I was getting into trouble on FB again yesterday because I was intimating, as I often do, that the two sides of our supposed cultural and political divide were, pretty much, internchangable.
The article that got me started was not about Ray Rice, but about the Tea Party, and was one of those things.
The article is this one
If you look through it, you’ll probably see what my problem was without too much trouble.
Like all left of center “analyses” of the tea party, it picks a small segment of the movement, and even smaller segment of the movement’s positions, conveniently ignores all aspects of the situation that contradicts its thesis, then ends up concluding that it’s really all about racism, the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan.
In this case, what it also did was to insist that what the movement really is about is opposition to change that comes through the “democratic process.”
The trouble started when somebody posted a declaration that the liberal response to Bush was MUCH more rational and less radical than the conservative response to Obama–something that can only be maintained if you have complete amnesia of what went on during the Bush administration.
(This led me to one of those useful insights–NOBODY realizes how crazy they sound when they’re being crazy. We always sound reasonable to ourselves.)
And at that point I noted that liberals are no happier with the democratic process than conservatives are, if that process goes against them.
State bans and state constitutional amendments on gay marriage have been democratically arrived at, but most of the liberals I know want no part of them.
Which got me a little post on how my correspondent was “one of those people” who thought democracy should be limited in some ways.
I’m one of those people, too.
The point is, so are the members of the Tea Party.
The difference isn’t in the principle, it’s in the application. Liberals think the democratic process should be limited in some ways, the Tea Party thinks it should be limited in others, and I’ve got a whole laundry list of the ways I want it limited.
In that way, liberals and conservatives are pretty much alike–they BOTH want democracy limited, they just have different areas in which they want the limitations to apply.
Which brings me to the Ray Rice thing, which I spent a good deal of yesterday paying attention to, and which has the virtue of being something on which the left and right agree not only on the principle, but on the particulars.
In case you don’t know, Ray Rice was–until VERY recently–a football player for the Baltimore Ravens.
A little while ago, he got himself arrested on a domestic violence charge for beating his girlfriend into unconsciousness into a hotel elevator.
This is not a he said, she said situation. There’s video. Very explicit video.
The man behaved like a thug, and worse.
Then two things happened.
On the day after the assault–and it WAS an assault; you can probably find it up on YouTube–she married him.
And yesterday, Ray Rice was fired from the Baltimore Ravens.
It’s that second thing I want to look at.
He was fired from the Baltimore Ravens.
Granted that what Ray Rice did was absolutely inexcusable and completely awful, he did it on his own time, when he was not on the clock.
He did it, in other words, in his capacity as a private person.
On top of that, he hasn’t been convicted of anything, he isn’t about to go to jail any time soon, and you can’t even make the case that he’s soon to be unavailable to fulfill his contract.
Now, I know that NFL contracts, like many others in entertainment and sports, include clauses that allow owners to do all kinds of noxious things.
What I’m not hearing, from anybody, is any complaints that these clauses exist, or that employers establishing rules for what employees can and cannot do on their own are pretty much allowed to do so by the courts.
Liberals and conservatives do not disagree on the principle that employers should be allowed to penalize you on the basis of your private behavior–they only disagree on which private behavior should be allowed to be penalized.
To me, it seems that the 13th amendment should have put an end to this sort of thing. Your employer owns your time when you’re on the clock. He should not own it when you’re off, because if he does he essentially owns YOU.
There will be obvious exceptions. The public spokesperson of a firm or an organization can legitimately be asked not to do anything in his private life that would damage the company’s reputation or cause, because that spokesperson is the public face of the organization.
But in order for such a firing to be legitimate, the private behavior should have something to do with the job. It would be legitimate for a Pro Life organization to fire a spokeswoman who went out and got an abortion. It would not be legitimate for the Krisy Cereal Company to fire her for that same reason.
Most employees are not the official public face of their employers, however, and their private lives should be their own.
This seems to me to be completely obvious, the sort of thing we shouldn’t have to argue about for even half a minute.
And we’re all quick to recognize the wrongness of specific cases of this kind of thing–the middle management superviser for a firm that makes pipe fittings tossed out because she opposes a bond measure that the company wants to see go through, or the janitor at a local television station fired for supporting a rise in the minimum wage.
Unfortunately, both sides are more than willing to let employers penalize workers for private behavior, and on a whole raft of issues that aren’t the ones you might think.
And they quite often do so in ways that are completely contradictory.
Most people on the left of center are usually admanantly opposed to drug testing in places like Walmart–but they’ve got nothing at all against rules that require employees not to smoke cigarettes even at home on their own time.
Cigarettes are bad for you and crystal meth is–I don’t know.
Conservatives have completely laundry lists of things they think your employer should be able to regulate in your life–the economic conservative wing of the party (“establishment Republicans”) pretty much think employers ought to regulate everything all the time.’
In what I think would be a decent world, employers would not be able to regulate most of these things. Your private life would be your own. You would only be subject to firing or penalties if whatever you were doing affected your actual performance on the job.
But what ought to be obvious here is that, in respect to the issue of whether or not your employer should be able to penalize you for what you do in your private life in cases where what you do does NOT affect your job performance–the two sides are completely identical.
That don’t differ on the principle of employer regulation of employee’s private lives.
They only differ on what in particular should be regulated.
And the list of what should be regulated will make far different impacts on different people–if you don’t smoke, anti-smoking regulations won’t matter to you much; if you do, they will be oppressive.
But the rules are oppressive even if they DON’T feel like it. And they shouldn’t be allowed.
So here we go–yet another case in which the two sides are, for me, entirely identical.
I keep waiting for a time and place when somebody, somewhere, will provide me with something actually different to vote for, but I’m not expecting it any time soon.
I am having one of those days when I can’t seem to settle down and focus on anything. I don’t have them very often, but when I do I get really annoyed, and I’m really annoyed now, and it’s only nine in the morning.
Part of it is the result of something really odd.
I have had, in this house and in others, a trade paperback copy of a book called The Image by Daniel Boorstin.
I don’t remember buying this book, and I have no idea how I came to have it.
It is, though, one of a small group of books I not only never lose, but never lose sight of. It always seems to be right in front of my face.
