I haven’t done any new black & white for a while, so.
There is a color version of this (and for sale) which you can see here.
I haven’t done any new black & white for a while, so.
There is a color version of this (and for sale) which you can see here.
No plan here, just thoughts. It’s Sunday as I begin writing this, second day for me of a four-day weekend. Timing.
Lack of attention bedevils me. I have things to do, a wide variety, and I get befuddled by which I should pay most attention. It matters because I end up scattering my attention widely and so get little done in each endeavor. Some of my friends understand this, but not all.
This morning I got out of bed (I hesitate to say “awoke” because I wouldn’t classify my condition that way) and stumbled through my morning routines. Making coffee is so embedded in my brain that I think if I sleep-walked that is one of the things I would do. Donna was already up, tending to the dog. To be honest, I felt like going back to bed, but I intuited that it would only waste time. Another hour or two would not improve my ability to feel whole, just delay it. Further honesty requires me to admit that mornings like this frighten me a little, because I feel so “off” that I think something must be wrong.
I’m just tired, really. An hour or two after getting out of bed I feel pretty much as I’ve always felt. Slow but present.
I’ve had a number of conversations of late about intelligence. Genius, even. I think a genius would be internally unaware of it. My father, I sometimes feel, was a genius. Is. (Yes, he’s still alive, but now so impaired by deafness and poor sight that interaction is virtually impossible.) He never believed so. He railed about how other people seemed so stupid, how they overlooked, missed, or never figured out things which seemed so obvious to him, and he blamed laziness or prejudice or ambivalence. How could they not see? When I pointed out to him that he himself was far from ordinary, he bridled. No, that couldn’t be it. He did not see himself as a particularly smart man. But he was dogged, possessed of a degree of focus and ability to concentrate I found unachievable. His own opinion would never allow recognition of his “gifts,” if gifts they were.
I’ve been accused—recently—of being “superior.” Not a compliment.
We live in a culture that prizes knowledge only when it’s somewhere else. It’s cool when it’s on tv or in a lecture hall or, most importantly, when it makes someone a lot of money. But when it lives next door to us we resent it. When we have to talk to it every day we hate it, because it feels like someone is showing off, trying to be better than everyone else, getting off on making others feel stupid. I’ve never understood that. It’s not like all the information isn’t there for everyone to access.
It’s a choice of what we find important. As far as I’m concerned, too many people are too invested in things that don’t matter. (Is that me being judgmental? Why, yes, it is. Unapologetically. You have to choose, you have to decide. Others, I realize, level their judgment at me to the same or greater degrees. What good is that novel you just read? Isn’t that a waste of time? Well, the same could said about the goal that player just made that you reacted to orgasmically. If you’re going to judge me for having no interest in your passion, I’m going to judge you for having none in mine. Let’s lay it out and compare worth some day and see how what stacks up.)
(I have noticed that this phenomenon is not limited to intellectual pursuits. I’ve been insulted in the past for being in good physical condition. I lift weights, it shows. I’ve been treated as somehow weird by people who…well, any deviation from an assumed norm will intimidate people who just can’t seem to bring themselves to do the work to achieve something they might actually want to do. It’s as if they think they should have been born with these characteristics and when it turns out they have to do some actual work, instead of embracing the opportunities, they turn to resentment of those who do.)
I didn’t intend to complain this morning. But I have some things on my mind. This is a free-flowing post. Read at your own peril.
I made myself go to the gym this morning. I halfway expected to be unable to finish a workout. Instead, as often happens, about half to two-thirds through, I felt better. Blood flowing, I came awake.
And on the drive home I started having conversations in my head.
Yes, I talk to myself. I always have. My interactions with my fellow creatures have often been frustrating to me. Things I miss, don’t get, say wrong, hear wrong, respond inappropriately. A good deal of what people see today is a carefully constructed façade designed to offer an interface that works in group settings. Not fake, no, but selective and practiced. At one time I did try putting a fake front up and it never worked. It took a long time for me to realize that, though, because part of the front was a very selective filter that kept useful interaction out.
(That annoying piece of advice, so often given, to just “be yourself” used to infuriate me. Firstly, how the hell does one do that? I mean, really. First it assumes you know who you are. Second it assumes that you have a choice about how you come across to other people. You do, as it turns out, but it rarely comes automatically. And thirdly, it fails to take into account whether or not you like who you may be as “yourself.” Don’t people realize that “being yourself” may well be the last thing you want to be because you find whatever that is to be…wanting? Of course they do, they’ve been having the same struggle, but probably don’t realize it. All those “popular” people, do we really believe that’s who they really are? If you could look inside to see, would it be what you see on the outside? No. So, stupid advice, well-meant, but as often as not self-defensive.)
I’m sitting here in my office, trying to rework a short story that has resisted conclusion for months. Like most of my short stories in the last several years, it seemed promising because I had a very cool idea. The idea remains cool. Getting it across as a compelling story is another matter. And, as usual, I am procrastinating by working on this post instead.
