Cultural Cowardice

In his Feb. 18 column, David Brooks uses the story of the Prodigal Son to explore contemporary social dynamics. He writes:

“We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers. The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: ‘You need to be more like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work harder.’

“But the father in this parable exposes the truth that people in the elder brother class are stained, too. The elder brother is self-righteous, smug, cold and shrewd. The elder brother wasn’t really working to honor his father; he was working for material reward and out of a fear-based moralism. The father reminds us of the old truth that the line between good and evil doesn’t run between people or classes; it runs straight through every human heart.”

What a load of nonsense. To begin, the qualities that enable one to become a contributing member of society – working hard, playing by the rules – have nothing to do with questions of good and evil.

I agree that one group should not self-righteously lecture another but only because this is a poor strategy for persuasion. On the other hand, a group that is taxed to the hilt to support their fellow citizens should have some right to expect certain conduct from their beneficiaries. If a goal of society to help people not just reach their potential but stand on their own two feet then it seems appropriate to hold up folks who have accomplished that as role models.

The main problem here is the pervasive moral relativism and cultural cowardice that Brooks’ views represent. One of the great problems in America is that successful people tend to live by traditional values – they work hard, have children after marriage, stay married, and even go to church at higher rates – yet they are afraid to trumpet them. This does more harm to the poor than any budget cut. The one exception is identity politics; there the powers that be are eager to punish those who stray from their orthodoxy (eg. Paula Deen and Phil Roberts). I wish they would exhibit the same confidence in regards to other values issues.


Can the rich cover the poor?

I have begun wondering if one result of the inequality developing in America is that the highly educated people who get paid to diagnose the country’s problems have precious little knowledge about the poor. That is, whenever they describe the poor, they tend to ascribe to them the values of the upper middle class. In their minds, the poor want to work hard, have 2.5 children, a house with a white picket fence, drink wine with their book club friends, etc. My questions have been prompted by Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart,” which suggests that many poor Americans have different values than their richer countrymen.

I was thinking about that while reading a Sunday Review piece in today’s Times on modern marriage. About 90 percent of it charted broad changes in marriage over time. The basic idea was that poor, middle and rich – we were all governed by these general trends. Briefly, since the 1960s we have become much more selfish about marriage looking it as a means of personal fulfillment rather than a partnership.

At the end, we get this:

“Though this is not a specifically socioeconomic phenomenon, it does have a socioeconomic dimension. One of the most disturbing facts about American marriage today is that while divorce increased at similar rates for the wealthy and the poor in the 1960s and ’70s, those rates diverged sharply starting around 1980. According to the sociologist Steven P. Martin, among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference.

“The problem is not that poor people fail to appreciate the importance of marriage, nor is it that poor and wealthy Americans differ in which factors they believe are important in a good marriage. The problem is that the same trends that have exacerbated inequality since 1980 — unemployment, juggling multiple jobs and so on — have also made it increasingly difficult for less wealthy Americans to invest the time and other resources needed to sustain a strong marital bond.”

I drew three things from this. First, here was an entire piece about marriage that didn’t get to the startling news until the end. You can bet that if the numbers were reversed and the rich were far more likely to get divorced, that stat would have been in the lede.

Second, is the assumption that the poor want exactly the same things from marriage that the better off do. This seems logical – why shouldn’t they want all the good things I do? But I would love to see some evidence. These are scholars, after all! Is it possible that the life experience of many of the poor has led them to see marriage differently?

Third, I love the conflation of unemployment and juggling many jobs. In my experience these facts often produce very different results. People who are working many jobs are not bone tired and unable to meet their commitments but highly effective people who are far more likely to find the time to invest in their relationships – and help their kids with their homework – than the chronically unemployed. I don’t have stats to back that up and maybe I’m wrong. But lumping all poor people together doesn’t seem right.

How to Read in 2014

Frank Bruni’s column in today’s Times reminded me of this piece from last year. Happy New Year!


By J. Peder Zane

Ross Douthat must live in the eye of the hurricane. While the rest of us feel battered by months of bitter negotiation over the fiscal cliff and are bracing for more punishment as the debt ceiling fight brews, the New York Times columnist sees the new year as a sea of tranquility.

In “How to Read in 2013,” he observed that this is “a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race.” Given the vicious, Manichean tone of contemporary politics, this is tantamount to saying “hey, we’re only facing a Category 4 storm this year.” Yet, Douthat casts it as a rare opportunity for political junkies to engage in quiet reflection. Hemingwayesque grace under pressure or brazen denial of reality? Who can say? But you have to admire his moxie.

