article: Wild West Horror Show
THE WILD WEST HORROR SHOW
An Unfinished Manuscript
[ July 27, 2007 ]
Why This Work Is Needed
The United States: Image versus Reality
Some Differences between the European and American Ethoi
-Just Off the Boat
-First Westerners I Met
The Far West—By Reputation and at First Hand
> Games of the Far West
Some Factors Contributing to the Prevalence of Make-Believe in the American West
Open or Covert Society?
-You Are a Thief, Burglar, Beggar, or Derelict
-You Are Dangerous (Violent, a Thug)
-You Are a Child Abuser
-You Are a Rapist, Queer, or Preferably Both
The Great Wild-West Sprint—Flight as Attack and Insinuation
On the Phone
The Reassuring Nod
A Gentle, Tender Smile
Actual Verbal Lies
Superiority of Women
Obscenity, Vulgarity Porn, Debasement of Sex
Exploiting Self-Consciousness, Embarrassment, Sex; No Shame
I Am Great, You Are Small
Intolerance, Unfairness, Partiality, Bias, Xenophobia
Advice on Rules of Proper Social Conduct (The American Way)
> Appendix – The Healthcare Racket
> Why This Work Is Needed
Human society has an intricate communications system, some of whose code is universally understood. However, the intelligibility of most signs and signals is limited, for instance, by the particular language we speak and the area where we live. Staying within our native culture, we do not as a rule fully realize that we are constantly qualifying what we see or hear depending on the source generating it. I may know from experience that my neighbor is a pessimist, that another acquaintance is a braggart, that the corner haberdasher tends to overestimate his merchandise, and I almost unconsciously add to or subtract from their statements accordingly. As an insider, I have a key, although of course I am liable to make mistakes here and there. A classic example of the difference between fact and what is acknowledged to be the case is that principles officially subscribed to by a government are never the same as those actually practiced. The former Soviet Union had one of the most humanitarian constitutions ever devised, yet it had a dismal human-rights record. Many Western European intellectuals who had been inspired by Marx’s maxim of “jeder nach seiner Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen” (from all according to their ability to all according to their need) had to learn this difference from bitter experience.
We may thus say that communications governing the conduct of a given community are in code, and that much of that code is closed to the outsider. Visitors and immigrants need a key to decipher the code that regulates the functioning of the land they travel to/are adopting in positive correlation to the degree it differs from their own and, even more crucially, to the degree that its acknowledged ethos differs from the real one. The present work is accordingly addressed, for one, to the visitor or immigrant. Since in the “new world order” the United States dominates, more than ever “we are the guys,” and unilateralism reigns, it is addressed to the world at large as well: it can serve not only as a survival kit for the outsider in the US but for all outsiders and undesirables, meaning potentially the rest of humanity. On the global scale, USA versus the world, it is the rest of humanity that actually suffers from an information gap. Last but not least, as already mentioned, natives can be duped as well, and to that extent I am addressing myself to all Americans in good faith.
Of course it is only too human to wish to be duped. Act utilitarians might argue that ignorance is bliss. I once read an article in a Seattle paper where the author noted with an unmistakable tone of exasperation that some Asian immigrants appear not to understand the racial slurs flung at them. I reflected that they are perhaps better off not knowing American English. Failing to understand the slurs, innuendos, and obscenities provides a certain shield. Sometimes I wish I had never learned some of the words and expressions used by the people of this country, particularly their obscene metaphorical senses. They are degrading, and they intrude on my memory no matter how much I wish I could expunge them. Yet for the permanent resident sooner or later the shield of ignorance is liable to be pierced. Americans traveling in foreign countries sometimes describe themselves as innocents abroad, but foreigners visiting the United States can be innocents from abroad. If they want to fit into their new environment, they have to shed their innocence, even if the process causes lasting damage, and despite the risk that it will eventually disable them.
A work like this always has a double edge, as it describes and thereby discloses tactics that can be learned and practiced in turn by the reader, used against others as much as defend and protect from others. By providing a precedent, people who commit a new type of abuse degrade humanity at large. This is the old problem and paradox of what constitutes legitimate defense.
Considering that this country has a common language with Britain, traces its traditions to an English colony, and cherishes an image as an upholder of democratic values, its civilization differs from European civilization more than one might suppose. I was once somewhat surprised when a British-born student at Washington State University told me that the mentality of a Turk was much closer to him than that of an American. This difference is diminishing as the world becomes Americanized, but is at present still considerable.
The United States: Image Versus Reality
From a semiotic perspective, we can say that a key to the communications code of the US and within that the American West is needed and largely missing. I submit the following considerations.
I shall start with the approach of using a dictionary as a means of trying to decipher the American scene. Standard general dictionaries do not include many slang, argotic, vulgar, or obscene terms and expressions and fail to define the vulgar, obscene, etc. metaphorical meanings that many standard words and expressions have in US usage. Particularly Western American civilization is built on innuendo; words, phrases, expressions have insinuatory meanings that dictionaries cannot be expected to provide. Many nonverbal signs and signals, such as used in body language, are peculiar to it. The interpretation of nonverbal languages is indispensable for dealing with Western American culture not only because many Westerners are relatively inarticulate but principally because, their ways being covert, they often prefer them to verbal expression. Other than body language (e. g., gestures, facial expressions, attitudes), these include vocalizations (grunts, yells, laughter, etc.), noises (slamming, banging, shooting, horn tooting), and even light signals (headlights, porch lights, searchlights). Some types of make-believe: fabrications, tricks, games, clowning, and other odd acts are distinctive to them and can confound the uninitiated. Moreover, words, phrases, signs, signals, or body language often have the opposite meaning from the surface or ostensible meaning because, in fact, they are intended to mislead and deceive; they are traps. Whether verbal or nonverbal, such signals, etc. may be said to be parasitical on the original meanings. Some of these of course exist in other cultures as well, while some are spreading abroad.
Now let us turn to another, very important instrument in forming a picture of American civilization: the media.On the whole, the US and especially Western US mass media–Hollywood being the great image factory—show a distorted picture of this country. The image of the US as mirrored in its media has some factual correspondences with reality. There are newspapers, television programs, and internet sources that provide accurate information within certain limits. The media nevertheless are spreading a substantially false message. This image is dangerous just because there is truth in it, which may serve as a sort of bait. Inasmuch as it can be considered propaganda, it is a far better one than the crudely mendacious materials put out by some dictatorships. Certain countries, militantly opposed to the US, paint a grossly unrealistic picture that in effect helps US “propaganda” (I am of course using this word in a very broad sense), which has at least a semblance of being unbiased and objective. For example, the Iraqi Minister of Information under Saddam was clearly a clown. Gross misinformation, such as disseminated by Kim’s North Korea, tends to backfire in the long run, because borders cannot be hermetically sealed in the twenty-first century. US media concoct a brew in which truth and falsehood are much more subtly commingled.
Just like the propaganda efforts of various petty dictatorships today, Soviet propaganda was more grossly inaccurate than the US media have ever been. But the Soviet state is defunct. The last powerful regime that to a limited degree still abides by the policies of Soviet-style communism and keeps a tight lid–resulting in an arrant distortion of the truth–on its media, China, is in the grip of change and will probably undergo a substantive transformation in the not-too-distant future. By contrast, fundamentalist and/or extremist religion is on the rise worldwide. It too tends to be blatantly distortive of fact; in addition, it is often violent and incites to violence. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist tide has not spared this country either, although our variety may be less sanguinary than some others. Fundamentalist ideas animated certain policies of the George W. Bush administration. The Obama era has yet to prove itself.
It is far from me to propose that the US media are unique in twisting the truth. Moreover, the means of communication devised by human civilization have always been used in part to mislead. Signals, speech, folklore, oral or written literature are no exception. This culture may have taken the lead in such areas as commercialization, commodification, the apotheosizing of media performers, the staging of politics, war, and other fields of human endeavor. But it is an important point that, further, this country has become the hyperpower at least in the military sphere and particularly under George W. Bush started to act unilaterally, withdrawing from treaties and bypassing the United Nations; it threw its weight around trying to split the European Union; it threatened and initiated war. World domination never previously known was the potential result. People all over the globe were awed by this power, so that the media, which were, to some degree, the US’s propaganda arm–on a much wider scale than just government propaganda–exercised a numbing influence. Much hope is pinned on the Obama administration, but the scorecard is not yet in.
[Something about the Internet might be in order here.]
A further factor that can contribute to fogging the truth is that by and large in their daily discourse the American people themselves tend to paint an idealized picture of the United States. This is particularly the case with less educated members of society. I will discuss these and other aspects of the semiotic comprehensibility gap in detail below.
Some Differences between the European and American Ethoi
It is not entirely correct that “this country is the envy of the world,” but it is the envy of many. If we consider the appalling sanitary and housing conditions, nutritional deficiencies, ignorance, political oppression, and threat to personal safety that must be endured by countless millions on this planet, criticism of the US may well seem hollow. As the saying goes, people vote with their feet. Which are the countries from where people flee, as opposed to those they seek? The statistics speaks more eloquently than arguments. People risk their lives and pay considerable sums of money to enter this country illegally. “Get out of here, and take me with you” is how a British MP summed up the attitude of rabid anti-Americans.
On the other hand, the consumer society functions at the cost of enormous waste, the depletion of the earth’s resources, environmental damage, pollution, and frequently the exploitation of workers in other parts of the world. Also, the opulence that draws people to this country tends to be exaggerated. For example, the living standards of families shown on TV series as average are rather those of the privileged. Immigrants from countries that are poor and/or have oppressive governments gain a great deal in terms of survival and creature comforts by settling over here, and many of them must feel that the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks, which they may even find trivial. Yet some of the trappings of wealth and some of the status symbols are entirely superfluous, frequently even harmful, and produce an unquenchable appetite rather than lasting satisfactions.
The great waves of European immigrants to the US came from the ranks of the poor and uneducated. Moreover, they belonged to the unwanted “surplus,” often regarded by the governments of their countries of provenance as a burden swelling the numbers of the unemployed and those that have to be fed at public expense. This is not to deny that over the years immigrants have arrived on these shores for many different reasons. The cases of those who came to escape religious, ethnic, and political persecution as well as those who wished to establish ideal communities are well known and much publicized. Of course some, such as the blacks who were brought here as slaves, and children brought over with their families, had no choice in the matter. However, economic advantage probably weighed more heavily than spiritual, moral, or civic values in the motivation of the numerically preponderant part of the immigrants. In addition to those who simply wished to improve their lot by working, the US attracted many shiftless adventurers. It was not uncommon for a family to get rid of a scion who acted as a loose cannon by sending him overseas. The events of the gold rush provide an example for the motivation and mores of a certain type of immigrant. Ever since the rise of National Socialism, political refugees fleeing oppressive governments have been numerous, but in recent decades the motivational emphasis has again shifted back to economic grounds.
This civilization is the revenge of Europe’s lower classes, a proletarian paradise in a sense, but one that would not have made Marx happy any more than the erstwhile Soviet Union would. A rough and necessarily imprecise yet helpful way to contrast Europe with the US is to say that the former used to have an elitist, class system, while the latter has been an egalitarian, classless one. The terms elitist, populist, class, and classless apply here with considerable limitations and caveats, as explained below. But whether we look at customs, manners, colloquial usage, entertainment, or political campaigns, the impression that they are aimed at and/or produced by what corresponded to the unlettered, plebeian stratum of society in Europe, the hoi polloi, is striking.
The “unwashed masses” constituted the vast majority of Europe’s population until comparatively recent times. The system was maintained by their labor and in turn exploited and ill-treated them. It barred them from educational opportunities and called them ignorant; skimmed off the profits of their toil that might have assured them decent living conditions and disdained them for being dirty and slatternly; forced them to perform backbreaking and demeaning chores and then derided them for being clumsy and rough, etc. In medieval times even bourgeois literature was characterized by coarseness and bawdiness as opposed to the refined, elevated tone of aristocratic literature, while folklore was not regarded as deserving any notice whatsoever. Though it has undergone vast changes and is now overall providing better educational, health, retirement, and housing benefits to its citizens than the US, European society has kept some of its class and elitist frame. Its customs, manners, language usage, literature, and art have tended to upgrade to the level of the educated rather than “dumb down” to the unlearned. This does not hold across the board; for instance, British punk rock can successfully compete with the US variety in brutality, vulgarity, and inarticulateness; conversely, there is, for example, increasing skepticism even in European academic circles regarding the validity of traditional literary canons, and thereby doubt concerning some of the conventional criteria upon which the notion of education rests.
To qualify US society as egalitarian and populist from its inception is a considerable overgeneralization and would be quite incorrect in the absolute sense, but here I am dealing with it in comparison with traditional European society, and in this respect the characterization holds. Since those who were well off or otherwise had a privileged status in their native lands were on the whole least motivated to migrate, the great majority who came belonged to the lower classes in an even greater proportion than the average percentage of those classes in the respective lands. In the US they found an ambiance that, instead of being condescending about or downright contemptuous of their cultural standards, legitimized them. (Of course many nationalities were subjected to discrimination–here I am merely talking about their cultural level being approved.) This was in accord with the political philosophy and mentality that shaped this country since its founding. I must reiterate that I am taking the bird’s-eye view, and therefore what I state has many exceptions. For one thing, there was an important elitist trend and faction in political ideology during the first hundred years of the republic; for another, many of the leaders of those times were themselves intellectuals. I am speaking of this country not in absolute terms but in contradistinction to Europe. In the United States best-selling literature, the popular arts, and entertainment have traditionally been derivative of and/or suggest the spirit of the country fair, circus show, amusement park, revival meeting, dime novel, penny dreadful, and scandal sheet.