I’m listening to Walter Piston. He was an American composer, mid-20th Century. I stumbled on him during one of my periods of exploring obscure classical music. You can listen to him and hear a bit less experimental version of Barber and Copland and maybe Hanson. (Again, who? Yeah.) I’ve got a few CDs of his symphonies. They make excellent background for writing, but when you really listen to them you hear a familiar strain of anxiety that seems a part of most American neoclassical. You listen to Copland and the others and you can hear a boldness, a brashness that seems distinctly American. But along the way, especially in the symphonies, comes a stretch of uncertainty. I call it anxiety. The anxiety of not being so sure of yourself, perhaps, or the anxiety of knowing you have a lot of responsibility and can’t really carry it. (I sometimes think Ives, whom I cannot really stand, was about nothing but that uncertainty.)
The best science fiction carries that anxiety in its guts. We’re boldly going where we don’t belong and nervous about it, but eager. so eager to see the next neat thing.
So I get home, muscles still humming from a decent workout, brain filled with a silent conversation about an unresolved issue, and Donna is still doing landscaping in the back yard. I help by moving some heavy stones, then retreat inside, eventually migrate down to the office, and start riffing on these stray thoughts.
Most days, lately, I write a few sentences, correct some errors, tweak. Then I scoot to the other computer and cruise. Yesterday I listened to a report on “downgrading” humans, which talked about how the information explosion has been coopted by the so-called Attention Economy to the detriment of actual intellection.
Downgrading Humans. According to the report, our brains are not equipped to deal with the information deluge constantly poured through them. We get overwhelmed, the tools we have to sort wheat from chaff are inadequate, we can’t tell noise from signal after a while, and soon we’re just clicking through from one bit to the next in a parody of research. The limitation offends, I’m sure. I’m resentful of my inabilities, especially when it comes to knowledge. But it’s an academic kind of resentment now that rarely obtrudes into the kind of seething animosity a teenager might feel when being told no. It’s more frustration now when I run against my own lack of information and ignorance when I’m in the middle of a project or a conversation.
The problem I imagine with what is being described as “downgrading” is that indulging the immersion in click-throughs can come to feel like genuine learning.
Plus, there’s something addictive about. The dazzle of bright, shiny objects.
There’s a big market for self-help books. A lot of them are practical, how to do things, but a lot of them are about changing your life, becoming a new or different or better person. Many border on genuine psychology, but most seem to be manuals for self-improvement that only glance off the deeper aspects of who we are. Years ago, groping toward some kind of self-knowledge, I read a lot of them. Fritz Perls, Leo Buscaglia, Eric Fromm, others. I gleaned useful things from them all, but it seemed as I grew older, less and less of what I read in these books offered anything truly useful. Reality never conforms to neat paragraphs of “if this, then do that.” But occasionally there was genuine insight. I stopped reading them after I shifted into philosophy. But there’s a huge market. You would think we live in a world of remarkably healthy self-actualized people. I have no idea, but I have come to believe that most of these books sell to people who believe that all they have to do is read them and that is sufficient. Acting on the advice? Well.
I’ve taken a hard look at my own habits. I’ve become craggier in some ways. The state of the world has a bit to do with this, but in general I’ve been dissatisfied with my own progress along various fronts. I wondered, after hearing about this phenomenon, if I were a victim of this. Turning to the very thing that is largely the source of the problem is an irony past stating, but it is true that even though an overwhelming amount of dross permeates the internet, there is much that is worthwhile. A degree of ordinary scepticism is required and some robust filters, but you can find out useful things. So I did a bit of research on internet trends and realized quickly that I am a weekend tourist at worst. This thing distracts me, but I spend far more time reading books than ever I spend online.
But the distraction is enough to derail my concentration. It’s worse when I’m not working on a specific project. The discipline of the project keeps me focused.
Of course, then there are the days when my hindbrain cries out for relaxation. For what Donna calls “vegging.” One of the things my parents, worrying all through my upbringing that they would fail to implant it, managed to instill is an ethic that demands I waste no time. So even the things I do for “relaxation” seem to require a practical reason, a purpose. I’ve invented a number of excuses to fool my subconscious so it will leave me alone when I’m indulging the “frivolous.” I wish I could just…
I listen to music to put me in moods. Moods to write, to read sometimes, to work out. Music is a deep pool of inspiration and replenishment for my soul. We live in an age where the available sounds are greater than at any time. The possibilities are amazing. I hear better performances, more intriguing compositions, wilder explorations today than ever before, in just about any genre of music you care to name. You would think we could find a common soundtrack with all this to choose from, but the click-through ethic renders too many too impatient to sit and truly listen.
Or does it? That same volume of data may just serve to lend cover to large groups of people who do exactly that—sit and listen. They don’t answer surveys, they don’t buy in predictable manners, they don’t feed the pop machinery. It may be that we’re about to hear from them in a Big Way. I have noticed a lot of young people buying more books, books you might not predict they would buy. And of course the books being published…I can’t say that they are “downgraded.” No more than they ever were. And the best is better than ever before.