He says readers should take this opportunity to decamp from their partisan echo chambers and explore alternative sources of news and opinion. “If you love National Review’s political coverage,” he writes, “add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell.”

This recommendation is sensible to the point of cliché. Open our minds, yes! But his list has so many usual suspects that it could have been cobbled together by Captain Louis from “Casablanca.” This might be wise if the prestigious publications and writers he cites had the cure for what ails us. But, truth be told, they – and, more accurately, the much larger mainstream in which they swim – are part of the problem he is addressing. Their reports may be more insightful than the average story on MSNBC or Fox News, but they rarely surprise us. For the most part, they are partisan, predictable voices that provide neat summaries of how people like themselves should think. If you’re liberal, you won’t find much in the New Yorker to challenge your views; same goes for conservative devotees of the Weekly Standard.

Hence, Douthat does not portray his recommendations as broad and generous sources able to weigh the competing claims of complex evidence to help us draw honest conclusions about how things are. Instead, he presents them as counterweights that might help us achieve some balance. None is perfectly proportioned – they are oil and vinegar; it’s up to us to shake them.

This also ignores a central premise of his column: that we readers like our echo chambers, which is why he must prod us to leave them. It’s not enough to reach out to new sources, we must also be able to give them a fair hearing, instead of sifting them for points of contention that we can use to confirm our existing views.

A more balanced diet of unbalanced mainstream voices is not the cure for what ails us. I wish I could suggest my own list of political writers with such scope (though they may be out there). I wish I could recommend some under-the-radar publications that look at politics with fresh and generous perspectives.

Unfortunately, even in the best of times political writing is geared toward making strong arguments and taking sides – a confrontational, take-no-prisoners approach that has been exacerbated in these not so great times. Nowadays, it is a blood sport marked by a poisonous tone which focuses on dismissing and delegitimizing opposing views – hence the cries of “racist,” “moron” and “communist.”

At bottom, the problem Douthat highlights is not political, but spiritual. Our challenge is not figuring out where we should stand on social security, but how we can live together in a civil society. What we need are writers who are not just thoughtful and informed but transcendent, able to rise above our mucky fray to help us see the fundamental issues at stake. We need writers who, by their example, urge us to not just learn what’s in our own mind but to understand why people of good will can see the same issue differently. We need writers who recall the first lesson of persuasive writing – to convince the crowd, take opponent’s strongest arguments seriously. See your opponent’s logic; identify its aspect that appeal to you and then explain why you make difference choices.

To move toward this goal, we should not wade deeper into the storm, but find a safe harbor. In 2013 we should read less political journalism and more literature. Paradoxically, by reading more works that seem less relevant to what is going now we can gain a deeper perspective on current events.

The great issue of literature, like politics, is gaining the self-knowledge that allows us to get along with one another. But where politics aims toward specific solutions, literature explores complexity and ambiguity. Shakespeare endures, in part, because he offers so few answers. His characters are timeless because they face the dilemmas and contradictions of life. William Faulkner suggested this when he said that good writing is about “the problem of the human heart in conflict with itself.”

Great books urge us to surrender ourselves to another mind, and, through the writers’ gifts, to inhabit the consciousness of the characters they create. They allow us to transcend ourselves and see the world through another person’s eyes. They teach that most human yet all too rare quality whose absence fuels our current ugliness – empathy.

My recommendation may sound a bit airy to the hardboiled political types who just want answers. But this objection fails to take into account the pragmatic nature of the mind. It is a wondrously efficient device that absorbs vast quantities of information (visual, oral, etc.), which is filters and processes to attach meaning to experience.

This is what’s meant by the old saying “we don’t read books, books read us.” Each of reads the same work slightly differently because we bring different experiences, assumptions and questions to it. In his engaging new memoir, “The End of Your Life Book Club,” Will Schwalbe discusses the book he read with his extraordinary mother as she was suffering from pancreatic cancer. They couldn’t help but read these books through the lens of death.

Similarly, political junkies will read the works of Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad and Roberto Bolano through their own lens. They will see each drawing room scene and contretemps as a metaphor for brass knuckle showdowns. They will be surprised, for example, to learn how much P.G. Wodehouse – the great comic novelist whose books center on resolving the competing claims of offbeat characters – has to teach them about handling partisan strife.

