Archive for September, 2009
So, here it is–one of those things that just sort of happens when you’re on the subject. If you know what I mean.
This morning I was at the office of the place where I sometimes rent a car–long story; if you think I’m cheap about clothes, you should see me about cars–and while I was waiting a woman showed up wanting to rent a vehicle.
And I knew, as soon as she walked in, that this was not going to end well.
She was an older woman, and some of what made me sit up and take notice was the clothes, all of which were far too young for her–Latex slacks that hugged her calves, backlass wedgie heels.
And some of it was the make-up and the hair, which was not so much too young for her as it was too too, period, if that makes sense.
But most of it was the manner–in the beginning rushed and belligerent, talking through people and then arguing at the top of her voice, trying to get everything done in a rush or not at all, insisting on things that couldn’t possibly true–this is a small company, run by a father and daughter, there are no other employees to get the information tangled up–and generally being in constant motion.
It’s more, I think, than dressing up or down, formally or informally. And it’s more than clothes.
There’s accent to consider, and body language, and mannerisms, and it seems to me that all those things impact what other people see in us and the ways in which they evaluate us.
And I knew exactly what this woman was going to do before she did it. I knew that she would either not understand the difference between a Visa debit card and a regular Visa card, or claim not to. I knew that she would insist that she had not been told that she would need a deposit if she didn’t have a regular credit card. I knew she would try to pay in cash, which for some reason rental car companies really hate.
And I felt sorry for her–she needed a car because her own car had been repossessed. She didn’t have a regular credit card to her name, and her car insurance had been cancelled because of the repossession. She was old and alone and was dropped off by somebody who was obviously doing it on sufferance. He didn’t way to see how she was and was gone when she found out she wouldn’t be getting a car after all. She had to sit there in the little waiting room waiting for a taxi, and I know taxis in that part of the state–it was going to cost her almost as much as a full day’s car rental just to get home.
And she still wouldn’t have a car.
But all this started because I was thinking that, in the real world, money and position (by which I mean a job/title/resume/whatever), do indeed make a great deal of difference in the way we live our lives.
All the things that we believe so strongly shouldn’t matter, turn out to matter far too much.
But I think I’ll stick with my original instinct.
I don’t know about that thing where a man who is not a socialist in youth has no heart and a man who is not a conservative in old age has no head, but I think there’s something wrong with the internal sentiments of the kind of people who come to this realization at the age of twelve, when the rest of us are fighting mad that the world isn’t “fair.”
The world isn’t “fair,” but we should be angry about it.
If that makes sense.
I’m with Cheryl–I think Lymaree is vastly underestimated the extent to which we are judged by our appearances, even in California. I wouldn’t expect to have any trouble in a store–well, not in the vast majority of stores–because the only issue there is ability to pay, and they don’t really care about anything else.
In virtually every other arena, however, even in areas of the country where everybody is “casual,” people do judge each other by what they wear, how they talk, how they hold themselves, and a dozen other “superficial” criteria.
And if the principle person involved in my Worst Week-end had been smarter–well, okay, if she’d been smarter, this wouldn’t have started at all. But if she’d been more observant and more prone to paying attention rather than asserting her Unending Unconditional Rightness, she’d have known her assessment of me was wrong, if only because she’d have picked up on the accent. I’ve got a Connecticut Gold Coast accent that, in spite of years of attempting to mitigate it, you could still cut like a knife.
Then there’s “casual”–there’s casual, and then there’s casual. I know all about rich people who dress down. This is New England. We invented that particular affectation. But there are ways of dressing down and other ways, and I can certainly spot which is which.
And, for what it’s worth, of all the places I’ve been, in this country and out, the most status-conscious, clothes-reading place I’ve ever been has been Los Angeles.
But it’s not if we judge each other on these superficial criteria that I’ve been thinking about, but to what extent it makes sense to accommodate that. Trollope, and Jane Austen, wouldn’t have found the clothes we wear trivial at all. They’d have taken them as a statement of not only who we actually are, but of our allegiance to the society in which we live.
Trollope would have had no patience with a rich person who dressed down, because he would not have seen this as humility, but as a declaration that such a person was rejecting not only fashion, but the moral foundations of the world around him.
The old joke about the British explorer who dressed for dinner in the bush was not a joke. Such a man was upholding the superiority of civilization over the lack of it, of the human being as civilized over the human being as…well, not. What looks to be superficial at first glance is anything but on further inquiry.
I am very ambivalent about all of this. On the one hand, there is a lot about post-World War II modernity that I like. There is, for instance, the fact that in any other era, even in the Fifties of my childhood, I would, as a grown woman, have been expected to wear stockings (or, worse, pantyhose) every day, even at home. And I tend to think of pantyhose as something like hell on earth.
