Fear of the Other

Two things: I’ve been reading about and materials by American Indians lately, and I learned about Stephen Graham Jones through a video of him reading one of his stories.  I was immediately hooked.  It seems to me that those of us who’ve gone through trauma—either personally or ethnically—are disproportionately represented among those who like horror.  I’m not suggesting a simple equation, but simply noticing a trend.  Jones has been winning awards as a horror writer and I was anxious to get started.  Night of the Mannequins didn’t disappoint.  Jones is a member of the Blackfeet nation and, according to the author bio, a real slasher fan.  This story isn’t really a slasher but it is an exploration of what happens when an idea takes over someone’s life.

More about growing up in Texas than being First Nations, it follows a group of teens who find an abandoned mannequin and a practical joke that goes terribly wrong.  It’s a story will a real feel for what it means to grow up beneath the middle class.  The realities for those who do are somehow quite different than from those who can take some measure of financial security for granted.  It also makes a good setting for horror stories as the protagonist tries to figure out what’s going on without the aid of authorities and adults.  It makes for a compelling read.  Jones’ no-nonsense style draws you in and it doesn’t let you go.

The book is fairly recent and I don’t want to give too much away.  I do often think about how a writer’s personal experience leads to the books s/he writes.  The horror genre is wide-ranging and can be deep and intelligent.  Despite its brief extent, there’s a lot of depth here.  The straightforward writing style gives the book verisimilitude.  You could see this actually happening.  Monsters, after all, are frequently in our minds.  That doesn’t make them any less real.  Mannequins tend to inhabit the uncanny valley—they’re human and yet, at the same time they’re not.  There are aspects of growing up in “white” culture that must suggest the same to those who’ve been and who continue to be, oppressed by that culture.  There is a real fear to being controlled by others whose intentions, it must be clear by now, are to make themselves rich.  The world is a richer place, however, for having books by Stephen Graham Jones in it.  I’ll be coming back for more.


Marching down the Middle

It is true that I have a fondness for nineteenth-century British novels.  Even though they often lack a strong speculative element they tend to be gothic, at least if written by one of the Brontë sisters.  I’d only ever read one of George Eliot’s novels before, and that was in ninth grade.  Middlemarch has been on my list for many years, but due to its intimidating size I’ve kept putting it off.  Now that I’ve read it I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  I had no idea what the story was about in advance, and no idea how it ended.  Unlike many pieces of literature of its time it hasn’t made a huge impact in pop culture, so this was the opportunity to lose myself for a few months in a world completely unknown.

I’m not foolhardy enough to try to summarize an 800-page novel here, but one aspect that the reader can’t help but notice is the prominence of clergy.  And not only prominence, but prestige.  In a world built around the solid belief in different classes of individuals, where pride takes a place in marriages that are supposed to be within class, the clergy are minor nobility.  Since this is the Church of England the vicars can marry and indeed, one such marriage sets off the tension that lasts throughout the hundreds of pages to come.  The clergy of the time were often gentleman scholars—the role that was envisioned for Charles Darwin as a young man.  Eliot plays on that idea with some of her preachers being amateur scientists.

The conflict—that now feels inherent—between science and religion has less to do with older forms of Christianity than it has to do with evangelicalism.  A relatively new expression of Christianity, evangelicalism set itself against modernity and its science.  Quite often today when commentators rail against “religion” it is really evangelicalism that they have in mind.  In the world Eliot sketches, she sees no difficulties between a rational view of things and an ecclesiastical one.  Clergy are often seen at the whist tables and taking long walks down country lanes.  The distinction between them and the average citizen is that they have been to university to study.  Today, in mainstream Christianity anyway, clergy are educated at least to the master’s level.  They’re no longer among the minor nobility, however.  Middlemarch has more than a hint of nostalgia to it, and the clergy roles show that clearly.


Contrary Living

“Where, o where, are you tonight?” If your mind has supplied the tune and pitchfork, you know just what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you too remember this old chestnut: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me…” Those who know me often think I’m just another middle-class professor-wannabe like all the others. The truth of the matter is that I grew up culturally backward, living in a place that looked up to hillbillies as our sophisticated superiors. I’m no classist. When I say blue collar I may be exaggerating the shade of gray working-class outerwear actually represents. The myth when I was young was that getting an education meant you’d improve your lot in life. Yet here I am with a car in the garage that won’t start and a president who courts my kind for reelection when he should be thinking about trying to govern.

