Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Long Post You May Want To Skim - Or Miss

Update: GM Roper linked to this, and he may be correct that this is the one you want. But I thought it long, and filled with family lore that may be charming but useless to you, so I have done a shorter, more entirely sociopolitical, essay here.

Update #2: My uncle replied. He didn't understand what I was driving at.

It starts on family culture, ends on American Tribal Politics. I will summarize the latter soon under "Surprise #2." For those scoring at home, I am in my 50's - the uncle I write to here is 80. The Arts & Humanities Tribe may be changing in the younger generations.

I agree with much of what you last wrote. I have an angle on it that is quite different, and I hope fascinating, however, that weaves in a fair bit of family history. I have a tape of Selma that I started listening to in preparation for this, more for flavor than information. I made the tape during the Gethsemane Lutheran 100th anniversary in 1982, when I was writing the history of the church. I felt some obligation there, as Louise had done the history for the 75th, and John August for the 50th. Family lore: Louise was one of, if not the first child baptized in the church. Before that, most baptisms were done at home on pastoral visitation, but whoever was pastor then thought that babies should be brought to the church now, not like farm people in the old country. Jean was baptized there, of course, and (more from Louise pressure than anything, I imagine) so was I in 1953 even though we didn’t live in New Hampshire. Tracy and I started going to Gethsemane in 1976 and were there 8-plus years. So Jonathan and Ben were baptized there as well, fourth consecutive generation, which I imagine is unusual these days. I also imagine the streak ends there.

That whole Lindquist line has definite characteristics that got obscured by the surname changes. The whole batch of wordsmiths comes down that root, from Henning editing the Swedish newspaper in Manchester, Sunday School Superintendent forever, librarian Jenny and her books and editing, female poets dying young, John August – a shopkeeper – is the person who actually puts pen to paper for the history, guys running off to teach in Brazil, women starting radio shows in the 30’s or selling used books, law profs, theater profs, Louise walloping every living creature at crosswords and jeopardy – except maybe her sisters; editors of the Concord Monitor (Mike’s son Sven is growing big in competitive bridge in DC. Where’d he get that?). All those cousins I lost track of: Wendy, Carly, Joey; Katie and David; just a guess- do they make their livings with words? Your James fits right into that. At the occasional work party or social gathering people will be trying to do some lame song parody that’s just horrible. So I scratch one off in 30 minutes and everyone’s amazed. They don’t get it. Everyone in my family can do this. It’s so easy that we don’t even bother to do it except for each other. Not that there aren’t people who are better than we are at it – I have known several – but it’s just not even a noticeable quality. Most of us musical too – none brilliant, but mostly without effort. Just there. Mention something by Frost and Selma recites it all, plus a little anecdote you can’t find anywhere else. Need an additional verse to O Little Town of Bethlehem to fill time while the shepherds move offstage? No problem.

Even when they go into business they don’t go into business – they teach it. They write about it.

Can you cherry-pick such data from any line? Not the Wallaces or Smiths. Maybe this is actually a Nordstrom thing, but I doubt it. The Wyman line has all blueberry farmers and fishermen from Nova Scotia – not a rumor of anything literary until Al hits the stage at college. All my father’s lines, all Maurice’s lines, show nothing of the sort. I don’t find this in Tracy’s family on any line.

It’s very tribal. It’s a branch of the Arts & Humanities tribe which has been prestigious for so many generations, especially in New England. Our people moved right into that, got christened as members because we had so completely absorbed the values that having poorly educated mill-working forebears meant little. If we’d been dark, or Catholic, it would have been harder, but still in our reach. The marrying-ins were a mixed bag, of course. But for Jonathan and I, it came down straight Lindquist, and we married a librarian and a writing prof. No surprise. What other cultural influence was there going to be? Not my Dad’s culture. Not Maurice’s culture. Carl Nordstrom had died 40 years before. So when we got a new culture – Ken’s, which is as solidly Business Tribe as any in America, both before him and after – and it came with all the emotional baggage of a guy who wanted a pretty young wife but not so much her children – easy to reject and revert to the culture we knew: Jean, Selma, Louise, Esther. That, and the books they were always putting in our laps, was our culture.

New England always had plenty of that A&H Tribe around, as did just about any good liberal-arts college in the 70’s, so I always had a host of natural slots to fit into. I can find my people, if there are any around. There is such an overabundance of them online that I have to cull my bookmarks every few months. I can’t fit in anywhere near enough people I want to read and argue with.

