Tuesday, May 03, 2011


What usually jars is the racism. You're reading along, and suddenly some horrible slur leaps from a dead author's pen. Ethnic characters are confined to minor roles, and generally reduced to accommodate popular caricatures. Hook-nosed and oleaginous Jews haunt the boundaries of European literature; pickaninnies and injuns pop up to offend from American books (and hell, from American television in living memory); British novels are populated with innumerable demeaning extras from the various colonies. Examples are so trivial and common that it's hard to hunt for them. When race is addressed consciously, there's some threshold of skill under which the thinking of the time could be exposed and subverted, but that was still done from a worldview that included the racism. I am thinking of your Faulkners or Twains or Conrads in that second category, who showed us whiteness with its scars and its travesties, and were observant and capable enough to complicate identities and entertain true personhood, but still used racial characters to to tell stories about what it meant to be white in those times, even with the knowing gleam that it meant being a monster. Looking back, you almost wonder why those great minds tortured themselves around a now-obvious empathy, why they instead elected to develop complexities which didn't fail to include the simplified foreignness, but of course it's how they, or everyone around them, were used to thinking about darker people. More than that: it's how they were used to observing them. We underappreciate how difficult it was to look past the prejudices that their society was built around, as well as how thoroughly we fail to see the ones which inform our own. Writing character fiction is so much extrapolation of ourselves into alien minds (and they all are alien), and even extending the map as far as possible still communicates something to readers about you and the worldview you inhabit. It had to be hard for a 19th century white man to write realistically about black identity and experience, especially when it was not customary to sit and have a conversation on an equal footing. (There is plenty historical literary trend to dismiss women too, but at least there, a fella had incentive and excuse to occasionally talk to them.) Can we judge a writer for being part of his times? Maybe and maybe not, but I think we can judge their times. Ours too.

[Jews may have gotten a head start on rehabilitation in the western canon. I was interested to read, for example, how Charles Dickens revised Fagin after the original publication of Oliver Twist, following the feedback of Jewish friends. But his subsequent efforts to create empathetic Jews still seem a little patronizing, don't they? Fifty years later, and I thought that James Joyce was a smidge patronizing to Leopold Bloom too, despite all the effort at a realistic in-the-head representation of him.]

There are a couple of associations I've had in my life that, while I don't really approve of the traditional view, were nonetheless wonderful experiences. As an adult, it fills me with fondness and apology, torturing me with ambivalence and presents a lot of conflict about institutions and individuality thanks to good personal experiences in them and the quality of people that inhabit them. (Sound familiar?) A big one of those was the boy scouts, which I loved for some of the reasons I was supposed to, and also for the aspects our little band of losers, misfits, and assholes refused to take seriously. Recently, I was reminded of Boy's Life. (Can I now justify leaving that perplexing comment?) When I was a kid, I used to go to the library and pore over that magazine, skipping to the comic serializations of John Christopher's Tripod stories (since I stole this person's thumbnail, go ahead and check the thing out at length on their blog; I get a kick out of the dangly schlonginess of that lone Tripod tentacle), and stayed for the boy's outdoor adventure porn. The Tripods would put a little mesh hat on you, and you'd go through life hypnotized, oblivious to their nefarious alien schemes (which of course I no longer remember, probably they were stealing our precious resources, aliens always do that). Science fiction likes to invent reasons to blind people to the horrifying truths, but I think the reality is more banal.

