Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The bathroom battle: what am I missing?

May 14, 2016
Transgender female

Transgender female

Scenario 1: A transgender woman – who looks female – enters a women’s room. Nobody notices.

Scenario 2: A transgender male – who looks male – enters a women’s room. The women there freak out.

Transgender male

Transgender male

The controversial North Carolina law requires Scenario 2. That is, using the bathroom of your birth certificate gender. Transgender males must use the girls’ room. How in God’s name does this protect the women who use it? Or prevent freak-outs? Doesn’t it do exactly the opposite?

So why the law? Because some people freak out at the very idea of changing one’s sex. They’re totally confuzzled and put off by it. Trying to find some way to vent this feeling, they came up with the bathroom law. Which actually, if enforced, would do the opposite of what they profess to want. That is how confused these people are.

Unknown-1Of course it can’t be enforced. Will they post guards by toilets to check birth certificates? If men’s rooms are used by people who look male, and women’s rooms by those who look female, how will anybody know there’s a problem?

And of course there never was one. Transgender people are a fraction of one percent of the population, and before this nonsense blew up, nobody ever noticed anything amiss in our restrooms. Besides, women do their business there privately, in stalls; and in men’s rooms guys mind their own business too. In literally thousands of visits I can’t recall ever seeing a penis not my own.

The law’s proponents might say they’re worried about men putting on dresses to go into women’s rooms to molest females. Do we know of a single case of this? (Molesting anyone was always illegal.) And what does it have to do with transgender anyway? Unknown-2Transgender women are not men wearing dresses. They are women.

Admittedly some rare individuals are in-between, mostly in a transition process. But surely it makes sense for them to use whichever facility they prefer at the time.

This is merely the latest example of a typical American phenomenon – periodically getting all worked up over a totally trivial, meaningless issue. A nation facing huge fiscal and economic challenges, huge overseas challenges, huge environmental challenges, is arguing instead about who can use what bathroom.

African-Americans on currency – too politically correct?

April 25, 2016

UnknownAndrew Jackson will be replaced, on the front of the $20 bill, with Harriet Tubman, a black woman. Inevitably some (like Trump) cry, “Political correctness!” Others, much worse.

Meantime, proposed designs were also recently made public for a future special-issue gold coin. imagesPast U.S. coins often portrayed “Lady Liberty.” Now she would have African-American features.

In the numismatic publications, reactions from the coin collector community were again sadly predictable. People always like what’s old and familiar and hate what’s new and different. The proposed design is seen as traducing a hallowed tradition. And Coin World’s editor called out the racism behind many of the comments.  Some seem to think the Goddess of Liberty is caucasian.

Morgan Dollar

Morgan Dollar

A lot of commenters called the image ugly. I wonder where they get their aesthetic nous. This design seems far finer than most modern U.S. mint productions. The gal depicted “I wouldn’t kick out of bed.” She’s certainly lovelier than many of our past Lady Liberties – like the bloated battleaxe on the Morgan dollar, so beloved by collectors. (Maybe they had different notions of feminine beauty in those days.) But I doubt Michelangelo could make a coin showing a black person that these people wouldn’t find ugly.

As for the $20 bill, Jackson has never been one of my heroes. He once said, “The Supreme Court has made its decision – now let them enforce it.” Spitting on the rule of law. And Jackson was talking about a court ruling that Georgia couldn’t steal Cherokee land. No friend of Indians, he. Indeed, his policy could be called genocidal.

Get that SOB off our money.

. . . or how about this comely lass?

. . . or how about this comely lass?

Harriet Tubman was a great, heroic personage, a humble woman of outstanding virtue, who fought slavery not just with words but deeds. She actually freed slaves. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country that would put her on its currency.

And as for that new Lady Liberty, I would remind critics, so wedded to traditional portrayals, that one of the greatest things this nation ever did, to live out its creed of liberty, was to fight a war to free the slaves. In light of that, an African-American Liberty goddess is an entirely fitting and deeply meaningful representation of the liberty this nation stands for.

