Recently in The perils of insularity Category

Decency above courage

| No Comments
Moralizing around Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is difficult to resist.  The book's unsatisfying resolution defies attempts to file it away under "well-constructed story about the age-old conflict between individual self-realization and familial constraint."  Wharton makes so concrete Newland Archer's sacrifice of the love of his life, Ellen Olenska, that the mind demands some purpose to redeem the carnage that has deprived Newland Archer of "the flower of life."  The affront of the novel's conclusion begs the question: what is the meaning of this? 

Closing the book and musing on what I had learned, I was most immediately struck by how The Age of Innocence illustrates that courage is not so much a quality as a discipline.  Without practice, a person cannot exercise it.

In giving up Olenska, Archer capitulates to "the old New York way" of placing "decency above courage."  Decency arises from the discharge of duties, and duties in turn convey dignity: as Wharton explains, Archer's two-and-a-half decade marriage "had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty." 

Dignity, of course, is necessary for human happiness and the realization of individual potential.  But the dignity deriving from duty, though critical for social stability and integral to moral engagement with one's family and community, is not without its drawbacks: "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else." 

Specifically, it "unfits" one for acts of courage: by the novel's last page, Archer cannot face meeting Olenska again; cannot face his emotions so long under wraps ("He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime"); cannot face modernity ("Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough"); cannot face reality ("It's more real to me here than if I went up [to meet her]"). 

The dignity of duty is necessary, but not sufficient, for a fully lived life.

Of course, in the choice between courage and decency, dignity is a common element: it flows as much from acts of bravery as from the discharge of duty.  The difference arises elsewhere.  Courage is a more destabilizing value to cultivate: courageous people are much more difficult to control than decent ones.  But courage is also more nourishing than decency: courageous people have a much better chance both of attaining "the flower of life" and of simultaneously being good people. 

Ellen Olenska herself demonstrates this possibility.  She is courageous: defying social convention, and at personal and financial loss, she leaves her husband.  She tries to establish a satisfying life in New York, and (again, flouting conventions) she negotiates various degrees of independence (physically and geographically, though not financially) from her family, who find her difficult to control.  She is, at the same time, a woman bound by duties: she undertakes the care of her aunt, Medora (who had raised her), and she refuses any betrayal of her cousin, May Welland, despite her love of May's husband, Newland Archer.  When May manipulatively reveals that she is pregnant, Ellen abandons her efforts at living in the United States and retreats to Europe so as to snuff any possibility that she and Newland can consummate their love.

Although Ellen Olenska's flight snaps the bud of Newland Archer's life before it can bloom, she herself is not so disabled.  He has lost the love of his life and spends the next twenty-six years in a tomb ("a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on [Newland Archer] like the doors of the family vault"). 

The indicators suggest that her fate is otherwise.  She has suffered a grievous loss, certainly; but her balance of courage, dignity and duty have enabled her to enjoy a full life before Newland Archer (one enriched perhaps more by pain than joy, but she has known ecstasy as well), and she will continue to do so after Newland Archer.  

Courage has fitted her for life.

Image of Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's film version of The Age of Innocence from

Who loves armed missionaries?

| No Comments
Nothing in the reviews has made me want to read Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey: My Political Life.  Michiko Kakutani's observation that A Journey "sheds little light" on Blair's core motivations - especially as they relate to involving Britain in America's war in Iraq - finds echoes in other reviews.  Like everyone I know, I'm busy enough that I don't want to spend time on un-illuminating books.

I can't help wondering, though, whether Blair's shallowness is a function of his own reading material.  Kakutani quotes Blair as saying that, by an April 2002 meeting with George W. Bush, Blair

had resolved in [his] own mind that removing Saddam would do the world, and most particularly the Iraqi people, a service.
At the time I read that remark, I was also reading Hilary Mantel's, A Place of Greater Safety, and I felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition.  An ambitious account of the French Revolution from the time before its inception through the deaths of Georges Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins, A Place of Greater Safety details the political conflict preceding France's declaration of war on Austria in 1792.  The pro-war faction was named the Brissotins (for their spokesperson, Jacques-Pierre Brissot); the anti-war side was a sub-set of the Jacobins called the Montagnards, who included Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. 

