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Snow Day

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So.  Yesterday I had nothing to do, and the way that works,  I got absolutely nothing done. Except this:  I went to the grocery store.  That may seem like a small thing, and it may seem even smaller when you realize that I did not have any big shop to do.  I was just picking up enough to make sure my older son had something when he came back for vacation on Saturday, and  a few necessities for the week-end in general.  I won’t shop for  Christmas until next week.

But as it turns out, this was a very big deal, and a very big thing, because we have a nor’easter moving in today.   For those of you who don’t live in New England, the real problem with nor’easters is not the storms themselves, but what happens right before the storms:  everybody rushes to the grocery store and buys fifteen or sixteen bags of potato chips.

I am not making this up.  New England eats more potato chips and chocolate than any other region in the United States, and when it snows we want potato chips.  I bought potato chips, too, because I want to make a big tub of clam dip for Matt, and when  I say “big tub” I’m not kidding.   But I did it only in the hope that I’d be able to sleep in today and get some correcting done, and not because I’d been paying any attention to the weather news.  So  I can’t congratulate myself on my foresight.

That said, I’m sitting here at the computer with my customary really enormous (forty ounce) heavily steeped (two tea bags, twenty minutes) cup of tea, and I don’t know if I can face corecting today.  I’ve just about finished the Hawthorne biography.   I’ve got a couple of pages, and then  I want to read through the notes.   The description of the funeral was depressing in a way I had not thought it would be, but then that’s a lack of foresight, too.  It’s not that the rest of the book hadn’t given me enough hints.

Hawthorne died of a disease we aren’t sure of, but that sounds a lot like some kind of stomach or intestinal cancer, not only because of the symptoms but because two of his uncles died of  what looks like the same thing with the same symptoms at the same age. 

And at his funeral there was  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin  Pierce (the ex-president),  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James  Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton, Bronson Alcott, the Peabody sisters (his wife was a Peabody)–it was a gathering of the New England Renaissance.  Only Thoreau and Margaret  Fuller weren’t there, and they were both dead.

I don’t have much use for the illustriousness of funerals.  It isn’t that that strikes me in the list of mourners.  It’s that right here, in the middle of the Civil War, men and women who had largely been friends since childhood remained friends.  Elizabeth Peabody did not refuse to attend Hawthorne’s funeral because Hawthorne was a copperhead (a “peace Democrat,” who did not believe the Union should fight to keep the South, and who did not support abolition). 

Hell, she came even though Franklin Pierce, the biggest copperhead of them all, was sitting with the Hawthorne family.

i’m getting back to something here that ought to be commonplace but today is not.  Given our present climate, young up and coming man with political aspirations would have been very careful not to be in that church, not to give the impression that he “approved” of Hawthorne’s views on race, or slavery, or secession. 

And Hawthorne had the kind of views that were repugnant even at the time, when there was far less stress on the utter moral unacceptability of racism.  Someone e-mailed me the other day and in the course of the message gave a sort of throw away comment on Agatha Christies xenophobia, which the writer thought of as an imperial trait.   I tend to think of British xenophobia as an insular one, instead, but the comment made me think of why that trait in Christie never really bothers me much, and I came up with the realization:  there’s no malice in it.

Christie’s xenophobia was reflexive, not thought out, and it did not spill into her personal life as far as we can tell.  She traveled widely, and counted as friends people of many nationalities, whom she admired and praised publicly with no sense of irony.  What’s more, in those of her books where she’s actually thinking about it, the xenophobia is not only tempered, it’s often completely reversed.  Think of Dumb Witness, one of my favorite of the Poirots, where we spend the entire book being treated to the snide contempt for the Greek husband (sure to be the killer–he’s a foreigner!), only to have the book end with the revelation that he’s just fine, thank you very much, intelligent and generous and well-meaning and kind, it’s his Very English Lady Wife who’s a selfish, conniving, homicidal bitch.

The problem with  Hawthorne was that there was malice in it, a lot of malice, and racism of a kind that far outstripped anything around him.  He was not, after all, a child of the South.  He was born and raised in New England, and if his views on race and equality had been merely a matter of going along with the flow, they would have been much different than they were.  

I’m not saying that people like Elizabeth Peabody and  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David  Thoreau were free of racially discriminatory ideas, as we would define that today.  They weren’t.  But compared to the kinds of things Hawthorne thought, and wrote, and respected, they were paragons. 

And yet they went on talking to him, all their lives.  They were good friends to him, as he was to them, all his life.  Even when forty thousand dead lay on the field at Gettysburg, they did not repudiate him.

And he did not repudiate them, even though they supported John Brown, an  American radical who makes Bill Ayers look like a hot fudge sundae. 

I tried to talk about this in a former post somewhere, and felt as if I didn’t do as good a job with it as I could.   But if there’s one change I can’t help but recognize with the start of the new  American dispensation–a change that comes with the end of  WWII and starts with the McCarthy period–it’s this demand that our public figures, political and otherwise, cut their friendships to only those that can be presented as politically acceptable.  Bill  Ayers!   Jerry Falwell!   Totally anathema!

I don’t know what I think of the invitation to Rick Warren to give the innaugural invocation.  I am convinced that we elected Barack  Obama to be president of the United States not because of any particular policies he might have, but because he came to us declaring that it was time for this crap to be over, it was time that we all understood that we are all Americans together, and that all the other things, the policy disagreements, even the moral disagreements, have to be secondary, if we are to be a country.

I’ve watched the transition with increasing fascination over the last few weeks.  I find this latest move completely flabbergasting.

