Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Point of the Review

A couple of years ago, when writing a review of a rather thin offering by a respectable scholar, I found myself struggling to keep from becoming snide and catty. I had learned that writing a professional review is quite different from tossing off cutting remarks on a blog post; I felt I had a responsibility to give my readers information useful in their own decision-making and had come to understand that a review is not simply an opportunity to preen and attack. After all, no one is going to read a book review I write because of me; they are going to read it because they already have an interest in the subject or the author and want to decide whether or not to pursue the particular volume.
Bob Garfield, whose On the Media NPR show is a favorite of mine, has a snarky piece on the op-ed page of The New York Times today about BuzzFeed's decision to ban negative book reviews. He sees this as bringing "us one step closer to my two lifelong dreams: first, a newspaper that delivers only good news; and second, diet bacon."
He's got a point. But it really isn't quite so simple.
The only thing a bad review has ever done for me is give me a chuckle and drive me away. I've missed plenty of good shows and have delayed experiencing numerous fine movies and books all because I accepted the opinion in a takedown. These days, I ignore bad reviews as completely as I do raves. Neither tends to provide me useful information for deciding whether or not I want to experience the subject work; they both say more about the writer than about the subject. Few of them are any more useful that the comment on my book on Quentin Tarantino's movies: "It's not really a Bio type of book. It's a writer's interpretation of Tarantino's films. Basically a much of babling." 
I review occasionally for the American Library Association's periodical of short reviews, Choice. It's an interesting exercise and one I enjoy a great deal: The reviews are limited to 190 words and are expected to be informative, not negative. After all, these are used by librarians in making book-purchase choices and the question is whether or not the book could be useful or of interest to the particular clientele of the library. This has led to a new standard even for my judgment of longer reviews: If I am finding out too much about the reviewer or have to wade through too much of a particular reader's point-of-view, I will put the review down. Only in the rare case of a review by someone of more interest to me than the book/movie/play under consideration will I keep going when the article turns into attack or effusive praise.
Even when it is the reviewer who is of interest... maybe even more so then, we need to be careful as we read. Sometimes a review can become more famous than the work under question, doing damage to reputations of authors and works without even really addressing those authors and works. Somerset Maugham, though he remains one of the most popular of the 20th century writers in English worldwide, has never had his reputation revive in America since the time Edmund Wilson called him "second-rate" ("Somerset Maugham and an Antidote," The New Yorker, June 8, 1946, 96-99). And B. F. Skinner's provocative and useful Verbal Behavior has never recovered from a well-known negative review by Noam Chomsky that, as both Chomsky and Skinner have admitted, had little to do with the book itself.
At the same time, I do understand what Garfield is getting at. Certainly, on a site like BuzzFeed, which says it "powers the social distribution of content, detects what is trending on the web, and connects people in realtime with the hottest content of the moment," there is room (or should be) for the negative... just as there needs to be on Amazon. What bugs Garfield, it seems, is that new BuzzFeed Book Section editor Isaac Fitzgerald says he "will follow what he calls the “Bambi Rule” (though he acknowledges the quote in fact comes from Thumper): 'If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.'”
There is certainly a time for cattiness. Alice Roosevelt Longworth's "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me" has an important place in our popular culture. But we don't need it everywhere, and the pan isn't a necessary part of a useful set of reviews. On a site like BuzzFeed, in addition, there is plenty of room for that in the comments.
Though I grant Garfield his point (we don't need to dumb ourselves down further by relentless pollyannaism), my sympathy remains with Fitzgerald. After all, it is much easier to smack something down than to discuss it reasonably, faults and all, providing enough for the reader to make her or his own decision without intrusion--and a section of reviews in any publication should encourage the difficult, not the facile, something I think both Garfield and Fitzgerald would admit to be true.
That review I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the one that I struggled with? It took a great deal of work, much more than if I had simply gone with my initial negative reaction--and, as I worked, I began to better understand the book I was reviewing, seeing that it did indeed have strengths as well as its obvious weaknesses. The journal editor wrote back, once I submitted my review, telling me that it was "informative, nicely written, and, I suspect, kind to the author."
That, to me, is what a review should be.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Real Thanks this Thanksgiving... Thanks to a Real Adult and Teacher