I don’t have much patience with clothes. I mostly just dont’ want to think about them. A world in which nobody else seems to be thinking about them suits me, especially when it means that I can dress for comfort rather than for form most of the time.
But milder versions of “dressing up” have their uses, too. There ‘s a certain self-discipline involved in going about your business in a skirt and blouse and decent shoes rather than in sweats and sneakers, and something in the way of declaring a definition of “being human” that resists the wallowing in animality that’s become so prevalent lately. The Brit in the jungle eating dinner in white tie and tails was declaring not only who he was, but who he wasn’t.
And there’s a side issue, too. As standard uniform dress has disintegrated into wear-anything-you-want, more and more people don’t wear clothes quite so much as they wear costumes–especially women.
It’s startling how many people I see who are made up to represent something. In my childhood, this was restricted to Beatniks, who were trying to Make A Statement. You had Regular People–Villager skirt and sweater set, little blouse, stockings, one and a half inch heel pumps. Then you had Beatniks–smocky dress, black tights, ballet flats.
We all thought the Beatniks were trying too hard, and that’s something else about the way people do and do not dress today. The ones who take care with it often seems as if they’re working overtime to be Individual, and the individuality usually seems fake.
I’m going around and around with this, and I apologize. Maybe what I’m trying to say is this:
a) maybe it requires a certain conformity in superficial aspects to allow for true individuality to flourish. I remember reading an essay on the poet Stevie Smith that said she had that bedrock confictiono of her own complete ordinariness that all real eccentrics have, and that is, in fact, what my experience has been.
The men and women I see wearing quirky little costumes–peasant blouses and three tons of turquoise and silver jewelry; pegged jeans, motorcycle jackets and ponytails to the ass off the back of a mostly bald head–do not look individual to me so much as desperately self conscious, and a little pathetic.
And then there’s this:
b) maybe a certain small degree of formality is required to remind us, on a minute to minute basis, that being human is not just something we are, but something we have to live up to.
Okay. That’s another post for another time.
Okay, just for the sake of argument–let’s say that fiction is for what I say it is for, for people, not for plot.
I bring this up because I am in the middle of reading Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, the last in his series of Palliser novels, centered around Parliament.
For those of you who have never read Trollope, and don’t want to, let me point out that these are not “political” novels as the word would be used today. Plantagenant Palliser–in the later books the Duke of Omnium–is a Liberal, but it would be impossible to figure out what a Liberal means from reading this fiction.
The books center on Parliament only in the sense that they center on the lives of the men in parliament and their families and acquaintances, and in that a good deal of time is psent illustrating the way elections work and governments are formed.
So you can find out a good deal about the way that Parliamentary government works, but next to nothing about the differing positions of Liberals and Conservatives on things like, well, trade. Or the rights of women, which was one of the Big Issues that had begun to occupy the British political mind.
The Duke’s Children does take up an issue that has been on my mind a good deal, in spite of the fact that I’m a twentieth century American and not a Victorian Brit.
That issue is hard to put straightforwardly, but I’m going to do the best I can.
How much should the appearance and actuality of wealth and rank matter to the way you will be treated by the world around you–and how much should they matter to you, yourself?
That really is putting it very badly. Let me try to get around it sideways, like this.
The Duke’s Children is in a way the mirror volume to the first book in this series, called Can You Forgive Her? In that first book, Lady Glencora Palliser, newly married to Plantagenant (who is not yet the Duke, because his father is still alive), nearly ruins herself by running away with the man she didn’t marry. That man–Burgo Fitzgerald–had no money, no position (he was never going to be a Duke), and a very iffy reputation. He was, however, the person who turned Glencora on fire.
This may seem like an old fashioned problem, one we would never have any trouble with today. And certainly men and women today are much freer in making decisions of this sort simply by the fact that women now have control of their own money and can work at whatever profession they want.
It is one of the great annoyances of reading Trollope that he can understand this idea completely–he knows that there’s something wrong with women being given nothing to have on th eir minds but the men they marry–and still be firmly opposed to doing about it the only thing that could be done. Trollope was not a feminist, even of the nineteenth century variety.
But although this issue seems archaic, I don’t think it is. A great deal of the Worst Weekend in My Life from earlier this year resulted exactly from people taking my appearance (including my given name), coupled with a complete lack of actual knowledge about me, at face value. Obviously I must be doing X, since immigrants often do X because they don’t understand the social norms of this country.
But, of course, I’m not an immigrant, and neither were either of my parents. And on one side of my family, I’ve got people from New England going back to the seventeeth century.
The thing about Lady Glencora is this: she was happier with Plantagenant Palliser than she ever would have been with Burgo Fitzgerald. She did not love Palliser as she loved Fitzgerald, but she didn’t hate him, either. Trollope was not trying to say that an entirely hollow, materialistically-based marriage would be a good one. Lady Glencora was very fond of Plantagenant, and happy in his company, she just didn’t have searing-gut feeling that is supposed to be “love.”
