The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

yellow fever

In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

storm

A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

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August 3, 2015

How as a Preteen I was Seduced by Margaret Mitchell and Abandoned by American Culture to Her Hegemonic Discourse

I read Gone with the Wind as a required book for my summer reading list between seventh and eighth grade a private girl’s school.  At the time, I was hoping, like almost everyone who is going to turn thirteen years old, for a great romance, proving somehow I was desirable, affirming my blossoming powers of female charm, a romance that would serve my ego.  I had no conscious thought of love by any adult definition, and I had limited information on sex, but I knew this much – the idea of a good-looking boy who would parade around with me in public, letting the other girls at my school know, most of whom I found milquetoast and cruel, that he thought I was awesome, one who would slow dance with me and neck with me at a co-ed party, the kind I was rarely invited to, that appealed to me more than I could say.  Boys often get criticized at that age for only having “one thing on their mind,” but truly, though I did not have a clear picture of that “one thing,” my motives for wanting a boyfriend in the abstract were no less selfish and shallow than any boys at that time of life would have had.  My chief object in this pursuit, one mostly in a state of total fantasy in my sex-segregated life, was to outdo the girls who made fun of me for being nerdy and not obscenely rich the way they were.

Given my summertime agenda, reading about Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks Barbeque, where she stole other girls’ beaux and threw a vase at Rhett Butler while wearing a big, flouncy dress – that was my idea at twelve-and-a-half of a pretty impressive afternoon, if I could get over the Civil War getting declared that day, which I mostly did.  The later descriptions of Rhett Butler’s hot-lipped kisses on Scarlett’s palm sounded pretty good, too.  And as a role model for gumption, Scarlett probably continues to influence me, though her purely self-interested modus operandi is something I hope I have overcome at this less adolescent time of life.

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

Required Summer Reading for my Eighth Grade Class

I was already literary enough in junior high school to understand, as I read the section of the book that describes the siege of Atlanta, that I was in the presence of a master artist in Margaret Mitchell’s pages.  In rereading the book this summer, decades later, I find myself enchanted by her astonishing narrative structure for this section of the book, the way that certain phrases become refrains.  The scene where the battle is within earshot of the dark city of Atlanta, and in the night, various Southern men knock on Aunt Pitipat’s door, each with different manners of speaking reflective of a diversity of region and class of these Confederate soldiers, where because of the dark, Mitchell confines her evocation of scene to non-visual descriptors only – I actually applauded that scene in my rereading.  I remember at twelve-and-a-half, I was awestruck by the idea of a whole yard filled with wounded soldiers, and with Doctor Meade being forced to alleviate suffering as best he could nearly single-handedly and with limited supplies.  In rereading the scene years later, I still see the mastery of Mitchell.  She was a genius of a writer, clearly influenced by Vanity Fair and the works of Tolstoy.  Let me say we have never had an author in America who was very much better than Mitchell, and perhaps we never will, as far as structuring a complex narrative goes.

But what I learned about my adolescent self, my junior high school, and American culture as a whole while I reread Gone with the Wind horrified me, and I need to share it here.

How is it that in remembering the lush descriptions of Northern Georgia, the hot lips of Captain Butler, the wounded soldiers, the balls and ball gowns, the effete Ashley, the noble Melanie, I nevertheless forgot the horrible, horrible racism of Gone with the Wind as I read it at not-quite-thirteen for my school, a school in Yankee territory?  How did I, who remember vivid details from readings I did years and years ago – how did I not truly grasp and retain the enormity of Mitchell’s racism in reading this book?

Margaret Mitchell’s story tells us that the North attacked the South for more or less no reason – no reason!  For slaves were uniformly happy unless they were of very bad character, according to her.  Masters were benevolent and unabusive, though occasionally an overseer of trashy and Yankee-friendly ways might commit violence entirely independently of slave masters’ knowledge.  For Mitchell, people of color were bug-eyed, lip-jutting children, not merely ignorant by lack of education, but naturally ignorant the way a dog is ignorant of algebra, not because junior high school failed to teach him but because dogs can’t handle problems that solve for X.  For Mitchell, the Klansmen were heroic gentlemen, rather than terrorists.  For Mitchell, people of color shouldn’t vote because they would only be beguiled by slick white Yankee carpetbaggers who didn’t want what was best for the African-Americans, namely slavery.  Why didn’t any of this shock me as a school girl?

Understand that my parents were in the civil rights movement, and they took me to civil rights’ rallies when I was a child, so I absolutely knew that Margaret Mitchell’s understanding of the capacities of people of color was wrong, and if asked, I know I would have said so.  I did not know that the Klan had a present-day existence, and if I had known, I would have been horrified, aware as I was in some measure of what they had done to thwart Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man I considered a hero.  So again, why wasn’t I shocked?

