Tuesday, April 6

A Chicken Is Just An Egg's Idea Of How To Get More Eggs

KIA, in comments at Roy's:
I'm disposed just now to think that the worldview (stingy, sordid, narrow, unimaginative, seeing all value as money value, incapacity not to translate the money value into actual experience while at the same time cherishing the conviction that they have achieved all that culture achieved in their very own special exceptional persons--in a word, your basic Babbittry) predates the politics, it is deeply ingrained, it has been around for a long time, it's what for many years distinguished Americans from the rest of the world (see for example Edith Wharton's "The Custom of the Country" where she savages these traits in the character of Undine Spragg, or Trollope's "The American Senator"). Now they feel themselves to be under assault, and the politics is an instrument for the survival of their sense of the world and of their place in it. But there's even another layer to it, which is the desire to empty themselves of experience in order to sustain this world view, which is, at least now (if not in Wharton's time), a sort of mass-produced artifact that they think is a "personality," that is sort of churned and recycled endlessly out of this legacy of smug romanticizing self-regard.

My dad turns 90 in a couple weeks. He's pretty much sharp as he ever was, which means you adjust for a certain level of befuddlement, something I inherited, but we apply to different aspects of modern life. That befuddlement is the centerpiece of his gentle humor. He's a funny guy. He was the youngest survivor of eight children, and his sisters cooed over him, and petted him, until he was seventy-five. And it shows. He's sweet. He's kindly. He goes to church every week. He'd give you the shirt off his back.

He's a lifelong Republican, from a family tradition of Kentucky Union supporters. He's a racist. He's a captive of FOX News.

It colors, and it tempers (believe it or not) the things I have to say about his party and his cohort. I know he's a good man, and I grew up with a more-or-less overt racist stepfather after my parents divorced (my mother, too, was--is--considerably worse, and until the dementia confined her you had to try to steer her clear of any opportunity for blurting. In the early days I took her to the bank--before we realized she had a banking fixation--and she told the teller he spoke very well for a colored boy), so I've seen the difference intent makes. I understand, or I just pretend, that the pervasive racism of his generation, the racism I grew up with, was partly cultural. That doesn't mean I think it was excusable, just that I know that back then he wouldn't have donned a sheet, and would have helped the first African-American family on the block move in, right before he put up the For Sale sign. (Ten years later my stepfather--another lifelong Lincoln Republican--would have blamed the whole thing on Ted Kennedy.)

I've seen this close up. Those two men were both working-class kids. No African-American ever did them any harm, but both knew that the natural order of things required everyone--especially everyone else--to know his place. One lived long enough to have the Reagan Paradise he'd agitated for for years deny him Social Security benefits--"new rules, sorry"--and his twenty-year employer fire him to rob him of his health insurance when the cancer that would kill him in three years left him too weak to work, or walk much. The other's been cashing his Social Security checks, and charging his healthcare costs to Medicare, for twenty-five years. And he thinks Sean Hannity is a keen observer of the ship of state.

Now, maybe some ninety-year-old is not indicative of the Teabaggers, or maybe it's just mutatis mutandis. He had the Red Scare, and Goldwater, both failures; they had Reagan, who was too Great for his disasters to be attributed to him. He had Jim Crow; the next generation had to keep its powder dry until Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton said something in public, or Katrina wiped out a major American city, or a black man running for President garnered the sort of fawning support they themselves gave Nixon or Reagan or Bush II or Palin. My dad, it seemed, could simply assume that post-war white, American, and Christian hegemony was the natural order of the Universe. But as time passed, and as those were revealed as mere artifacts of a kaleidoscopic "reality", the "desire to empty themselves of experience in order to sustain this world view" became more and more necessary, until it became a badge of honor to complain about the PC police giving all the good parking places to cripples.

The attitude behind that sort of thing has been with us since we crawled out of the primordial soup, probably. But take a look sometime at Reagan's speeches from early on in his manufactured political career. Perpetual aggrievedness, perpetual demonization, I-was-a-Liberal-Democrat-before-FDR-went-to-Yalta, or King went to Birmingham, or Madalyn Murray went to Court. Or Darwin boarded the Beagle. Why people buy this may have more to do with innate attitudes than politics; it certainly tends to fly in the face of political common sense often enough. But one party has been willing to double down on Stupid for decades to take advantage of it. And, I blame it more than I blame my old man. For whatever reason.


Kia said...