That romantic passion comes and then it goes, the Victorians would have said. Respectability, honor and an ordered life last forever.
So far I do indeed concur. The older I get, the more I understand the importance of a regulated life. There’s a Victorian phrase for you.
But there are other aspects to this that I don’t find so clear. I’m still adolescent enough, for instance, to be annoyed when people judge me by my clothes, or get angry with me because they can’t do that because all the parts don’t fit.
I’m a very peculiar person in some ways. There are things–and cothes are one of them–that I honestly resent spending money on, even when I have lots of money and spending a lot in one place wouldn’t change my ability to spend a lot in another. Clothes are one of those things. The most expensive I get in the way of clothes is L.L. Bean–the whole Vineyard Vines thing drives me crazy–and mostly I go fo whatever I can pick up in Marshalls or K-Mart for under thirty dollars. Under twenty for stuff like jeans and under ten for t-shirts.
And, of course, seeing me dressed like that, people make assumptions not only about my financial status–which I tend to think it none of their business, but which matters a lot in certain kinds of interactions–but about my level of education, even my upbringing. And since none of these things “fit” what I look like, I often get people very angry–and that one time, I ended up in a situation I might have avoided if I’d just agreed to look the part of what I actually am.
Trollope’s late work is notable for the extent to which he is questioning the assumptions of a lifetime, for being unsure of where it should rest, on which side of what issues. Lady Glencora gave up the love aof a man who was socially beneath her to find contentment, if not ecstasy, in the bosom of a proper marriage. Her daughter, Lady Mary, will be allowed to marry her commoner–a somewhat better sort than her mother’s, as he has honor, if no more money than Burgo had.
This being Trollope, I don’t expect to get the answers to any of the questions I’ve been asking myself lately. And no matter how archaic this theme sounds, it’s with us still, in movies and in novels. The importance of wealth and rank to marriage is the theme of The Notebook, the importance of wealth and rank in general is the theme of The Devil Wears Prada.
The reason why I think Trollope belongs in the Canon and those other things will never make it is this: Trollope accepts the fact–and it is a fact–that there is a real question here. It is not simply black and white–people who care about wealth and rank or their appearance, are bad and shallow people, and the high ground resides with the people who reject both and declare the world well lost.
For one thing, Trollope understands that the world can indeed be lost–by individuals, on an ondividual basis, in an individual life–and that that doesn’t always work out well.
I’ve been thinking all night about Robert’s comment that he doesn’t quite accept the idea that teachers are going against the entire policy of “boost self esteem” in order to make their kids feel like failures, and it occurs to me that a) the two things aren’t incompatible and b) that the self esteem project might be less widespread than it was assumed to be for a while.
I do encounter students who seem to have emerged from programs designed to make them think well of themselves at the expense of all else, but those students are invariably at least middle class. It’s the lower academic levels of the rich suburban districts and the lower rung prep schools that produce students like this, and they’re a disaster in a college classroom, no matter how remedial.
Not only do they not know anything, they know they don’t know it, and their entire modus operandi is a desperate defensive strategy meant to shield themselves from ever having to admit it. When they find out that a C paper is a C paper no matter how hard they work on it, they panic and then they explode. “Working really hard” is supposed to be the only criterion for a grade, and the teacher is supposed to accept their assurances that they “worked really hard” whether they’ve shown evidence of that or not.
But my inner city students are not like this. They do have a certain amount of investment in the “work hard” theory of grading. I think it’s possible that our need to emphasize how important it is to “work hard” has some unintended cosequences.
But my inner city students are not only convinced that they’re stupid, they’re convinced that they’re incapable of ever being anything else.
What’s more, this conviction is tied to one they would never voice out loud, but that’s as clear as the logos on their T-shirts: they’re convinced that black people are incapable of ever being anything else.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this over the years. I don’t believe that their schools, no matter how bad–and really, I’ve only hinted at how bad things can get–are coming out and telling them this sort of thing explicitly. I don’t even think that it’s a matter of “the culture” only showing images of stupid black people and not the other kind. After all, every day today, we’ve got at least one very smart black person talking to us from our television sets.
I do think that part of the problem is the level of economic segregation that exists in many public school systems.
The economic part is important because when students judge themseves as “smart” or “stupid,” they’re not talking, as an expert would, about raw intellectual ability. What they’re picking up on is ignorance, and they’re aware that they’re ignorant. They’re aware that most of the people around them are ignorant, too.
Ignorant depends on what’s called in the literature “opportunity to learn,” and it is almost never enough to be presented with knowledge in classrooms. Classrooms can be good if there’s no other place for you to pick up what you need to know, and they can be good if you know it and want to expand it, but if the only things you know about, say, the way the federal government works, the chances are that what you know is both limited and difficult for you to remember.