Other books like this include Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, which I bought in its original paperback edition when I was in high school, and which has followed me across oceans and continents without my ever intending it to.
I do remember how I got the Sontag book, however, and I’ve read it. In a way, it’s comforting to have around, because it brings me back to my 16 year old self and that total desperation to understand what all this stuff was about.
That was the same era in which I read Sartre and Camus and tried to convince myself I was just too stupid to get it, because Sartre couldn’t really be this big of a fathead.
Sartre wrote a play about segretation in the American South. It really has to be read to be believed. On the other hand, that’s a few hours of your life you’ll never get back if you do.
The Boorstin is around the way the Sontag is–it’s not only hear, but right where I can see it, all the time.
And although I don’t remember how I got it, I do know why I haven’t, until now, read it.
The copy I own is a trade paperback with a greyish and pastel cover that just looks–fuzzy. And amorphous.
I’m not terribly susceptible to covers, but this one has always just put me off. I could never get over the impression that this book isn’t actually about anything. That is was just someone gassing away without actually saying something in particular.
I enjoy gassing sometimes, but the gassing I like tends to ring with the author’s conviction that he really is saying something, and to come with lots of footnotes and references to history and philosophy that are at least interesting to consider.
The book would probably have stayed on my shelves and coffee tables and followed me around forever without ever being read, if it wasn’t for one other things–
It’s one of those books that nearly everybody references, always favorably.
In the process of reading books that interest me far more, I will run across one line or the other using Boorstin to validate a point. A lot of people seem to think that if Boorstin said it, we should all be taking it very seriously.
The latest author to do this with Boorstin was Bruce S. Thornton, one of Victor Davis Hanson’s people over at the Cal State Fresno Classics department and a writer on subjects like the culture of militant Islam.
I was actually rereading one of Thornton’s books, called Plagues of the Mind, when for some reason the references to Boorstin just started making me crazy, and the Boorstin book was right there, and…
And, I suppose, I decided that I might as well get it over with. I didn’t have a next up book I really wanted to read. The Boorstin book was staring at me, face out, from my office bookshelf. I got hold of it and got started on it and…
The thing is just as damned awful as I thought it was going to be, and for just the reasons I thought it would be.
Part of this may be just where it is I am in time and space. The Image was published in 1962 and has to do with the media and what the author calls the “rise of pseudo-events.”
By pseudo-events Boorstin means things like celebrity news and those political “debates” that aren’t really debates at all. He goes on at some length about journalistic practices and how they’ve changed over time, press releases written in the past tense to describe things that haven’t happened yet, the rise of the interview and other things that seem silly and vaporous to me because I live beyond the point where they were new.
There is not a whole lot any of can do about the passage of time. I have grown up in the world in which I have grown up, and that’s all there is to it. A lot of what seemed unusual and strange to Boorstin is par for the course now.
But even after making exceptions for the passage of time, I am still struck by how nebulous this thing is.
There is a lot of faffing around and musing, but nothing much in the way of hard information.
We get an anecdote here and there, some of them interesting–I liked the information on the welcome home parade Chicago threw for Douglas McArthur.
But anecdotes aside, what we have is what that cover always made me expect–a lot of musing.
Muse muse. Muse muse muse.
I am not nearly finished with this yet. I’m not even half way through. It’s possible that the tone and organization will change over the course of the book, and I’ll end up with something substantial after all.
But I’d be willing to be that won’t be the case.
That just doesn’t feel like the way this is going.
And that leaves me with a few questions.
First–this book was never a best seller, but it has been a steady seller for nearly 50 years. It might be a CAT these days, but it wasn’t when it first came out, or even a few years later when I was in college.
And that means that there are people out there buying this book of their own free will and intention.
They’re doing it on purpose and because they want to.
And the question is–why?
Boorstin’s original readers might have found his ramblings illuminating, but nearly everything he actually has to say is now conventional wisdom, and banal conventional wisdom at that.
The significance of some of what he has to say has been over taken by events. Network television forced us all into a news cycle that never ends? Welcome to CNN! People are becoming “well known for their well knownness”? Let me introduce you to Kim Kardashian.
FWIW, Boorstin may have been the first person to define “celebrity” in that way. We’ve change the formula to the snappier “famous for being famous,” but it’s still a useful concept to have.
These days, however, nobody has to go to Boorstin for that concept, and that bring me to my second question.
Why is it that so many writers who are–ahem–younger than I am so in love with this book?
People of my father’s generation may have learned something from this book, because many of the things it describes were relatively new.
People who grew up watching Jersey Shore will only learn something from this book if they have been entirely comatose throughout their entire upbringing.
Being a CAT may explain why this book is selling year after year.
It does not explain why the people who read it quote it in their own works and rhapsodize about it in essays and columns and blogs.
I am used to having minority tastes, but I find this entire phenomenon completely mystifing.
I find it much more mystifying than I find the popularity of Party Down South, which at least generates the fascination of a train wreck.
And it bothers me more than when lots of people like a novel that I don’t.
There isn’t even a definite partisan point of view, so that I could say that lots of people are using the book to bolster their pre-conceived ideologies.
There’s just…gently rolling mush.
I got into one of those FB conversations yesterday that–well, that requires me to write a long answer to something.
And because I have to write a long answer to something, I find myself required either to wait until tomorrow to do so on the computer system at school, or just give up.
My system at home does not handle FB well–trying to load the thing causes total computer freeze and a lot of rebooting.
And I really can’t write anything this long on my Kindle. I’ve done it a few times, but it’s a struggle, and I end up forgetting half of what I’m saying.
So here I am, and I’ll just have to post a link to this on FB later.
To start, I’ll direct your attention to this:
which is at the heart of what started the FB conversation.
This is not the link that was posted on FB, but it is a link to the study William Donohue, head of an organization called the Catholic League, was referring to when he made a statement that resulted in a headline that read something like
“Head of Catholic League Says Sex With Teenagers Is Not Pedophilia!”
And at that point, I did my usual pedantic thing, and pointed out that this was not a scandal, it was simply factual.
Pedophilia is sex with children who have not yet entered puberty.
There is a different name–a couple of them, actually–for sex with teenagers.
What’s more, the difference matters.