As usual, you keep it beautifully real, Doghouse. I love this. I wrote the comment you cite in a big hurry as I was dashing out of the office and couldn't quite finish the thought. I think your last paragraph gets there, though. I'd say that the tendency to stereotype and simplify experience and memory is a constant that only increases with age, as people tend more and more to rely on their acquired or inherited "wisdom." Not everybody breaks out of the culture they are born in, and in my own experience breaking out is fraught with pain and risk and loss, when it's conceivable at all--which, for a lot of people, it just isn't.

But then, yeah, this:

...one party has been willing to double down on Stupid for decades to take advantage of it.

What would have become of that worldview without the considerable investment in pushing it over the last 30 or so years?

Anonymous said...

I think we all have that sense that older people--particularly those a generation older--are to be understood with a kind of patience that contemporaries do not warrant. My grandmother came up in Appalachian Kentucky without shoes; the only family portrait we have includes nine siblings and one mule. I used to be able to exuse in the same breath that she was a wool-dyed racist and that she was as cantankerous and bitchy a human being as I have ever had the pleasure to know. Her husband was slightly younger, from the exotic west (Ohio), but otherwise cut from the same bolt...yet he was aggressively even-handed toward everyone (and he had his chances, working for the BIA for forty years in Alaska and Arizona.) Happily married.

I see it as a function of courage. Grampa was jolly, profane, and unassuming; he never forgot a friend and probably bought 20,000 drinks for other people in his life. But he was courageous enough to buck the casual bigotry of his time (he was on Guadalcanal, a Seabee, and came home at 6'2" and 130 pounds). He was in Anchorage into the 50's and I have photographs of their house full of people, many servicemen (including my dad, who was courting their daughter at the time, with a positive outcome). those photos have black men in them--a few, but common enough to be startling (perhaps as startling as a mule.)
Grandma was just not interested in people very much, a hypochondriac. Granpa never needed to blame anybody for anything; Grandma always needed to blame folks three deep.

Now I'm a teacher and I see the same energy from the young upward. Just as adults are not naturally more likely to be bigots (of whatever stripe), kids are not naturally more open-minded. The apple does not fall far from the horse. What is more evident is that the group of people who exhibit two traits--open-mindedness and courage--are the ones who set the example, with courage being the uppermost requirement, a kind of social courage that is part brains, part independence, and part stubbornness. Get (or cultivate, or teach) a critical mass of that faculty and you are going to have a revolution.

The nation is well supplied with bigotry, but it takes a special kind of cowardice to focus it and fan it and capitalize on it, especially in these days of vivid contrary examples and ready access to facts. In truth I'd say that those people we are reviling indirectly right now would be much quicker to renounce their bigotries and recant their facts than they would be to take a courageous stand on anything.


heydave said...

As I'm my own harshest critic, I find it hard to tolerate dumb, in myself or others. I like to think that I when see the dumb in myself, I try to remember the open-mindedness/courage recipe (bravo, btw).
But while I try to remember the youth of today having age as a possible excuse for their dumb, this has also led to a zero tolerance policy in dumb fucks my age.
And for those much older than me, I don't argue, just change subjects a lot.

Anonymous said...

This is a kindly, lovely post, Doghouse. As are the comments above.

Li'l Innocent

ButchPansy said...

My 93year-old Dad died today. I was very fortunate to have been raised by such a kind, thoughtful, egalitarian humanist. That's rare enough for his generation, but he was also born Catholic (he recovered) and poor. He retired from a 30 year career in the army as a full Colonel.

My friends are always surprised that he and I got on so well, being of opposite genders while sharing the same sex: he was a big, hairy man; I'm a big, hairy girl. It was that unconditional love thing.

Perhaps having a gay son affected his politics. He was a republican when I was a kid but became an outspoken liberal as he aged. He used to say he never made General because he was too much of a Bolshevik.

His parents came over on a boat from Italy. Immigrants always got respect in our house, especially when they were escaping oppression in their homeland. He married a smart woman and raised 4 daughters and me. Egalitarianism was the only acceptable behavior. Being a dumb dago (straight A student and captain of both the wrestling and debating teams)he was considered less than white in England-bred Santa Rosa. We were always shown by example that accidents of birth were no way to judge a person. Action counted. The only rule was the Golden one.

All of this is elegy, I suppose, but I need to say it. I miss him already. I hope to live up to the respect and admiration he always showed me, and not let the bastards get me down (that, and "check your oil" were often his parting words).

Fiddlin Bill said...