Here's Hilary Mantel's version of a conversation between Danton and Robespierre regarding the Brissotin war plans:

"They talk," [Danton] said, "of a crusade to bring liberty to Europe.  Of how it's our duty to spread the gospel of fraternity."
"Spread the gospel?  Well, ask yourself - who loves armed missionaries?"
"Who indeed?"
"They speak as if they had the interests of the people at heart, but the end of it will be military dictatorship."
(p. 398.)

Hilary Mantel isn't responsible for the armed forces of the UK, but maybe she should be.  She, at least, has been reading (and writing) her history. 

If Blair had been doing the same, perhaps he wouldn't have supported the American folly in Iraq; or perhaps he would have: but either way he'd be much less likely to justify it as "a service."  Indeed, he'd likely have seen "a service" in describing how he learned from experience that no one loves armed missionaries.

But that service is as sadly lacking as the one Blair claimed to be providing the Iraqi people.
(Image of Jacques-Pierre Brissot from Wikipedia; image of Tony Blair from BBC)
In a previous blog post, I discussed the issue of power imbalances between (a) photographers who document people in humanitarian disasters, and (b) the subjects of those photos.  I myself am a photographer and videographer who engages in such work, and at the time of that last blog post, I had the pleasure (and luck) to be able to report that, "I have found the experience [of photographing people receiving humanitarian aid] uniformly rewarding."

In the intervening months, however, I had a negative experience making a short documentary about a Kenyan NGO, and my experience provoked a good deal of additional thought about engagement with disadvantaged and marginalized groups. 

The root of the trouble arose from the fact that, after photographing, videotaping and interviewing people participating in and administering the NGO's programming, I took almost a year to finish editing the video. 

My overriding reason for the delay was that I needed about a week of free time to focus on the video in order to finish it, and I didn't find the time until I was about to leave Kenya, almost a year after I began the project.  For six months of the year in question, I had a full time job and was researching a book on my weekends; and for the other six months I was writing a book. 

Multiple times, I told one or another people from the NGO that the delay was simply because of my work schedule, and that I'd finish the documentary as soon as I had the time.  My expectation was that, since I was volunteering, I could complete the video at my convenience.

My expectation did not accord with those of the NGO's founder.  In a series of increasingly unpleasant phone calls, he told me that, in the past, people (foreign whites) who had worked with the NGO had not delivered on their promises, and he made clear that he expected me similarly to fail the NGO. 

He also claimed to be under pressure to deliver the video from the parents of the children who participate in the NGO's programming, and he said he was going to subject me to the "same same" pressure that he experienced.  He also made some statements that I considered extreme: he suggested that I should be giving him money for the opportunity to do volunteer work with his NGO, and he told me that his mother's life would be jeopardized if I didn't finish the video immediately.

Each of these calls with the NGO's founder made me feel appalled and miserable, and they eroded my motivation to finish the documentary.  Indeed, I regretted that I'd ever become involved with the NGO. 

Then, ten months after I'd initially begun the project, the founder told me that he didn't want my documentary, and I felt extraordinary relief.  A month later, I completed the documentary and delivered it to another of the NGO's administrators.

I finished the documentary first, and foremost, because I'd committed to do so, regardless of the intervening unpleasantness with the NGO's founder.  Also, the NGO's end beneficiaries were children, who were receiving drawing and painting instruction from the NGO, and I felt obligated to finish the project for them.  In addition, I felt that I bore a big part of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the NGO's founder, and I didn't believe that my mistakes in communicating with the founder were an excuse for not finishing the work I'd undertaken.

I probably shouldn't have started this project if I couldn't finish it quickly (although I didn't initially realize how difficult it would be for me to finish it rapidly), but once time began elapsing I badly miscalculated how the NGO's founder would view the situation.  When (as has happened) someone tells me that work is eating up their time for a volunteer project on my behalf, I nod understandingly.  I might try to cajole them into a schedule for completing the work, but I'm friendly about it; I try to support them; I take opportunities to express my gratitude; I don't doubt that they'll do the work.  And, if I do eventually conclude that the work might never get finished, I may grumble, but eventually I shrug my shoulders: I don't feel entitled to free work, and I don't feel like I can force someone to do work for free.

