ME that I wasn’t going to be bulldozed and I wasn’t going to allow her to control the situation, she tried other things.
For instance, she called Greg’s doctors and demanded information that under HIPPA she wasn’t actually allowed to have.
In the most spectacularly destructive of these forays into breaking federal law, she called Greg’s pediatrician, got a nurse, started in on the hectoring–and then just lied and told the woman that she had my permission to access Greg’s medical records.
By then, the pediatrician’s nurse was badly rattled, and what she ended up doing was giving ME MATT’S information–including the information that he hadn’t been seen in the pediatrician’s office in several years.
ME then lied to me by saying that the pediatrician’s office had called HER, and told the administration that I wasn’t taking Greg to the doctor.
I got this all straightened out, but not without cost.
This wasn’t the first time ME had called yelling at people and the pediatrician’s office had had it.
Since I couldn’t guarantee that ME would not call again, they terminated Greg as a patient.
Now, a couple of things are important to notice here.
Greg has a congenital skin condition, a form of eczema that never really clears up and never will, entirely.
He sees a lot of doctors all the time, and since the condition embarrasses him, it makes an enormous difference to him when he has to see somebody new.
He’d had this pediatrician since we brought him to the States in 1994.
And because of ME’s tactics, he lost her overnight.
And I couldn’t blame her. Greg wasn’t her only patient, and ME had just bullied her desk nurse into committing one of those felonies.
During all this time, while ME was going to the school administration and lecturing them on how Greg was psychotic and I was neglecting him by not taking him to a psychologist, Greg himself was stubbornly refusing to exhibit the characteristics of a psychotic child.
Remember G, the bully? He was bullying other people besides Greg, and he got expelled for it at the end of that year.
At which point Greg happily returned to loving school and acquiring an enormous group of friends who absolutely adored him and followed him everywhere.
He was, in other words, nothing like an “isolated” child.
My trips in to talk to the administration became common, and every time I came in I pointed out the fact that Greg didn’t actually have ANY of the characteristics of what they were accusing him of, and off I’d go.
And at that point, ME started something else.
She started following him around–and she started calling him into the health center office to “check his rash.”
The “check his rash” thing was patently bizarre.
She would call him into the office and demand that he take off his blazer and shirt so that he could see what the rash was like on his chest.
He would proclaim–he REALLY hated these sessions–that he wasn’t comfortable with that and he wanted to wait until I came so that I could be there with him while it was happening.
Then, when I got there, ME would say no, no, she didn’t need to see anything, that was fine.
This went on for months until I finally went to one of the administrators and told him that if it ever happened again, I’d take Greg down to the closest police station and have him report to them what he’d been reporting to me.
The sessions stopped. I set up a psych eval in order to at least attempt to be accommodating. (In the end, we didn’t go through with it–but all that comes later.)
The other thing ME started to do at this time was–follow him around.
Greg and his best friend waited for me and bf’s parents at a picnic table in the lower parking lot, which was right behind the health center. On the days when they were there, ME would come out of the health center and deliberately walk down to the picnic table to ask Greg how he was.
On the days when Greg was not there, she would take a different route to the lower school buildings.
The health center was in the same building as the cafeteria. When Greg was at lunch, ME would come into the lunch room and look around until she found him, and then stand there staring at him for minute after minute until he started staring back.
When Greg complained about these things to the administration, I would be hauled in yet again and lectured about how his paranoia showed just how skewed his thinking was.
When I pointed out that not only I, but several of Greg’s friends, had noted this same behavior, the interview would be terminated and everything would go on as it had been until it all happened again.
And then the summer came, and everything seemed to have calmed down, and so did I.
I shouldn’t have.
When Greg returned to school in the fall, everything went back to being screamingly abnormal, complete with the stalking behavior.
Now, though, I kept getting notes and messages from Greg’s teachers and from the headmaster that Greg was “unusually anxious.”
