Teaching alienation to citizens

Peter Berger says in one of his early books on sociology that “society” is a show that is meant to be seen only once.  It’s like a magic act.  The first time the illusion is complete.  Later on, you begin to wonder what the other hand is doing while you are watching the hand the magician is showing you.  Finally you get how he does it and the “magic” is over; now, it’s just deception.

In my 80s now, I have been more and more getting the feeling that I have seen this show before.  When I read in the New York Times about the crap that Mike Abate took from flooded out locals, I was reminded very much of Tom Wolfe’s essay, “Mau mauing the Flack Catchers.” [1]

I didn’t like the process much when I first read about it in the 1970s.  Since then, I have had some experience as a “flack-catcher” which I also didn’t like very much, so I responded to this piece about citizen outrage even less well that I did the first time.

To tell you the truth, it reminded me of my time as a legislative assistant in the Oregon Legislature where part of my job was to take calls from constituents who were either just pissed off or were deeply confused.  My boss, who had actually won an election, would eventually get to the place where he would just tell a persistent caller to shut up.  I didn’t get to do that. [2]  

The constituent who comes most readily to mind would call on Friday afternoons and give me a tongue-lashing about how much money the national government spent on military hardware.  I agreed with her completely (but didn’t say so) and then she would go on to demand that I intercede with my representative to get him to withdraw his support.  My explanation that my boss was a state legislator and that we did not, in fact, control any military spending at all, did not move her. [3]

It is experiences like that that make me sympathetic to Mike Abate.

So Mike is appearing at a meeting of angry flooded out citizens and as part of this abate 2confrontation, something happens that bothers me a good deal.  It is not John DesBarres allegation that the Corps of Engineers made a mistake in retaining or releasing floodwaters.  That may be true of partly true or entirely untrue.  Mike says the Corps did everything its policies require it to do in balancing the range of interests they have to balance., but DesBarres has suffered a loss and he is angry about it and he wants the Corps to have done something different.


Then he says that the government owes them money in compensation for their losses.  The government “took” their property he says, referring I presume to the “takings clause” of the Constitution.  I think that is far-fetched.  In a situation of triage among several classes of constituencies, someone is not going to be in first place, but still, it is an argument DesBarres is making and it relates to his losses.

Mostly fine.

Then he does this.

Mike Abate, the chief of civil works in the Corps’s Tulsa District, was asked [by DesBarres] if his home had flooded.

That’s over the line, I think.  It isn’t the worst thing that happened at the meeting.  I’m still getting to that.  The question takes away the obvious situation, that there has been a lot of rain and that people’s homes and businesses are going to be at risk.  For that situation, DesBarres substitutes one that puts Abate on one side of the divide and “honest citizens” (who don’t work for the government) on the other side.  Abate and his property have been “privileged” or “protected” in some way, treated as elites.  Abate and his cronies have rigged the course of this natural disaster so that DesBarres’ home is flooded and Abate’s is not.

That is what DesBarres does and I think he should be condemned for it.  But that’s not the worst thing.  Here’s the worst thing.

At the church in Sand Springs, flooded neighbors and some officials came up to Mr. DesBarres when the meeting was over and thanked him for speaking out.

That’s the worst thing.  DesBarres neighbors saw him making absurd accusations againstabate 1 Abate and they thought of it as “speaking out.”  Presumably, “speaking out” is a good thing.  It is a citizenship skill.  It calls tyranny by its name and opposes it in public.  Those are the connotations of “speaking out” as I see them.  And that expression, which I treasure, is used to refer to DesBarres’ “mau mauing the flack catcher.”  Abate is the flack catcher.  Here is the caption the Times put under that picture: “John B. DesBarres, a lawyer whose home was flooded, was met with applause as he spoke out against the Army Corps of Engineers at the meeting.”

These neighbors are going to tell this story to others.  This kind of bullying of public officials is going to be identified as “good citizenship,” as behavior not to be deplored, but to be lauded.  Treating it that way is only going to make it more common and the self-inflicted gap between citizen expectations and government performance gets wider and wider and more to be condemned.

Mike Abate is really good about it.

