Archive for September, 2010
It’s Thursday morning, which at least means it’s Friday tomorrow. And I’ve got three student papers to print out, even though I’ve told them I’d rather have the hard copy even if it has to be a class late. And I’m tired, which is inevitable this time of the week. And I’ve got a lot of running around to do.
But none of that explains why I didn’t just pick out the next Agatha Christie novel from my stack and go with that, especially since I’ve been on something of a Christie jag, lately.
What I did pick out was a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics, a book I’ve had hanging around the house forever and that I’ve never read. I’ve also had Chesterton’s Orthodoxy hanging around the house forever–in a companion volume, so that the formats are identical and the covers are nearly so–and I’ve never read that either.
Chesterton is one of those writers who have been recommended to me over and over again through the years, both by people I like personally and by writers I like to read. He’s certainly the motherlode fountain of quotations if you’re writing a book with a crime in it.
I tried a couple of the Father Brown stories when I was younger and never could get into them. I tried a few odd essays and excerpts of the nonfiction since then and couldn’t get into them either.
Heretics is a book about–well, I keep forming really impossible sentences. Think of it as something like Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, except written about contemporaries instead of historical figures.
And, unlike Johnson, Chesteron has at least some sympathy for the people he’s intent on proving wrongheaded and perverse. For one thing, in order to be “heretics,” these people have to be passionately committed to their wrong ideas. Chesterton likes less people who are passionately committed to nothing.
Part of the problem here should be obvious. A lot of the people who were important and famous as intellectuals at the time this book was published–1905–are not those things now. Several of the authors Chesterton critiques are unknown to me, and I read a lot.
But some of the authors in this book are famous enough now, and even people whose work I’ve read. There’s Kipling, for instance, and George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells.
And his opinions are neither stale nor convention. He thinks Kipling is a great writer. He admits to the occasional very bad poem, but he’s convinced that the greatest writers write a lot that is very bad, for the same reason Babe Ruth led his team in strike outs as well as in home runs.
Chesterton’s problem with Kipling is that he lacks patriotism, or even an understanding of what it means to be patriotic.
It’s not the kind of thing you usually read about Kipling, and Chesterton’s argument actually makes a lot of sense.
What my problem with Chesterton is is that he seems to write, very often, the way some people talk after dinner where the men sit over brandy and cigars. The prose feels like it’s coming out of a very comfortable man, just sort of riffing on one subject or another, taking little side trips, making little parenthetic comments.
Maybe I’m just too modern in my experience of criticism and argument–or maybe not, because the Federalist Papers, written before Chesterton was born, are as direct and focussed as I could ever want anything to be.
I just get a little frustrated with the diffuseness of the thing.
I chose Heretics over Orthodoxy because I’m not a Catholic. I’m not even a believer. I thought social and literary criticism would be closer to the things I connect with than an exposition of the truths and necessity of the Catholic Church.
And I expect the contents here are more interesting to me than those of Orthodoxy would be.
It’s just that, every once in a while, the prose drives me up the wall.
Which is what I’m doing here, so no real post today.
Every single article that went up new on Arts and Letters Daily today is about something we discuss endlessly here, including literary novels and intellectuals.
Just for a heads up.
Okay, THIRD post for the day.
I’ll shut up tomorrow.
is over on City Journal, and it’s making a point I try to make to Robert sometimes, and always seem to fail.
I know. Two posts in a day.
But this one’s just bitching, so feel free to skip it.
It isn’t 9:30 in the morning, and I’m ready to explode, all over yet another round of cell phone chargers.
To explain: every single cell phone I’ve ever had has had its charger either just cease to work or else come apart in some way.
I know it’s the charger and not the battery, because I can use the charger from the same type of phone that somebody else has and I charge up just fine.
And the things don’t get damaged, they just fall apart.
The latest in this list is the charger on my Samsung Propel, a phone I bought from ATT last November 30/December 1. That’s less than ten months ago, in case you’re counting.
A couple of days ago, I picked up the charger and the two-part plastic casing that protects the wires next to the part that connects to the phone just came apart into two pieces in my hand.
There was no damage. The charger hadn’t been hit with anything or trod underfoot or stuck in water. The two pieces were perfectly pristine. You could fit them together if you tried. They just weren’t stuck to each other any more.
