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Woodpiles–Maybe Not Self Explanatory

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During the last 24 hours, posts appeared on both FB and Twitter that set my head spinning, and after having spent a night trying to figure out my response to the first one, and this morning being unable to shake free of the second, I thought I’d put my meanderings out here.

The problem these posts represent is not a minor thing, and the issue represent isn’t about to go away soon, or quietly.

So here we are.

The first was a tweet from my friend K, who has two young sons and wanted to find something he could read to them at bedtime.  He was looking for something in the vein of Philip Marlowe, because up until then they’d been reading fantasy. 

It was my recommendation that he should try Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels.  He tweeted back that he hadn’t read Stout, but that he had found attitudes to race “disappointing” in older novels, and did he have anything to worry about like that with Wolfe?

The FB post was from my friend L, who said she had a moral dilemma.  She had recently found that a friend of hers was “a bigot.”  He kept his bigotry very well hidden, but now she knew.  Should she retain his friendship, or not?

I expect I’m going to get some flack from some of you, saying that these two things are not the same.

But I’m going to stick with it here.  These things may not be “the same,” but they are very closely related, and they represent a kind of thinking that is–in the long run and the short–a very bad idea.

Let’s take the tweet first.

My reply to K about whether he had anything to worry about in the work of Rex Stout on the subject of race was that I couldn’t remember anything (which means there was probably nothing really outrageous), but that older books were likely to have attitudes that were…older.

This is something that is undeniably true in a way that would be trivial if it wasn’t for the fact that people don’t realize what they’re doing when they do it.

Our attitudes to a lot of things–sex (and gender) as well as race, religion and atheism, I could go on for a week–are not just very different from what they were in this country in, say, 1930, but very different from what they have been anywhere, ever.

In fact, attitudes to these things are very different in the modern industrialized west than they are in any other place on the planet, including the equally modern nations of Asia. 

We may think it is self evident that there is no connection between race and personal character (intelligence, criminality, temperament), but no other society on the planet has ever thought that, and most of them don’t now.

We may think it is right and fair that women should be paid the same as men and that gays should have the right to marry, but no other society on the planet has ever thought that, either. 

Only a very few years ago, a group of Iraqis protesting the American occupation told a report from, I think, the AP, that they didn’t want democracy, because democracy always “comes with the gays.”

I can see an argument welling up–as it has, in some Amerian universities–that if people in other times didn’t share our convictions on race and gender, then we should just stop reading and publishing and teaching them, because our way is better.

The problem with that is that the Western take on race and gender didn’t spring fully formed from our own particular version of Zeus’s forehead.

It is the product of a long and complicated intellectual history that begins with St. Paul and probably isn’t over yet. 

And that history is moving very fast.  Even thirty years ago, this society did not have the same (or even comparable) attitudes on race and gender as it has now.

If you really want only contemporary attitudes towards these things in the books you read, you’re going to have to give up not only Sophocles and Shakespeare,  Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, but at least some Vonnegut, Pynchon, and Alix Kates Schulman.

In 1969, my father was considered a flaming egalitarian radical for asserting the belief that gay people were born gay, and couldn’t help it, and therefore shouldn’t be blamed for it.

The “enlightened” position at that period was that homosexuality was a mental illness, which should be treated.

I’m not saying that we should all go on thinking as if it were 1969.

I am saying that if we refuse to read books from other times and places because they didn’t think the way we do now, we not only impoverish ourselves beyond measure, we lose any sense of WHY we think the way we think now.

We lose, in other words, or ability to articulate the reason why our way is better.

We lose any sense of how we exist in history–and without a sense of how we exist in history, we don’t know who we are, or what we are, or why we are.

And without knowing those things, all we have to say to the overwhelming population of the earth that believes black people are inherently stupid and gay people ought to be executed is “I’m just better and so THERE.”

My friend L’s FB post about what she should do now that she’s found out her friend is a bigot posed a big problem for me right away.

I had no idea what she was talking about.

