Tuesday, August 9, 2016
Life’s Distortions And Other Deviations From The Mean–A Longing For The Civility Of The Middle
A close friend of mine said that for some unexplained reason he had been noticing life’s distortions – or to be more objective, departures from the mean. Neurasthenic women, obese men; the stooped, slouching, and bald; the traipsing, chipper, and overdressed; clashing color schemes, mincing walks, big muscles, bling, and little people.
Perhaps the drumbeat of race, gender, and ethnicity had finally gotten him to fall in line. It was good that he was observing and recognizing diversity, his progressive friends told him. While he might still call it an aberrant cycle, at least he was making progress.
On the contrary, noticing nothing but diversity was a curse and an obsession. Life as he now saw it was more more chaotic, contrary, and hopelessly jumbled than ever before. It was the average person – moderate height, good looks, civil, courteous, respectful, and generous – who seemed to be the anomaly. Good diction, extensive but modestly used vocabulary, tasteful dress, and correct but classic accessories not only were lost in his vision of centripetal identities but seemed themselves out-of-place and wrong.
Although he grew up in an earlier, simpler time, he was no patrician elitist. Neither he nor his family ever looked down on the carpenters and painters who lived on Arch Street, nor the Polish laborers of the East End. He and they were all parts of the same American amalgam. Despite differences in income, education, and social status, they all aspired to the same social and economic goals. They all subscribed to the same moral and ethical code. All had faith or respect for it; and those few who strayed from the norm were censured and disciplined before their behavior became persistent.
There was a common respect for the norm, and although outliers were never ostracized, they were acknowledged as different. Whether for not fault of their own – bad genes, a streak of family meanness, ignorant parents – or because of social ineptitude, they were considered marginal. Never hopeless, but worthy of little consideration from those who were full subscribers to the norm.
By the standards of today’s society, my friend’s family would be considered exclusionary at best, racist at worst. Yet they were nothing of the sort, and simply lived by a different code of standards. Belonging was simple – subscribe to majority norms. One might not gain membership for a generation, but the rules were public, transparent, and equitable.
American society in the 50s and before was not unlike any other – divided by class, ability, intelligence, talent, family, and background. Not everyone was born equal per se but equal in opportunity. Society was more progressive than that of caste-defined India, but still operated under the same laws of conduct. Hindus believed that place, status, and social position were all determined by one’s karma; and that through faith, prayer, devotion, and principle, one could rise through the spiritual ranks. No one was denied enlightenment, although that exalted state might take time to achieve. Americans believed that they could shortcut the process. Through ambition, enterprise, hard work, and eyes-on-the-prize idealism, anyone could become wealthy, respected, and admired.
In New Brighton there were Yids, Guineas, Bohunks, Polacks, and a few Spics; and few disputed the segregation of the town’s ethnic minorities. The epithets were not disparaging per se but identifying signifiers. The classification would never have been considered racist or discriminatory because all minorities hoped to escape from second class and join the white, Anglo-Saxon, privileged majority. New Brighton was an equal opportunity town.
An Italian doctor who, settled in the formerly all-old money West End and blackballed from the town’s exclusively New England country club, doubled his resolve to propel his children upward. All traces of Italianness were expunged – as best possible – from the family home. Acceptance at Choate, Yale, and Harvard followed; and the successive generations of Santangelos were no different from the Porters, Lodges, and Alewives who had lived in New Brighton for two centuries.
Although the landed gentry of New Brighton was by no means irreproachable. Charlie Bancroft was a drunk and a sexual reprobate. Bill Exeter went bankrupt because of shady investments in South America; and Melissa Booth had become as nutty as a fruitcake by the time she was forty; but in the main the residents of the West End were models of propriety, noblesse oblige, and community service.
These normative men and women were my friend’s heroes and mentors when he was growing up. They were literate, well-spoken, informed, and always behaved with civility, respect, and concern. They had no more in common with the factory worker on Broad Street than the man-in-the-moon, but respected his life’s trajectory. He might have been born poor and ignorant in Silesia, managed no more than an unskilled job at Blevins Bearing, and consigned to at least one or two more generations of relative penury; but they were deserving of respect.