Sex with children has been viewed as an aberration in most societies over most of the history of the human habitation of earth.
Sex with adolescents has been viewed as entirely normal, and still is, in most places.
We may have enxtended the definition of childhood to include people all the way up to the age of eighteen, but rest of the world, and the rest of history, have not.
Now, none of these things is in serious scientific dispute, and most of the conversation I posted them consisted of a discussion of the ways in which are extention of the definition of “childhood” and the use and abuse of the sex offender laws and registry was doing bad things all around–
When a new poster chimed in to declare that: it didn’t matter what you called it, it was an evil thing that had ruined thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of lives AND Donohue was defending the priests who did these evil things and therefore he was just as evil himself.
And that’s how we ended up here.
So let me make a few points:
1) what the priests did was evil, and they most certainly deserve to be condemned for it, but by no stretch of the imagination were “hundreds of thousands” of children and/or adolescents involved.
There were in fact fewer than 5,000 such allegations for a period covering nearly 30 years. Even if you consider all of them to be automatically true and substantiated–and they weren’t–you’re still dealing with a problem whose dimension are (grantly sadly) pretty par for the course for this kind of thing.
This does NOT excuse what happened.
This does NOT relieve the Church or the priests of responsibility for what they did and didn’t do.
It’s just a fact, and the facts won’t go away just because we want them to, or because cartoonish exaggerations are so much more emotionally satisfying than reality.
2) Donohue was not defending the priests or what they did.
The Catholic League, which Donohue created, exists to combat what it feels is anti-Catholic bias in the media and the culture.
In pursuit of this, the League has done some fairly silly things, like picket museums that show Andre Serano’s Piss Christ.
In this case, all Donohue was trying to do was insist that reports on the “priest pedophilia” scandal be accurate.
When we get to the point where calls for accuracy result in accusations of siding with the evildoers, we’re in a place we shouldn’t ever want to be.
No matter what it is that you think you’re doing when you declare that facts don’t matter, only passionate condemnation does, what you’re NOT doing is siding with the victims or preventing any more victimization.
In fact, you’re probably helping to increase the number of children and adolescents who will be victimized in the future.
Without accuracy and honesty in investigating the problem, there’s no chance in hell that you’ll be able to understand enough about what the hell went on so that you’ll be able to prevent the same thing happening in the future.
A Catholic Church full of priests lusting after 6 year olds is not the same thing as a Catholic Church with a distinct minority (about 4%) who preyed on 15 year olds.
It’s a different problem morally, physically, and in every other way.
If you set up a bunch of defenses against the problem with 6 year olds, you’re going to miss the majority of what’s going on.
3) No matter how much fun it might be to beat up on the Catholic Church, or how much need you may have to be able to declare the Church to be totally discredited from commenting on moral questions, making accusations so exaggerated as to make them false does not help your case.
The “priest pedophilia” scandal generated as much attention as it did because the Catholic Church is rich and powerful and on very vocally on the conservative side of lots of social issues.
It is not, however, at all unusual in the percentage of its staff who engage in pedophilia or sex with adolescents.
Predators go where the prey are. Every organization in the country which deals with large numbers of children has pretty much the same percentage of staff engaged in sexual predation–and that’s an important thing to know.
If all you care about is whether or not you can make the Church look bad–well fine.
But if you want to decrease the number of children and adolescents who fall victim to these people, then you have to acknowledge who they really are and what they’re really doing.
4) One of the things we all have to acknowledge if we really want to do something about these problems is that pedophilia and the urge to have sex with adolescents are VERY different things.
They are different historically, culturally, and psychologically.
And because of that, it may be much easier to combat the one (pedophilia) than the other.
But you’re not going to combat anything if you restrict yourself to morally satisfying fairy tales.
So, this morning, on ALDaily, I found this
Yet another hymn to what is good about Luddism–the stubborn refusal to accept change as it manifests itself in new technologies, particularly the technologies that disrupt our world by making some forms of employment and occupation obsolete and substituing new ones–
Or, as all Luddites, ne0- or otherwise, insist, possibly not substituting anything at all.
It is this fear–that technology will take over all our employments and leave us with nothing, groveling and starving in the dirt while the few people who own these technologies or who are otherwise able to access and use them gobble up all the resources and ignore us as if we don’t exist.
I have gone over and over and over again why I believe this scenario is farcical, not the least of which is the fact that those people who own the technologies need custoners if they’re going to make any money at all.
If we ever did reach the point where there was nothing but the “1%” and the starving, groveling masses whose only opportunity for making a living consisted of playing pool boy to Silicon Valley tech barons, the whole system would promptly collapse and the tech barons would find themselves out on the streets with the rest of us.
There is no market without people. It would be possible for the tech barons to make individual products for individual rich buyers, but they would be a lot poorer when they did it, and the rest of us could and would ignore them. They’d do what they do, and we’d go back to doing things like farming small plots of land or herding cattle or inventing widgets that our neighbors and friends would value.
We tend to forget that “employment” as we now understand it is a very knew thing, brought on by the industrial revolution.
But that’s the worst case scenario, and it’s not what I’m worried about, because the changes that it will come about are virtually nil. Tech barons like to make money just the way robber barons did, and to do that they need a middle class.
That middle class may be in India and China instead of here, but it will be somewhere, and it will have both employment and income.
With any luck, it will also have more imagination than the writers of these articles ever seem to have, because if there is one thing that categorizes pieces like this, it is the MONUMENTAL failure of imagination required to even conceive them.
I understand that it is very difficult to peer into the future and conceive of what might be coming down the road. And my older son is always telling me that we’re very bad at knowing what we’re going to get good at, his prime example being the old Jetsons tv show, where there are flying cars and robots doing all kinds of work people did then, but where telephone calls still need a switchboard and computers still occupy entire buildings.
No, I do not know what’s coming next, but I do know that whatever it is it will be something we do not have now, at all. We’re having trouble conceiving of it because it does not now exist.
Whatever it is will come, however, and when it’s been around for a while, people will start complaining that the good jobs it once guaranteed to the middle class are being decimating by yet newer technologies coming up.
But nobody will say “yet newer.” Everybody will talk as if the technology under discussion existed from always and it’s just this latest innovation taking away what we’re “entitled” to.