But this NGO's founder didn't seem to share that perspective.  He acted like, if the project wasn't completed quickly, I would never do it.  I don't know if he's ever had a full time job (his work with this NGO is on a volunteer basis), but he didn't seem to relate to my objection that I had paying work to do in the time he wanted me to be editing the documentary.

Possibly, he was inclined to disbelieve me because I'm white, and he's black.  Certainly, he acted like he expected me to follow his commands because I'm a woman, and that my failure to comply with his orders was a blow to his ego.

Moreover, my status as a middle-class white American volunteering my time in a Kenyan slum didn't seem to earn me any goodwill.  My status didn't seem to cause the founder to assume that someone in my position would be acting with good intentions.  On the contrary, he appeared to think that anyone with resources owed him a share.

I had not anticipated his sense of entitlement, nor his willingness to make my life unpleasant.  Also, I discovered experientially what I'd known intellectually: that, while he may be a marginalized or disadvantaged person, he is not without power.  Moreover, his code for exercising that power diverged widely from mine.  I felt a responsibility to act in a morally justifiable way in respect of him and his NGO; but he used tactics of coercion and manipulation against me.
I did not expect gratitude or accolades from him, but I believe I deserved to be treated with the same basic respect and courtesy that colleagues and friends have a right to expect.  (Possibly I received the same treatment he shows others in his orbit; maybe I couldn't have done anything that would have made the situation easier.)  Nonetheless, I think I should have acted differently:

  • I should have been more wary of volunteering as an individual without an association with an established NGO or other organization;
  • I should have managed expectations better, perhaps by giving the NGO a timetable of my projected delivery date;
  • I should have liaised with other members of the NGO when communication with the founder became difficult; and
  • I should have put aside everything and finished the video immediately before the breakdown in relations became hostile. 
In writing this blog post, I am not trying to badmouth the NGO or its founder; nor am I indulging in any guilty white liberal confessional.  My desire is to offer a fair account of a difficult exchange that probably could have and should have been less fraught, as well as to extract the lessons learned from that interaction and offer them for the benefit of others committed to engaging across divides (be they of culture, class, nationality, language, race, gender, etc.). 

On the positive side, this uncomfortable experience hasn't dulled my desire to work in this sector.  Rather, it has sharpened my sense of both the perils and necessity of continuing to engage. 

(Photo of children participating in a drawing class given by the NGO taken by Maya Alexandri)

A warning to the ostrich readers

| No Comments
Jacob_Jordaens_King_Candaules_of_Lydia_Showing_his_Wife_to_Gyges .jpg
Mario Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother is a slim, nasty novel about the devastating consequences of allowing oneself to be too bedazzled by gorgeous painting.

The story charts the spectacular destruction of the marriage of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, a middle-aged couple in Lima who marry despite Donna Lucrecia's concerns about becoming a stepmother to Don Rigoberto's son, Fonchito.  Don Rigoberto focuses so completely on his rich fantasy life - a fantasy life augmented by his reproductions of smutty nudes by the likes of Titian and Jordaens (left) - that he doesn't notice the hazards that cause Donna Lucrecia anxiety.  For her own part, despite her awareness of the dangers, Donna Lucrecia doesn't know how to manage the risks and so falls prey to Fonchito, who first seduces her and then exposes her to  Don Rigoberto.

The novel contains lovely reproductions of the paintings that animate Don Rigoberto's and Donna Lucrecia's sexual fantasies.  These fantasies involve detailed narrative accounts of the naughty doings that the paintings portray, narratives that - in their attentiveness to the minutiae of the visual art - contrast starkly with the couple's myopic view of encroaching (and menacing) reality.

In his portrayal of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, Vargas Llosa is not merely mocking people who devote more energy to their fantasies than to their flesh-and-blood lives.  Rather, he takes aim at the narrowness and lack of ambition of the lives (and, consequently, the imaginations) of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia. 