Yet the Puritanism and the so-called protestant ethic, which contributed to the ethos of the first colonial settlements, continued to exercise their influence, restricting the choice of both subject matter and treatment. This influence extended to the areas of customs, manners, and speech as well. Being at the start a handmaiden of religion, the educational system generally upheld those standards until comparatively recent times. At school and in public administration “proper” terms were used to describe activities related to such touchy subjects as bodily functions or sex, while in colloquial usage vulgar words prevailed, unless the topics themselves were shunned altogether. That which in America went for officially approved and recognized has a certain resemblance to the European elitist scheme, but with very important differences and breadth of applicability according to the specific domain in question. Thus the cult of mediocrity–the average representing the approved, the norm to be followed–which is germane to the American concept of democracy, US egalitarianism, and antiaristocratic/antiroyalist sentiment, going hand in hand with the fact that the vast majority of the population had a lower-class and not infrequently criminal background, resulted in the leveling off, actually lowering of standards of intellectual content, sensibility, and refinement in the media, including television, radio, the press, music, theater, and popular literature as well as outside the media in the realms of colloquial speech, customs, and manners, creating what is in many respects a classless society. At the other end of the scale, however, partly as a fruit of the protestant ethic, living standards have improved dramatically. The outcome has been a sort of proletarian promised land (or at least what the lower classes hoped would be such before actually experiencing it), a revenge and triumph of the masses that had been oppressed and ridiculed by the elitist European system. Plebeian and vulgar taste–though with many notable limitations and exceptions owing to the puritan, academic, and other elements entering into the mix–has been sanctioned and vindicated.
Although many of the features of indigence have been eliminated and generally living standards have skyrocketed over the past century, from other points of view, namely wealth and income, this is not a classless society at all, and if we take wealth as a criterion, class differences have even increased of late. Ironically this culture on the one hand exalts the average and commonplace, which sometimes come down to the gross, garish, and crude, while on the other hand it operates with cutthroat competitiveness and aggressiveness. Although ethnicity, religion, and the number of generations to which one can trace back one’s American ancestry retain a certain relevance, in the US class status is most customarily expressed in dollar terms. In 1950, on my initial first-hand contact with this country, I was still baffled by this. In the Europe I had known, class distinctions based on nobility had greatly faded. Whatever remained of them, having mostly a snobbish tinge, no longer necessarily connoted wealth, as impoverished aristocrats were quite common. The bourgeoisie–a term that rather inadequately translates into middle class–was still a fairly well-definable category, and belonging to it meant a certain distinction. Yet its prestige had been progressively undermined, most decisively by the socialists, who pointed out the unfairness of the entire traditional class system in which the bourgeoisie, particularly its upper stratum, the industrialists and financiers, held a privileged place. From another direction, the bourgeois had long come under fire by artists, poets, the literati, and unconventional people of all types for their smug, materialistic, and narrow-minded outlook. Needless to say, wealth conferred prestige on you; having money was a source of pride, envy, and admiration, and obviously there were various other yardsticks—ethical superiority, rank in the army or civil service, inherited landed property, political prominence, business acumen, etc. –by which one could measure excellence, merit, or status, yet European elitism, in probably the most distinctive use of the term, centered around the concept of theintellectual at the time I am dealing with.
Here we come up against another term whose trans-Atlantic, particularly Continental meaning is still not clearly grasped by most Americans. A while, shall we say, a year after my arrival in this country, my Fordham classmates started to compliment me on the strides I was making in adjusting to US society. One of them, comparing what I had been when I got off the boat to this new, improved version of me, said, “…and now your are an intellectual!” I thought that, if anything, I had become less of one, but made no comment, reflecting sadly that the progress I was making in becoming Americanized was measured by most of my classmates in terms of my learning such words as bullshit or fuck. I relate this little incident merely to illustrate thatintellectual is a murky word to the majority of the American public. To the person in question it connoted something positive, synonymous with educated.
However, the bulk of the references to intellectual I subsequently heard from others in my new milieu was disapproving. Just what did the word signify to them? Presumptuousness, I guess, condescension but, more fundamentally, not being a regular guy, someone who wants to be different, a “queer” –so we are back with the idea of the leveling effect of American culture, mass culture, phalanx (in a free-enterprise phalanstery, though). The word seemed to appear more frequently modified by the prefix pseudo than without it. Dick, my roommate, told me, “My father calls them people educated beyond their intelligence.” It turns out that his dad was actually quoting Columbia University’s Brander Matthews, verbatim. Intellectual has an un-American ring, and when one comes across it having to do with Americans, one is given to understand that they are not quite the genuine article, such as “New York intellectuals.” Conversely, the intelligentsia in the United States stand in the somewhat unusual position of being by and large critical and dismissive of the culture of the very nation they belong to.
Intellectual in the acception it is still often employed particularly in Continental Europe refers to a person devoted to matters of the mind primarily in the arts, letters, and philosophy, or more broadly the humanities. In this context you can talk about a theoretical physicist or astronomer who is not an intellectual. The elitism built on the superiority of the intellectual (if the word excludes even the theoretician working in physical science or mathematics) is therefore in some respects an outdated conception, as I was in fact beginning to recognize already in my early adolescence. This is the age of science. Yet the arts, letters–and by these understand the highbrow variety–and philosophy continue to “matter” in Europe even to this day more than the majority of Americans can possibly appreciate.
The division of literature and the arts into high(brow) and low(brow), serious and light, deep and superficial, or genuine and kitsch decidedly has an element of the arbitrary in it but, especially broadening our survey to the humanities in general, it would be untenable to maintain that there is no difference in level, quality, or value between the works of, say, Aristotle, Russell, Mozart, Beethoven, Leonardo, Monet, Flaubert, or Tolstoy on the one hand and the sort of book-form “advice” product, rock music, greeting-card design, or crime fiction that have respectively the greatest appeal to the public in this country on the other hand. US civilization in many respects “dumbs down,” while the elitist European approach has tended to raise the level of the public.
Meanwhile the European system is no longer elitist in the old sense; for example, higher education is largely free, admission being geared to talent and application, and healthcare coverage is universal as well as generally of high quality. In the US the leveling-off effect encompasses, besides the humanities, broad areas of customs, manners, and speech, with the result that billionaires, who belong to the highest class based on the most frequently applied ranking, that according to wealth, are on pretty much the same level as members of the lower-middle class in perhaps the most important respects. They will speak the same language, have similar preferences in sports, art, and entertainment, and if they read at all, it may be the same type of literature. Moreover, since preferences in these various categories reflect the personality of a human being, resemblances actually go much deeper, to acting and reacting with respect to the main issues confronting one in life, their motivations and goals, their behavior patterns as well as the ethical norms they subscribe to in theory and those they follow in practice.Billionaires may have mansions, yachts, private planes, and golf courses and even shun or have contempt for the poor, yet their intellectual and moral horizon might not extend farther than their caretaker’s.
Since I have stated that being an intellectual, inasmuch as the term is used with a preponderantly arts-and-letters emphasis, may be an obsolete model in an age of science, I must at least sketchily touch on that very complex problem. Highbrow literature and fine arts have entered a crisis phase since around 1900 at the latest, for one thing because, if it is the sine qua non of art to create something original, instead of a copy, a repetition of what has already been done–as the word create itself implies–with the passing of time they had to find more and more extraordinary modes of expression. Art as imitation was definitively out when photography and the motion picture were invented, and the status of literature as an attempt to portray the deepest stirrings of the human psyche or an authentic image of life was weakened by the development of specialized branches of science (the claim being that, e. g., sociology deals with social questions much more competently than a sociological novel). As a result of the attempt to discover innovative avenues of expression, fiction and the fine arts have tended to get unhinged–become prohibitively difficult of approach, dehumanized (as in abstract art), or scandalous (to challenge conventional canons of taste).
If we include the humanities as part of the purview of the intellectual, we still wind up in our net with sciences that are “soft,” i. e., not exact. These disciplines have also been somewhat on the defensive and have either tried to gain prestige by solidifying the links that connect them with the exact sciences or, on the contrary, gone on a counteroffensive with fanciful terms, arcane jargons, or wild hypotheses to make up for their lack of rigor and to generate interest–among the latter are some directions in postmodernism, deconstruction, hermeneutics, semiotics, postprocessual archeology, and cultural anthropology. But the real winners in this respect have been the hard or exact ones, natural science, mathematics, and branches of knowledge that genuinely lend themselves to being quantified or applied to technological innovation.
The net result of the arts, humanities, and some branches of science going “nutty” has been that they shot themselves in the foot; they have further and unnecessarily discredited their fields. The fact that significant aspects of, for example, sociology or psychology cannot at this point, in the foreseeable future, or perhaps ever be completely experimental, verifiable, predictive, or exact does not mean that we can dismiss and forget about them, because problems relating to society and the human mind impinge on us and demand to be answered, even if it has to be on a speculative or putative basis. And as for the arts and letters are concerned, the very fact that conditions and circumstances as well as the means of communication keep changing in our world provides continually new possibilities and challenges. Fiction and art have, by their nature, potentials that cannot be made superfluous by advances in science or technology.
The considerations above indicate that the concept of the intellectual retains a certain validity, albeit probably with some modifications of its characteristic twentieth-century European usage. In my eyes a theoretical physicist immersed in the study of the forces of the universe may be referred to as an intellectual irrespective of whether he has happened to read Kant or Valéry. Speculative theoretical work, particularly in physics, astrophysics, quantum field theory, and astronomy, but also in biology and some other disciplines, can confer a breadth of view, a vision, and connote dedication that correspond to the essence of what I take to be the intended purport of the term. I would even venture to say that at that level science becomes a sort of poetry which is often superior to what poets–in the usual sense of that word–do.
Soon after arriving in this country I realized that, even in the groves of Academe, describing oneself as an intellectual might translate into cisatlantic English as snob, and I would take pains to explain that what I basically meant was, more than anything else, an attitude: being given to serious reflection on general questions and pursuits that develop distinctively human faculties. Furthermore, the liberal arts provide for thoughtful people a frame of reference in communication. Such considerations, rather than the naive notion that “great” books and works of art represent certified pinnacles of achievement, authenticate the function of the arts and humanities. This still fairly stands for my opinion on the matter. The attitude of listening to a musical composition, for example, is an integral part of the experience; conversely, the style, manner, orchestration, instrumentation, etc. change the appeal, the very qualia of the piece in question. All this is baby talk in terms of reception theory (Rezeptionästhetik), but here I have to be content with suggesting a bare outline of the issue.
A string theorist dedicated to his/her discipline deals with reality more than the rest of us could ever hope to, yet paradoxically in the US he/she is cut off from social reality inasmuch as he/she does not share the popular culture. As the saying goes, the college campus is not part of the real world. The–generally still highbrow–culture that institutions of higher learning promote in the US is a suspect foreign import grafted unto the body of Americanism like the ibis’s head of Thoth would be on the Statue of Liberty. This is one important motive for undergraduates to reject it: they fear becoming geeks. American culture (i. e., the academic variety) is not the culture of America (i. e., the public ethos). The humanities over here do not supply a frame of reference by which to communicate. Hollywood, football, automobiles, and guns do. In Europe highbrow culture represents the common intellectual currency of many and usually commands respect; in the US it is on the way out and usually elicits ridicule. I am of course greatly simplifying this. Scores of factors enter into the shaping of cultural preferences over here and abroad. Some are common to global industrialization and therefore give rise to similar developments in Europe, the US, and elsewhere. There is, for instance, an–in my view legitimate–European as well as American trend pointing out the artificiality of certain prejudicial a priori distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow. Some factors are due to the global impact of the US media, which is a gigantic one. And some American influences come back from abroad on the rebound. If the triumph of Elvis was the revenge of Europe’s exploited and disdained lower classes, the success of the Beatles in this country was Britain getting even with us for Elvis.
To a considerable extent, Academia in the US has opposed not only the popular culture but more broadly the spirit of commercialism, social injustice, inequity, the excesses of capitalism, and intolerance. It had been a long-standing grievance of the right that college profs are liberals, progressives, commies, whatever. During the nineteen fifties I would often hear them add: but, lo and behold, graduates don’t follow in the footsteps of their liberal-leaning teachers; they are not duped by those screwed-up eggheads. Yet student sentiment in the sixties and seventies turned anti-establishment (though not highbrow). It is remarkable that the most prestigious universities are private; they operate on funds furnished by endowments established by capitalists; nevertheless, their faculties have tended to sympathize with the political left. This is a tribute to the broad-mindedness of the donors, the integrity of the faculty members, and the guarantees of personal freedom that in certain areasobtain in the system. Unfortunately in recent times a much more direct corporate involvement and sway as well as commercialism on a broad range have made themselves felt inside the halls of academe; the ideological orientation and allegiance of the students may be changing, it is still in the balance–the future will tell.
The academic environment has offered a shelter of comparative gentility and independence (comparative because internecine warfare, pressures and stresses from students, community, and administrators as well as profitability considerations, to mention just a few matters, have increased) to people who do not want to join the fray of the commercial and mercilessly competitive outside world. But our hypothetical string theorist, single-mindedly dedicated to and deeply interested in his field of study, is actually a rare phenomenon on the American campus. The majority of the faculty, particularly at institutions of lesser status, are not devoted to their jobs, drift in and out of the profession according to prevailing opportunities and, most to the point, seem to have a casual relationship to the subjects they teach. I used to be puzzled when department members would declare that they wished to eschew “talking shop”–by which they meant discussing their supposedly chosen fields. The phrase is, I think, unmistakably American as applied to academic life. I cannot picture any true scholar or scientist apologize for discussing her or his subject with confreres any more than I can imagine a televangelist apologize for bringing up the subject of salvation. A shoe salesman might be disinclined to discuss shoe styles or bunions after hours, but commitment to art and science ought to be a vocation. The instructor for whom teaching is a job and the student for whom the course is a credit requirement may surely be found in any land; however, they are endemic to the US not merely because Americans are alien to what is supposed to be their own culture but because, with few exceptions, they have no profound interests any more than deep convictions or what I discern as true character. It is for these reasons that, while the American educator is somewhat of a stranger in his/her own nation, he/she rarely quite fills the bill as a European’s idea of the scholar either.
I stated above that mathematics and exact science have been the real winners. This was in the context of higher education inasmuch as it is considered a search for and imparting of reliable knowledge concerning the world we live in. Of course postmodernism rejects the privileged position of any branch of learning and recognizes, instead, only different types of discourse having relative validity without the possibility of a unified organization or theory of knowledge. In my judgment the postmodern epistemological position–although I do not dispute that some postmoderns have brilliant insights and are inspired by humane social and political views–represents a hopeless rear-guard action and will in the main further discredit and marginalize the humanities. Deconstructionists may vaunt their sophistication in refusing to acknowledge any objective criteria for truth, but since time out of mind totally unlettered cheats and liars have made a practice of what deconstructionists preach on the matter.
