Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Kindness of Strangers

Neal Gabler quotes Gore Vidal from 1961 to point out the conservatives we have today were already visible 55 years ago.  He says the problem with the GOP now is, they have no kindness in them, and he wonders where it went.  What he ignores is how much changed, and how fast, in those 55 years. He acts as if the kindness was leached away, went where the socks go in the dryer, was sucked off to some mysterious alternate universal down some mystical black hole.

Where was the kindness in Jim Crow laws?  Where was the kindness in separate but equal?  Where was the kindness in treating women like sex objects and "dolls" and subservient to men (the way they are treated in "Mad Men")?  The kindness that said we must make war because the government said so (which is a "Greatest Generation" phenomena.  There was strong opposition to aiding Europe before Pearl Harbor precisely because it would mean war.  Now we interpret war as our American birthright.).  Where was the kindness to drafting 18 year olds who couldn't vote on the decision to go to war?  The kindness toward the LGBTQ?  The kindness toward anyone who wasn't a white middle to upper class male who knew business was far more important than art, and that real men didn't bake, sew, or dance?

And now the cry is:  where is the kindness toward the standard white male?

It's not even a new cry.  It was the cry of the '70's, and of the '80's, when real men didn't eat quiche.  Yes, the line was a joke, but how often jokes get taken as statements of truth.  The gentle hippie male (still a male chauvinist down to his bare feet) and the mild-mannered Alan Alda, our icon of masculinity in the '70's (alongside the mustachioed louts who filled the TV screen as "action heroes"), quickly gave way to "real men," and John Wayne enjoyed a resurgence and a popularity he'd all but lost in the '60's.  We've seen this struggle over and over again just in my lifetime, as men went from Clark Gable to Jimmy Stewart to Steve McQueen to Alan Alda to Bruce Willis, from Don Draper to Phil Donahue to...Donald Trump?

What begins as tragedy ends as farce, and nothing really different has happened in 55 years, except the backlash.  Alvin Toffler called it "Future shock," but the future is here and now and he was right:  it was the result of too much change too fast.  But standing in the middle of it, we don't see the fast; we just see the change.

And whatever the change is, there is always somebody who doesn't want it.  Somebody doesn't want to change the Thanksgiving menu or change where (or whether) the family meets on holidays, and somebody else wants to keep marriages unmixed by race and somebody else wants to keep it Adam and Eve, not let it be Adam and Steve.  And somebody really, REALLY, REALLY doesn't want to see a black man in the White House.  Enough somebodies to shift a razor thin electoral college victory.

In my lifetime, the one constant has been the aggrieved standard white male.  That, and a general lack of kindness.  As much kindness as we ever showed as a nation, was a result of the affluence of the '60's.  We could afford to be generous then.  We were living better than our parents (or grandparents, as the case may be) had ever dreamed of living.  Everyone could go to college (thanks to the GI Bill)!  Everyone could own a home (thanks to the GI Bill)!  Everyone could find a job (well, every white male, anyway, and who else mattered?)!  We could afford a little largesse!

Then, in the '70's it started to sputter.  Inflation became the scourge of the land, and Paul Volcker taught the Fed its true purpose:  whip inflation now; now and forever.  Then Reagan told us our problem was welfare queens and "young bucks" who took no responsibility for their actions. He didn't have to tell us such people were not white.  12 years of Reagan/Bush, and the best we could do afterwards was the triangulation of Bill Clinton who, if he hadn't done that, would never have been President at all.

And here we are.  Tennessee William's symbol of the South, Blanche DuBois (whiter than white she is; why are there no blacks in his New Orleans?), always trusted to the kindness of strangers.  He meant it as the South's original sin and apologia; all America understood it as the foolishness of the female, and American white males would never be so foolish.  Strangers could not be shown kindness; oh, individuals could, but as a group?

The struggle between competing visions of society was not settled in the 18th century, and wasn't set in stone by the "Founding Fathers" (who never thought of themselves that way, and certainly weren't posing for their monuments in their lifetimes).  The fight for social justice, racial equality, fair if not actually equal treatment under law, due process for all persons, and a share of compassion for everyone, is never won.  It is not a sporting event with a season and a final winner until the next set of competitions.  We haven't become worse than we were; we have become what we are.

We always do.  That isn't the problem.  The problem is letting it rest there.  The problem is looking for someone else to blame, some reason to say it's not your fault, that you had nothing to do with it, that "they" are the reason "we" can't have nice things.  We are the reason.  We are always the reason.  And we always have to struggle, not just with each other, but with ourselves.