“Smart” students in this sense, therefore, tend to be found in the suburban districts. They’re the ones with parents who know the names of their state’s senators, the basic facts of American history, the vague outlines of literary history, and all the other little, nit-picky things “everybody” knows and that teachers, books, magazines and movies simply don’t bother to expand on.
It’s extremely unlikely that a black student with parents like this is living in the inner city, for the same reason that it’s unlikely that a white student with parents like this is living in the local trailer park. And more power to them. I wouldn’t stick around in a crummy neighborhood if I didn’t have to.
But there was one great advantage to the old, insular small town school, the one in a town so small that there would only be one, and that everybody went to together–schools like that always had the full range of smart to stupid kids, ignorant to knowledgable kids. Students could see other students, just like themselves, who had achieved an academic level they might want for themselves.
Okay, I’m not trying to valorize the small town here. I also know hat’s wrong with it, and I’ve made it my business not to participate in that kind of thing as an adult, or to put my children in the position of having only that to live in–but my complaint about economically segregated schools is still valid.
Even intellectually gifted students in inner city schools are surrounded by a sea of ignorance, so wide and so deep it’s breathtaking. What’s more, they’re not getting much advantage from their teachers, because their teachers are invariably the worst the system can breed.
Good teachers do not tend to seek jobs in inner city schools, and if they do, they don’t tend to last long. Fir better or worse, inner city schools are home to the children of lots of people who are not only poor, but in trouble, and often in trouble in violent, brutal and destructive ways.
I once got accused, on an Internet forum, of saying that poor people are poor because they’re drug addicts and criminals–but that wasn’t what I said.
What I said was that being a drug addict or a criminal (or both) was likely to make you poor.
The guy who thinks it makes sense to hold up a liquor store to get party money for Friday night, the woman who thinks heroin is the only thing worth living for, the couple whose entire marriage is a mess of binge drinking followed by domestic violence are unlikely to be able to afford to live in Westport, or even in Naugatuck.
Making enough money to afford to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood takes a certain amount of self-discipline, things that most of us take for granted that are not second nature to everybody.
Setting the alarm clock every morning and making yourself get up early so that you’re not late for work, not going to the party on Friday because you have to study for a math test, mapping out a plan for working ona project instead of letting it wait until the last minute–most of us learn this behavior by watching our parents, not because somebody in the front of a classroom forced us to toe the line.
Inner city schools are full of kids whose parents do not behave like this–and that’s rue no matter what the racial make up of the inner city neighborhood. This is New England. A fair number of our inner cities are all whiite, and the behavior I’m talking about can be found just as readily in certain kinds of rural schools (say, for instance, in parts of Appalachia).
I’ve had students who have never seen any member of their family work at a legitimate job, who have never sat down at a table and had a meal with other people until they were faced with the school cafeteria, whose families live for weeks and months with an exhausted light bulb over their front door without ever thinking to change it.
I’ve pointed out, before, that one of the reasons I like the work of Theodore Dalrymple is that he’s the only person I know writing about things like this, but I want to point out something obvious here–it is extremely difficult to teach students who come from situations like these.
Good teachers have options. They don’t have to work with students who are not only frustrating, but sometimes violent, and who come from families that will nt support the school when Junior needs extra help or a week of after school detention.
Bad teachers have fewer options, and they get shunted farther and farther down the totem pole until they come to a rest in the worst schools in the worst neighborhoods. Tenure makes it difficult or impossible to fire them, or at least so much trouble it isn’t worth the effort if you’ve got an alternative.
Inner city schools are the alternative. Middle class parents will complain. They’ll hire lawyers and sue. Parents who will suffer in the dark rather than change a light bulb–to whom it doesn’t even occur that it is within their power to change it–aren’t likely to do either.
Bad teachers are failures, and failures have a nasty tendency to take out their resentment on whoever is handy–and the students are handy.
My inner city students do come to college with the conviction that they’re worthless and that everything bad that hapapens to them is just what they deserved.
I think I know where they pick that up.
One of the things I’m doing this term is teaching an adult speech class at night–it’s a requirement for graduation where I am, and there are a lot of people who have work and family obligations that make it hard for them to keep a full time schedule, and they end up suddenly with one course to go and no way to take it at the usual time.
These are adults I’m dealing with here, and as a teaching experience it’s a lot better than my usual thing.
Of course, absolutely the best is teaching ctizenship classes. But that’s a story for another time.
My topic today is–what the hell ARE they teaching in the elementary and high schools, anyway.
And I know I rattle on about that a lot, but this is a special case.
Every once in a while when I do rattle on about the dismal standards in elementary and secondary education, someone will throw in a commnent saying that, well, what can you expect if all you teach them is about how victimized they are and why they should feel a sense of grievance.