And, of course, he was. People who are being stalked tend to get a bit freaked out. And when this year started, the stalking had gone right up to the roof and off the other side.
And at this point, we SHOULD have been at least partially protected by what is supposed to be a bedrock principle of these kinds of things: listen to the children.
If a child tells you something, take him seriously, assume he’s telling the truth.
It turns out that the bedrock principle is “listen to the children, AS LONG AS they’re telling you what you want to hear.”
If the kid’s version of events ISN’T what you want to hear–“explain” it so that it’s really evidence of what you wanted him to say all along.
We made it through Christmas.
Not too long after that, there was a knock on my door, and there was DCF.
I want to say, right here, that we had the best experience with DCF we possibly could have.
The woman who came to my door was a seasoned veteran. She knew what she was looking at as soon as she saw it, which was more than I did.
It really hadn’t occured to me that people would make these accusations out of spite or that they would go to elaborate lengths to pay people back for not showing proper deference to themselves and their own importance.
That’s TS Eliot, I think–all the evil in the world is done by people trying to be important.
H, as we called her, walked into my house–I had no right to refuse her entrance; social workers don’t need a warrant–checked Greg’s fingernails, and then sat down and talked to me.
The fingernails thing is an interesting point.
One of the accusations was that Greg was not taking baths or showers, that he “smelled” so badly that other students couldn’t study when he was in the room.
It is in fact the case that the skin condition Greg has will sometimes produce an odor when it’s in full flare–BUT this was an odor his doctor hadn’t noticed (at all), none of his friends had noticed, none of the other people he saw had noticed.
And on one of the days when ME got Greg sent home for “smelling,” he was picked up by a family friend who is a) a meticulous Brit and b) has a very small compact car.
And HE didn’t notice any smell in spite of being cooped up in the tiny space.
The complaints about smelling, though, were what occassioned H looking at Greg’s fingernails–if he really wasn’t bathing, there would be dirt under those fingernails, and there wasn’t any.
And that’s when we won the war, I think, although I didn’t know it at the time. That’s when a couple of other things that had made her suspicious of the complaint before she ever showed up got confirmed in her head.
So, let’s talk about the complaint.
The first thing you have to know is that half of it was not about Greg, or about my behavior with and toward Greg, but literally about me.
“The mother communicates only by cell phone.”
This wouldn’t be proof of abuse, neglect of anything else anyway, but it provided a truly humourous moment, because as H read this item off, my land line rang right next to the chair she was sitting it.
“The mother always wears the same dress when she picks up the child at school.”
Actually no. I DO have three of the same dress which works really well for me, and I rotate them.
But that’s not evidence of abuse or neglect, either.
Anyway, there was a pile of that kind of thing, objecting to me personally.
Then there were the exaggerations and outright fabrications.
“Last year, there were squirrels living in the house.”
What had happened “last year” was that a single squirrel had gotten into our cellar–and it’s a cellar, not a basement; at that point, Greg had never been in it–
Anyway, it had gotten in and we’d taken three weeks to get it out because I didn’t want to kill the poor thing and it was so afraid of me (and the cats) that I had a hard time maneuvering it to the side door.
We’ll have to blame Greg’s imagination and his love of doing stand up for that one, too, because he told that story all around school for months.
Everybody except ME got it. Or maybe she got it, but found it useful to twist it to use as ammunition anyway.
H went through the rest of the charges–the complaint was five or six pages long–and every once and a while she’d stop and go, “oh, that’s nothing. They put that kind of thing in there because they know we won’t remove a child with what they’ve really got.”
Apparently, spite claims are frequent enough (and they’re shockingly frequent) that investigators know the signs.
Then H talked to Greg, and Greg gave her an earful.
And then she tried to talk to me, and I didn’t listen.
I didn’t listen because I worshipped this school. I really did.
I’d had children there for 14 solid years. I knew most of the faculty and the administration. I liked them and I assumed they liked me.