The lack of the protective casing is, of course, affecting the operation of the wires it was protecting, which means it is now next to impossible for me to use the charger to charge the phone.
So…I called ATT. It had been less than a year. This ought to be covered under warranty, right?
This counts as “physical damage,” even though there was no damage.
And it doesn’t matter anyhow, because ATT is phasing out the Propel, so they don’t have any parts for it anyway.
I can try one of the ATT stores, but there’s no guarantee they’ll have parts either.
Other than that, I can call Samsung and pay around $45 for a new one.
All of this information was delivered to me in a relentless monotone at great length by some guy in the Warranty department who, I swear, never took a breath, repeated everything he said three or four times, and did me absolutely no good except for wearing down the charge on my phone by two bars over the course of the call.
I usually call my mother’s nursing home twice a day. Today, I’m going to skip the afternoon call, because I’m afraid that this battery is going to wear down to nothing and they’re not going to be able to get in touch with me if there’s an emergency.
I will also do none of the other calling I do during the day. I won’t check in with my sons. I won’t pick up for students.
If this was the first phone I’d had a problem with the charger with, I would chalk it up to Samsung and never buy that brand again.
But something like this has happened to every single phone I’ve ever had, with the result that I have found myself with a perfectly good phone that has become unusable because I can’t get it charged.
And I know new technology comes and goes very fast, but I’m sorry–ten months? If I’m forced to get a new phone without being able to charge this one, I’m going to end up losing over a hundred phone numbers, some of which are going to be difficult or impossible to replace.
And as for ATT–for God’s sake. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a worse representative.
What I do now, I don’t know.
But I did figure out about the Marx and Dante thing–it’s the last line of the preface to the first edition of the Marx.
But, according to the Dante society, paraphrased.
Every once in a while, I get fascinated by things that make no sense for me to be fascinated with. It’s as if my mind is running around loose and suddenly hits a groove.
Some of these things are completely irrelevant to anything–this term, for instance, I seem incapable of getting a blog post written why I’m having an easy day, but get right to it on days that I know are going to end up being miserable.
Some of these things matter, but in ways I haven’t worked out yet.
The latest one of this second set has to do with the fact that I was able, over the week-end, to see two of the David Suchet Hercule Poirot mysteries that I hadn’t had a chance to see before.
And, speaking of obsessions–if somebody could explain the principle by which the PBS stations put their stuff up Free on Demand, I’d appreciate it. Right now I have to check back every day to catch them making a Lewis or a Poirot available, and then I have to watch it almost immediately, because I never know how long it’s going to last.
It’s not the scheduling that got to me this time, though. It’s the way the two stories were played out, and especially Murder on the Orient Express. And the specific thing about the way they played out that bothered me was all about religion.
It’s not that Christie, in the books, presented Poirot as an atheist, or that she ignored his religion altogether. We are told on several occasions in different books that he is a Catholic, and in Third Girl we even see him going to church on Sunday. It’s an Anglican church, in a country where there are plenty of Catholic churches for him to attend, and a Catholic of that era probably would not have done that except for a wedding or a funeral.
But Poirot goes, and in fact religious conviction–the sanctity and moral equality of each individual human life–makes a difference in the way that story ends.
In the two movies I saw, however–the other was Appointment with Death–we are shown Poirot praying the rosary, and being very fervent and dedicated about it. In other words, the Catholicness of his religion is on display–a Catholicness I’m sure Christie never actually injected into her character.
What’s more, in the production of Orient Express, this Catholicness is made explicit as the grounds for Poirots eventual decision not to turn in the culprits to the police.
Orient Express is a famous book, and I tend to think that everybody must have read it. If you have, what follows will make perfect sense. If you haven’t, go read it. It’s a landmark in mystery writing.
I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum. But I’m only going to try. There are things that bug me here.
The BBC/Masterpiece Mystery production opens with the scene that does in fact open the novel–Poirot on board a ferry in Istanbul, on his way to the train station after he has settled an issue for the British garrison in the area.
In the book and in the original movie, however, this scene is played light. In fact, it’s largely played for laughs.