But the mentioned hostility to the proposed designs doesn’t mean America is deeply racist (as cynics continue to say). This isn’t your grandfather’s racism, but more a reaction to the affirmative action culture and what’s seen as privileging blacks (an ironic counterpoint to “white privilege”). Reverse discrimination (say, in hiring) can indeed be a legitimate issue. But portrayals on currency are just symbolism, the wrong battle to fight. Given what blacks have suffered, no one should begrudge their pictures on money. And those who do are not the American mainstream. We’re a better country than that; these currency designs prove it again.

What explains the vicious left?

April 20, 2016

images-2I recently wrote about a talk by scientist David Gelernter, at the state university. A student got up to ask about an article he’d written – “What Explains the Vicious Left?” The student said he’s politically moderate, and a pervasive, aggressive campus left-wing atmosphere makes him feel under attack.

I too have written about the poisoning of American politics by those who believe people with opposing views are not just wrong but wicked. And that, while both left and right are guilty, the left is far the bigger culprit.* imagesThis is especially true on campuses, where the left totally dominates, and seeks to disallow dissent. This is the “political correctness” that is so vile.

Its latest manifestation is to “protect” students from words or ideas that might make them “uncomfortable.” We hear much about verbal “micro-aggressions” having that effect, especially on minority students. Ethnic and gender minorities, that is. images-3But what about the minority that is truly persecuted – non-leftist students – like the questioner at Gelernter’s talk? Where is the concern about their being made uncomfortable, by efforts to browbeat them into silence?

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” On campuses today, conservatives have no rights a leftist is bound to respect. “The left seems to have lost its taste for democracy,” Gelernter’s article said.

Responding to the questioner, he noted that at Yale, where he teaches, conservative students have come to his office in tears because of the left’s “frantic fervor” and bullying. Gelernter suggested the phenomenon has to do with the fact that campus leftists are almost exclusively atheist/agnostic, whereas conservatives are frequently religious.

UnknownThe latter, he said, are cocooned in a strongly held moralistic belief system, satisfying a fairly universal psychological need. And with that box checked off, they don’t infuse their political views with a similar moral fervor. For them, politics is just politics. Atheist leftists, on the other hand, have only their politics to fill this psychological need, which is why they become so fierce. “Politics is their faith, in default of any other; it is the basis of their moral life.”

And naturally they are very protective of that faith, responding ferociously to any challenge; unwilling even to let opposing ideas be heard. (Just like some religious faiths, even today – apostasy is punished with death in some Muslim lands.)

More generally, politics is becoming very tribal, “us against them,” and for many it’s their core identity – virtually their ethnicity. As for why this is more true on the left, Gelernter’s religion-based theory may be at least a partial explanation. But there’s much in his article I find problematic. He’s evidently religious himself, and argues that the problem could only be cured with a religious revival — “a miracle.” Yet he seems to think it possible – ignoring why religious belief is declining — its sheer implausibility. (Though implausible ideas aren’t hampering certain presidential contenders.)

In googling Gelernter’s article, I found comments from left-wingers that were . . . surprise . . . absolutely vicious. Exemplifying the very syndrome he discusses. (Somewhat ironic, with leftists also full of talk about kindness, compassion, non-judgmentalism, and so forth.)

images-4At one time, the kind of moralistic fervor Gelernter discusses drove people to burn dissenters alive. At least we haven’t reached that stage in politics.

Yet.

*Journalism professor Rosemary Armao, frequently on local radio discussion shows, supporting Hillary, has remarked upon the viciousness of messages she’s received from Bernie backers. (But none from Republicans.)

The truth about immigration

March 30, 2016

My local community is having a celebration of immigrants. It’s timely, given our national panic attack over immigration. Unknown-1Forgetting Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall,” now a presidential candidate wants to build a new one.

Do immigrants take jobs from Americans? Many think there are only so many jobs to go around, and anyone hired means someone else unemployed. Economists call this the “lump of labor fallacy.” It assumes a static, unchanging economy, whereas the reality is constant dynamic change.* Add productive capability, and uses for it will be found.