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a link on Facebook to a story on the high cost of higher education and student debt. Someone responded that he had worked his way through school so had no sympathy with struggling students today. I was not surprised. Often, the people unwilling to help those in need pulled themselves from the same poverty. Their sympathy is guarded and their expectations measured on a balance scale.
They made it, after all, on their own (or so they believe)... so why can't others? Why should others get more than they got?
But let me move on:
One of the greatest and simplest expressions of the dangers of earthly ambition, greed and debt that I know of is Bob Dylan's "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" (the link is to a David Grisman and Jerry Garcia version) which ends with these lines:
No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest
And he just walked along, alone
With his guilt so well concealed
And muttered underneath his breath
“Nothing is revealed”
Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road.
Many years ago, when I was teaching at Scattergood School, a Quaker boarding school in Iowa, I played the song (Dylan's original version) for breakfast reflection after a day of rancorous disagreement within the community. All of us, I think, were calmed and a little abashed--and we looked at each other with a little more sympathy and compassion, our angers abating in recognition one of the other without any concern for balance. I think we all heard the distinction between the 'little neighbor boy' who asked for nothing and revealed nothing and Judas Priest, who said to Frankie Lee, on giving him money early in the song, "my loss will be your gain," seeing things in a win-loss paradigm. He expects, as Frankie Lee finds, the favor to be returned.
On Tuesday, one of my best friends, a colleague in the English department at New York City College of Technology, died suddenly. He was to join us today, for our Thanksgiving feast. Charles Hirsch was compassionate, one of the most compassionate people I've ever known, easily hurt but always forgiving, never imposing his own standards, never judging, but always striving himself. Charles struggled at times, struggled mightily, but he never used his own travails as an excuse for not reaching out to help others. Even when things were difficult for him, he always smiled, and always extended a hand. Never did he use the excuse of the weight of his own load to refuse to help with that of another.
In a way, Charles was that 'little neighbor boy.' He helped, but never expected anything, not even gratitude, in return. In addition, and unlike me, he was able to let hurts slide away, never holding grudges, always able to treat even those who had slighted him with love and compassion. He often frustrated me: We would blow off steam to each other, but I would always retain pressure enough to power retribution. He would not, and I never understood how he could be so nice to those who had treated him shabbily... no, I understood, but realized I hadn't the strength of character to do as he did. Perhaps I am still too mired in the tit-for-tat of childish interactions to manage his adult reaction.
As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Charles had taken at least one course from the poet John Berryman. We often spoke of Berryman, whose work, for a variety of reasons, held resonances for both of us. I generally returned to "The Ball Poem," which I read to my classes almost every time I teach a literature course. It describes a little boy whose ball bounces into the water and whose expression tells of that first understanding of loss each of us experiences. It ends with these lines:
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . .I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.
Nor was Charles just a little boy. A real neighbor, he was, yes. But, like Berryman's narrator, he had the expansive understanding and compassion that made him, unlike so many of us today who judge only by possessions and gain and loss, fully adult.
I am thankful that I knew him.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Like Democracy, Education Cannot Be Imposed from Outside

