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Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life…

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Okay, that’s a really old song that a lot of people I knew in college used to sing, usually right before expressing confusion as to whether or not it was a joke.  I still don’t know.

But Lee suggested reading Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of  Unreason, which  I have, and that line from that song sort of explains why I was disappointed with it.

First, let me say that I got ahold of a copy of that book as soon as I could, because I was hoping that a) it wasn’t really a new take on Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and b) that it would be a critique of cultural relativism from the left for once. 

I got both my wishes.   Hofstadter’s book is not about anti-intellectualism as we have been discussing it here, but about the resistance of large segments of the American public to rule by “experts.”  To Hofstadter, thinking that your local elementary school principal has her head up her ass because she wants to use “see and say” instead of phonics is “anti-intellectual.”   Personally, I think resistance to “expert” opinion in things like this is one of the great strengths of American society. 

Jacoby is not on that particular rag, however, and she is trying to talk about the anti-intelligence thing I started out talking about myself about a hundred or so posts ago. 

And I wasn’t even upset by the fact that, after excoriating the Right for page after page for swallowing a lot of nonsensical crap wholesale as if it were Holy Writ, she then swallows a lot of different nonsensical crap herself, just “liberal” nonsensical crap instead of “conservative” stuff.  If we want a poster child for critical thinking and reational thought, Jacoby is definitely not it.

(I didn’t know what to do with her ringing defense of the loonier segments of the Sixties Left as being motivated by high ideals and a passionate commitment to justice and right.  I mean, for God’s sake–the Black Panthers?  The Weathermen?)

But, like I said,  I could live with this, because we desperately need a critique of the “everything is just as good as everything else” school from the left.  After eight years of a  Republican culture that had so far departed from the principles laid down  by  William F. Buckley that it seemed to be running on the assumption that “stupid is better,” a defense of education, expertise and high culture was just what I was looking for.

Jacoby’s book ended up failing for me, however, because throughout it all I could never figure out what it was she wanted–other than the end of the Bush era, which she got.

We do a lot of the same things here.  We spend a lot of time complaining about students and the general literacy level of the public at large, but we don’t ever seem to come to any kind of decision about what we want the world to look like instead.

And I’m not too sure I know, exactly.  There are some specific points that I’m sure of.  I’d like more people to be more skilled at reading, whether they chose to do it often or not.  I’d like more people to know the basics of their own history and the workings of their government. 

A lot of times, however, I’m very conflicted.   Decadence is ore a habit of mind than a set of specific policies, or even events.  It consists in the decision that the only standard by which we need to judge our behavior is whether or not it gives us what we want.  Homosexuality is not decadent.  The attitude that the only thing we need to consider in deciding whether to extend government recognition to gay marriages is how gay people will feel about it (or its lack) is.

I am a big supporter of government recognition of gay marriage, by the way.  I think there are good, practical reasons for such recognition, and there are getting to be better ones every day.  The purpose of government recognition of marriage has always been, first and foremost, to ssecure the rights of children to their father’s property, and these days, with adoptions and sperm donors and what all else, it is sometimes the case that the “father” in a relationship is another woman, or that there are two fathers.  To exclude Jack and Sally from the benefits–Social Security suvivor benefits, for instance–guaranteed to one of their parents because that parent’s marriage to their existing adoptive parent wasn’t recognized in law, even though it had been going on for twenty years, seems addled to me.

But the argument that “you can’t legislate love” does nothing for me, because I do not consider marriage, as the law does not consider marriage, to have anything to do with “love.”

What I want, I think, is to shift this culture away from the assumption that right and wrong, good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable are to be determined by what we “want,” and to move it back to a place where we understand that what we want is not a definitive answer to anything. 

I mean, even when the question is what to choose from the desert menu, we’re usually smarter to think about health issues and cost issues and who knows what else.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that anti-intellectualism, for me, the anti-intelligence kind, is about sloth, mental and spiritual and moral and intellectual sloth.  We don’t read long books because they take a certain amount of effort.  We don’t read James  Joyce or The Iliad or (in the case of many of my students) Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods because they’re “too hard.” 