But all those things aside, the REALLY interesting thing about this piece occurs near the end, where the author talks about a new HBO series called Silicon Valley.
The author heartily approves of this series, because he feels it shows Silicon Valley for what it really is–a collection of very strange people who don’t care at all about our welfare.
Think about that.
“…very strange people…”
You know, weirdos.
We are, God help us, back to that.
And that, quite frankly, says all I need to know about Luddism, neo or otherwise.
Luddism has been synonomous with stupid, or foolish?
Well, that there–that “very strange people”–is why it should be.
I first heard that Gordon Ramsay’s television show Hotel Hell was coming to Connecticut to film a segment on Woodbury’s Curtis House about six months ago.
At the time, all I could think of was: oh, my God. I’ve eaten in a restaurant with a kitchen full of rotting meat and cockroaches.
For those of you who are not familiar with Gordon Ramsay or his television: he is a chef of some serious reputation, with three or four internationally famous restaurants in operation, who started on the tube with a show that took him to various failing restaurants in the US and the Uk and gave him a chance to fix them.
It’s really remarkable how many of those restaurants have turned out to have kitchen conditions that ought to make them immediately nonexistant by order of the board of health–but somehow, the various boards of health never seem to have discovered the messes in these kitchens, and there were are.
I’ve always wondered why these people invite Ramsay in to take over and film, because although there are obvious compensations (the show often picks up a hefty tab for remodelling or the services of a professional chef who can retrain the restaurant’s incompetent staff), the simple fact is that I would eat in one of these places to save my life.
If the kitchen was that filthy to start with, my hunch is that it will go back to being that filthy again, given time. I don’t trust these people to maintain hygene. They haven’t up to now.
Aside from the original program (actually two, Kitchen Nightmare’s and Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares), Ramsay also has something called Hell’s Kitchen, which is a sort of standard competition show where hopeful chefs compete for jobs in one of Ramsay’s restaurants, and this thing, Hotel Hell, where Ramsay charges in to fix an entire hotel instead of just a restaurant.
Now, I won’t say Gordon Ramsay is an acquired taste. The experience is more like watching a train wreck.
American versions of the show are full of bleeps. BBC America versions just let the effing and essing fly. The man has the most remarkable ability of anyone I’ve ever seen to lose his temper on camera and to do it completely articulately.
He also has the ability to be charming in unexpected ways–like spoofing himself on a cell phone commercial or calling his mother for mother’s day while he’s on his way to…the Curtis House.
Of course, there are exceptions on all these shows, places in which the underlying problem isn’t filth and neglect. One of the episodes on one of the restaurant shows featured a place whose kitchen was pristine but whose owners were crazy. Customers would complain about the food and then be told, “you’re wrong, our food is great, you’re just trying to make trouble, you should get out of here.”
Clips from that show ended up on YouTube and went absolutely viral. People started showing up at the restaurant to see if these people were as crazy as they appeared.
Apparently they were.
But in spite of these exceptions, the shows run pretty close to formula almost every time, so when I hear that Gordon Ramsay is coming in to fix a restaurant or a hotel, I assume that at least some of what I’m going to get is, you know, cockroaches.
And the thing about the Curtis House is that, although I’ve never stayed there, I have eaten there.
It was a while back, and there’s nothing to say that what it is like now is what it was like then, but still…
It’s not the kind of thing you want to think about.
So, when I heard that Ramsay was coming to Woodbury, I really, really, really wanted to see the episode.
Sort of as a matter of principle.
Well, a couple of days ago, I did see it–I can find it difficult to watch shows on television, because I don’t like to watch episodes when they’re initially aired.
That’s fine as long as the show is popular and the station it originally appeared on is interested in having it reaired, but it can also mean that there are some things that just disappear into the night, or that vanish for long periods until you can’t remember why you were interested in the first place.
With the Curtis House episode of Hotel Hell, I didn’t take the chance.
Like everything else that airs on Fox, episodes are up FOD the day after they’re first aired. The episodes are “free” only in the sense that they don’t require anything out of pocket. The commercials are running full blast, and you can’t fast forward through them no matter how much you may want to.
On the other hand, that’s fair. Fox makes its money through advertising. And there’s nothing to stop you from going to the kitchen instead of actually watching the commercials.
So I sat down after lunch one day and watched the thing and…
Well, first, it was one of the exceptions. Although there was a fair amount of filthiness in the rooms upstairs, there was no indication that the kitchen was anything but properly run, at least as far as hygiene was concerned.
Ramsay did rework the inn’s menu, because he thought the food was “stodgy.” I’ll give that too him. The time I ate there, the food was very stodgy indeed.
And that was what was most interesting about all of this.
With a lot of other people, I tend to think of “reality TV” as essentially UNreal. I’ve always assumed that what I saw there was distorted by definition.
If it was up on the air and meant to be entertainment, then it must also have been falsified in some way.
The Curtis House episode of Hotel Hell, however, was not falsified in any way I could see.
It’s possible that the central drama–a brother and sister ownership teamwho had stopped talking to each other, at all, years ago–was scripted into unrecognizability.
But I’d have no way of knowing that.
And from what I do know about this place, the episode was entirely authentic.
If you want to know what it’s like to eat at Connecticut’s oldest in–in operation since before the Revolution–this episode is a good guide to the experience.
I feel like I need to revise the way I view and judge at least some reality programming.
You’re never going to get me to think that there’s anything “real” about Jersey Shore. You’re never going to get me to watch a single entire episode.
But there are other things on the air–the Lockup series that goes inside prisons, for instance–that might have more to recommend them than I originally thought.
Let’s start with 3:20 am on Wednesday morning, which is when I got up in the middle of the night, didn’t bother to turn on the lamp–I never do–and promptly fell right over, hitting the carpet hard with both knees.
Then, I couldn’t figure out a way to get up except by crawling into the hall, where there was enough room for me to sort of roll around.
The whole scene was ludicrous and embarrassing, and it left me wide awake for the rest of the night, but I thought that was all that had happened.
It did occur to me that I could have fallen like that in a room with hardwood floors. We have a lot of them. And hardwood floors could easily have broken one of my knees, or both. And that would have been very bad.
