Looking at the Way We Look at Things

by A. Jay Adler on September 16, 2009
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  1. Shadow Play

Julia and I were riding up in the big cab of the motorhome. I was driving, she was taking notes, and we were both looking out through the panoramic window on America that has always been the continually renewable charge – along with that of just packing up our home and taking it, the entire home, somewhere new every few days or weeks – of our year-long journey together. We were trying to recall our “best”s and “most”s. Robert Redford and Bradford Dillman played a game like this in The Way We Were, the college boys reclining on the easy deck of someone’s full-sailed boat, already worldly enough to answer “Best ice cream sundae” and similar questions with the names of exotic locales that, at their age, along with the game itself so young, bespoke their casual privilege. How to characterize what Julia and I were doing, well, who am I to say?

newbie-mr-before-the-deluge

Suddenly, Julia, knowing the answer, proposed with a laugh that I immediately returned: “Most surprising thing anyone has said to us.” I had heard it just the day before, at a Yamaha dealership in Charleston.

All during our trip strangers have been gratifyingly friendly and warm, delighted to hear of our travels, often intrigued by the motorhome, or the scooters we ride, or the hydraulic lift on the back of the motorhome that carries them. They wish us well. And so too this worker at the dealership who approached to converse while I tied down the rear wheel of one of the scooters. We talked about Charleston, about how beautiful it is and how these days so few of the people who live in and around it are actually from there, and we talked about other places he had lived, including San Diego. I said it was a nice city, a bit of bland politesse that hid my actual dislike. Given that I am a native New Yorker through whose veins the Hudson River flows, and that in that light one must recognize San Diego – speaking as a kind of urban particle physicist here – as pretty much the anti-New York, my feelings should not be notable. But people, as I say, have been lovely to us, why should I critique where they come from, and agreeable pleasantries always speed the way.

It was the smiling, unexceptionably offered reply, then, that made the moment memorable.

“Yeah, except for the niggers and spics,” he said.

There has actually been almost none of this along the way, except, maybe, less directly, the carny in Talihina, Oklahoma who had run away from home at seventeen and been living the life ever since, who seemed about to have something to say about the Jews he’d encountered in New York, until I mentioned softly that I’m from New York, and he appeared to wonder quickly what else he didn’t know about me, and his memoirs took a slightly different direction.

On the other hand, it has been striking how frequent it is that people, during brief, chance encounters with a stranger, are willing to share some vaguely cultural or political feeling they can in no way be assured the visitor shares. This isn’t my own nature. Despite this blog, and my delight in good, vigorous debate of all kinds, it is not my wish to make political views the affective handshake of human encounters. When Aristotle wrote that “man is by nature a political animal,” he meant a social animal tending toward organized and civil relationships – civilization. He didn’t mean a voting precinct manipulator or a demographic strategist with eyes on the next election. Besides, I learn more by listening.

Something I’ve heard a bit is something that shouldn’t be surprising: politicians and government leaders meeting in the distant halls of power with financiers, bankers, and corporate leaders and engaging in all sort of abstruse discussion and negotiations about the money they all in one way or another control, and that “ordinary” people do not – well, that has a certain air about it and it isn’t sinus clearing ocean air. In the behemoth modern nation-state, government – no matter how representative in process, and regardless of who has read Max Weber or not – is always easily going to appear an unresponsive and controlling abstraction, a dominating other and a cabal of shadowy and self-interested lever-pullers working in opposition to the simple integrity of single human lives.

As far back as both Socrates and Gautama Buddha, however – in remarkably different ways and at remarkably close points in time – education has aimed at enabling the enlightened mind, a mind brought to see the light, as the shackled viewer of shadows escaped from Plato’s allegorical cave comes into an initially blinding light, a mind able to distinguish appearance from reality. Can governments be these shadowy cabals? Oh, we know they can, often, from long experience. Have they always been, must they always be? And now there are so many screens on which to project the shadows of illusion and half-truth. How is one to tell?

Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, famously analyzed how it has come to pass over recent decades that many rural, working class, and middle-income people found their identification with conservatives and the Republican Party, when their economic and social interests were best represented by the Democrats. Social conservatives, argued Frank, had their cultural interests played with, though never fulfilled, while economic conservatives pursued the policies that benefited the socially conservative not a whit either.