I can think of big scale plans for making sure my next round of students–or the round six or seven years away–knows the things my present students do not, but I don’t think it will matter much of they still have the attitude that the only thing that matters is what they feel. 

“Some people may like writing because it gives them a chance to express their feelings,” one of my students wrote once, and then he couldn’t think of any other reason why people would like to write. 

He couldn’t think of a single reason why people would like to read.

It’s a change in the habit of mind that I think is my ultimate goal in all this, and I think too many of us, including me, substitute superficial manifestations for the deeper issue.

Once, pregnant with my younger son, I got on an overcrowded bus near Camden Town just behind a tall young man with piercings all over him and a rainbow mohawk of truly epic proportions.  He sat down in the only seat available, looked up, saw I was pregnant, got out of his seat and gave it to me.

“You sit down, miss,” he said.  “You’re going to do yourself harm if you try to stand up when you’re that way.”

I like Theodore Dalrymple a lot, but he makes a lot of fuss about piercings and tattooes and other body art.  I don’t care about the body art if I can have the civility and the courtesy and the sense that we owe each other something as human beings. 

And I think that’s the first step on the way to figuring out what my goal in all this is.

Written by janeh

February 3rd, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life…'

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  1. I was half-listening to a radio program with a debate that seemed to start with a new approach to advertising that emphasizes that we’re all just perfect and deserving of all luxury (as compared to the old kind, that said we’re all hopeless losers unless we buy the product). The speakers then wandered all around various claims as to whether the self-esteem movement of the past has produced a lot of narcissists, and how this affects people’s lives. I’d also read an article on the BBC site discussing the attempts of the C of E to reach the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, which also claimed that one problem was that the SBNR people were looking for something tailored to their personal preferences and self-fulfilment. And now I can’t remember what I made up myself and what I heard/read where, but the claim appears to have been made that people are doing their spiritual pursuits from self-serving reasons and possibly even turning to religion to ‘see what they can get out of it’ (ie from excessive self-esteem or narcissism). I was a bit startled at the idea that anyone other than some venal businessman joining a religion to get new contacts would actually demand benefits for themselves from a way of life that’s supposed to focus on the needs of others. I also think this has some relevance to what we are discussing, and wish I had been paying more attention.

    If more people are more focused on their own needs and desires than in the past, fewer of them are going to put their preferences to one side and try to work at some initially boring and tedious task just because someone tells them to. If their own views are all-important, they’ll have little or no reason to be civil and courteous to others, particularly to strangers. Think of the commonplace ‘I only respect people who deserve it’ or ‘earn it’ or ‘who treat me with respect’. What happened to the idea that you should treat everyone with respect (because they’re children of God, because they’re fellow-humans, because you are a courteous person…there could be many motivations)?

    Maybe the change in western society is in fact partly due to a combination of changes in the way children are taught to view themselves and their place in the world and a lack of counter-voices, or at least ones that get listened to very much, saying that you should think of others, put yourself in their shoes, be polite and courteous and civil (and give up your seat to the pregnant and elderly!).

    I don’t know what can be done. I’m certainly not going to be raising any children, much less preach to others’ children. Most of the young adults I know are perfectly pleasant and polite – but I’m sure that most of them would be baffled by this kind of discussion. They wouldn’t see the problem. The importance of trying to develop a more outward rather than inward-looking personality? Wouldn’t that cause psychological harm? We all need to take care of ourselves. And ‘openness’ and ‘acceptance’ can all be dealt with through the creation of laws to protect popular minority groups.


    3 Feb 09 at 11:39 am

  2. Decadence of the mind. That’s what I have come to think it’s all about. I think people do ‘know how to read’ (at least more of them can finish a sentence and summarize a plot than could 60 years ago). But how they absorb and evaluate what they read is truely horrific.