So I sort of stumbled through the day, feeling sort of mentally fuzzed from the lack of sleep but basically all right–until just after lunch, when the knees started to hurt.
They also started to have a really hard time bending. I discounted that at first, because I’ve got arthritis in those knees, and sometimes they just have a really hard time bending.
But it’s back to that thing about how everything is relative. My knees do often have a very hard time bending, but not this hard a time bending.
I also usually don’t have problems with my knees standing up.
By the time it got around to when I was supposed to start dinner, plans went from this elaborate chicken thing I’d been intent on making to plain hamburgers, which could be shaped and slapped on a broiler pan in thirty seconds.
By the time I’d normally go to bed, I’d taken all the aspirin I dared to and I was aching so much I couldn’t concentrate on the Perry Mason novel I was reading.
I managed to get to sleep, finally, although it was a little late, and I got up this morning hoping that the whole thing had taken care of itself overnight.
Which, of course, it hadn’t.
The good news is that this is a long week-end, and Monday is the holiday, so I won’t need to be up and about and vigorous for class until next Wednesday, which ought to be long enough.
The bad news is that this is a long week-end, and I have a hundred and one things to get done whether I want to do them or not.
If it was up to me, I’d order a pile of take out and pretend that my life didn’t exist until Tuesday.
As it is, I am here at the computer being Extremely Conscientious and Responsible, and I’m not very happy about it.
Having taken the time to write this, however, let me answer a question from the comments–what was so awful about the Fifties?
I’m with John, to an extent.
There were definitely some things that were right with the 50s.
We did most certainly build the Interstate highway system, and much else besides.
And although people were still people and lusted after money, there seems to me to have been a lot less in the way of money-is-the-only-thing-that counts.
It was an era in which people involved in scandals disappeared from public view instead of ending up as “celebrities” on Dancing With The Stars, and Jonas Salk refused to patent his polio vaccine because he didn’t want to make the vaccine too expensive for children to be able to have it.
But there were some other things about the 50s that were no so admirable.
Jim Crow, for instance, and a situation in most of the American Southeast that made it impossible for most black people to vote. At all.
A world where the want ads were divided up into “male” and “female” and Harvard Law School admitted one–ONE–woman to each year’s class.
A world where homosexuality was usually against the law, and where the laws against homosexuality were often vigorously enforced.
A world where the only thing it took to ruin a girl’s reputation–to get her thrown out of school, to make her “fair game” to anybody who wanted to to force her into anything (after all, she gives it away, you can’t believe her when she cries rape, she wouldn’t care anyway, she’s got nothing to lose)–was some guy saying he’d had her, no proof required.
So, no. There is much I admire in the 50s, there’s enough I don’t so that I don’t want to go back.
It’s the start of a long week-end, and for reasons that are too complicated for me to go into here, I’m going to spend it going over and over and over a column by Paul Krugman in an attempt to make sure it’s going to be comprehensible to a group of people who don’t want to read it in the first place.
This is very hard to do. If you don’t care, you’re not likely to be paying attention. And most of my students don’t care about the kind of thing Paul Krugman writes about.
This is not a matter of political orientation–they wouldn’t care about “income inequality” from any point of view.
If they think about it at all, they tend to think it’s both natural and inevitable.
Those who had heard of the Kelo decision didn’t think there was anything remarkable about it. Those who hadn’t, having had it explained to them, were upset about only one thing: that the private development project had fallen apart in the end, and the neighborhood left as a burned out hulk.
As if that whole mess would have been all right if only the project had succeeded, the private developer had made a lot of money, and the city of New London had collected its higher taxes.
Most of my students are not conservative in the usual senses of the word. Most of them support an expansive welfare state, since many of them have families that rely on it.
Students who do not have families who rely on it oppose it, and that can lead to some interesting conversations in class–the students who oppose welfare state programs often don’t know what they do or what the rules are for obtaining benefits.
Once they do know what the rules are, many of them make lightning fast changes of position. as if the punitiveness of the system somehow makes it all right.
My students are, almost universally, conservative socially, which is especially true if they come from South America or the Middle East, which a lot of them do.
All the exceptions I can think of have been white, born in this country, and female–I have no idea why that is.
I would think it was just that the left assumption of politics-follows-identity for once actually worked, except that I have lots of other kids who fit the description and are still as socially conservative as the kids from Honduras and Guatamala.
The Krugman has the advantage of being short, which I think is going to be absolutely necessary to a first class on how to analyze nonfiction.
On the other hand, it’s Krugman, which means it’s both absolutely predictable and mind numbingly boring.
I still say that there ought to be a rule somewhere that says that as soon as you say “in the 50s, we had a better standard of living because we taxed people more,” you’re banished from the conversation until you can explain why it was taxing people that did it and not the fact that the US was the only functional industrial power left on the planet after a devastating world war knocked out all the others.
But none of that is going to matter, because my kids won’t care one way or the other.
The new textbook is full of politics, on the assumption that this will be “relevant” to the kids and speak to their interests and concerns.
What it really speaks to is the issues and concerns of the people who write textbooks, and to an extent to the people who assign them.
This is true even when the textbook editors are being scrupulous about presenting “all points of view,” which the editors of this one tried to do.
And even mostly succeeded.
There is no fiction in this list, and will be none. Advanced Composition is meant to teach students how to write college papers for upper level courses, and the assumption is that none of those papers will be written for English classes, because after they leave my room they will never take another English class.
That assumption is perfectly true.
In fact, as I learned on the first night, it is now possible for students to go all the way through college and get a degree without taking a single course in which they are assigned any work of fiction.
Forget Robert’s RRL. None of these kids will have to struggle for a single moment with any short story or any poem.
What I have available to assign instead are essays, some of them quite long and very complicated.
The evil side of my brain that just wants to mess with everybody’s head considered beginning by assigning Susan Sontag’s “In Plato’s Cave,” an academic essay on the esthetics and social impact of photography that is impenetrable if you don’t know a lot about–well, Plato, to start with.
And it’s Sontag, so it just gets worse.
You can complain about this new book on a number of levels, but being not really college work is not one of them.
My students, in the meantime, have their own problems, and those problems are not about to go away.