In the BBC production, however, this scene has become tense. The solution to the garrison’s mystery has resulted in the suicide of one of its officers, and the officer accompanying Poirot to the train is distraught about it. This was just one man. He was a good man. He had made one mistake. By being so relentlessly on the side of law and justice, Poirot has created a tragedy.
Poirot’s attitude is that the tragedy was created by the officer himself, that he knew the rules before he broke them, and that justice must be upheld if we are not all to be savages.
The second scene in this movie is the scene at the train, where Poirot is being shoehorned into an already booked Orient Express.
It’s been years since I read the book, but I admit that I don’t remember the events that come next as having been in it at all, and I know they weren’t in the movie with Albert Finney.
In the BBC production, what happens is that a woman is chased through the streets near the train by a crowd intent on stoning her to death for adultery. The crowd reaches her and kills her.
One of the women who will be a passenger on the Orient Express is horrified. This should not have been allowed. Poirot, however, is adamant. The woman knew the rules of her culture before she broke them. She has nobody to blame but herself. It’s important that justice be done–if it isn’t, we are savages–and that sentimentality not be indulged.
Let me inject here that this particular scene made me truly exasperated. I know it’s become practically policy for people not to know their own history, but the simple fact of the matter is that we’re looking at an England still largely of the Empire, and the England of the Empire would not have reacted to that stoning as that woman passenger did.
The England of the Empire was a lot of things, good and bad, but what it was not was either sentimental or culturally relativist. This is the same society, after all, which responded to an Indian potentate’s claim that it was “their custom” to burn widows in suttee by saying that they could follow that custom as long as they understood that the British would follow theirs, by taking the people who burned the widow and hanging them by the neck until dead.
The British have a valid response to the stoning incident, and that is that it is not in fact justice. For Christie–who was very definitely a Brit of the late Empire–the response to the stoning would be that justice was not done, for justice to have been done the stoning would have to be stopped.
In other words, justice is not a matter of rigidly following the rules, without regard to what the rules are.
Poirot, of course, is not supposed to be British, but Belgian. That may provide some cover for portraying him as somebody who believes that “rules are rules” no matter what the rules are–the worst kind of relativist, if you ask me.
But this was not Christie’s vision of the man. In the books, he has a very British sense of justice indeed, and a very British sense of the moral worth of every human being, too.
All of this harping on Poirot’s supposed blind allegiance to rules-because-they-are-rules is meant to set up the drama of the ending, in which Poirot allows the killers to go free out of allegiance to a higher sense of justice.
And that this is what Christie intended–that the killers should not pay for their crime because in a higher sense of justice they were not wrong–would be difficult to deny. That is, after all, the way the book ends.
It has never been a satisfying book for me, because of that. The issue, presented as Christie presents it, is straightforward enough, and I would agree in the hypothetical that the ending is just. Even if we stress the moral worth of every human person–which Christie does, on many occasions–we have a situation where the murdered man himself committed a foul and inexcusable crime for which he has made himself beyond punishment.
Still, it bothers me, at least in part because the back of my head says that real people in the real world are not avenging angels with pure motives, that the likelihood is that at least one of these killers would be, in fact, a killer, and not just an instrument of justice.
That said, the BBC production adds a number of scenes I really do not remember from the book, scenes of Poirot praying the rosary. He prays before the murder, after the murder, and while considering the request of everybody on the train that he shield the murderers from the Bulgarian police to allow them to go free.
He also gives endless impassioned speeches against such an act and in favor of turning the killers over to the police. All these speeches are about the necessity of following the rules absolutely, and about how we will all become savages if we do not.
It’s hard to piece out some of the problems here. Poirot’s religion is not portrayed as superstitious or corrupt, nor as stupid and credulous. It’s not that.
What it may be is, I think, that in trying to come down hard on the side of Poirot’s eventual act of mercy, this production has managed to highlight everything that is wrong with it.
In the book–and in the Albert Finney movie–letting the killers get away with it is so much a matter of convention, and causes so little soul searching on the part of Poirot or anybody else, that it sort of glides by without the reader/viewer ever thinking about it.
In the BBC production, an enormous about of time and energy is devoted to making the reader/viewer think about it, and the more I thought about it the more wrong it all seemed.
I think Christie misread her own character when she had him make that decision in the first place, because it undermines almost everything else he stands for throughout the series.