This reading strategy is no panacea. It has taken us decades to come to this nasty point and may take at least as long for us to move from it. None of us has the power to change the world. But each of us – and this is Douthat’s main point – has the capacity to improve ourselves. Too many of us feed the culture we disdain; like the muckraker in “The Pilgrim’s Progress”  we “look no way but downward.” Great books offer us an opportunity to raise our sights and take a wider view of ourselves and all around us.

Louis D. Rubin Jr.’s Fellowship

In memory of Louis D. Rubin Jr., who passed earlier this week, here is a piece I wrote about him and the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2007.

William Faulkner had been gone for a quarter-century when the brightest stars in Southern letters first convened to celebrate the joys of life and literature. Called the Fellowship of Southern Writers, they’ve met every two years since 1989 to kindle a sense of kinship and try to unravel the enigmatic question Faulkner posed in “Absalom, Absalom!”:

“Tell me about the South. What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?”

But the story of the South has never been just moonlight and magnolias, and the fellowship, despite the festivity of its gatherings, has always been haunted by death. That fact is much on the mind of one of its founding members, Louis D. Rubin Jr.

In the cluttered study of his Fearrington Village home, Rubin, 83, describes the vintage photograph of literary giants who helped him start the fellowship. His voice fills with rueful playfulness born from long years of looking at life at head-on, this is how it is, as he moves across the bottom row:

“Cleanth Brooks, he’s dead. Blyden Jackson, he’s dead. Elizabeth Spencer. Andrew Lytle he’s dead.” Moving to the back row of standing figures, Rubin continues:

“Lewis P. Simpson, he’s dead. George Core, George Garrett. Fred Chappell. Shelby Foote he’s dead. C. Van Woodward he’s dead. Walter Sullivan he’s dead. Myself, going fast, and Sally Robinson.”

Rubin, the author of more than 50 books and an editorial genius who helped launch the careers of Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle and John Barth among others, is now focusing his boundless energies on ensuring that the fellowship does not go the way of its founders.

“I believe the original reasons we had for starting this group to recognize that there is a thing called Southern literature, to honor those who have defined it and to recognize those who are redefining its purpose and legacy every day are still valid,” he says. “To continue and expand those efforts, we have to get our house in order.”

Throughout its history, the fellowship has concentrated on three main tasks, starting with organizing its biennial conference at its home base in Chattanooga, Tenn. The group also awards eight prizes each year, mostly to younger writers who are placing a stamp on Southern poetry, drama and fiction. The other task is maintaining the elite membership, which is capped at 50. This has kept the all-volunteer group plenty busy.

“Writers live complicated lives,” Rubin said with a laugh. “Most have teaching duties and their own work to attend to as well as the occasional divorce, health scare and other personal problems that seem to go with the territory.”

But he’s no longer satisfied with relying on the initiative of a few members. So last month, the fellowship jettisoned its informal structure and elected its first board of directors to help transform the group from one that bestows honors to an active outfit that spreads the good news of Southern literature. Among the board’s first acts was the appointment of the fellowship’s first executive director, Susan Robinson, to help coordinate and publicize the group’s work.

“We want to raise the visibility of the awards and widen the net of recognition for good writing,” said novelist Richard Bausch, the group’s chancellor and a member of the first board. The 10-year plan seeks to ramp up the fellowship’s writers-in-schools efforts, launch a program of readings/conferences around the country, publish a newsletter about its activities and organize fund-raising campaigns to pay for it all.

While the Fellowship is responding to its own aims and concerns, its push reflects a larger movement among arts groups across the country. As funding sources have dried up and mainstream media outlets have curtailed coverage, many organizations have discovered the empowerment of self-reliance.

“There is a new type of aggressiveness on the part of arts organizations as they realize that if they don’t market themselves, if they don’t do outreach, no one will do it for them,” said Felicia Knight, director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts.

One example: For much of its 33-year history, the National Book Critics Circle like the Fellowship focused its efforts on awards. Four years ago, with newspaper space for reviews shrinking, it began sending members to book conferences, sponsoring literary panels and maintaining a Web site, Critical Mass, as a source for news and views about good writing. The result: Paid membership has more than doubled, to 716.

The NEA’s Knight observed: “After years of despair, arts groups are taking up the challenge and telling the public why their work matters, why it’s worth supporting.”