Most of them have very little money, and they’ve just shelled out close to $100 for a textbook, most of which they won’t even be able to read.
They don’t want to be in an English class, not because there’s a RRL they don’t like, but because, as far as they’re concerned, it’s completely irrelevant to anything they want to do.
The smartest of them are headed for nursing, radiology, and other medical sub-specialities. An ideal classroom experience for them would be another semester of physiology of pharmacology.
If I ask them why they think they are required to take a course like mine, most of them will be entirely frank, at least toward the end of the semester–this is the way the college makes money, by requiring them to pay for totally useless courses that have nothing to do with their majors.
This is something they both resent and fear. They resent it because they feel they are being ripped off. They fear it because getting even a B in one of these useless courses can mean being rejected by the nursing program, being forced to downgrade their ambitions from RN to LPN or even lower.
They’re practical people, my students.
Disregard the bottom tenth–the ones who are forced to be there as a condition of parole or probation, the ones with richer than average fathers who are threatening to throw them out of the house if they don’t go to school–and what I’ve got is a group of people for whom school has always been the same: at the best, a boring waste of time; at the worst, the place they come to be told that they’re stupid.
They have been a revelation to me over the past 13 years, they really have been.
It will always be absolutely incredible to me how common it is with some people in this country to throw their kids out on their own because mom’s got a new boyfriend and they don’t want the company or the kid isn’ bringing home enough money to pay for his keep or…
The number of my kids who are living in their cars instead of in houses is truly amazing.
So is the commonness of high school teachers (and sometimes guidance counselors) who feel the need to tell kids that they’re just too stupid to go to college, they shouldn’t even try, they’ll just fail.
And when they do better for me and I tell them I think they’re more than bright enough, they don’t change their opinion of who and what they are. They’re still convinced they’re “stupid.” They’re just also convinced I “like” them.
And I do.
I grew up in Fairfield County. I went to very good and expensive schools, and even when I went out to the Midwest to graduate school to a public university, the public university in question was the high end of that.
I’d never in my life met people like this before I came here. And in all likelihood, if I ever leave here, I won’t meet people like this again.
Some of what I see would make any sane person want to commit murder. I think I’d start with the entire faculty of a certain high school in Waterbury.
Some of what I see has made me realize that our practice of calling everybody under 18 a “child” hasn’t change the fact that some people are very dangerous very young, and probably always will be.
Some of what I see is just heartbreaking.
But every once in a while I have a win, and more often than that I have those determined, entirely practical kids who have plotted a course and stick to it.
So I’m still here.
Yes, yes. I know.
I disappear for weeks at a time, and then who knows what’s going on?
The unfortunate reality–or maybe the fortunate one–is that I sometimes have actual work to do.
Lately there’s been more than usual.
For one thing, I’m teaching an actual upper level course this term, one I have never taught before, which means I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks trying to write a syllabus that makes sense, sticks to the academic level the course is supposed to present, and still doesn’t scare them all out of their gourds.
When I was first assigned this course, the cap on enrollment was 15. That made a certain amount of sense. An upper level course means a higher standard for acceptable work, longer assignments, more complex rubrics.
By the time I hit the room yesterday, the enrollment cap had been raised to 27, and I had 25 people in a very small room.
The small room isn’t, in and of itself, a big problem–a little claustrophobic, but not a big problem–but the lack of any kind of tech is. My place has put out a great effort over the last five years or so to install “smart” classrooms everywhere, and most of the classrooms on the floor of the building where I teach have at least got built in audio visual equipment and a computer at the teacher’s desk.
My room has none of that, which means no projecting articles or student papers on a screen so that the whole class can work with them.
I’ll admit–I started out working in classrooms without computers. I know how to do it, and I’m sure I can do it again.
I’ve just gotten very used to the conveniences, and I’m going to miss them.
But part of the reason I haven’t been writing is that I’ve been enormously depressed.
There are some ways in which only American life can make be enormously depressed, and the whole Ferguson thing is doing a great job of it.
Both the left and right, here, are doing their usual–the left by running around yelling about how everybody is racist, which is frustrating because it’s a) true in a sense but b) not in the sense they mean it and c) largely both irrelevant and trivial to what’s going on here.
And the right is…well, what the hell.
For about a week, Fox News was behaving as if it existed in an alternate universe, playing the story (when playing it at all) as if it was minor. Then it went on with the “and why doesn’t anybody ever talk about black on black crime” thing.
Which is also irrelevant and trivial to what’s going on.
And today, of course, the NYT is full of all that vile nonsense about “white privilege.”
I’ll say it again–anybody who advocates that line should be completely and thoroughly ashamed of themselves. It’s not only a lie, it can only make everything worse.
The only really interesting thing about this whole mess comes from the people of Ferguson and the surrounding towns who go on television and say things like “this isn’t about race” and “we support the police, they’re the only ones who keep us from being completely slaughtered” and “what can Ferguson expect if the community won’t get out and vote?”
That last one, by the way, was delivered by the African American mayor of one of the surrounding towns, who used his time on MSNBC to complain about the fact (and it apparently is a fact) that African Americans don’t get out to vote, and as a result a majority-black town has a majority-white elected administration and a majority-white police force, because it’s your town government who gets to pick the police.
And no, this did not come about because of “voter suppression,” unless the Missouri right wing somehow targeted voters only in Ferguson and not in the other minority-majority suburbs.
The Enlightenment gave us a set of rules by which it might be possible for a nation to be both diverse and functional–something that had never happened up to then in the history of the world.
It said that we had to treat each other as individuals and not as members of groups. It said that all justice is individual–guilt and innocence consist of what an individual person has actually done, not what their ancestors did and or what the ancestors of somebody else who sort of looks like them did.
It said we must give up our “accidental” identities for a common identity, as Americans together and not black/white/Baptist/Jew/Catholic/Asian/female/whatever.
And, of course, it’s never been possible for anybody to do that completely. But we did get close for a while.
I think that’s gone.
I think we will go the way of every other society that has tried to be multiethnic–we’ll fall apart.
What happens when we fall apart presents questions nobody seems to bother to think about.
Both piracy on the high seas and slavery ended because the British Empire ended them, and then used its vast military power to make sure they stay ended.