I think the BBC misread religion–well, okay, the BBC misreading religion is not exactly a shock–by making it seem as if resort to God would lead to this particular decision.
After all, what happens on the Orient express is not, in any way, analogous to what happened in the street when the woman was stoned. The stoning of the woman was itself an unjust act–and the killing of the victim on the Orient Express is equally unjust, while the freeing of his murderers is more so.
That was something.
I am going to try to look through the Chambers today to make sure I remembered his thing about the last lines of Dante and Marx–somehow, given how vilified Chambers was at the time, my head says that if he’d made that kind of mistake I’d have heard about it.
But for the moment, teach and a launching of myself into the world.
It’s one of those mornings. I got up so late that I haven’t had my tea yet, and it’s just turned nine o’clock. I was thinking I’d run to the grocery store, but the later it gets on Sunday morning, the less I like it, so I’m probably going to let it slide. And Creamsicle keeps sitting on the top of my monitor, which is where the on/off button is, and turning it off.
He actually likes doing that a lot. I suppose I could always get a flat screen and make him miserable.
But I got on this morning and found a comment to the last post implying that whatever this was, it wasn’t the Golden Age of Mystery–the bronze, maybe, or worse, but not the Golden Age.
And by implication, the Golden Age would then have to be the late Twenties to the early Forties, when Christie and Sayers and John Dickson Carr (under all his pseudonyms) were working, and when people joined things like the Detection Club and took the Detection Club Oath.
And I think that’s wrong.
What that early period was was the mystery’s era of being the most popular genre as a genre, but that second thing is the important point.
The mystery novels of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties were–even when they were good–genre fiction in the worse sense of the term.
They had a standard plot and they were plot driven–not story driven, which is different–most of the time. There was very little in the way of character development of the suspects or of the detectives.
In classic mysteries, the puzzles were often unnecessarily complicated and the characters tortured out of shape to fit them.
In hard boiled mysteries, we were treated to volume after volume of adolescent angsting and puerile cynicism about how everybody who had ever succeeded at anything (business and government both) were venal and corrupt.
The advent of mystery novels that were also truly good novels had to await this wave of mystery publishing–P.D. James and Ruth Rendell are first rate novelists, and not just mystery writers.
(I’m told the same thing about Dennis Lehane, but I’ve never read one of his, so I can’t say.)
Even some of the mystery writers who are definitely mystery writers first (and not novelists first) are at least good–say, for instance, the better Martha Grimes, still concentrated on the puzzle but also committed to making full characters and to not violating their cohesion to fit the plot.
Of the first wave of mystery writers, Christie is actually the best one. For all the complaints about Christieland (an England that never existed) and sneers about dead bodies in country houses, she rarely used even her most cardboard characters badly, and her puzzles were straightforward and made sense.
But of that entire first wave, I can think of only one mystery novel that I would call an actual novel, and that is Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night.
These days, mystery writers tend to try to write actual novels, and many of them succeed. And mystery readers tend to want to read actual novels.
Of course, it’s possible that if mystery writers all wrote old fashioned mystery stories, they’d sell more books–but maybe not.
One of the other distinctions between the two waves of mystery publishing is this: the first way mystery novels were bought and read by bright, educated people as well as by the the masses who bought their books in drug stores and train stations. That was why Christie sold in hardcover.
These days, the people who are looking for plot-driven puzzle mysteries seem to require that those books be breathlessly written, archly comic and twee–that they be escapism in the worst sense, a picture not only of no world that exists but of no world that could ever exist, a flat-out denial of reality in favor of the cute.
People like me–people who would have read Christie when she was first publishing as well as reading Hemingway and Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter–read P.D. James and Rendell and even Martha Grimes.
I can’t read a cozy to save my life–and I mean I can’t read it. I can’t keep my eyes glued to the page.
This is the Golden Age of Mystery. There’s a lot of dreck, to be sure, but there was a lot of dreck before, too. Eventually the dreck will fall off the map and the good stuff will remain.
But the Golden Age of a genre is always the age when genre writers are allowed to be writers first and not hamstrung by conventions, not the age when the conventions reign supreme and some people get very good at them.