Immigrants do add to such capability, thus making our nation economically stronger, not weaker. Especially since they have more drive than the pre-existing population’s average. Countries like Mexico are not sending us “wretched refuse.” To the contrary, anyone willing to face all the hazards of emigrating is among the most courageous, ambitious, enterprising, resourceful, capable of people. We need them. They come here to get ahead, not to get hand-outs.

images-1In fact, we have a huge problem with a growing imbalance between our rising elderly population, collecting benefits, and those working and paying taxes to fund those benefits. Young work-hungry immigrants help redress that imbalance. Thusly replenishing our work force is a key factor making America’s economy stronger than Europe’s (actually more anti-immigrant than we are).

America believes in freedom. A fundamental freedom is to live where you want. Should we then let everybody in? It’s not a crazy idea. Economists have estimated – get this – worldwide free movement of people would double global GDP. Because migrants would multiply their earning power by going to where their work is more productive (often because of better technology). Most poor people are poor because they’re trapped where their productive potential is vastly underutilized. Remedying that, through freer movement, would go far toward eradicating poverty. And the resulting more efficient production of goods and services, globally, would make everyone richer.

Some fear immigrants will degrade our culture.

Learn English or get out

Learn English or get out

But successive waves of immigrants have enriched U.S. culture, continuously rejuvenating it; our polyglot diversity is what makes our culture the world’s most vibrant and attractive. Ironically, those who fear this cultural flux are not themselves paragons of cultural refinement. No, it’s not immigrants who threaten America with cultural degradation – it’s the immigrant-haters, who would hand the presidency to a braying, bragging brute.

Real Americans love apostrophes!

Apostrophes belong to Americans too!

*Automation is a similar jobs bugbear. So far employment has always actually expanded. But is technological progress finally leading to all production needs met without jobs for all? Ever fewer people are employed making stuff — but more in services. Unskilled work is disappearing, hurting the less educated. Our challenge is to make everyone productive.

“Our Kids” and the real inequality

March 5, 2016

imagesInequality is a big issue. But focusing on the 99%-versus-1% is misguided. The idea that if the 1% had less the 99% would have more is incorrect.*

unknown3America’s real inequality problem is addressed in Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids: the growing divide between two very different cultures, and decreasing mobility between them. It’s not the 1%-versus-99% but, roughly speaking, the top third versus the lower third.

Putnam’s departure point is the 1950s Ohio town where he grew up, where the phrase “our kids” was used by both rich and poor talking about all the town’s kids. Because they really all lived in a unified community. That kind of social solidarity is a bygone, sundered by a wall of separation.

Affluent well-educated people tend to marry well-educated mates and provide their kids with a stable, nurturing, well-resourced path for repeating the process.unknown-31 The other culture comprises those who don’t go to college and consequently earn much less. The divide is widening because the workplace value of education is increasing. It’s not some conspiracy by the rich to keep down the rest. Rather, it’s a raw economic reality that in today’s world unskilled work just isn’t worth what it used to be.

But the problem isn’t just money. Today’s lower income Americans actually have more income (when you count government benefits) than in Putnam’s 1950s town. And way more than in the Depression and before. Yet those poorer people nevertheless mostly managed to maintain stable, nurturing family structures. Today’s do not.

UnknownThis is the heart of Putnam’s book. In contrast to the Ozzie-and-Harriet child-supportive marriages of the educated class, today’s less educated tend to have more chaotic family situations, often without marriage at all, in which children don’t get comparable nurturing and support. And those kids are similarly set up to repeat the picture; it’s extremely hard to break out of that culture to obtain the education and personality traits needed for rising into the affluent class.

Drilling down into the reasons, Putnam sees parenting styles as crucial. For the affluent, the social norm has shifted from the relaxed Doctor Spock approach to “intensive parenting,” influenced by well-publicized research revealing the importance of early parent-child interactions in personality development.** Less educated parents haven’t gotten this memo, or else aren’t able to follow it, due to financial and other stresses in their own lives. images-1Compared to the affluent, their parenting is more restrictive and punitive – less hugging and more spanking.

One researcher contrasts the affluent’s “promotive” parenting strategies, aimed at encouraging children’s talents, with poorer parents hewing toward “preventive” strategies to cope with the dangers of a rough environment. Further, affluent parents not only speak vastly more words to their kids, but the vast majority are encouragements, whereas for parents on welfare the great majority are discouragements.

Not surprisingly, all these parenting differences have been shown to affect children’s brain and personality development. (See my post on the marshmallow test.) That’s how poor families get stuck reprising their trajectories.

