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5, 6, 7, 8…

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There are a lot of books in my house, hundreds of them at least, maybe thousands.  There have also been a lot of books in my life.  In that case, the number is almost certainly many, many thousands over the course of the years.

One of the peculiarities of my life has been the fact that it hasn’t always been possible to hold onto the books from one point of departure to another.  I’ve moved continents a couple of times.  I didn’t pack all the books in boxes and send them around to where I was next.  For a while I kept a lot of them at my parents’ house–but they moved around some themselves, and in the end they were storing things with me.

So books got lost, and it didn’t really bother me a lot.  It seemed natural, and books can be rebought, most of the time, if you really want them.  Sometimes–maybe even more often than not–I found out I didn’t.

The much less frequent, and distinctly odder, phenomenon has been that of the books I just can’t seem to lose, even if I’m trying.  These tend to be books that I remember distinctly for some reason or the other, but not ones that I necessarily liked. 

I usually have no intention of reading them again., and yet there they are, every time I turn around–on top of the TBR stack even though I’ve already read them, on the counter in the kitchen, the first or second or third thing to hand when I’m looking for something else.

One of these books is a short thing called In Defense of Elitism by William A. Henry III.  I suppose there’s something almost funny in the fact that somebod writing a book defending elitism should be “III.” 

Henry was–before his massive heart attack at 44, just before this book was published–a “cultural critic” for Time and other magazines.  He’d also done some fairly serious journalism, notably on civil rights during the civil rights movement, and won two Pulitizers.  One of the Pulitizers was, I think, for a biography of Jackie Gleason.

The book came out in 1994, and it’s been in print ever since.  Which is an interesting thing on several levels.

Let me pass over, for a minute, the fact that Henry is the only person I have ever heard, before I started talking to Robert, who really had a thing about the word “deference.”  And I’m going to get to the deference thing is a minute.

Let me start by saying that the book is not screamingly original.  Most of what Henry has to say–about affirmative action, about “victim’s studies” departments, whatever–has been said a million times before.  It’s just that, these days, sixteen years after the fact, most of the people who say them are also witheringly contemptuous of the high art tradition.

In a way, Henry’s book makes more sense to me than the critiques of much of the contemporary populist right, because I think it hangs together better–it is, in fact, conservatism as I had known it in the pages of National Review in my childhood.  There is something just–confused–about a group of people who both champion the high art tradition and push for gay studies departments at the ivy-covered alma mater, which is what we have now, with the upper middle class liberal-left.

That said, Henry is not, as far as I can tell, a conservative.  He thinks gun rights are only “imagined,” he thinks dislike of homosexuality is mindless bigotry–let’s face it, no conservative organization would have him.  And the Republican Party of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party would vomit him up like bad meat.

The left wouldn’t have been much in love with him, either, though.  If he hadn’t died before publication, he’d probably have had a rough time of it.  Even as it was, a few self-consciously liberal and left reviewers allowed as how Henry didn’t have the courage of his convictions.  He should have just said that other races and sexes besides heterosexual white European males were genetically inferior to those heterosexual white European males.

This always interests me, as a tactic, because it is a sort of self contradiction.  Why is it that people who claim that all human idenity is socially constructed–that intelligence, artistic talent, and the rest is a matter of nurture and not nature–have such a hard time accepting the actual (and predictable) consequences of differences in nurture?

Most African Americans were slaves until 1865, and then burderend with racist law throughout half the country for another hundred years after that.  They were denied significant education in many places.  Is it really surprising that they have not yet produced an African American Shakespeare?  Is the only possible answer to that that there must be something genetically inferior about African Americans?

Most of sub Saharan Africa is a climate-induced tangle of jungle that the rest of the world found it very difficutl to penetrate, therefore cuting off the societies there from intercourse with the wider world.  The climate also made it difficult to preserve buildings, never mind fragile artefacts like manuscripts.  Is it really surprising that no major civilization (on the scale or Greece or Rome or even the Incas) arose in what is now Zimbabwe?  Is the only possible answer to that that there must be something genetically inferior about African peoples?

For some reason, a significant number of people seem to have a problem understanding that “not yet” isn’t the same thing as “not ever possible.”

But although I find most of Henry’s analysis unexceptionable, there is one thing in the book that absolutely took me aback the first time I read it, and it’s something I never forgot.

That was why, when the book came swimming to the surface again the other day, I sat down and reread it. 

It’s on page 135 of the paperback edition I own. 

It’s where he says–in the context of health care rationing–that some lives are just more worth saving than others.

I’ll get back to this. 

It keeps bugging me, and for more reasons than you might think.