Last week, The New York Times published a piece concerning childhood reading--in this case, of Gone With the Wind. It appeared, oddly enough, while I was in the midst of re-reading a book I don't think I've read since I was nine or ten, The Grapes of Wrath. I read it then with such attention that, even now, over fifty years later, I feel almost a sense of homecoming, of familiarity--and I am learning a great deal about where my beliefs come from, at least in part, beliefs about religion, ethnicity, politics, responsibility. I am also, oddly enough, beginning to understand through it just why I react so poorly to things like the Common Core State Standards.
While writing my last book, I thought a great deal about three fictional families--for the book was sparked by my own background in the culture of those families, the American Borderer culture that grew from 18th-century "backcountry" experiences of a predominantly Scots-Irish people who had come to the colonies after a generation or two in Ireland's Ulster Plantation. These three families are the Joads of Steinbeck's novel, Faulkner's Snopes clan, and the Stampers of Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. Each family had a distinct impact on me, and they show me now the importance of reading as a personal experience in the development of all individuals given a taste for it when very, very young. And they show the danger of a broader society trying to impose a standardized conception of "reading" (or anything else) on an extremely varied population.
The importance of reading should be universally understood but, sadly, is not. Too few of my students have ever been as engaged with a book, even a single book, as I was, almost constantly, growing up. In college, then, I find them unable to explore with the same gusto I enjoyed--and I try to make it my task to help them develop that. For reading with engagement, and not the ability to "return" facts on Scantron sheets, is the real center of education. No testing can help me develop that in my students, nor can any standards... but the problem with the Common Core goes far beyond an inability to help me build enthusiasm. Its problem is that, like democracy, education has to start with the self and with the family. Like enthusiasm itself, either can be imposed by outsiders, no matter how well-meaning.
My enthusiasm for The Grapes of Wrath helped develop my affection for the two men would would be my first real and personal heroes: Woody Guthrie and that other Oklahoman, Will Rogers. I can't say for sure that the book had any relation to that, but Oklahoma (where I have still never been) became an important source to me of what I saw as the real America. I doubt there were two other figures, outside of my family, who were as influential on my developing attitudes toward life and, yes, toward my country. They had nothing to do with my schooling, but much to do with my education. At least one of my teachers in high school understood: He arranged that I not be punished for missing school the day Guthrie died.
In college, when others were focused on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it was the story of the Stamper family that held my attention. I didn't know why, and my own family had little resemblance, but something drew me--just as the Joads had. Endurance, "never give an inch," resonated with me... not success, but never giving up.
In the late 1970s, some five years out from my undergraduate days, I still had no clue what I might do with my life. I was working in the parts department of an auto dealership outside of Chicago, drinking heavily and feeling sorry for myself. At some point, I picked up The Hamlet.
To say that Faulkner's novel changed my life might be going a bit far, but it did make me want to go to graduate school in English, believing I would find, there, a means of reading under the direction of experts--no more randomly picking up books, relying on serendipity. That's exactly what my graduate education became. There was no idea of career involved, but only the reading. When I was done, I felt I could turn to other things, to getting on with discovering my life's work.
As I was completing my dissertation, I was applying for Peace Corps, to work in agriculture. Though no farmer and an inconstant gardener at best, I wanted to experience village life in West Africa, where I expected to be sent (I had already spent two years there, but in a city). Plus, I could find out if a career in development would be what I should pursue.
It was not. And I drifted to New York City, eventually believing that I had found my niche as a retailer. But that, I discovered after more than a decade, was not to be.
Now, in my sixties, I know that I belong in academia where my education is on-going and unrestricted by "outcomes"--and I know it is the books I've read (and not my schooling) that brought me here, books that related in some way to my own experiences or those of my family--or that expanded my knowledge of the world, reversing the entropy that it often seems easy for life to drop into. There were many more books than these three, of course, but these come to mind as I look back and try to determine even more clearly just why I wrote my last book and why I am enjoying so much my current project, the one that led me to re-read The Grapes of Wrath.
Human activity, I have learned through a varied life filled with my share of dead ends and successes, is not only patterned but an attempt to establish pattern--or to throw a sense of pattern onto what often seems mere chaos. Reading fiction provides us some of the best tools for dealing with pattern, both in any actuality and in the case of belief superimposed. It opens vision up, too, allowing us to stand back from the fabric under construction, to see the warp and the woof rather than simply experiencing our motion as we are shuttled.
The Common Core State Standards now being instituted in so many of our schools demand that the "texts" studied be 70% "informational." Fiction can make up the rest. What strikes me so odd about this is that it is fiction, in my life, at least, that has provided more information about the world than all other "texts" combined--for it is fiction that has led me to see further and then to explore other texts... and even to write them. Fiction, for me, has been the heart of learning, and learning has come through those books striking chords of some sort inside of me as with experiences (or even imaginings) that I have had in the worlds fiction addresses.
There are different reasons for the teaching we do in different fields. Perhaps some can even be reduced to what they call "learning outcomes." The learning that comes from reading fiction, however, is highly personal, its outcomes different for each individual. We can't even demand those outcomes, for the texts we consider in any one course may not be the ones that light an individual's fire--and by making demands we dampen the kindling for the fire that might otherwise arise next time.
Finding passion only happens when the student takes control herself or himself, the outcome being personal to each just as life itself is. The problem with imposing standards is that they remove this possibility from the student, no matter how those standards are defined.
In today's The New York Times, Frank Bruni writes that the Common Core is "a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization." But what's analytical thinking if it doesn't expand possibilities and push one into speculation... if it doesn't foster thinking beyond established patterns? The Common Core is, at its heart, mass production, with "inspection" standards for each and every product (those things we used to think of as students). One of the important aspects of my exploration of Joads then Stampers then Snopeses was that it was my own, that it was not a path of reading laid out for me.
A common set of generalized goals, desiring students to go as far as they can and giving broad directions, would not be a bad thing--but these Common Cores State Standards don't do that. They try to control curricula telling teachers how much of this and that should be taught, and when. They don't understand that students in different areas and from different backgrounds learn differently--and often need to know different things. They don't understand that students are different, anyway, depending on things like family, economic background and ethnicity... but that each of those things brings strengths as well as weaknesses.
They don't understand the most important thing that I learned from the Joads, the Stampers and the Snopeses, that even the "lowest," the most pig-headed and the meanest have something to offer, one generation to the next. Real education, that is, effective education for the masses, starts with them, and with the personal relationships that are central to a school.
As we continue to learn (or should be learning) through failing attempts and colonialism and neo-colonialism, when outsiders try to impose their ideas, little good results. The Common Core is no different... it is nothing more than internal colonialism imposed from afar onto situations unknown to its arrogant and self-assured creators.
Just read those three novels: You'll see.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Naïveté? Or Exploitation?

