"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 1, 2014

Character And Poverty

David Brooks in an article in the New York Times (8.1.14) has suggested that both progressive and conservative programs miss the key variable which determines a rise out of poverty – character.  Discipline, enterprise, awareness, and moral standards (habits, opportunity, exemplars, and standards) are they key to individual economic progress.  While cognitive skills are essential, they alone cannot assure success.

Henry Walpole was a backwoods cracker who beat his children, was drunk by early afternoon, and was only the next in a long line of uneducated, inbred Scots-Irish who had lived in the hills since long before the Civil War.  Every one of his neighbors was a mean-spirited, anti-social, and ignorant as he was.  Theirs was a community of moral reprobates and social misfits.  Walpole and his slatternly wife had no discipline to speak of.  Opportunity meant only odd jobs, a still, and piece work; and the only motivation for his three children was punishment. He beat and lashed them for every minor infraction of his arbitrary rules.

Walpole lived so far in the backwoods that the County Department of Human Services never even knew about him let alone his abusive behavior; and the children were already seven, eight, and ten when they were finally removed and placed in the foster home system.  As might be expected, none of the children made it much farther than their father.  The damage had been done.  They had all been given a double-helix of defective genes, had known only meanness and punishment, had no ‘exemplars’ as Brooks calls them, to guide them on the right path, and the only moral standards they knew were inversions of the norm.

It was no surprise then when  Lucas Walpole was accused of burning down a schoolhouse in Eupora and incinerating five children and a teacher who had not managed to escape.  By the time he committed the crime he was twenty-five, had been behind bars almost as much as he had been free, never showed any remorse for his brutality and barbarism, and was as irremediable as anyone the justice system of Dobbs County had ever seen.

William Faulkner understood this pathology and wrote about the life of Joe Christmas in Light in August. Christmas had the same upbringing as Lucas Walpole – left on the doorsteps of an orphanage, referred to a foster home where the father was as brutally abusive as Henry Walpole.  Christmas is not so temperate as Lucas, however, and in a rage of frustration, blind anger, and hatred, kills his foster father.  Christmas wanders the territory as a young adult and takes up with a young widow who falls in love with him, attracted as many women are by his unpredictability, virility, and latent power.  She misjudges him, and her kindness and ministrations are seen by Christmas as manipulative and domineering as those of his foster father.  Joe burns her house down and she is killed.  Eventually Christmas is caught, castrated, and killed.

Through Christmas’ many interior soliloquies, we learn that he is intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive; but that these characteristics have been warped by his upbringing. In the inverted world of the orphanage and the foster family, good did not exist – only selfish madness. A caretaker at the orphanage who incorrectly believes that Joe has caught her in a sexual indiscretion, conspires with a janitor to kidnap and abandon him in Arkansas.  When he is returned to the orphanage, he is placed in the foster home of Mr. McEachern, an Old Testament zealot who can only see evil, apostasy, and rebellion against God.

Christmas understands the twisted, immoral nature of McEachern, but because he has never learned self-discipline, patience, or negotiation, his only recourse is to repay violence with violence.  In Joe Christmas Faulkner has created a sympathetic character.  He portrays him as a man who at a visceral level feels the injustice of the world and resents the fact that he, an intelligent and willful man, can do nothing about it.  There is nothing that can rehabilitate a man like Joe Christmas who has been brutalized as a youth, deprived of any positive influences, and yet ironically given intelligence and a profound sense of right and wrong.  While he ignores traditional laws, he is acting more like McEachern’s Old Testament God or a New Testament Avenging Angel.  His frustration, hatred, and violence are Biblical in proportion.

Joe Christmas had character, one which was guided by moral principles – principles, in fact, which were more profound than any that Brooks describes.  Yet he was never taught self-control.  His vengeance was as swift and merciless as Jehovah.  There was no room for consideration or negotiation. He grew up in a world of immorality and severe self-interest.  He trusted no one, but no one with his past should ever be expected to. He had been so conditioned to mistrust others that his liaison with Joanna Burden is doomed from the start.