Mr. Abate stayed in the worship center after the meeting ended to answer residents’ questions. He defended the agency’s decision to not prerelease water until the rain starts coming down, and said he didn’t mind the heated comments. “I work for the government,” Mr. Abate said. “I’m a public servant. If I need to serve the public by getting yelled at, that’s O.K.”

I like it that he stayed until he wore the dissidents down.  That’s a really good thing to do.  On the other hand, he thinks he is serving the public by presenting himself as a piñata and I am not convinced at all that that is true.

His taking the abuse DesBarres is dealing out—and is modeling as good behavior for his fellow citizens— is playing the confirming role.  The combination of the two roles defines them as a natural pair and therefore as solid and enduring.  As “normal;” maybe even as a duty.  The bureaucrat who thinks getting yelled at is part of his job and the angry lawyer who thinks personalizing the flood is his job.

If I am right about that, then we all lose by DesBarres’ irrational anger (the third charge, not the first two) and by Abate’s idea that he is serving the public by taking it.  A direct confrontation of DesBarres might be inflammatory in the long run, but if he is supported by his agency all the way up and if what he rejects is the abuse, not the hard questions, it might repair a little of the breach he and DesBarres are creating.

DesBarres wants as Us v. Them scenario.  He wants Abate to be held personally accountable for not getting flooded out.  Us v. Them is going to hurt us all.  It will hurt Abate’s children and grandchildren and DesBarres’ children and grandchildren.  It valorizes irrational personal vilification and it is wrong.

Then this:

Mr. DesBarres approached Mr. Abate after the meeting. Mr. DesBarres was done venting. He wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. He extended his arm to Mr. Abate, and the two men shook hands.

I see that the reported does go so far as to call DesBarres’ outburst “venting.”   DesBarres wants to be sure, privately, that the outrage he perpetrated publicly was OK.  He probably said, “It wasn’t anything personal.”  And the two men shook hands and the public damage caused by that redefinition of what nature  does, will continue to spread.

[1]  Wikipedia: “Wolfe describes hapless bureaucrats (the Flak Catchers) whose function was reduced to taking abuse, or “mau-mauing” (in reference to the intimidation tactics employed in Kenya’s anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising) from intimidating young Blacks nd Samoans, who are seen as reveling in the newfound vulnerability of “the Man. ”.

[2]  Which I thought, even at the time, was eminently fair.  He had run for election and had won and that gave him the right to choose me as his flack catcher.  I liked most of the job a great deal but I didn’t like that part.

[3]  Eventually, I did what Mike Abate did.  I just outlasted her.  I took all the questions and all the rebukes and asked if she had any more until she didn’t have any more.  Then she stopped calling.



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Signs of Scotland

You wouldn’t think it would be that hard.  You start in…oh…York, England and drive about 200 miles north and somewhere in there, before you get to Edinburgh, Scotland, you should see a sign that says “Welcome to Scotland” or some such thing.  But the signs of Scotland I am thinking about this morning are the ones I saw while I was there recently that just tickled me.

And that reminded me that I chose the name of this blog—the dilettante’s dilemma—when I discovered that our word “dilettante” is built up from the Latin delctare,” to allure, delight, charm, or please.”  So I decided to write a blog about the things that delight me. [1]

Today, I would like to share with you some signs I saw in Scotland.  I think this one might be my favorite. 


It was posted on the door of a public toilet and the idea that it might have been posted there by the Queen just tickled me.  It allured, delighted, charmed, and pleased me.  No standing on royal privilege here, I thought.  I think there is just a little extra snap in this for me by the distance the mind has to travel to get from Queen Elizabeth to this public toilet.

Nearly all the “signs” I write about are deliberate misunderstandings of some word or other.  This one is not.  English is constructed in such a way that the adjectives stack up before the noun and we are  supposed to tell which applies to which by their context.  Well…we call these birds woodpeckers because they peck wood.  If you found a woodpecker made of wood, would probably be forced to call it a wood woodpecker. [2]  I hope that the artist who did this smiled to himself all the while.