What is to be done? Good schooling might ideally compensate for parenting disparities; but for a cat’s cradle of reasons, which Putnam explores, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to exacerbate rather than rectify cultural disparities. For example, because their environment is more stressful, good teachers flee them.

Putnam does conclude with a list of suggested fixes, but basically it’s all doing more of the well-intentioned things that are already done, generally inadequately. Unknown-1But here’s a more radical thought. It’s also clear from the book that less affluent kids do badly partly because they live in bad neighborhoods. Let’s move families to better neighborhoods. This has actually been tried and shown to produce good results.

* The mistake is thinking there’s a fixed amount of wealth to go around, so anyone’s gain is another’s loss. Wrong. Steve Jobs got rich selling gizmos for more than they cost to make, to people who valued them more than they paid. That’s how societal wealth is increased. Buyers of his products would not have been richer had Jobs not gained wealth, they’d have been poorer.

 ** Putnam acknowledges that “helicopter parenting” has its own problems; but still insists they’re dwarfed by the problems he documents in lower class families.

Can money buy happiness?

February 14, 2016

UnknownMoney does buy a lot of things that enhance well-being; and many of life’s problems can be solved if you have enough money. But past that point, scientific evidence suggests, more money may not make you happier. (Though still the quality of life is better, and I’d rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable.)

Some profess bafflement why people who have enough still want more. As if that were not fundamental to human nature. Yet wanting more is labeled “greed;” and wanting more, globally, in the form of economic growth, likewise gets tarred as a kind of greed. There are even those (like climate activist Bill McKibben) who deem economic growth a bad thing. But that’s supercilious in a world still far from the point where everyone has enough to live decently.* (And, no, redistributing all the wealth of the rich wouldn’t do it.)

It’s also argued that wealth inequality actually reduces everyone’s well-being. At least some wish that were so, to bolster their anti-wealth political agenda. But I doubt the rich are much perturbed by inequality. Indeed, there’s evidence that on average they’re stingier, less charitable, and just less nice. It’s not clear whether wealth makes one mean, or being mean helps make one richer. But either way, many (though not all) rich people feel superior and disdainful.

UnknownHowever, if lefties then arguably have a point that wealth tends to go to the “wrong” people, that seems to be a basic fact of human society that cannot be undone without destroying the sources of economic growth and progress – that is, people striving to better their personal situations – that have meantime made the world as a whole so much richer, especially in the last century, eliminating so much squalor and misery.

Getting back to happiness, what the word actually means is a big and difficult question. But people generally seem born with (or to develop) a set-point along the happiness/unhappiness spectrum, to which they tend to revert eventually after the impact of any vicissitude. One element of a happier personality is a sense of gratitude – not taking one’s blessings for granted.

images-1A related key reason why, beyond a certain point, added wealth doesn’t increase happiness is what social scientists call the “adaptation effect.” One adapts psychologically to a new higher living standard; the surprise wears off and the “new normal” becomes what you now expect and take for granted.

Also relevant here is a set of Kenyan socioeconomic experiments reported by The Economist. In small villages, sizable cash grants were given at random (echoing the typically unequal distribution of economic growth). Recipients’ feelings of well-being measurably rose. But for neighbors, they fell, by even more. (Though all these deviations wore off after a while; the adaptation effect.)

But notably, as The Economist explained, “it was not inequality in general that bothered the unlucky, so much as a decline in their own wealth relative to the mean.” That is, their sense of well-being was governed not by their absolute wealth levels but, rather, by the comparison against their peers. The cash grants raised a village’s average wealth, making the non-recipients poorer compared not just to the recipients but to the average.

images-2“Keeping up with the Joneses” is a very real psycho-social force. As The Economist further says, in evaluating one’s relative position one tends to look at those above rather than below; so, “when our own lot improves, we shift our reference group to those who are still better off. In other words, we are never satisfied, since we quickly become accustomed to our own achievements.” The adaptation effect again. “Perhaps that is what spurs people to earn more, and economies to grow.” (My emphasis.)

imagesConclusion: to keep people from getting rich would not be good for the poor, but bad.

