Friday, May 26, 2017

Roles reversed: how the barbarians got inside the gates and expelled all the good people.

Cotton Boll Conspiracy, the best blog there is, I have enjoyed for a decade even when I disagree with it. I don't disagree that often, which may be surprising- it is to me sometimes- given that its author toils by day for a conservative think tank in South Carolina.

But I like smart, articulate people, which CBC is going and coming; and CBC has, from time to time, praised my work here and over at Waldo Lydecker's Journal, which makes me feel as Dr Johson did getting wind of Lord chesterfield's favorable nod: "[I] could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le Vainqueur du Vainqueur de la Terre, that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the World contending..."

I once offered via email to stand CBC a beer, as we lived in the same city. I never got a reply and now am elsewhere.

Maybe CBC figured we would get along best in theory rather than practice. Elizabeth Lawrence, the North Carolina gardening columnist, and Katherine White, the Onward and Upward in the Garden writer for The New Yorker, extravagantly admired each other's work and corresponded for decades, but the one time they met in person was a bit of a trainwreck.

But were we having a beer this week, I'd have to chivvy him a bit over a recent post on what he views as the silliness and vainglory of people who write about the persistent white-maleness of the gatekeepers of literature these days. He finds his examples, he says, a "type of myopia when I come across odd concepts that seem to sweep academia and other insular professions with regularity."

Not at all like ideologically-centered think tanks, no, not at all. There toil renaissance men like the former ad man turned South Carolina senator turned philospher-king of the Heritage Foundation, the recently dethroned Jim DeMint.

It's one of those straw-man pieces the right likes to toss out on slow days, picking out- and on- expansive manifestos by easy targets: one of those he cites, then observes,
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harron is a black female. 
CBC goes on at some length about how good literature is like porn- we know it when we see it, and- in both cases- we like what we like and if someone else says we need to embrace more diverse fetishes authors, well, you can just keep your E.L. James any that girl's inner goddess to yourself. I'll stick with Frank Harris's sepia photos and vaguely lubricious Edwardian lusts, thanks very much.

CBC puts those academic ax-grinders in their places:
While the rest of the world goes about working and trying to make do, these sorts, who seem to have a good bit of time on their hands, are hell bent on stirring the pot in trying to convince outsiders that their eccentric ideas are cutting edge, rather than on the fringe.
That's an old Southern trope, of course. When I was a lad it was slathered on "pointy-headed intellectuals" by Governor George Wallace.

CBC's post is provocative and worth reading, but still, I believe, largely an essay in missing the point. One of the advantages academics have is the luxury and time for reading, study, and thought- things denied "regular folks" like him and his Bay Area-raised, 1960s-non-hippie parents.

So college profs come up with ideas normal people don't like (my Oxford politics tutor told me much of the professional literature in the field worried the topic, "Nothing should ever be done for the first time").

Some ideas are outlandish when first launched. Louis Brandeis' theory of an individual right of privacy, cooked up- perhaps cocked up, CBC might say- in that activist Harvard Law Review.

The notion that I might be entitled to approximately the same civil rights as CBC is the work of a half century of historians, law profs and other sorts of academicals who recovered the suppressed record of LGBT life in America, and then hung those who adore discrimination on their own Founder-fetishist rhetoric.

Just 40 years ago, for example, American doctors' professional standing was challenged for suggesting there really wasn't any valid data supporting the idea that homosexuality was a mental disorder.

The American society of professional historians tried to drum Martin Duberman out of their ranks for publishing some early studies and histories of LGBT life. Scores of others- Charles Eskridge, Kenji Yoshino, George Chauncey, Peter Gay, Gary Gates, Andrew Sullivan, M. Lee Badgett, to name a handful- have done the hard work that forced complacent censors of learning to up their game (among the more comic casualties of those whose work could no longer be taken as gospel because there was nothing to refute it was a respected University of South Carolina Medical School professor, George Rekers. After years of publishing, creating think tanks to validate his and his peers' work, and hoovering up taxpayer expert witness fees providing an academic grounding for homophobia in law, Rekers was caught out a few years ago, shlepping the luggage at the Miami airport for himelf and an online rent-boy, "Jovanni", Rekers claimed he hired to handle the grips over a long European holiday, what with Rekers' bad back and all).

Every idea was radical once. The writer Douglas Adams neatly summed up how people forget that:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
So slagging academies as cloud-cuckoo lands is gratifying, in a gorging-on-cotton-candy way, but really can't be taken seriously.

Unless, of course, one takes the view that everything out of college or university is bad, which is pretty much the current position of the American conservative movement.  As Mark Noll wrote of the Republican Party at prayer, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

 CBC, after getting good and wound up, proclaims,
I don’t need holier-than-thou sorts to tell me of the pleasures of Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Annie Proulx, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Lise Funderburg, David Sedaris or Pearl Buck, all of whom I’ve read recently. I also am not going to listen to some busybody tell me that I shouldn’t pick up Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and James Fenimore Cooper, all of whom I’ve also enjoyed recently.
All of whom but three, I note are long dead, and all but one of whom are white. I am tempted to observe,
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cotton Boll Conspiracy is a white male from South Carolina.
The academics CBC rubbishes are simply arguing that people ought to consider reading more mindfully, more broadly, and to make the effort to find the authors who struggle to get mainstream publishers whose gatekeepers are mostly white guys, and the reviewers of whose products are, too.

If 60% of Australian authors are female, why does their work get less than a third of reviews in the Aussie press? Why is is so hard to get English translations of foreign authors- good translations, even harder? In academic publishing, why are there so few women authors in any field among the top titles? Why were the Greek and Roman classics purged of all non-negative accounts of homosexuality, and why was the US Postal Service still suing its authors for obscenity into the 1960s?

Those are questions CBC might ponder were he an academic with the time to think more and more deeply, rather than a normal, real-world guy just trying to make a living.

That's one of the tradeoffs in life. Some get to preen about excelling at normalcy; others think up tomorrow's conservative eternal verities (except of course, for Buckleyites who oppose it all, all the time, forever, athwart the world, crying, "STOP!").

CBC often delivers what E.B. White called "this chesty dictum" before summing up less radically, and his post I consider today is no exception:
Good literature is good literature, no matter who writes it. 
Dadabhob finishes her piece in The Daily Dot with the following: “… almost everyone, regardless of gender or race, could stand to enjoy more literature from a broader range of authors.” 
I would amend her statement to simply say that almost everyone, regardless of gender or race could stand to enjoy more literature – period.
Which is where I'd agree with him and buy the next round. It's the faux-lowbrowism that propels the piece that would make him buy the jumbo plate of nachos to go with it. Not agreeing with stuff doesn't make it wrong. Maybe we just can't see its merits yet. Famously atheist, H.L. Mencken was asked what he'd say if he died and found himself before God and the angelic hosts.

Mencken puffed his cigar and replied,
I'd say, 'Gentlemen, I was wrong.'

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