In the matter of all those negotiations with bankers and CEOs, necessarily inherited by President Obama from Bush, appearances are indeed unattractive. And many a Republican was true to ideological belief in insisting that banks and brokerages be allowed to fail and “taxpayer money” not be used to bail out large corporations that had simply failed in the market place. What a confusingly progressive seemingly anti-corporate stance. And then there are the Democrats, following on Bush, hand in hand with the financial elites. Whoa, Nelly. What’s goin’ on here? Well, of course, fascists create corporate-states and their opposites, socialists, take over the means of production, like auto companies – and now you have a full-fledged shadow-play theater production generated by implodingly contradictory motivations almost no one can track. Hard, then, to persuade many – already having their strings pulled – that in this instance the corporate failures would be so great as to produce cataclysmic consequences for “ordinary folk” well beyond the satisfying spectacle of broker billions down the porcelain chute.

Or there is the other monster shadow of our truly worth-worrying-about national debt, but as I noted in “The Conservative Hole

…every Democratic President since the FDR/Truman term has decreased the national debt as a percentage of GDP – yes, even Carter. Every Republican has increased it. Without exception. Reagan tripled the debt. By the end of Bush Sr.’s single term, in twelve years, the Republicans had more than quadrupled it. Bush Jr. added billions more. Now, in less than two months under Obama, Republicans and [Andrew] Sullivan are stuffing their hands in their pockets and getting, at last, hysterical over an increase in the national debt – not to expand military spending, not to enrich the rich, but to try to restore the economy and help those in the middle and at the bottom.

No, the topic and the worry are not new, but the hysteria of the tea-partiers, the 9/12ers – from whence does it now come, by whom led?

From and by Rush Limbaugh, living in his big fat mansion smoking his big fat cigars with his big fat mouth? What has he ever done for ordinary people but make himself in all ways fat on their fear and resentment?

Joe Wilson, former member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, defender of flying the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capitol? It’s just a symbol of state’s rights, the way the swastika is only a symbol of German nationalism.

mad tea party_700

Mark Williams? Asked by Anderson Cooper if he really thinks Barak Obama is a Nazi, Williams say he never called Obama that. Cooper then points out that on Williams’ website, Obama, satirized as “Mubarak” Hussein Obama is indeed called a Nazi. Williams flashes, then, the unctuous grin of the shameless shiteater, as he does when defending the characterization of Obama as an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief.” Racist in chief, he is asked with disbelief. Until he represents all of the people, says Williams, what else can Williams conclude?

Is it worth noting that many Americans did not feel well represented by George W. Bush? Would Williams, then, claim that Bush was once “Racist in chief”?

I try to teach logic to students. I try to teach argument. They wonder how truth is attained when there are so many conflicting claims proffered with so much passion, sometimes withcat-ate-mouse-main_Full apparent evidence. It is a hard, messy business I tell them, especially when there are always those who will continue to claim and yell otherwise even when evidence is conclusive, even when fact is established. The purpose of argument said one student is to win. Yes, I say, as far back as the Sophists whom Socrates set out to expose, there have been many who devote themselves only to that: they live in the shadows, they don their sunglasses, and they invite you to join them.

But there are guidelines, I tell them. You can learn them. You can follow them.

One of them is very simple and very informal: when the cat, smiling, says it never even saw the mouse, and you see a tale hanging from the side of its mouth, there is a credibility problem.

Even if you like the cat.

Tomorrow part 2, “Confirmation Bias: Even If You Like the Cat”

AJA


2 comments

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

writerman242 September 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm

I’ve had that a lot in various travels in Australia. People say it is as if it’s a perfectly normal, innocent remark akin to something like, ‘except it rains a lot’, or ‘except it’s too hot for me’, etc. Always leaves me shaken. Thanks for this post Jay, very insightful.

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Bruce DeBoer September 16, 2009 at 11:22 am

How appropriate that the most surprising – or the most anything for that matter – came in South Carolina.

Good stuff Jay.

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