Now that we’ve got a Beverley Hillbilly White House, I think we ought to bring Hee Haw back. For those who might secretly doubt my redneck pedigree, I was raised on a steady diet of the country-western music and comedy variety show and WWF Wrestling. And there was, at least in the former, some wisdom to be had. Reading the headlines I see that what the Democrats need is somebody that people like. Celebrities are the political future. We’ve seen enough Ronald Reagans, Sonny Bonos, Jesse Venturas, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers to tell us that. Ironically, many entertainers are Democrats. The problem is our party likes intellectuals to run the country. It’s not a bad idea, really it isn’t. The electoral college has become the Nielsen ratings board.

No matter how many times I watched the “Where, o where, are you tonight” sketch, I always turned my attention to the TV when it came on. You never knew who the second singer would be, or how the verse might change for the week. And the down and outs on the dilapidated front porch with their moonshine always sang of “deep dark depression, excessive misery.” What I didn’t know then is that Hee Haw was ahead of its time. Of course, back then the rural south tended to vote Democrat. Why, even the opening title card had a donkey on it. Perhaps I’m stretching for a little too much sophistication here. I wouldn’t know, because I grew up with back-woods sensibilities. I just wish that since Jed is in the White House we might have a little comedy once in a while to lighten things up on the way to World War III.


Horsemanship

Hi ho Silver, away! I’ve been pondering academic freedom. (It was suggested to me that I might discourse on such.) My academic career, three years cold in the grave, seems a long way away. In religious studies it is kosher to fire someone for academic freedom issues. Doctrine permits no challenges, for it has already been decided. This doesn’t only apply to conservative religions, but to academic institutions of all stripes. Nobody likes to be challenged. Somehow, since 9/11 any academic dispute in religion is a potential threat. I have known many academics to have lost their jobs. I also know how it feels to see colleagues go from grace to grace because they have an institution that will vouch for them. I don my black mask and saddle up Silver. Those of us raised in working class families watched that show, you know, religiously. And Gunsmoke, among other campy westerns. Caricatures of good guys versus bad guys. You know the story.

In a moment of self-delusion, I thought I might be asked to deliver a paper at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I plodded along in my cumbersome way, reading a few books on academic freedom and interviewing a couple of its sacrificial victims. Turns out I was, well, self-deluded. It is probably for the best since I don’t wish to put myself forward as an expert on anything. Still, it felt like arriving at the front desk on that great and terrible day to find out your name’s not in the book after all, and so, where do you go now? Academics are running along as healthily as they always have. I was not raised knowing the difference between a salad fork and a meat fork. Some colleagues insist that universities crave the voice of hoi polloi; the authentic blue collar academic who worked his or her way up from a disadvantaged start through a doctoral program. I know it’s all just fancy talk. Academics are just as xenophobic as the rest of us.

Losing an academic position is easy. It’s like falling off a horse. I speak from experience here, having fallen off a big horse during a canter while helping underprivileged kids at horse camp one summer. It didn’t seem much like the wild west at the time. Seeing the world in a side view of the horse as you’re sliding off has a way of changing your perspective. You know the ground is coming fast. You just hope that your feet have slipped the stirrups. When it was all over the horse whisperer (or whatever they were called back then) publicly berated me for letting the reins fall from my hand. I should’ve slipped them over the saddle horn on my way down. Didn’t I know that the horse might’ve stepped on them? Rubbing my sore backside, I didn’t feel like such a masked lawman anymore. Silver had gotten away. At the dining hall I could feel the uncomfortable stares. Which one is the salad fork again? I never could keep my silver straight.

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Fashions to Slaves

Howard Thurman was a theologian who held saintly status in my days at Boston University. As an African-American he’d experienced episodes while growing up that nobody should have to face. I remember him writing about being stuck with a pin in the hand by a caucasian girl who declared, “you don’t feel pain.” That image has stayed with me for decades. Unfortunately, that image hasn’t remained alone. I’ve been reading about slavery in the ancient world. No matter your race, slavery was considered a kind of ontological state. The color of your skin didn’t matter; your social status did. Slaves, you see, were less than human. When the slave trade began its hideous trans-Atlantic business ventures, essentially an entire race was classed as subhuman, because it is easier to feel good about mistreating a subhuman than it is a fellow being with a soul just like yours, if only purer.

This is not to deny the very real and troubling, criminal mistreatment that African-Americans experienced during the colonial period. The deeper problem with slaves was that of social status. If you look closely enough, you can always make someone “the other.” Heck, we’ve done it for millennia with those of the female gender. Something that has always bothered me has been how sociologists, political scientists, and historians constantly overlook the concomitant issue of class. In the new world we like to image we’re a classless society, but we’re not. The plight of many African-Americans today is economic. If you prevent people from having access to education and good jobs, they become much more easy to repress. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, just someone with the will to look. Those who write the history are those comfortably ensconced in offices and with research assistants, and people who empty the departmental garbage for them after hours.

