Culture

Undercover Boss and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

This morning I read The Guardian’s “Michael Rosen rewrites A Christmas Carol for modern age of austerity.”

Rosen, a children’s author, explained his motivation for updating Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to reflect the times we live in.  The story was a critique of the Victorian attitude that poverty was the fault of the poor, a view point that seems to have returned with expressions like “makers and takers” or the UK version “shirkers and workers.”

Readers in Dickens’s time were deeply affected by his novels, Rosen added, “by seeing how, for children in particular, poverty was being dealt with totally inadequately by Victorian society”.

Things are not really much better today, said Rosen, who is an outspoken critic of the government. “[The Victorians] had a thriving economy and desperate, widespread poverty. I see that in a sense as happening now – you see people on the telly every night telling you the economy is good while we have food banks.”

It occurred to me, while reading this, that we already have a modern version of A Christmas Carol, the TV series “Undercover Boss.”

Class inequality is the central theme of each of these tales. There would be no drama on Undercover Boss without the awareness of how far apart the world of the CEO is from that of the rank-and-file employees at his own company. The only way to show the contrasting poverty and affluence and to have a happy ending is to have the boss bestow boons on the poor workers.

Whether Scrooge or the CEO Of a fast food chain, by the end of the story, the boss’s soul is saved, his eyes have been opened and he has found compassion. He is redeemed and his goodness is affirmed. Tiny Tim gets his Christmas turkey, but he is more a plot point than a character. The rich man is the one with agency. In the end, while one worker gets a nice gift, the overall social structure remains unchanged.

Dickens’s conclusion, that we should “be nice to each other and enjoy Christmas”, isn’t really a practical solution, Rosen added, but it’s a novelistic way of “satisfying us when we look at it. Taking Scrooge through his life in a way is a great way of saying, ‘Look at how you got to where you are’, so he actually forces you to think about society instead of blaming poor people for poverty. It’s a stunning book, really.”

Undercover Boss on the other hand does none of this.  We get glimpses of the boss’s life of wealth and prestige, but if anything we’re meant to feel envy. There is no ghost of Christmas past to ask the boss “How did you get to this place that you could close your heart to people’s suffering?”

After all, the television producers need to get the bosses to agree to do the show, and to do that, they must expect that it will be a good PR move for their companies and that they will come out looking good.

Undercover Boss shifts its moral slightly. It makes a show of rewarding hard work– although a viewer can’t help but feel that the reward is entirely random. Some other hard-working employee could as easily have been featured and been gifted the scholarship and over-the-top vacation package.

By pretending, however, that these workers were singled out for their work and dedication it not only fails to criticize a social system that creates gross inequality, it reinforces the idea that hard work is inevitably recognized and rewarded and that therefore poverty is the fault of the poor.

Humiliation: Contemplating Kevin Spacey and Oscar Wilde

“I want to acknowledge the not-infrequent willingness of a viewer, a neighbor, a master, a lover, a friend, a host, a commentator, to treat someone else as garbage. The willingness to desubjectify the other person. And the willingness, as if in a nightmare, to lock the door of civilization against this outcast, and to hear the ruined beast cry in the cold.”

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From time to time I like to wander through the library and pick up random books that catch my eye. On my last walk, a couple of weeks ago, I checked out Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Humiliation.”

It is a small book, and odd. It reads to me like culled diary entries on a particular subject– more the notes for a book than the book itself. I think Danielle Stevens got it right in Hyperallergic when she wrote “Koestenbaum occupies a space between blatant exhibitionism and self-criticism.”

The book is made up of short numbered observations about humiliation.

When I read it, it brought to mind Oscar Wilde, and in fact Wilde is mentioned at one point in the book. In response to a thought numbered 14 I wrote “Does humiliation represent the core of the fascination with Wilde? Humiliation is the violent stripping away of pride. Part of the success of De Profundis is that, fearing humiliation, we’re drawn to the view of one whose humiliation is complete. We imagine you must come out the other side changed. We all have moments of crisis, perhaps less dramatic, when our identities seem to be wrenched from us.”

This is Koestenbaum’s thought number 14:

When I see a public figure humiliated, I feel empathy. I imagine: that martyr could be me. Even if the public figure did something wrong, I empathize. Even if Michael Jackson slept with children. Even if Roman Polanski raped a thirteen-year-old. When I see the famous figure brought to trial, even if only trial-by-media, especially if the crime is sexual, I’m seized by horror and fascination, by pity, by terror: here again, as if at the Acropolis or the Roman Colosseum, I see the dramatic onset of a familiar scene, an unveiling, a goring, a staining, a stripping away of privilege.