And I went on feeling that way until I made an appointment with the headmaster and listened to him lie to my face about what had happened.
I knew from H that nobody from that school was allowed to make such a complaint without permission from the headmaster.
The headmaster told me flat out that he didn’t know any such complaint had been issued–and yet his knowledge of it was in the complaint itself.
And that was it. H came for a follow up visit and we talked about cats. The school year was almost over.
Greg was in 9th grade, and only a few weeks from graduation, which is a formal thing with lots of parties that he’d been looking forward to forever.
As soon as we got the message from DCF that the case had been closed as unsubstantiated, Greg sat down and flat out refused to go back to school.
He was convinced–and probably with reason–that if he stayed in that school even another few weeks, ME would find another excuse to make another complaint.
And he had talked it out with H. He knew that whether he lost his family or not depended on the subjective judgment of the social worker, and the next social worker might not be H.
He understood that neither he nor I had rights in this process, that our fate was at the whim of the people running to system, that they could do anything they wanted to him and what he wanted or what was true didn’t matter a damn.
And that was the last time but one he left my house for TWO YEARS.
He would not go to school. He would not go to the movies. He wouldn’t leave the building.
Anybody could phone in a complaint anytime. They didn’t need any evidence. They didn’t need to give their names.
There was no place he could be safe.
And, of course, there was the rash. The rash is always with him. It will never go away. And it can look REALLY bad.
So even some nice people might see that and misinterpret it–as they had, often, over the years.
He didn’t start going out regularly until he was 19. Even now, he’s holding up finishing his education until he’s 21, and it’s not like I don’t know why.
Some of you out there are going to say well, hey–didn’t it all work out for the best? He didn’t get removed from your home, and it’s just a matter of better be safe than sorry.
I’ll tell you right now I’m not buying it.
This system ENCOURAGES false complaints, and it enables them.
And the result of one of these investigations is NOT benign.
In the years since this happened to us, I’ve made many people put into the same situation, I’ve heard about innocent children dying in the system from the system, I’ve heard about families destroyed because of the investigations.
And I’ve heard some of that from social workers IN the system.
This is, quite simply, unacceptable on any level.
The powers of DCF have to be curbed. We need to end the practice of using anonymous complaints as if they’re actually evidence of something. We need to end the anonymity of complainants. We need to make sure families have full due process rights.
My son is not an acceptable sacrifice to the do-gooder self-satisfaction of people who think they’re being noble by being “against child abuse.”
Everybody is against child abuse.
And what Greg was put through WAS child abuse–child abuse by the DCF system itself.
Oh, and there’s yet another kicker.
When Greg first left school, he talked to his friends–and he had a lot of them–very frequently on the phone.
By the time the school year was over, their parents were no longer allowing them to have contact with Greg.
Like to bet ME had a few words about how Greg had “severe psychological problems?”
So the term has started, and that means that I’m floating around out here on what I would probably call the slough of despond if I were another kind of person.
The difference is that the reason for the slough of despond is not my students.
My students have done some cringeworthy things already this term–one of them told me, in her second paper, that FDR was a Republican–but by and large this is the best class I’ve had since I returned to teaching in 2000.
It’s an upper level class. Most of the students have some connection with the necessary context and several are actually intellectually engaged.
And in spite of the fact the one of them almost certainly gave me the bug that just laid me low for a week, I love them.
No, what has brought on the slough of despond has to do with my reading, my writing, and, apparently, everybody else’s reading and writing.
Let me start here:
While I was sick, I reread a very old book, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything.
I have read this book several times, although not recently. And I went back to it because I seemed to remember that at the start of it, Jaffe used a frame I thought would be useful for something I was working on, if I could learn to do it.
I was right, by the way, but that’s not the point.
The Best of Everything is what’s called a “four women” novel. I’ve always really like four women novels, even in their various incarnations as eight women novels, three women novels, five women novels…
In case you think you haven’t ever run into one of these, think again. The four (or whatever) women novel is one of the staples of American literature.