The point is that few people living on the margins in America today have any of the characteristics that Brooks suggests.  The inner-city ghetto is no different from the backwoods milieu of Lucas Walpole or the vengeful life of Joe Christmas. There is plenty of character in the impoverished neighborhoods of Anacostia, the Central Ward, or Delmar Boulevard.  There are codes of honor, justice, courage, and integrity. The fact that they are inversions of middle class white norms is irrelevant.  Success, stature, and social ascension are always – as Brooks rightly notes – functions of character and moral code.

In the ghetto there is plenty of opportunity for advancement, many role models (Brooks’ exemplars), and certainly well-established standards.  Low-level entry into the drug trade is easy and encouraged.  Wealthy pimps, hustlers, and dope dealers are on every block. While these communities may have their own codes of character and opportunity; and certainly have established clear-cut standards of behavior and success, they are often antithetical to the norm.

The problem is that these communities are hermetically sealed – i.e. they are not exposed to majority standards of morality, good behavior, ambition, and opportunity. How can a young man from a bad block in a bad neighborhood with a highly developed anti-social structure, negative peer pressure, absent parents and authority figures other than those of the street ever even see the alternative let alone act upon its promise?

This social insularity is not confined to the ghetto or to the backwoods.  It is common everywhere.  The working poor – those families who live on the margins and get by with minimum wage jobs, under-the-table salaries, no health care, unemployment insurance, and few economic opportunities – have plenty of character.  They work hard (habits), but have none of the other three of Brooks’ criteria.  Their opportunities are next to nil.  In a state like Mississippi which ranks on the bottom of all socio-economic indicators, the chances of a low-wage waitress in a roadside kitchen ever doing anything else are slim at best.

Those many black families surviving on welfare will remain on the public dole.  Many poor blacks have no proof of birth or residency, are marginally literate at best, and survive from day to day.  They have character, ambition, and intent; but will always be circumscribed by factors beyond their control.  They, like Joe Christmas and Lucas Walpole were dealt a bad deck of cards, but so did a lot of other people; and unfortunately they live together.

I am all for discipline, enterprise, ambition, and above all character.  I have written extensively ( http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/06/roman-educationlessons-in-leadership.html) about the value of a Roman education which prepared young nobles for service to the state; but which formed the basis for English tutelage.  These young men were not only taught the three R’s but the importance of respect, discipline, courage, honor, and freedom – all in the interest of the state.  Individual desires were to be harnessed in the service of the many. Every advanced civilization has adopted these principles.

                           Cato the Elder

The Enlightenment principles of our Republic were no different. Freedom and liberty did not mean a free-for-all, a bacchanal of individual pursuits and pleasure.  “The pursuit of happiness” was presented in a distinctly moral and social context.

The problem in poor communities is not lack of character or community norms and standards; but which norms and standards.  Hermetically sealed, insulated communities, cut off for social, political, and historical reasons cannot help but adopting inverse standards.  Character is universal, as is ambition, desire, and search for opportunity. Brooks underestimates the power and weight of social history, the confines of society, and the determinism of genes and deeply-rooted social behavior.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Marfa Higgins, The South, And LGBT

“Buggery, welfare, and black people”, said Marfa Higgins. “That’s all you Yankees care about. What about all the good, decent, white people in America?”

She pulled out a recent copy of the Yale Alumni Magazine which she had ‘borrowed’ from her wayward uncle, Compton Blaine ‘57, waved it in my face, and read me the following Letter to the Editor:

Your obsession with race is unbecoming, absurd, endlessly tiresome, and – strange to say – racist. With this article (“Who was the first African American student at Yale”) you are in effect saying , “Wow, a black guy was smart enough to get into Yale in 1857”.  My answer is, “Who cares?”. As long as you are going to parse minorities for thrills, how about telling us when the first left-handed albino ever got into Yale?

“At least there is one of you overbred, Ivy League poufs who has some sense”.

Of course she was right.  No matter where you turn these days – The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, all journals of record, intelligence, and objectivity – you will find the broadsheets and glossy pages saturated with race, gender, and ethnicity.  A poor Kazakh immigrant, thanking Allah for the open arms of America as he struggles through any one of these journals to master English, might well think he has landed in Sodom, a land of libertinage, miscegenation, and a chaotic world of cross-dressers.

The Atlantic online today featured an article on dwarf sexuality, a piece bordering on the prurient and usually reserved for the Daily Mail or worse. A politically sensitive and sexually aware dwarf – or more correctly a ‘Little Person’ – had become frustrated with the limitations of an ‘other-shaped’ body.  One tended to get tangled or obstructed somehow, and there was a clear need to write a Kama Sutra for the 21st Century, or at least a Masters and Johnson.