Something happened between the time I first recorded my thoughts on this little book, and when I went back to it. The passage stopped being about Wilde and became about Kevin Spacey. (Koestenbaum, we can assume, is feeling empathy for him today.)

Spacey is an actor I’ve always admired, although he is not a special favorite of mine. I became aware of allegations of misconduct against him by seeing my Twitter feed fill with posts blasting his apology for allegedly making a sexual overture to a 14-year-old boy 30 years ago.  Spacey confuses the real issue– that the boy was 14 and he was 26– with the non-issue (to most people in our age anyway) that he is attracted to his own sex. I have a theory that perhaps Spacey has worried for a long time that the public would discover the fact that he was gay, and that he’d rehearsed in his mind what he would say when he was eventually outed. When that moment came he failed to take the nuances of the moment into account in his statement. That, or it could just be cynical deflection, as pretty much everyone views it. I’m assuming you’ve heard the story by now. If not Inc had a good article on what was wrong with the apology.  What was wrong with the underlying behavior, if true, needs no explanation. Type “Kevin Spacey” into your favorite search engine (it’s DuckDuckGo right?) and you will be brought quickly up to speed if you’ve somehow missed it.

I have had a hard time getting this story out of my head, and I could not figure out why. I think it is because of the uncomfortable resonances with Oscar Wilde’s downfall. If you look at Spacey’s own Twitter feed as of this writing, there is something haunting about it. The stream is full of happy moments, successes, celebrations and plans for all sorts of upcoming projects. It ends with his statement about the allegations against him.  Then there is no more. Knowing that after this statement House of Cards was canceled, Spacey’s Emmy was revoked, his acting master class was canceled, it reads like the end of a life and a tumble into the void. As Matthew Arnold wrote:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

The cancellations remind me of how performances of Wilde’s plays were dropped, his name taken off of programs. In one case an artist even offered to paint Wilde out of a painting in a gallery, such was the desire to erase the memory him.

What makes these echoes particularly uncomfortable is that an honest observer has to admit that the there is some overlap in the accusations against them. Oscar Wilde was not advocating “gay liberation.” He was an advocate of Urianian culture, which held as an ideal the sexual mentorship of teenage boys by older men. The famous “Love that Dares Not Speak Its Name” speech that was a high point in the movie Wilde (and which got applause at his first criminal trial in real life) spoke about the beautiful love of “an older for a younger man.”

In Oscar’s Ghost I wrote, “To a Uranian poet, a perfect muse was a teenager maybe fourteen or sixteen years old. The boys were to some extent viewed as objects of longing because they were unobtainable, but it is clear that these ideals shaped the fantasies and views of the men who wrote raptures about their beauty…There is evidence that Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), Robbie (Ross) and Oscar all had sexual encounters with teenagers. (As, no doubt, did Reggie Turner if his nickname “the boy snatcher of Clements Inn” is anything to go by.)”

Lord Alfred Douglas, in his middle years, came to believe that he had been primed at school and finally seduced by Wilde into a dangerous culture. He blamed his education as much as Wilde, but he came to see “the cult of Wilde” as particularly dangerous for advocating this culture. He came to view it as his mission to warn the world against its dangers and to protect other young men from being seduced into it. At the time his nemesis, Robert Ross, was still an advocate of Greek sexual mentorship. Both he and his good friend Christopher Millard were romantically involved with young men they had met when they were still teens. Millard had once lost a teaching position apparently for something involving a student. Douglas wrote a book that was never published called The Wilde Myth in which he made his case against “the cult.”

The book concludes “The Wilde myth has devastated my life from every point of view. It devastated my life when I was a victim to its illusions, and it has devastated my life ever since I escaped from those illusions.”

Imagine him sitting down on Oprah’s couch and telling that story. The audience would be sympathetic, right? They might even chalk up his personality issues and bad behavior to trauma from the abuse. Is that the right way to look at the situation?

I don’t think so. You can’t judge historical figures by modern cultural standards and simply interview a historical figure on Oprah’s couch.  They have to be understood in their own context.  Here is how I explained the context in Oscar’s Ghost:

There was, of course, no age of consent for sex between males– it was strictly illegal. To get an idea of what age the larger society deemed a consenting adult we can look to the same law that had only recently criminalized ‘gross indecency between male persons.’ It also raised the age of consent for girls from 12 to 16. (In France the age of consent was still 13.)