I’ve said before that I think this is not what is happening–most of my students seem to be the products of places whose first priority is to make them believe, deep in their guts, that they’re completely and utterly worthless and stupid and have nobody but themselves to blame for the failures they’re about to become.
But yesterday, in my speech class, I ran into that wall of gratuitous ignorance I never can figure out, and this time it was among students who didn’t want to be ignorant and really cared about knowing what was important to know.
One of the students in my class gave as a graded speech one written by Maya Angelous who mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer, and when the speech was over, some of the people in the class wanted to know who this was.
My student–a black woman–didn’t know. Neither did any of the three older black women in the class, at least two of whom are very gung-ho about knowing black American history.
So I explained–about Lyndon Johnson, and the Democratic National Convention in 1964, and the Mississippi Freedom Party.
Which went over big in a class that is close to half African-American, and really, I was happy to do it, but–what the hell goes on during Black History Month? We make a fairly big deal about it in Connecticut. Schools put up posters and decorate classrooms and do projects on whatever, and I’d like to know what the whatever consists of.
I know, I know, this is just a variation on a theme, and I sound that theme too often.
But these are adults I’m dealing with in this class. They’re not eighteen year olds without a clue what an education is for. They want one and need one.
And most of them read, if not as often or as much as I do, still considerably, and many of them read specifically in the area of black American history. It was night classes that made me realize that there was a population out there that was tring to self-educate as best it could in the areas it didn’t manage to pick up in school.
Of course, my knowledge isn’t encyclopedic–am I the only person of the right age who spells “encyclopedia” by singing the Jiminy Cricket song in my head?–and I knew as much about this as I did because I read it in the Simon Schama book I was talking about the other day, which turns out to be a very nice piece of work.
Even so, I think I will go back to working on that How To Be An American website, and start putting something together that will outline American history, with links.
But then, if it were up to me, I’d make every conservative in America read A People’s History of the United States and every liberal read A Patriot’s History of the United States–just so that I could get them all past the either/or to an understand that, in this particular country, it’s always “and.”
Now I go to teach the eighteen year olds who don’t give a damn, and I’m depressed.
For those of you who never watch television, I understand–I rarely watch it either, and until very recently, I hadn’t had a show I checked in on regularly since grade school.
The show that brought me back was a Fox production called House, starring Hugh Laurie, about this absolutely off the wall out of control diagnostic genius who is everything you wouldn’t expect in the hero of a doctor show–addicted to pain pills (he has real pain, but still), arrogant, rude, sneaky and with an absolutely unbudgeable core of integry. I’m with Joan Baez–a saint is a nuissance to live with at home, but I also think the real saints were probably more like Gregory House than the sugar-coated stuff they handed out in Catholic schools.
At the end of last season, a couple of things happened–House was inadvertantly the cause of the death of his best friend’s girlfriend; one of his diagnostic team committed suicide–that resulted in an even more elevated level of drug abuse that resulted in a series of auditory and visual hallucinations that resulted in his nearly killing somebody on purpose.
So, in response to this, he checked himself into a psychiatric facility to find somebody to help him go cold turkey off the pain pills and therefore end the hallucinations.
So far, so good–long term drug abuse, even if you’re not getting high, is going to have consequences. And over the course of the last five seasons, the show has managed to make the point that “drug addict’ is not necessarily the same thing as “waste of space rotting on a street corner.”
I’m all for whatever challenges the conventional psych wisdom about the human personality.
But last night, there was a two-hour season premier episode, and I find that I’m left completed baffled about what is going on here and why.
And in case you think this is just about the television show, think again.
Because it fits in with all the rest of what I see, the relentless straitjacketing of everything and everybody according to the latest psychological “wisdom” on offer.
Or, to make it clearer, it runs into something my father used to tell me: happiness is a tenth rate ambition.
Here’s how it went. House spent his time in the psych facility until he was clean and no longer hallucinating, and then, as was his right by law, since he was there voluntarily, he wanted to leave. His doctor agreed that he had that right, but said that if he took it, the doctor would not write the necessary letter to the state medical licensing board to have House’s medical license reinstated.
Now, right there I got a little confused. There was nothing in the last episode to indicate that House’s license had been revoked, and I find it hard to understand on what grounds it could have been revoked. House is a diagnostician, not a surgeon. He rarely even sees the patients, never mind does anything physical to them that could hurt them.
But, okay, willing suspension of disbelief, at least until the disbelief got too impossible to handle. House moves on to the long term program, at which point…well, what? I’m not sure, exactly. He does a lot of his usual confrontational things, interferes in a case in a way that gets somebody hurt, finally Gets With The Program, and is finally released as New Man, who admits that he Wants To Be Happy.
I mean, what?