Don Rigoberto, for example, engages in an elaborate, nightly pre-sex ritual, during which he secludes himself in the bathroom and devotes obsessive attention to one part of his body each day of the week.  One night - ear night (removing wax and tweezing unwanted hairs) - Don Rigoberto muses:

"Happiness exists," he repeated to himself, as he did every night.  Yes, provided one sought it where it was possible.  In one's own body and in that of one's beloved, for instance; by oneself and in the bathroom; for hours or minutes on a bed shared with the being so ardently desired.  Because happiness was temporal, individual, in exceptional circumstances twofold, on extremely rare occasions tripartite, and never collective, civic.  It was hidden, a pearl in its seashell, in certain rites or ceremonial duties that offered human beings brief flashes and optical illusions of perfection.  One had to be content with these crumbs so as not to live at the mercy of anxiety and despair, slapping at the impossible.  Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears, [Don Rigoberto] thought, in a mellow mood.

(p. 29.)  I had wondered why Vargas Llosa (and his publisher) had gone to the trouble of reproducing the paintings in In Praise of the Stepmother, since doing so inevitably made the book more expensive.  But when I read, "Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears," I had my answer.  Anyone who can gaze upon the art slipped between the pages of the novel and yet still conclude that happiness is as confined a condition as may be experienced from wax-free ear canals deserves to have his wife seduced by his son.

In Praise of the Stepmother is a condemnation of the Philistine, and particularly of aesthetic pretensions of the nouveau riche.  Like a snubbed Yahweh smoting some unfortunate idolaters, Vargas Llosa deals pitilessly with this hapless couple, allowing them to ignore that the powers unleashed by great art are complex and uncontrollable, and ultimately crushing his protagonists under the weight of their ignorance.

Though Vargas Llosa's vengeance is confined to the imagined world of his novel, In Praise of the Stepmother stands as an unmistakable warning to those who, rather than blind themselves with paintings, bury themselves in books.

(Image of Jacob Jordaens King Candaules of Lydia Showing his Wife to Gyges from National Museum of Sweden website)
Peter_Singer.jpgThomas Nagel's recent review in The New York Review of Books of Peter Singer's book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, does a fine job of demonstrating why moral philosophy in its academic form has always baffled me: the blasted hypotheticals.

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but you will have to wade into a shallow pond and muddy your trousers and ruin your shoes.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
From this hypothetical and variations thereon, Singer distills a principle: "'If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.'" (p. 24.)  Building on this principle, Singer develops the general rule that "those who are financially comfortable" should donate 5% of their annual earnings (or more, if they are rich) to aid organizations that alleviate poverty.  (p. 25.)

While I agree with Singer that individuals have a moral responsibility for others less well off than themselves, and further that we should all be developing means of discharging that responsibility, I think the hypotheticals have led Singer astray.  As economists have learned, abstract models that work in theory tend not to operate so cleanly in the real world.  All of those "externalities" that economists - and moral philosophers - have ignored for the sake of elegant conceptualizing have a way of refusing to be ignored once the conceptual gets concrete.

One major externality in Singer's hypothetical is the response of the drowning kid.  Singer treats the drowning kid as a prop that serves to highlight the moral decision-making of the affluent actor.  But the needy, no less than those whose needs are met, are moral agents with responsibilities that they may choose to discharge or disregard.  "Internalizing" this externality in Singer's hypothetical might look like the following:

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will be ungrateful and, moreover, will steal your wallet while you are saving him or her.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child will accuse you of implementing a non-sustainable intervention and of thereby preventing him or her from being able to survive without your assistance, a charge that will lead to your public humiliation and condemnation.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?

You walk past a drowning kid.  You can save the child, but the child's brother will be furious at what he perceives to be foreign interference with his family and will subsequently blow up a bakery that foreigners in town frequent, with the result that several local youths die and several more people (including foreigners) are injured.  Is it immoral to keep walking and leave the kid to die?
In posing these hypotheticals, my point is not to suggest that aid recipients are immoral, but to illustrate the over-simplistic nature of Singer's unilateral model for assessing moral responsibility and crafting general rules based thereupon.  The financially well-off may have a moral responsibility to help those in need, even if they prove to be ungrateful, cheat them of small sums, accuse them of acting injudiciously, humiliate them, or use them as an excuse for outrageous crimes; but the affluent also have a moral responsibility to discharge their obligations in a way that will have the most positive possible outcome.  

