Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Culture War As A Game of Jenga



I was speaking with an older MSW student, now on an internship here, about attitudes and prejudices. We have had only brief conversations before – he has no experiences of me not accepting a set of commonly-believed premises right out of the gate. He doesn’t seem to have experienced this with anyone else, either. The conversation was frustrating to me, but it was shocking to him (and I didn’t even go to bad places).

What he is used to is indeed the way that most learning, good and bad, takes place. A number of statements both parties agree on are stacked like blocks, leading to a new conclusion that the learner feels must be true. Behold, I have taught you something new, based on pieces you already knew or partly knew.

The example: his graduate thesis was on prejudice against the homeless in American society.  He likely knows a great deal about the topic, including much that I would agree with.  But he started off with how it is related to the Protestant Work Ethic, then without pausing for breath - and the English Poor Law. 

Well, there’s a problem with the history right there, so I said “Oh, I don’t think so.” Well, not entirely from the English Poor Law of course, but the expectation that everyone should work was there from that time. It was pretty much just transferred as an expectation to all the English colonies after that.
There are just so many things wrong with that that I couldn’t decide where to go next (hold that thought).  1. The Poor Law circa 1600(?) was based on earlier laws, gradually back to just after the Black Death;  because of few workers there was land going unused and everyone who could work was required to.  A bit different emphasis, that.  Subsequent laws backed off from this work-obsession a bit, the Poor Law didn’t initiate it. 2. We are therefore back into the mid-14th C, before there were any Protestants, working or no.  The roots of capitalism and self-reliance owe at least as much to Renaissance Italy.  3. “English colonies” is a wide net, covering North American places with very different attitudes to work in the 16th -17th C’s  and extending to Australia 1800 and New Zealand 1850. 4. Homelessness and not working are not the same thing.  I had other, vaguer ideas of how to respond, but those will do for openers.

Where I did go in response was “I don’t think that’s just England and America.  All cultures have an expectation that people should work.” No, not all cultures.  He said. Europeans have a gentler approach to people who can’t work. 

Again, there are just so many things wrong with that that I couldn’t decide where to go next.  1. But you started this conversation as being Protestant Work Ethic, i.e. Northwest Europe starting from the 16th C and now are suddenly moving to late 20th C.  2. There is a subset of European elites who are admired by a class of Americans, who think of them as being “Europe,” but are only a part. 3. European countries are enormously homogeneous compared to America, so there’s an apples-to-oranges comparison here. 4. There are countries in the world other than NW Europe. 5. You slipped in “can’t work,” rather than “doesn’t work,” or “homeless.”

Where I did go in response was “Gypsies.” 

He had said only three sentences, but I was completely at sea.  Where the hell do you go with this? There is no intelligent discussion that can be had.  I’m not any kind of an expert in this subject.  I know more history than most people, but I can list you a dozen people I know personally who know more than I do – those who might say of me “there are just so many things wrong with this that I couldn’t decide where to go next.” But that just makes it worse, not better.

This is why the cultural bias of institutions is pernicious.  There is set of building blocks, ready to hand, that each culture relies on. Like some giant game of Jenga, removing any one of them does no good.  Certainly, if one could only stay long enough and hold attention (not to mention good will), one might theoretically remove blocks until the structure crumbled.  But more likely, if you succeed in removing any at all, when you come back in a week more blocks have been stacked up even higher. We are farther behind than ever.  Plus, people get tired of having ideas challenged and blocks removed.  They start to avoid you or keep you away from fearful topics.

Later in my example conversation, the intern explained  I was raised that the ideal was to be color-blind, and when I entered graduate school I kept defending that to people.  But one of my professors explained it to me in a way that I understand you can’t have that.  No one is completely color-blind. So if you try to be you won’t see the prejudices that other people have to go through.

To which I wanted to say “Prove that.  Give me any evidence that it’s true.  You are claiming that because no one does it perfectly, no one should do it at all – that any imperfection is enough to blind us to the truth; and therefore, we should accept instead your interpretation without evidence.”  I didn’t say that, of course.  People tire of that sort of intellectual adventure quickly. 

We can never get away from it, it seems.  In current events, people have their sources and are deeply antagonistic to other sources that report with a different emphasis.  If you can get some single idea to penetrate – that Senator X’s corruption is not just run-of-the-mill and being seized upon by his opponents unfairly – it quickly fades, as it is treated as a one-off event, not representative of a whole. In discussing the Bible, people know what verses, themes, and emphases are their Top Cliches.  You can’t get around them very easily. 