Mary Lou Naccarato called it, “Heighten Your Sensuality & Intimacy: Innovative Techniques for the LP Body,” a resource manual used in conjunction with her workshops. It addressed everything from living with a disability, chronic illness, and injury, to LQBTQ topics, to explicit details of techniques, sexual positions, and even personal hygiene. In addition, it tackled the broad topics of intimacy and sensuality, body image issues, safe sex resources, and even topics like how to kiss, how to have non-intercourse sex, and how to simply embrace or caress another.

As noted in the paragraph above, Naccarato wanted to deal with all types of ‘alternate sexual behavior’ including not only Little People but gays, lesbians, and transsexuals who might need some guidance in figuring out what goes where and who does what to whom.

“And what is this ‘lean in’ nonsense?”, Marfa went on. She was hard to stop when she got her dander up, especially after three Jack Black’s. “God made women with cunts and men with dicks”, she said. ”Carly what’s-her-face and Sheryl Glass Ceiling got roughed up in the birth canal.  To many YY’s on their double helix. Closet bull dykes.”

Now I and many of Marfa’s other friends figured her for extra bits of male DNA.  She, despite her Southern belle pedigree and antebellum upbringing, could outman men at every turn. Yet she chose her political persona from the opposing camp.  Despite the fact that she was as tough as nails and as shit-kicking and man hating as any Bernal Heights bull dagger, she sided with the traditional woman – homemaker, homeschooler, obedient wife, church-goer, and community volunteer.  “The salt of the earth”, she said. “Descended from Esther, Ruth, Miriam, and Deborah. Obedient, faithful, honest women who cleaved to their better halves”.

I have lived for years in the Northeast; and because of my class, education, and upbringing, I was destined to be a liberal.  The parents of my New England friends were far from progressive.  They were the captains of industry who profiteered during the Civil War, producing armaments and hardware at exorbitant rates to the desperate Union; and who in the early days of the Republic made millions from the Three Cornered slave trade. Their grandfathers were relatives of the Rockefellers, Jay Gould, and the rest of the Robber Barons who resided on Park Avenue, hunted on Jekyll Island, and summered at Newport.

Something happened in the Sixties.  The cultural strands of DNA were snipped, and the children of these scions of American enterprise turned radically Left.  Yale had only a tenuous hold on these political rebels, and they lent their support to the Great Revolutionary Experiment of the Sixties.  Only in insulated redoubts did old-fashioned American conservatism survive – Nantucket, Bar Harbor, and the Upper Peninsula.

These reconstituted liberals migrated far from the rock-ribbed Republican conservatism which was based on frugality, parsimony, discipline, and service; and lost their bearings. Yale classmates who perched on the Yale Fence, dined at Mory’s, and sang with the Whiffenpoofs, rejected Jefferson, Locke, and Rousseau and took up with Paolo Freire, and Saul Alinsky.

“In the South, honey”, Marfa continued, “we have our share of pederasty, interracial intercourse, and uppity women. We just don’t make a big deal of it. The Mississippi carries all kinds of flotsam and jetsam, but its channel is deep, wide, and powerful.”

What she meant was that Josh Barnum was dirt-tracking Billy Thacker; that Joanne Fricker was going down on the the third grade teacher at Prentice Elementary; and that Homer Alter went out to the prairie every Thursday to ‘plough another’s furrow’; but that all these peccadilloes were routine and commonplace, not worth noting, and insignificant relative to the white, conservative, family values mainstream of the community.

“We prefer murder, embezzlement, and deceit”, Marfa said.

Leticia Harper had been married to her husband, Randolph, for over thirty years. They had both married when they were quite young – at Ole Miss as Leticia liked to recall, reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ Maggie and Brick, but with a whole lot more passion and blood – and had led an exemplary life.  They were master and mistress of Live Oak, a grand antebellum mansion that had been in the family since 1850 when it was the residence of Randolph’s great-grandfather Ellison, the most successful and prosperous cotton merchant of the town.