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

How easy it is to suppose that the other is not the same as me! Most people do not like to challenge their preconceived notions. This is one of the real values of an education in religious studies. Take that intimate belief and put it under a microscope. Many would leave the lab screaming. Those who remain, patiently probing, learn uncomfortable truths. If the biologists are right—and there seems to be no reason to doubt it—all people evolved from common ancestors and we have more in common than we have that separates us. Skin color is only skin deep. Gender differentiation is merely in the service of species reproduction. What really makes us different is culture. And culture always requires classes. As even the ancients knew, some tasks are odious, and it is far more pleasant if we can compel someone else to do them. First, however, we must use our religion to explain why they can be made our slaves. If anyone doubts this, read Howard Thurman and see if he can’t change your mind.


Class-less Society

HiddenInjuries Dated, yet still relevant, The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb brings to the limelight that which much of the world wishes to ignore. At least the affluent world. The very concept of “class” has a dangerously tilting effect on human society. That which is “valuable” is only so by common consent, and those who have more of it inevitably raise themselves above those deprived. In a world where food is scarce, bread becomes currency. The trick to any unequal society is declare an arbitrary standard of value that some may horde while others strive to attain it. We are largely content today to work for money we seldom physically see. We are employed at professions assessed by their value to the “owners” of companies who frequently misunderstand that ownership to include the lives of their employees. And that’s just the middle class!

No doubt, living standards for most people have improved in the decades since Sennett and Cobb produced their study, but the base root of the problem still projects out far enough to be tripped over repeatedly—lack of a sense of personal worth. The working poor have always striven for dignity, a sense of worth. I found much in this book that rang true for my personal circumstances. The Hidden Injuries of Class is based on interviews with workers, some of whom “changed classes,” working from blue collar to white collar positions. Validating my experience, the sense of self-worth among those who’d thus advanced did not keep pace with their class expectations. Those of us raised in the working-class world know our place. Yes, we may learn to act like those middle class, and sometimes privileged workers around us, but we know deep down that we came from humble stock. We sit at desks in offices, knowing that we belong behind a broom or holding a shovel. Not a day elapses when I don’t ponder that I’m a drone a little too deep into the hive.

Any society requires those who are willing to do the less-than-desirable jobs. It will take more than reality TV to add dignity to the personal assessment of such workers, however. Although I’m not a TV watcher, the times I view reality programs that highlight the “ordinary people” we come off looking like the unsophisticated rubes of the affluent imagination. Duck hunters may laugh all the way to the bank, but when you’re off camera a different reality, I’m sure, takes hold. We are entertained by the antics of those who don’t know how society folk behave. In my limited experience I went from janitor to academic dean of an Episcopal seminary where Archbishops of Canterbury were not rare visitors. Literal lords of the realm sat at the same dining table that now holds the peanut butter that comprises my lunch each day. I can act polished with the best of them, but I know once they leave I’ll again become the kid who grew up among junk cars and working-class prospects. And I know which is the more authentic life.


Sheep, Goats, and Preferred Customers

The American dream, at least for many idealists, includes a classless society. Class has less to do with individual wealth than it does with a sense of entitlement or importance. During an election year we hear politicians advocating such utopian ideals, at least until they get into office. When is the last time you’ve seen a politician flying coach? I have had to fly quite a lot lately, and nothing underscores the rampant sense of self-importance as flying. First class passengers are pampered and fussed over while those of us of more humble means—or who work for more frugal companies—are treated with such condescension that Amtrak actually starts to look pretty good. Nowhere is this more evident than the mythical construct of “boarding lanes.” Anyone who has flown knows that, like in death, we all have to pass through that same narrow jet-way to get to our destination. There is one door and we all walk through it—even the flight crew. I’ve flown several airlines that now offer preferred customers the dubious advantage of boarding the plane through some kind of special “lane” that is in reality a ratty looking carpet that reinforces that some passengers are more equal than others.

Even religions that began as egalitarian enterprises soon constructed their own stratified societies. When’s the last time a bishop came calling, or even deigned to look your way? It’s not leadership that is at issue here, but the sense of superiority that comes with it. Can someone lead without the need of putting others in their place first? I have known some wealthy people, and occasionally met some very wealthy people, who have laid aside pretension and confessed that they were lucky enough to get a good deal. Such people, it seems, are rare. The fact is that hard work sometimes only leads to backaches and headaches, not personal advancement. And yet we literally roll out the red carpet for those who want to board first. If the plane goes down, we all go down together.