If there was one thing I learned from my Peace Corps experience it was that people everywhere know a lot more than the lucky few in the worldwide elites believe they do—and that the idea of helping them is really, at its heart, an idea of helping that elite. We lucky ones, generally from industrialized and, often, formerly colonizing nations (or from the very rich of the rest of the world) are the beneficiaries of a concentration of power and wealth—not of talent, intelligence or ability—a concentration that continues to be reinforced today through what are really sham efforts at development. And, it seems, at education.

“Sharing the wealth” should only be seen as exactly that. The only way “we” can bring “them” up to our level is by eradicating poverty and distributing power equitably. Many of the elite continue to believe that something else—particularly education—is the way to do that. That this is nonsense is not something they are willing to even contemplate. The only way out of poverty is by first making sure people can feed and house themselves. Education alone will never do that, nor will anything else brought to the poor by the rich.

What I learned in Peace Corps slips over into my philosophy on teaching: Many of my students exhibit the disadvantages of poverty, making their education within a system geared to the needs and predilections of the elite nearly impossible.

There’s not even a “wealth” in education that can be shared. You can’t give your education to me the way you could give me money, for example. Yet a belief that such sharing is possible can be seen in continued reliance on Paolo Freire’s “banking concept,” where the teacher deposits knowledge into the students, making them benevolent givers. What nonsense.

Ways need to be found for the students to take charge of their own education, just as communities need to be the leading edges of their own development.

Just as successful development in underdeveloped countries starts with the population itself and not with the imposition of projects by outsiders, successful education begins with the students themselves, not with what teachers can give them. The role of the development worker and the teacher is to assist with what is already there, providing connection to possibilities that the population and the students might not find on their own, enhancing motivation through an understanding of obstacles that the local people and the students might not yet be able to see or understand that they can overcome. The main role of the outsider is to provide access to resources and support, not to “give” things.

The outsider, in other words, is never the answer. The best the outsider can be is a useful tool.

I wonder at those who seem to believe that outsiders from the worldwide elite can zoom in solve local problems. Are they merely ignorant or foolish? I certainly was both in Peace Corps, when I arrived at my village in northern Togo in 1988 ready to teach animal and equipment care and plowing techniques to farmers who had enrolled in a government program that provided them with oxen and plows to be paid for through a loan program. For one thing, I did not understand that, by putting the farmers into debt, “we” were tying them to a monetary economy where they have little control over their income (I should have remembered the Frank Norris story “A Deal in Wheat”). To pay for their oxen, the farmers now had to plant cash crops—cotton, in particular. This meant two things: First, they could no longer plant enough food crops to sustain their families, so also had to sell cotton to buy food. Second, they now had to buy more fertilizer and pesticide—and were straining land that, at best, should only see cotton grown on it every third year, with a nitrogen-fixing crop planted at least one of those other years.

What they could earn was dependent on the price for cotton, something beyond their control, so they had to plant as much of it as they could, so they could be assured of sufficient income even if the price dropped. Animal traction, by itself, is a good idea—but forcing farmers into an economy that can easily break them? We might as well be condemning at least a part of them to poverty worse than they had experienced as subsistence farmers.

Rather than a program developed “for” the farmers by foreign experts working with the government in Lomé at the other end of the country, a better program could have been developed by the farmers themselves, working with a single development worker (perhaps a Peace Corps Volunteer) who could serve as a liaison with outside sources of information and resources. Rather than each farmer buying oxen and setting up a stable, etc., perhaps a deal could have been made with a Peul (Fulani) herder to provide and take care of a pair that would then be owned by a group of farmers. The Peul, after all, are traditional cattle herders with more expertise in dealing with animals in that environment than any foreigner could have. The needed equipment could even have been made by local blacksmiths from designs provided by the development worker. All in all, such a program would have taken greater advantage of local skills and would have placed the farmers at much less risk.

That this would even be possible would not likely have been known by outside experts.
In addition, it would not be popular with the elite. It would not profit those who would, in the program that I was working for, provide the oxen and equipment and the loans. There would not have been a net shift of wealth from the farmers to the elite of the country.

A similar model holds true for education. My mantra, one resulting from my Peace Corps experience, is “start with the students.” Find out where they are, what they know, and what they have been through. Teach through their experiences, taking what they know and showing them ways of expanding it. To do this, I have to stand away from my own abilities and successes and listen. To do this, I have to develop ways of allowing the students to teach each other, acting as a facilitator not always as a “teller.”