When the British Empire fell apart, we were there, and we did the same thing.
I look around now, and I don’t see anybody able or willing to take on those particular jobs if we’re not doing them, and we are increasingly not doing them.
China is a police state that has no problem enslaving its own people, and no interest in interfering with slavery anywhere else.
It turns out it’s the Communist country that wants to operate on the profit principle above all else.
Throughout the history of the world, slavery has been the default mode. Every society that has developed to the point of having language–and quite a few that have not–have bought and sold human beings.
That changed only so long as somebody was willing to spend the blood and treasure to make it change. And now nobody is.
And slavery is back. It’s back across half the Muslim nations in Africa and in some in the middle east.
And we do nothing about it that could actually cause us pain, because–well, because why should the US be the world’s policeman?
The problem is that if nobody is the world’s policeman, then nothing gets policed–and the result is not happy anarchical creatures dancing on the lawn.
I warned you that I was depressed.
I lived around and in the city of Detroit for a short span of my mid twenties. It’s one of those periods of my life that I look back on with both fondness and a little embarrassment.
On the one hand, it was a truly revalatory experience–my introduction to the America beyond the East Coast that I’d never before known existed, and areas of study that I should have expected, but didn’t.
I don’t begin to know how to explain all that, except maybe to say that there turned out to be a lot more to agriculture than I’d expected.
And that there’s a lot to be said for all you can eat family-style fried chicken dinners.
I’ve always wanted to take my younger son–who is one of those people who weight 25 pounds in spite of consuming about 8,000 calories a day–to Frankenmuth. He might never leave.
The embarrassment comes from the fact that I knew, the whole time I was there, that I wasn’t really “pursuing graduate studies.” I was hiding out from taking the leap and seeing if I could be a wroter.
It’s been years since I spent any time in Detroit, but I can still remember it very clearly, both the good and the bad. Detroit used to have one of the best Greek Towns in the country after New York City. It was also the place where I first heard about a drive-by shooting, and where people celebrated a recent national crime survey by riding around in cars with bumperstickers that said: Detroit: Murder City–We’re Number One!
I have been watching the complete mess that has become of Detroit for about a year now, and I still don’t know what to think.
Certainly it’s the poster child for voting with your feet.
As the city became more and more dysfunctional, fewer and fewer people wanted to live there, and the people who could get out did get out.
Most of them don’t seem to have gone very far, because most of them haven’t had to. There are still fairly prosperous suburbs not that far over the city line, and businesses have moved to those as well as people.
Detroit itself has entered a weird phase that’s half dystopian novel and half urban fantasy: long stretched of vacant lots returning to the wild, complete with wildlife; people planting truck gardens to compensate for the fact that there are no grocery stores they can get to.
Along with this, of course, there has been a really remarkable level of violence. There are no longer enough police or firefighters to keep reliable order.
And that lack of reliability is killing all the rest.
It’s also causing a lot of paranoia.
It was almost certainly paranoia and the distinct understanding that the police can no longer be counted on to come when they’re called that led to the murder of a young woman named Renisha McBride.
Ms. McBride was driving through the city in the early morning hours when her car broke down. She went to the nearest house and started pounding on the door, asking for help.
Her pounding awakened Thomas Wafer from a sound sleep. He was alone in the house, and he was immediately convinced that he was about to be the victim of a home invasion.
He got his gun, went to the door where the pounding was coming from, opened up–and fired right through the screen at whatever was out there.
What was out there was Renisha McBride, and she was dead a few moments later.
If you want the whole story you can go here
and if you do, you’ll notice that Wafer, unlike George Zimmerman in Florida, was convicted of the killing.
Michigan has different laws than Florida’s, obviously.
But if you look more closely, you’ll see a few more things. Renisha McBride’s father himself said that he didn’t think the incident was primarily about race.
I told this to a friend of mine from graduate school, and she answered: of course it’s not about race. It’s about Detroit.
I get the point, I really do, but at the same time, I don’t think you can say that this case was not at all about race, because race is part of what everybody is paranoid about if they’re still living in Detroit.
Then there’s the ongoing crisis about the water, which has become an international incident.
That one took me a little while to figure out, and, from what I read in the comment threads of a couple of articles, I wasn’t the only one left confused.
The usual practice in the US is for residents and businesses to pay for the water they use.
This is not usually terribly expensive. Where I live, it runs about $300 a year for a household of four. What we pay helps to fund the upkeep of reservoirs and pipes and other equipment, and pays the guys who do all that. It also helps to keep people from wasting water.
The reason the Detroit water story was so confusing at first was because it was reported rather simply: the city of Detroit was turning off the water to hundreds of homes that were behind, often significantly behind, in the payments for their water bills.
For all the heavy breathing this story caused in Europe, Americans were largely flummoxed. The water department turned off the water on people who hadn’t paid their water bills? Okay. Is this a trick question?
As it turned out, it was a trick question. Detroit, it seemed, had just not bothered to collect on water bills, for years.
People weren’t a payment or two beind. They were sometimes as much as a decade behind.
Instead of doing what most places would do if they felt their poorer populations would have trouble paying the water bill–start some kind of program that paid the water company, issue vouchers that would help pay water bills the way food stamps help pay for food–the city had just gone on its way acting as if none of th is was happening.
Customers were sent bills. Customers ignored bills. Water department ignored customers ignoring bills.
And nobody, anywhere, bothered to explain to the City of Detroit why this wasn’t going to be able to go on forever.
It’s one of those things that makes you stop dead and go: no. wait. just a minute.
When the water department started terminating service to households who were not paying their bills, there were a lot of stories about how the city was terminating water service to poor people with unpaid bills, but not to businesses with unpaid bills.
This sounds like one of those Evil Corporations and the 1% get everything and you get screwed stories, except that in this case, so many employers have already left the city, and so many middle class taxpayers have gone with them, the city no longer has a tax base large enough to fund basic services.
It doesn’t want to see any more of these people go where their neighbors have gone.
If Detroit has any chance at all of getting itself out of this mess, it’s going to have to keep the businesses it has and bring a lot more in.
Personally, I don’t think Detroit is going to get itself out of this mess.
I think it’s going to collapse where it stands. In another ten years, I think there is going to be nothing left but abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned to some kind of quasi-natural state.