In the meantime, science marches on. The United States is up front in offering higher education in the fields of science and engineering. The response of young Americans is not proportionate to the opportunity offered them, because the curricula demand grueling work, which they are averse to. Yet even the restricted number of scientists who carry on truly innovative theoretical and research work suffice to keep this country in the vanguard. In addition, foreign students flock to the States to take advantage of the slack, making up an astonishingly high percentage of the enrollees in hard science and engineering at the graduate level.
All this holds immense potential promise, the realization of accomplishments humankind in past ages couldn’t have dreamt of, but also potential apocalyptic horrors. Nuclear fission has given us a new source of energy, but also the explosive force to annihilate all humankind. Even fertilizers can be utilized to produce weapons of mass destruction. In the long term, environmental damage caused by the spread of technology also poses formidable threats. The government of this country is at great pains to prevent nuclear proliferation. However, the primary peril is caused by those who possess nuclear weapons right now, the United States being number one in the order of magnitude. The argument that–because we are more responsible and exercise greater restraint–we alone are entitled to keep overwhelmingly the largest nuclear arsenal and that only the handful who already possess such weapons can be allowed to retain them doesn’t hold; it is not reasonable to expect the world community to accept this as a premise indefinitely.
Historically, the states having the most powerful armies have not necessarily ranked among the most ethical. Genghis Khan would have presumably subscribed to the thesis that he had God’s OK for conquering a large part of the earth, but the vanquished peoples would have demurred. Considering its power, the US exercised comparative restraint from the middle to the end of the 20th century. Toward the end of World War II there was a race for the atom bomb; the Germans would not have hesitated to use it. In the circumstances, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not completely unjustifiable, given the prospect of US casualties had the bombs not been dropped. The George W. Bush administration showed disregard for a whole array of international agreements, bans, treaties, and organizations aimed at securing peace, sustainable environmental practices, and the elimination of the most destructive as well as inhumane weapons, and pursued unilateral power policies using intimidation.
At its best, the American spirit has stood for freedom, optimism, generosity, progress, democracy, equity, and fairness. Yet it has also a streak of destructiveness, aggression, recklessness, frustration, impatience, wastefulness, and violence that has manifested itself from the start in the slaughter of the natives, the senseless despoiling of the environment, the overexploitation of natural resources, the gun culture, and the high crime rate. The threat that the fermenting, pent-up nihilistic forces will not rest until they bring about a world conflagration unmatched by any in the past is a real one.
The forte of the American educational system is the graduate school. Catering to mediocrity has prevented primary and secondary instruction from providing a solid background in English syntax, composition, vocabulary, and mechanics of expression, arithmetic, mathematics, science, social science, and foreign languages throughout the primary- and secondary-school grades. Standards have been lowered in college curricula as well, particularly in the public segment and within that at community colleges, from the laudable motive of making higher education accessible to everyone as well as from the not-so-laudable one of raising state and federal funding and tuition fees; as a result, it can no longer be taken for granted that a graduate can spell, write grammatically correct sentences, or has the vaguest idea of history or geography. By contrast, athletics are keenly competitive and are often the only aspect of school taken seriously by students, parents, and the general public alike. In this, a certain upside-down logic seems to prevail, as outstanding athletic achievement can hardly be expected to make this into a better world.
An inconsistency of the system is that, with all the talk about the supposed public concern for education, schools of education have low academic standards. I had been unaware of this until, between my bachelor’s and doctor’s, I went for a master’s degree in education. Showing up for class and satisfying minimal course requirements, with the addition of smiling warmly at the professor to demonstrate my cooperative disposition, just about sufficed. The low standards in turn affect the quality of instruction at the elementary-, middle-, and high-school levels. In educational jargon the master metaphor of the educational process is borrowed from manufacturing. The school building is referred to as the school plant. A Harvard graduate is called a “product” of Harvard. Another favorite analogy comes from commerce. I heard a college president, referring to the field of education, say, “I have been in this business for ten years now.” Administrators, by the way, prefer to describe themselves as managers: the way they look at it, this is upgrading their status; if education is a manufacturing process, they are factory managers. A considerable part of their task is a PR exercise to obtain money, in the form of donations, grants, bequests, etc. To enhance the reputation of a school, perhaps nothing works better than a great football team. Another PR gimmick is the awarding of honorary degrees to celebrities: actors, politicians, business leaders. Dolly Parton, a well-endowed lady to use the phrase in a sense customary in the US, was the recipient of this type of instant education. Business accounts for the largest number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded. As Coolidge accurately remarked, the business of America is business.
Traditionally children were to a considerable degree at the mercy of and often abused and exploited by their elders practically all over the world. Since authority was vested in the first instance in the parents, much of the abuse was likewise practiced by them. And as the traditional system was generally paternalistic, the father as the head of the household shared the brunt of the responsibility for it. The realization that harsh punishment, child labor, and subjection to the whim of the adults in charge of minors were wrong had gradually grown over time, leading to new educational theories. The roots of these in Europe reach at least as far back as the Renaissance. In the States the humane outlook was championed distinctively by the progressive education movement. That movement stood for a more understanding and tolerant view on a variety of issues. The recommendations of progressive education were never fully implemented in educational policy, but the permissiveness attributed to it was blamed by the emerging conservative backlash–probably not altogether without foundation–for the lowering of scholastic standards. Yet, as I have had occasion to point out, the cult of mediocrity is part of the American ethos, and it could be argued that in this respect Dewey’s philosophy served as an endorsement of that ethos against the elitist European-inspired educational system inherited from colonial times.
At any rate, there is a tension or contradiction in American life between, on the one hand, the espousal of mediocrity which mocks and even persecutes the nerd–who in fact may simply be an exceptionally gifted person–and, on the other hand, an equally strong pressure to excel in athletics, to become a leader, and in later life to be financially successful. The American ideal has been to resolve this contradiction by achieving a synthesis of the regular guy (who embraces the mass culture with its limitations on intellectual horizon, moral responsiveness, and artistic sensibility) and the leader, millionaire, or celebrity–shall we say, a CEO who has a private plane but goes to the ball games, uses expletives, watches wrestling on TV, is a member of fraternal organizations, and an avid hunter. He would only exceptionally be caught in business fraud, for such people know how to avoid scandals. But most who pursue this goal never achieve it, because by definition all cannot be leaders. That this ideal or idol therefore has clay feet is suggested by the US rates of crime and violence, which are very high for a country with a comparable per capita GNP. However, the crime rate is just an outward, superficial indicator and doesn’t show the hidden underground strains of US society, the abyss of nihilism yawning below.
Today in the US the home by and large does not pressure youngsters unduly to succeed in academics, and most schools do not place disproportionate demands on them. Abuse and harsh treatment of children continue to be an appalling problem in numerous parts of the world. Child labor has been greatly reduced in this country. Children are exploited and abused, but primarily not in the ways they were under traditional systems. In certain respects the wheel has turned, and today’s situation is the opposite of what obtained in former days. Children are deluged with toys and gadgets–among them both real and toy weapons of destruction and ATVs that are hazardous for them as well as harmful to the environment–and are frequently calling the shots in the family. They demand rather than ask. They mistreat the adult world probably as often as vice versa. After knocking themselves out caring for them and paying for their education, instead of getting thanks, the parents are in turn oftentimes falsely accused by their children of having abused them.
Children’s and adolescents’ lives do indeed come under sometimes unendurable pressures, but in this environment, which Riesman called outer-directed, it is exercised principally by their own peers. Actually, peer pressure has probably always been an underestimated factor in children’s lives. The extent of it may not have been realized in former days because even then children moved in their separate world as it were, lacking the rapport with their parents and teachers to confide in them, to complain for instance about the bullying they had to endure at the hands of schoolmates and playmates. With the decline or at least diminution of parental and other supervisory authority, peer pressure has certainly become a major force. Yet this is not taking place in a vacuum. Though less controlled than before, children are part of the wider social fabric and influenced by its values. In their newfound freedom they are probably actually closer to the adult world now. Whereas previously they had to obey the parental bidding whose rationale was “do as I say, don’t do as I do,” now they can do more as their elders do. As well, they have their TV shows, most of these being crude, wild, and violent; and tweens and teens can choose their own favorite music from among the ranks of hip-hop and rap artists. As a market, they are commercially targeted, often misled, and exploited. The role models set before them even by school instruction are not infrequently unsuitable. Heroes in TV series for the young typically pay lip service to honesty and fairness while they engage in perpetual violent combat. Rock idols tend to be brutal swellheads and/or sexually conniving frauds often utilizing a vocabulary and gestures that degrade humans.
Scores of potentially valuable and praiseworthy achievements, inventions, developments, innovations, initiatives, and institutions have come from the US. It has promoted the ideal of equality, although has not nearly lived up to it. It was one of the first countries to provide acceptable economic living conditions for a large percentage of its citizens, though many have been left out. After the Second World War, it behaved generously toward the defeated nations, instead of exercising a policy of revenge that had largely been the accepted practice in history until that time. In the years following World War II, it disbursed foreign aid federally, organizationally, and individually to an extent previously unprecedented. Some of the federal part paid for weapons though–the US has been the number one arms exporter for some time–that have not contributed to the welfare of the world. The UN itself was the outcome of an American initiative. It represented an improvement over the League of Nations. Yet it had some inherent flaws from the start: it reserved a preferential role for the victors, real and nominal, of World War II (permanent Security Council membership, official languages). The situation obtaining in 1945, at the conclusion of the Second World War, which from our present-day perspective is just an incident in history, should not form the basis of a permanent arrangement. Although the UN gave a voice to all participating governments, its founder and patron, the US, which was the realvictor in any case, regarded it a bit as a toy–let’s play United Nations, kids, Uncle Sam will teach you how–it could take out of or put back into its pocket. When its resolutions do not back up US policy, this is seen as breaking the rules (“the UN not showing its relevance”). To point out just one glaring disparity, India and Luxemburg each have one vote, which weights the latter absurdly. Most pertinently, some governments do not at all stand for the will or interest of their citizens, and none at present does so perfectly. Even if individually they did stand for their interest, it might likely be at the detriment of other states. In case we take seriously the proposition that all men are equal, what would really be needed is not an assembly of governments directed by a handful who claim to represent their citizens but a nongovernmental organization elected by all the citizens of the world that cares for the people of the entire planet.
Just Off the Boat
At Fordham College it was hard to adjust to the idea that, by virtue of being an immigrant “just off the boat,” I was the low man on the totem pole. In my native Hungary, where I had attended secondary school at what was considered one of the most prestigious such institutions in the country, I found it easy to make friends. At Fordham I became conscious of not hitting it off well with many of the students. Yet it came as a surprise when one day, leaving the classroom, I happened to glance at a copy of the student paper that was left lying on one of the benches. The paper was running a poll on the most popular, best dressed, handsomest, most likely to succeed, etc. in the class. I saw that whoever had sat there filled in my name for each category. It took me a few seconds to grasp that this was meant as a joke; it was a shock, and a realization that would grow on me. Nevertheless, in senior year I became editor of the college’s literary magazine, something of an accomplishment for one relatively new to the English language.
I had left Europe in 1950 with the idea that I was not going to uncritically capitulate to the American mentality but accept and try to emulate whatever I consider worthwhile in it while holding on to the moral precepts I had gradually evolved for myself as guidelines by that time. There was something pompous and self-important, perhaps even hypocritical, about this resolve, and time and again I would fall short of my own ideals, typically when they were tested by prosaic, humdrum everyday reality. Yet my moral convictions were not all sham; I would stand up for them to risk unpopularity and even retribution. Owing to my family’s political persuasion, to mention just one important sphere, I had not been in a comfortable middle-ground position in my native Hungary either. While sentiments were generally pro-German during the war at the school I was attending, at home we were rooting for the Allies, and as the government was steering progressively closer to the Reich, I opted for avoiding political discussions with my classmates. Another obstacle dividing me from the mainstream, which I had to keep private as the school in question was run by a Catholic order of monastics, was my doubts concerning religious dogma. But in 1948 a Soviet-backed regime was taking over in Hungary; by the fall of that year all schools were “nationalized” (i. e., secularized), which meant that no religious schools were allowed to operate, and Communist dogmatism proved so autocratic as to make Catholicism seem liberal in comparison. From that time on my conflicts were with educational policies and tactics inspired by the Communist Party.
I recall that when I came to the United States I was impressed by the fairly outspoken way students objected to rules they disapproved of. In Communist Hungary I had had a run-in with school authorities when I refused to sign a statement condemning the head of the Catholic hierarchy. That refusal was a nearly unprecedented act (I was in fact expelled for it), because in the context of Hungarian society submission to school regulations was generally taken for granted. Over here, on the other hand, I noted, students were conscious of their rights. This struck me straight away as a praiseworthy feature of life in the US.
But in numerous respects I disagreed with their ethical perspective. I deal with this at greater length in other sections; here I just wish to say a few words about what I realized early on was the personality type preferred by Americans. It happened to be at loggerheads with the one set before me as a model by parents, teachers, and the authors I cherished as well as the one I personally aspired to resemble.
In the dormitory suite I shared with seven classmates, one of us, Nick, was occasionally visited by a friend who seemed to me a rather nice and pleasant fellow. Once, after this person had just left, Nick asked me, “Did you see how timid he is? He is scared to knock on my door.” Nick said this as if he were revealing a moral defect or at any rate a compromising secret. Frankly, I had noticed only that Nick’s visitor was an affable person; and while I had run into this type of reaction to shyness before, I thought it objectionable.
Bill, a friend of mine who had an exceptionally keen mind, flunked out of college because, being an incorrigibly late riser, he was “overcut” in several of his courses. He was promptly drafted into the Army, and as he scored high on the intelligence test, sent to officers’ school. I kept in touch with him. He talked to me about a fellow trainee. “He completely lacks self-confidence,” Bill said maliciously, and proceeded to tell me that he apprized his superior about the man’s personality deficiency. “What did he say?” I asked. “He is going to watch the guy.” The oddest thing about this was that Bill should have known better because, although extraordinarily sharp, he himself was subject to severe feelings of inferiority.
During my years as a high-school teacher, Fred, a colleague who taught social studies, became my friend. He was physically handicapped, having to use crutches to get around, but he had an iron will, a great sense of humor, and was popular with the students. After an assembly where our principal had given an address, he came up to me. “Did you notice how nervous he was?” he asked me in an incriminatory tone you would use about someone caught in the act of stealing. He quickly caught on, however, when I made no comment, and he added, “Well, I suppose it’s human.” Fred, who had a certain discernment, made a concession to the different take I had on this matter, but he shared the basic US approach to an embarrassed or timid person, which is, instead of helping that person, seizing on the embarrassment as something you can legitimately build on and exploit.