I realize that airline gimmicks are merely strategies to get some people to pay more for basically the same services as those in economy class. Oh, maybe your first class meal is complimentary, but it is still airline food. The pressurized cabin air we breathe we breathe in common, even with a thin curtain between us. Some of us have thinner wallets than others, and perhaps even thinner skin. But still we can dream. Looking down on the towns and cities of this great egalitarian experiment from 40,000 feet, everyone looks pretty small. Rich and poor alike are so tiny that you can’t even see one single individual even if you tried. That is the metaphor that perhaps sums up best the experience of flying. My sole has never touched the special carpet of privilege, I am frisked and prodded by strangers while first class customers are above suspicion, and I hear very wealthy men braying why I should elect them to lead this classless society. Time for a reality check. Step this way, sir, and spread your feet a little further. This will only take a minute.

Who's who?


Academic Omelets

As an erstwhile accidental adjunct, I came to see a side of the academy increasingly rare these days: the professional who must earn his or her keep. That life is less than half-a-year away and I still look to see what is happening as higher education crumbles under its own excessively disproportionately top-heavy infrastructure. An article in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education outlined how an adjunct, on his own initiative, began a survey of working conditions for those in similar academic situations. The results went viral and universities felt the need (only occasionally) to justify their actions. Expediency at the cost of a few eggheads nobody worries about, but when the news starts to leak like so many yolks, it is about time to at least act concerned. The phrase that stuck in my shell as I read the piece was this: “many adjuncts nevertheless feel they embody a lower class in academe.”

I felt like a bulls-eye had just been struck, and that bulls-eye had been painted on my forehead. Higher education has always been subject to claims of elitism and exclusivity. I entered the industry because at every stage along the way my instructors encouraged me to continue since I thrived in that atmosphere. I had entered higher education, however, from a humble, working class family. No dreams of power drove me—it was the sheer joy of learning. When I tried to situate myself among those who had had a leg-up in life, it was an uneasy fit. It’s like that uncomfortable feeling when a homeless person sits next to you on the subway. You know you could help, but you know there is an invisible wall that separates your world from his or hers. And hopefully, somewhere deep inside, you also realize that that homeless person could have been you.

The adjuncts are the working class among higher education. At some schools the full-time faculty teach very little and get to earn their lights as the brilliant minds who write books. I’ve written a couple myself. The difference is, they are bona fide. Privileged. Education used to be considered a great leveler. As in most myths, the truths in that sentiment are heavily metaphorical. Education could level the playing field if people weren’t prone to accept privilege when it is offered to them. What adjunct would not just as soon become the full professor with a light load and the fame of being featured on television and interviewed in Time? I don’t mean to single out universities—people in all situations tend to behave that way. No, I don’t single out universities. It was just that I hoped they might have been above this kind of thing.

This is your life, on adjuncts.


Adrift

We all have the gift of critical thinking to thank for the world of relative comfort in which we live. That doesn’t mean we always appreciate the source of the gift; in fact, America has had a long history of anti-intellectualism, a distrust of those educated “European style.” Nevertheless, universities in the United States far outnumber those in most nations. Overall they represent a tiny fraction of our culture and workforce, however, and when any institution become elite trouble will follow. I just read a review of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Arum and Roksa, sociologists, have done a study of university outcomes in the United States and the results are failing. More specifically, a large proportion of students emerge from college having learned little and heavily in debt for their effort. Having just learned of the book, I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but Kevin Carey, in his review, notes that the disparity breaks along the lines of privilege.

Those students who enter college from well-to-do backgrounds, having attended fine schools, learn a great deal and are very unlikely to end up unemployed. The other group, by far the larger of the two, is comprised of students from schools mediocre or worse, hails from somewhat humble financial circumstances, and will like find unemployment at the end of four years with little true education. There can be no excuse of ignorance, for universities have known of this for many years. In the words of Carey, “Academe was so slow to produce this research because it told the world things that those in academe would rather the world didn’t know.” Some of us emerged from higher education in profound debt, but even with good study skills, lack of connection equals great uncertainty. Classism is alive and well in America, but unfortunately universities have been quietly playing a supporting role.

The truly sad part is that many people already assume the worst about higher education. We like to claim education to be a great equalizer, but that will never change the fact of who your daddy is. The upper crust looks out for its own, and when it comes to the tremendous costs involved to maintain universities, the bulk of the tuition comes from those who benefit least. How long before university presidents with their pseudo-corporate salaries start asking for a federal bail-out? How many times can those who have too much cry that they can barely make ends meet? It can cost a lot to ensure your kids get the jobs they deserve. Universities have increasingly modeled themselves on corporate America, and the product has become shoddy and cheap. Perhaps those who distrust intellectualism have been right all along. Perhaps the logo outside campus should read “buyer beware.”

A rare view.