The new Puritans: like the old Puritans, but without the excuse of religion

“The difference between a Republican and a Democrat,” according to Will Rogers, “is the Democrat is a cannibal. They have to live off each other, while the Republicans, why, they live off the Democrats.”

Here’s the great irony of our political age: fundamentalist conservatives are willing to overlook almost any moral transgression in the interest of advancing their agenda, while we in the opposition gleefully kill our darlings for the slightest whiff of incorrectness.  The Right may be hypocritical, but the Left is downright prudish, conflating the most minor peccadillos and verbal gaffes with Trump/Epstein scale abomination.  How on earth did this happen?

It happened because we, the left and leftish, have poured disdain on the right for the sin of hypocrisy. We have, in fact, made hypocrisy our favored attack, second only to accusations of moral transgression, and, since we’ve been harping on this ad nauseum instead of arguing the merits of our positions, we can hardly ignore transgressions among ourselves. This is especially true since a favorite tactic of the Trumpist variant of the right is to accuse its enemies of its own failings. In effect, we’ve created a moral standard, burnished it with a zero-tolerance ethic, and handed it to the right to use as a primary weapon against us. Lost in all of this tu quoque badinage is any discussion of the real world merits of our policy differences.

Brilliant.

 

 

 

 

City boy

I grew up in a close society of immigrants, clannish, insular, distrustful of their new country and the people in it, all the while reciting its praises. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Every adult was allowed to, and did, monitor and even punish every child, though generally they only reported misbehavior to parents. As a teen, my time was strictly regulated, with one curious exception: while any time spent with my American friends was subjected to the minutest scrutiny, when I was with Latvian friends, the gates were flung open and no questions asked. Naturally, I exploited this loophole at every opportunity, drinking at laxly run taverns well before coming of age, and getting into trouble in general, always forgiven, as long as no Americans were involved.

Still, it was stifling. The social strictures, and, above all, the religious impositions, might as well have been physical chains. I longed for something outside these limits. I devoured Kerouac and Baldwin, read Ferlinghetti and Corso as if they were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I spent hours staring out the front door window, imagining a completely different life.

But I lived in the city, and the city was my escape, my safety valve. For 27 cents, I could hop on a bus a half block from my house, and within minutes be in another world, one of libraries, book stores, and coffee shops, and above all, anonymity.

Years later I would find myself living in a sleepy little town, a county seat with a high opinion of itself, and all the insularity of my immigrant community. Right next to it was a company coal town, and the miners and their families provided the underclass that seems so necessary to maintain that peculiar superiority of big fish in small ponds.

The heartland, they called it, but someone had built a university where the favorite hunting grounds used to be. Some of the locals cashed in big as they sold off farmland, and others were bitter in the self-righteous way of those who had missed the big payoff. Either way, it was the beginning of the end for the inbred insularity the town was known for. With the university came a preference for urbanism, and connections to the nearby city, long resisted by the locals, began forming and strengthening.

Nowadays, we’re a suburb, and the older residents pine for bygone days. But there are restaurants, several grocery stores to choose from, coffee shops to sit in, and the feeling that everyone knows your business and disapproves of it has all but disappeared.

People talk about the failure of small-town America, but I see another story, that of the transition from ruralism to urbanism. Lots of small towns have emptied out, to be sure, but many others either joined larger nearby metroplexes or grew into cities in their own right. Along with that inevitably came the cosmopolitanism beloved of the city-bred like me, and despised by the unrecostructed rural. And both, as so often happens, for the same reason: the decline of big-fish smugness.

What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

Tats

Disclosure:  I have no tattoos.  Not one. Not even a discreet mumbling insect somewhere only cognoscenti would look.  I do have some varicose veins on my legs which, if you squint, can be mistaken for tattoos.  I also have a couple of holes in  one earlobe, but that’s it as far as bod-mod is concerned.  Only removable stuff, and not much of it.

So, naturally, I’m well qualified to write about tattoos.

I came up in a time when they were the sole prerogative of sailors, ex-marines, carnies, and other folk with a propensity to drunkenness in unusual places and a propensity to accept dares as solemn challenges.  And, now that I think of it, a place to go when paychecks and wild urges were completely spent, until next time around the block.  Themes were limited: Mom, Semper Fi, pierced hearts inscribed with ‘[your name here] Forever,’ and a handful of dragons and dripping daggers.  There were prison tats, of course, but those mostly looked like some middle schoolers’ cribbed notes for an upcoming exam.

They remained daring for years, until  — when, the 90s?  Now they’re so common it’s unusual to see bare skin younger than 60.  And I mean common: pets, cartoon characters, bible verses.  It’s like the middle schoolers replaced their crib sheets with the kind of doodles that used to be reserved for textbooks.

Now and then you see a kanji character, an inscription in Sanskrit, or some homage to Maori body art, makes no difference which, since the bearers seldom understand them, and the artists who ink them even less often.  You know those tech instructions in poorly translated, fractured English that everyone laughs at?  How many tattoos in exotic scripts evoke the same kind of reaction in people who can read them?