 

Albany’s high school boondoggle

February 6, 2016

Last fall, a referendum in Albany on building literally the costliest high school on Earth, at $196 million, narrowly failed. Now, a revote is scheduled for Tuesday – low turnout guaranteed — on a new proposal scaled down to “only” $180 million.

Proposed

Proposed

We’re told the bulk of the money will come from the state, so it won’t cost local taxpayers all that much. But already the city’s budget has a big hole, sure to grow much larger because our landfill is almost full, presaging both loss of revenue and higher costs. Can this city afford a Taj Mahal high school?

Existing

Existing

We’re also told the existing school is in bad shape. OK, there are some problems, but I’ve been there, it’s not falling down. Is a building only forty years old really so wrecked that it’s a total loss, and can’t just be fixed up?

And where do they propose building the new one? Same site. Don’t worry, they say, the old one can be demolished while the new one is erected with minimal disruption for students. Yeah, right. Remember Boston’s “big dig?”

We’re told, too, that surely our kids deserve the best facilities we can provide. Yet given the parlous state of education, especially for minority and lower income students, to spend $180 million on a spiffy new building seems a colossal misallocation of resources. Is a dilapidated building the real problem? I don’t think so. I’ve been reading Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids, on the growing class divide between better educated and less educated Americans. He highlights myriad reasons why poor and minority kids finish high school (if they do finish) ill equipped for a hopeful future. But run-down school buildings are never mentioned.

imagesThe $180 million works out to something over $80,000 per existing high school student. Just imagine if that kind of money were spent instead on some sort of intensive program to actually help kids benefit from their education – like hiring a corps of life coaches/mentors/tutors/big brothers?

I know – if the new high school is voted down again, the money won’t instead be spent on things like that. More’s the pity. images-1Just shows the stagnant thinking that pervades the education establishment, that so poorly serves minority and disadvantaged people.

It’s not the building. It’s what happens inside.

Grannies killed by college exams

January 24, 2016

imagesIt’s true. College exams are deadly for students’ grandmothers. A study determined that granny death rates spike tenfold before a midterm, and nineteen times before a final exam. One theory is that grannies’ health is undermined by anxiety and stress when their grandchildren face exams. Indeed, the study found that failing students are fifty times likelier to lose a grandmother in the run-up to an exam, compared to non-failing students.

This is reported in Dan Ariely’s book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke.

images-3But seriously, what’s really going on is that students commonly make up grandmother deaths as a pretext for requesting exam postponements. Shocking.

The book’s main theme is that we all lie and cheat. But that doesn’t make us sociopaths. In fact, we tend to lie and cheat only so much that we can still look in the mirror and see an honest ethical person. We sometimes lie to ourselves.

UnknownAriely invokes numerous laboratory experiments. In a typical case, test subjects are asked to solve a set of puzzles within a time limit, earning a payment for each one solved. But on an honor system: they self-report their performance. Most fudge it upward, but only by a little.

images-1I found much of this suspiciously artificial and unlike real life. In another example, people were asked to gauge whether more dots appeared to the right or left of a line. Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes not. But when told they’d be paid substantially more for saying “right” than “left,” the answers skewed rightward. This Ariely called dishonesty. I disagree. If told I’d be paid more simply for saying “right” rather than “left,” I’d shrug and say “right” every time. That’s just a rational response to the rules.

Perhaps I’m quibbling. But most of Ariely’s lab tests entailed honesty along a gradient, falling in shades of gray. Whereas in everyday life ethical questions are often either-or. For instance, in my coin business, I normally send out orders before payment. Perhaps if, Ariely lab style, customers calculated their own bills, there might be some fudging. But when it’s just paying versus not paying, over 99% pay. Some even correct errors made in their favor.

This bespeaks honesty of a high order. Maybe my customers are not a representative cross-section, but I don’t think collectively they’re that unusual. Nor is my business. Most of the world’s commerce proceeds on a basis of mutual trust between trading partners; it’s our default assumption. Unknown-1I once got an e-mail from a stranger in Africa selling coins. I gave him a substantial order. He didn’t know me, but assumed that an American businessperson would likely pay. And I did pay him after receiving the package. That’s how it works.