My teacher who assigned the book to me never mentioned the problem of race in relation to the book, not once.  Who would assign this book to adolescents and not discuss racism?  He wasn’t much of a teacher, anyway.  He flirted with me inappropriately, and again – I was twelve going on thirteen.  I don’t think he harbored any proactive racist views, not that I could tell, but as a current teacher of literature, I find his lack of discussion on a topic central to understanding a text wildly irresponsible.  My parents knew I was reading the book and only asked me if I thought Rhett Butler was a better character than Ashley Wilkes for Scarlett to marry, and they reminded me that my great-great-grandfather had been in the Union navy as a navigator, though not in combat in the war, it seems.   They got a video of the movie and let me watch it to help me write the paper for my class, and nobody mentioned the difference to me of how Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel behaved on screen so differently from our family’s actual, real-life friends of color, and while I remember noticing that their on-screen behavior seemed unrealistic, I also noticed that when white people I knew in real life kissed, no violins swelled as the sky turned red, as they did when Clark Gable kissed Vivian Leigh, and I chalked the mawkish acting of those portraying slaves in the film not to a form of institutional racism but the overall absurd melodrama of the film in general. Why didn’t anybody mention this problem of wildly blatant racism to me, and why didn’t I reflect more deeply upon it?  How could I forget it?

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This is not the way a real woman looks or acts; this is the way a white fantasy of a black woman looks and acts.

This revelation of past impressions makes me reflect on how deeply ingrained white privilege must have been in the ambient culture of my youth.  Just as few enough people question why models have to be rail-thin in order for designers to think they will help sell clothing, nobody around me, not even my activist pro-civil-rights parents, saw a problem worth discussing with me when I read this book.  I think like anorexia is a tacit expectation of female youth today, my life in late twentieth-century American culture was so steeped in racism that much of it was invisible from notice.  My parents wanted laws to be fair for all people and cared as much about friends of color as they did about anybody else, but I think they thought little about daily acts of racism that were not specifically mandated or forbidden by law.  It wasn’t illegal, after all, for Margaret Mitchell to write her political message into her book.  It was not unfair that she should be allowed to express her point of view.  But the truth was, I must conclude that nobody was really offended by the tone of her fiction, by the implications of diminished humanity  of so many characters in her book, of her book’s justifying a genocide of such a magnitude that it will never likely be wholly documented.

I must admit that young person that I was, I had already absorbed intensely racist ideas through a culture that was Northern, not Southern, and therefore I was not shocked or personally offended, though I would have told anyone who asked that racism was wrong and that I did not think I was better than a person of color.  I hung out with two twelve year-old girls at school who were African-American, Dionne and Rueisha.  I remember one day – my thirteenth birthday – during lunch hour, we turned on some music in the yard of the school and danced, and some white girls turned a hose on us, and we had to run off the lawn not to get wet.  Nobody got in trouble for this, though the next day, other white girls approached me, but not Dionne and Rueisha, and asked me to never dance during lunch hour again, that I was embarrassing them because we were in the same class.  I remember thinking it odd that they thought I was embarrassing for dancing to R & B, which I still love, but that it wasn’t embarrassing to them that my two friends, who were also in our class, did the same.  I remember pondering whether it was that they were black that made it “predictable” that they would dance, or if even my hilarity-filled friendship with these two girls were the source of eighth-grade embarrassment.  But I thought Gone with the Wind’s message of racial dishonor was merely fictional.  The book made me want to be a great writer.  It made me want to own a beautiful home and treasure it like Scarlett did Tara.  It made me want to see the South. I don’t believe it made me want to own slaves or see any group of people as less than fully human.  But it somehow contributed to my discounting outrageous assertions about race in our culture, and largely because I as an adolescent was not compelled by any adult authority to question the assertions in a required reading assignment.  Like Scarlett, I wouldn’t think about that now; tomorrow was another day.

Dionne and Rueisha and I still danced sometimes after this incident, though not on the lawn in front of our classmates.  Dionne and I transferred in ninth grade to a big public high school, and our circles of friends became largely segregated, as the currents of the culture pulled us apart.  I wish we had had the discussion about the book in class, in my living room, that Dionne and I, who had both been required to read the book, had discussed the racism in it.  Instead, like Rhett going off to fight the Yankees in the last battles of the war, Dionne and I were abandoned like Scarlett on a perilous road with dangers and no clear sense of what to do next.

But this is how white privilege takes itself for granted, how cultural oppression is hard to see to the group that benefits from the oppression.  Even if I had had no friends of color at my snooty girls’ school, I would have been robbed by this education without educating, this reading without contextualizing.  The keys to what we need to know about ending the hegemony present in American documents lies in the discourse of the establishmentarian authors as least as much as it does in those in revolt against that hegemony.  We need to raise our political consciousness so that Twelve Oaks burning makes sense, so that Frank Kennedy’s death makes sense, so that Scarlett’s pathological selfishness makes sense, so that America makes sense.  And then we need to change America into a place where the few oppressing the many is a wholly unimaginable occurrence, something only in the pages of historical fiction, not a present-tense struggle of any kind.  And this is how we get there – not just by revolting against the bad idea but examining it on its own terms to expose its fallacies.

One day I will teach Gone with the Wind to  my students next to The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacob’s narrative, and Whitman’s poetry about wounded soldiers.  I will hold the long-overdue discussion, and while this will not stop the deaths of people like Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, it will make us ready to shout “no,” to tell those white preppy girls that they are the embarrassment, that black women don’t act like Mammy, nor are they named “Mammy,” nor do they crow smilingly at the idea of some white slave owner asking them to lift up their skirts to show off their red petticoats, and no, just no – we need to unpack it all, admit to it all, and finally be able to renounce it all, truly all of it.

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