Finding a voice

The landscape of Southern literature is ever-changing, but Rubin says the forces that necessitated the fellowship have not abated. For one thing, a narrow focus on Northeastern writers persists in New York’s powerhouse book world.

“Last year, when The New York Times named the best novels of the last 25 years, they asked very few Southerners to vote, and consequently, very few works by Southerners made the list,” he said. “We have tried to provide a forum, especially for young writers, so their work wouldn’t be judged by people who thought everyday life in the South was freakish or unimportant.”

Hillsborough essayist Hal Crowther underscored this point in a phone interview: “About 10 years ago I asked this really well educated editor, a good friend, a New Yorker, ‘Which Southern writers do you like?’ He couldn’t come up with anybody.”

Such disregard helped fuel the fellowship, which Rubin said was the brainchild of the literary critic Cleanth Brooks (1906-94), who had spent his life trumpeting the work of others.

“He talked about it for years, but I resisted it because I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” said Rubin, who founded Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill. “After Cleanth’s wife died, he brought it up again, and I figured it was the right thing to do.”

Its logical home was one of the region’s two main literary hubs, Vanderbilt University or UNC-Chapel Hill. Both were rejected, Rubin said, “because they were associated with particular groups of writers, and we didn’t want to appear to be associated with any cult or writing center.”

Impressed by the Southern Conference on Literature, organized by the Arts & Education Council of Tennessee, Rubin contacted the group. It leapt at the chance to host the fellowship and establish a symbiotic relationship. Since 1989, the council has hosted the group at its biennial Southern Conference on Literature in Chattanooga. In turn, the fellowship’s literary firepower has added a major draw to the event.

The conference has enabled Southern writers to meet their readers and their heroes. Tar Heel novelist Clyde Edgerton remembers walking into a small room two decades ago when he was just starting out.

“There were Eudora Welty, Walker Percy and James Dickey,” he said. “I just stood there looking at the backs of the heads of these people, my literary gods.”

Doris Betts, the Chatham County writer, recalls eating breakfast with Mississippi writer Ellen Douglas. “I’d read her for years but had never met her,” Betts said. “It was such a privilege to spend time with her.”

Another board member, retired UNC-CH professor John Shelton Reed, remembers drinking bourbon with poet Andrew Lytle. So does Edgerton: “He loved talking about bourbon almost as much he loved drinking it.”

Edgerton, who plays a mean banjo, also remembers the jam sessions with various artists/musicians, including Rubin on harmonica.

Sense of community

It’s more accurate to say that the fellowship tapped into, rather than created, a strong sense of community among Southern writers. But it is hard to overstate the role it plays in maintaining that sense of camaraderie.

At a time when the idea of the South, not to mention Southern literature, can seem archaic, when the arrival of newcomers and the rise of global economy are transforming traditional culture, the fellowship’s gatherings offer stark reminders of kinship.

“You get in the same room with all these folks, and you realize how much you have in common,” Reed said. “There’s no question that the humor is similar and different from what it is in the rest of the country. There are shared assumptions, things that go without saying, the joke ahead of the joke.”

Edgerton adds: “The fellowship meetings have become like a family reunion, where you run into people you don’t see but once every two years but still feel close to them. You end up talking about history and names and funny family stories and food, always food, because that’s what Southerners do.”

The organization hopes to spread those feelings of regional identity and pride that sense of fellowship its members feel with writers and readers across the South. Rubin believes its reorganization will allow it to better fulfill its core mission: to celebrate and encourage literary greatness.

“When we started the Fellowship of Southern Writers, we wanted to create a group that would outlive us all,” Rubin said. “I do believe we are well on our way.”

To fix schools, stop moralizing

My second News & Observer column ran today.

“Most everybody agrees that education is a key to success and that our urgent and daunting challenge is to figure out how to help students reach their potential in an increasingly competitive world.

“Unfortunately, the broad common ground we stand upon is riven by the deep and ugly partisan divide that runs across North Carolina and the nation. Instead of focusing on solving our perilous problems, too many of us engage in schoolyard name calling and demagogic claims to the moral high ground. Labeling those we see as opponents as shameful, extreme and selfish is hardly an argument and certainly not a solution.”


Jonathan Miles: Author keeps the tales pouring

I wrote this for the Raleigh News & Observer in 2008 when Jonny published his first novel and am reprinting it as he publishes his second, “Want Not.” Read more about Jonny at

Alcohol has been very, very good to Jonathan Miles.