There’s absolutely nothing–and I mean nothing–in all the therapy you see that indicates that anything was ever “wrong” with house (no admissions of abuse, for instance, no traumas) except the obvious: meaning that if your IQ is twice as high as anybody around you most of the time, you get a little warped.
But surely, you can’t “cure” that, and you wouldn’t want to.
And it isn’t as if the sight of House doing nice things for other people is really all that new. Even the Old Man did quite a lot of nice things for quite a lot of people, he just didn’t suffer fools gladly (or at all).
But the other thing he did–the thing that has made this show as popular as it is–was to insist on his right to be himself.
As far as I can figure out, this is what House is now supposed to be cured of.
I object, really, to this idea that ifyou don’t have one of the Accepted Goals, then there must be something “wrong” with you, that you must be in need of “help.”
I object to the idea that the only “normal” option is to “want to be happy”–not to want to succeed, not to want to make an historically significant contribution, not to want to perfect yourself.
I think that’s why I get so incredibly antagonistic to the calls, in a lot of the Humanist publications I read, for a stepped-up program of mood alterning drugs that will help us all to avoid depression or sadness or even inefficient functioning.
A lot that gets done in the world get done because some people have other goals than personal happiness, or personal contentment. Hell, nothing ever gets done when we’re content.
The goal of life is not, at least for me, to feel good as much as possible, or to feel satisfied, or to die thinking I’m fulfilled.
Besides, people who reject that trajectory are valuable and rare.
The Dr. House who told a mother who wasn’t vaccinating her children because that was all just a scam perpetrted by pharmaceutical companies that “You know what they make a lot of? Little tiny coffins. They come in all colors…”
did more for the children of that mother, and children everywhere, than a thousand carbon copies of his oh-so-empathetic best friend.
If the character of House is now “cured” and into being happy, I’ll find something else to watch.
Or maybe I’ll have to learn to be rude myself.
Or something like that.
One of the things I have hanging around the house is a tiny litte paperback book entitled Liberalism is a Sin.
I don’t remember the author off the top of my head, but the book was written originally in, I think, French, and published near the beginning of the 20th century.
The “liberalism” it reers to is not the sort of thing President Obama goes in for–although the author probably wouldn’t have liked that either.
“Liberalism” in the context of this book means two things: democratic government and the lack of an established state church.
Both of these things–and therefore the government and society of America in particular–were contrary to the will of God and even m ore so, destructive of true religion.
Religious toleration was destructive because it led to “religious indifferentism,” meaning the idea that any religion is as good as any other and it didn’t matter if you were a Catholic or a Protestant or a Jew.
Democracy was destructive because, in failing to mirror God’s government of the universe (which is a Kingdom with Christ at its head), it also failed to instruct men and women in their proper posture as subjects of the King of Kings. By learning day by day the necessity of humility before the sovereign King on earth, we were to learn the necessity of humility before ths sovereign King of Kings.
Believe it or not, this little book is still in print. You can order it from any of several Catholic mail-order companies, and it shows up every once in a while in those city bookstores run by nuns to provide “religious articles” and all things Catholic to the general population.
I’m not suggesting you read it–it’s silly and annoying and incredibly obtuse–I’m bringing it up because it occurs to me that it outlines, without fuss, what is probably the biggest reason why I am not ever likely to end up a believing Christian.
For better of for worse, the language of Christianity, and the iconography of the Christian chuches, is monarchical. Christ is the “king of kings,” we’re told, and “born is the king of Israel.” He is “the Lord.”
The Catholic Church–and the Ortohdox churches, come to think of it–are structured monarchically as well, as systems of hierarchy meant to mirror the celestial order.
The problem is, nothing else is structured that way, at least not in the free West–and not only is nothing else structured that way, but the idea of having a relationship with any other human being as lord and master is generally assumed to be a bad thing.
Even in situations where the structure of the relationship seems to call for that kind of thing–say, the relationship of a worker to his boss–the general assumption is that the “lord and master” thing shouldn’t be true, and if it is, then something has gone wrong.
But it’s not that I react negatively to such imagery. Rather, I react uncomprehendingly. It just does not compute. That is, I think, why I have such an inordinate amount of trouble with Tolkein–“you are my king,” they say to Aragorn, and my head goes, “yeah, so what?”
Actually, I think the problem goes deeper than that. I think there’s something in me that finds expressions of kingship and of “fealty” and subjection to kingship faintly silly. I enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies, but every time we get to the kneeling parts I look at the screen and all I see are a lot of grown men inexplicably playing dress up.
I have no idea whether the iconopgraphy of Kingship is central to Christianity, or just an accident of history–having come to prominence in a monarchical age, perhaps it just adapted the imagery of the world around it to explain itself.