So, it’s Saturday, the end of a long, hard week. Last night I was so exhausted I kept falling asleep on the love seat long before I was supposed to go to bed, and then I went to bed an hour early.
Now I’ve got a ton of student papers to correct, and–I’m not going to correct them.
I’m going to spend the entire day on that love seat, watching David Suchet play Poirot on DVD, eating leftovers–anybody who wants anything cooked today had better know how to cook it himself–and maybe even reading One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.
I don’t know about that last one. It depends on how drifty I get.
Okay, I might also work on this book for this new series I’m been working on, because that kind of thing is not really work.
But what is work is the kind of thing that results from the following.
First, I spend a good five minutes outlining the paper I’m assigning to the class, giving the due date, explaining the requirements, setting up protocols, giving pages in the book to look to for examples. Then I tell them to go home and have a nice week-end.
And this kid at the back–there’s always some kid at the back–raises his hands and asks, “Is there any homework?”
Welcome to my Friday, running on four hours sleep and with a ton of things to do that I couldn’t get out from under.
Today, at least, there’s nothing much. I have Meyer Schapiro’s book in Medieval painting, picked up for a quarter at one of those used-book sales to benefit the library. The physical book is in first class shape and a recent printing, but the book itself was written a long time ago and the original printing had only black and white photographs. So, of course, my printing does too.
Meyer Schapiro is one of those people–the most famous scholar of Medieval art in America in the Thirties, an academic at Columbia at the time when it was most fervently a hotbed of intellectuals joining the Communist Party–and not a Communist.
There are interesting things to be learned from books that aren’t necessarily part of the same message. That was one of the things I picked up from the Chambers book.
The other was that both Dante’s Inferno and Marx’s Capital end with the same sentence: And so we emerged again to see the stars.
Chambers seemed to think this was significant, given the two books involved and his tendency to see modern history as the story of the battle of Communism to usurp Christianity.
I haven’t checked to see if the lines are in fact the same.
But all of that seems too serious for the moment.
Last night, I was so tired I couldn’t play spider solitaire because I couldn’t remember things like cards go on other cards in descending order.
Today, I feel pretty good, I don’t have to go anywhere–although a trip down the road for one of those McD’s caramel frappes would be nice, and I’ll think about it–and I can spend my time wishing that we were all allowed to use the kinds of titles for mystery books people managed in the Twenties.
Death Butters a Biscuit.
The Case of the Warbling Wickermaker.
I’m going to go drink tea now.
When I went to bed last night, I’d pretty much decided not to write this blog today. It was midnight. I had to get up at four thirty in the morning. I have a lot to do with the rest of the day. I figured I’d be completely exhausted.
I am completely exhausted, but I’m also here waiting for my tea to finish steeping–I use a forty ounce cup and two teabags that steep for fifteen minutes–and I’ve run out of solitaire games to play.
So, here it is.
Last night, I went to the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, to be one of the authors signing books at the finale event of the Connecticut Author’s Trail.
And I know I’m tired when it takes me three tries to spell “Connecticut” correctly and on the last one I leave out the “u” and can’t figure out what’s wrong.
Back to the Connecticut Author’s Trail. This is a series of talks by authors who live here, given at public libraries across the state. I actually gave the kick-off talk, out in Franklin, on July 8th. Then, over the summer and early fall, one library after another sponsored talks by one author after another, ending in a talk by Donald Bain at the Cabaret Theater at Mohegan Sun.
If you’re a library patron or just somebody who likes to listen to talks, you can follow the authors on the “trail” all summer and pick up raffle tickets as a prize for doing it. At the end of the Mohegan Sun talk, winning tickets are picked for each of the gift baskets made up by each of the libraries. Some of those baskets had lots of books in them.
And I don’t even know if I’m making sense here.
At any rate, in order to do the talk we had to go into the casino, and when the talk was over my friends Carol and Richard wanted to eat. So, to get to the food, we had to walk through the casino.
And that’s what was interesting.
So, a few points.
It appears that Indian casinos are the last places in Connecticut where you can smoke all the cigarettes you want anyplace you want. The entire casino smelled like smoke. And I like the smell of smoke. I always did, which is part of the reason I started to smoke in college. But it’s been so long since I’ve been indoors in a place like that, that I had a hard time, at first, figuring out what that nice smell was.