At the same school, the teachers were on one occasion addressed by a speaker who was making the rounds on behalf of the New York State Department of Education with the objective, presumably, of raising teaching morale. In the course of his talk he cited the case of a science teacher he once knew who had a terrible personality. This guy in the speaker’s mind seemed to be a despicable wretch, a sort of human cockroach. As he went on describing him, it nevertheless also emerged that the man in question was a person dedicated to his subject, and though he had what I would have described a reserved demeanor, was actually an effective science teacher. Somehow the speaker conflated the concept of being contemptible, by which understand: shy–at least from the viewpoint of an irrepressible extrovert–and being genuinely committed to one’s calling. Of course he had been dispatched by the state education authorities with the purpose of inspiring us, but the personal cause of the speaker was to put us, the audience, on the defensive, to sort of challenge us whether we came up to his criterion of extroversion. Grotesquely, though, he appeared to be struggling with a mild but unmistakable case of the jitters throughout his presentation.
While I had already started studying for my Ph. D., I taught at a New York City preparatory school where most of the students came from wealthy homes and many were sons of celebrities, with a sprinkling of successful East Coast literati among them who had published best-selling plays and novels. The faculty had a largely undeserved reputation for being topnotch; some of them had a certain preppy gloss, but they were on the whole less knowledgeable than public-school teachers. To earn a teaching certificate at a New York public school, you needed, I believe, thirty credits or thereabouts of graduate work, whereas at a private school a bachelor’s degree, or possibly just the principal’s nod, sufficed. I personally was hired for being a Hungarian. Just as I was going in for the interview, I saw a myopic-looking middle-aged man leave, with defeat written all over his face, and I felt sorry for him–lacking as I do a taste for knocking out competitors. The principal seemed to regard as my crucial qualification for the job of Latin teacher that Hungary had a good football team. He mentioned that he had just seen another applicant, a Haitian. But whoever heard of Haitian football? I sure hadn’t.
A colleague at that school, by the way a man the French call faux dur, that is, someone who acts and wants to look, although he isn’t, tough, referred in a conversation to a student or colleague as having a deplorably “apologetic attitude.” The phrase struck me right away as significant, and had me wondering whether that was the way Americans saw me. I hasten to add thatapologetic has a connotation I consider legitimately negative, as applied to people who habitually and knowingly neglect their responsibilities and then fall back on some cheap, whining apology instead of actually mending their ways. But in a much broader sense the American reading of the European who forever apologizes and says “thank you” is grievously mistaken. Apart from cases when I have done something that is clearly wrong, I tend to apologize in order to give the other person her or his due as an equal whom I should not impose on or take for granted. As for the related habit of thanking: on my first trip to England I noted that the waitress says “thank you” when she actually renders you a service, e. g., places the plate in front of you. This would be completely wrong usage in the US, where the closest formula is “you are welcome,” but of course only in reply. And in Denmark the “tak, tak, tak” sometimes comes with the frequency of a rattle–all life seems to be a litany of thanking someone for something.
Both apologies and frequent thanks strike people over here as servile; indeed my manner was once called just that to my face, and sycophantic to boot, behind my back.
My mom’s favorite virtue was humility, but I never saw her being even remotely obsequious. The two are distinctly different inmy book.
When, in my late twenties, I described myself in a letter to Paul Fabry with the phrase–which I had read somewhere and found humorous as well as somewhat apposite– “a young man with a great future behind him,” he wrote back disapprovingly, saying it was an approach that would not get me anywhere in this country. Fabry as a fellow Hungarian émigré simply gave me a well-meant piece of advice, which I perhaps should have taken to heart? At any rate, he went on to a distinguished career.
When I meet someone for the first time, my nearly automatic starting point is to build him or her up, saying something to show appreciation and respect, primarily I think out of ingrained habit. Thousands of disappointments, occasions when my initial good faith was only used to serve as a foothold for my interlocutors for abusing me, have not managed to break this habit, and I seem to be condemned to repeat it, although I now realize that it just does not work in certain environments.
Those who succeed best over here tend to be people who adapt and adjust to the methods of the natives, in which aggressiveness and deceptiveness play an important part. This is of course not to gainsay that in addition to those traits aggressive and deceptive persons can have varied admirable talents. Immigrants to these shores have indeed contributed much that has benefited not only the people of the US but humanity at large as well. To illustrate the quintessential example of someone embodying the character traits that make one a success in the US, particularly the West, while in my view he is not a particularly admirable human being, I would cite Arnold Schwarzenegger.
First Westerners I Met
In the next few paragraphs I will briefly describe, by way of my preliminary introduction to the American West, the people I had met who came from that part of the country prior to 1968, when I moved to Washington State.
The first American from the Far West I knew was a graduate student at Fordham who lived in the same dormitory as I. He put a sign on his door, reading, “John Doe [I don’t recall his name] from the wild and wooly West where men are men and women like it that way.” Slight and scrawny, he actually didn’t in the least look what Americans consider the he-man type. He would make as if he were trying to elude me when he saw me in the hall–even back then, this struck me as being possibly playacting; in retrospect, in the context of what I have since learned about the Western mentality, I recognize this as part of the standard Far-West repertory of slippery stunts.
However, there was another graduate student from the West, a Californian, whom I also got to know during my Freshman year. He gave me unsolicited and generous help. Of Hungarian descent, he came to pay me a visit, having heard that there was a Hungarian immigrant on campus. It turned out that he had seen me in the dining hall but, he said, it didn’t occur to him I could be an immigrant. “You look so American,” he added disapprovingly. To this day I don’t know what made me look American in his eyes, or why he considered this bad. He was into Republican politics, and some time later, when I mentioned that I was being drafted by the Army, he wrote to Senator Knowland, whom he knew personally, to intervene on my behalf. The senator in turn asked the draft board to defer me, saying that being a recent arrival to this country I should not be called up so soon but be given a chance to find my bearings. I may add that it had never even crossed my mind the student in question would or could help in that matter. Let this stand as a testimonial to the generosity of some Californians.
At the Newport, Long Island high school, where I taught French and Latin in the late fifties, Miss B. was foreign-language chair. She hailed from the Pacific Northwest, as she would explain with a lofty-breezy air intimating the exquisiteness of the region and the superiority of its inhabitants. Her French was rudimentary; she was of German extraction, the original spelling of her name being Breu. The rank of chairman, she confided in me, had been fiercely contested, and in the competition leading to the appointment her colleagues had acted “very mean.” At any rate, she had won. Her strongest qualification may have been that she was the principal’s friend. They were both unmarried women in their sixties. I had the impression that they hated each other and yet were somewhat in league owing to their similarity in age and marital status.
The principal, a Miss K., had hired me over a number of other applicants–this was a sought-after district with a fairly high pay scale. On the first day of school Miss K. smiled as she pressed my hand warmly. It seemed that, regarding me as an eligible bachelor, she expected an intimate relationship, and was willing to overlook the age disparity. “I am old enough to be, well,almost your mother,” she mused during a conversation. Actually, she was sufficiently old enough to be my grandmother. When she judged that my response to her overtures was not as enthusiastic as it ought to have been, she accused me of having a cold personality which, in her view, apparently marred my performance as a teacher. She gave me a couple of more chances to test my personality, and when she found that the warmth of my smile upon seeing her still did not reach the desired temperature, she despaired of my teaching abilities and enlisted Miss B. as an ally against me.
At the time I was not fully cognizant of how supposedly professional evaluations could depend on personal relationships in this country, and I imagined–fatally in error–that as long as I did my job conscientiously they would not do anything. Although there were no complaints against me from either students or parents, I fulfilled my responsibilities impeccably, and in professional competence rated high above the average foreign-language teacher by any objective standard, my contract was not renewed. The two ladies realized that I was an easy victim to vent their frustrations and spleen on; that I would not stoop to their level to retaliate.
A teacher of English, whose name was Gerry Greenfield, was also from the Far West, perhaps Northwest; he was a nice affable guy basically, he was one of these Americans who actually do smile a lot; his was an unstrained, humble smile. As I recall he had just gone through his first experience of fatherhood, and was fascinated by his daughter’s intelligence. Greenfield had a tendency to agree with whatever I said, which I have since also found typical of some Far Westerners who won’t contradict you as long as they accept you as a friend, even if you tell the most palpable absurdities.
At the New York City private school I describe elsewhere, one of the students, C., was the son of a big-time celebrity, a Hollywood actress of world renown. He had grown up in the City of Angels, but at one point his parents parted company, and he moved East with his father, an advertising man, while a brother, who was C.’s junior by a year, and whom the mother supposedly preferred to C., stayed with her. C. possessed what I later identified as some of the Far Westerner’s most unsavory character traits. Had I considered him in that frame of reference then, I might even have thought twice before moving to the West, but I saw him rather as a Hollywood specimen instead of a foretoken of the kind of student I was to face out here.
According to their media-fabricated image, celebrities love their fans; I got my first whiff of the truth behind this claim when C. described fans as a nuisance: “they slobber all over you,” he commented contemptuously. Although, at least by that time, his mother in her public appearances emanated an aura of propriety and religious piety, C.’s metaphors that, in all probability, had their roots in the home environment, tended to have an obscene, demeaning, and guileful quality. His mind was obtuse, he had no interest in or talent for academic learning, and his personality reminded one of a reptile, yet he was conceited and condescending, apparently thinking of himself as “big” in the best American tradition of “big is good.” I remember that he called me “this little man” once, wishing to diminish my status in front of a third person. Perhaps most foretelling of what I was eventually to endure from denizens of the Woolly West, he made a show of being reluctant to appear in class in a snooty and slithery manner. But he was at his most characteristic Western self at telling me “I pity you” when in fact he was boiling over with vindictive spite.
Peggy, a colleague at NYU, went to teach in California and came back a year later, saying that she couldn’t take it: the students didn’t show up for class, didn’t care, and the people were phony. Here in New York at least I know everyone hates me, she said.
The Far West – By Reputation and at First Hand
Peggy’s report was the one concrete personal info about Far Western academic life that could have served as a warning. All my other experiences with people from that part of the country were too fragmentary to add up to a unified picture. Aside from these, I could rely only on what I read or heard about it in books and the media.
There was, first of all, the reputation for freedom, especially regarding Californians. Campaigning, I believe, in San Francisco, Stevenson, cheered ecstatically by the crowds, remarked to a journalist who interviewed him after his speech, “Well, these are said to be the freest people on earth.” His remark sounded a tiny bit like a concession, for that city was associated in the public’s mind with loose morals, which Stevenson likely wanted to distance himself from. The reputation was, further, for openness and friendliness; one saw the hail-fellow-well-met smile of the Westerner in the movies and on TV– the self-generated standard image. This picture had as its historical backdrop in the media the pioneering ranch family, pure in heart, with staunch morals.
Yet in the typical Western you also had the outlaw aspect, gun-toting, violence, vigilante justice, the gold rush, rowdiness, saloons, prostitutes, cowboys engaging in continual fistfights. This had its sequel for instance in TV crime series such as Dragnet, playing in the contemporary Western metropolis.
On the other hand, I had before me the picture of Hollywood, not as created by Hollywood but, contrariwise, as seen by Europeans who found it bogus and mercenary with, for instance, its strange funeral customs which try to deny death; all the effort to hide life’s dark side; and the gaudy, flashy, tinselly atmosphere of the dream factory. Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One” made quite an impression on me; today, well over half a century later, I remember some parts of it vividly, almost verbatim. From Waugh’s macabre story Californians emerged, I would say, as no more than remotely human, and not so much evil as rather utterly incomprehensible from the point of view of the educated Briton: robots with hands and feet like the rest of us but lacking human feelings or ideas. Father Culhane, one of the Jesuits who originally welcomed me at Fordham, said that “New York is not America,” yet this vague sense I had that something was missing from Americans to make them like ordinary mortals as I explain in the section What Character? was based in large part on my impression of New Yorkers, they being the first Americans with whom I came into contact. I learned about another work on the same theme, Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” from a critique in the Times Literary Supplement or perhaps the New York Times Book Review, and I read Huxley’s “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” in the fifties or early sixties.
I do not wish to examine the merits of these works here, as I am referring to them merely by way of sketching my concept of the American West before settling in that part of the world. I will just say that while all three authors had somewhat dubious credentials for attacking the culture of California, their comments were on the whole well taken. In addition, when I was reading “Brave New World” as well as “Stern der Ungeborenen” (“The Star of the Unborn”), it seemed to me that both Huxley and Werfel had to some extent the American experiment in mind (it has in fact been suggested that Werfel’s book owed much to his unhappy experiences in California). There were some common themes in most of these works: shallowness, robotization, unwillingness to face death, denial of pain, and an unrealistic accent on the positive, mercenariness, lack of individuality and character, a spirit of make-believe. The search for the good life akin to the Greek definition of the term, built on a hedonistic pleasure ethic.
It is curious to note that neither the image of the 19th-century lawless Wild West and its contemporary sequel as the crime-ridden modern metropolis nor the pleasure-seeking, superficial Western culture as pictured in the satires and dystopias written by Europeans would seem to have anything to do with the puritanical Protestant ethic that is often identified as having been the dominant factor in the life of colonial New England and the early days of the republic. All three would appear–at least on the surface—mutually exclusive. Just as the cult of mediocrity and fierce competition coexist; just as the obscenities and vulgarities of colloquial speech subsist side by side with the Latinized pomposities of so-called standard American, this triplicity of violence, deception, and puritanical order characterizes US society. The contradiction is probably more apparent than real. Consider the case of Joseph Smith, his Puritanical background; hard work, frugality, and business acumen being as much a part of his character as treasure hunting, picturing himself as the finder of golden tablets inscribed with sacred writings, and preaching polygamy; the journey of the Mormons to the West. The denial of sex, which is often associated with Puritanism, is itself a falsehood, and people who subscribe to it will tend to seek some release in substances such as alcohol and drugs, or the pressure will build up and eventually lead to an explosion at the individual level and perhaps to a cataclysm at the national and global levels. It is all a dangerous and potentially lethal mix, which has already led to both constructive and destructive feats never before seen in history.