The ecstasies and sorrows of drink are at the center of the 37-year-old’s first novel, “Dear American Airlines.” The darkly funny, achingly poignant portrait of a recovering alcoholic trapped at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport received a warm review from Richard Russo on the cover of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

As he worked on the novel, he began writing his Sunday column on cocktails, Shaken and Stirred, for the Times.

During the 1990s, he wooed his wife, Catherine now a wine importer from his favorite barstool at the City Grocery restaurant in Oxford, Miss., where she worked as a manager.

His writing life began in the early 1990s when he befriended novelist and legendary drinker Larry Brown. “I couldn’t ask for a better education than driving around Mississippi, drinking beer and talking about books and writing with Larry,” Miles said.

Booze even gave him his name. After World War II, his Polish grandfather was sitting with his brothers at a Cleveland pub trying to come up with a last name that sounded more American than Mozelski. They couldn’t agree on anything until someone noticed the name of the street the bar was on Miles Road.

“I’ve been around alcohol my whole life,” Miles said by phone from his upstate New York home. “I’m fascinated by all its facets, especially how it can enhance life so beautifully and destroy it so completely. That’s one reason I like to hang out in bars: You see people in extremis, at their happiest and saddest.”

Miles has done far more than warm barstools. The college dropout has enjoyed tremendous success since becoming a freelance writer in 1994. He has written for Esquire, GQ, Food & Wine, Sports Afield and Men’s Journal, where he writes a column on books. His articles have been included in the 1997, 1999 and 2000 editions of “The Best American Sports Writing” and the 2005 edition of “The Best American Crime Writing” series.

With that track record, it seems only natural that Houghton Mifflin would make his first novel its lead fiction title this summer, sending him on a 17-city tour.

Mesmerized in Mississippi

His life only seems as smooth as 12-year-old Scotch; it is more akin to the colorful drinks served in coconut shell glasses with paper umbrellas and spears of fruit. Miles was reared in Cleveland and Phoenix, where his father worked at various jobs and his mother was a homemaker who loved popular fiction.

“I was such an avid enough reader growing up that I’d go to Walden Books at the mall and shoplift Louis L’Amour books,” Miles remembers.

Also a fan of science fiction, he exhibited the freelancer’s crucial networking skills at a tender age when he wrote Isaac Asimov to see if they might become pen pals. “He balked at the long-term thing but gave me the only advice that matters: ‘Read as much as possible; write as much as possible.’ ”

Still, music was his first love. After graduating from high school in Phoenix, he returned to Cleveland, living with one of his two sisters, playing blues guitar at local clubs. On Sundays he’d sit in with Robert Jimmy Lockwood, stepson of blues legend Robert Johnson, who mesmerized Miles with stories of the Mississippi.

“I’d already discovered Faulkner, so I just had to see this place,” Miles said. Without ever having crossed the Mason-Dixon line, he applied to the University of Mississippi in 1989.

Miles’ tenure at Ole Miss was short-lived, but he fell in love with the town of Oxford. He lived in a $30 a month “Unibomber type” shack, worked at a series of “boy jobs bus boy, lawn boy, bag boy at the grocery store” and became part of the town’s close-knit community of writers and musicians

“I just met Larry Brown at a bar one night,” Miles recalled. Many drinks led to dinner, which became memorable when Brown spotted a banker who’d turned him down for a loan. The well-lubricated novelist mounted the man’s table “and did this slow twist,” Miles said, laughing. “He finished the whole song with his boots in the banker’s meal and I’m thinking, yeah, I’m going to hang out with this guy a lot.” Brown, who died in 2004, would became a “second father” to Miles, who dedicates his novel to him.

No autobiography here

As he worked on his fiction, Miles took his first writing job in 1994, as a reporter at the Oxford Eagle. All was well until Miles added what he considered an essential fact to an already edited obituary the deceased had been Faulkner’s bootlegger.

His angry boss told Miles the paper did not print people’s crimes in their obits. “I told him,” Miles recalled, ” ‘Bootlegging is not a crime, it’s a service.’ That was my last day at the paper.”

It was the start of his freelance career, writing for the locally published national magazine, The Oxford American, and pitching stories about Mississippi to New York-based publications. He was still living in his primitive shack when Will Blythe, a GQ editor and Chapel Hill native, gave him some invaluable advice: “If you’re thinking about doing this for a living, you might want to invest in a phone.”