The best book I know about humor, Max Eastman’s The Enjoyment of Laughter, says that at the heart of it all, humor is a discrepancy taken playfully.  Human beings are discrepancy detectors.  That is why we  have lasted this long.  But discrepancies taken playfully might turn out to be every bit as important, if sociability really is our species’ ace in the hole, as many evolutionary studies have concluded. 

This next one I found on the bulletin board of a church in Dunkeld.  The thing that made it funny to me was, again, how far the mind has to travel from the obvious “carpenters and joiners”  According to Wikipedia, “the main trade union for American carpenters still calls itself the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.” But when you specify Nazareth, it becomes clear that you are thinking about a particular carpenter and that makes “joiners” mean something different as well.


I want to use this last one to acknowledge my long debt to Richard Armour, author of a number of books, the titles of which begin, It All Started With…  This one comes from It All Started with Europa.  In that book, he invented a character named Sir Martin Fourflusher [3], a descendent, Armour says, of the early Saxons who, as a result, knew all the Angles. 

I read and enjoyed that line in the 1950s and ever since, when the context lends itself to the association, I hear Angles when someone says “angles.”  It  helps, of course, to know that before there was anything “Anglo-Saxon,” there were people called Angles and people called Saxons, but there is no relationship at all between “angles” as in “knows the angles” and Angles as in Anglo-Saxon.  None.IMG_0326.jpeg

Or, at least, there was none until I read in Armour about Sir Martin Fourflusher.  This sign, as you can see, makes only the very slightest bow in the direction I took it in after highjacking it.  Still, it allured, delighted, charmed, and pleased me, so here it is.

[1]  It hasn’t worked out entirely.  I have written a good bit, over the last nine years, about things that intrigue me, not always in a good way, or things that alarm me.  I started worrying about the Trump phenomenon, for instance, when he was just a gleam in the eye of the Tea Party.

[2]  Wood pecker wouldn’t do the job because of the other uses to which the word “pecker” has been put.

[3]  A helpful explanation from Wikipedia:  “A four flush… is a poker hand that is one card short of being a full flush. Four flushing refers to empty boasting or unsuccessful bluffing, and a four flusher is a person who makes empty boasts or bluffs when holding a four flush.”

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The Battle of Culloden, 1746

I had a chance to visit the battlefield this year. “Culloden”—just the name itself—has the kind of clout that an American might feel about “Gettysburg.” [1] It’s a big deal.

This is the piece of Culloden that has stuck in my mind. This is a photo I took on the battlefield itself. I don’t think of myself as sensitive to poetry, but every now and then, some way of drawing pictures with words just reaches out and grabs me. This was one of those. [2]IMG_0242.jpeg

Aoghas MacNeacail wrote that, as you see, in 2012, but it is written from the perspective of a soldier who fought on the side of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746.

Here are a few things I noticed at the time and that have stayed with me. The first is the lower case p- in “prince.” That is considerably less than “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” It is less that he was used to receiving, as the head of the Stuart attempt to regain the throne but it is only what he deserves, according to MacNeacail. It goes in the direction of putting the title in quotation marks, as if the claim itself were spurious or shameful.

The second is “we followed you.” That’s personal. You can hear the disappointment in later words like “ocean” and “desert.” In point of fact, these soldiers did follow Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than his military advisors. [3] The standard highland battle tactic depended on speed of attack. Hundreds of clansmen yelling and running down the hill at you functioned as a kind of blitzkrieg. Culloden was flat. It was also marshy. [4] There were solid military reasons not to fight there that day, but Bonnie Prince Charlie insisted on it and I think MacNeacail has that in mind in “we followed you.”

I also think he means to refer to the personal following. Prince Charlie was a charmer. He left a lot of meetings with consent in his pocket that had not looked at all likely at the beginning of the meeting. He was charismatic. That attracts followers. But when the failure comes, it is the person and the relationship that bears the brunt. “You failed us” is implicit in the personalization of the charge.

The third is “this ocean.” Admittedly, the pointing finger represented by “this” requires that the poem be read on the battlefield itself. I think “to an ocean” would have been OK, and what can you do, really, when the sign is elsewhere. But “this” makes you want to stop reading and look around to see what “this” means and I did that.