Frank Harris, the American journalist and a good friend of Wilde’s, objected to the new law. He felt that it was ridiculous because it outlawed sexual activities with a girl under the age of 13 “even with her own consent” and girls under sixteen even if they “tempted.”…

During Wilde’s criminal trials, even though most of his partners were in their teens, their ages were never much of an issue for the court. It was only their gender and social class that provoked outrage. A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Just as we can’t judge Wilde and his friends by modern standards, we can’t judge Spacey by the views of the past.

I think it does give pause, though, when you realize that there is an actual Wilde shrine in New York as Kevin Spacey heads off for the obligatory “treatment” as a necessary first step to try to shed his new-found pariah status and gain re-entry into society.

For those of us who admire Oscar Wilde, a case like Kevin Spacey’s is an uncomfortable reminder of an aspect of his story that we don’t much like to think about. As he is increasingly beatified as the first gay martyr it’s important to remember that he was not a “gay man” in the modern sense. There are some important differences and some very deep shades of grey. If we fail to be honest about that we risk making the the same mistake that Kevin Spacey’s apology did– conflating modern gay culture with (Uranian) ephebophila (an erotic attraction to adolescents).

It is possible, however, to keep both of these ideas in your head: That Oscar Wilde was punished for something we no longer view as a crime– loving males– and this is a tragedy and bothers us as an injustice. But there are other aspects of his life that we would find troubling if they happened today. Then again, if he lived today, it is impossible to know if those aspects would have existed for he would have been socialized differently–part of our culture, not his.

One of my favorite passages from De Profundis, the work that set me off on this whole Wilde journey, was this:

Of course there are many things of which I was convicted that I had not done, but then there are many things of which I was convicted that I had done, and a still greater number of things in my life for which I was never indicted at all. And as the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse, I must accept the fact that one is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be. It helps one, or should help one, to realise both, and not to be too conceited about either. And if I then am not ashamed of my punishment, as I hope not to be, I shall be able to think, and walk, and live with freedom.

A Symbolic Age

We are living in a symbolic age. Recently, as Puerto Rico had just been hit by hurricane Maria and tensions were mounting between our president and North Korea, I watched as a serious televised news panel show devoted its first 40 minutes to discussion of kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. Over that weekend, just about every social media contact I have felt compelled to weigh in on the controversy– right to free speech vs. respect for country and flag.

Now symbols are layered upon symbols as apparently the vice president, in a pre-planned PR stunt, attended a football game in order to be seen standing during the national anthem and then walking out to protest the protestors.

This is exactly the type of thing that thrives in our current journalistic environment. More and more people get their news from social media, the same place we go to advance our public personas (personae?). The stories that thrive in that environment are stories that allow people to express their identities. Two years ago, when I first wrote about the phenomenon of news stories as identity expression, no one was taking a knee but we were debating the merits of Starbucks coffee cup design in regards to the “War on Christmas.”

The types of stories that thrive in this environment are those that lend themselves to some kind of identity building. For example, people post political stories that identify them as being like or unlike the Tea Party, or the religious, or the liberals. “I am a person who stands for…”  A story about Kim Davis who wouldn’t issue marriage licenses to same sex couples is the perfect story for this kind of news environment because it gives people an opportunity to post their commentary and present themselves as an upstanding fundamentalist or as the type of person who favors gay rights.

Do you remember the Starbucks cups? Kim Davis? Symbolic stories catch fire and burn out quickly. Unlike major policy issues such as taxation, health care, foreign relations, they are uncomplicated and require little expertise. It is easy to take sides.

Television news takes its cues from social media when determining what its audience cares about.  They call this “spicy, watchable coverage.”  But what if the public is being manipulated? What if our differences are smaller than we are led to believe and they are being stoked by trolls, bots, media personalities who thrive on conflict and international bad actors? Somehow though we can’t seem to resist playing along, using the cues to make identity claims and to associate with one tribe or another.

And by the way, I can’t stand that expression “the base” and its cousin “playing to the base.” If I were Lord High Commander of the Universe I would ban them.

When I look up polarization and culture wars I find blogs and news sources across the political spectrum lamenting the state of affairs. That we have a polarization problem is one thing we seem to agree on.

