Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Assumptions Of Our Betters Are Usually Wrong

It was the summer of 1984. I was at the laundromat in my hometown of Waverly, NY finishing up folding some clothes. My parents were out of town for the week, and my mother has this thing about people using her washing machine - to detail my mother's eccentricities would fill a small library - so I was down at the end of the business district, sitting in one of those old, molded plastic chairs. The gentleman my sister was dating at the time was on his way to pick me up (incredible as it seems, we had to agree on a pick-up time, because, obviously, there were no such things as cell phones) because ours was a one-car family. I'd been sitting and reading a book that now seems quaint to me. At the time, however, to my fevered young mind it had the clarion call of a revolutionary tome. Helen Caldicott's Missile Envy was among three books I read that summer that were important for shaping the way I thought about politics over the ensuing years. Not as long lasting, or re-read as Godfrey Hodgson's America In Our Time, which I still find indispensable for understanding so much of our recent national life, but still, Caldicott's book was important, for a while.

The car pulled up, I gathered up the last of my clean clothes, and was heading out the door. A gentleman stopped me on my way to the door and said to me, "That the book by that Australian doctor?"

I nodded.

"So, you think we really are gonna blow ourselves up?"

I shrugged. I could tell Lou was getting impatient. Lou tended to get impatient.

"Well, if we re-elect Ronnie, we just might." He smiled at me, because I think he could tell my ride was getting antsier by the second. I nodded, chuckled, and left.

That exchange, taking less than twenty seconds, has remained in my mind for almost twenty-eight years for one simple reason: It's an illustration of a maxim my Father used to offer to me, a maxim whose truth took me far too long to absorb. My Dad would look at me like I was some kind of ridiculous creature who was clueless about way too much and say, "You don't know every goddamn thing." How right you are, Dad. I'm sorry you had to remind me too often.

There are few persons more insufferable than those who believe themselves to be, despite all indications to the contrary, superior to others. We Americans, happily egalitarian in our outlook, are offended more by the assumption of hauteur than we tend to be than racial or sexual bigotry. We assume there are bigots out there, so why be surprised when some idiot says something hateful? We tend to be shocked when someone takes on an air of superiority, dismissing so many others as beneath their notice. Maybe because they enjoy NASCAR or reality TV. Maybe because they can't tell Brahms from Schubert from Mahler, but can instantly recognize the guitar styles of Carlos Santana and David Gilmour and Joe Satriani. Perhaps they have never even heard of Plutarch or Augustine, but own every book published under the name V. C. Andrews. The reasons for the presumption of superiority are many, varied, yet all wind up as fodder for a kind of Manichean world-view, a set of dichotomies in which "we", the privileged in our education and outlook, are both culturally and intellectually superior to "they" with their tendency to succumb to the Bread and Circuses of Hollywood.

Of the species of intellectual aristocrat, there are none more smug, more worthy of contempt from the rest of the Universe, than the college sophomore. I confess, here and now, that such a one was I. If I could go back in time and find myself, I'd probably beat the shit out of my 19-year-old self, just as an object lesson. One of the reasons that little snippet of conversation has remained in my brain was the immediate reaction I had: Someone in my hometown not only knew who Helen Caldicott was; that same person was afraid of the same thing I was! I'll confess (seems to be the day for it) that I am deeply ashamed of that reaction. It was a moment of nearly unforgivable presumption on my part. Such wise-foolery is the mark not only of youth but equal parts inexperience and ignorance. It is nothing to read a book and absorb its lessons; it is another to live a life and absorb its lessons, and let that living meet the book, argue with it, and let the two tussle it out to some kind of truce. At 19, I had far too little living under my belt to make any judgments about, well, pretty much anything. Now that I've lived far more years since that incident than I had up to that point, I would like to believe I have come to the conclusion that assumptions and presumptions are something we should never make about others.

Which life-lesson (hardly a huge one, I know; still, important enough, I think, as well as relevant) one would think David Brooks, older than I, would have learned years ago. Alas, as his latest column makes clear, the only thing worse than being inordinately proud of oneself, is not having anything for which to feel so inordinately proud.

When he published Bobos in Paradise, Brooks took over his main thesis - that there was an emergent class of young persons who aped the bohemianism of long past without taking on the burdens far too many of a previous generation of social and cultural outsiders had to bear. Like poverty. Social and cultural and political ostracism. Resigned to a life firmly outside the mainstream, true bohemians accepted, even reveled in their role as outcast and misfit, bringing the world everything from modern art - its cubism and surrealism, the nihilism of Dadaism and the psychology of Abstract Expressionism - to the highest form of modernist music, jazz to the kind of movies that deal in ideas and images instead of stories and characters. They never sought fame or money or prizes. They pursued a life of self-affirmation and expression, sometimes in the service of social and cultural and political improvement; sometimes, however, there was little more than the narcissistic joy of affirming one's existence within a society that worked very hard to deny their existence.

Brooks' markers for what made this creature he'd discovered, which he called "Bourgeois Bohemian" (thus, Bobo), however, weren't steeped in a study of how any person or group actually lived. As a critic in Philadelphia Magazine noted in 2004, Brooks didn't know what the hell he was talking about.

This remains true nearly eight years after being detailed so well. His current column, with its weird praise for the trash art of our pulp writers shows that Brooks is an ignoramus of the first water. Even a casual acquaintance with the writings he details should make any reader of Brooks' column laugh so hard he or she has to run to the bathroom to pee. Brooks, however, would wonder at the source of such laughter.

Yesterday, a good friend of mine said that my blog posts are "too cerebral", that I'm not focusing on the average person's desires. That's the kind of phrase that puzzles me. Who, precisely, is this "average person"? What are their desires? I doubt that, in most ways that really count, I would be outside whatever Bell Curve this person imagines the determinant of the social average. Further, isn't it somewhat insulting to say that average people aren't concerned about how stupid so much of our public discourse is, how venal and erroneous so much of our religion tends to be; like Brooks' nonsensical assumption that folks in a rural county prefer Dollar General to Nieman Marcus (without any evidence to support this assumption), isn't the assumption that the average Joe just doesn't care about this stuff rooted more in stereotype and prejudice, rather than real evidence? I've always operated under the assumption that I'm no different from the guy who sweats through a ten hour day fixing the plumbing in a house, or putting a roof on a building. These folks care about all sorts of things like a decent wage for their labor, decent schools for their kids, clean and safe roads on which to drive, safe neighborhoods and cities in which to live, safe food to eat and safe water to drink. All the things, in other words, that I write about.

I have no interest in pretending I'm something I'm not. Nor do I have any interest in pretense. Few things bait me more easily than someone making a claim that having a bit more education in this or that abstruse subject matter confers some kind of superiority upon an individual. How ridiculous a notion is that? Yet, we live with it just the same; bad social and cultural commentary is rooted in this kind of phony elitism, engaged in by people who tend to be, upon even a little digging, not only wrong, but almost overwhelmingly ignorant.

Much like I was on that long-ago Saturday afternoon in the Waverly Laundromat, David Brooks needs someone to walk up to him and smack him around a little bit and yell, much as my father did, "You don't know every goddamn thing!"

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