Well, some funny things happened to the Wordsmith Tribe along the way. These things never stand still, and the ideas of classical liberalism, conservatism, freethinking, open-mindedness, cultural preservation and the like got all jumbled. People hung onto different pieces and insisted they were the True Tribe. Meritocracy is a classical liberal idea, because it contrasted with inherited aristocracy. Now meritocracy is contrasted with identity politics and is a conservative idea. Not that the old conservatives necessarily invited them in – they just sort of inherited them by default. Preservation of history and culture is an enormously conservative idea that gradually became the province of people who don’t want to preserve history and culture, but to change how you view it. Being a liberal used to mean allowing kids to be exposed to new ideas, like poetry that didn’t rhyme, or political systems we didn’t follow. It still has a lot of that meaning, but now tends to operate in reverse. We’re not in danger of kids learning too much hagiography about dead white males and founding fathers anymore. My Romanian sons were taught who Harriet Tubman and Chief Seattle were (and that one frosts me, because the speech is an urban legend written in the 70’s. My irritation at the nasty irony of children being born under Ceaucescu being taught fabricated but politically correct history was completely opaque to their teacher. “But it’s important for them to learn about culture from another point of view!” True. How about from one that actually happened, instead?), but Lincoln got missed. So did Franklin. Good thing I sent them to Christian schools first, where they still teach that retrograde stuff. The change is less visible in the upper-middle-class school districts, too, where the teachers tend to some natural conservatism of what they were taught themselves, and assign accordingly. The recommended summer reading lists are insane examples of identity politics over quality. Fortunately, no kid has ever read those books.

It’s not “liberals” who have done up these lists and texts. It’s part of our old Arts & Humanities Tribe, the Wordsmith folks who have done that. And it’s the part that considers itself the True Tribe to represent the Arts & Humanities, even though someone like a Buckley or a Hanson, or a Kimball have a far better claim.

First political comment. The conservative sites online are chockablock full of these guys, people who you read and go, “y’know, that’s how I remember persuasive argument used to be done.” The Arts & Humanities people on the left seem to have picked up another strain of argument from their predecessors, and one I like far less well.

Those parvenus from the social sciences have done their bit, of course. Where they want to overlap with the A&H Tribe has become the new center of gravity for the humanities. They are often arts and literature wannabees, who have only vaguest idea what went on before their own college years, but are very up on Current Stuff. Following the changes in NPR over the years gives some idea of it. NPR used to be the old-line liberals who wanted classical music, light jazz, and talky professors and series documentaries. Would that be conservative now? Sort of. Either way, it’s gone. NPR is now the province of people who are very proud of themselves for not falling for the advertising that the masses do – they fall for another kind of advertising (I still like some of NPR, BTW. But they just can’t help themselves).

The social science people accentuated a tendency already pronounced in the A&H Tribe: argument by sneer and condescension. The Twains and Menckens of the world were fully capable to sustained argument and often exhibited it. But that tendency to merely ridicule was present even then. It makes some sense. Those who live in a world of words are very sensitive to tones of voice and choice of vocabulary. They pick up the social cues of the tribe, and enforcement of tribal standards can appear delicate to outsiders. “Yes. I’ve heard that theory.” Slam.

Now the sneer is very effective because it can sometimes be backed up. If the tone of the group tells you that your little thought is just too ridiculous to even consider, you might be tempted to fight back, if you are very sure. But those who have observed someone who actually does have an incredibly stupid idea trying to prevail against people who sneered because they really do know this stuff, know that it isn’t pretty. As a consequence, it’s a great bluff, much better than a challenge at Scrabble, because you can lose so much more. And if you are in a group who you know agrees with you generally, then so much the better, because even if you personally don’t have the ready response to this foolishness, there’s a good chance someone will, or at least appear to.

Condescension comes to be relied on as an argumentative tool for just this reason. You can usually inflict pain with little risk of retaliation. Every tribe uses it, certainly, but the Wordsmith Tribe is exquisitely skilled at it. So skilled, in fact, that they have devoted much of their talent to the wit of the riposte than to actually, er, knowing anything about the subject. It eventually can become comical, and good writers have lampooned the self-important who look down on others very effectively. But like a tyrannical government until the moment before it falls, the self-important appear powerful until the moment before you see the humor.

On to politics: I go over to Salon and several op-eds; pick up New Yorker or Atlantic (improving!) in the waiting room; follow links that people send me from NYTRB or The Nation. And those aren’t even the far-left, nutroots sites, those are standard Arts and Humanities Tribe newsletters, but the arguments all depend on sneer and condescension. I don’t mean that they use these tools to make a point bitingly; I mean that when you take the sneers out there is very little argument left. Condescension is of course most easily recognized from those one disagrees with, but it’s not impossible to pick it up from any source, even one you are sympathetic to. And it is frankly stunning how little is left of the text of some arguments once you resolve to remove sly and unfair associations.

The left has some arguments to put forward – I have seen them with my own eyes. But they seldom use them. Disdain permeates each paragraph. There are several groups which have some immunity to disdain. The best is that group which actually knows something. But we failed geniuses who ended up in some random profession have considerable immunity as well. Condescension makes my eyes light up. I eat those guys. And because I see them in a different habitat, I notice some things others might miss. And once the theory forms dimly in your mind, suddenly examples of it are popping up all over the place. Yesterday Chris Matthews let slip “I want someone for president who doesn’t own a f-ing ranch!” Really? And why might that be?