I set out on my journey to the West with great anticipation. Of course it was yet another plunge into the unknown and so worrisome. I mentioned to one of the NYU secretaries that I was leaving to take up a position at WSU. I added, “I don’t know if it’s going to work out.” She replied, “I have a hunch that it will,” and her words, though objectively amounting to no more than a polite remark of encouragement, somehow took on a disproportionate significance in my mind, as if they were a good omen and bound to prove true. I would be reminded of it time and again when things in fact didn’t look as if they were going to work out at WSU, and I would draw reassurance from it.
It is one of my character traits that I welcome the challenge of a completely new, for me unprecedented situation. I flew in to Spokane, which looked clean, prosperous, and well ordered and checked in at the Davenport—a rather upscale hotel—probably at the suggestion of the cab driver. Next morning, the waiter who brought breakfast took a suspicious look at me and left in haste. He acted unmistakably as if he feared sexual advances from me. This was the first time in my life that this sort of game was played on me. It proved only a foretaste of things to come; in fact only a short time after, at another hotel, when I ordered some beverage from room service, two came to deliver it, a woman carrying the glass and a man who suggested very artfully, with a suspicious and accusing expression worthy of an accomplished player, that he had to come along to protect her from me.
Echoing Miss B.’s sentiment, Professor Avery, who had hired me, had said that “the Northwest is a delightful area.” This was indeed quite true speaking of the region as a whole, but not specifically of the countryside south of Spokane. From the Greyhound bus I took, the Palouse Empire, as it is called, looked parched and barren, almost desert-like, in August. The town of Pullman itself, with its well-watered though tiny lawns, resembled an oasis in the desert, its buildings huddled together because every square inch of irrigable space is at a premium.
As my Ph. D. is in comparative literature, it had been agreed that my appointment would be split between the English and Foreign Language Departments. Frankly, I had originally hoped to teach graduate courses in my area of specialization, 20th-century European fiction. Instead, I was assigned to teach mainly French courses for the Foreign Language Department and Humanities courses for the English Department. The Humanities coordinator, Davis McElroy, was still away on vacation. I learned that he had written a book entitled “Existentialism and Modern Literature,” published by the Philosophical Library, and I mentioned to a senior member of the faculty that, being interested in the subject, I was looking forward to meeting him. “Well,” he replied, in a tone that implied he was sorry to disappoint me, “he is a little sandy-haired chap.” It was an altogether unexpected answer, I must say. What had the man’s hair color to do with his erudition? The remark which, accompanied by the appropriate facial expression, insinuated that my interest in that person had to do with his physical attributes, was all the more absurd as it came from an academic, whom one would have thought capable of having some appreciation of scholarship.
In another, more discomfiting experience, occurring also at the introductory stages of my Far West saga, a man of about thirty, whose status at WSU I no longer recall, abruptly snatched some object he needed (or possibly pretended to need) from the desk at which I was seated. He did this with such exaggerated haste and alarm that I realized it was a gross insinuation. He was playing that if he got too close to me I would try to make a pass at him, I guess? As he was sexually so irresistibly attractive? At that point in time this type of behavior was still altogether unexpected and startling for me. I didn’t know how to react to it–actually to this day I have not found a way to shield myself from it. When, for example, in an incident that took place some time later, a man (a complete stranger to me, by the way) who was to give me a ride in his truck in connection with some business I had to transact with him, appeared reluctant to let me sit next to her daughter, I still couldn’t immediately grasp the reason for his unwillingness. But at least by that time the abyss of make-believe, suspiciousness, innuendo, xenophobia, and trickiness constituting Far West life had started to open up before me.
I wound up teaching mostly one-hundred-level Humanities and two-hundred-level French courses, with just one, 20th-century French literature, offered however only every other semester, coming close to my actual area of specialization, and soon I was beginning to realize why Peggy had fled the Far West to come back to NYU.
My Humanities 101 section started to shrink. Before class, a student would be standing at the door of the classroom waiting for me, to say with inimitable grace, as you would imagine a friendly executioner speak, “I want your signature.” Did they regard me as a celebrity? Not quite; they needed my autograph to drop the course. This outwardly courteous manner is one way–though certainly not the only one–the Westerner has of killing you. This time they were smiling, knowing they were hurting me. After a while, I would approach the classroom in the morning with a sinking heart, dreading there would be again someone waiting for me by the door. Just the right start to make you feel confident about your lecture! And what if all drop and the class whittles down to zero? I visualized a note in my mailbox from the department chairman that he wants to have a talk with me. I had had the experience of being fired twice before. This sort of thing takes its toll on your self-assurance: failure becomes a routine, a pattern for events to be shaped that is inevitable; you expect it, and in effect you make it happen if nothing else by fearing it, broadcasting the idea as it were that you are a loser, in this environment, where all is riveted and staked on success.
Despite all the high-flown rhetoric about individualism in the United States as propounded by homegrown academics in ponderous works of philosophy and political science, the Americans I have known were preponderantly governed by a herd psychology. In my Humanities section dropping became the vogue; in my two French sections there were no or very few dropouts that semester, but they had a cornucopia of other tricks to make up for it. The French coordinator, A. S. let me know that two students in one of these sections came to complain to him. They said that I didn’t look at them while talking to them.
What they said was actually true. It does happen to me that I avoid looking at people while talking to them. If I want to be exact about it, there are two reasons for this habit: I do it out of shyness as well as because people often do not like to establish eye contact with me. The eye-contact business is one of those thorny points about which Americans are ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the popular-psychology urging to do it; on the other hand, I find that, in the real world, at least in the real America, when my glance even accidentally meets someone’s eyes, on at least ninety-nine out of each hundred occasions I get a rebuff of one sort or another. But I believe that even today nowhere outside the United States could such an issue be brought up as a cause for complaint by students against a professor. Whatever the global consensus on this, I would—metaphorically speaking–sink into the ground for shame before making it. And in fact rather than trying to harm a person by complaining to a superior behind his back, I would instinctively go out of my way trying to make him or her feel more self-confident.
What actually motivated those students is a complex matter all of whose ramifications I cannot deal with here. At one important level it was part of the American ladies’ campaign to punish the male gender en masse. A few years before, my brother faced an even fiercer attack at Columbia University from his women students who claimed that his manner with them was “patronizing.” Translating it into the un-American jargon of objective fact, this meant that he failed to show the deference, often abject submissiveness, US ladies ask, and in many cases demand from men as their prerogative. A father of seven, he had many obligations, and dreaded losing his job. He went through a period of agony hanging on desperately to it and, on the surface, seemingly won the battle: he was not fired. But in the process he worried to excess, completely lost his sleep, his health was undermined, and he died at the age of fifty-two.
In my case, as in my brother’s, the sine-qua-non reason for complaining was that these young women realized we were vulnerable, and they thought they should exploit this. It then, further, fitted into their anti-male agenda. If shyness is seen as a shortcoming, it is a disability (so long, that is, as we consider shyness, together with such qualities as humility, meekness, or modesty, a disability instead of a virtue, which it happens to be in other moral systems), comparable to lameness or arthritis. Yet surely it would have never occurred to them to bring up those conditions as a charge against someone.
A. S. prefaced his account of the gripe in question by saying that it was an unusual one (probably he hoped that this would humiliate me more); however, in my experience in this country students’ complaints are nearly always of a personal nature and practically never have to do with an instructor’s competence in her or his subject. I remember the instructor saying, way back in a teaching methods course I took at NYU studying for my master’s in education, that in teacher evaluations by students the teacher’s professional competence rarely plays a part. The instructor added that presumably teacher competence was something that the students “took for granted.” However, I found that an unsatisfactory explanation offered as an excuse for the fact that ad hominem appeals in truth outweigh considerations of professional competence.
In my other French 201 section, the girls (in lower-division French courses most students were female, as there is some sort of popular belief in this country that the study of French is particularly appropriate for women) hit on a different tactic. They played that they had to sit arm in arm to reassure each other or protect themselves, they were so scared of me. Now, I don’t know if it’s worth pointing out that I am a mild-mannered, scholarly type, for all intents and purposes incapable of violence, and that in fact nowhere on earth except in the Wild West has anyone ever claimed that I inspired fear in her or him. Most Wild West games are so transparently false as to make you wonder whether they are played to make the victim or anyone else believe that they are meant seriously. I would say that as a rule that is not even the intention. The purpose seems to be rather to hurt, annoy, and/or provoke. Another question is how any adult can reconcile this kind of behavior with his or her self-image as a decent human being. It has been my experience that they indignantly refuse the suggestion of being sneaky, let alone deceptive and insidious, which adds to the enigma.
However that may be, the imputation that I am violent has been made by Far Westerners literally more times than I could possibly remember implicitly by innuendo and insinuation and numerous times even explicitly. In the case I described above, one group complained that I was a weakling (and therefore, presumably, to use their terminology, queer), while the other adumbrated that I was a ruffian, violent, and dangerous. In this country these are actually the categories men get classed into by the feminine agenda. In either case, they are pronounced guilty. Men realize that their status is highly shaky, tend to be terrified by women, and are obsequious. People in a subservient position often try to get into their masters’ good graces by snitching on each other. American males snitch on each other to get into the ladies’ good graces. I am of course generalizing, but I maintain that this is substantially the state of affairs.
In Humanities 101, the students rarely objected openly to anything, almost never argued, in fact they were typically just interested in personal traits, their approval or disapproval having little to do with course content. A sort of passive dislike as a general attitude, subdued resentment and resistance. Sitting back silently, making innuendos, trying to exploit what they perceived as diffidence or embarrassment.
Students at WSU didn’t expect to be graded in an unbiased manner. This was for me a change from my experience with educational institutions both in Europe and the Eastern US, where grading practices based on personal preference were nonexistent, exceptional, or marginal depending on the given area. When I explained to my Humanities students that I didn’t look at the name until after grading a paper, they–especially the girls–didn’t like this at all. How can I describe their reaction? They seemed to take it as a sign of unfriendliness. They wanted their looks and perhaps their personalities to be included in the percentage. In a French 201 class the first test I gave showed that one of the students had next to no idea of the language. I asked to see her in my office, thinking that I might redirect her to a lower-level course instead of having to fail her. I asked what her high-school French grade had been. “Oh, I had an A,” she replied dismissively, but her manner intimated that this had less to do with her proficiency in the subject than her relationship with the instructor. She seemed to be taking for granted as well that I called her to my office to establish a relationship because of her beauty–I may add that she was exceptionally pretty–and convinced that the entire grading process was largely a function of personal appearance. Now, something in her past experience may well have caused that belief: she was in fact not coquettish; rather she was, I think, truly suspicious of my intentions.
The majority, particularly in the Humanities 101 classes, lacked essential communications skills: they couldn’t spell, write grammatically correct sentences, or organize material in a logical manner. I learned that the fraternities had term papers on file for humanities courses members could hand in as their own. Today, to be sure, term papers may be purchased on the net by anyone. The men considered sports more important than academics. A good part of the women were sent to college by their parents primarily in a quest for suitable husbands; getting an education was just a frill or an excuse.
I eventually noticed that in my lectures the students expected me to more or less make things up as I went along, because the background from which they came favored fiction, myth, and amazing tall stories over authenticated and attested fact. Once, just as an example of amusing pseudoscientific nonsense, I showed to a class some motion picture advancing a cockamamie geological hypothesis about the Flood. Its author emphasized in his introduction that he was a native of Washington State and included a photo that pictured him surrounded by his nice family. The class not only failed to manifest any amusement, but the midterm examination proved that it almost unanimously accepted the man’s creationist concept. Knowing that he came from the Northwest conferred in the students’ eyes more credibility on him than any scholarly achievement or qualification.
[[ GAMES OF THE FAR WEST ]]
Some Factors Contributing to the Prevalence of Make-Believe in the American West
Many threads must have contributed to the prominent role of make-believe in Far West culture; here I will discuss four important ones by way of introducing the subject: the peculiar sense in which democracy is understood; the Hollywood/commercial mentality; the idea that truth is perception; and the view that freedom of worship as enshrined in the constitution guarantees the validity of any, even the most fanciful, religious notions.
Political democracy has a salutary balancing influence that tends to reduce excesses and inequities, but its legitimate scope can be inflated or its essence adulterated to mean that truth equates majority opinion, and that the customs, manners, and preferences of the majority are the right ones. Democracy thereby runs the danger of promoting mediocrity and reducing standards to the lowest common denominator. In US society this has led to a certain anti-intellectual bias that is often deplored by Europeans. Particularly in the American West, I have often encountered the distrust and incredulity with which “regular guys,” that is, members of the majority, who at this point are still the uneducated–one must include a good many college graduates in their ranks–confront science and scholarship. When, for instance, I wanted to solve a practical problem of length by applying to it the Pythagorean theorem, which is indeed very elementary geometry, this was met by my Idahoan landlord with a frown of doubt and suspicion combined with what I may describe for lack of a better term as ethical disapproval–regular guys don’t do such things. The same fate befell my timid attempts to refer to the orbits of the planets. And these were not stupid people. Their expertise of car repair or building construction required intelligence far superior to grasping the elementary notions I was trying to put across regarding geometry and astronomy. At the same time, they prized college education: for its social and monetary value. My neighbor in a small rural community of North Idaho had a college degree, although his proficiency in English did not equal that of average European third graders in their respective native languages. He told me that he stored his college textbooks in the building where his hired hand lived. This was an expression of his assessment of academic learning–worthless.
Artistic, literary merit, humanistic erudition are of course suspect; any occupation that might suggest refinement is dismissed as sissified when pursued by a man. Music commonly has to compete with a power drill in volume of sound, and more often than not singing has to be inarticulate bawling to pass their muster.
On the other hand, folklore, superstition, and tall tales have a solid status in what they regard as credible. In the phrase of a Washingtonian I knew, “professors don’t know beans.” While anthropologists on the whole are, shall we say, somewhat hesitant to acknowledge the existence of the Sasquatch as fact (the late eminent WSU scientist Grover Krantz constituting one of the notable exceptions), the people of the Pacific Northwest place considerable reliance on it. I am not sure when I first heard about Bigfoot. At any rate, I recall an article in the local paper reporting that footprints of the creature had again been discovered. It included a comment by a resident who said that they looked genuine, “not something one could make with a board.” That is how I began to surmise the probable origin of those giant footprints: i. e., from a denial (of what was most likely the truth). Over the years I learned that one possible way you could infer the truth from what a Wild West person says is that he denies it. But the rub is that this is not a surefire method either; you have to know the circumstances, etc. People do not exhibit traits across the moral spectrum. Someone can be scrupulously honest in giving back your change, for example, and a rogue when he charges you for services. You are liable to be the victim of a lot of bum steers before you get some sort of clue on the type of lies people of an alien culture habitually engage in.