I take my optimism where I can find it.
Among the things I want to do before I’m gone: publish a dozen more books, record and release an album of original music, mount a couple of exhibits and possibly publish a monograph of my photographs, and maybe start drawing and painting again. State like that it would seem I need another lifetime. One thing I’ve come to appreciate (though perhaps not experienced yet) is that a lifetime doesn’t have a specific time limit and you can have more than one, overlapping or contiguously.
We’ll see what can be done with that.
Thank you for indulging me.
I did a short walk-around not long ago and made photographs. I haven’t had time to do anything with them till now, so…
Take them as metaphor, as studies in texture, as current commentary. Or just as interesting images.
Across the divide, two nations eye each other, suspicious and nervous. The problem they face is one of fundamental identity, exacerbated by a complete obfuscation of recognizable borders, because they live in each others’ back yards. There are times it seems a spark could set them at each other, breaking down doors, killing, attempting extermination.
Extreme? Sounds like any one of numerous civil war scenarios in the past half century, from the collapsed Yugoslavia to Rwanda to South Sudan. Neighbors, sometimes with intermarried families, abruptly at each others’ throats.
We take comfort in the confidence that it can’t happen here. But in fact it often does, and has, just not in the nationwide, all-vestiges-of-law-and-morality cast aside scope of some of these places. And in the past several years we have heard the rattling of sabres among groups that feel this kind of explosion of rage and all-or-nothing “readjustment” is becoming necessary. We hear talk of “second amendment solutions” and the threat of violence if an election goes counter to a certain set of expectations. Many of us probably shudder briefly and then resume our tacit reliance on law enforcement and the basic civility of our national “character” to ensure that it won’t happen.
But flare-ups, brushfire conflicts, terrorism…these things do happen and will and may become more common before we realize a solution. What do we think all these mass shootings are?
It’s easy to see them as aberrations, one-offs and outliers. Not anything to do with a legitimate issue. A “gun control” issue on the one hand, a “mental health” issue on the other. But what if they’re symptomatic of a deeper problem having to do with how people see their lives within contexts which some view as universal and others, contrariwise, see as alarming shifts in representation?
While wrestling with the symptoms, we are absorbed in the label game.
Here seems to be the basic problem: we have become two nations (maybe more) by the progressive drift of perceived representational dynamics over decades. The people who, for a simple way of identifying them, voted for Trump and support what many view with alarm as a destructive suite of anti-government policies that appear purposed to strip civil rights, are reacting primarily to what they see as their abandonment by what was once their government. All the talk about “taking America back” is not simply a rhetorical device to discredit certain policies, but expressing a genuine sense of having been cut out by the very institutions they once supported as American citizens.
The reemergence of certain symbols and organizations—the Confederate flag, the KKK, the whole concept of Originalism—baffle those of us who have viewed the social progressivism of the post WWII era as a Good Thing. The so-called Safety Net, the destruction of accommodation barriers, the gradual (and much too slow) emergence of equity consciousness, and the growing sense of self-awareness vis-a-vis our national character and its shortfalls—all these things, for many of us, are net positives. In our own lives, the sense of security, the expansion of community, and the acceptance of limits on the use of power have defined for us a maturation, something which seems so obvious as to not need defending as ideals. The use of government to achieve these things felt like an obvious means, since most other instruments of social change seemed arbitrary, with spotty records, and often a priori resistance based on tribal identities which ran counter to the larger goal. Not to mention obvious limits on effectiveness. The progress achieved, many felt, appeared so self-evidently right as to be its own justification.
We forgot certain key elements (or never knew them) and ran headlong into the wall around a completely different set of assumptions, namely those that defined community according to an unexpressed (though sometimes aggressively mischaracterized) principle of exclusivity.
One of the characteristics of what we call “Americanness” has always been an assumed tolerance. The whole Statue of Liberty aesthetic overarches what we believe is our national distinction, that we welcome anyone, that there is a basic egalitarianism we simply accept, and that here the prejudices of the past do not pertain. It’s an impossible standard, however, not so much wrong as unattainable in the face of all the other aspects of our national identity which stand against it. By that, I mean things like American Exceptionalism (which is understood, if at all, as an inbred trait rather than as a property of institutions and systems) or the rather pernicious belief in individualism as our most useful trait. These things can combine to challenge any claims that anyone from anywhere can be as “good” as we are. (This underlies and informs a peculiar expression of imperialism which manifests differently than what we consciously identify as such.)
We are tolerant as long as it seems to cost us nothing, or at least nothing we feel as part of our identity. In this we are human, like anyone else. But because we believe we are by definition more tolerant, we can be blind to instances of systemic (or personal) intolerance, often transferring the causes onto those against whom we behave intolerantly. “Its their problem if they can’t or won’t appreciate how good we’re treating them.”