I do know that the iconography of kingship is not going away. The least impressive backwoods preacher, belting out a sermon in a tarpaper shack in the Smoky Mountains, has just as much to say about kingship as does the Pope. And he’s speaking to a congregation that not only has no use for kings in real life, but isn’t even sure it approves of Presidents. You give some guy all that power in one place and, you know, he gets ideas.
I wonder how much of the decline of Christianity in Western democracies is the fulfillment of the vision of the man who wrote Liberalism is a Sin–that is, is a result of the fact that they are democracies, and the people in them can no longer be reached, intellectually or emotionally, with a narrative couched in images of Kings and kingdoms, sovereigns and subjects.
A couple of days ago, I had an e-mail exchange with someone who had also read an article on immigration and Europe posted to Arts and Letters Daily. It included a quote from Jurgen Habermas saying that Europe didn’t realize that its very ideas of freedom and democracy derived from Christianity.
I’ll say here what I said there–I think our ideas of equality derived from Christianity (back to St. Paul, and there is neither Jew nor Greek), but our ideas of democracy derived from the Greeks and the Roman, and the great genius of Cristianity was in the way it managed to embrace and incorporate those cultures.
And I think that the people out there who have dedicated themselves to converting me–and there are quite a few by now–are going to have to find a system of imagery to explain themselves that bypasses the Kingly one.
Because it’s not that I’m rejecting that imagery. It’s that I literally can’t make it make sense to me.
And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one.
Well, I really hope the link I posted yesterday was to James Lileks’s criticism of the Guardian “what it’s like in America” piece, and not to the Guardian piece itself, but Mab’s post made me remember the one article on the subject I was ever really impressed with.
Or maybe impressed isn’t the right word.
It was a short little piece, written for a Finnish newspaper by a young woman who had come to study for a year or two at a small public university in Missouri. And what struck me about it, aside from its lack of prior commitment to animosity, was just what it was the young woman h ad chosen to be amazed at.
It’s not true, she said, that Americans spend all their time putting on a false friendliness. Americans are actually friendly. Her first day in town, she was struggling with her luggage and her street maps and was met by one of her professors, who promptly stowed his bags in his trunk, drove her to where she was supposed to live, and got her bags inside.
Apparently, this is not something a professor would ever do for a student in Finland. I say “supposedly,” because she didn’t actually say that. She just kept going on and on about how wonderful it had been to get all this help from a professor!
The empasis was in her article, not in my post. If that makes sense.
The other thing she was astonished at clarified something for me that I had never before understood.
She looked around this college town and saw lots of houses with flags flying in the front yards or from the windows, and she met lots of fellow students with flag decals on their cars or their notebooks.
Where in Europe, she said, this kind of display would mean an obsession with unhealthy and belligerent nationalism, in America it seemed to just mean that people liked being Americans. Even some of the people who opposed the war in Iraq had flag decals and tended to get upset if you started to talk trash about the country at large. It was one thing to disparage Bush and Cheney. It was another thing to run down “America.”
I’ve lived a significant portion of my adult life outside the United States. It still baffles me when I see polls that show that German, French and even British people don’t like being the nationality they are and don’t think their countries are good or admirable places. You’d think that just family feeling would take care of that kind of thing.
And I wonder, as I’ve said here efore, how much of the “immigration problem” in Europe is actually an attitude problem. Immigrants come here and are surrounded by Americans who like being Americans and are always talking up the virtues of the country. Immigrants get there and all they hear is talk about how awful and corrupt their new society is.
I mean, I don’t know–that could have something to do with the willingness of immigrants to assimilate, don’t you think?
I remember reading–apropos of the bit about the professor who drove the young woman to her new housing–many years ago, a memoir by a writer of Indian descent who said he had decided that America was the place to be during his first term at Yale Graduate School.
He was walking down a street in New Haven when a cab puled up and stopped. The man who got out was the Dean of the Graduate School, and when the driver took the man’s bags out of the trunk, the good Dean picked them u p himself and carried them into his house.
This was, apparently, absolutely unheard of in India, where an important man like a Dean would have somebody to carry his bags for him.
Sometimes, reading these things, I wonder if I’m still in the twentieth century.
A few years ago, I started up a web site called How To Be An American, which was meant to collect material from every state, and from people of different political and religious and philosophical persuasions from every state, as a kind of resource to counter things like the Guardian article. Then my life went to hell yet again, and I didn’t have the time.
I still own the URL. Maybe I should go back to it.
In the meantime, sitting up here in New England where practically nobody owns a gun, practically nobody goes to church and the wild turkeys could be the basis for one of those Fifties black and white monster movies, I’m going to go back to reading Simon Schama on the West Point tradition of the citizen engineer soldier.
A coule of days ago I wrote a post reflecting the kind of thing I feel at the start of every term these days–and I really wish I had kept a link to the New Yorker article that explained the way teacher tenure works, for Mab, because although it’s much worse in NY than in CT, the system is essentially the same–
But anyway, I wrote this kind of depressive post, and a lot of you got alarmed and worried about me, and I appreciate that. But the reason that post sounded so odd and so oddly without energy is only partially the emotions I was feeling.