Neal Gabler says the GOP has no kindness in them, and he's not wrong.  The desire to end Medicare and Social Security is the desire, not just of Ayn Rand disciples, but of people who care only for money, only for themselves.  The richest donors of the GOP, apparently.   How else to explain the desire to privatize Medicare ASAP, the proposal in this Congress (which must be renewed in the next) to end Social Security?  Is the GOP crazy?  Or dancing with those what brung 'em?

The question is:  who are we dancing with?  Who brung us?


  1. Unfortunately, it wasn't only Republicans who gave up on good will and morality. Liberals did to an extent that it was destructive of liberalism. I would guess that easily a third to a half of those who identify as liberals would more honestly qualify as libertarians. It takes more than a mere and vague sense of niceness, such as is sometimes found among college faculty, to carry off liberal government.

    The undermining of morality is one of the most enduring programs of modernism. I know it might seem like beating a horse I shot a long time ago but I do attribute a lot of that to the framing of Darwinism, natural selection does not produce kindness or generosity or even a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of the weaker, the more unfortunate, the more disadvantaged. The Social Darwinist economics of which AynRand is merely a more ruthless expression is, in fact, and by Darwin's own definition, the same thing as natural selection. This is the real message of William Jennings Bryan in his undelivered final argument in the Scopes Trial. I have sometimes wished I could find out what Scopes would have thought of that later in his life after he converted to Catholicism, something left out of the plays and movies that inform most people's would-be knowledge of that trial.

  2. I agree with you, and I think that thinking is at the heart of my critique of Ta-Naheisi Coates (sp?). I heard him on NPR this morning discussing his essay in The Atlantic, and he critiqued Obama for being naive about race in America.

    It's not that he's wrong, it's his application of that insight to a leader like the POTUS. Until you've been in a leadership position of any kind, you have no idea that the restrictions and responsibilities on that role are. This is why I still admire Jeremiah Wright, who taught Obama the phrase "the audacity of hope." Wright, as a pastor of a church, understands the problems of leadership, the responsibility of being in charge. He is still, IMHO, in a better position to critique Obama about his weaknesses than Coates is. Wright understands the position, but also has a moral authority Coates simply lacks.

    I guess I could turn that into a blog post more easily than I thought....

  3. Rmj: "We are always the reason. And we always have to struggle, not just with each other, but with ourselves."

    Similarly, Thomas Merton:

    "As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. … There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate. Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion.

    Hatred tries to cure disunion by annihilating those who are not united with us. It seeks peace by the elimination of everybody else but ourselves. But love, by its acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.

    …Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everyone wants to be absolutely right himself or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness, they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong. Those who are wrong, in turn, convinced that they are right…etc.

    We never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.

    …Perhaps in the end the first real step toward peace would be a realistic acceptance of the fact that our political ideals are perhaps to a great extent illusions and fictions to which we cling out of motives that are not always perfectly honest: that because of this we prevent ourselves from seeing any good or any practicability in the political ideals of our enemies–which may, of course, be in many ways even more illusory and dishonest than our own. We will never get anywhere unless we can accept the fact that politics is an inextricable tangle of good and evil motives…

    I believe the basis for valid political action can only be the recognition that the true solution to our problems is not accessible to any one isolated party or nation but that all must arrive at it by working together.'

  4. " We will never get anywhere unless we can accept the fact that politics is an inextricable tangle of good and evil motives…"

    True. And interesting in the light of how many commenters I encounter (not here!) who insist there is only good or evil in politics, and one must prevail over the other, absolutely and finally, with no admixture whatsoever.

    Their position, of course, being identified with "good."

    Thanks for the whole, by the way.

  5. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am one of those commenters who has historically at least implicitly insisted that my position be identified with "good," or at least sane - if not constructive versus destructive – though now that is something I am trying to work on in myself. I do not feel a lot of charity toward those whom I feel should know better; or, if they lack the capability to understand complex social issues could at least practice the golden rule, and aren't.

    As I said, I'm working on it....

    So I'm no Merton, though I wanted to be. I read "Seven-Story Mountain" and "Seeds of Contemplation" when I was 14 years old and it was one of the factors that inspired me to want to find expression for a felt spiritual need as contemplative priest in a religious order. My parish priest managed to shame me out of that course of action, painting it as a waste of time and gifts, but Merton certainly didn't waste his. I'm rediscovering the treasures of his thoughts.