Children and adolescents under the age of 21 are not allowed on the gambling floors, but the Mohegan Sun is essentially a huge open space. Gambling takes place in special sections with wooden guard rails around them. Between those sections are carpeted areas where everybody walks not only from one gambling venue to another but from restaurants to theaters to other things. And there are a lot of other things.
This means that you can see plenty of children at the Mohegan Sun, and although they’re not allowed to go into the railed-off gambling areas, they can stand right next to them. The rails are about waist high for me. They came up to the shoulders of the little girl I watched standing at one watching the slot machine action.
If the idea is to keep children away from the gambling, this isn’t the solution. It may stop them from actually gambling, but they can watch all the action they like, and if a parent will just sit at a sit next to one of the guard rails, they can watch and be right next to Mommy at the same time.
It was very odd.
Then there were the slot machines. I’ve always thought of slot machines as big boxes with levers. You feed the machine a nickel or a quarter or whatever and you pull the lever. You are then presented with whirling pictures of fruit.
I’m not sure that these things had levers, because I was too fascinated trying to figure out what the buttons were for, big square buttons in different colors that people were slamming at with the palms of their hands as the fruit whirled around on the screen. Also pictures of cards, pictures of ducks, all kinds of things.
Machines had different themes, and you can keep your quarters. The minimum they took was five dollars. Some machines would take hundred dollar bills.
I’m sure I’m capable of sitting down at a machine, feeding a five dollar bill into it, pulling a lever and waiting for the pictures to stop moving. I don’t think I could do much of anything with those machines, which seemed to require the skill of a video game.
The overall impression, however, was of insane, chaotic, very loud noise. The noise was constant no matter where you were.
(A caveat: we didn’t go into any of the high end restuarants, which may have been quieter. And it was quiet enough in the Cabaret Theater, where the talk and the signings were held.)
At any rate, there was constantly stuff coming over the loudspeakers, and there were different loudspeakers throwing out different stuff in different areas of the casino, which were all open to each other.
You took a step in one direction or the other and the noise surrounding you switched, except the rest of the noise was never completely out of range.
And at the same time, there was the noise from all the slot machines.
My friend Carol says that the point of this is to stop you from thinking, and she may be right. But if the point is to stop you from thinking so that you’ll do more gambling, the effort was wasted on me. I very quickly got to the point where my only mission in life was to get the hell away from all the confusion.
That meant I wanted to be anywhere except on the gaming floor.
Possibly I’m just not cut out for a casino.
I had been in them before. They’d just never made this kind of impression.
The people were, however, just as I remembered them being. There was a lot of flop sweat out there, and a lot of desperation. I don’t understand why people do that to themselves.
Maybe the most impressive thing, though, was the building itself. You have to see this enormous, asymmetrical concoction of mirrored glass rising out of the rural Connecticut landscape to get as disoriented as I got–and you have to see it by being there.
They’ve got a web site
and I’m sure somewhere on there there’s a picture of the big glass building, but I don’t think the effect will be quite the same.
Okay, I think you’ll still wonder how they got the thing to stand up without falling over.
I’m really tired.
And I need caffeine.
Okay, it’s going to be a long day. A very long day. I have to go in to school around seven, and teach on and off until four, and then go down to an Indian casino to do a book signing.
I am not making that up.
It’s the Connecticut Author’s Trail, and I’m glad they’ve been willing to have me. The problem is that I have to be in around seven tomorrow, too, and the Mohegan Sun–where this mass book signing by about a dozen authors is supposed to take place–is at least an hour and a half from here.
Meaning that the chances that I’m going to be able to get any sleep tonight are limited to nil.
But it’s morning, and I’ve got tea, and I came accross the following this morning when I hit Arts and Letters Daily:
That’s Dissent magazine, the Grand Dame of American socialist publications, and I generally like it. It’s intelligent, articulate and sane, and I tend to think it’s all those things even when I don’t agree with it.
And–something of a disclaimer–I was actually referenced in one of their articles a few years ago, and for several years afterward I got invited to the Christmas party. I never went, mostly because things at home were so insane. I wish I’d been able to.
All that said, this article is also articulate, intelligent and sane, and it makes it ever more clear to me why I could possibly be a liberal, but I could never be a progressive.