When I was a teacher at New Paltz High School, I attended a teachers’ conference where we listened to an address by an invited guest speaker, an IBM executive. He told us about IBM’s illustrious founder, Thomas Watson, who was famous for hanging signs all over company offices and plants with the motto “THINK.” Presumably this injunction prompted the speaker to withdraw into the inner fastness of his mind to reflect on the question, “What is the greatest thing a man can be?” And he came to the conclusion that the highest thing in the world was to be a salesman. Christ was the greatest salesman, he added. I imagine this was based on Christianity being the faith with the largest number of adherents: more people are sold on it than on any other religion. From there I think you could assert without making too great a leap that truth is what sells. Or, it is the image that counts. TV land is more real than reality.
Sometimes you can see on TV the daughter of a politician hugging her father with deep affection. When she thinks she is no longer on, she drops her smile instantly and puts on a sulking, disdainfully indifferent expression. Perhaps the doing of a mischievous cameraman. Such sacrilegious moments of reality breaking into neverland are rare. Americans have an unfailing sense for show business. The show must go on. With few exceptions, different categories of television are but different genres of fiction. Those that claim to be nonfictional are often the most deceptive because cooked up of an inextricable jumble of truth and falsehood. “Reality” television of course has little to do with reality, if not in an ironic way. “Clean” shows tend to be more perniciously pornographic than overt porn.
In or coming from the dream factory’s home state we have now had a string of actors-turned-politicians, the latest addition to this galaxy at this writing being actually a superannuated body builder-turned-actor-turned-
politician. We are not far from a state of affairs where politics can be classified as a fictional genre.
As for the epistemological component of this theme, I wish to make the following comments. It would be out of place here to trace in the lineage of either skepticism or idealism from Pyrrho and Plato to Deconstruction. To take the latter, idealism, suffice it to say that in modern philosophy Descartes’s famous cogito foreshadowed what Bishop Berkeley nearly a hundred years later expressed as the view that reality is perception. 19th-century German idealism took this up, and it has been given new twists in directions as far apart as semiotics, Postmodernism, and interest in the occult. I note this merely to indicate that “reality is perception” is far from a state-of-the-art notion. And as for skepticism, according to the New Testament, already Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “what is truth?’
The direct influence of philosophy on US society is slight, but philosophical theories affect a variety of academic disciplines, and the impact of higher education cannot be discounted. Subjectivistic and relativistic conceptions trickle down into business schools, courses on leadership, and perhaps even “ethical fitness®” seminars. In the first two sections and in other passages throughout I show how the American version of democracy, as well as US commercialism and media employ make-believe. What could be termed the idealistic fallacy, which in its treatment sounds like and may have been meant as a witticism by the good bishop of Cloyne, is grist to the PR man’s mill. In this country the sense of the term democracy is extended to mean that if enough people agree on a lie it becomes true, and home-grown psychology backs this up.
Their interpretation of “freedom of religion” is a blank endorsement of wishful thinking: the truth is what I imagine, my daydream, best expressed by German Wunschtraum. You can make up any absurdity about the afterlife, God, or ghosts that suits your fancy which then in some way becomes true by virtue of your belief in it; your lie is as it were guaranteed to be true by the constitution. The realization of this struck me when I heard my Worley, Idaho landlord, Ray, talk about the life hereafter. Ray was a typical Idahoan: philanderer, fibber, jack-of-all-trades, a bit of a rogue. Raised on a farm too small to support a family in the age of agribusiness, he somehow, rather fortuitously, got into the line of buying, reconditioning, and selling old pianos. By the time I knew him, however, pianos had gone out of fashion, and he in effect traveled around, more for fun than profit, in an ancient van calling at people’s homes to tune pianos that he had sold them. His trade had been based on buttering up ladies, generally farmers’ wives, and in his fifties he no longer beguiled them: the classic “Death of a Salesman” syndrome. The time dedicated to religion was Sunday, and on Sunday mornings Ray would be in a lightheartedly festive mood. It was on such an occasion that, dropping in on me and spontaneously breaking out in a line or two of a hymn, he explained how things were going to be in the kingdom of heaven.
The picture he drew had recognizably Hollywoodish features, as religion in America is connected with the dream factory and commercialism both, or you might say is a branch of the, or just another, dream industry. God business is good business. One of the prominent televangelists, when he had a convention center built, insisted on luxurious, expensive accommodations, saying, “God is not cheap.” This is a country where Father Divine ran ads in the papers. Many think they have a direct line to God Almighty: the contemporary surge of Pentecostal or charismatic denominations draws on this penchant. Another Idahoan, Bob, asked me in the challenging tone of someone with the inside information, “Well, what do you think God looks like? Does He have a penis?” Bob gathered from my blank expression that I didn’t know, so he gave me the lowdown, assuring me that indeed He has one.
As it happens, Ray ascribed kindly powers to God, and when he was in a religious mood he saw the world through rose-colored glasses, but the same cannot be said about many fundamentalist cults whose adherents actually believe they have a mission from heaven to rid the world of evil people. The rose-colored view, God’s infinite love, His mercy, the divine plan according to which all is ordered benevolently and what seems evil is just a privation (lack of perfection) has been an aspect of Christianity and some other religions. But just as Hollywood has its Frankenstein’s monsters, Draculas, werewolves, and extraterrestrial visitors, being a nightmare factory as well, so religion has its demons, devils, malevolent spirits, and wrathful divinities.
The separation of church and state can be seen as a great advance over theocracies where the clergy rule as well as over systems with state religions that hinder all other types of worship, not to speak of regimes that are responsible for actual religious persecution. And so the freedom of religion is a manifestation of the genius of liberty that animated the founding fathers. It was of course understood by them that religious conviction cannot be used as an excuse or pretext for criminal actions. Yet the line between God’s purported will as followed by adherents of a faith and criminality is sometimes difficult to draw, and even seemingly harmless beliefs are dangerous when there is absolutely no objective evidence that they are based on truth. If a religion asserts that it has a monopoly on interpreting God’s will and that the sole chance of salvation resides in belonging to the religion in question, this claim, although on the face of it related to the life hereafter, has a great deal of impact on temporal earthly power. This is a problem of vast implications that will have to be faced eventually by mankind. “Freedom of religion” sounds fine, but how much can you get away with by claiming that what you are talking about belongs to the spiritual realm even though it has a direct obvious impact on matters in this world?
In any case, a logical leap is made when people assume, as many appear to do, that the guarantee of the free exercise of religion is equivalent to saying that the articles of faith of a given religion are true.
Open or Covert Society?
Karl Popper’s influential work, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” sets the yardstick of a good social order by the amount of nonviolent freedom of expression it can allow and by the transparency of its political system. But the political sphere provides only a framework, and unless openness characterizes a community’s life as a whole its potential benefits are greatly reduced and may even become meaningless. If it is true on the one hand that Soviet-style regimes of the past presented a travesty of true democracy, on the other hand even a comparatively sound political basis won’t help much in a local environment where the inhabitants in effect trample on the premises of democracy in their private lives. The society of the Pacific Northwest–and as far as I can tell of the Far West in general–is in this sense more closed than any I have ever known.
I recall a program on WSU radio in which foreign students were asked their opinion of their American counterparts on campus. “They hide,” was the reply. That short remark merely scratched the surface of a vast complex of phenomena: the student was attempting to account for the whole strange atmosphere of covertness she had found there.
Now I shall describe an experience I had in Spokane some time after moving into this area. I am about to enter a large store. Suddenly the entrance door in front of me opens, and two ladies appear: they are in conspicuous precipitate hurry to get out. One of them heaves a deep sigh of relief, and says to her companion, “We made it!” I didn’t understand the meaning of the remark, because nothing like it had ever happened to me before. Then, after my memory replayed this puzzling incident a couple of times, I told myself, “Well, no, they couldn’t have been talking about me. If they had, they wouldn’t have said it so I could hear it.” But by the time similar tricks had been played on me perhaps the hundredth time, I came to realize that its very purpose was to make me hear it. My mistake was to start from a completely opposite set of values: taking it for granted that you don’t hurt people, at the very least not those who haven’t hurt you and about whom you know nothing.
On my walks usually something would happen that was disturbing but hard to define, furtive and oblique, expressed in a sign language I couldn’t for long decipher. Doors would slam, lights would go on, people would get into their cars and stay there, running the engine. But when occasionally they yelled “Get out of here!” and “Watch out!” I got the message, even though it came from behind my back. As I did when the girl at the checkout counter asked me if I had taken anything from the store. These good folks were apparently insinuating that I was, at best, a thief. And once they see they have succeeded in getting me rattled they start a gleeful caper: in a store, for instance, I will no longer be just getting the leery grin suggesting that I am there to steal something, but shop clerks will sprint past me, and a merry concert of whistling, sneering, and throat-clearing will be raised. They will run after you to demonstrate that they have to run away from you. An authoritarian regime relying on the secret police is very bad indeed, but a community composed of malicious clowns posing as detectives hasn’t much to recommend it either.
What I find most deeply troubling about this is not only the vigilante spirit, but the muffled, insidious texture of it all, and the assumption that an act of make-believe can be substituted for the truth if a large enough number join in; the fact that these people do not even want to be fair.
The paragraphs above are substantially taken from a radio commentary that was, to be sure, objected to and never aired. They express rather well my initial perplexity and continued bewilderment. Sneakiness is hardly compatible with the self-referential image of Westerners, but I have found it one of the most distinguishing and essential marks of their character. It will probably surprise you as a newcomer, but if you come to think of it there is no physical impossibility to, on the one hand, putting on an open, frank, innocent expression, even to the extent of parading, vaunting, and making a show of this and, on the other hand, engaging in underhanded activity. All you need is a fundamentally dishonest mental attitude. Of course acting ability helps. Western Americans are expert at making a pretense of performing a praiseworthy action while in fact engaging in some sort of shady hanky-panky.
I have learned from experience that wherever I happen to be in this part of the world something is likely to take place that is difficult to define, stems presumably from curiosity, hostility, suspicion, fear, or more likely just sheer malice aimed at exploiting some perceived vulnerability, and finds expression in furtive, shifty, and often insidious behavior. Sneakiness is a kind of background texture of the human environment in the Far West. While I have occasionally or sporadically met with comparable conduct elsewhere, I have indeed found it endemic and abundant over here.
There are many modalities of what, using the colloquial term, might be called creeping. I may start by saying that they canliterally creep. Even adults will do it, in apparent open conflict with the Western self-image. Let me provide a few random illustrations of this puzzling phenomenon.
I arrive at some local branch of my bank in the morning a while before business hours. This in plain view of the employees inside. So they wait a couple of minutes past the official opening time, and when the clerk at last unlocks the door, instead of facing me or saying “hello” she bends down almost to the floor, a mischievous grin playing on her lips.
After shopping at a supermarket, while I am putting the shopping bags into the trunk of my car, an employee shows up and, pretending to do I know not just what, actually prostrates herself near the car, this little act (demonstration?) giving her such a charge that she breaks out in a chuckle.
Inside another store, while I am looking for an item on the shelves, a clerk takes up a similar recumbent position next to me on the floor.
On other, more numerous occasions, they just bend, stoop, crouch, or squat down when they see me (or to put it more accurately, when they can tell that I see them).
I described these incidents as puzzling because after all this time I still am not entirely sure of their meaning, though I have a general idea that they are supposed to indicate resentment/rejection/scorn.
People of the US West as I have come to know them have a real passion for peeking and snooping, which starts at an early age. Children crawl on the ground to conceal themselves, hug the wall, stopping at corners to peek, and even build barricades from behind which they can watch people in secret. The amazing part is that with many of them this continues into adulthood.
A relatively harmless variety of snooping is what I shall refer to as reconnaissance. For example, in the small North Idaho community where I bought a retirement home, one day I notice one neighbor sort of circling my property shortly after I have moved in, making loud comments whose significance I don’t catch, except that judging by her tone they could hardly be complimentary. In the same village, another person from the neighborhood comes around pretending to pick up junk on the empty lot just across the street from my house whenever I am in evidence, though actually the whole area is full of scraps that neither he nor anyone else ever bothers to remove.
Intending to buy a new automobile, I was at a car dealership in Coeur d’Alene. I was seated alone at a table. As part of the car-buying ritual, my salesman had just left, ostensibly to ask his boss whether the price could be reduced to match my offer. While I was waiting, other salesmen started to emerge from their lounge, filing by me one by one in short intervals to size me up, I imagine. Noticing that this procession discomfited me, they started to sneer, grimace, etc. By the time my salesman returned I felt thoroughly ill at ease and an object of ridicule. My salesman remained courteous: after all, he was making a handsome profit, while the others apparently viewed themselves as his competitors.
I arrive before a store opens and have to wait in the parking area in front. Soon I notice a stir in a nearby store that is already open. Again, as in the example above, people start to emerge from that store one by one, they pass in front of my car as if they were on an exploratory mission, their faces showing antipathy and suspicion.
Snoopiness in and of itself may even strike you as amusing if it is not done for some ulterior motive. But with these people it very often is. It can just be a first step, sniffing you out to find a point where they can attack you. If they see that they can embarrass you just by staring at you, it is apparently seen by them as already a good opening gambit. From there on they will destroy you gradually, bit by bit, depending on what they can get away with.
In contrast with this atmosphere of covertness and stealth concerning the private sphere in which at least the Western United States stands without parallel as far as my experience goes, in some respects the public, governmental, institutional, and political sectors show praiseworthy, indeed admirable openness. Of course the reality lags far behind the ideals of liberal individualism and leaves a great deal to be desired even in these sectors. For example, politics has been proverbially influenced by back-room deals, government by secret corruption, and institutional integrity by unacknowledged commercial considerations.