Third, what you see when you look around is not a “desert” in every sense of the word. There are tourists everywhere, so it is not “deserted.” Does MacNeacail mean that the soldiers were deserted by some Gaelic equivalent of Lady Luck? Were they deserted by good military sense? Were they deserted Prince Charlie himself, who was taken away from the battlefield unharmed, unlike the 1500—2000 of his army killed or wounded?

It doesn’t take sand and palm trees to make a place a desert. It takes no one living there. It is a place made for despair and grief and calling this flat boggy land a desert catches some of that.

Finally, I was struck by the pairing of “flatness and bullets.” Those don’t really belong together and I suspect that is why it struck me so forcibly. It was a “desert of flatness,” as I pointed out above, and also a “desert of bullets.” The forces under Cumberland had much better firepower. They had cannons firing grapeshot. They cut the charging highlanders to bits.

I hear the pairing of “flatness and bullets” as a way of picturing that desolation. The fact that those two unrelated words are paired makes them both more powerful to me. This is a lament I think I will never forget. [5]

[1] And those are not the only similarities.
[2] I had a feeling much like this one when, in high school, I first “saw” this picture in McBeth. “Sleep, which knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” I felt that all at one time and I just put my book down on my desk for a little while so the moment wouldn’t go away.
[3] In another Gettysburg similarity, the choice of that battlefield was a risk and it is a risk Robert E. Lee himself decided on. General Stonewall Jackson made himself notorious afterwards by continuing to campaign against that decision, maintaining that he had warned Lee to withdraw and fight elsewhere but Lee had refused.
[4] Some of the Scottish leaders calculated that the soft ground would be an impediment for the cavalry that the Duke of Cumberland had available, but it was not.
[5] I did read that passage from MacBeth in 1952 and it still affects me, so I have confidence that Culloden will stay with me as well.

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Biblical tools and “sharing”

In July, I’m going to try something I have never tried before.  I am going to try to begin a Bible study based on a scholarly examination of the Bible with fellow residents at Holladay Park Plaza, where we live.  I have new sense of daring about it.  Suddenly, it seems like a big deal

Just how precarious it is was brought into focus by my friend, Steve.  We met on a Road Scholar tour of the Scottish Highlands and on a bus tour there are lots of in between times.  In one of those, I was telling him about this forthcoming study.  Steve has been a teacher for most of his life and he went right to a question I had never considered adequately, “What are you trying to do?”  He asked another good one later, but let’s deal with them one at a time.

Here was my first answer.

“I am trying to make available to my students a richer and more satisfying reading of the Bible than they currently have available by focusing on the interpretive tools they will need to read the Bible in a new way.”

I have lived with that answer for a week now.  It has led me to some uncharted territory, for which I am grateful, but I am not sure it says what I really want to say.

The first hurdle I ran into [1] was “make available.”  Here in Scotland, they make haggis available at nearly every meal. [2]  Americans, by and large, on finding out what haggis is, say “No, thanks.”  That does not mean that the haggis was not made available. 

Here are three scenarios.   It might mean that the whole notion of eating sheep’s haggis 1intestines for breakfast is not a natural thing for Americans.  It is a concept that comes from so far away that the first barrier is just imagining the possibility.  On the other hand, it might mean that they had haggis pushed on them as children—in the school cafeteria, let’s say—and have acquired an aversion to it that amounts almost to anger.  And finally, it might mean that they are really committed to something else, say tomatoes and boiled red potatoes, to meet that particular part of the breakfast menu.

Those are three challenges to the expression, “make available.”  Let’s say that I wanted to begin this Bible study with the story of Tamar. [3]  Tamar is declared to have made the right decision in a difficult time.  Her solution was to seduce her father-in-law so that her dead husband’s lineage could be preserved. [4]  The declared goal of my approach is to offer the students a way to understand the story the way the storyteller understood it.  In this case, it means that preserving her husband’s progeny is crucially important (also commanded by God) and “sexual fidelity” is not—or at least is less so in this circumstance.  And I am making this point to people who have never heard of levirate marriage and who, on having it explained to them, find it bizarre.  There may also be, in my group of students, people who have had traumatic experiences with the failure of marital fidelity and they will feel somehow complicit by treating it as a minor matter in Tamar’s case.