The families of the West End were true Americans, my friend considered. They believed in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Enlightenment, the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the faith that underlies the Republic. They accepted without question immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe on the basis of principle and performance. If these newcomers subscribed to the foundational Christian principles of right behavior, they were welcome. In time they would be able to take advantage of all that America had to offer – music, art, literature, and philosophy.
Given this upbringing and education, it is no surprise that my friend became disoriented and confused by ‘diversity’. All was centripetal. There was no central, absolute, moral core to society. All behavior was sanctioned either because it was considered a legitimate expression of minority culture or a result of centuries of oppression and abuse. There seemed to be no universally sanctioned and accepted right and wrong. All was relative and responsibility only conditional.
The world was changing and reverting to moral, cultural, and social centers; but his own seemed irredeemably chaotic and unguided. Whatever one might think of ISIS and Islamic radicalism, its leaders had a clear, purposeful, and absolute vision of right and wrong. Whatever one might think of Russia’s newly-muscular geopolitics, President Putin was unashamedly invoking the greatness of Imperial Russia. President Erdogan of Turkey dismissed the secular revisionism of Ataturk and claimed inspiration from the Ottoman Empire. The European West found itself caught between multicultural liberalism and the glories of the Crusades, Charlemagne, and the heroism of Roland at Roncesvalles. America had no such historical touchstone. Process was its culture, and that had turned secular communitarianism into social anarchy.
It was only a matter of time before my friend’s disconcertion was complete. He endured the Sixties and the social upheavals which beset the decade. He tolerated the Seventies, ignored the Eighties; but began to lose his bearings in the Nineties. Whatever there was of social cohesion around a well-defined and –respected core, was fraying. Individualism turned selfish, and identity politics completed the unraveling. He could barely recognize the America of New Brighton and his youth.
My friend was a very sensitive man – too sensitive in fact, for any less insightful individual might have gone with the flow, accepted the inevitable changes that come with time, and reserved nostalgia for old friends. He, however, was seismologically attuned to cultural tremors. ‘Diversity’ was not an anodyne for racial, ethnic, and gender divisions, but a corrosive inciter of them. The more society was fractured along identity lines; and as long as each fractured bit floated on different waters, it could never anneal.
It was only a matter of time before he himself fractured. One day he could navigate among the hundreds of Scyllas and Charybdises that littered the way; but on the next he was flummoxed and overcome with the chaos of diverse demands.
Now every outlier had a new, ascribed legitimacy. Fat, short, disabled, colored, retarded, dysfunctional, put-upon, ghettoized, marginalized, and inept Americans were all equal and indistinguishable. The essential, basic, fundamental order of his youth had been turned upside down. It was no wonder that one day on the way to the gym, he saw a chaotic vision.
The average, the mean, the norm, and the middle have been dismissed and disparaged in today’s progressive culture. They are symbolic of retrograde behavior, fundamentalism, repression, racism, and privilege. Yet no society or culture can exist or survive, let alone prosper, without a principled foundation. We are a nation morally, ethically, historically, and spiritually adrift. We cannot compete with Islamic radicalism, Russian neo-Imperialism, or Chinese proto-Mandarin authoritarianism.
My friend of course had no issues with fat people, neurasthenics, or street-corner schizophrenic preachers. He cared little what men and women did together in bed, what black people ate for dinner, or whether or not Hopi culture could ever survive. He criticized nothing, expropriated nothing, and accepted everything.
He was among the last of true Americans who hearkened back to first principles. Not those of the Founding Fathers but of Cato the Elder who, in his diptychs developed to guide the future leaders of Ancient Rome , wrote of honesty, integrity, compassion, respect, duty, principle, honor, and courage. Whoever subscribed to these principles was OK in his book.
It was the very fact that so few people looked to a moral center; that so many used pluralism as an excuse for anti-social behavior; and that just about everyone seemed to be unmoored from values that have been credited for 5000 years that rocked his boat.
He can be forgiven for his temporary insanity. History has shown that the most unhinged are often the most visionary prophets. Nonetheless he and only he will have to sort out his philosophical conundrums from daily life. Otherwise his trips to the gym will become impossible to bear.