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Polite Society

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I think it’s interesting who does like Obama and who doesn’t–I like him quite a bit, and I remember the Carter administration too well to think he’s the “most informal” president we’ve ever had–but the part of the VDH article that really strikes me is that part about “coarseness.”

I want to be a little careful here.  Lynne Cheney made me a fan of  Eminem.  She went on and on at some hearing about how he sings about wanting to rape and murder his mother, and it made me crazy, so I sought out the song and the lyrics, and it turns out that he’s quite consciously talking about his reaction to his mother’s Munchausen by proxy.  And we all have fantasies of violence we never will and never will want to carry out.

So I’m not going to have the fit VDH does about rap and hip hop and all the rest of it.  It’s like anything else, more complicated than not, and the fact that a lot of it is full of Anglo  Saxonisms of one sort or another is mostly reflective of the lives these people led before they started making music.

And no, I’m not saying it’s all relative, and a world of non-stop cussing, respect for nothing but money and violence, and crack dealers on every  corner is “just as good” as one of stable intact families and respect of education and manners.   I’m only saying that that world exists.  It is what it is.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing that some of the people in it have found a way to express the reality of it. 

Some of them are more interesting than others–there’s a subset of rappers who seem to have nothing to dalk about but “look, I’ve got a lot of mone now and I can get laid all I want,” but there are others (Eminem among them) who are actually commenting on that world and what it means to live in it. 

But the thing about the commercials, I definitely get–if I  have to listen to one more  paean to one more cream or pill that promises to increase the size or staying power of the  American penis, I think I’m going to scream.  I mean,  I know that men are supposed to fixate on that organ to the exclusion of common sense, but I really don’t need to hear about it 24/7.  In fact, I don’t really need to hear about it at all.

The same goes for various feminine hygiene products, the various uses of K-Y jelly, and all those laxatives that promise to do precise things to the color, shape and consistency of my stool. 

Sometimes it seems to me that hundreds of people over hundreds of years worked very hard to end censorship, and when they did the culture didn’t talk about politics or art or even real medical problems.  It just hunkered down into obsessing about sex.

Somebody told me once that no matter what it is you can think of, there’s a branch of porn devoted to it.  And it’s all out there, on the Internet.  BDSM, which used to be a kinky, forbidden and slightly yucky topic in my adolescence, is now the fodder of jokes on prime time TV.  Everybody is into spanking now, except parents, who have mostly given it up.

I’m not much for formality.  I don’t really see the point of elaborate rituals of manners, and one of the things I’ve always liked better about the US than the UK is the fact that we do tend to be very informal.  Informality can be, and often is, a way of expressing lack of deference–you may be a big shot lawyer, or even Secretary of the Interior, but you don’t know how to fix your own God damned plumbing, and I do.

Well, I don’t.  But you know what I mean.

It’s not the informality, but something else that is often lumped in with it that I think is the problem–the utter, relentless leveling of everything and everybody to a standard so low that it becomes less and less possible to imagine anything better.

Certainly that is, at least partly, a result of the culture of money–the last twenty years of a world in which money was the only thing that mattered.  It’s been better to be Bernie Madoff lately than to be the local electrician or the single mother with two part time jobs.  Madoff may be going to jail, but he gets respect even from the media that rails against him.  The electrician and the single mom are just losers.  In a culture that values cash above all else, not having it means your life is worthless, no matter what else you do with it.

But it’s not just the culture of money that’s the problem.  It’s the attitude–and I see it in a lot of my kids–that nobody really achieves anything.  It’s all flash and dash, fake and brag–people say they’ve done all this stuff, but it isn’t really true, they’re just making it up, or faking it with mirrors, or something.

The inherent contradiction of this attitude is such that I sometimes try to entangle it.  The bridges and roads and skyscrapers are there.  The plays are there, whether you think Shakespeare wrote them or not.   The “Emperor’s Concerto” is there.

Unless you think those things were put on earth by God or aliens, somebody must have “done” them. 