    I just finished reading the worst book I have ever read in my life (why I finised it is another story). The writing is barely adequate, the characters speak mainly in over emotional meaningless hyped up hyped up cliches. And the author is fundamentally dishonest. But when I checked out the customer reviews on Amazon ( a good place to find a cross section of average American readers (heck, at least these people buy, read and comment on whole books (as opposed to confining their efforts to email and text messaging), of the over 1200 reviews about 90% gave this book 5 stars. Some “cried over the characters”, several said it was the “best book I’ve ever read”. Many were going to purchase multiple copies and give them out to ‘their best friends’. (Oh, please, please do not let me be a recipient). The 10% minority pretty much agreed with me…there were almost no ‘middle of the road’ scores. Pretty much, they all HATED the book. Good for them.

    I hate to be hard core (or, gasp, absolutist) about this, but I think the 90% who ‘loved the book” simply do not know how to read. And not knowing how to read is beginning to equate, in my mind, not knowing how to think. Maybe it’s a chicken/egg thing, but I’m not sure whether good thinking promotes good reading or good reading promotes good thinking.

    In any case, this is not just a matter of ‘taste’. Nor is it a matter of laziness or lack of education (at least I don’t think it is). It’s that we seem to be clutivating a society of mushy minds. Mushy minds like really awful books because they are always easy fixes for thought processes. If you can deal in emotional slop, then you will be popular. I think it’s worse now than it was, but maybe I’m wrong.

    Janet Lewis

    3 Feb 09 at 12:10 pm

  3. Apparently some people take ‘Drop Kick Me Jesus’ seriously:


    Sometimes when people rave over a book I hated, I put it down to different tastes. Other times, I have to wonder what the other people were reading, because it doesn’t seem to be the same book I read.

    I was once earnestly told that reading ‘The DaVinci Code’ was an excellent way to learn history.


    3 Feb 09 at 2:08 pm

  4. I have an answer, maybe, but you won’t like it. You have one list of things which amounts to educational reform–that children should be taught certain things and certain skills, from making sure all the elmentary kids learn to write to ensuring that university graduates have read certain of the Great Books. This is, broadly speaking, doable, and why we as a nation don’t do it would be a separate essay.

    But you also want two things out of the adults and the civilization at large, and that’s trickier. You want people to think more deeply, if you will, and longer term–and to be less prone to believe without thinking. You want them to be wiser, and I’m not sure that’s where the educational part of the program leads.

    But you also want what you summed up beautifuly above: civility, courtesy and “a sense that we owe one another something as human beings.” People can get there–some of us, some of the time, but I don’t believe for a moment the way lies through an improved reading program. The perpetrators of the Great Terror and both the Communist and Nazi massacres of the last century were far better read in Great Books than I shall ever be.

    The education reform is–mostly–a good thing in itself. But you want the adults to go somewhere it won’t take you.


    3 Feb 09 at 7:20 pm

  5. But I believe there’s a difference between a book “I don’t like” (which is a judgment of taste, kind of like “I don’t like strawberry ice cream”) and a book “that is not good” (which is a more normative judgment, one I would debate with another and offer non subjective evidence on behalf of my positon). I confess that there are some books I like that I wouldn’t call good and some that are good that I don’t like. But not a lot. and the good ones that I don’t like are probably because there are genres that don’t appeal to me, like science fiction. But I’d also argue that at least I’m able to recognise that I can differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘like’, even when I have a subjective affinity with a book.

    What bothers me is the tendency on the part of many readers to confuse, or see as synonomous, books they like and books that are good. To say that a poorly written book, or one with pretty obvious defects is “the best book I’ve ever read” says more about the author of the quote than it does about the book. To me it says that ‘taste’ is equal to quality. That preference is equal to judgment. That, to me, is the symbol of mushy mindedness. I wish there were less of it.

    I guess what bothers me is the

    Janet Lewis

    5 Feb 09 at 12:18 pm

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