And then–then, I don’t know.
Maybe Detroit can adopt Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as its official poem.
Perry Mason had a Cadillac convertible. I don’t know what color it was, because the show was in black and white except for a single episode, and the convertible didn’t appear on that episode.
But Perry Mason had one, at least for the TV show, and the really amazing thing about that was: time after time, Mason was shown driving up to his office building with the top of the convertible down, parking in front of the building’s front door on a busy Los Angeles street, shutting the car off, taking the keys, and hurrying out to enter the building.
Notice what I did NOT say.
I did NOT say he put the top back up before leaving the car on the street.
He didn’t do that. He left the top down.
And he left the car open on the street.
And nobody ridiculed the scene, or talked about how that car would have been gone as soon as Mason got into the building and out of sight.
Of course, nobody complained about the possibility of rain, either, but this was supposed to be in LA, which is in the desert, and mostly dry.
What I can’t get out of my head is the fact that, in the 1950s and very early 1960s, nobody thought those scenes were unrealisitic.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, in LA, it was not implausible that you could park your convertible on the street with the top down and not have to worry about it getting stolen.
One of the things that has happened to me as I have gotten older is that I have begun to lose the sense of what I actually remember and what my memory has reconstructed to fit with what I wish things had been like.
That is why things like the Perry Mason episodes bring me up short, and why I’ve been increasingly fascinated with a CNN original series called The Sixties.
Leaving aside the narration or the construction or what the intentions of the producers were in presenting this show, there are lots and lots and lots and lots of clips, and those clips are just astonishing.
It is staggering to see just how polite we all were–Humphrey conceding to Nixon, Civil Rights icons giving speeches about integration, even teeny bopper screamers trying to get a glimpse of the Fab Four–everybody is neatly and half-formally dressed, nobody is indulging in Anglo Saxonisms, there’s virtually no slang and even the Beatniks are speaking mostly in standard English.
And no, that’s not because these clips lack “diversity.” There are plenty of black people in them. It’s just that the black people are also speaking standard English, whether they’re Martin Luther King or a sharecropper’s wife trying to register to vote.
In many ways, watching that CNN series is completely and utterly surreal.
It’s not just that there is “civility” where now there is none.
“Civility” doesn’t even begin to explain what is going on there.
One of the better words to describe what I was looking at might be “innocense.”
We were innocent in a way, then, that we are not any longer.
It hadn’t begun to occur to us that we needed to worry that somebody would steal our cars if we left them on the street with the top down.
Never mind worrying about other things like whether our next door neighbor was a pedophile with his eyes on our six year old or if the adolescent kid across the street had a gun in his room he was planning to use to blow away most of his classmates at the local high school.
I am not saying the times were actually innocent, because of course they were not.
This was the era of Charles Starkweather and the Clutter family murders. Pedophiles existed then as now. Bad people embezzled and robbed and raped.
But I think one of the things we had was an inner conviction that most people were good people, that the evil among us were an exception, not the rule.
That was a principle stressed over and over again in those old Perry Masons, both the TV show and the books: if a character believed that “everybody” was crooked, that said more about him than the world. That was a sign that he himself was crooked, and you had to watch out for him.
And this sea change–this shift to a place where we feel that most people are up to no good, that even under the skin of the seemingly most admirable among us there lurk the reality of corruption and vice and predation, to militarized police departments and schoolteachers convinced that the children in their classrooms are victims of abusive families who have to be rooted out and punished–
This sea change has come in spite of the fact that the actual incidence of crime, including gun violence and sexual predation, is far lower than it used to be.
It is no longer the case the boys get their first gun at the age of 10 and drive to school in pick up trucks with three rifles hanging on the gun rack in the rear windshield.
Part of this is, I know, a result of the distortion brought on by television news, amplified by the 24 hour cable cycle and the 24/7/365 Internet.
We now here about everything, everywhere, so that what is actually less crime and less danger perceived as more. 100 years ago, we wouldn’t have heard about the rape and murder of a teen aged girl in that took place several states away. It would have been a local, not a national, story.
There are no longer any truly local stories anywhere.
Some of this, though, is a real shift in attitude and understanding. We live in a world where almost everybody now assumes that if we hear a rumor about somebody and that rumor is discreditable–well, then it’s probably true.
And that makes me wonder how much of the change is due to the other thing that’s surreally different between then and now: the fact that we are no longer culturally coherent as a society.
The problem is not that we are now multiracial when we didn’t used to be. We’ve always been multiracial, and multiethnic, too.
The problem is that there is no specific public face that pretty much everybody strives to present.
I suppose I am saying that there was more conformity, and I am–but I’m think of that conformity as a matter of outward appearance, not of inward orthodoxy.
Study after study–yes, those studies; and no, you can’t trust them without looking into them–
Study after study has shown that ‘diversity” is actually bad for us in a number of ways. It decreases trust, for instance, and it makes people less willing to support things like social programs to aid the poor and unfortunate.
The more I look at it, though, the more I am convinced that the “diversity’ they’re talking about–the one with unplatable side effects–is a matter of surfaces.
People are lazy. They take other people at face value unless something occurs to make them reexamine their ideas.
If someone appears to be one of their own, most people accept that person as one of their own, without really thinking about it.
And race and ethnicity, in and of themselves, do not mark someone out as NOT one of their own.
I think the early Civil Rights movement understood this, which is why you get guys in suits like that of any banker and women working voter registration in crinolined skirts and little clutch hats.
The signal was not that everybody was alike, but that everybody wanted to be part of the same enterprise.
These days I think most people spend their time signalling that they DON’T want to be part of the same enterprise–and they send that signal no matter who they are, left or right, liberal or conservative.
Superficial individuation has become not a mark of true individuality, but of festering resentment: no, I’m not like you, and I don’t even want to be.
But people always have been, and always will be, more willing to do for their own than for people who don’t even seem to like them very much.
It’s not a matter of selfishness or racism or the hundred million other things we spend out time accusing each other of these days.
It is a matter of a willingness to see your fellow citizens as people you could at least potentially like and trust, and of being willing to make some surface accommodations to signal the fact.
And we’ve lost that.
And I think that’s a bad thing.