But even so–and even though I disagree with Rick  Warren on practically everything, and most especially on gay rights–I hope Obama doesn’t get stampeded into changing his mind.

Because I think it’s vital right now that we start to learn, again, how to be All  Americans  Together. 

And to do that we have to learn that in a pluralistic society–which we have created, and which we claim to be very proud of –some of those Americans we’re together with are going to hold views and support policies that we find morally and politically reprehensible.

A world in which we are all neat different colors but complete conformists inside our heads–what I think of as the rainbow sprinkles version of diversity–isn’t really diversity at all.   It’s a monocultural society with a superficial paint job.

Barack Obama is a very interesting man.  I don’t think he should repudiate either Wright or  Warren. 

I do think I’d give a lot to live in a time when personal commitments–love and friendship and everything that goes with it–were not calcuated on their potential to look politically palatable to any particular group of people.

I’m blithering again.

Written by janeh

December 19th, 2008 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Snow Day'

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  1. “I do think I’d give a lot to live in a time when personal commitments–love and friendship and everything that goes with it–were not calcuated on their potential to look politically palatable to any particular group of people.”

    Do people really make strong personal committments today? If they don’t, such connections as they have to other people aren’t that hard to break if they become inconvenient.

    I’m not just thinking about such things as higher divorce rates and the tendency of some people to calculate what’s in it for them before they do anything for anyone. And I’m not even talking entirely about the weakening of such ideals as loyalty.

    We’re a very mobile society, too, and it’s very hard to maintain close relationships across vast distances without putting time into them – with Victorian-style letters or email. Even children from comparatively close families usually don’t seem to maintain closeness with their cousins once their parents aren’t taking them all to grandmother’s house for the holidays. I don’t think school friends do any better (although I think there is a subcategory of modern humans who actually organise and attend school reunions).

    We as a society might lack a conviction that we can be loyal to our friends and we don’t necessarily have to compromise our own honour unless we espouse their weird political views or help them carry out their dodgy schemes. Without the conviction that our friends are important enough to accept willy-nilly, we will drift out of contact with them when they (or we) go off in pursuit of higher education or better jobs.

    I’m enjoying the fuss about in invocation! It’s amusing, in a rather twisted way, to listen to explanations of why ‘inclusiveness’ didn’t mean ‘including Rick Warren’, or, for that matter, ‘including people who sometimes smoke a cigarette in private’. For some reason, CBC saw fit to broadcast a couple lengthy interviews about Obama’s smoking habit. I figure as long as he doesn’t do it in my house, or in any public place I must go to, I don’t care if he smokes or not. Really, you’d think from one of the interviewees that it didn’t really matter if he’s going to run the country well if, in addition, he sets a bad example and harms his daughters by smoking! All that and a conservative minister praying at the inauguration! You’d think the US didn’t have anything else to worry about.


    19 Dec 08 at 8:20 pm

  2. Good luck to both you and Obama with that. I think I might have dated the problem to the interwar years by the way. Certainly part of it is that being “one of us” generally involves being “not like them” and stable republican, democratic America of 1864 WAS all on one side compared with France, Russia and “the Germanies” or even to a degree Britain. Hawthorne and Thoreau, Lincoln and Jefferson Davis shared beliefs which would have gotten them locked up or killed in much of the world.

    The success of the American model undermined the uniqueness. By the 1920’s, in a world of nominally democratic nation-states, Americans can be closer ideologically to foreign powers than they are to each other, and act accordingly. The “McCarthy Era” isn’t when it happened, but when some outsider was so gauche as to point it out.

    And that crowd at Hawthorne’s funeral is a more exclusive “us” still. As you say–childhood friends, common schools and heritage–sometimes related. It’s not as though they were shanty Irish, or “Dutch.” They’re certainly no relation to the sort of people who put Andrew Jackson in the White House.

    And maybe I’m blithering too. But it seems to me that a real feeling of solidarity requires either an outsider or a belief that the issues are of no moral importance, and that can be a high price to pay. Civility is different. Maybe we can at least get back to civility.

    And John Brown regularly put his own life on the line–and those of his sons–for his cause. That puts him morally miles above Ayres & Co.


    20 Dec 08 at 7:40 am

  3. “And maybe I’m blithering too. But it seems to me that a real feeling of solidarity requires either an outsider or a belief that the issues are of no moral importance, and that can be a high price to pay. Civility is different. Maybe we can at least get back to civility.”

    Civility, yes. I think one of the big ways I’ve changed since I was a teenager is that now I consider behaviour ‘civil’ that I once would have considered intolerably hypocritical. There’s something in Lewis – I think in the Screwtape Letters – about someone not realizing how much a person’s kindness towards him was due to the fact that that person tried to treat everyone with courtesy and kindness, and how little due to the sterling characteristics (or lack of same) of the recipient of the kindness.

    It seems to be an innate human tendency to require an outsider in order to feel part of a social group and get all that nice stuff like solidarity and support. But we are capable of learning different places to draw that line – as many families find out when their child brings an intended spouse home! We can and do draw the line around our nation-state or empire, as much as we do our family; and whatever the internal quarrels, we can unite against ‘outsiders’. Only religions try to forbid drawing the line anywhere (well, some religions; not the ones that tell people to judge between the saved and the damned or the humans and the non-humans here on earth). And both religions and nations/empires get it really wrong a lot of the time. There has to balance between proper nationalism and jingoism, just as there has to be a balance between comforting unity and destructive conformity.


    20 Dec 08 at 10:39 am

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