I would make this argument and see students accept it, at least rationally–and then come back in the next week with the same attitude they had before.  I think that’s because the purpose of the attitude–it’s all flash and dash, it’s all a fake–isn’t to make a statement about the world, but to provide an exculpatory foundation for not doing anything with the lives they have.

And the need for that exculpatory foundation comes from an inner conviction that they themselves are not capable of doing much of anything of significance.

The point needs to be stressed, because I think that one of the differences between the world VDH longs for and the one he has now is that more people felt that they were capable of going out and doing something with their lives.

I don’t mean that more people felt they could go out and be President, or CEO of Ford,  but that they thought they could be instrumental in the world, they could achieve something.

Part of that was that we offered them achievements we respected that were not  CEO of Ford.  We honored work and saving and sacrificing money and time and dreams for our children.  We at least gave lip service to the idea that to be poorish and honest was a better life than to be rich and corrupt.

There are very few things that my kids are capable of doing that the world wil respect them for, and the kids that do the best are the ones who have found a way to focus on levels of achievement that are actually within their grasp.

In a way, my very poorest kids have an advantage here.  For a kid from the projects whose mother was a crack addict, who was in and out of the foster care system, who never knew if she’d be able to sleep indoors even on the coldest nights, a job as a parole officer, an apartment in a neighborhood without gangs, and two kids who stay in school amounts to one big, enormous deal, one she can be and is proud of. 

For my middle class kids, the ones who end up in my classes because they aren’t very bright, the news is all bad.  The world they come from will not respect most of what they are actually capable of doing, and the schools they come from do nothing to explain why the other things (academic success, careers in the professions) is worthy of respect.

In middle class towns where the school system is geared up to provide a real and rigorous education to the top ten percent and to let everybody else slide–it’s either that, or get seriously sued by the parents of that other ninety percent–academics are a joke and success at them not only looks arbitrary, but probably is. 

And, of course, the kids are scared.  They know they don’t “get” a lot of what they’re supposed to get.  They know they’re not capable of doing what their parents do, and that their parents consider them somehow defective for not being capable.

I seem to have strayed far from the point here, but I do think that all this is connected. 

And I’m reading an essay now on Pico della Mirandola and his ideas on the dignity of man, and I think that what’s happened to us is that we’ve deprived human beings of any dignity at all.  

Unlike VDH and a lot of other people who write about this particular thing, I don’t believe dignity requires tea party manners or relatively formal clothing.

I do think it means living with the understanding that being a human being is something you have an obligation to live up to.

Maybe what VDH really misses is the feeling that was prevalent even in the early 1960s–that being an American is something Americans have an obligation to live up to.

I don’t know if other countries had that same sense of themselves.   I remember when we had it, though, and I think itls largely gone.

Written by janeh

March 24th, 2009 at 5:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Polite Society'

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  1. I lost everything again. I HATE the keyboard on this borrowed computer!

    In summary, I knew little about Eminem, and having googled him, think less. I tentatively like Obama (an improvement over my initial impression of him as too young and therefore not tough enough for the job), although I’m keeping my final judgement in abeyance until I see whether his drastic actions will help with the economic disaster.

    For the rest – obligations, whether to oneself as a human being, to one’s family, neighbours, employer, or country, are all out of fashion. So are heroes, especially the small-scale non-splashy heroes like the poor parents who nevertheless manage to feed, clothe and raise their children to be honest and hardworking, in spite all temptations to give up or take ethical shortcuts. I think partly this is because of the tendency to emphasize the feet of clay all public heroes have which end by convincing people that no one is REALLY heroic. If someone who rescued a drowning victim drank too much, then clearly the community leader who fought for a local hospital or road wasn’t anything special because she said things that offended people or maybe had unacceptable views on some current orthodoxy – animal rights, race relations – and the unfortunate poor parents clearly shouldn’t have BEEN parents since they shouldn’t have concieved until they were sure that they could provide middle-class comfort to their kids, which is practically child abuse and not heroic at all.