Just after finishing the above I had a hallway discussion (unrelated subject) with a smart but irritating person. We agreed on some quick points but not on others, and I rolled my eyes as I walked away at her repeated and unnecessarily critical manner of disagreeing.  I did have to acknowledge that she was quite right about part of it, however.  This left me wondering how much of my irritation was based on her being right, and how much on her poor handling.  While pondering this, I came alongside another smart and irritating person who I have known much longer. His general take is that it is annoying when people are right, even when we agree with them, unless there is some nod to humility. Which is absolutely true, and quite ironic that he should know this so immediately, as he practices it less than others.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Squirrel

So.  Harry Reid's corruption is bubbling up.  We gave away an ally's military secrets to Iran. The Secretary of State erased an entire server of emails.

But tonight's focus is not merely on Indiana's law, which it shares with many states, but on finding examples of bigots, in order to prove that all the people who disagree are bigots.  I can feel the joy in my FB feed. They are happy to be outraged.

Oh look, a squirrel.  Works every time.

Bambi

Sent along by a person who I thought was a gentle soul.




Guess not.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jerks Vs. Cheaters Vs. Criminals. Plus Racism.

There has been universal brouhaha in New England about David Ortiz's extended essay defending himself.  Ortiz has been enormously popular, even worshiped  during his tenure with the Red Sox, but apparently that is not enough.  He seems to find it intolerable that absolutely everyone, even here, does not love him.  This oversensitivity and self-centeredness is pretty much why there are a few holdouts.

I don't think there's anyone in New England who hates the guy, but some of us are merely pleased that he hits a baseball well and does it for us, and otherwise find his act a bit tiresome. He can be a jerk.

I don't have any problem rooting for jerks on my sports teams. Some of my all-time favorites are Jim Rice, Danny Ainge, and Randy Moss. I am betting that a week's vacation spent in close quarters with any of my favorite teams might put me off rooting for them forever.

Ortiz also referenced PED's, and how people still doubt him and think his abilities are/were enhanced.  That would be cheating, and though more and more people give that a pass, I don't.  The lines can be fuzzy - some sports and some eras seem to have so many offenders that one is tempted to condemn only the worst, shrugging at the guys who were driving 70 in a 65 zone. Yet I do pretty quickly hit a point that I turn on a guy for cheating.  I wasn't paying attention at the time to the open secret that Manny Ramirez was a user, and feel I was robbed of a Red Sox WS win when I learned. People who used and stopped I can accept, though a bit grudgingly.

Criminality is another whole realm, I just turn off and stop rooting.  Guys who seem to be making an effort or turning things around can win me back.  But I tend to be pretty suspicious of life-changes.

The curious piece about Ortiz's rant was not his assertion that being more suspicious of him because he is Dominican is racist.  It was the automatic acceptance of this as true that floored me. Oh, well I agree with that! I don't know what else you'd call it.  Of course it's racist.

How so?  I am suspicious of every track and field record, especially for women, coming out of East Germany from 1960-90.  I'm a little suspicious of every T&F record, period. I am more suspicious of college athletes who are in the big, hypercompetitive conferences. I am suspicious of athletes coming from most Caribbean countries, white or black, Spanish, French, Dutch or English-speaking because PED's are legal in so many of them and they have had so many athletes test positive. Ditto Bulgarian weightlifters. I suspect power-hitters more than singles-hitters, linemen more than quarterbacks, and guys who hung out with Lance Armstrong more than golfers.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Hillary

We had a Schwartz Center Rounds presentation this week.  I was brought in as a pinch-hitter for a staff member who has been out sick all week.  The discussion focused on an older man with Bipolar 1 whose comments to staff and other patients were especially vile, especially insulting, unrelenting, calculated to wound, and - as is often the case with manics - uncannily precise in knowing what hurts others.  Because he is bright, was once wealthy and still has some resources, and hires an attorney almost equally as difficult to deal with, we went months before we could actually get court permission to medicate this person against his will. (That's an interesting but tangential story I won't tell here.)

His wife would come to visit, bringing him things he asked for and sit cowering as he berated her for hours. Guys with Antisocial Personality Disorder, or guys (always guys) with schizophrenia with very little awareness of their surroundings would come up and challenge him about this:  "You talk to your wife like that?  The mother of your children?  Who brings you things and you treat her like this?"

Dealing with him is very draining on staff, and the poor patients are trapped there 24/7, so we talked about how hard it is to take that kind of verbal abuse day after day.  It can't be good for you. We talked about mutual support, coping mechanisms, and how to make this bearable for nearby patients. Near the end someone asked if there are other professions where people regularly receive this level of abuse.  Corrections officers, someone thought.