(Implicit in that sentence is the essence of the problem—the exclusivity—that “we Americans” know what is good “them” and have chosen to bestow it. Some may feel this is largesse, graciousness. Those receiving it may feel it to be arrogance, especially since some of the most important things never get “bestowed”—like genuine acceptance and equality.)
Since 2016, these disconnects have emerged into the public sphere unapologetically, erupting into ideological conflict, with the whole apprehension of Government exhibiting profound rifts between groups that fundamentally misunderstand each other.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps even the assumption that there is any misunderstanding itself is a misunderstanding of what is actually happening, what we are really seeing.
Firstly, though, I think it is important to understand tolerance. In my view, tolerance is a step along the way to normalizing a relationship. We tolerate the new until a space can be made for simple acceptance. For individuals, this can be a very long time and occasionally acceptance never comes. For communities, however, a different order of processing must come into play. Tolerance is a period during which assessments must be made in order to determine the nature of what may be a new normality. Again, acceptance may never come, but what is vital is the attempt and the assessment. During this process, the community and the thing being tolerated have concomitant obligations to find that space or find a way to reform around mutually beneficial conditions of being. Special spaces may result wherein practices and behaviors might be sustained in ways that do not run counter to the community at large. (Hence, religious communities may find places within secular societies in an accommodation requiring respectful acceptance of differences from both, and certainly a degree of interaction which will naturally change both parties over time. The willingness or at least acceptance of gradual change to allow the accommodation to work better is necessary. Problems arise when an obdurate rejection of any change, on one or both sides, is experienced. Change still happens, but it likely will not be beneficial to either group.)
Too many people seem to believe tolerance simply means “putting up with something you don’t like, understand, or approve of.” In this formulation, there is no acknowledgment of the necessity to work toward accommodation. It becomes a static condition, unresolved, and therefore an irritation. Furthermore, it would appear a significant number of people feel that tolerance requires them to be “like the thing tolerated.” This, if accepted unreservedly, can lead to unresolvable tensions and eventually rejection.
This is vital to understanding where we have arrived in our current distress.
Whether morally sustainable or not, structurally we have worked under a false formulation of what Equality means. Regardless of what it says in the various declarations of rights, we are not born equal. “Created” equal may be more accurate than we usually think, although in this case it has nothing to do with theological origin stories (though they certainly, all of them, contain the germ of reality). People, in a given context, are literally “created”, i.e. made equal—by those acknowledging their status. It is a consequence of initiation. Equality, at least the kind we’re always arguing about, is a wholly political and legal state, requiring the bestowal and recognition of agency and admission as an equal according to the requirements of the community.
We daily move through the world with a base assumption that we were born into this world with a full set of naturally-bestowed rights. Any perusal of history demonstrates the falseness of that assumption. We may well argue that it should not be that way, and I would certainly be among the first to agree and argue against the desirability of the opposite view. But in the struggle to defend and expand such rights, I believe it is important to realize from whence they come and how they are secured.
And how they are reduced.
The 20th Century saw profound changes in our understanding, at a fundamental level, of what constitutes a just society. It drove us to embrace a “care and feeding” approach across communities that, to some extent, sought to dissolve previously traditional barriers between classes. During the Great Depression this was easier to do than previous eras because the catastrophe had so threatened the status quo that positive action was possible if only to forestall a revolution. It was not at all certain at the time that capitalism would survive. The collapse was global. After WWII, the changes resumed in the areas of civil rights and economic enfranchisement. It was doable then because of the unprecedented expansion of our economy, which made it seem that all these changes would actually pay for themselves and cost the comfortable almost nothing. It was easy to be magnanimous during fat times.
With the Sixties came even more progressive actions extending to the environment and declaring a war on poverty itself. Along with this, we saw an eruption of challenges to tradition, lifestyle changes, erosion of public conformism, much of it æsthetically problematic, along with a loud denunciation of the state apparatus vis-a-vís the Vietnam War, which called into question the previously unexamined givens of the responsibilities of the individual to the state when moral evaluations of specific actions are at issue.
Right here we can see the fissures forming which have led to where we now are.
The presumption currently, for some, is that a group of us have turned against their government. I think this misses an important point. I do not believe these disaffected people believe their government has simply drifted away from them. Rather, they believe there has been a coup and this is not Their Government, nor has it been for a very long time.
That shift serves to explain many otherwise baffling aspects of the current divisiveness in the country. Primarily because, if this is the case, then all those who seem so dedicated to bringing about the collapse of what the rest of us see as sound governance see themselves as patriots and our criticisms of their choices and actions would be to them the desperate holding actions of an alien polity.