Live Oak was on the Pilgrimage Tour – one of the South’s last celebrations of the antebellum plantation period – and was always shown last because of its grandeur and Gone with the Wind romantic appeal.  It was indeed magnificent, overlooking the river, set on tonsured and manicured grounds reminiscent of Versailles, four stories of polished mahogany, Empire lowboys, Baccarat crystal, Audubon prints, and Mallard beds.  Its centerpiece was a long, winding staircase which rose from the formal foyer up to the bedchambers of the first floor, the studies and libraries of the second, and the clerestory, a widow’s walk lookout with Revolutionary War period colored glass through which the morning and evening sun cast rainbows.

No one will ever know whether Leticia pushed Randolph to his death down the narrow circular staircase to his death three stories below, crushing his head on the Victorian bust of Julius Caesar; or whether he stumbled drunk out of his ‘little room’, nest for quickie trysts with the black maids and fell of his own accord down onto the Venetian marble floor.

“She pushed him, of course”, said Marfa.

Eugene O’Neill, despite his presumptive status as America’s greatest playwright wrote some pretty awful grand guignol melodramatic stuff in his early years; and it takes a passionate devotee to conclude that Long Day’s Journey Into Night makes up for Mourning Becomes Electra.  Nevertheless Southern Gothic owes a lot to O’Neill, more so than to Tennessee Williams, native son, pederast, and literary genius.

“That faggot Williams claimed he was a Southerner”, Marfa said, but he didn’t understand jack shit about it. O’Neill is our man.”

She was right. Mourning Becomes Electra has incest, murder, jealousy, family heritage, greed, and ambition – all the makings of Southern Gothic.

“I am sure that the only Williams play that interests you is Suddenly Last Summer” – a play about incest, homosexuality, family pimping, mental disorders, and sexual dysfunction.” 

Marfa was right.  If the ‘progressive’ academics of the Northeast who determine the curricula of today’s colleges were to choose a favorite American play, they would certainly choose Suddenly Last Summer.  How could they miss? An intense mother-son incestuous relationship never fulfilled.  A homosexual son who preys on Italian street children.  A mother who pimps for her son then reluctantly relinquishes the task to another.  A final Biblical consummation of cannibalism.

“We like Shakespeare, Lillian Hellman, and Edward Albee”, Marfa said.  “They speak to us.”

All three playwrights hated marriage, that most unnatural of social accommodations; but knew that it was the crucible within which moral, ethical, and philosophical conundrums were resolved.  George and Martha hated each other – or so it seemed at the beginning of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – but they really loved each other.  They needed each other desperately it turns out, regardless of the twisted, destructive play-acting of the evening with Honey and Nick.

In the final accounting, no one cares who did what to whom in the bedroom.  Whether dwarves have to rig struts, balances, and trapezes to achieve orgasm; or how complex LGBT intercourse comes about.

There was a recent article in a well-known liberal magazine about the challenges of complex transsexual relationships, and described a sexual free-for-all where men dressed as women masquerading as men fucking men dressed as super-macho men but with pussy submissiveness.  “Sexual Identity”, the piece was titled. “Who’s on Top?”. The article was far less interesting than the Letter to the Editor.  The most intriguing was one from a reader from Dubuque of all places, who raised the dominatrix-child-innocence theme; and wondered where in the Victor Victoria scenario portrayed in a recent movie, the primordial and essential element of woman-female child sex had gotten lost.

I am firmly in lockstep with Marfa and the South. The insistent, persistent, and predictable focus on race, gender, and ethnicity is bo-ring to say the least.  The Histories of Shakespeare have real resonance – greed, self-interest, venality, ambition, and murderous intentions are the truest expressions of human nature.  Tolstoy wrote about death and its contemplation.  Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche wondered about Will, Good, and Evil. Chekhov understood the ponderous weight of history and the inability of Man to throw it off,  Ibsen and Strindberg valued human decisiveness, courage, and amorality.

Race, gender, and ethnicity are temporal follies – eddies on the shoals of the cultural Mississippi, catching random and insignificant flotsam and jetsam.

The ‘progressive’ Left is caught in these drifts.  Academics and political shills have missed the point again and again. Ukraine and Palestine are about Will, determination, and higher purpose.  Religious unrest and the rise of fundamentalism is more about Tolstoy, the Crusades, and the Holy Roman Empire than it is about gay rights.

Enough already!