Define “bigotry,” for instance.  That could be somebody who believes that black people are inherently intellectually inferior to whites and Asians.  It could also mean somebody who has no problem with homosexuality as a life choice but doesn’t think the government should recognize gay marriages.

We define and redefine and redefine again what constitutes “bigotry.”

The word will have a new meaning and new parameters tomorrow, and everybody will pretend that they had been thinking the new way all along.

Then we’ll find ourselves running around trying to explain people we like saying things we don’t.

Think of Joe Biden, saying during the first Obama Presidential campaign that he made a good candidate because he didn’t “sound black.”

Was that “bigotry?” Is it still “bigotry” is you acknowledge that it was also true–or is acknowledging a fact now also an act of “bigotry,” so that we must all pretend that most Americans aren’t disposed against people who sound “ghetto,” or who talk like country singers or even Chris Christie?

My response to L’s post was to say that I don’t judge people by what they think, but by what they do.  Abraham Lincoln had a lot of racialist attitudes common to his time, but he also signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 

I also said that I don’t choose my friends for their politics, and that is also true.

When we accuse people of “racism” and “bigotry,” we too often accuse them of a thought crime that rests on no firm objective foundation, requires psychic abilities none of us have, and serves to turn what ought to be an open conversation about things that matter to us into a form of witch-hunting hysteria where no one is permanently safe.

It try not to judge people by what they think, but by what they do.  I don’t care if you think all Latinos are crazy illegal immigrants, as long as you hire them because they’re the best candidate, pay them the same wage as everybody else in their position, and respect them while they are working for you.

You’ll be a better human being like that than you would be if you thought all the right thoughts and treated your Latino workers like…excrement.

And reading older books from other times with other attitudes helps you to get to the point where you know how to behave decently–something you really can’t do if you believe that everybody who doesn’t think just like you is either evil or stupid or worthless.

Or if you think that there’s no argument in the world that says the things you thing are right and just and proper, aren’t.

I should probably stop blithering now and go off and do something serious.

K should give a shot to Stout.  There’s nothing much about race in the books that I remember, and Stout is an interesting writer and a classic one in the mystery field.

And the boys will love Archie Goodwin.


Written by janeh

June 6th, 2014 at 8:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Woodpiles–Maybe Not Self Explanatory'

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  1. Well, you won’t get any flak from me. Australia is in the throes of a fight to the death between those who believe that everybody has the right not to be offended by anyone about anything, ie the lunar Left, those who think that while decent people should avoid gratuitous insults and other nastiness, the old “sticks and stones” proverb still applies, ie the soft centre, and those who couldn’t care less, ie those way out on the rabid racist hard right. The difficulty is that the lunar Left cannot separate the soft centre overwhelming majority from the comparatively tiny hard right minority, and believes it to be quite OK for them to decide unilaterally exactly what constitutes “anything”, and whom to label as bigots.

    Mark Steyn’s and Oscar Levant’s travails in Canada’s human rights star chambers have been duplicated down here.

    I don’t know how you could answer your friend who suddenly discovered that someone was a bigot. If your friend cannot determine for herself what moral stance is appropriate, I doubt she could benefit from anyone else’s advice in a way that would serve as a reliable guide for the future. These days, “feeling” has replaced “thinking” in dealing with these eternal dilemmas, and there seems to be no universal “logic” governing how people should “feel” about anything.

    These sorts of things make me glad that I will not have to live too much longer in this vale of tears.


    6 Jun 14 at 10:03 am

  2. I’m right with you on reading about other times and other ways of being. How else are we going to inform our reasoned stance on moral & ethical issues? I realize, of course, that the vast majority don’t *have* a reasoned morality, but for those of us who do, we have to get the “this, but not *that*” from somewhere.

    My first mother-in-law was first generation in this country. Her parents and the parents of my father-in-law immigrated from the part of Russia that had been colonized by Germans, so they were ethnic and cultural Germans. She was a sweet, loving woman, but she had the classic German attitude toward Jews. They were sneaky, cheap, cheating, dirty, and evil, and she wasn’t terribly shy about saying awful things about them. Of course, she didn’t know any personally.