The discussion of rights, early on, is unfortunately muddled. The writer tends to heap in historical accidents and then claim that they’re the direct result of seeing rights as “natural” (outside of society and prior to it) instead of as given by society.
And, of course, he mixes natural rights (to freedom of speech and conscience, for instance) with rights-in-law (like the right to vote).
I really wish we could come up with a different word for the rights-in-law. The confusion caused by calling both natural rights and rights-in-law “rights” does a lot of damage.
Needless to say, however, that the natural right of a human being to the fruits of his labor (the right to property) is a natural right, and it is because it is a natural right that slavery is wrong.
John Adams knew that. So did George Washington and Thoma Jefferson and James Madison, and those three owned slaves.
Natural rights are absolute limits on government power. A “right” granted by my society is a right in law only, and it can disappear any time the government decides to take it away.
So nobody is going to get me on their side by saying that the first thing I have to understand about their political philosophy is that they reject the principle of natural rights.
But it wasn’t the rights thing that got me so fascinated when I was reading this article.
The place where I realzed what it was that actually separated me from the political philosophy this writer was defending was this:
>>>Progressive philosopher John Dewey asked Americans to consider the meaning of individual freedom through the following thought experiment: imagine an individual without property, education, or employment. Is this individual free to amass property? Would it matter if she was? Can this individual coherently explain her plight to those with power? Does the right to free self-expression help her obtain their ear? If they hear an inarticulate message from her, will they attend to her needs?>>>
And what got to me was the fact that I know, I just know, that Dewey would have hated all my answers to all those questions.
Let’s take the first–imagine an individual without property, education, or employment.
I don’t have to imagine her. I knew her. Her name was Orania Gregoriou. She was born on the island of Samothrace in the very early twentieth century. Her family was dirt poor, and there were some ridiculous number of children–ten, I think.
She had no education because, well, girls weren’t allowed to go to school in dirt-poor Greek island villages at that time. They were required to go to religious instruction, and she learned to read there. Most of the girls she grew up with–and a good number of the boys–didn’t. They didn’t want it. She, apparently, did.
Her brother started coming to America in their late teens, steerage, the way that was done. They wanted to bring her over, too. They got laboring jobs and sent some money home to pay for her passage.
She decided there was just so much she was willing to put up with, and set herself up to use the one skill she had developed–the ability to make really exquisite lace–to help herself out. She was fourteen and keeping house in a world where goats had to be milked and wash had to be done by hand, but she found spare time to make that lace for girls who wanted it to get married in, and she charged.
She charged enough so that, by the time she was eighteen, she had enough money put aside so that–combined with what her brothers sent to bring her over steerage–she could come over in a stateroom, thank you very much, and with a trunk, too.
It wasn’t much in the way of “property.” She had no education except what she was willing to do for herself. She had no employment.
So, you know, now what?
Take the second question: Is this individual free to amass property?
Yes. In fact, she was not only free to do it, she was extremely good at it. And she did it in spite of the fact that there were no legal protections against discrimination in those days, which meant that the local banks were free to refuse to allow her to open accounts (don’t want any of those awful foreigners, you know).
She married a very nice man with about half her intelligence. He went to work as a waiter. She took his money and bootlegged ouzo on the side (my father’s oldest memory was of being sent around to deliver brown paper bags with bottles in them and to pick up the money).
And then, when the depression hit, the hiding places at home had enough cash in them to make it possible for her not only to buy real estate, but to buy a piece of the bank, too. And there was no more nonsense about not wanting to deal with foreigners. It was the crash, and she was virtually the only one with cash.
So, on to the second question: would it matter if she was free to amass property?
Well, yes. It would. It mattered to her, to her children, and to her grandchildren. I was about three when she told me I was going to college–was going, no “could if you wanted to” stuff–and that, if my father wouldn’t pay for it, she would.
By the time I was born, she owned half the town my father had grown up in, and a good chunk of the one I was born in, too. You have no idea how convenient that was.
On to the third question: can this individual coherently explain her plight to those in power?
I expect that would depend on the individual. My grandmother was a very articulate woman. Some people–even some people with educations–are not.
But this is the question at which my grandmother’s experience really begins to diverge from Dewey’s program.