All of this is a lead in to my highly negative reaction to today’s Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times. Enamored, as usual, by what the elite can do for the rest, Friedman calls looks to “the makers,” extolling the ability of the elite to “help” everyone else. Traveling with Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America and, now, Teach for All, he is seeing what he believes will be the wonders of the urban elite helping the rural (and urban) poor.

But what goes on, really? Is something gained in the poor communities? Or is the real profit going to the elite? In the United States, Teach for America does quite nicely for Kopp and the others who run the program, and provides a learning experience for the young college graduates it recruits. But what has it to show, after twenty years, for the communities it claims to help?

Not a lot, as far as I can see. In this case, as in so many others, the wealth goes to the wealthy.

Friedman, as I said, calls the Teach for All recruits “the makers.” I have a sneaky suspicion that all they will be making is more money for the elite.

Maybe Friedman doesn’t know that. Maybe he really is so naïve that he cannot see the exploitation, that Teach for All, like Teach for America… like most every program supposedly for the poor, really helps the rich much more.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Want to Understand the Tea Party? Look to How They See Themselves

This map comes from the U.S.Census Bureau (and thanks, Rodger Cunningham, for alerting me to it). It is based on self-reporting on the 2000 census. What is fascinating to me is the number of people who identified themselves simply as "American." Their location covers almost all of Appalachia and, I suspect, if you took out "African American," would dominate the entire old Confederacy (except for Texas and the south of Florida).

These are primarily people of European ancestry who see themselves as simply "American," with no ties to other nations or other cultures. They do not descend from post-Civil War immigration; ties to any "old country" were broken long ago, probably even before the age of steam. Many of them are associated with the Borderer culture that rose between Scotland and England and that was hardened on Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, either by descent or incorporation--and all of them see themselves as being the "real" Americans who created the United States.

They do not feel that they have been treated well by the federal government, of late. In fact, they may never have felt themselves treated well (they were the rebels of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s and the Whiskey Rebellion thirty years later--not to mention, many were the stalwarts of the Confederate States of America, though few would have been counted among the rich slave owners). In The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I quote Albert Votaw, writing in Harper's about them in 1958, at a time when a number of them had moved north to work in the factories of Illinois, Ohio and Michigan:
These farmers, miners, and mechanics from the mountains and meadows of the mid-South--with their fecund wives and numerous children--are, in a sense, the prototype of what the "superior" American should be, white Protestants of early American, Anglo-Saxon stock; but on the streets of Chicago they seem to be the American dream gone berserk. This may be the reason why their neighbors often find them more obnoxious than the Negros or the early foreign immigrants whose obvious differences from the American stereotype made them easy to despise. Clannish, proud, disorderly, untamed to urban ways, these country cousins confound all notions of racial, religious, and cultural purity. (quoted in Cult 193)
Faced with attitudes like this (and it was--and is--commonplace), is there any wonder that the Borderers have turned the tables, rejecting anyone but themselves as the "real" Americans? I think not.

To them, America has never consisted of a federation of states but was forged by the white people who escaped the financial and social tyranny of the East Coast and, as they moved West, created a new culture and new land. From their first arrival in the 18th century, they were the people of the backcountry--which in those days included almost all but the coastal parts (and the areas along the major rivers) of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. They weren't welcome in Philadelphia (the biggest number of them coming to America through the Delaware Valley) or in any of the established cities or towns, so they quickly moved West. Though their "base" remains in the Appalachian Mountains, they were among the first moving farther west throughout the 19th century, often establishing the communities that were soon further populated by newer immigrants.

Their descendants today are proud of this heritage, but have seen themselves demeaned by the powerful intellectual and financial elites of the East for generations--their very value as Americans denigrated while newer immigrants--and African Americans--get (in their eyes) the fruit of their own hard labor through government largess--largess made possible through their own taxes (or so they believe). America is being stolen from them, they imagine. Congressman Pete Sessions' declaration to President Obama, "I cannot stand to even look at you," is nothing more, in fact, than a declaration of the frustrations so many Borderer descendants feel in face of a President who, through his very appearance, brags (it seems to them) of the theft of America from its "real" inheritors.

These are not simply racists, the contemporary Tea Party, and to call them that continues to process of denigration that has now gone on for three centuries. Their attitudes are much more complex and do, at times, come from real grievances--and not just the imagined ones we know so well. In the East, for example, it is commonplace to speak of "white privilege." But "white privilege" is not something many of the Borderers have ever experienced. Yes, many of them were better off than the African Americans in their communities, but not much more so. Just look at images from James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; many Appalachian counties did not see indoor plumbing until the 1950s or later. Yes, Borderers could blend into the dominant white culture of the East (and many did--my family among them) and gain "white privilege," but for many others life was (and is) one of deprivation and desperation.