A fair portion of the commentary, however, blames the problem on “the other side.” “We need to put an end to this polarization, if only those guys would drop their misguided views…”

An example of this comes from The Federalist, which combines a straightforward call for transcending our differences with a hefty dose of blame and finger pointing, ” the radicalization of Democrats is something qualitatively different, and much more dangerous, than the radicalization of Republicans.”

A Columbia Journalism Review study meanwhile shows that polarization is “mainly a right-wing phenomenon.”

We now read and share different media sources, so those who identify with one point of view or the other each have support for the notion that it’s the other side’s fault. But really, who cares who’s fault it is? Isn’t trying to attribute blame part of the problem? If you really long for people to come together then you have to give up on the fun pass time of assigning blame for the nation’s problems on “those guys.”

It gets my back up whenever arguments devolve into talk about “liberals” or “conservatives.” If you’re arguing about what kind of person supports an idea you’re no longer talking about the idea. In fact, the act of defining a point of view as belonging to “the left” or “the right” skews our perception of how polarized we are. As The Washington Post explained in 2014, “This stems from the underlying psychology of categorization: merely labeling groups makes people see them as more distinctive than they actually are. So when people think about where ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ stand, they will tend to place Democrats too far to the left, and Republicans too far to the right, which psychologists term ‘false polarization.’”

Across several different surveys, we find a large degree of false polarization. That is, when we ask subjects about where they think the “average Democratic voter” and “average Republican voter” stand, they think they are further apart than the average Democratic and Republican voters actually are. For example, on the issue of capital gains tax cuts, respondents think ordinary Americans are 84 percent more polarized than they actually are (see the second row of the graph above)… We randomly assigned some subjects to read media accounts of a polarized electorate and others to read accounts of a more moderate electorate. When subjects are exposed to media coverage suggesting electoral polarization and division, they perceive greater electoral polarization–as measured by where they place typical Republican and Democratic voters on issue scales (readers interested in the details of the analysis can consult our paper). This suggests that media coverage can make people think the U.S. is a politically polarized country even if it is not.

In many respects, calling this cultural trend “political polarization” is missing the point. To a large extent these symbolic claims have nothing to do with actual politics.

Noah Rothman, writing in today’s Commentary, critiques a Washington Post article by Michael Gerson:

Unmentioned in Gerson’s column, however, is anything having to do with the structure of American government. He deals with race, technology, social alienation, and individualism, but the word “Constitution” does not appear in the piece. Governmental policy prescriptions of any kind are peripheral to the all-consuming conflicts he inventories. The kind of separatist, ethnographic language that would typify conflicts like these in other nations is utterly absent from respectable American political discourse.

Gerson has hit on exactly why politically active Americans (as opposed to those who shrewdly ignore the fractious day-to-day on cable news) are at one another’s throats. He has also, though, identified why this factionalism is shallower than it appears. None of it is really about government.

In identifying two divergent “trends,” Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro incisively identifies the extent to which America’s political dialogue has become divorced from actual politics:

One is a fixation on small concerns that have little or nothing to do with official actions of governments, such as whose statues should be displayed in public and what NFL players do during the national anthem. The other is a fixation on concerns so large and amorphous they cannot obviously be addressed by public policy: for example, the more expansive versions of the ideas of white supremacy and structural oppression for the left; a sense of “losing our country” for the right.

Both trends have led to a politics that’s not very much about government anymore — and a politics where politicians make promises about cultural matters outside their control, setting themselves up to disappoint the voters.

Voters are responding to social trends—both the piddling and unfathomably complex—but nothing that the U.S. government can or should do anything to address.

Research published in Political Psychology by scholars Schatz and Levine found that “national symbolism evokes a psychological attachment to the nation as an abstracted social entity, but not as a concrete functional system.”

And by the way, I have a pet peeve about the notion that there actually are two distinct poles on any issue. Most of the things that we have to decide as a nation are far more complex than that. There are many sides, and by making them into team sport, where there are only two sides and you must agree with one or the other, you limit discourse and constrain the ways of looking at a problem.

The way we talk about these issues increases our perception that there is no room for agreement and that the only answer, therefore, is to eliminate the opposition.

I would make the humble suggestion that as a start the cable news networks could stop following internet trends to decide what stories should lead. Leave the identity building symbolic stories to thrive in their natural environment, social networks, and don’t dignify them with lead story status. Especially as it seems clear that these divisions are being amplified by outside forces.