Because in that word “plight” lies a world of cultural dissonance.
Fourth question: does the right to free self-expression help her obtain their ear?
Again, I’d have to say–yes. Definitely so. If it didn’t, there would be no Tea Party. There would have been no nineteenth century rural populist socialism, either.
One of the wonderful things about the right to freedom of speech and the press is that it’s possible to band together with other like-minded people and refuse to go away, and that banding together can change everything.
How about question five: if they hear an articulate message from her, will they attend to her needs?
And this, you see, is where my head feels ready to explode.
Dewey’s mental image of the position of people who happen to be poor–all people who happen to be poor, not just a few with basic unsolvable problems (like physical disabilities or chronic or catastrophic illnesses)–is that it’s sort of like peasants in the realm of Catherine the Great.
The rich and powerful hold their positions absolutely. If there’s something you need, you must beg them to listen to you and hope that they’ll throw you some crumbs. That’s when Progressivism comes in, giving you a right-in-law to the things you need so that you don’t have to be dependent on the good will of the upper class.
Let’s just glide by the fact that, if you had told my grandmother that she had a “plight,” she’d have whacked you over the head.
The simple fact of the matter is that she didn’t care if the rich and powerful listened to her and she certainly didn’t want them attending to her needs. By the end of her life, she’d met quite a few of those people, and she had very little respect for most of them.
Her idea was that if people would get out of her way, she would attend to her own needs. And she did.
Now, granted, Orania Gregoriou Papazoglou was a woman and a half, and a kind of force of nature. Not everybody can be like that.
But in the Greek-American community in which she lived, there were plenty of other people who also started out poor and without education who ended up comfortably middle or working class. They started businesses. They worked as waiters and cabbies and laborers. They made sure their children got the educations they didn’t have. They even operated politically and were successful at it.
And their children and grandchildren were even more successful at it.
I’m aware that not everybody who starts out poor gets out of poverty. And I’m even more aware that the people who do are often immigrants, that there seems to be something about the native born poor (even in the days before welfare) that holds them back.
And I’m all in favor of that safety net Cathy F. talks about. There are good practical reasons for such a safety net, and good practical reasons for sensible regulation of things like workplace safety.
But the world Dewey thought he was living in–the world of rich and powerful people who can do everything and poor people who can do nothing but beg, so that natural rights are no use to them–is not any world I’ve ever lived in.
To the extent that any such world ever existed at all, in the United States, its destruction was due to the assertion of natural rights, not their denial. The end of slavery and the end of Jim Crow were both declarations that natural rights do exist and should be honored absolutely.
Mostly when I think of Progressivism, it’s the do-gooder busybody-ness that makes me nuts, the idea that the missionaries could go into the immigrant communities and “teach” them the way to live. And if that didn’t work, they could pass laws to make them live the way that would be “better” for them.
But this thing of Dewey’s, above, is enough to make me get why I’m not going to ever be able to sign on to that particular political philosophy, even if they ditch the busybodying.
I mean, really.
My friends got the computer straightened out, and now it seems like AOL ate my modem.
It’s a long story.
You can all send stuff telling me I should have gotten off AOL a decade ago.
But I’m at school, and I’ve just be witness to what came close to being a physical girl fight–stopped just short of that, thank goodness, but it was loud and required throwing one of the girls out of the computer lab–and it’s all sort of par for the course.
The really odd thing is that the book I picked up to read while the strange tests and all the other nonsense was going on was James Schall’s Another Sort of Learning, which is actually a collection of essays about how to get an education in spite of being in college.
I thought it was going to be one of those books–and I’m fond of them–talking about what university education should really be about. I know Schall’s stuff well enough to know that when he does write on that subject, I like what he has to say.
As it turns out, however, this is a book about ways to counter what Schall calls “the modern project,” and how apparently deliberate misreadings of Plato have inspired Communists and Fascist both, and the ways in which the post-Vatican II Church has been complicit in the mess created by what one of the books Schall recommends calls ‘the coercive utopians.”
So I’m having more fun than I thought I was going to, and the book comes with lots of little book lists that often contain things I’ve never heard of.
And I’m just exhaussted.
So I’ll go get some caffeine, and think about all you guys milking cows.