Circular Cruises/Particularism

From Eccentric Flower

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27 May 2009 - This essay would probably hold together better if I had called it "Signs Of a Sick Culture" or "What I Dislike About My Countrymen." Bear that in mind when reading it; it will help you stay sane as I digress again and again and again.

I wrote this in 2000, which means September 11, 2001 had not happened yet. God alone knows what the tone of this would have been if I had written it after that. In the intervening years I have become steadily more certain that our culture - by which, foreign readers, I mean Americans - is hopelessly ill. Mortally. At this point I am reduced, like Boss, into waiting to see how long it will be before it collapses utterly, and hoping that we will replace it with something better - if there's anyone left to do the replacing.


Particularism

25 October 2000


Boss made a notation. "We'll discuss it later. What are the marks of a sick culture?"

"Boss, fer Gossake! I'm still learning the full shape of the Shipstone complex."

"You will never learn its full shape. I gave you two assignments at once so that you could rest your mind with a change of pace. Don't tell me that you've given no thought to the second assignment."

"Thought is about all I've given to it. [...] I did start making tallies. It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn't the whole population."

"A very bad sign. Particularism ..."

-Friday, Robert Heinlein

I have been known to disagree with Heinlein's philosophies in many places (although not the places where everyone else seems to want to train their artillery). For the longest time I thought the paragraph above was one of those places. It may still be, but the problem is that the remarks which follow it in the same chapter make me unclear on how it is meant to be interpreted.

You see, I normally believe nationalism is pretty evil. I believe that the idea of thinking that a single nation can have a single character and a single set of goals is exactly the mindset which leads to diplomatic failures, feuds, rebellions, outright wars, atrocities ... I think it is always a mistake to conceive of a nation as a unified whole. In addition, it glosses over rifts and diversities within that nation; smooths it out into one homogeneous lump of clichés.

So, to my mind, Boss is wrong. Particularism=good. Nationalism=bad.

But the rest of Boss's comments make it clear that he is hoping the culture is as sick as he thinks it is, hoping that it will reach the critical mass for revolution and upheave and be replaced by something else. Not necessarily something better, mind you, but he views the upheaval as necessary. (Of course, he also knows he will be dead before it happens, and he is all but commanding his beloved Friday to emigrate off-planet before the revolution comes, so clearly he has no illusions about how chaotic it will be. He's also more than a little hypocritical.)

In other words, his "signs of a sick culture" (there are several more in the chapter, including the one I most often cite, an increase in personal rudeness) may actually be a good thing. I guess it depends on what you think of the existing culture, doesn't it? I'll agree that particularism is not a good sign for the stability and unity of a nation, but what if you felt that stability and unity was mostly an enforced myth all along?

- - -

This is going to seem like a change of subject, but yesterday I got my legs waxed. Now you have to understand that the gent who does this has recently been written up in a local magazine and has therefore surged in popularity.

He's having a lot of trouble with the newcomers. Many of them apparently don't call when they are going to miss an appointment; they don't call if they're going to be late; they believe they can reschedule on demand, even though he's fully booked at all times and margins between clients are nonexistent. Frankly, he told me, he'd rather just deal entirely with his existing clients, the ones who book their next appointment as they're finishing the current one, and who fill up ninety percent of his calendar anyway. He may start pushing back, either requiring a deposit for no-shows (after all, if they don't show, it's lost time for him) or banning people after the first rudeness or some such.

I told him to take my words with a grain of salt because I had existing biases, but I was willing to bet that all these newcomers were in the young, up-and-coming, power-lunch and power-suit crowd ... the young turks of the business world, average age thirty, ready to see and be seen, and with money to burn (and the kind of people who adore the magazine which had the write-up). I told him that in my experience, that particular demographic missed an etiquette lesson somewhere, because it wasn't just him: They're rude to all service personnel, no matter how high up the ladder the service is - anywhere from their doctor to their beautician to the guy at the garage to the kid behind the counter at the fast food place.

Somewhere along the way they acquired the idea that these people were not entitled to courtesy, that only their own time was valuable, that the world revolved around them. I shudder to think what the world will be like when these young turks are twenty years older and the new captains of industry. Even Ford and Rockefeller, assholes both, knew you couldn't piss on all of the people all of the time.

These people have neither particularism or nationalism. Just egotism. Which, to my mind, is the most dangerous of all.

- - -

Another apparent change of subject.

I've mentioned my deep dislike of ego a lot, and drawn a little fire for it, but I don't think I'm always clear. I believe a certain amount of ego is necessary to keep the blood moving. I've been encouraging my friend Marc to have more ego for years now, just so he'll stop undervaluing his art and his labor. I need a little more ego so I'll market my stories more actively. Without ego you just end up hiding in the corner, and that's no fun.

What I dislike is the display of ego. Or of pride, as I noted in my journal the other day. Pride is a good thing, but rampant displays of it are bad. What you may not realize is that I feel this way about just about every other emotion or sentiment I can think of.

Now, hold on before you make that face. I am not a Vulcan. I don't dislike the emotions themselves and I don't dislike declaring them to the immediate parties involved. It's when the declaration threatens to become as big a deal as the emotion itself that I have a problem. Or when the emotion is advertised to the world.

Basically I dislike needless drama. If you're having a rotten day, I'm sympathetic. If you'd like to go have a drink with a trusted friend and trade stories about how rotten the day is, or bend the ear of your significant other for a while, I'm all for it (so long as you're prepared to reciprocate). But if you decide that complete strangers are going to know and feel exactly how pissed off you are, that's a problem. I don't want to feel your pain or share your pain, unless I know you fairly well, and I think it's rude of you to try to share it without being invited.