For the first few decades after WWII, government could be seen to embrace a traditionalist embodiment of American values. Not until Vietnam and the Counterculture did the cracks become chasms and it was evident, at least to some, that what had once been taken as given had in fact become anathema to a different set of priorities and, indeed, aims. The people government traditionally represented—white, lower to upper middle class, essentially Christian, native-born, prone to assume what the government did was in the main for the “common” good and ought to be supported—began to separate into two broad groups: the first, those who, while still more or less holding those traditionalist views, believed in the expansion of the franchise, the modification of representational democracy to better serve previously under-represented groups, and who had gradually become less inclined to blindly trust what the government did. The second, those who had watched with growing alarm at the emergent enfranchisement of both groups and ideas that ran counter to what they viewed as “American” and became less and less enamored of the changes embraced, supported, and advocated in Washington.
In its simplest terms, the former group have come to be defined as liberal while the second, conservative. The disagreement between the diverging viewpoints quickly centered not so much on the policies in question as on the authority of government to enforce said policy. For many, it may well have begun simply over a question of who retains the authority to determine behaviors. Tolerance, even condemnation of past discriminatory policies, may have been perfectly acceptable, but not if mandated by law. On the other side, addressing these issues—which for many are matters of justice—are necessarily the proper function of government. Think segregation, fair accommodation, educational and employment equity, and so forth.
Up till 1974, both these groups, divided as they may have been over basic questions of proper governance, largely saw The Government as their government. The tug-of-war between ideologies and government responsibility has always been a normal part of our republic, and the give-and-take seen as a necessary pendulum swing in the quest for optimal policy. Conservatives and Liberals saw each other as part of the same community.
In 1974, President Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than face impeachment, which was in the offing. This signaled the end of status quo political comity. The Right (not conservatives, but who nevertheless saw themselves as such) saw this as a coup.
Nixon was possibly the last conservative Republican president who still believed in the kind of service that defined the core of 20th Century American democracy. While he brought to bear many deeply problematic, even destructive policies, he also did many things which today would be anathema to his presumed natural base, the EPA for instance. He was, in fact, working to bypass rule of law to push his agenda and the “shadow”government he used to do end-runs around congress was the cause of his undoing, a method later used by Reagan and then, more thoroughly, by Vice President Cheney under Bush.
Given the decade just ended, however, with Vietnam and the whole parade of culturally-challenging upheavals known as the Counterculture, it must have looked to many people as if the one “decent” American who wanted to “bring us all together” had been hounded into exile by political gypsies, fellow travelers, and Leftists who lacked any regard for traditional American values. Discussion of whether or not Nixon had been framed was common up through the Nineties, and may still inform dinner-table conversations in many rightwing households today.
If, as it appeared, Nixon’s downfall was a fiendish coup to oust “decent” government and replace it with something so outside the pale as to threaten the very idea of America, then viewing this moment as the point at which Everyone’s Government became Their government serves to explain what has happened since and how support for someone like Trump can be accepted as part of a war to reclaim that government. Mitch McConnell’s defiant refusal to do anything President Obama wished to do now makes sense as another step in a conflict wherein one part of our country feels it is not being served by “that” government, and until all the liberal influences can be ousted and replaced by dependable “conservative” elements, then the war continues. Trumps “drain the swamp” rhetoric is a battlecry in this war, embraced by people who feel Washington is held by people who have wrested it from them.
The dispute over diverse issues such as trade, abortion, immigration, marriage equality, and taxes comes down to a bitter fight to retake a government which is seen as illegitimate. And in such a war it does not matter if the Other Guy has a good idea, he is first and foremost the “Other Guy, on their side.” And must be opposed—especially if he or she has a good idea. Accepting the idea would be the same as legitimizing a government viewed as “not mine.”
Those who say there is a civil war going on may be correct, but not the kind we might expect. For their part, Democrats, who for purposes of convenience (if not in fact) we can characterize as liberals, have been trying for some time to accommodate a Republican Party that has seen its ranks replaced over time by warriors in the cause of winning this war. To date, many of them have not yet realized the nature of the dispute.
We can ask on what grounds the disaffected Right has embarked on this war. There are many answers, but the one that matters most is that for too many of them, government has failed to serve. The one issue on which they may have common cause with the left is the question of who that government does serve. Too often, and for many complex reasons, it is the moneyed interests, who for their part really don’t care which side is “right” as long as they are granted freedom to manage finances as they see fit.
On the ground, however, we find ourselves back at the beginning, in a debate over tolerance—what it is and where and to whom it applies—and those who feel this is not “their” government look upon all the things they distrust and even despise as attempts to bury their way of life. Shouting at them that all this is making it difficult is not impossible to govern, while intended perhaps to make them more aware and shake them out of the grip of whatever obdurate self-centeredness we may think is possessing them, is precisely the point behind how they vote and what they wish to see enacted. Or, in many cases, repealed.
What they’re saying is “Hey, we’re the Americans here, not Them! Try governing in our behalf instead of undermining everything we believe in!”
The opinion of those who disagree with all those things just angers them more.
But it does, in fact, come down to a question of what tolerance is. Is tolerance a space wherein an opportunity for understanding to grow on both sides? Or is it merely a suspension of disapproval until someone learns to be “like us”?