As his journalism career took off, Miles continued to write fiction. He spent years writing more than 700 pages of a novel about “my great love for Mississippi” before realizing he could never finish it. When his agent asked him how it was going, he said “great.”

This was only a half-lie. Miles was expanding an old short story based on a personal experience a Memphis-Chicago-New York flight he’d taken that had been forced to land in Peoria. Miles and the other passengers were bused late at night to Chicago’s O’Hare where he slept under a restaurant table. He was furious, until he considered that he was only going to New York to meet friends for drinks. “I started looking around thinking someone is missing something important, something essential. What would that fury be like?”

That thought gave birth to his novel’s protagonist, Bennie Ford, a failed poet and translator of Polish novels who is trying to get to Los Angles to attend the wedding of his estranged daughter. In a drunken life where most everything’s gone wrong, he was hoping to do one thing right: walk his daughter down the aisle.

Through delays and cancellations, American Airlines has denied him that chance at redemption. The letter he writes while stuck at O’Hare demanding a refund becomes a 180-page examination of his hopes and failings.

“I’m happy to say there’s not a shred of autobiography in this novel,” Miles said. “Bennie is a nightmare of what I could have become, of what I’ve seen other people become.”

In defense of hipsters

The odd nostalgia for poverty and grime never seems to fade. It is usually at the core of arguments made against gentrification: the idea that the poor and downtrodden are more interesting, more real and more alive than their wealthier brethren.

The irony is that such arguments are almost made by the well-off, who miss the romantic character of the neighborhoods they have remade (and never would have lived in). The latest example of this mindset is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s New York Times essay, “How Hipsters Ruined Paris.” It focuses on an area in the 9th arrondissement which he describes as “the original gay Paree,” a mixture of seediness and artistic creativity, “the Paris of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Gustave Moreau and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.”

He writes: “But it’s disappearing. Today, the neighborhood has been rechristened ‘South Pigalle’ or, in a disheartening aping of New York, SoPi. Organic grocers, tasteful bistros and an influx of upscale American cocktail bars are quietly displacing the pharmacies, dry cleaners and scores of seedy bar à hôtesses that for decades have defined the neighborhood.

Everybody likes a good pharmacy or dry cleaner; their loss is a minor tragedy. But Williams saves his concern for the disappearing “hostess bars.” In 2005 there were 85 such brothels in the area, now there are 20.

He continues: “I have never quite gotten used to the transsexual hookers who traipse the Boulevard de Clichy outside the area’s various sex shops and with whom I must share the carnivalesque sidewalk on my way in and out of the post office. Frankly, they make me uncomfortable.

“But I’ve come to see that unease as a good thing the longer I stay in this corner of France, a country where the world’s oldest profession continues to enjoy a special patrimonial status and where, try as it might, the government can’t seem to un-sew that tawdry patch from the national quilt. “

Two things interest me about this. First is the balancing of interests in our victim society. As a good feminist, one could applaud France’s efforts to clamp down on a coercive and demeaning profession. But Williams ignores that point because he is defending a different victim of oppression: the gritty old French soul that is being destroyed by rich yuppies. Williams likes the hookers and others because they perform a different kind of service for the well-heeled (around whom all life revolves): “We should be grateful to be jolted from our anesthetized routines, confronted when we can be with surroundings and neighbors that are not injection-molded to the contours of our own bobo predilections. Too much of modern urban life revolves around never feeling less than fully at ease; about having even the minutest of experiences tailored to a set of increasingly demanding and homogeneous tastes — from the properly sourced coffee grounds that make the morning’s flat white to the laboriously considered iPod soundtracks we rely on to cancel the world’s noise. The logical extension is to ‘curate’ our urban spaces like style blogs or Pinterest boards representing a single, self-satisfied and extremely sheltered expression of middle- and upper-middle-class sensibility.”

This argument has been made a million times before, which doesn’t make it right or wrong. The problem is that Williams fails to confront the fact that people with money and means have decided – as an act of free will and self-determination – to curate their urban spaces. The smart, hip people who are more aware of the diversity on this planet than any generation before them, have decided to live what he considers a homogenous, self-satisfied existence. They know all about grittiness, seediness and bad coffee, and they have chosen something else.

To my mind Williams gives away the game in the last paragraph when he writes: “People say you had to be in … New York in the ’80s.”