What does “make available” mean for these students?  For some, it means that they will have to get really interested, quickly, in a social practice they have never heard of before on no better grounds than my promise that they will understand the story better if they do that.  For the others, it means that they will have to deal intellectually with a topic that is viscerally powerful for them. 

Both of those sound unlikely to me as I consider it from Steve’s standpoint, but I began with the notion that I am “making available” something that is really worth their while.

Steve’s second question was, “How will you know when you are done?” [5]  There is a sense in which you are never “done” with a fundamental part of your life, and that is what Bible study has been for me once I got the rebellion out of my system.  But in terms of the “goal” as I formulated it, I think there really is an answer.  When these students, who, when they leave the room are colleagues and friends, understand what I am offering them and make a thoughtful choice about whether they prefer it to what they are currently using, I will be “done.”

There is no question that I have my own experience with biblical scholarship as a measuring stick.  I don’t really know how that could be otherwise.  Ever since I threw away the kind of Bible study I learned as a boy [6] I have had one experience after another of discovering new meanings with real delight.  Whatever I decide to say to the class, the truth is that I would like for them to have the experience I have had.  I know that is not realistic, but down in my gut, it is really what I desire.  And I know that if I try to use it as a standard for “when are we done,” I will fail.  

haggis 2So I need something more reasonable.  Let’s try Tamar once more.  If there is a lesson is the story of Tamar, it is that you might have to exercise considerable ingenuity and dare the wrath of important people if you are really committed to doing the right thing.  When I formulate it as an “outcome” of the study of Tamar it seems tinny to me.  A little cheap.  What I really want is for the students to marinate their minds in that world, the world where those options confronted Tamar.  I want them to give their imaginations to it.  To do that, they will have to understand a few things, some of them taught by the story, many more presupposed by the story.  Of the things presupposed, some are persistent and intrusive.

Take the experience of Onan, the second brother, for instance.  The only word I know from the story of Tamar that has become an English word, is “onanism,” which refers to masturbation.  How on earth did that come to be a featured meaning in the story of Tamar?  Well first, you have to take Onan’s action out of context.  The story says that he “spilled his seed on the ground.”  [7]  How, of all the many ways Onan could have managed that, my early teachers decided on “masturbation,” is a puzzle, but the storyteller shows no interest at all in “how:” only in “why.”  And the answer to “why” is that he wanted to defraud his brother of what he owed him.

Nothing in the story that matters to the storyteller has anything to do with masturbation.  The idea that someone thought that should be ripped out of the story and presented as God’s Commandment would be abhorrent if it were not so silly.

For anyone who was taught what I was taught about “Onanism,” this return of the narrative to its rightful course can be a relief, it can be funny, it can be a downpayment on other, more important, thingshaggis 4 a scholarly approach to the Bible can offer.  So what I will actually be looking for—my “when will we know when we are done question”—will almost certainly be related to those realizations and the feelings that go with them.  Relief.  Incredulity.  Maybe anger for a little while.  Hilarity.  

Those are all good and they are all ways of tracking my success in offering the kind of course I want to offer.  So…thanks, Steve.

[1]  I’d like for you to think of that in the most literal way.  You’ve all watched the 400 meter hurdles and you know that running into hurdles is not the way to victory as a rule.

[2]  I have seen deep-fried haggis patties on a menu.

[3]  Which is currently scheduled for week two.

[4]  This requires a more thorough consideration of levirate marriage than I want to try here, but you can get the rudiments in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

[5]  He raised it as an appropriate “exit question” but the form of the question I am using is biographically significant to me so I changed the form a little.

[6]  And had confirmed in college by some very bright conservative professors.  I didn’t actually come to the crisis of rejecting it until I was nearly 30 years old.

[7]  That’s the King James Version as I remember it.  The New Jerusalem Bible has it as “let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife.”

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Clan Donald

It is not possible to spend time in the Scottish highlands without coming across Clan Donald. And for an American, traveling in Scotland in 2019, it is unnerving to think that I have been living in an area dominated by “Clan Donald” since the election of 2016.