    I used to think that the no-warts views of explorers etc I grew up with were unnecessarily sanitized, but I now sometimes wonder if we need our heroes sanitized and can’t reconize them in a warts-and-all view.

    I don’t think Jane was actually writing about heroes. but isn’t a hero simply someone who does more than the basic social obligations that everyone has? And if there are no agreed-upon basic social obligations, how can there be heroes?


    24 Mar 09 at 9:36 am

  2. So many directions!
    The Presidency: I can remember it all–JFK with striped pants at his inaugural, and state dinners to follow. Charles de Gaulle not needing to see American intelligence during the Cuban Missile Crisis–“the word of the President of the United States is sufficient”–and the head of US Steel explaining that “when the President asks you to do something, you do it.”
    There followed LBJ showing off surgical scars and covering up his doubts about the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon searing into his own hidden microphones, Carter in sweater and jeans telling us WE were clueless, right down to Clinton on Arsenio and, later, explaining that perjury didn’t count if the people asking the questions didn’t like you and adultery didn’t count if…Never mind. They burned through about two centuries of political capital in something over 30 years, and no one in my lifetime will be able to refer to the dignity of the office without giggling. In that sense, Bush did not help, and Obama is not helping. You can hold partisan political opinions while President, but as long as you keep campaigning, you’re just another politician.

    Whether I like any of them or not is irrelevant. A lot of people I like would make very poor Presidents, and some of our best Presidents weren’t people I cared much for. Wait until Congress or the Supreme Court frustrate Obama, one of his plans doesn’t work as advertised, and a crisis arises with a group or in a place he never heard of. All three of these things will happen, guaranteed. THEN ask me what I think of him.

    On the deeper issue of vulgarity, color me unsurprised. You could pretty well say what you pleased about politics, philosophy or religion for some time, though there were considered to be inappropriate venues. When the “anti-censorship” drive continued into the 1960’s, what you see now on TV was pretty much the only objective left. In fact, we’ve probably LOST ground otherwise–political beliefs sidetracked, for instance, or race and religion–some of each, anyway–placed off limits to avoid “offense.”
    The good news is that you can skip this. In the 1960’s, commercials were pervasive. Everyone born 1952 and prior could listen to this day to certain instrumental music and tell you what cigarette brand it promoted, prior to the Ban. If someone claims to have been a STAR TREK fan from the beginning, ask him to describe the “Dodge Rebellion” girl. It’s the acid test. But in the era of the CD and the DVD, the only time I ever hear a commercial is if I have lunch in the work cafeteria. Television comes home by series, and situation comedies don’t come home at all. Beware of everyone who laments the fragmentation of America into a thousand micro-cultures. Those people generally have an important message for you to listen to.
    As for money as a source of status, I don’t think it’s true. If it were, people like Jobs, Gates and Turner would have the same respect once accorded Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. The moderns have as many sycophants as they care to rent, and people hit them up for money, but that’s not respect. Various critics to the contrary, not only are we serving God poorly, we’re not serving Mammon particularly well either.

    What we’ve got is a radical egalitarianism NOT based on religion or any major philosophy, but on a screaming insistance that there are no standards and consequently no way to judge. I don’t expect this to last. The philosophical underpinnings of human equality were found in judeo-Christian beliefs and arguably in some of Western philosophy down to about the French Revolution, and both have reasons why some people ought to be accorded more or less respect. Without those, we’re rather in the position of the cartoon character who can walk out over a cliff and keep walking–so long as he doesn’t look down and see he has no support. My reading is that we’re approximately to the point at which Wile E. Coyote looks down and sees that he’s standing on air, but has not yet begun to plummet. In historical terms, it will be a brief interval.

    Which is not to say that there are not groups and regions in America where respect–and self-respect–are gained as they always have been. I have twice this month been in gatherings in which certain individuals were deferred to because of their known accomplishments, and this Sunday I’ll be with another group which believes in standards of behavior and in judgements.

    But no such group and no standard of conduct or judgement is pervasive in America today.


    24 Mar 09 at 6:50 pm

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