Written by janeh

June 8th, 2010 at 7:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to '5, 6, 7, 8…'

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  1. Why wouldn’t it bug you? It horrifies me, and I keep coming across variations on it everywhere. OK, I’m coming at it (now) out of the Christian tradition in which all humans had value merely for being human; all equal in the eyes of God. But I was ‘bugged’ by similar ideas during the many years I drifted away from any religion and before I really gave much thought to the obvious extensions of such ideas – the allowing to die of the poor, the troublesome, the difficult, the expensive to care, and the revelation that the eugenics movement – although legally limited to preventing reproduction and not life – managed to thoroughly mis-categorize some of the people they targeted – all poor and without resources and power, of course!

    I’ve become more and more aware of how deeply I was affected by growing up with someone who was so disabled as to be assumed by many people to be better off dead, and, of course, visiting hospitals and institutions. And now I’m getting to a point at which I realize that as I age I’m going to be facing the same assumption among the (I hope well-meaning) strangers I’ll consult for my care. The assumption that some lives aren’t worth living; that some aren’t worth saving is so pervasive in present culture that any comment to the contrary almost has to be accompanied by a statement that ‘No, I don’t mean that everyone with a rapidly advancing and terminal cancer should be kept on life support indefinitely at government expense’ because so many people appear to think that’s what ‘no active or passive euthanasia because all humans have value just because they’re human and none of them are worth saving more than others’ means. And they’re all so solidly convinced that no one could possibly consider THEM not worth providing life-saving medical care to! The temporarily able-bodied who can’t believe their status will ever change, that’s them.

    I take a hard line with books these days. I keep some old ones, partly out of habit, and a very few new ones, but I’m actively trying to reduce the total number and depend mostly on libraries.

    I must admit I don’t think much about deference one way or the other. I suppose I think of it as kind of like a minor courtesy – letting someone through a door first, that sort of thing. It doesn’t mean I think the person is better than me and has to go through the door first.


    8 Jun 10 at 7:52 am

  2. I don’t know what Robert’s issue with deference is, but the kind of thing that you describe, Cheryl – holding the door open, etc – I don’t see as deference, just courtesy.

    Deference is either a sort of professional courtesy (“I’ll defer to Jane on the structure of the mystery novel since she clearly knows more than I do about it”) or it’s demanded, as in the case of, say, royalty, or some university professors I’ve known who think that having a tenured position is pretty much the same as living on a pedestal full-time.

    And if that – the second kind – is what Robert is referring to, I’m agin it too. Deference should be granted, not demanded.


    8 Jun 10 at 10:22 am

  3. Books. Measure the shelves. Figure hardcovers and trade paperbacks at 1″ per book, and mass market paperbacks at half that. It’ll give you a pretty good rough count.
    I have moved contintents three times and at one point moved 14 times in 21 years. The books are still with me, though many are in storage at present. Every time I succeed in getting them all back under one roof, I cull duplicates and some used book dealer does very well. Right now I have been separated from some of mine for seven years, and probably will be for an additional five. The eventual reunion will be, if you will pardon the expression, one for the books.

    Deference. When the man at the auto shop telle me I’m a quart low on oil, and I accept that, that’s trust. I understand what he’s talking about, and could check myself. When he tells me I ought to replace the rear tires before a long trip, that’s a combination of trust and deference. I can measure the tread, but I don’t have his experience of what is or is not safe.

    When a physicist tells me the Universe is seven billion years old, or an engineer tells me the bridge is god for 25 tons, that’s deference. I don’t have the training and maybe not the intellectual capacity to follow the reasoning. We all have to do this, even though the experts are, sometimes, wrong. But they’ve got real measurements and actual math. They can, sometimes, be PROVED wrong. That’s why phlogiston is no longer with us, or Lamarkian evolution, and why schoolchildren are no longer taught that white mice spontaneously generate from dirty shirts. The physicist’s measurements and mathematics are always subject to review–which is why Newtonian physics is no longer the last word. And I can always put 25 tons on the bridge and see whether it holds.

    When someone says “don’t wear those pants! You’ll look like a dork” when a “bioethicist” decides which lives are worth more, or an English professor announces that Book X is the greatest novel of the previous century, while Book Y is worthless–this is also a call for deference–yielding to the superior prestige, training and/or experience of the fashion expert, the “ethicist” or the literary maven. But there’s a difference. None of these are capable of being refuted. How do I test the ethicist? Who reviews and potentially refutes the literary critic? Are they never wrong? This is, bluntly, not the same game at all. THIS is the kind of deference I will not give, and I always find it interesting how much more firmly the opinions are given, and the more deference expected, in those fields in which the “expert” knows he can never be definitively refuted.

    Courtesy is another matter altogether–not even distantly related. Though it is interesting how often experts in irrefutable subjects lack it.

    NOTE: I am not saying that one cannot profit by thinking long and hard about ethics. I am not saying that someone who reads a book with great care and reads the books ABOUT a book will not have much interesting to say. I DO say that one does well either as expert or learner, to keep in mind the limits of such expertise.

    And I’m not doing the value of human life today. Ill just wait for Jane to explode over that I’ve already said.


    8 Jun 10 at 6:27 pm

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