Of course, there are clans and then there are clans, just as there are Donalds and then there are Donalds. Still, the more I learned about the Scottish clans, the more I thought there might be some merit is just reflecting a little on how President Trump’s behavior can be seen as the Chief of Clan Donald. [1]

“Each class would be ruled by a powerful chief.” That’s the way the Lochcarron essayDonald 1 begins. My mind went immediately to the geometry embedded in the U. S. Constitution: the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, for instance. There is none of that in a clan. There is no more of it in the clan than there is in the mob. The head of the clan is the absolute ruler.

If you listen, you hear that attitude in the casual dismissal of a judge’s ruling on the grounds that “he’s an Obama judge.” You hear it in the denial that the House of Representatives has the right to subpoena testimony from “one of my guys.”. The governance of clan is unitary beyond the fantasies of monarchs.

The second element of clan governance is loyalty. In a clan war, my serfs go to war with your serfs. These highlanders who work their land by gift of the clan chief go to war when they are told to go to war and are protected from attack by other clans because that is what the chief owes them. That’s the deal. No one asks whose cause is “just.”

When President Trump praised Paul Manafort as “a stand up guy,” he was relying on “clan loyalty” rather than on law. In the U. S., it was once a commonplace to say “No man is above the law,” but in the clan setting, loyalty is everything and the chief of the clan is the focus of loyalty and also the source of the law. Loyalty is as highly prized in the Trump administration as it was in the Nixon administration and for the same reason.

This commitment to the law is enacted by the pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That is what officeholders promise. There is, in fact, an eerie parallel to the clan loyalty in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in which Pippin pledges his loyalty to Denethor and Merry to Théoden. The contrast shows what is good about clans and what is bad.

Pippin pledges “fealty and service to Denthor. This is Denethor’s response.

And this do I hear, Denethor, son of Ecthelion…and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, oath-breaking with vengeance. [2]

There is a sweet side to the clan system also when there are personal relationships of honor and respect involved, as illustrated by Merry’s service to Théoden.

When Théoden accepts Merry’s service, it looks like this.

Merry, filled suddenly with love for the king, knelt on one knee and took his hand and kissed it. “May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap, Théoden King?” he cried. “Receive my service if you will.” Théoden responds, “Gladly will I take it. Rise now, Meriadoc, esquire of Rohan…” Take your sword and bear it unto good fortune.”

Those feel entirely opposite each other but both are based on personal loyalty and neither is compatible with the rule of law.

Donald 2The clan system is a system of perpetual war. Nothing prevents a strong clan from going to war against a weaker one and taking the land and its resources. That makes the clan system unstable in the larger setting—one clan attacks another as opportunity is afforded—but it is the basis of stability within the clan. The chief can go to war whenever he wants because he has strong family leaders—insiders and advisors to the clan—to support him and because he can command the wartime service of the serfs.

The rewards of war and then distributed among the supporters to assure continued loyalty. Clan chiefs give out land and castles and perhaps slaves. Modern arbitrary rulers hand out policy victories. The “spoils of war” to be distributed in the U. S have included tax breaks, the violation of environmental protections, policy victories for subordinates such as the religious right. Loyalty is expected and is rewarded. It is only the losers who pay the price in the short run, but all the clans pay the price in the long run. The chief’s castle is inundated by rising oceans just like everyone else’s castle.

The realization that the Trump administration is like a 15th century clan is many ways is not entirely new to me. Before I came to Scotland, I had already noticed that Al Capone played that role in his gang. Loyalty was everything to a gang boss and like Denethor, he repaid “oath-breaking with vengeance.”

Capone was undone by the rule of law. The clan system disintegrated first into the crofts and then into a desperate sharecropping and then it, too, was overtaken by the rule of law. [2] I have every hope that the current “clan of Donald” will meet the same fate in the U. S.

[1] I am indebted to a blog on the site of Lochcarron of Scotland for the information on clans. See lochcarron.co.uk—blog, especially the article “Uncovering the Scottish Clan System.”
[2] The rule of law can be predatory and disastrous as it was in Scotland, but it is capable of being rationalized across large areas and large populations, which the clan system is not.