Partly, it was due to the fact that I was, and am, reading one of those books that seem to make me incapable of writing anything.
I’ve said on several occasions, now, that for me reading has a component very like listening to music for most people. Good prose and bad prose are at least partially determined, for me (I keep saying that), by how the work sounds in my head. Some people write prose so good (think Norman Mailer) that it overrides any considerations of content. I once read sixteen solid pages of a Mailer novel before I realized that, on any rational level, the man was making absolutely no sense at all.
Some prose is so bad it’s like the proverbial nails on the blackboard, which none of my students would get because they’ve never had blackboards, they’ve had white boards and markers.
But you know what I mean. Clunky, cliched, jerky, jarring–and eventually I just put the book away.
Although I can read some really badly written stuff, if I’ve got some kind of incentive.
That said, the book I’m reading now–The American Future: A History, by Simon Schama–is not badly written. It’s not Mailer and early Hemingway level well written, mind you, but it’s not bad, and the book itself is interesting.
Schama is a professor of history at Columbia University who does a lot of work for the BBC. His Histsory of Britain was spectacular in both book and video form, and for close to a decade now I’ve thought he was a Brit who just happened to be satisfyingly pro-American. In fact, he’s an American from upstate New York.
Which just goes to show, I suppose–Columbia’s history department is also home to the notorious Eric Foner, who is, shall we say, not so pro-American.
In a way, Schama’s American biography is a bit ironic, as I got hold of this book because I thought it was yet one more of those things written by various Europeans where they come here, look around, interview a black ghetto gospel choir,. an unemployed factory worker, and the kind of hillbilly who keeps a statue of Jesus glued to his rifle scope to help h im kill the deer, and then declares that he’s “discovered” the “real America.”
These can be absolutely hilarious, especially the ones written by French guys, and I recommned them to any American with a free afternoon. Or just go do a search and see if you can find an article called “Notes from the Olive Garden” by James Lileks.
Actually, that’s here
and well worth reading, even if I’ve bugged you with it before.
But in spite of not being that, the content is definitely interesting. I’m on a long chapter, called “American War,” outlining the history of the Meigs family in the United States Army, which includes a very laudatory sketch of the history of West Point and a few asides on why the US has a better officer class than anybody else, with “better” meaning “not so likely to think they’re better than anybody else and stage a coup.”
But I find that I just can’t write when I’m reading this thing. The narrative voice–and there’s nothing wrong with it, really–creates a kind of white noise in my head, and nothing of my own ever forms there.
I have no idea why this should be so. I have writers I can’t read when I write because I start to sound like bad imitations of them, because their own narrative voices are so strong that I can’t escape them, but that is not this.
I have other writers I can always write to, and some–the mid-career P.D. James, all of George Steiner–who actually seem to make me write better, or at least make me feel that I’m writing better.
And now it seems I’ve found a writer I like to read, but am going to have to give up when it comes time to producing serious work.
I think it’s very strange.
For Mab–most of the kids I teach would not be in university (or even in high school beyond a certain level) in most countries in the European Union. I don’t know what Russia is like.
But most American college students would not be admitted to university in the EU, not just my remedial kids–they’d never have passed the exams that are required there.
And that is, as I’ve said before, the real problem here–we are trying to force feed education to a group that isn’t interested in it, doesn’t want it, doesn’t understand it, and at worst resents the hell out of it, as nonsensical hoops they have to jump through to get something they want.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I was having trouble writing this post because the noise in this room was incredibly. There was smeobody behind me on some sort of video thing blastingit away, and it was hard to think.
But that’s par for the course lately, too.
And maybe I’m getting old, and that’s all this is, but what I’m really getting, I think, is tired. I’m tired of fighting with people who don’t want help and don’t care if they get it.
Never mind, like I said, being interested in an education.
I think I started in on this project thinking that I was in a position to do good–to provide a first class resource to kids who normally get the kind of teachers who can’t get hired anywhere else doing anything else.
A lot of my kids come from school systems where there will be three textbooks for a forty-student class, where the toilets flood on a regular basis and are fixed only sporadically, where there’s no chalk and no paper, where teachers take the roll, put their earphones on, and listen to their iPods until class time is over, letting the students themselves cause havoc.
Logic says that there must be, in these systems, students who really want educations and can’t get them, and other students who would be interested if they were ever offered them. In the ten years I’ve been doing this–well, nine–I haven’t found more than one or two.
And then I wonder if it’s possible that even the poorest kids who wander through the place I teach have managed to acquire rich kids’ disease.
And now I should explain rich kids’ disease.
But I’m too tired, and I should find something to read.