Alain de Botton, writing in News: A User’s Manual said:

The most significant fact of political life, which almost no news organization will dare to acknowledge – because it would at a stroke exclude half of its speculations and disappointments – is that in some key areas of politics, nothing can be achieved very quickly by any one person or party; it would be impossible for anyone – not simply this fool or that group of cretins – to change matters at a pace that would flatter the expectations of the news cycle; and that in the case of certain problems, the only so-called ‘solutions’ will have to await a hundred years or more of incremental change, rather than a messianic leader, an international conference or a quick war.

Noah Rothman, over at Commentary, calls this making politics boring again:

It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions. In the process, however, that approach would murder a lucrative industry that has turned societal divisiveness into a sport.

On the basic structure of their government and the conduct of public affairs by its civil servants as outlined in the Constitution, Americans might find more common ground than they’d suspect.

To Throw Oneself, Continued

seductionI decided to test my theory that “to throw oneself at” is a gendered phrase– that a woman can “throw herself at” a man, but a man is rarely said to “throw himself at” a woman.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the phrase “to throw oneself at” and it defines it as referring to a woman:

to throw oneself or be thrown at (a man), of a woman, to put herself or be put designedly in the way of, so as to invite the attention of; to throw oneself into the arms of, to become the wife or mistress of.

Here are some of the early appearances:

1789 H. More Lett. (1925) 127 The women all threw themselves at his head.

1871 E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest IV. xviii. 231 Their wives were throwing themselves into the arms of other men.

1891 Besant in J. M. Dixon Dict. Idiomatic Eng. Phrases (1891) 336 As for the girls, Claire, they just throw themselves at a man.

So women have been flinging themselves for a while.

When I did a search on Google Books of “threw herself at,” of the ten snippets that appeared, six used “threw herself” in the sense of making a sexual or romantic advance on a man. When I did a search of “threw himself at” none of the snippets used the phrase in that way.

I don’t have the means at my disposal to be as scientific as Blatt, but given the limits of my research, I think I can confirm my hypothesis for the purposes of this blog.

I mentioned in my previous post that she “threw herself at him” has a different connotation and feeling than he “made a pass at her.” A pass seems to be a sport metaphor. You throw the ball, and the other person can catch it or drop it.

As for the origin of “make a pass at” in this sense, The OED didn’t have a lot to say, only noting that it is an Americanism and quoting Dorothy Parker’s famous “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” from 1925 as its first use in print.

This was probably not the first use of the phrase, Parker assumed her readers would know what she meant. It is interesting, however, that a man making a pass at a woman was, in its first recorded appearance in print, presented as desirable.

Men don’t welcome having a woman “throw herself” at him. In the examples in my limited and unscientific sample of Google books, it is most often used by a man as an excuse to his wife in order to minimize his responsibility in an affair. Inherent in the notion of “throwing oneself” is that it is at least undignified and humorous, if not outright shameful and humiliating. It is not worthy of a woman to “put herself designedly in the way of” a man. If she does, it is really not the man’s fault if he yields to the temptation, and anyway the woman is no threat because she is obviously not the kind of woman he would want to have a relationship with. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, but Girls who make passes are embarrassing asses.

Cue up a chorus of The Monkees Cuddly Toy…

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Adorable Way to Call Someone A Slut

I used to sing along to the Monkees “Cuddly Toy” when I was a little girl. It was not until years later that I realized that this song has got to be the most charming and adorable bit of slut shaming ever set to music.

It’s joined in the Monkees canon by loose-woman anthems “She Hangs Out” and “Star Collector,” all of which were sung by cute-as-a-button Davy Jones.  Interestingly, it also fell to Jones to make a song about a lack of commitment sound like a love song.

I wanna be free
Don’t say you love me, say you like me
But when I need you beside me
Stay close enough to guide me
Confide in me, whoa-oh-oh

I wanna hold your hand
Walk along the sand
Laughing in the sun
Always having fun
Doing all those things
Without any strings to tie me down
I wanna be free

In other words, if I’m understanding this right, he wants her to be there for him whenever he needs her, but when he’s not in the mood for her, she should respect his space and not try to tie him down, man.

When you’re a kid you learn by rote in school. You recite the Pledge of Allegiance even though you don’t know what the word “allegiance” means. The idea is that the refrain will lodge in your brain and become part of your thoughts.