In a sense, the whole thing is "the Southern Strategy." Here in NC after Brown V Board our relatively moderate state government might well have decided to foster the integration of our citizenry that was obviously to come. Instead, the best and brightest chose to develop the "Piersall Plan," a consciously crafty legalistic effort to foot drag on integrating the public school system for about 15 or 20 more years. These legislators frequented preened that they were much better than those in VA, who simply closed the public school system down. This was the background for the Greensboro Sit In, and all that followed. At the national level, the GOP did exactly what George Wallace chose to do in Alabama. And they're still doing it.

scripto said...

Beautifully done. My dad, who passed last november, turned to me during the primary, and visibly upset, said "If Obama wins, he's going to turn this into a black country."

My dad, good guy, miners son, Scranton bred, combat veteran of the segregated 8th air force - life long Republican who probably never voted for one (not even Eisenhower)-loving great grandfather of a biracial child - told me once that the slaves didn't have it too bad - "there are good colored and bad colored people" - if you were black and he knew you, you were good colored.

Who'd he vote for? Begins with an "O".
Go figure

Unknown said...

And my story:

I had my mother for a teacher for two years, in junior high (7th-8th grades for those middle school people)--those other (besides 1-3) formative years. One day during class, and we're talking 1968 here, she said (and I can't remember what prompted this): I wouldn't have a problem with having a black son- or daughter-in-law, but I think I would have a problem with having Black (they were Blacks in those days) grandchildren.

Now, at the time, I thought that was an incredible "topic" to mention in our all-white class (although not all-white school), and an incredible thing to admit. I was impressed with her honesty.

Looking back at that statement, I still consider it an incredible thing to say, and I mean that in a positive way. I'm impressed that she even considered the possibility of having a Black in-law.

Oddly enough, she got (thanks to me) her Black daughter-in-law, although we got married after her death, and she got no grandchildren, which must have been an incredible puzzlement for a single mother who pretty much sacrificed her life to raise four kids.

But when I was in college, a Black woman who worked for the school system of which my mother was a part moved into our neighborhood. She might have had a clerical job, but, if so, it was a high-powered one. But the one thing I remember my mother and every other white teacher remarking upon was that she was "well-spoken". I don't know if you've seen the Chris Rock-"he speaks so well"-skit, but it's a classic.

Queer as folk.

Unknown said...

And just for the record, my grandfather (a double-amputee at age 70) and my grandmother--two of the most wonderful people I have ever known--used to describe watermelons as (in the here's-the-church,here's-the-steeple method): Inside the green house is a white house; inside the white house is a red house; and inside the red house are all the little nigger babies.

Don't you just love the Midwest.

Keifus said...

It could have been my grandfather you're describing (who'd be pushing a century if sheer cussedness were in the long run more powerful than cancer). Well, he wasn't sweet, but he had a strength and generosity of character that not infrequently got in the way of his nasty and voluble opinions. Not rarely, I think I might be the opposite him in more categories than I should be, and I wonder what my grandkids will be saying about me in 60 years.

Elegant post, and touching comments on both sides of it.

Hairless in Gaza said...

My dad (he's in his 80s) was in the Army's JAG Corps for 22 years, where y'know, rules of evidence matter. He has a pension from the Army -- altogether now: What is this "pension" you speak of? -- and gov't healthcare, charmingly called "CHAMPUS for Life" (he hasn't had to deal with private insurance since Eisenhower was POTUS).

Yet he knows the new new healthcare will be awful and screw things up even more! He won't believe (or maybe it's more accurate to say, he looks for reasons not to believe) such evidence as comparative health care rankings or CBO scoring, but he'll believe unattributed persons in panicky forwarded e-mails.

I think of him as a "Rip van Winkle Republican": part of that cohort that fell asleep in 2000 and woke up last year.

The "desire to empty themselves of experience in order to sustain this world view" -- it's more than a bon mot, it's a paradigm! Thanks, KIA, Riley, everyone.

Jill said...

Your old man sounds like my father-in-law; a man who blamed blacks for the deterioration of his old neighborhood in Jersey City; a man who had a photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan on his TV instead of one of his sons, a man who lived to watch C-SPAN and Fox News (though he died before the real craziness started). He railed against Medicare -- until his health deteriorated and he saw that he could get care without worrying about who was going to pay for it. He hated all minorities -- until he got sick and the nurses were all Black and Filipino and Latino.

He died in March 2001. I don't think he ever would have become a liberal, and I think he would have bought into all the racist tea party crap after a black man was elected President, just because people who think like that can never admit that their lifelong worldview was 100% wrong. But that he got BETTER was at least something.

My father-in-law was Italian, and I don't think he realized that there were people who didn't regard him as "white" either.