"Or if you are running for president and your name is Hillary Clinton," said one older, highly-respected psychiatrist grimly. Smiles and nods from his peer group and many others.  I have heard many speak of her with admiration over the last 25 years, especially the last five. They love her.  So there it is among my people. Not really on topic, a bit gratuitous, a bit of a reach - but they cannot refrain from saying it, just has to pop out. Nothing she does will turn them against her - it's all unfair criticism by her vicious opponents. And it has to be brought up in a large public context, because they have to lay down markers of what we are supposed to believe. You have to have a certain amount of power - of privilege, if you will - to speak up in such gatherings and address the crowd unbidden. When I hear discussions of privilege, at one level I agree entirely. That is often how the world works. Some get to speak and others are hushed.

It's just that in most important contexts, the accusations are reversed from reality. Certainly, there are businesses, and churches, and organisations where the opposite privileging obtains.  Maybe you labor under those oppressions, and I agree that's also a bad thing.  I just don't think that's the usual thing.

If you were to challenge them or disagree, even lightly or humorously, you would get taken aside and upbraided for trying to turn the conversation to your politics. Skunk at a lawn party, turd in the punchbowl, doncha know.

Knots Are Popular

I recently injured my neck/shoulder, and have just started going to physical therapy.  The current thinking is that I have a chronic condition, perhaps degenerative, that is not serious but has been worsening over the years and needs some life adjustments to slowly turn around: posture, stretching, general awareness of how I am moving - that sort of thing.

My office mate has an accupressure device she keeps on a hook, which she encouraged me to use.  I used it on a Friday, felt much better Saturday, but far worse on Sunday.  I suspect I actually did slight damage with it. I was encouraged to use it by a lot of folks at the hospital, a lot of them nurses, and often with the same explanation: "You've probably got some kind of knot...that could really help you break whatever knot you've got there...I had a knot and I found that pressure really helped...your shoulders look hunched like you've got a knot up there..."

Except it wasn't a knot.  What is it with jumping to the conclusion that it's a knot these days?  How did this become the go-to explanation?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Privilege

I read about discussions of "privilege" on college campuses and I think:  to be young, to be healthy, to be attractive - this is privilege. People like you, pay attention to you, and give you things on this basis. What are these other privilege things you are talking about?

There is much to be said on the subject, and I don't deny that there are many other types of privilege, which some have and some don't. We could talk about that. Heck, I could discuss this at length: pros and cons, nuances, history, tradeoffs.

Don't be silly.

I have a bit of data from my Underground DSM.  When a woman with Borderline Personality Disorder comes in to initial staffing, she is likely to look around the room and say "Oh, there are a lot of people here."  Anyone might notice this and think this of course, but only the borderlines say it out loud. (Not even the PTSD ladies, despite their overlap with BPD. I am toying with the idea that this provides some differential diagnosis.)

In the same way, any number of people might consider and agree that racism and sexism and whatever are structural rather than individual in America society. There's considerable truth in that, after all.  But somehow, the only people who actually say or write that for public consumption are those who are avoid their own personal responsibility and are trying to shift the blame for their unhappiness to others.

Youth, Beauty, Health.  Ask those who don't have them about glass ceilings. While you are at it, add in societal compensations for previous ills. Those are privileges you received because your ancestors didn't.

Knowing this, read slowly across the accusations of other privilege.

Monday, March 23, 2015

I Wonder

I go through fits of reading Instapundit, usually about a month at a time every year.  I consider it valuable, but I do eventually tire of it.  He has his hobbyhorses, somewhat different than mine, and it is good to catch up.

He is very big on the college feminists' complaints about sexual assault, trigger warnings, rape culture, and the like.  The incidents he tracks are indeed harrowing. It occurred to me to turn the telescope around and look at this from the opposite magnification.  There are of course women who have been abused and assaulted and experience PTSD in milder or more intense forms.

Some of them go to college.

When they get to college, they will gravitate to philosophies and perspectives that provide some explanation that will help them cope. A particular brand of victim feminism is one of those, though there are others.  In adopting those beliefs, they will be a strong basis for a community (or, if you prefer, a Petri dish), waiting for others to drop in.  Some of those who drop in will be real victims, others will be histrionics/narcissists who need to feel like victims because they cannot endure the annihilation of being unimportant despite their many advantages.