When I sang along to these tunes was I assimilating their messages? If you are too promiscuous you can’t expect to be loved and if you’re a serious person you will be there for a man when he needs you, but not pressure him too much to return the favor.

 

To Live Unmoored from Social Norms

There was an article in the Guardian today that brought to mind some thoughts I was playing with here back in 2014.

On the new Netflix show Ozark, financial adviser Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is forced to launder millions of dollars in a rural red state, under threat of death from a Mexican drug cartel. In Billions, which finished its second season in May, viewers are meant to envy and respect mega–hedge-funder “Axe” (Damian Lewis), despite his evident criminality. And then there is the wildly popular Empire, about a hip-hop dynasty ruled by the ridiculously wealthy and brutal Lyon family.

Welcome to the new aspirational television, about a 1% that lives with impunity. These series center on brilliant, albeit extremely violent entrepreneurs. Our antiheroes have technical specialties they managed to turn into criminal know-how: on Ozark, money management becomes money laundering, and on Breaking Bad, high-school chemistry instruction becomes meth production.

These anti-heroes are born of the modern struggle to remain in the middle or upper middle class. We watch these characters and receive, I argued in my previous article, the same sort of thrill delivered by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.  We all, at times, feel burdened and constrained by society’s rules. Victorian England was still more of an honor/shame society than a good person/bad person society. People (at least those of Oscar Wilde’s class) felt most constrained on a day to day basis by the need to keep up a respectable appearance and to behave in morally upstanding ways. Therefore sexual vice and hedonism had a strong, dangerous appeal. The story of Dorian combined the pleasurable fantasy of being freed from social constraints with the horror of what society might look like if those constraints did not exist.

I argued in my article that in “modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.”

Dorian’s audience feared what would happen if sensuality and sexuality were decoupled from a sense of responsibility for one another. Today we are regularly confronted with stark images of what happens when money is decoupled from any sense of responsibility for others.

In her Guardian article Alissa Quart concluded: “Just ask the immensely wealthy man who is now our president and appears to say and do exactly what he wants to, regardless of the consequences: today, the ultimate luxury isn’t wealth itself. It is the ability to live unmoored from social norms, like the gods.”

Our temptation to abandon the community to satisfy our own desires excites and terrifies us.  Thus in fiction those who would be gods are destroyed and our bond of common responsibility is restored. The jury is still out on whether this is what happens in real life.

Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.

The British Working Class Social Comedy

There is a film genre that I enjoy quite a bit from the time I felPride_posterl in love with The Full Monty. For want of a better term, it’s the British working class social comedy. It’s best defined by examples: Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and one I found at the library the other day, the 2014 film Pride.

They focus on episodes in the lives of communities that are losing their cohesion and identity as a result of steel mills or mines closing.  (One of my favorite moments in Billy Elliot is when young Billy walks down the street running a stick along what seems to be a wall, youthfully unaware that it is a line of riot gear clad police called in to deal with a labor strike.)

The films are populated with every day men and women dealing with social change as a community and they are uplifting and funny, even when their small victories are set against a bleak background.

Mark Herman, the writer of Brassed Off, explained his inspiration on a site called Den of Geek:

Following his previous film, the Dudley Moore-headlined Blame It On The Bellboy (that was savaged by critics, and didn’t find much salvation with audiences), Mark Herman told me back in 2008 that “I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy, nobody would touch me with a bargepole”.

Eventually, “the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about”. Which is what he duly did.

A chance traffic jam was what led him to the north-eastern English town of Grimethorpe, a place he used to visit back in the 1970s when he sold bacon for a living. He recalled that “the miners’ strike [of the 1980s] was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media. Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it”.

It strikes me that while we’ve heard a lot about these sort of failing industrial communities here in the U.S. in the news in recent years, I can’t really think of a good example of an American “Brassed Off” or “Full Monty.” If you know of one, please let me know. The only movie that jumps to mind is Nebraska from 2013, which is shot in black and white and focuses on a man in a rural midwest town who is convinced by one of those “You may already have won” sweepstakes letters that he has a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska. He goes on a road trip with his son, with a stop in a fictional small Nebraska town being the highlight of the journey.

What is different in Nebraska is that it is more dark (its black and white cinematography may be part of what creates that mood). There is no small victory in Nebraska. It is also not really connected to the community it features. The travelers pass through and witness the place, but are not really part of it. It is an individual journey not a community journey.