The problem with this huge public emphasis on empathy is that too much of the empathy is false; it's people making empty noises about how much they care in order to win something for themselves in the process. Real empathy is very, very quiet.

And too often a genuine emotion turns into a basis for bragging. If your kid makes the honor roll, you're proud of him, right? Good. Tell him how proud you are. Tell one or two close friends, if you must. But don't tell all your co-workers, and for pity's sake don't put a "My Child Was An Honor Student ..." bumper sticker on your car. Sharing your pride with the world this way not only does you no credit, it probably makes the child squirm when you aren't looking. Either that, or you're teaching him bad habits.

- - -

Now we begin to get closer to the nugget at the core of all this rambling. I've given you three separate threads; it only remains to connect them.

I've been having a lot of thoughts about UK vs US sympathies recently. I do get accused of being an Anglophile once in a while, and although I can see how people might be tempted to make the charge, I'm not.

I'm not an Anglophile any more than I am an Americophile, because I am not going to endorse any nation unequivocally or even enthusiastically; I am strongly anti-nationalist, and I don't believe in treating any nation as an indivisible unit. The stereotypes hurt all of us.

One day I will travel to Europe, in my quiet and often intelligent way of sight-seeing. I will attempt to be able to find my way to the bathroom in the local tongue; I will be aware of the local customs and try to follow them; I will eat the native food and enjoy it and do my level best not to piss anyone off. I believe in blending in. Nonetheless, I will be obvious as an American (trying to hide it would be even more foolish), and I will suffer for that, because of the bad reputation America has in Europe.

On a nationalist level, America deserves that bad rep. As a nation, it has a history of bullying when it should stay aloof, staying aloof when it should be bullying, and putting the wrong fingers in the wrong pies and making a dreadful mess. But as individuals, well, there are good Americans and bad Americans.

If you want to use particularism, then I'll buy that. I believe it is completely justified, for example, for me to make blanket statements about one segment of American demographics - as I have done in the tale of my poor aesthetician, above. That's because I believe statistics bear me out. But there are no valid statistics for the American nation as a whole. That really is a place where "all generalizations are false." The only thing all Americans have in common is that we all happen to be American citizens ... and maybe that we all want food, shelter and clothing. (Which is probably the same as saying, "we're all human," another tame conclusion.)

In other words, don't automatically suspect me - a semi-well-off thirtysomething, albeit one who won't wear power suits - just because of those idiots. And don't automatically hate Brits just because they're British, like Archie Goodwin does in these Nero Wolfe novels I'm reading - Archie's single biggest character fault, that he's rather xenophobic. I always wonder why his (immigrant) boss tolerates it.

Now, that said, I will admit that I am more inclined to like Brits on a trial basis - meaning on the basis of the clichés - because there is an alleged feature of British character which I favor, and there comes the final piece of this puzzle: Brits, so the theory goes, are far less demonstrative than Americans about their emotions.

You may recall the movie Chicken Run, and the documented fact that the British folks at Aardman kept cutting bits out of the American screenwriter's work and sending it back: No sentiment allowed. What they really meant, of course, is no overt sentiment allowed. Thank god.

Sentiment in American movies tends to be as subtle as a chainsaw - which came up, coincidentally enough, when I was having my legs waxed and he asked me if I had seen Pay It Forward, which I will not do, because I do not like having my heartstrings blatantly and painfully yanked, then buried under a mountain of pap and treacle. Alas, the latter film is typical of American ideas of emotional content.

If you've seen Chicken Run, you know it has quite a bit of sentiment - but it is sentiment that the viewer must provide for him/herself as circumstances warrant. The sentiment is implied; that is more than sufficient. It's the difference between letting the audience fill in their own emotions and being told which emotions to feel. I hate being told what to feel, and that is one of the things I hate the most about American culture as a whole.

- - -

Another is that personal rudeness I've alluded to. The cliché, which I'd love to believe, is that the British are more polite. They may hate your guts, so the story goes, but they're always civil about it. To my mind, if that were true, it'd be an improvement over what we've got.

Then again, I have chosen to live in the second-rudest large city in the country ... which may seem, if not hypocritical, then somewhat confused.

The odd thing is that I'm generally pretty polite to strangers (I'm only abrupt with my friends), and I generally get politeness back, which may indicate that there's a vast untapped deposit of politeness in these Bostonians, waiting to get out.

On the other hand, I know how to spot someone who is just plain rude by inclination, or by upbringing - someone where I might as well just give up hope of a polite reply - and the most common occurrences are in two groups: The power-suit crowd, who seem to believe it's their birthright, and the hacker crowd, who just never did quite get the hang of interpersonal interaction. (In the spirit of full disclosure, note that I seldom talk to my co-workers ... but I'm always polite when I do.)

You'd expect the older, rougher, blue-collar types - like the South Bostonians - to be wicked rude ... but they were mostly brought up in a different generation. If you give them the benefit of politeness, they'll give you a surprised look (they've trained themselves to not expect it) ... and will then, oftener than not, respond in kind.

But now I really have digressed, which is what happens when I get stuck on the subject of rudeness. If Friday's Boss were here, he might tell me to just let it die, let the culture fall apart if it's destined to do so.

But I don't have the consolation he did, of knowing that I will die before it happens.


Copyright © October 2000. All rights reserved.

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