Either way, their responses should not dictate culture to the rest of us.  The poor souls who were abused need rescue and compassion, not politics.  They will get more misery and less relief there. The narcissists - well, I don't know what they need.  I don't know what fixes that - but they don't need to be given the referee's whistle.  It does them no good and ruins the lives of everyone else.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Fallen Angel of Wittiness

We had a visiting preacher from an urban congregation in the denomination this Sunday. I won't spend time on the overall observation that such sermons and such ministries fall into predictable patterns in their style and theology - others have done that better than I could.  Plus, I don't object much, even though it does not speak deeply to me. The preaching I would approve would not - indeed has not - ever done well in poverty settings.

I did notice a theme of establishing one's bona fides via demonstrating knowledge of urban dialect. While that is true of any subculture, which measures whether you are one of us partly by language, it is particularly strong in urban poverty cultures.  Not necessarily young, not necessarily black, though those are strong tendencies.  Knowing the slang terms establishes legitimacy. I recall noticing it with surprise decades ago in The Autobiography of Malcolm X decades ago.  Malcolm makes a point of it:
After a Harlem street rally, one of these downtown "leaders" and I were talking when we were approached by a Harlem hustler. To my knowledge I'd never seen this hustler before; he said to me, approximately: "Hey, baby! I dig you holding this all-originals scene at the track . . . I'm going to lay a vine under the Jew's balls for a dime—got to give you a play . . . Got the shorts out here trying to scuffle up on some bread . . . Well, my man, I'll get on, got to go peck a little, and cop me some z's—" And the hustler went on up Seventh Avenue. I would never have given it another thought, except that this downtown "leader" was standing, staring after that hustler, looking as if he'd just heard Sanskrit. He asked me what had been said, and I told him. The hustler had said he was aware that the Muslims were holding an all-black bazaar at Rockland Palace, which is primarily a dancehall. The hustler intended to pawn a suit for ten dollars to attend and patronize the bazaar. He had very little money but he was trying hard to make some. He was going to eat, then he would get some sleep.
At the time, I knew this was common in youth culture, especially music and media culture, but I was surprised to see it showing up among adults. I could not have said so at the time, but I dimly saw that youth does this for two reasons, to establish cohort bonding/status, and to measure with hyperalertness who can keep up. Slang takes some time and energy, and it tells us something about you if you are willing to invest that.

The young woman next to me at church, who is one of the dozen or so who comes from a program which helps troubled young women, was deeply moved by the preacher's embrace of street culture.  She knew the words to the songs he referenced, she knew the street talk he used. NH suburban culture is not her culture, and her relief that someone was speaking her language was palpable. It was clearly not just something she liked, but something important to her. It is important to a lot of people.

Something like it, something which overlaps with it, is important to wealthier, whiter people.  Eventually the preferred culture that is considered so important dilutes to something emphatically nonblack, nonhispanic, nonpoor, which is why photos of Democratic strategy groups and liberal nonprofits are embarrassingly white. Yet the principle is the same.  In those groups, the method of keeping up is largely one of being 1) witty and 2) socially aware.

I felt the pull strongly, and believe I still understand it. If being witty is that important to you, liberals are just going to look a lot smarter than conservatives, because along that path, they are. PJ O'Rourke is a reformed liberal, as are many of the wittiest conservatives.  Wit was always of enormous importance among the Wymans - you should know that outside of families of professional entertainers, you won't find a wittier group (and I think we'd keep up with half of those) than us live in a pack.* It was tough on our Romanians coming in.  Kyle has held his own better. So the temptations of worshiping that god may be clearer to (some of) us as well.

One just naturally thinks the people who don't get the references aren't quite as smart as you, even if their credentials say otherwise.

One just naturally believes the people who are witty, and have to be more alert to swim clear. Think Hollywood, comedians, and TV, of course, but also writers, humorists - and the guy you find it most entertaining to hang out with. 

Son #5 has the skill, but does not yet see the danger.  He reads a room brilliantly, and does not quite respect those who don't do it so well.  I think that will always be part of him, though it will subside as he separates from highschool.

Here's my worry, in both the urban poor and witty uppermiddleclass cultures:  This is who mobs are made of.  These are communities who move together entirely too much. I write that as one who values community, especially Christian community far higher than most people do. It's a very CS Lewis lesson to remember that it is the good things which are most dangerous when they go bad.  Devils are made of fallen angels.

*Those of you who know us one at a time need to know that we increase in wit geometrically (not exponentially, though we hope that someday the stars will align and we will all have had just the right number of drinks, the precise amount of frustration over the previous few hours, and enough time apart to have an unusually great supply of stories needing to be told, and collectively ascend to some higher plane).