We're going through a time, right now, of real cultural divide and hatred. It is showing up in our politics, making our government more and more unworkable. The tendency is, from our nice perches in New York City, Washington, San Francisco, Minneapolis... wherever... to see the Tea Party as the "Other," as the vicious and horrible. That's not going to solve anything.

Remember, the Tea Party sees us, the 'secular-liberals,' African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and everyone else who has not joined with them, as the "Other," as the vicious and horrible.

Which side is right? Neither.

Until both can get off their high horses and start seeing things from the perspectives of their enemies, both will continue to be wrong.

Friday, October 18, 2013

What Is Behind the Shutdown... and Why Is the Tea Party So Unapologetic?

What happens when there are two major cultures in a country, and one feels that, though they represent the real spirit of the country, they are being pretty much ignored by its rulers?

Lots of things can, from protest to revolution. We've just seen a rather unusual one, though completely appropriate (in the eyes of the perpetrators), given the beliefs and situation of those who see themselves shoved to the outside of their own country.

The American right sees a United States dominated by people who, in their eyes, don't even represent the "real" Americans who built this country in the first place. They see a country dominated by immigrants and minorities, by people who don't understand the work that it took to make this country great--people who are simply taking advantage of its greatness.

They see (or imagine they see) others coddled and cut to the front of the line while they work and wait their turn. They think government, to aid these others, has gotten too much into their business and their finances, making them struggle while others relax. They look at laws that many (to their eyes) hide behind, or that favor the non-"Americans" over the true children of this country.

To them, central governments have always been villains. Since the time of the War of the Regulation in the 1760s, they have been struggling against those who want to impose their own law upon them. Though they supported the Revolution and loved General Washington, they hated the taxes that they saw as an unfair imposition on an already overburdened population. They rose up against the federal government in the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s--and it was only the presence of their beloved general, now President, that took the wind out of their sails.

Could resentments from so long ago be influencing attitudes to many generations later?

There's a line that can be traced from the Whiskey Rebellion right to Junior Johnson and the birth of NASCAR, not all that long ago.

More tellingly, feelings associated with the Civil War, only a couple of generations more recent than the Whiskey Rebellion, still crop up in association with the Tea Party, so why not those just a little older (and more than a little related)?

But who are they, these Americans so close to being at war with their government?

In The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, I identify them as the inheritors of the Borderers, the Scots-Irish immigrants of the 18th century who settled in the backwoods of the time and who were the leaders of the movement westward of the 19th century. The book is a start at telling their story, a start because theirs is a story seldom told today, in a country that celebrates immigrants of the 19th, 20th and even 17th centuries but elides the Borderers almost completely from almost all of its intellectual and media discussions (making it no wonder, by the way, that they hate the media... and most intellectuals).

Here's what my publisher's website says about the book:
American culture is divided—and it always has been.
American individualism: It is the reason for American success, but it also tears the nation apart.
Why do Americans have so much trouble seeing eye to eye today? Is this new? Was there ever an American consensus? The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth explores the rarely discussed cultural differences leading to today's seemingly intractable political divides.
After an examination of the various meanings of individualism in America, author Aaron Barlow describes the progression and evolution of the concept from the 18th century on, illuminating the wide division in Caucasian American culture that developed between the culture based on the ideals of the English Enlightenment and that of the Scots-Irish "Borderers." The "Borderer" legacy, generally explored only by students of Appalachian culture, remains as pervasive and significant in contemporary American culture and politics as it is, unfortunately, overlooked. It is from the "Borderers" that the Tea Party sprang, along with many of the attitudes of the contemporary American right, making it imperative that this culture be thoroughly explored.
• Documents how the concept and execution of "American individualism" is as diverse as America itself. • Explains how the American notion of individualism has roots that extend back to cultural myths that predate the founding of the nation. • Spotlights the role of the "Borderer" culture spearheaded by the Scots-Irish, whose legacy fuels much of America's contemporary cultural and political divides. • Provides eye-opening information for any reader who wishes to know why so many of our 21st-century political debates in America seem hopelessly irreconcilable. 
Sample Topics: 
American Backwoods,American Folkways,Appalachian Culture,Daniel Boone,Horatio Alger,Individualism in America,Movies and Small Towns,Red States vs. Blue States,Scots-Irish in America,Self-Made Myth.
Excerpts can be read here

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Excerpts from The Cult of Individualism

This link will take you to excerpts from my new book, The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. In it, I explore backgrounds that can make the "shutdown" a bit more understandable--historically, at least. Making sense of it in current terms is beyond me.

The book is available in a number of places online, including Amazon.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Resilience on the Right

My grandfather once told me that I could be proud that no one in our family had been in jail or on the county. I’m not sure which he thought was worse, being locked up or accepting handouts, but they were both near the bottom of his list: they were individual failings, one's own fault. Nothing could be worse. Well, one thing could be: they were both from the government.