Really? Who? I grew up in New York in the 70s and 80s – it was a rat hole. My upper west side neighborhood featured hookers in front of the Food City supermarket on 80th and Broadway and a thriving drug mart on 80th and Amsterdam. After crack arrived, homeless men positioned themselves on almost every block, demanding money. That was not a golden era. I don’t know anybody who misses that – or the blight that made the lower east side so colorful and dangerous.

Perhaps those neighborhoods are interesting today – they are certainly less filthy and menacing. Williams’ claim is especially strange given that one of the biggest fears in the New York mayoral race was that Bill de Blasio would return to the city to those bad old days. Far from a golden era, the 80s are remembered as a cautionary warning.

My old neighborhood – where my mom still lives – is less colorful than it used to be, but that’s not because of the flight not of hookers and drug dealers but of bookstores, movie houses and people who cared much more deeply about ideas.  If it is suffering at all (I haven’t been there in years), the 9th arrondissement’s problems are more likely due to the disappearance of artists such as Dumas and Hugo than of hookers.

Will Americans pay for their government?

In yesterday’s Raleigh News & Observer, I argued that the Affordable Care Act is a signature moment because it forces middle-class Americans to finally begin paying the price for big government. Of course, this was all done through subterfuge. The President promised the law would save us money –  and if we didn’t like what it had to offer, we could keep our existing policy. That lie really was crucial, because it promised us that we could opt out of his grand experiment, so why not let him give it a try?

In fact, the ACA is a huge redistribution of wealth from the haves and the have-somes, to the have-lesses. That may be appealing to some Americans. But I am convinced that if the ACA had been presented truthfully, it never would have barely passed by hook and crook. Some fresh evidence for this comes from a state that has been trending blue, Colorado. Voters there were faced with exactly this choice in the clearest terms in the form a $1 billion education bond. The New York Times reports: “Had the referendum passed, the current flat state income tax rate of 4.6 percent would have been replaced with a two-tier system. Residents with taxable incomes below $75,000 would have paid 5 percent; taxable incomes above $75,000 would have been taxed at 5.9 percent. The measure would have poured money into poor, rural school districts, expanded preschool, bought new technology and encouraged local innovations like longer school days and school years, supporters said.

“But the promise of higher teacher salaries and full-day kindergarten failed to resonate with voters, even in many reliably blue corners of the state and areas where the money would have had the greatest benefit. The state voted 65 percent to 35 percent against the overhaul, known as Amendment 66.”

That is democracy in action. 

Finding hope in disaster

Knee-jerk pessimism was the default response among the intelligentsia for as long as John Stuart Mill could remember. “I have observed,” he wrote in 1828, “that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

Back then, life was short, nasty and brutish. Today, not so much for many of us. Yet the dark glass remains the lens of choice that many writers are unable to fully appreciate the deep reasons for optimism in their own work. Today’s example is A.O. Scott’s essay in the New York Times with the predictably chilling headline, “Facing a Pitiless Void.” It uses three new movies about people struggling to survive –  old man Robert Redford’s battle with the sea (All is Lost), Tom Hank’s struggle with Somali buccaneers (“Captain Phillips”) and Sandra Bullock’s lost in space adventures (“Gravity”) – to explore the changing nature of moves about catastrophes.

The piece pivots on a quote by Susan Sontag who was so wrong about so much and yet influential because so many people agreed with her. Scott writes: “ ‘Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” Susan Sontag concluded in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” “ ‘For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large ratios by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters.’ ”

Perhaps her quote had some resonance during the height of the Cold War, although “inconceivable terror” plummeted by orders of magnitude between 1945 and 1965. And one woman’s banality is another person’s good times.

The larger question is why would Scott trot this outdated analysis now? As his piece continues he shows how disaster movies increasingly reflect the reality that we live in a much safer world. The terrors and threats keep getting smaller. He continues: “Sontag’s essay appeared a few years before the rise of the disaster movie as a commercial genre in its own right, but if anything the arrival of “The Poseidon Adventure” and its cousins — “The Towering Inferno” and the “Airport” movies, which fed my youthful fear of flying and worship of Charlton Heston — showed the prescience of her analysis. This new genre also shifted the metaphorical terms in which disaster was imagined. … The doomed skyscrapers, ocean liners and jumbo jets were the products of human greed, hubris and corruption. Their destruction brought peril to a collection of people, a movie-star microcosm of the larger society in desperate need of rescue. Bravery, intelligence and self-sacrifice were mobilized (and celebrated) in the name of a commonwealth symbolized by a carefully balanced selection of generations, races, backgrounds and classes.”