It is perfectly understandable that now, when it appears that another coup has taken place and the legitimacy of government is at issue, that questions of racism and sexism, homophobia and economic justice have exploded into the public arena in ways not seen in a long time. These are the icons of tolerance. One side looked upon changes in the past with a kind of “how long do we have to put up with all this before it can return to normal?” fraying patience, while the other side pushed to make these changes not only permanent aspects of the landscape but footholds leading to further changes.
Government, in some ways, has been caught in the middle.
We will not resolve this until we recognize the nature of the divide.
I’ve been having difficulties for the past several months with this posting window. First I couldn’t load images, then for some reason the entire composing window vanished. I ended up having to back-door my posts through my other blog. This morning, though, I boot up to find an update that has, apparently, resolved the issues. (Knock on digital wood.) Sometimes, it seems, just waiting, biding one’s time, leaving well enough alone…
In any case, allow to leave an image while I bask in the readjustment of my online universe.
Growing up, I had an ongoing war with education. Not the content of it so much as the method of transmission. I hated school. Hated being there, hated being held accountable for failing to meet its requirements, hated the monumental waste of time I considered it. My continual demand was to know “what is this for?”
As for the content…well, judge for yourself how I may have felt about that. Clearly I have suffered from the inattention I paid my classes.
This recent scandal about celebrities bribing admissions officials to get their kids into pricey schools underscores something I came to believe and explains one of the reasons I never got an answer to that “what is this for?” question. It also explains—demonstrates—how the American class system operates. (What, you really bought that stuff about this being a classless society? I bet you did well in school, too.)
Teachers seldom give answers to that question because they suspect, if not outright know, that what it is for is nothing but a lottery to see where you place upon exit in the hierarchy of society. The content of the lessons is less important than the status bestowed by matriculation from certain institutions which can grant a Good Housekeeping seal on students that says “These are acceptable.”
It’s hard to see it in the chaos of social interaction, but for anyone on the receiving end of the snobbery and elitism endemic to the process, you can’t help but know this is how it works.
Usually we’re aware of it with regards to athletes who get special treatment in order to keep them playing for the school. (I suspect it happens far less than advertised, but it doesn’t take but a few to stain a whole system.) Now we have the evidence that something has been going on in general, all tied to money.
A couple of things may be inferred from the two big-name actresses who got caught trying to buy into the system and cheat for their offspring. One is, what does this say about the kids in question? Did they fail just to get into these schools or did they not come up to scratch anywhere? (One wonders if they asked for this “but my best friend is going there!” begging.) Or is it just that mommy knew that the prestige of the school was far more important than any actual education being offered. That a degree from that school would open more doors than one from this school. (For all the less well-off kids who simply never have that kind of choice and have to make do with what they can get, this must seriously grate.) And what does this say about our (shopworn but not altogether ragged) pride in merit and ability?
In grade school, around fifth or sixth grade, we started playing a game at lunchtime. I don’t know if it has any other name, we called it “Initials.” The rules were simple: name a category, give the first or/and second initial, and then guess the thing being named. It started with movies and tv shows, but over a few months it grew into a rather elaborate thing that included historical figures, geography, ships, cities, cars. Four of us became very involved. We were going home and doing research for this game.
The principle stopped it. Just shut it down. He thought we were spending far more time and energy on it than on our “studies.” Well, we were. It was fun, but more than that, we were learning. He didn’t see that. He stopped it in order to preserve the form of education, which was not fun.
I mention that because later, when I looked back on it, I found it supported my view that education is only tangentially related to the content of a subject. The purpose it to make citizens. Failing that, it is to enforce conformity.
Which, by the time you get to the college and university level, is a game of associations. You go to these schools to make these connections which will serve you far more effectively in work life than what you might actually learn along the way.
No, I do not believe that is all there is to it, and I do believe actual learning takes places, otherwise all those “associations” would do nothing but show us who to blame when nothing works anymore. But clearly that part of it is far more important than we may be willing to admit and obviously Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman believed that.
And whether we want to accept it or not, the flip side of this is demonstrated by those parents with no money who are doing serious jail time just for slipping their kids into different school districts for a presumably better education. (Even if you accept my premise, that association matters more in this system, then the disparity is clearer still.) Who am I talking about? Kelley Williams-Bolar in Ohio and Tracey McDowell in Connecticut. There are probably others.
In any case, when wondering about privilege, well, here’s another example. And it damages far more than just the reputations of a couple of entitled celebrities and a couple of school admissions officials. It erodes trust that often finds definition difficult. The whole notion, never true or at least true enough, that all anyone needs is hard work to get anywhere desired, is corrupted by this kind of thing.
I am not surprised this happened. It has doubtless been happening for centuries to some degree. Gentry have always tried to smooth their descendants’ paths through life and if they had the money, they used that, regardless of what talents and abilities the beneficiaries brought to the game. For them, it is a game.
For too many, it’s a violation.