His attitude carries back generations. Its beginnings can be found in the history of the borderlands between England and Scotland. It had arisen there even before British authorities tried to impose excise taxes (it took a generation for that to work) or had tricked many to cross the Irish Sea to Ulster Plantation. It had grown up long before among the people of those lowlands, one of Europe’s poorest areas where wars swept over every generation. Houses were built simply and cheaply—easy to rebuild; there was no idea of permanence. A person learned to rely on no one but family.

When they got to the colonies during the 18th century, the Scots-Irish Borderers found that they not only were not wanted but that no one was going to help them here, either. They headed to the backcountry, skirting the English settlements as they made their way across the ‘settled’ part of Pennsylvania and down the Great Wagon Road through the Shenandoah Valley. ‘Self-reliance’ was their watchword—but nobody would let them alone. Not the Native Americans whose lands they were appropriating. Definitely not the coastal ‘barons’ who held title, they would discover, to the acreages they had begun to clear.

Quitrents, taxes, mortgages, and unscrupulous traders from the coast burdened them. That land cleared and farmed could be land owned proved tom-foolery. So heavy were the burdens that many pulled up stakes and headed farther west. The pattern only ended when their Okie descendants reached the West Coast—and there was no place left to go.

Nowhere along the line had anyone helped them. The governments they’d experienced just wanted to aid the bankers exploiting them. They reacted either by refusing, by moving on, or by downright rebellion. On the eve of the American Revolution they had their own War of the Regulation in the Carolinas. Just after the Revolution, they were responsible for the Whiskey Rebellion. The new government of the United States, they were discovering, was no more interested in them than the British had been.

There were three things the dour Borderers expected to see from any government: tax collectors, jail, and charity. The first could be struggled against. Yet, the faster Borderers fled into the wilderness, the faster the “revenuers” followed. The second was a necessary evil. Sure, there were criminals who would never be behind bars, those East-Coast bankers and mortgage holders, but there needed to be a certain amount of keeping of the peace. The third, though, was the most pernicious, a means of keeping people down, of trapping them into dependency. Anyone who fell for it deserved what they got—and that certainly would not be respect.

The Borderers, unlike other Americans of British cultural descent, were not creatures of the Enlightenment. They were poor, uneducated, and had been continually exploited for generations. The idea of the Social Contract that guided so many coastal American settlements was foreign to them: the only ones you could rely on were your family and your friends. The motives of strangers, even idealistic-sounding ones, would, on examination, always prove mercenary.

Borderer experience, after three centuries in North America, continues to bear this out.
For the Borderers are still here. Their descendants are not just the Appalachians and their other physical grandchildren but form a major American culture that has drawn in people of many ethnicities. Today, they provide the home for the Tea Partiers and much of the force on the far right. Their attitudes, though often misunderstood by the spiritual descendants of the Enlightenment that make up the other major component of British-descended American culture, shape American politics and policies as much as their ancestors did, if not starting with Thomas Jefferson, certainly with Andrew Jackson, the first president who was one of their own.

The Borderers, whether we like it or not, are a part of “us.” Rather than seeing them as something that will go away as American demography changes, we need to recognize that they will continue to be a major force in shaping American society—just as they always have been.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where's the Commonality?

Well, yeah, pretty much, because I don't think we have anything in common with 'em.  I mean, where's the commonality? --Rush Limbaugh
When I read Limbaugh's comment made during an interview yesterday, I thought immediately of the last lines of my forthcoming book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. I conclude:
If there is ever going to be a reconciliation between the two dominant white American cultures, it is going to have to be through recognition by both sides that what they see of the other is not the entire story. There may be--there are--cults of individualism in America that are strong enough to destroy the country, but there is also a great deal more, even in the realm of individualism. Seeing this may allow each of us to emerge from our own cultlike beliefs long enough to reach out, one to another.
I hope that can happen.
When I wrote those words, soon after Obama's second inaugural, I was feeling much more optimistic about the United States than I had in a long, long time. I thought we had turned a corner. In fact, I was worried that might book might no longer be addressing a present split and the problems represented, that I might be talking about something fast receding into the past.

Over the six months since, however, my optimism has evaporated. Instead of trying to overcome the real barriers between American cultures, we are building them higher. Not just between the "Borderers" and "secular liberals" (the cultural bases of the red state/blue state split) but between whites and blacks, whites and Latinos, blacks and Latinos... hell, between each and every cultural group in the country and each and every other one. The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is only one example of how people of all sorts are constructing fortresses around themselves, keeping out any hint of an idea that they, too, might be to blame. That responsibility for the state of the country is not just on the shoulders of recalcitrant "others."