Privacy constitutes an interesting aspect of the problem, since in one of its senses it means secrecy. It could be argued that in a perfect society this type of privacy, i. e., keeping secrets, would be unnecessary. The reason why in societies such as they exist today it is morally justifiable to keep secrets is that (1) (a) owing to prejudice, some facts/deeds, though objectively not blamable from a moral point of view, are nevertheless condemned by some persons and (b) crooks can use certain information to defraud people; and that (2) many states do not serve the true interests of their citizens. In an ideal situation people would be free of prejudice and malice and the state would only have the true welfare of each citizen at heart. But those conditions do not obtain even in the best societies today. We need to keep secrets from other individuals just because, for instance, identity thieves can make purchases on our credit card if they learn our card number. And, typically in authoritarian regimes, people need (and fail to get) privacy from the state which aims at controlling them in favor of a privileged clique or false ideology.
Thus secrecy is indeed needed, but this need exists in direct proportion to the shortcomings of each society and state on this planet as well as of the relations between the latter. In the case of the United States, the contention that since around the mid-twentieth century governmental secretiveness and spying had to be stepped up as a countermeasure was not without a certain validity if one considers the methods and designs of both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. But they persisted after the fall of both and have been given an enormous boost by the terrorist threat. These factors have probably contributed to the veritable national compulsion for watching, spying, and wanting to stick one’s nose into everyone else’s business–often with the help of modern technology and using monitoring equipment of all sorts–at the organizational, institutional, and individual levels that currently characterizes the entire United States, all the supposed preoccupation with privacy notwithstanding.
At the upstate New York public school where I taught in the fifties, I was told by several of the students, one of whom was savvy about such equipment, that the public address system, which had a loudspeaker in each classroom, was a two-way one, and the principal could listen in on it. At the time, being a novice to the ways of this country, what with its reputation for openness, I doubted the truth of this assertion. Today I tend to believe it.
In theory at least, teaching evaluations by students have much to recommend them. The students’ names are kept secret, the plausible logic behind this being that they must be protected from retaliation by the instructor. But during my tenure at Washington State University this resulted in the opposite wrong: evaluations often amounted to slander, some students taking advantage of their anonymity. They would even resort to egregious lies. The terms they used were often borrowed from the police blotter, with which they seemed eerily familiar. Their approach attested to an environment where alcoholism, drug addiction, and violence were rampant. The instructors’ competence only marginally had to do with the evaluations. One evidence of this is that teaching assistants were rated consistently higher than profs in the foreign languages department, although most TAs had no better than a rudimentary mastery of the respective language. Comments were directed mainly at the instructors’ personalities. In fact, on the evaluation form the chairman of the English department explicitly asked for a description of the instructor’s “idiosyncrasies.” This is what he was apparently curious about. The teaching evaluations were in effect more like a snooping device for the department head. The ethics of the anonymity of teaching evaluations is in some ways similar to the ethics of printing anonymous letters in a newspaper. It is different from the ethics of the secrecy of theballot, for instance, where you simply indicate your preference for a candidate. Given a student body that is in the majority fair, knowledgeable, and honest, teaching evaluations could represent a positive contribution. Under the current system, the instructor is subject to anonymous slander, and the evaluations lead to a travesty of democracy under the guise of democracy.
To portray the ambiance and idiom of espionage at that institution of higher intrigue, let me cite one of the memos sent out to teaching staff by the French coordinator. It ran something like this. “My spies tell me that in a certain 101 section students are dropping out like flies. Why haven’t I been I told about this by the instructor?” To be sure, class size records were available; he did not need to be told or rely on “spies.” Clearly the point was to insinuate, humiliate, and expose–he could have in any case talked to the “culprit” in private–but apart from that, it flattered him as a member of this civilization that he was relying on a sort of spy network. Subsequently A. S.confidentially let me know that the memo was directed at Mrs. Beamish, a Frenchwoman who was in truth rather unpopular with the students for having the odd notion of wanting to teach them French as it is spoken in France; when he talked to her, on the other hand, he told Mrs. Beamish that the memo was aimed at me.
Another widely practiced variety of sneakiness, actual hiding, is as often as not an act or, more aptly, a demonstration: they want you to see they are hiding from you when in fact they are not hiding at all. Its intent is to show that they consider you a jerk or insinuate that you are dangerous. They are in effect saying, “Look, I have to hide from you.” The same goes for their inability to see or hear you, even though you are well within their range of vision or hearing.
I was visiting a family in a camping ground, and in the evening I walked down to take a look at the nearby lake. At the campsite that lay on my way, a group of people suddenly fell asleep and started to snore loudly as I was approaching. They also magically fell asleep on my way back. On my walks outside the town of Pullman, when I would pass by a group of students having some sort of get-together behind a clump of trees, the music they were playing would stop, and they would fall silent. You felt vaguely that they were doing it to send some sort of message that certainly wasn’t friendly and that perhaps they themselves would not have been able to put into words. It however also had to do with their fundamental approach to life: furtiveness, insinuation, sneaking.
Sales clerks will disappear when I want to ask them a question about some piece of merchandise; they will pretend they can’t hear me, no matter how loudly I repeat my request trying to attract their attention; in fact they will retreat with alacrity to an area where customers are not supposed to enter. Or they will turn their backs to me. If they are working behind a counter, they might just flee when they see me, or bend down, squat down, turn away. If they deign to answer it is apt to be with utter disdain or at least condescension. Another clever trick: in a department store, they wait on you until they see that you have decided on a given item, and at that point vanish because they figure now they’ve got you hooked. If employees are working outside a store before official business hours when I arrive, they are almost certain to disappear when they see I want to ask them what time the store opens.
When I watch, for instance, the local news on TV, I see the buildings and the streets and by outward appearance the people I meet, but the human atmosphere, attitudes, reactions are so different as to make what I see on the screen unrecognizable. Either what is presented as reality is a lie, or I dream when I think I have real-life experiences. After all, this is said to be a democracy, an open society! All I know is that when I accept what I see on the show as reality, I may be glad at the moment that I live among such nice folks, but then when I meet them in the flesh I am in for a shock. The TV news feature can be factually correct about, say, someone being involved in an accident or children learning about citizenship in a classroom, and yet the whole scene is utterly distorted, fudged, and misrepresented.
Different categories of the media might probably be more aptly classed as genres of fiction. But their truly treacherous side is that they are a subtle and misleading blend of fiction and fact. Reality TV of course doesn’t present reality. Documentaries tend to be forgeries.
The most insidious pornography is not of the X-rated, overt type (although overt porn also often engages in double entendre), but the above-board, mainstream show, often even those touted to be exemplarily clean. They are in fact for one thing apt to be crammed with innuendos that are as debasing as vulgarisms while they eschew the use of vulgarisms.
Back in the fifties, when Dad watched the Sixty-Four-Thousand-Dollar Question, he said that as a man of rather wide reading who was informed on a variety of subjects (he had served as editor of a score of encyclopedias in the Old World) he considered it extremely unlikely that, given the vast number of possible questions, the contestants could reply so promptly without being previously told what the right answer was. My brother and I, though relative newcomers to the US, thought we understood this country better than the old man and assured him that no such thing could be done, particularly on a reputable show like that (of course it was a further irony that the star contestant was an academic and the scion of a family counting illustrious scholars among its members)–until the scandal broke and my father was vindicated.
The second shock that opened my eyes to TV’s relationship to reality came when I was among the supposedly participating audience of the TV quiz show Two for the Money. The fiction was that contestants were selected from the studio audience and the quips of host Herb Shriner were off the cuff. First to appear on the stage was a warm-up man who told us that Herb was a nice guy who liked to be applauded and his jokes to be laughed at audibly. But to make sure that we understood what was to be cheered and what was funny, a prompter, standing at the side and, of course, unseen on home screens, directed our spontaneous outbursts. The contestants came on stage promptly; the whole procedure was such that they couldn’t have possibly been chosen from the studio audience. Shriner’s hallmark was the tall stories he told. The home viewer was given to understand that at one particularly unlikely turn in the story the face of someone in the studio audience was showing disbelief, to which Shriner would respond by saying, “Well, it’s possible.” This was a recurring feature on the show. However, being there one realized that actually the host would have been incapable of making out any individual face in the audience, he was just staring at a fixed spot in space; the quip was called for in the script and he delivered it at exactly the required point. The contrived and prearranged character of the whole scene is hard to describe. Yet what struck me as most remarkable was less the show itself than the way the studio audience went along with the fraud.
In that light I reassessed my view of other quiz shows and later doubted the spontaneity of, e. g., the Hollywood Squares.
Our globe is fast becoming one vast marketplace. An altogether new type of visionary is making his/her entry on the scene: the corporate leader and management consultant who preaches that it is the mission of business to usher in an age of universal harmony. The law of supply and demand stands for the moral commandment providing the cornucopia. The case of the Internet serves as a paradigm. It was in large measure conceived by academic research scientists. They were instrumental in enabling private industry to transform research results into a broad infrastructure. One aspect of the trend away from nonprofit resources was that several search engines, originally operated by universities, became commercial ventures. Search engines, as well as portals and browsers, similarly business-owned, are trusted to furnish reliable and objective information. Some of the engines are remarkably even-handed, but generally an erosion is noticeable whereby indexing and prominent ranking favor commercial sites, or at the least sponsored sites are allotted conspicuous places. Conversely, pro bono, independent, and volunteer, exclusively informative sites that once were abundant on the web are harder to find. While numerous worthwhile projects have persisted, some new ones are being introduced, and overall the internet offers an invaluable storehouse of knowledge available for educated and discerning surfers at comparatively moderate cost, the trend is toward commercialization.
Services that should be ideally free, at the disposal of all, now often carry a price tag. Even amateur webmasters have started to bannerize their pages. Some official university websites carry ads. Book reviews, fan clubs, medical advice, maps include plugs for publishers, video sales, drug manufacturers, travel agents… – the list is nearly endless – while genuinely helpful sites tend to get kicked further and further down the search-engine totem pole, if they get displayed at all. There is a type of site on main search engines, typically not even listed as a sponsored link, appearing near the top of the results page in answer to your query, that will turn out to have only the most tenuous and remote connection to your question, using it only as a pretext to try to sell you something. Perhaps some of those websites have to pay the engine a hefty price for their high ranking and ubiquitous presence. Often they are stealthily introduced by spyware and adware.
All the varieties mentioned in the foregoing paragraph, together with the pop-up ads that proliferate like mushrooms, are for the most part clearly distinguishable as advertisements. The truly harmful and insidious ones are camouflaged as unbiased recommendations and advice.
Of late, an entire new dimension has been added to the Internet’s negative aspects by the pollution of email messages. In one way, much like profanity, unsolicited emails reflect a sort of hideous reverse image of above-ground society; they constitute a subterranean swamp that contradicts its acknowledged values.
Just as the self-generated image of Westerners portrays their actions and speech as straight, open, and frank, in reality they are dominated by insinuation perhaps over any other trait to such an extent that if they had to give up the use of innuendo it might rob them of what they live for and cherish doing most. The practice involves both verbal and sign language. It has a vast array of manifestations, and they show unrivaled ingenuity in coming up with ever more brazen and foul suggestions. I can hardly escape being targeted each time I come into contact with people of the area. Trying to give a full account of this type of activity, whether used against me personally or witnessed by me as practiced on others, would therefore be hopeless; I will have to content myself with describing the main types of it only and providing a few representative samples.
You Are a Thief, Burglar, Beggar, or Derelict
I park my car in font of a hardware store next to an old dilapidated truck. Hardly have I got out of my car when the owner of the truck emerges from the store in some haste and, looking at me with a sly smile, demonstratively locks the door of his truck
The roguish, sly smile is by the way a trademark of Far-West persons. They display it habitually to insinuate that you are up to no good, but in reality it indicates the fun they get out of practicing their tricks, of having an opportunity to abuse an unsuspecting victim.
An experience I have had more times than I could possibly remember, let alone relate exhaustively, is that while shopping in a supermarket or department store, I am suspiciously eyed by a clerk. He/she may sneak up behind me and then follow me around from aisle to aisle or even stop right next to me, with the above-described mischievous smile playing on his/her lips or possibly staring at me with a challenging look but saying nothing (thereby eliminating any doubt that he/she might be there to help me). A more advanced variety of this game was played on me when one clerk got hold of another and told her associate (quite loudly, to be sure, since the whole point of the act is that I should hear it) pointing at me, “Watch him!” Once the woman at the checkout counter in fact asked me if I had taken something. And I actually answered her! My instinctive assumption is always that the questions people ask me are in earnest and in good faith, which is a dependable path to disaster in the American West.
Also at the checkout counter, the clerk remarks about me to his coworker significantly, “hard core.” (One of the hard-core poor, I assume.) Yet another wrinkle consists in examining your credit card closely, turning it over, etc. with a suspicious air, hinting that it is likely a fake. Of course it is verified to be OK by the machine, but who cares about such irrelevancies? This show of suspiciously scrutinizing your credit card or other evidence of identity is a very widespread Western pastime.
I am waiting for someone by the gate of an apartment house. A small boy standing some ways off asks his father, pointing at me, “What is he doing?” “Probably looking for something to steal,” Dad replies. Both of them, by the way, speak much more loudly than necessary to hear each other, as this is one of the little acts they apparently are in the habit of playing on strangers, and I am actually the one destined to hear the exchange.
At the Coeur d’Alene swimming pool, an attendant, with a meaningful glance at me, sprays disinfectant into the water in my direction.
Shopping at the Spokane downtown mall, wanting to take a short rest, I sat down on a bench in one of the halls. I may have been seated for five minutes when the owner of the small store opposite called a security guard; they conferred, looking at me, and the guard posted himself opposite me, displaying the smirk that signifies something like “we know what you are all about.” In such acts, the main idea is to let the victim of the farce know that he is considered an intruder/trespasser/thief/
Just why is it that no such incident ever occurred to me in Europe, including the two years while I was in fact a penniless refugee?
I may add that I encounter this type (you are a thief, etc.) of routine less frequently since I have retired, grown older, and have well-worn clothes on. It is presumably no fun to insinuate something that might actually be true. The fun and bite of it is in the feigning.
You Are Dangerous (Violent, a Thug)
As any rational person should realize, the insinuation that someone is dangerous and violent is playing with fire. By hinting that a harmless citizen is violent you are making it easier for those who are in fact violent. Violence is a serious matter, and that such innuendo is routinely indulged in as a cute joke by the people of the Wild West where real acts of violence are far from rare still astounds me even after having witnessed it for many years.