    There were a few times she was shocked to discover we had made close friends with quite a few Jewish people during our time in Boston, keeping in touch with them, even traveling to a wedding and spending vacations together in Cape Cod.

    I just had to reconcile myself to the flaw in someone I loved, and decide whether or not my desire not to hear those kinds of words from her outweighed the benefit of having a good relationship with her, and her truly wonderful grandmother relationship with my son. I did make sure to explicitly explain to my son about different kinds of people, to counteract anything he might hear from Grandma, but honestly, I doubt they ever spent any time discussing it.

    Like Mique, I’m not sure why anyone would seek outside counsel on whether or not she should continue to associate with someone whose attitude she doesn’t like. Is she seeking approval to either remain friends or cut her off? She’s the only one who knows whether or not she can tolerate continuing, or live without the relationship.


    6 Jun 14 at 11:30 am

  3. A comment on what “we” believe today will follow later. Much later. The comment the proposition deserves might get me fired, even though “we” don’t believe in censorship, and “we” long for an honest national dialogue on race.

    Stout. Stout was a squeaky-clean liberal by the standards of his time, but even then that was a moving target. There is a reference in a late novel to a contract cleaning service for Wolfe’s West 35th Street residence, and Wolfe having to adapt himself to a cleaning crew which includes women of color. (Is Archie absolutely SURE the Black Panthers have no female members?)

    Two books deal with civil rights and racial solidarity head-on: TOO MANY COOKS and A RIGHT TO DIE. They are well written, and not composed in any spirit of bigotry, but I’m pretty sure not all the characters would be acceptable to the campus thought police. If your friend avoids those two, she can skirt the whole subject pretty well, and her children may never find out that not everyone who violated present orthodoxy was a thoroughgoing villain. (Well, wasn’t that the objective?)


    6 Jun 14 at 5:36 pm

  4. Rex Stout doesn’t seem a problem to me but Mark Twain might be. If I recall correctly, he uses the “N word” quite freely.

    Thread hijack. I had to pick up a package at the local branch of the Australian Post Office. “simply take your proof of identity (with your signature), and proof of address to the Australia Post retail outlet”

    I used my driver’s license and thought about the US fight over voter-id laws.


    6 Jun 14 at 9:16 pm

  5. And then there’s this from City Journal on line this Australian AM:



    7 Jun 14 at 1:14 am

  6. I was shocked when I heard Mark Twain couldn’t be read any more. I was also shocked when I found a 22 year old co-worker who didn’t know what the holocaust was. Literature has helped us to develop better attitudes and be more understanding of other people’s experiences thereby making things better.

    Terms like racism and bigot have no meaning without some kind of understanding of the underlying human experience. If we aren’t telling the stories of the past then people aren’t going to be capable of understand why discrimination based on stereotypes is wrong in the first place.

    There was a particularly harsh review of “The Grand Sophy”, a Regency romance by Georgette Heyer posted on Amazon. The reviewer objected to the depiction of a so-called stereotyped Jewish Lender. They failed to recognize that the book was 60 years old and the character was a historically accurate portrayal of type which gave birth to the stereotype. The slang of the period referred to moneylenders as Jews. I wonder what the reviewer made of Fagin from Oliver!

    Susan Nash

    7 Jun 14 at 9:52 am

  7. Some years ago, someone objected to one of those local history books – this one focused on the first Jews to arrive in our area – on the grounds that it stereotypically portrayed them as itinerant salesmen. As one of their descendants pointed out proudly, that’s exactly how almost all of the first generation supported their families, and what was wrong with supplying a need for goods to people who wanted them?

    I think the term ‘bigot’ is almost meaningless now – it means little more than ‘I don’t agree with what you’re saying and I think it shows that you don’t consider people who are different from you to be human’ – whether or not that’s what’s actually going on.

    What happened to the use of reading to learn about different times and places and people who don’t think exactly the same way as the reader does?


    7 Jun 14 at 2:47 pm

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