One of the reasons debaters sometimes pick sides of an issue through a random draw is that the practice of learning well the beliefs and arguments of a "side" not one's own not only makes one better able to counter those arguments but also allows one to "grow" one's own beliefs in light of what another might hold as true. We, as Americans, rarely do that today. We are so sure that everyone else is wrong that we are absolutely unwilling to try to stand in their shoes, even for a moment.

Yesterday, on the MSNBC show All In, Chris Hayes turned the tables on white attitudes toward black culture in his lead-in to an interview with Gawker's Cord Jefferson. He wanted whites to hear what they sound like when they talk about blacks. He did a good job of it, too. But few of the people who most need to hear what he was saying, I am sure, were tuning in. Like Fox News, MSNBC (leaving Morning Joe aside) has become a narrow silo in terms of content and audience.

Is Limbaugh right? Is the answer to his rhetorical question just as he imagines? I hope not. I hope that we Americans can find the commonalities that do exist between us. Yes, Limbaugh was speaking specifically of the political situation, but I do think it can be extended to culture as well... and I think we all need to be seeking answers rather than continuing to prove that commonality is a thing of the past.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Listen to an interview with me about my forthcoming book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. The book is due out at the end of next month.

Here's the Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 Myths, Cults . . . and Cultures

Chapter 2 The Individual in Two American Cultures

Chapter 3 From the Borderlands to Ulster to the Western Colonies to Be American

Chapter 4 Alone in the Wilderness: The Myth of Daniel Boone, the Reality of the Border, the Rise of Jackson, and the Background of John Brown

Chapter 5 How the Other Half Lives

Chapter 6 The Townspeople, the Hero, and Alienation

Chapter 7 Keeping It All Apart

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Individualism in America

In The New York Times today, David Brooks writes:
So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.
As this relates to my forthcoming book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth, Brooks managed to pique my interest. He is basing his conclusion on a study of word usage by George Mason University's Daniel Klein; another by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile; and a third by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir. Together, according to Brooks, they show that word use in books changes over time. In particular, he says that words associated with individualism have grown in usage while words associated with commonality have dropped.

These findings are interesting, certainly, but I am not sure they point irrevocably to his conclusions. Brooks himself agrees (sort of):
Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.
What Brooks doesn't understand--and this is one of the central tenets of my book--is that we haven't one culture in America. Yes, shifts in language can reflect shifts in culture... but they can also reflect changes in the relative strengths of cultures sharing the same language. I would argue that is what we are seeing.

There have been two major white American cultures in North America since the middle of the 18th century. They both grow from cultures on the British Isles, the one from English roots, the other from Scots-Irish (coming to America through Ulster Plantation from the borderland between Scotland and England). This last group was the biggest white immigrant body of the 18th century. Coming from one of the poorest areas of Europe at the time, they were not welcome among the coastal colonies and made their way to the backwoods of the time, the wild west of the foothills of the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Pushing and pushed further west during the 19th century, they were often the first white settlers as the new nation established itself across the continent.

These people did not write books. Coming from poverty in a land that had seen no more than 50 years of peace at a time for a millennium, they were not idealistic. Their hopes lay in their families and in their friends, not in any great vision for mankind.

Some of them could read, but mostly they read the Bible. Some of them could write, but that was not yet considered a necessity. What was published in book form in America came from the other culture, not this one, from a culture growing, in part, from Puritans and Quakers who had come to the New World with specific communal goals in mind. Their ideals and visions were quite distinct from those of the Scots-Irish Borderers.

Over the last century, the power of the Borderers has grown. They are better educated now (in their own light) than they ever were and are competing with the established "East Coast Liberals" for dominance in the American conversation. They now have their own publishing houses, newspapers, and magazines, their voices finally being heard in print loudly enough for the rest of the country to pay attention (even if the rest doesn't like it).

"Individualism" itself is a relatively new word, one of its first major uses in print coming in the 1830s, in de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. It has had two uses in America since, one for each culture. To that stemming from New England, "individualism" arises from a communal base, is part of the success of community and democracy. To the Borderers, "individualism" is closely tied to friends and family and creates a divide between the self and authority.

It should be no surprise that the use of words associated with "individualism" have shown an increase as Borderer culture has, as well. On the other hand, I suspect that use of terms associated with "community" have not decreased among writers in the other culture. The perceived decrease is only relative, resulting not from a decline in numbers but in the huge increase of output by Borderers.

Anyway, I am glad Brooks is addressing this, for we may finally be able to really understand that our current political split has a cultural base going back centuries.

My book will be out at the end of August.