Somehow this genre “feels” particularly British. I have posted before a clip of Stephen Fry discussing the differences between American and British humor and he puts forward the theory that American comedy is based on being the smartest guy in the room, a clever commentator on the surroundings, whereas the classic British comedy character is life’s loser. This clip quotes that segment of the Stephen Fry clip and challenges the notion.

 

One of the theories that the creator of this clip posits is that perhaps the American sense of optimism is eroding and that our sense of opportunity is becoming more like that of our British counterparts.

I have also found a number of recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic lamenting the “death” of the working class television sit com.

Wesley Morris, writing in The Australian, said:

In 2007, TV underwent a great expansion — beyond the major broadcast networks, beyond TVs and into all kinds of genres — just at the moment the economy shrank, and a fantasy emerged. As real people became poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more besides the point. All that space to tell new stories ended up dedicated to a limited set of jobs and an increasingly homogeneous notion of what work means.

These days, there are only a handful of workplace taxonomies in scripted TV. We’ve got police precincts, crime-and-forensics teams and legal-medical-beltway dramas. NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are a virtual sexy-calendar night. These shows might know what a blue collar is, but they’re class-unconscious: their characters don’t usually work for the explicit maintenance of their livelihoods. They work for comedy, for suspense, for sport. For the most part, TV cops, lawyers, bureaucrats and doctors inhabit the same kinds of toothsome residences and wear the same exquisitely tailored clothes, all showing off how fabulously art directors and costume designers earn a pay cheque. Sometimes we see more of their work than that done by the people who inhabit it. Now on TV, no matter what your actual job, almost everybody belongs to the same generic, vaguely upper-class class.

So where are the Roseanne’s and the Archie Bunkers? Is their absence to blame for some of the resentment of “rust belt” and rural voters who feel no one hears them? Has our comedy as well as our politics made them invisible?

The British writer and broadcaster Caitlin Moran has a theory that “a deliberate, systematic attack on the working classes” has made it harder to write mainstream comedy about those communities.  “Comedy needs your characters’ lives to stay static,” she said. “They have to be trapped in a frustrating box they can never get out of. But there was such a terrible decline in the lives of the working classes – which continues now – that there was no stable box to write from.”

I will have to give some more thought to whether the basis of comedy is, indeed, being trapped in a static situation. (This seems to go back to the question of British vs. American comedy and whether comedy is found in being the smartest person in the room, or in failure.)

Anyway, if you can recommend a good movie “for people who liked The Full Monty” let me know.

 

 

Oscar Wilde and The Irony of Atonement

wilde-fansEngland feels really bad about what it did to Oscar Wilde.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that they just posthumously pardoned him, along with thousands of other gay men. The apologies continue at the National Portrait Gallery where portraits of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas are being displayed side by side to mark society’s change in attitudes. The Evening Standard reports that this is part of a show marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

We’ve come a long way since William Powell offered to paint Wilde out of his “A Private View at the Royal Academy” in the wake of Wilde’s trials.

There is a small irony, however, in using Wilde to celebrate the 1967 change in the law.
If Wilde had been tried under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967,  he would have received a five year sentence rather than the two year sentence he did under the LaBouchere Amendment. The law that decriminalized gay sex set the age of consent at 21 and almost all of Wilde’s partners mentioned in court were younger than that, the youngest being sixteen and seventeen. (In 1994, the age of homosexual consent was lowered to 18 and then, in 2000, to sixteen bringing it in line with the age of heterosexual consent.)

To paraphrase our president: Who knew that history was so complicated?

Is Inequality Necessary?

511BEhcZ-cL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In 1492, two cultures collided. In my school we were taught to call this Columbus’s discovery of America. Of course, there were already people living here, and they equally discovered the Spanish. There are no written records of how the locals perceived of these strange new arrivals. Columbus, on the other hand, left a diary, which made it quite clear that he did not understand the local customs at all nor did he believe he had any reason to.

Reading Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, I was often reminded of Undiscovery Day in Ocean Shores, Washington. Each year on the last Saturday in April the residents of Ocean Shores commemorate the time George Vancouver sailed right by their town without discovering it. They go to the shore and shout “Hey George!” (And then presumably head to the bar for drinks.)

Todorov’s thesis is that Columbus managed to encounter the people of America without ever really discovering them.

When Columbus first met the people he called Indians he found them to be generous and a bit foolish. He could not understand why they would trade gold for worthless things like bits of glass.