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Old and Active

If you get far enough away from these two notions, it is possible to imagine them as binary. You are old or not; you are active or not. When you get closer, it seems more reasonable to ask things like “how old” (not numerically) and “how active.” In this essay, I would like to take one further step in.

“Old age,” it is often said, is a matter of attitude. I think there is a small truth buried in there, but it isn’t very big and it is deeply buried. Attitude can be important if you use it as an excuse for not doing what you are capable of. Of course, anything can be used as that kind of excuse, but “I’m old, you know” [1] is particularly vulnerable to misuse. On the other hand, “old age” can be seen as a motivation. When you see old people living with abandon, utterly unconcerned about their calendar age and not even entirely prudent about their physical condition, you might be genuinely attracted to it and say, “I could do that.”

But mostly, when I think of old age as an attitude, I think of people who have givenold 1 up on living and are just putting in the time until they die, the way we used to put in school time until we were allowed to go home. Those people, of whatever age or physical condition, are old.

And most often, not always, they are inactive.

But there are old people who drive themselves to a lot of physical activity, taking no joy in it at all. Their activity might better be called a way of dying than a way of living. It is just another way to fill up time.

It doesn’t have to be that way, at least it doesn’t for most of us. I began, some years ago to distinguish between “me,” myself, and “it,” my body,[2] or, more concisely, between “myself” and “my self.” Again, for practical purposes only, I will say that “it” will die and “I” will not. What you get for being willing to make a distinction of this kind is “rising above decline.” [3]

This means that “it” will decline. Period. I, watching from the stands, can be alternately amused, disheartened, encouraged, and so on. That means I can be as active as my body will allow and to do it as a way of living, not as a way of putting in time until I die. “Old and active” is that kind of combination.

old 2Of course, it is true that the more your body will do for you, the more active you can be. I sorely miss running on the trails in Forest Park, but the fact is that I can’t run anymore. I have taking to bicycling, which I enjoy (but not as much as running) but there will be a time when bicycling is no longer safe for me. If I am old and active, as I propose here, I will take the next activity down, whatever it turns out to be, and do it as fully and with as much enjoyment as I can.

The alternative, of course, is not refusing to age. “It,” my body, is going to continue to decline, but if I am getting out of it all it is capable of giving, then I am doing it right. And if I live with appreciation and satisfaction and maybe just a little daring, then I am doing that part right too.

It’s a challenge, but it’s too good a chance to pass up.

[1] I devised a category of such people, IOYKers, in a previous essay
[2] I know that sounds like the very worst kind of dualism (I mean the Cartesian kind), but I mean it kindly. I do understand that we are, in fact, a single psychosomatic unity.
[3] Which I came across as a report on unused school space in Boston. I didn’t find a use for the report, but I fell instantly in love with the title.

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Cultural Backlash

Today’s reflection concerns the ‘backlash” that is a familiar part of every news medium.  If you could divide news sources cleanly into liberal and conservative (you can’t) you could say that conservative sources emphasize the “back” and liberal sources, the “lash.

Let me offer an example from my years of teaching at Portland State University. [1]  During some of those years, I used a text in which the chapter on U. S. foreign policy began with an account of the attack of 9/11.  I asked the students, just as an exercise, to substitute the word “reprisal” for “attack.”  Then we would talk about it a little.

backlash 7One result of this discussion was the open amazement expressed by some students that Arab nations had grievances against the U. S., and yet “reprisal” clearly presupposed that.  The word requires that we had done (at least as they saw things) something bad to them and this was the bad thing they were doing to us in return.  “What did we ever do to them?” was the first question to come off the pile.  It wasn’t an objection; it was an honest question based on near-total ignorance.

A backlash is like a retaliation is one way.  It imagines that  some offense has been committed to which this action is the response.  In the political setting, which is of interest to me here, there is the further supposition that some burden had been placed on a particular population, then another burden, then yet another.  And finally, it is just too much.  There was once an expression “the straw that broke the camel’s back;” now often shortened to “the last straw.”