In brief, the horrors go from Armageddon to local disaster (from World War II to 9/11). [Yes there are still many end of the world spectacles but that is not the focus of Scott’s essay].

Scott writes: “In retrospect, it is the utopianism of these films, perhaps more than their now-cheesy-looking special effects, that seems most dated.” Utopianism is the word choice of a pessimist; what these films did was describe the world as it is.

Scott makes this clear is his description of the three new movies: “They proceed from the assumption that things work pretty well: space stations silently orbit the earth; old guys relax on their sailboats; consumer goods glide through shipping lanes packed and stacked in giant, bright-colored metal boxes. When something does go wrong, it’s a temporary glitch, an accident, a dumb mistake.”

A little later Scott adds: “What could go wrong? The answers provide much of the entertainment in these movies — the suspense, the surprise, the identification with characters in distress. We enjoy being jolted out of our complacency. And we enjoy the vicarious pleasure of problem-solving that follows.”

We are not complacent; we are realists who lives are removed from such dangers. Notice the evolution Scott describes: from Armageddon to local catastrophes to personal trials. I’ll take that!

The world Sontag described is foreign to us – as Scott admits, existential threat has been replaced by “problem-solving.” Few of us stare into a “pitiless void” because we don’t have to.

At the end of the essay, Scott observes that the Redford and Hanks movies become morality tales – they suggest that well-off Westerners might be guilty of something because we have it so easy. That is serious business but it’s of a different order than nuclear annihilation.

It might seem like I am criticizing Scott for not writing the essay he actually wrote. My point is that he could have written a hopeful piece – “Armageddon gives way to personal disasters.” Instead, knee-jerk is so ingrained in so many writers that they can’t fully recognize the gist of their own argument. Hence the Sontag quote and the dark headline on what should be a sunny piece.

Do the rich really care less?

Let’s begin with the fact that Daniel Goleman is a relatively rich and powerful writer who often is a frequent contributor to the most influential newspaper in the country. That ought to put a smile on your face when you see the headline of his recent essay in The New York Times, “Rich People Just Care Less.”

One hopes that this will be a confessional piece about Goleman’s own hard-heartedness. Instead, he is talking about the other rich people; specifically those meanies in Congress who want to cut food stamps and Obamacare, not because they are concerned about our $17 trillion national debt, but because of a perceived empathy gap.

His article is tendentious nonsense that flies in the face of all common sense.

He writes: “A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power.”

Is this news? Does anybody (ok, there a few exceptions) spend their days worrying about those who can’t help or don’t threaten them? By definition people with power have fewer people who can exercise power over them. Why wouldn’t they focus more of their energy on that group? In theory (more on that later) the less powerful ought to be attuned – for the same self-interested reason – to the wider group of people who can help or hinder them. By necessity, they ought to have a wider vision, though in reality, many of them just tune out vast swaths of the world which is one reason why the poor and weak are less likely to vote than the rich and powerful.

Goleman continues: “The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.”

I haven’t read the studies this is based on – did they include 10 people or 10 million? But, even if true, Goleman’s effort to cast this as a form of moral superiority flies in the face of basic self-interest and common sense. Of course the less powerful are more compassionate towards the hardships experienced by those like themselves: after all, it is easier for them to imagine that they, too, might suffer the same fate. Of course someone who fears that they may not have enough money to feed themselves or take their children to the doctor should be more likely to express compassion toward those enduring such tragedies. This is why a cyclone in Oklahoma elicits more concern among Americans than one in Bangladesh and why a shortage of flu vaccines at home is more worrisome than the deaths of millions each year from very treatable malaria.

Goleman pretty much admits that self-interest is behind it all when he says a researcher has found “that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work.”

He runs off the rails when he follows that up with this: “The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.”

In fairness, Goleman fails to define what he means by interpersonal relations but does anybody believe that, as a group, the poor are better attuned to interpersonal relations than the rich? Does anybody truly believe that your average welfare recipient is a better people person than a successful reporter at the New York Times?

In our service-oriented economy, greater numbers of people – especially at the top – make their money through their people skills. Leadership rests, in large part, on the ability to think about others, to know their strengths and weaknesses and put them in the best position to succeed. To argue that poor people have mastered this essential skill – and still they struggle – while the rich have a hard time understanding and relating to others is absolute nonsense; so much so that you wonder how such an assertion could ever get published.

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