With his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, Singer launched the animal rights movement, an impressive achievement that - despite its already numerous accomplishments - will continue to reverberate for generations to come.  As between humans and non-human animals, of course, humans are the only moral agents, a situation in which Singer's conceptual model has much greater emotional and logical force.  As between rich humans and poor humans, however, Singer's one-sided general rule both fails to persuade (the rich) and demeans (the poor).  What is necessary, instead, is a general rule that takes into account the moral responsibilities of both the donor and the aid recipient.  Only such an approach will have any chance of resulting in "the most positive possible outcome."

Such a rule cannot help but be more radical that Singer's current proposal.  Any general rule designed to promote optimal discharge of moral responsibilities on both sides of the wealth-redistribution equation must involve the affluent in more direct engagement with poverty than mere check writing.  

And while nobody today thinks that people who won't give 5% of their salary to charity are going face poverty more directly - by, for example, sharing the burdens of power outages and sub-par sanitation that result from volunteering in a developing country slum - nobody thought that the indiscriminate and cruel slaughter of animals was noteworthy in 1975 either.

(Image of Peter Singer from The Guardian)   

Don't Marry Him

| No Comments
Lori_Gottlieb.jpgReviews of Lori Gottlieb's new book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, along with Gottlieb's original Atlantic article (on the book is based), miss an important opportunity for addressing a serious problem in American society.

In her Atlantic article, Gottlieb calls the problem one of the "most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?"

In her review of Gottlieb's book in The New York Times Book Review, Amy Finnerty describes Gottlieb's restatement of the problem as follows:

Gottlieb makes a case that many women today end up alone because they hold men to insanely high standards. . . . She convinces us that we women are simply too fussy, entitled and downright delusional about our own worth in the mating marketplace. We overanalyze and seek undiluted sexual and intellectual fulfillment, thus setting men up for failure.
But both formulations of the problem miss the point.  Gottlieb is closest to the real issue when, in her Atlantic article, she observes:

I've been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it's the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we'd choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever. That's not a whole lot of choice.
Sadly, Gottlieb doesn't expand upon this insight.  Neither female pickiness nor a sense of being forced to choose between settling and solitary lives is the problem; these phenomena are side-effects of the real problem: American men aren't well-matched for America's post-feminist women.

The most serious failure of feminism was to ignore the fact that gender roles are relational.  Men's and women's roles fit together like puzzle pieces (or like yin and yang).  Radical alteration of one of the roles requires a similar level of change in the other role for the two roles to continue to be compatible.  Feminists devoted extensive thought, theory and action to the cause of revising a woman's role; to the extent that the gave any thought to men's roles, however, they seem to have assumed that men would adjust.

Men have not adjusted.  While women struggle under extraordinary social pressure to be educated and sociable, have careers and families, be sexy and mothers, be emotionally competent and financially wise, men grapple with the sense of being intimidated by women, of feeling inadequate and fearing they are a disappointment to the beloved women in their lives.  In my experience, they deal with this complex of issues by taking refuge in extended adolescence and staying stoned a lot.

In this context, settling - as Gottlieb advises - is insanity.  As anyone who has lived through a divorce (or who has witnessed parents get divorced) knows, a bad marriage causes vastly more damage that no marriage.  And if a society is grooming men who aren't suited to the women that the society is producing, the choice is not between settling and solitude, but between a bad marriage and a decent life.

I'm not alone in either my conclusion or my analysis: two hundred years ago Jane Austen wrote a more persuasive argument than this blog post can offer in her novel, Pride and Prejudice.  As any reader of that novel can recognize, American women live today in a world where too many of the men are Wickhams, the con artist scourge of Pride and Prejudice.  By the conclusion of that novel, Eliza Bennett has learned that her own haughtiness and preconceived notions had prevented her both from seeing the dangers of the charming Mr. Wickham and the goodness of the more remote Mr. Darcy, her future husband.  

Gottlieb would have American women unlearn the lesson of Eliza Bennett - would have American blind themselves to the unsuitability of the available partners out of their prideful need to get married and their prejudice against carving out a satisfactory life for themselves beyond the bounds of marriage.  Gottlieb urges American women to settle for Wickham.

Jane Austen has already illustrated the perils of that choice.

(Picture of Lori Gottlieb from The New York Times Book Review
<< 1 2 3

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The perils of insularity category.

The nature of greatness is the previous category.

The power of writing is the next category.



OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04