For example, the boy scouts. Please ignore here the recent blowups the organization has had over gay members and at which point it discards moms, the weird thing about the boy scouts is that they are, at heart, a military-friendly organization. We've got the uniforms, the regimentation, the pledges and purity oaths. (About half of my leaders were veterans too, and I should note good people, but I don't want to confuse anecdote and data here.) More than that, there's the history. I mean, scouting is a combat job. Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the revered founder, looms over the movement like some benevolent spirit, cast in fading colors in a Stetson and fatherly mustache, more symbolic than real, like the George Washington of self-reliant boys. In life, he was a career military man, advancing Britain in its imperial heyday, forging his scoutcraft in Africa and melding it with a naturalist appreciation there, fighting in India and the Mediterranean, rising rapidly through the ranks to cement his reputation leading a miraculous resistance at the siege of Mafeking in the second Boer War. It was a decidedly odd sensation to roll across a boyhood icon in one of Churchill's histories, and you know, it's a far different perspective than what I got when I was 10. The Boer war is remembered for the Brits' innovative use of pestilential concentration camps to their military advantage, and as Wikipedia notes, the boy soldiers (participating in a civilized junior capacity) at Mafeking contributed to his ideas to promote military scouting skills to kids too. And look, I don't want to demolish the man's reputation so much as I want to develop ambiguity and complexity about it. He was an important figure in a monstrous enterprise as well as an educational one. Baden-Powell may well be shining example of personal discipline, a Kipling-esque model of integrity, a genuine survivalist and naturalist. On the other hand, what reason to think he didn't order improper executions, or send legions of expedient locals to their doom? Any cause beyond revisionism to believe he wasn't impressed, however naively, with fascist ideals later in life? I mean, the overlap in style is a little discomfiting. Was he not also a propagandist, a guiltless and decent face to paste on Britain's foul imperial reach, monarchical infestation, and heartless butchery of the dusky hordes? I don't remember any of those things getting much attention when I combed the back issues of Boy's Life.

We might call the man a product of his times too, and aren't we all. Baden-Powell shot people that, to his understanding, it was okay to shoot. He operated nobly within his idiom, which is the usual and understandable approach to the human experience, but the legacy of that worldview is still actively fucking up the globe. And things like imperialism and peonage, violence and exploitation, deforestation and extinction, persist because people are inclined to make the best of their various situations, and not push much against the bounds they're born into. (Should they? How should they? Isn't revolution its own evil?) It's hard to bust out of the paradigm. It's hard even to identify it. I am certainly doing no better, and I admit that paradigms can come with some redeeming features too.

Do you remember how you felt in 2001 when you saw this?

Disgusted, angry is how I felt. How does it compare to these assholes?

In 2011, it's hard to find a picture of those cheering Palestinians (of which there were evidently as many as a couple dozen) that isn't linked to some really noxious blog. The cheering Americans are all over the quality outlets, but hey, it's more recent. (It took me till the ride home to find the right expression of my distaste, and of course I only find that I was beaten to it, but at least that was one less photo I had to look up.) Similarly, it's almost been enough to make me swear off Facebook.

I don't read books for the lessons and I hate to preach (really, what the hell has happened to me?), and by no means do I suggest giving up on the literary canon. Beauty, insight, and entertainment are justification enough, and the apologies get easier the farther you go back in the past, or the more disconnected you let yourself feel. (Parenthetically, it took a while to understand how lucky it is to be so removed. I remember I took a class in college where we were instructed read Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea back to back. It was an interesting contrast I thought, but I felt like an outside observer to both narratives, and no doubt still would. For some of us doofi, this empathy thing takes years.) But the act of working out context, of mapping our own worldview onto the alien mind and strange times of a great writer is a project with some nice side benefits, not a bad tool when it comes to building understanding and perspective.

They'll judge us for our times too, possibly by some distasteful or unanticipated standard, or maybe on standards we just prefer to not admit. 19th century racism and imperialism didn't exactly go unopposed. Maybe it's worth asking what are we ignoring in our bliss. As for me, I tell myself that I am at least struggling to an awareness of the paradigm, that at least I won't celebrate my cognitive dissonance. It's not like history will view me any better.


Cindy said...

The thing is, I can get really busy and overloaded with life, and forget to read through some of my favorite things online.

Then, I get some free time, and poke around here, and am rewarded with something like this.

So well said, so well done, so thorough and thoughtful I can only add some paltry, positive cheering. Very well done!

But, I would also add, don't be surprised if you end up with a daughter studying Sociology. Who will, in fact, engage you on these issues in ways that are both challenging and satisfying.

I am in the middle of it, and even though she catches me by surprise sometimes, hoisting me by my own petard as it were, I cannot describe the pride and joy.

Keifus said...

I can only hope to raise such a daughter.

[I thought this post was kind of a dud, actually. I like what I was trying to say, but the intro is basically an unsupported generalization. I'm not sure I tied it all together as well as I wanted to.]