Elizabeth Warren is calling for the blanket forgiveness of student loans. She wants college to be free. I have some quibbles about this, but in principle I support it. If the road ahead is to be navigated by those with the knowledge, charging a toll for that knowledge would seem the opposite of any democratic sentiment. And since college enrollment has risen in the last four decades precipitously, obviously a lot of the “wrong” people are getting in. The best way to shut the out of any advantage is to keep charging them more for the ticket. Forgiving the debt might be the right thing to do, but then the upper crust would have to actually compete for those choice positions and the perks that attend them. Free college would not level the playing field, but it would at least make the game more honest by allowing for genuine ability to compete.
And if college is free, how could anyone bribe their way in? (Well, there will always be ways, but it would be harder—and over time, maybe pointless.)
Just some thoughts.
For several years, we have seen shots across the bow from advocates of either pure capitalism or some form of socialism, and except for a few instances of informed theoretical discussions based on a thoroughly de-romanticized view of history, we are treated to schoolyard fights between factions that never seem to care for reasoned discourse, only for planting flags and claiming loyalty.
This is not religion, but for so many people it gets taken as such, and the results are rarely edifying. What is amusing (in a tortured way) is the assumption by such advocates that any move toward the reviled system will somehow strip us of our intellect and render us stupid, incapable of managing things to our benefit. That, for example, “socialism never works” must be based on the same assumptions made during the Cold War that communism somehow turned its followers into mindless robots. Of course, the inference here is that Capitalism does not.
“Look at Venezuela!”
As if that is the only indictment necessary to discredit what is essentially an economic theory that in no way demands to be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition. Look at Norway. Or Sweden. Or any of the other modern states that have taken socialism and applied it as needed to alter a social contract between the state and its citizens to the benefit of both.
Venezuela is suffering the consequences of decades of corruption and elite pillage, which can happen in any system. The reason we here are not facing a similar meltdown is more a tribute to the sheer size of our economy and the fact that we have adapted certain mechanisms which, depending on the decade, have been decried as “socialist.” But in fact, we are experiencing pillage and have been since we shifted Right in the 1980s. Systematic, legal, well-sold pillage. Every time a tax cut goes to the benefit of the upper 10%, it has to be paid for, either by a commensurate decrease in services we all use, or by borrowing against future securities the cost of which comes out of everyone’s pocket. In time, the effects should be obvious, and they are, but we are still so big and in many parts so comfortable, that we can’t seem to muster sufficient, useful outrage to do anything about.
Right now, because so many of us think the alternative is Socialism, which has been made to appear the end of any kind of civilization we consider good.
This is religion. “You can’t credit Them with a just argument because they are the forces of evil!” Why? “Because they are not like us!”
To which, the question must be asked, “And what are we?”
But to my original point: the assumption seems to be that A System is pernicious, that it has a mind of its own, and once engaged it has certain inevitable consequences that our only defense is to reject it. Utterly.
If true of Socialism, why isn’t it true of Capitalism?
It’s an absurd argument not because it’s so wrong but because it’s so ignorant. I mean “ignorant” in the precise meaning of the word, which is not, in spite of a century of misuse, “stupid.” Ignorance is a condition of lack of knowledge, information. Being ignorant is a curable condition, entirely addressable by becoming informed.
But I do not believe on the level of individual citizens the debate has much of anything to do with the efficacy of systems. In order for that to be the case, a fairly solid grasp of those system would be required, and economics is not amenable to casual understanding, not at this level. Instead, it is entirely personal. it is born out an apprehension of threat and a promise of salvation. Examples are given to bolster shallow arguments, but examples with considerable apparent weight, which would require equal study to see as anything but mythic constructs arrayed in battle for the soul of civilization.
In short, religion.
Now, I use the term Religion in the sense of a system. (Again, systems.) Religion, questions of deities aside, are systems of organization designed to bring people together in an aesthetic cohesion around a statement of rightness. Rituals, arcane texts, sophisticated propaganda feed into a broad community-based set of practices that identify people to each other as sharing beliefs and preferences in behavior. Once you extend past the village level, it becomes a System. People can sign on to participation by agreeing to acknowledge the forms and refrain from questioning the underlying premises. This has benefits to the group primarily, but for the individual as well.
What it does not require to operate is broad understanding of the components, justifications, or origins. It is designed to operate without that. A hierarchy is in charge of the “mysteries” and the actual decisions on how to apply it all, but the populace in general need understand little.
Economic systems are similar.
And the results are very much the same—average people, admittedly or not, treat the system as if it were some kind of natural phenomena, correct and good. Who in their right mind would question it?
The chief beneficiaries of such a system prefer people feel that way.
The question, though, is why such persistent dedication when there is no justification for it? I refer now to people who benefit little from maintaining a system that they understand poorly at best. Not that they couldn’t understand it, but seem unwilling to even crack a book to check whether the barbed euphemisms handed to them by politicians and pundits hold any value.