In any case, tat madness coupled with the current penchant for extremes has come to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell if someone is wearing a shirt.  We’ve come a long way since Ray Bradbury’s classic book of short stories, The Illustrated Man, in which tattoos covering the entire body were used as a device to connect the stories.  In 1951, when the book was published, everyone easily bought into the notion that the man was not only unusual, but possibly a dangerous freak.  He wouldn’t even be considered extreme now.

Are there “good” tattoos?  Of course there are, dear.  Only, it’s not easy to tell them from bad ones.  Some people will tell you all tattoos are good by default, but that argument would be … tatological.

Like all fashions, this one, too, will pass.  Eventually, it will once again be a trait of the very old or very bold.  One day, your kids will laugh at all the silly stuff you had permanently affixed to your body.

If they can see past the folds and creases.

Dream challenge #1

I have friends who insist on interpreting dreams.  I also have very strange dreams from time to time, so I’ve decided to put the two together in an occasional Omniop feature I’m calling ‘Dream challenge.’  Go for it.

I’ve been selected to participate in an expedition to colonize a distant planet.  We file onto the spacecraft, giddy with excitement, check our bags and take our seats.  Because the planet is so far away, it will take 30 years to get there, so as soon as we’ve settled in, clear polycarbon canopies descend, sealing us off and putting us in a state of suspended animation for the duration of the flight. We don’t feel the tug of Earth as the rocket lifts off, we get no last glimpse of our erstwhile home; we are essentially comatose until we get there.

30 years pass,  The computer wakes us as we approach our new home.  The spacecraft has a wide window, through which we see the rapidly approaching terrain, green and inviting, when it hits me.

“Damn!” I say, turning to the Captain.  “I forgot my phone.  Would you mind going back to get it?”

Technology: who needs it?

First of all, let me say straight out that I am against all these new fangled ‘improvements’ on things that were working just fine.  Remember the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’  It seems we have long since forgotten it, in our haste to make things easier and more productive.  We may gain a second or two, or reduce energy expenditure by a point or two, or allow more people access to some particular process or commodity, but at what price?  Do we really gain anything if we have to sacrifice ancient wisdom and tradition to get it?  Or give up our long-held values, our ways of testing the worth of ourselves and our families to ‘spread the wealth?’  Whatever happened to the concept of  earning wealth?

Take, for example, the bow and arrow.  Easy as pie.  You just pick it up, insert an arrow, pull the string, and point it, and presto!  you’ve killed something.  What could be easier? Anybody can do it.

And that’s the problem.  With a spear, you had to have some skill.  You had to calculate the distance to the animal you were hunting, figure the arc to make the spear end up at the level you wanted to strike the animal at, or at which you wanted to strike .. oh, never mind.  And not only that, you had to have some strength.  It was bad enough when they came up with the atlatl (is that a dumb name or what?)  Now, with the bow and arrow, all the strength you need is to pick the damned thing up, put in the arrow, and point it at something.  Is that the kind of man we want to encourage?  Is that who’s going to get us out of a jam when we’re attacked by enormous beasts?  Or when someone makes a really stupid comment around the fire?

I will just ask you this and leave it at that: when you’ve stolen something or insulted someone, who do you want at your side, a spearman or a ‘bowman?’

Humbled

What does it mean when someone says they are humbled by an experience?  Taken literally, it would mean they are made to feel more humble, which is to say less proud.  And yet, I would venture to say that most of us have never heard anyone use the expression in a context in which that makes sense, inasmuch it is almost universally used  on the occasion of receiving  an award. Usually, the humbling is accompanied by an expression of pride and gratitude.  The higher the honor, apparently, the more humbling the experience and the greater the pride.

There is only one sense in which winning an award can be a truly humbling experience, and that is if it is undeserved.  Do you feel that your accomplishments are trivial compared to the work of other recipients?  Was the award completely unexpected because you think of yourself as just getting the job done in a workmanlike way, nothing special?  Do you feel that if the award committee looked back over your record they’d have to reconsider choosing to honor you?  Is the contribution of others unfairly minimized by their exclusion?

These are all perfectly normal reactions, whether valid or not.  They are also utterly inconsistent with pride, and the kind of gratitude that would be appropriate in this context smacks of favoritism and ulterior motivation.

If you truly feel humbled, the most honorable thing to do is to turn down the award and explain your reasons.  If, after mulling things over, you decide you deserve the award after all, accept it with grace and pride, never mind the false humility.  If you still feel the award is undeserved, but it would create awkwardness for the committee to turn it down, well, you’re in a fine pickle, aren’t you?

It’s ironic, to say the least, that when someone actually does turn down an award, they are almost always criticized for being too full of themselves.

In truth, I suspect that most of the time it is simply formulaic, the right thing to say in the same way that people say “pleased to meet you,” or “sorry for your loss.”

But I can’t help it.  It’s my duty as a curmudgeon to harp on these things.