This basic level of trust is a fundamental underpinning of civilization. Of course we know we must watch out for violators; we lock our doors. Yet still you assume the average person whose paths you cross won’t bash your head in and grab your stuff. Or that a store won’t sell you defective goods. And so forth. Otherwise civilization could not function.

A recent poll found a significant decline in the percentage agreeing that most people are trustworthy. There’s no evidence we’ve actually become less trustworthy – only that we think people have. images-2Ariely seems to, pointing to scandals like Enron. But were businesses more ethical in bygone times? I doubt it; indeed, it’s harder to get away with scams in today’s interconnected media world of constant scrutiny and exposure. Yet that parade of exposures – Volkswagen is a recent example – does make people believe misfeasance has become rampant, compared to a romanticized past. I also suspect that decreased face-to-face personal interactions undermines our acculturation to the idea that people are generally trustworthy. But if that makes us less trusting, the decline in perceived trustworthiness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Joe Krausman, Monkeyshines, and heightism

January 20, 2016

UnknownMy friend Joe Krausman is a truly amazing fellow. Everywhere I go – whether it’s a lecture, open mic, party, whatever – Joe is there. Maybe he’s stalking me. But, among his many talents and accomplishments, he’s a very droll poet. Now he’s finally got a little book of poems, titled Monkeyshines.* It’s great.

One poem I particularly enjoyed features a hypothetical, enticing personal ad:

ATTRACTIVE VIBRANT ENGLISH PROFESSOR, 35, INTERESTED IN
CANDLE LIGHT DINNERS, BICYCLING, GOOD BOOKS, SEEKING TALL
GOOD LOOKING PROFESSIONAL, FINANCIALLY SECURE, UNDER 40 . . .

images-1The poem goes on to lament all the ways in which its author (Joe) would fail to make the cut – height being one of them. I myself had noticed, back when I was working personal ads, that women do often toss in that word “tall,” perhaps almost unthinkingly.

I’m 5’4” but shortness doesn’t actually figure in my self perception; I’m surprised when anyone else sees me that way. Like the law professor who began a letter of recommendation saying, “Frank is a little bit of a guy, but . . . .” That seemed bizarre to me.

Nevertheless, when dating, I couldn’t avoid being aware of the height factor. Most women want it. Or believe they should. Even short women. Men below a certain height tend to be sexually invisible to them.

Unknown-3This is a product of biological evolution. Throughout our long prehistory, bigger really did mean fitter; a bigger man could better protect a woman from marauders. That preference got coded into our genes. That’s why, even absent any marauders today, short men still get short shrift.

Gals wouldn’t always put it baldly in a personal ad, yet still it lurked. One who didn’t use the T-word in her ad nevertheless ended what had seemed a very simpatico date with, “Well, I’m really looking for someone taller.”

But this is not just about sex. That evolutionary history favoring height also affects men’s attitudes. They too have an unconscious heightism. A taller man is imagined to be an abler man. So, while I did alright in my professional life, I can’t help wondering how my career path might have differed had I not been seen as “a little bit of a guy, but . . . .”

Unknown-1Our society is much concerned about racism, sexism, discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation, you name it; even fat people are recognized as victims of bias. But even here short men** are disregarded. We can’t get any respect even in the victimhood game.

Anyhow, Joe’s poem contains another personal ad, more promising for guys like him, yet in some elusive way perhaps less alluring:

FRUMPY WOMAN, GOES SHOPPING WITH CURLERS IN HER HAIR,
TENDS TO PUT ON WEIGHT WHEN BREATHING, INTERESTED IN
WATCHING DAYTIME TV, LOOKING FOR SHORT MAN TO ANNOY.

Unknown-4*Published by Rootdrinker Institute’s Benevolent Bird Press. (Their website is unfortunately not kept up to date!)

** “Vertically challenged” is, I believe, the politically correct term.

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

December 15, 2015
Then . . .

Then . . .

You author a lone book that’s a huge cultural icon, then never write another word and basically submerge for over 50 years. That’s Harper Lee’s tale. And so it was a bombshell when another book finally surfaced.

To Kill a Mockingbird was a heck of a good story, with great characters, and of course a powerful message.

. . . now

. . . now

Published at the civil rights movement’s nascence, it was, for its time, remarkably open and compelling about southern race relations. Hence its impact.