Little Women is a four women novel. So is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. So is almost everything by Anne Rivers Siddons. So is The First Wives Club.
It’s a very useful form. You take four women with some connection. You start them off and then follow their various paths through life for a longer or shorter period of time.
When I first started out trying to be a real, honest to God, published professional writer, four women novels are what I wanted to write.
And yes, that is sort of what I’m working on now, but that’s a discussion for another day.
What started me on my way to the slough of despond is the fact that there is another, more recent, and probably much more famous four women novel out there, one which most of you only know as a television show.
Sex and the City.
And the television show of Sex and the City turns out to have been up free on demand on my cable service.
I didn’t realize that Sex and the City had started off as a novel until I saw the first episode of the show, which, of course, credits Candace Bushnell’s book.
The author’s name intrigued me, and it turned out that yes, she is one of those Bushnells, from one of the families that founded this state and after whom half a dozen or so major buildings (both government and private) are named.
This is not particularly important to anybody but me, and even to me is mostly means that growing up in Glastonbury is a hell of a lot more interesting than it was in my day, when the place was principally known for being very rich and very stodgy.
It’s also one of my favorite places in Connecticut. I am always very well disposed to places that spend serious money on their public libraries, and Glastonbury spends very serious money on its public library.
All that aside, Sex and the City has a very clever frame. The title is actually the title of the lead character’s column for a New York newspaper, and each episode is (at least theoretically) the content of one of those columns.
The columns follow the lives our our heroine and her (of course) three friends as they drift through NY in their thirties, desperately trying to find somebody to marry them.
Well, except for Samantha–not our heroine–who is rather refreshing in her single-minded pursuit of uncomplicated and endless sexual intercourse.
When I first saw that Sex and the City was a book, I gave serious thought to getting a copy, if for no other reason to find out what modern four women novels are like.
The book was even dirt cheap on Amazon, less than six dollars, and–
By the time I reached episode 3, I knew I was not going to read this thing.
Sex has always been a big item in four women novels–well, most of them. Not Little Women, obviously.
Hell, I even learned what sexual intercourse actually was from chapter 2 of Mary McCarthy’s The Group.
That’s the eight women novel.
The problem was, there was so much sex, so much of the time, that it turned into a gender-different form of Quidditch–just one more action scene with people running around Doing Stuff rather mindless and for far too long.
And yes, I know. Action scenes (of whatever kind) can be used to illuminate character.
But most action scenes don’t do that, and these surely did not.
They were sex scenes–graphic, right out front, and one step away from actual porn only because there were no “cum shots”.
And if you don’t know, you really, really don’t want to ask.
About the time I was getting rather depressed and annoyed at Sex and the City, I started following a FB thread that consisted of complaints from romance writers than romance novels these days are nothing but soft core porn.
The success of Fifty Shades of Grey and company have resulted in a romance market that wants sex first, sex last and sex always.
What’s coming out of even the category lines is a lot of frantic panting tied to really hackneyed, formulaic plots.
Romance has never been a genre I particularly liked, and it’s been years since I’ve ready any, so I have no way of knowing if these complaints are justified.
They do, however, match up eerily well with my complaints about Sex and the City.
And this is, of course, another case in which I am very much aware that I am in the minority, and possibly a very tiny minority.
I may not like action scenes, but most people do, and apparently lots of them like action sequences that consist of two people banging away at each other (ahem) from every imaginable direction.
Some of which directions look distinctly uncomfortable.
I am me, of course, and I would not want to stop people from reading or writing this stuff if that’s what they want to read and write.
I am, however, getting distinctly nostalgic for what I think of as “fiction,” which is–
Well, not that.
I’m not saying that all the Quidditch should go away.
Sex and violence are and always have been a part of life.
I’m just a little depressed by the fact that a vast proportion of the book buying and television and movie watching public seems to have forgotten they’re only a part.