“No more than in the case of languages does Columbus understand that values are conventional, that gold is not more precious than glass in itself, but only in the European system of exchange,” Todorov wrote, “…a different system of exchange is for him equivalent to the absence of a system from which he infers the bestial character of the Indians.”

The people he encountered did not possess private property. They had an egalitarian society.  “I seemed to discern that all owned a share of what one of them owned and particularly with regard to victuals.”

Another member of the crew confirmed that they owned everything as common property and would “make use of whatever they pleased; the owners gave no sign of displeasure.” The Spaniards seemed to admire this– until their neighbors extended it to their property, at which point they went from generous to thieving in their eyes even though their behavior had not actually changed.

Before we get too smug about Columbus’s blind spots, we should admit that we are really no better. Can you imagine a society without private property? Our system of organizing society is so ingrained that we are largely unaware that there could be any other way to do it. A few years ago I wrote about what Economic anthropologist David Graeber calls this “the founding myth” of economics, the idea that money evolved out of a system of barter. In fact, the opposite is true. The idea that objects and services have a comparable value that can be quantified and exchanged developed with money. In an interview posted on the blog Naked Capitalism, Graber explained:

Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

Buchan’s book, Frozen Desire, says that in ancient times there was “a contest between the moneyless and moneyed forms of social organizations…Money is normative. So pervasive is its influence on our lives that it makes less moneyed ages incomprehensible, consigning them to barbarism or folklore. Yet history is not inevitable: antiquity did not aspire to our present condition and might have generated a quite different present.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Buchan says, Britain for a time shifted to a non-monetary economy.  That means that in the time of Jesus and his contemporaries, the money model was not yet set in stone. We read accounts of Jesus telling his followers to take nothing with them, not to use money, and to rely on the kindness of others.  This is the old relationship model of commerce. Money was of Caesar. The Kingdom of God was to operate on an egalitarian system.

Yesterday I read an article on Big Think reporting on a study published in the journal Nature which argued that human sacrifice was not merely a religious ritual, but a means of social control.

Two-thirds of highly stratified societies once took part in the grisly act, while only a quarter of egalitarian cultures did. The groups who at one time practiced human sacrifice, had more rigid castes, titles that were inherited, and less social mobility. Researchers concluded that “ritual killings helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors and the large, stratified societies we live in today.” Though sociologists have posited such a hypothesis before, this is the first time it’s been scientifically studied.

Among many today, religion is thought to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet, this study, as Watts said, “…shows how religion can be exploited by social elites to their own benefit.” Since these societies prospered, it proved an effective method of social control. “The terror and spectacle [of the act] was maximized,” in order to achieve the desired effect, Watts told Science. Moreover, ritualized killings would’ve given pause to rivals considering a power play for the throne, foreign ministers mulling over war, and bands among the populace grumbling for rebellion.

Yet, Watts and colleagues posit that social cohesion and stratification was necessary to give humans the ability to develop large-scale agriculture, build cities, erect monumental architecture and public works projects, and to allow for greater capacities for science, art, and learning. Though these findings are thought provoking and significant, some experts wonder if the phylogenetic analysis proves a causal relationship, or merely hints at one.

One of the things that interested me was the researchers’ conclusion that stratification was necessary to have modern culture. There is a double assumption here. Not only that we need a division of labor to achieve large tasks, but that some of the people must receive a smaller share of the rewards for a division of labor to work. In other words, Watts cannot imagine a division of labor without a corresponding class system.

As with gold and glass beads, values are conventional. There is no objective reason that the manual laborer must receive a smaller compensation than the manager. One could imagine rather that a job like working overnight to clean the machines at the slaugherhouse, a job that is both unpleasant and dangerous, might be compensated more than a job like management which has non-monetary rewards like status and a clean working environment. Just because we cannot imagine a large-scale system with a division of labor that operates on an egalitarian system doesn’t mean that such a thing could not exist. (See also my article on the Western notion of History as a Straight Line.)

Yet the human sacrifice theory makes sense to me. In the shift from the “I owe you one” economy to the monetary economy, imagine how radical this idea must have been: that I am entitled to a smaller share of the pie because my job is different from yours. Creating a stratified society required more than just differentiating jobs. It meant convincing people that not only should they take the unpleasant slaughterhouse job, but that the work is not worthy of as much reward as the job of the manager. To get people to agree to that, you need force and maybe the voice of a god.