Go Set a Watchman is a sequel of sorts, though it was actually written first. Lee’s putting it aside at the time, to write a different book instead (though still a “race” book), was inspired. Mockingbird is a great book. Watchman is not.

In it, Scout has grown into 26-year-old Jean Louise, living in New York, returning to Alabama around 1955, to visit her ailing father Atticus, now 72.

Then . . .

Then . . .

The bombshell was not just the book’s existence, but that Atticus Finch – Mockingbird’s great moral hero – was a racist. (Though we must remember he’s fictional, and not necessarily the same character in both books. He was given a reversed evolution, from the man of Watchman to the earlier and better man of Mockingbird.)*

. . . now

. . . now

His racism isn’t just incidental to Watchman, it’s the book’s hub. It’s a bombshell to Jean Louise herself, when she witnesses Atticus participating in a “citizens council”** meeting and abetting the vilest racist talk. To a New Yorker now, this is culture shock, she freaks out, and curses out her dad. But helped by emollience (and a literal slap in the face) from his eccentric but lovable and wise brother, she winds up (spoiler alert) reconciled, more or less. And that’s the book.

Its set-piece racist ranting, and Jean Louise’s set-piece reactions thereto, seemed canned and didactic – violating (unlike Mockingbird) the cardinal writing rule, don’t tell, show.

And the efforts of Atticus and his brother, to make Jean Louise see things from their point of view, just aren’t very convincing. We get the old trope that the civil war was not really about slavery, so much as states’ rights and people fighting for their tribe, their personal identity. (There’s a grain of truth in the latter, inasmuch as few southern whites owned slaves. Yet still, no slavery, no war.) And of course whites hating outsiders, who don’t know their situation, telling them what to do. And the customary denigrations of blacks’ readiness for full citizenship – but whose fault was that?

I thought Jean Louise’s riposte that the South should have a “Be kind to the niggers week” was a killer, spotlighting that for all the excuses and rationalizations, southern whites acted just plain horrible to blacks. Yet Atticus and his brother are still sympathetically portrayed; and, perhaps trying to make more plausible her eventual stand-down, the author has Jean Louise herself berate the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, as violating the Tenth Amendment*** – which I found simply bizarre.

In the end, it was hard to tell what exactly Lee was trying to say. Maybe merely that southern whites, though dead wrong, were understandable human beings. Or maybe she just couldn’t let Jean Louise turn her back on her father.

images-3The 1954 Brown ruling was, as the book does illuminate, a watershed. Until then, a stasis persisted; now it was like a frozen river suddenly thawing. One can in fact see things from Atticus’s point of view, and understand how southern whites felt, to have their whole world, in which they’d been comfortable, all their eternal verities, being changed on them. I’d like to think I would have had an enlightened outlook. But if you grow up immersed in a culture, you internalize its fundamental assumptions, and questioning them is hard and unusual. It took a few years in New York for Jean Louise’s enlightenment.

Unknown-2Even before the change could unfold, the mere threat of it made people change their behavior. The change among blacks was already becoming visible, and disturbing, to whites. They responded not by trying to meet change half way, but rather with a heightened belligerence to stave it off. Whereas before, they didn’t even need to think about race matters, now they did. images-4It was like a fault line in the Earth with two tectonic plates pushed up against each other, immobilized by constrained tension for eons, until finally it bursts with an earthquake.

That was the moment in time whose beginning Watchman captures. Had it been published when written, in the mid-50s, this would have been a very brave and provocative book, since nobody else was then confronting the race issue quite so squarely in literature. Indeed, what seems didactic now would have been a shock then.

The moment passed. The tide could not be held back, perhaps because most Southerners were in fact – as most human beings are – basically reasonable people. The cultural change, over what was really a relatively short time, was immense. Remember this when someone tells you people can’t change.

True, we still have racial issues today; but not like then. Today’s are the relatively feeble aftershocks of an earthquake; the reverberations of a Big Bang.

Mockingbird’s narrative is hardly present in Watchman even as backstory. The rape case is barely mentioned – with Robinson acquitted, unlike in Mockingbird.

** Often called white citizens councils, these organizations sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education to defend segregation.

*** “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

 


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