When Joseph Welch rebuked Senator Joe McCarthy with, “At long last, sir, have you no decency?”—it was the “at long last” that suggested the addition of one offense to many others.  In considering “backlash,” we are in the “at long last” area.

But if you ask people today just what offense the practitioners of the cultural backlash are protesting, the room goes suddenly quiet.  Why is that?  I think the reason is that people today are as clueless about what conservatives have lost as my students were about what Arab nations had lost.  So let’s look at that.

What has been lost?

The chart below, the source of which I no longer remember, shows the correlations between “traditional” and “secular-rational” values.  If I wanted to emphasize the findings, I would provide a good deal more information about the study, but I want only to borrow the category names.  These statements are phrased so as to be compatible with “traditional” values. [2]  If you look at the prompts (forgetting the actual numbers) you see an emphasis on God, on obedience, on patriotism, and respect for authority.  Abortion is clearly opposed.


If you asked conservative voters why they were participating in the great cultural backlash represented by the Trump administration, they would say that they want “back” these precious values that had been taken away from them. 

All the readers of this blog I know personally are decidedly liberal, so I will ask you to stop and take a breath and note that all these numbers establish is the there are voters with grievances and it suggests what some of those grievances are.  There is no need at this point to argue about whether we think these people have a right to feel aggrieved.

The lower part of the chart does the same thing using a different value dichotomy.  Herebacklash the categories are “survival values” and “self-expression values.”  Again, the prompts are phrased so as to be acceptable to “survival values.”  Again, I am interested only in the category names.  This is “liberal backlash.”  After 9/11, “we” chose a Muslim woman as Miss America as quickly as we could.

You can see here that economic and physical security are highly valued.  Trust is hard to come by, as is participation in public affairs (the petition).  These people are both less happy and less gay. [3]  If these people have seen their own economic status decline (they have), have withdrawn from public affairs, and are untrusting in general—trusted people are drawn from face to face settings–you can see that things are not going well for them.  Homosexuality is widely accepted—they would probably say “flaunted”—where earlier in their lives is was silenced and opposed.  And they are not not happy.  At least, they are not as happy as the people who emphasize self-expression, who also make a good deal more money than they do.

These (Traditional/Survival) are people who highly value economic security but have lost it.  That helps to explain their relative disinterest in “self-expression values” and very probably their opposition to those who believe self-expression is very important.  The world used to be a much more welcoming place for people with “survival values” and now it is not.  It is not hard to see why they think that something valuable has been “taken away” from them.

Who took it?

If that were a serious question, it would be vexingly complex, but it is not a serious question.  The question of whether you are now without something you value and deserve and the question of “who took it?” are really the same question and are answered at the same time.  “They” took it away from you, although they had no right to.

Culturally, “they” is “Hollywood liberals.” [4]  Socially, it is the “professional/managerial class.” [5]  Politically, it is the Democratic Party.  Ordinarily, you don’t have to distinguish; you just gesture and everyone in your tribe gets the idea.

The major message of the Republican party in recent years is that invaluable ordinary backlash 4people, the left-behinds, have been defrauded of what they are due by the Democrats and their allies.  For that reason, the question of “Who took it?” seldom comes up.  Who took it and that it was unfairly taken from you are part of the same message.

That brings us back to backlash, understanding, on this pass, not only the “lash” which has always been clear to liberals, but the “back” which is not nearly as clear as it should be.  Knowing what the problem is is still a long way from solving it, but it is better than trying to solve it without knowing what it is.

[1]  It isn’t that I don’t teach there anymore.  I still substitute for class sessions when old friends are out of town.  My official title at PSU since my retirement is “adjunct professor emeritus.”  Really.  

[2]  The “secular-rational” phrasings reverse the values, e.g. the second would would read “It is more important for a child to learn independence and determination than obedience and religious faith.”

[3]  It’s an old joke, but I was so close I stopped by just to say hello.

[4]  Vice President Pense made a special detour in his address to the graduating class at Liberty University, just to blame “Hollywood liberals” for meddling in state affairs in the south.

[5]Many thanks to Joan Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, for her clarity on that matter.

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