There is some evidence that the left doesn’t like George Bush and his “cabal,” “cronies,” junta,” “jack-booted thugs” for his ideas, but there is far more evidence that they don’t like him for who he is. They don’t like his tribe and the tribe who votes for him. They’re southern. They’re in (shudder) business. They profess a faith that was universal but shallow in this country fifty years ago, which means that they’re, they’re something bad.

Bush could have been part of the tribe, but defected. That is unforgivable. Kerry is A&H. Gore is A&H. Bill Clinton was marginal on that, but Hillary was tight, and they brought in all the right sort of people. Dukakis: Swarthmore, liberal arts, even if ethnic. Mondale A&H. Reagan, no way. Bush 41, a crossover. Both Business and A&H tribes.

Democrats are worried that the far left is going to defect and not vote for Hillary if she’s nominated. Ridiculous. They can’t help themselves. She’s their tribe, they’ll wail and gnash their teeth and vote for her. Is she too obviously ambitious, conscienceless, positionless? It doesn’t matter. These are the A&H members who believe themselves to be the true heirs. And they believe that their tribe should rule, because it knows more. Hmm.

This is not just some wild guess of mind-reading on my part. This is what these folks let slip repeatedly whenever they think they are talking about issues. Great example from the Harvard Crimson illustrating this this week.

You can’t turn on news or pick up the news without seeing some guy or gal from the Clinton White House working for a network or newspaper. Of course journalists liked them before. It’s their tribe. Deep sounds unto deep, as the scriptures say. The State Department? How many of those guys were Chem majors, do ya think? Or International Business?

When I made my comment about liberals fighting for the soul of America, instead of fighting terrorism, that struck a chord. I think this is most of it. Our tribe should rule, as it started to in 1992. 1994 was described as – yes – a coup d’etat in the mainstream press. Repeatedly. Doesn’t that strike people as a little fevered, a little odd? The fury and resentment from 1994 played out throughout the Clinton years, and into the 2000 election. The Republicans had stolen, had usurped, had somehow cheated their way into power. They had played on base prejudices. They had tricked people with clever advertising or something. They had done something funny with the votes. The fact that the evidence for these things was bizarre didn’t matter. People knew that something had been stolen, they just weren’t sure how. It wasn’t right, and all sensible people knew it.

So then it had to ramp up from there. Cue Darth Vader music under whenever Cheney is mentioned. If you have access to a few years of Time and Newsweek covers at the library, just browse them for the last few years. Yes, the conservative’s face is half in shadow, or peering darkly in the background. He is frowning. The headline begs the question it answers. All of the left side of the internet went berserk in the fall when Newsweek had a different cover on its international and American editions. Uh, welcome to our world, guys. If you think that kind of advertising isn’t powerful, then why do people A) pay so much for advertising and B) scream like stuck pigs when it goes against them?

So all this privacy stuff comes up. These are all bananas we ate decades ago, and less information than Amazon has about you, and it’s the end of the republic. The A&H crowd in Europe doesn’t like Bush either – now there’s a surprise, so American liberals are all embarrassed and humiliated that such a man is representing us. Well, India liked him okay. There’s a billion people right there. Eastern Europe loves him. Mexico likes him better than anyone else we’ve had. And when he actually goes places in Europe, not so many seem to be upset with him. Just the A& H Tribe. Who cares? That tribe, on both sides of the Atlantic, has less military and business knowledge than our other tribes. They do know about Goethe, though.

My contention is that there is no way of knowing what the Arts & Humanities tribe, the second best-educated tribe in America (Science and Technology is first), would have for political beliefs if they weren’t advertised and manipulated into them. It’s that NPR style of advertising, of course. We don’t have commercials like those icky other stations. You’re too smart for that. Our listeners are independent thinkers. Yeah right. No one is more easily manipulated than the intelligentsia. Underneath the discussions of issues, there aren’t many issues. It’s the tribe.

"Why you fool, it's the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers?…But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 1943


GM Roper said...

AVI, this is really good stuff, you do tribes so damn well. I picked this post for highlighting in Brief Politico-Therapy: A Quick Tour Of The Psych-bloggers

Anonymous said...

The above was written by GM at GM's Corner. I don't know how my pseudonym got in there.

Kelly said...

A thought occurs: might the A&H embrace of identity politics be a projection of their own tribal dominance drives onto everyone else (and a way to disguise its importance to themselves)?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

kelly - interesting. "Let's all be groups, and we'll be top group."

Anonymous said...

It’s that NPR style of advertising, of course. We don’t have commercials like those icky other stations. You’re too smart for that. Our listeners are independent thinkers.

I refer you to the VCPR (Vice City Public Radio) soundtrack from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. They "don't have commercials like those icky other stations", but fully half the track-loop is spent whining for money.