According to Edward O. Wilson, in his recent book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, it’s tribal:
For most of history, organized religions have claimed sovereignty over the meaning of human existence. For their founders and leaders the enigma has been relatively easy to solve. The gods put us on Earth, then they told us how to behave. Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth? The answer is tribalism…Each of the organized or otherwise public religions as well as scores of religion-like ideologies defines a tribe, a tightly knit group of people joined by a particular story….The members of the tribe are inspired by the special status the story gives them.
A telling phrase in that is “religion-like ideologies.” This would include all nationalistic creeds as well as less politically determined programs that serve to tell us who we should be in order to find conformable situations within a group. Economic systems, for instance, which is relatively new on the scene. Marx arguably set the terms of this new ideological initiation by making everyone aware that such systems not only serve to enable trade along rational lines and distribute goods and services in more or less efficient ways, but come to define us in terms of class and status and, eventually, popular philosophical disposition.
Whether or not a given system “works” better than others has become less important currently than our allegiance to it, which serves to separate us into easily-identifiable subgroups. The battle is not now over what might work “better” but over identity. We here saw this as a flaw in the soviet system, because so much of it failed to work to the benefit of the people, but recognizing the apparent blindness in others has not allowed us to see it in ourselves.
Because it aligns with another oft-unacknowledged blindness, which is the need to feel superior. Or, at least, not feel inferior.
We could certainly adapt aspects of Socialism to our system and make it work for us. We already have. It was called the New Deal. It worked well enough and the only reason to tear it down was that it threatened someone’s sense of importance and security of power. So we already have evidence that it will not eat us alive like some cancer and there is evidence available from all around the world. What we see when we look at it is a mixed bag, ranging from very workable to a shambles. But usually the broken examples are broken from a multiplicity of problems not necessarily inherent in Socialism. Any such system can be made to work badly.
But then we have to ask what we mean by that. Work badly for whom? It can be argued that certain groups in such systems may benefit tremendously by the apparent failures to work as advertised. It’s interesting that we assume a system fails when it injures the general population. The application of it certainly fails a large demographic, but I think it is an error to see this as a failure. Someone got just exactly what they wanted and for them it was a raging success. It’s more interesting when we fail to recognize the same kind of “success” going on here.
Every time the argument is made that communism “never” works, it is fair to ask where and when communism has ever been honestly applied. If the state in question ends up with an autocratic governing body or even a dictator, then it is equally fair to say that is not communism. So the “failure” of communism, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated because I have yet to see a single example of it at the state level that was little more than a set of promises to allow a new king to take the throne. That’s not communism.
But I’m not here to argue in favor of it. I’m more interested in urging people to stop giving blind allegiance to what amounts to a set of recommendations that require tweaking as circumstance dictates. Adapting an economic system whole (which is another assumption that requires examination, that any country could just adapt a system wholesale and wake up tomorrow with it in place) is not likely to work any better than denying the possible benefits of mixing and matching multiple systems. It depends on what you think you want done.
What we do have, because we operate tribally, is a set of prejudices that predetermine not what system would be best for people, but what kind of people would best suit a system. We aren’t, apparently, interested in economic justice or community care or rational monetary policies—we’re interested in sorting people into groups and shutting out those we feel do not conform to what we believe. Too many people don’t want to hear arguments about universal health because some of them think there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to have it. Same thing with fair housing practices, education, and even universal franchise. Finding the best system which is the most inclusive may be what we claim to want but in practice a lot of people want the opposite.
Since it’s illegal these days to discriminate on traditional bases, we use financial status to do so. Changes in that system which might lead to closer equity and broader civil rights threaten the status of enough of us to trigger irrational arguments over things poorly understood. For the time being, a large segment seems quite content to see the upper 1% get more of the pie as long as it keeps the supposedly less deserving from getting anything at all.
For what it’s worth, in my opinion those folks are going to lose in the long run. But until they do, this is going to be frustrating, bitter fight, one made harder by tribal pride and a kind of sacred ignorance.
It’s been obvious to me for some time that I have a time management problem. I need to be working on fiction. (Right now, like while I’m doing this.) The urge to write is something every writer understands. The trouble is, the urge is sort of undifferentiated. It doesn’t care what you write, just that you do.
And it is so easy to do these things rather than chip away at the short story that currently defies completion.
Not to mention all the other pesky things that gum up the well-intentioned schedule you’ve made for a given day.
I should listen to no news. I should stay indoors, holed up with provisions for a siege, turn off my phone, never venture away from my computer until the new story is submittable.
Should and will rarely intersect.
I’ve been having technical issues with my WordPress account lately. I’m writing this by a somewhat tortured backdoor method that requires using a pathway from my other blog. I intend to use it as a good excuse to work on other things until the next major upgrade comes down the pike.
So I have not been posting as frequently as I once did and plan to continue not posting that frequently. If the world implodes, the president resigns, or glaciers begin reforming, let me know. I have fiction in the pipeline.
So, given the last week’s worth of utterly unpredictable news…something that expresses my feelings about the future.