I must have failed to realize a good many times being the intended target of such jokes, but eventually I learned that it was indeed the case. If I am in a store and someone asks the person standing, shall we say, fifteen feet from me, “Are you all right?” the chance that this question is meant to imply that I am posing a threat to that person exists, of all the places in the world I have ever visited, in only one: the Far West of the United States. Over here, on the other hand, various permutations of this game have been played on me quite a number of times, not only in stores but by people passing me on the street, for example.
I am sitting peacefully in my yard enjoying the afternoon sun. A man, walking down the street on which my house is located, is approaching from the right. Before he gets in front of my house, he picks up a stick from the side of the street. When he gets past the house, he throws the stick away. What an ingenious way to suggest that I am a dangerous canine. I must admit that this is a caper I wouldn’t have believed even an Idahoan capable of, but it happened to me with a number of different variations in the small community where I live. It even became kind of a fad, a game they hit on that proved effective in “psyching me out,” I imagine. Walking my trail which I had chosen because practically no one ever takes it, a man of about twenty “accidentally” passes me (of course he knew I was there because I had to park my car at the trailhead) holding a big stick.
They have to watch you. Whatever the real reason, their claim is that they are protecting themselves or, better even, their families. For one thing, this serves as a justification for the gun culture. Although lax gun controls contribute to the vicious circle of escalating violence, there are genuine grounds for concern, since this is indeed a violent civilization. But much of Wild-West vigilantism turns out to be a game parasitically feeding on the–real–problem of violence. The actual motivation in most cases is likely insinuation born out of malice and imputing the evil they feel in themselves by projecting it into others. One thing is sure: they have a veritable mania for watching, and nowhere on earth have I heard such warnings as “watch him,” “watch out,” or “keep an eye on him” nearly as often as in the American West. What it always brings to mind for me is Juvenal’s famous “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
You Are a Child Abuser
Child abuse has been one of the great evils besetting human civilization. In a section above, I briefly outlined its historical background and present status. It exploits the relative weakness and inexperience of children as well as their dependency on adults. In the past, parental and educational authority, sanctioned by custom and embodied in legislation, typically failed to ensure the welfare of minors. Starting with the Renaissance in Europe and later spreading to many other parts of the globe, a gradual improvement has taken place over time in some respects, certain forms of abuse (e. g., child labor, corporal punishment) having been reduced or eliminated. A general tendency for ameliorating the lot of everyone including the underprivileged and providing legal support for all irrespective of social or economic status has benefited the young as well.
Child abuse nevertheless persists throughout the world, including this country. Estimates of incidence vary widely. According to Department of Health and Human Services statistics, the major perpetrators are parents (mothers outnumbering fathers) and relatives. On a wider scale, perpetrators tend to be those children know and trust: family friends and caretakers. Because of their vulnerability, young children–in some respects similarly to the disabled and elderly–can become targets in any public place, and some of the most heinous instances of such crimes are committed by strangers.
The Wild-West penchant for insinuation, furtiveness, and make-believe is a serious obstacle to the fight against child abuse. Some parents, for example, use their children to harass unsuspecting passers-by and bystanders, in the fashion malicious owners train pit bulls to attack people. Thus they exploit something that is a real problem, and by their parasitical activity exacerbate the existing evil (I provide further examples of this in other sections). The parents who engage in this practice, while abusing the targets of their malicious shenanigans, actually abuse their own children as well, in that they teach them to perform an immoral act.
You Are a Rapist, “Queer,” or Preferably Both
To state that, in the Far West and to a somewhat lesser degree all over the United States, as a man you are given the three alternatives of rapist, queer, or child molester to choose from is an exaggeration which is nevertheless not very far from the actual state of affairs.
“All men are pigs” is a proverbial statement in this country. Meanwhile, suggesting that all women are pigs sounds a bit like sacrilege, particularly to the Western American mind. The phrase “all men are pigs” brought up 14,770 websites when I last typed it in on the Google search engine, as compared to 326, or about one forty-fifth of that number, for “all women are pigs.” I did not analyze each entry individually. “Men” of course may be meant in a number of cases to apply to humanity generically. Some in the first category in fact claim that all men are not pigs, it is rather that women are spiritually more evolved, etc. In the second category at least a good number appeared to be by women protesting against dirty stories–invented by men–which imply that all women are pigs just as of course all men actually are. Yet these proportions might perhaps give a rough idea of how the issue is perceived.
Men often seem to feel that in male company they have to prove their virility by boasting that they are womanizers. Vis-à-vis a woman, they may stand condemned no matter what image they try to cultivate; generally they appear to be on the defensive, and one’s impression is that even when their conduct is approved by women the approval remains conditional and may be withdrawn any moment. At any rate, in the relation between the sexes it is the man who has to explain, plead for, and prove himself, woman’s status being much more secure if not unassailable. Between two women one often finds mutual respect as obtains among solidary members of a superior class intent on preserving their privileges (this having been the case in former times with men who would typically concur for instance on the view that women are a fickle and perfidious lot). Or if they feel hostile to one another the more deft and resourceful will get the upper hand, their fight amounting to a fencing match between adversaries with equal status.
I am faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing from the insinuations of Far Westerners staging me as being criminally lustful for the opposite sex. In an advanced English essay writing course I taught, a student made a pointed remark about persons committing crimes of passion. This occurred fairly early in my career at WSU, and it took some reflection on my part to recognize that she had phrased her remark in such fashion as to make it unmistakable that it was targeting me. But by the time when, some ten or fifteen years later, I happened to be standing in my yard in Spirit Lake and suddenly my neighbor flew open her window and, leaning out of it, yelled, brimming over with irrepressible mischievous glee, addressing ostensibly someone inside her home, “Did you hear that the serial sex killer is still on the loose?” I realized not only that I was supposed to be the killer but also that in this environment I didn’t have much of a chance no matter what I did.
In the Western US, particularly in rural areas, a frequent position has been that I could not be trusted to be left alone with a woman. Being seated next to a woman in a car is usually a no-no. If I am alone in an elevator, a single woman often won’t get in, and if I enter an elevator in which a single woman is standing she might get out. All this is of course done with signals by which the lady in question indicates that she has to be protected from a type like me; otherwise the act would be pointless. If I stand in line behind a woman in shorts at the supermarket checkout, a clerk is liable to call her or me away to a different checkout terminal, as her bare legs apparently must be protected from being seen by me. Bare-legged women tend to flee me as a rule, whether inside or at the parking lot of a store, etc. Just how I am posing a threat to them in broad daylight in a place of business might be called a mystery (and I may add that this sort of thing never happened to me anywhere outside the US and in fact the Western US), but then it is of the very essence of an insinuation that it should be vague and interpretable in a number of ways.
To be sure, it compounds the difficulty in deciphering the sign language that, not being a native, I still lack the complete key to the code after all these years. They understand each other from signals and half-words. While I was waiting for my prescription to be filled by the counter of the Fourth Street Coeur d’Alene Safeway pharmacy, a lady in her eighties passed by behind me, stopped, and started to rattle her shopping cart. The pharmacy clerk promptly told me to step back from the counter. By the time I left the store I figured out that the cart-rattling was a signal: she wanted me to clear out, as evidently she could not stand next to me. Regrettably, I failed to grasp the meaning of her act right away, thus robbing her of the full effect of humiliation this was designed to produce on me. It happened coincidentally at another Safeway pharmacy that I was looking for some over-the-counter medication on the aisles. I found the item I needed at a spot that was perhaps five or six feet away from where a woman was standing. Apparently prompted by a signal from her, the clerk who was working behind the pharmacy counter came over to me and asked in a recriminatory tone you would use with someone caught in the act of soliciting sex, “Can I help you?” I am by the way quite confident that the woman in question didn’t think I was trying to importune her; her pretense at it was just a catty prank. And likely the clerk didn’t oblige her because he thought I had any intention of importuning her either.
On another occasion, I was standing near the entry of a gift store at the so-called Silver Lake Mall in Coeur d’Alene with a woman friend of mine for whom I wanted to buy a present. While we were looking at some statuettes at the front of the aisle, a little old lady approached from inside the store escorted by a salesman. When they walked past us and got to the entrance she turned back to the salesman, saying, “thank you” with the effusive gratitude of a young virgin who has been rescued from a ravisher. “You are welcome,” replied the salesman, walking back inside the store. I may add that this was one of those mall stores where the entire front is open; out of a number of aisles leading to the entrance she chose the one where we were standing; and she delivered her “thank-you” act precisely at the point where I was standing, loud enough for me to hear. Last but not least, I was with a woman. But no true-blooded Western lady will be deterred by such inconsistencies when she is out to insinuate something.
Swimming laps at the Post Falls, Idaho pool, the ladies put two ropes next to my lane to separate themselves from me. I “overheard” (of course it was deliberately said loud enough for me to hear) one lady assuring another, “Well, I am here” (meaning: “to protect you from this dangerous/violent guy”).
There has been no dearth in gallant Wild West gentlemen to offer Wild West ladies protection against my unwanted approaches, solicitations, predatory attempts, or what have you, to imperil their chastity. Considering that I have never been guilty of any of these and that in no other part of the world have I ever been accused of them, this gallantry seems remarkable albeit a tiny bit misplaced. All the more so as by and large Western ladies are not shrinking violets. Some are genuinely coy and proper. But many are or can act tough. When they do want you they may follow different strategies, one of which–metaphorically speaking–is to corral you as cowboys do horses. It is far from me to suggest that women in these parts (let alone elsewhere in the world!) are not subject to anything from indecent passes down to atrocious violent assaults including murder by men. The Northwest US is in fact a leading venue for the latter. And all the insidious pretense, make-believe, and innuendo that go on make it harder to find the real culprits.
In 1949 I participated in the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies and found a copy of D. W. Brogan’s “The American Character” in the library. The author, a noted British historian, said that in the United States the relationship between men is rendered uneasy by a constant lurking suspicion of homosexuality.
When I came to the United States I decided to change my first name, László, which is unusual and difficult to spell in English, to its English equivalent and, like many a hapless Hungarian, found “Leslie” in Yolland’s Hungarian-English dictionary, the standard reference work at the time. Leslie, a Celtic residence name, has actually nothing to do etymologically with László, and in all likelihood the basis of its being rendered as Leslie was only the similarity in sound. The English name Leslie used to be an exclusively masculine given name. My guess is that some Americans, misled by the -ie ending, such as found in Marie, Lucie, Sophie, Julie, etc., took it to be a pretty-sounding Frenchy feminine name and started giving it to girls. In any case, by the time I and many other Hungarians came to these shores in the mid-twentieth century, it had become, unbeknownst to us, nearly exclusively a girls’ name. Sooner or later we discovered that we had been trapped. Some bit the bullet and stuck with “Leslie,” others changed it back to László or just opted for some other popular men’s name used in this country.
I stayed with “Leslie” for over two decades, until years after coming to the West. Then, having been already practically torn to shreds mentally by all the different maneuvers I am describing on these pages, a small but not entirely insignificant part of which were innuendos targeting my feminine-sounding first name, I changed the spelling to “Lester,” thinking naively that the -er ending would put an end to at least this source of badgering. How fatally I overestimated the ingenuity of the American, of the Westerner! In their eyes the name change amounted to… a sex change, a subterfuge, an attempt to assume a false identity!? I will not try to enumerate individually all the smirks, meaningful glances, all the contemptuous, testy, insidious articulations of “Lester” it gave occasion to on their part. Let me just relate one characteristic incident.
Following my move to the West, my blood pressure started to climb, and I went to a Spokane heart clinic to seek advice. A couple of years later, this marginal hypertension having increased alarmingly in the meantime, I returned to the same clinic for a checkup. I reported to the receptionist (I had of course made an appointment in advance) and sat down to wait for my turn. She picked up the phone and–perhaps I need not point out, sufficiently loud enough for me to overhear–said (I don’t remember her words verbatim, so I will try to reproduce them as best I can), “There is someone here stating his name as Lester Shepard. A couple of years ago he was here as Leslie Shepard. I want you to look into this.”
I hasten to add that I do not make a practice of making negative comments about persons who change their sexual identity, let alone about homosexuals. This includes even my years at Fordham, where “queers” would often be the butt of tasteless jokes and objects of scorn. In fact, throughout my teaching career I tried to defend them in one way or another, as tactfully as I knew how when it came to students or colleagues and as convincingly as I could when it came to stating my principles. Particularly after witnessing the harassment they had to endure, I developed a certain respect for them. I even earned and I daresay I never betrayed the confidence of several of them. These are among the cases where, in my view, privacy of the type that involves secrecy is called for. As I stated above, in an ideal situation no secrecy of any kind would be necessary. But people have prejudices. I contend that, at least as far as the Pacific Northwest is concerned, the sexual revolution and much-touted change in the public’s perception of “gays” notwithstanding, this is still a very grave problem, and perhaps the only real change has been that people have become even cagier as well as more hypocritical and insidious in facing and treating it.
However, the fact that I consider discrimination against persons with homoerotic tendencies and transsexuals unjust is not equivalent to saying that I have any doubt whatsoever about my “sexual identity,” as the–for the most part idiotically employed–phrase goes. I am undeniably a male, and by spelling my name “Lester” I was making an allowance for those who (erroneously, but conceivably in good faith) believe that Leslie is a feminine name. Yet it was perhaps a concession, and I am not sure whether I did the right thing.
The Great Wild-West Sprint–Flight as Attack and Insinuation
Fight and flight are two basic behavioral responses. In typical Western-US practice, the two frequentely get interchanged. Flight is often a show, nay, a disguised kind of attack, insult, and insinuation. They have to flee you. Their running-away act, which is frequently done with visible rage, is in fact a form of attack, insidiously turning things upside down.
At the time of my first contact with Western-American culture, I was substantially unfamiliar with the rich variety in the technique of fleeing-as-aggression, although sporadically and without all the subtle variations Westerners can put into it I had witnessed comparable behavior patterns elsewhere. The sight of small youngsters speeding away from unknown adults I took to be bona-fide manifestations of genuine fear that could be potentially justified, even though circumstances often did not appear to warrant the precipitate manner of their hurry. But when I saw brawny types taking to their heels in broad daylight at the sight of peaceful passers-by who showed not the remotest intent to threaten them, I began to sense that there was more to this practice than met the eye.
I have seen people on an overpass running headlong from cars that would have had to be equipped with wings to catch them. Drivers on the other hand will accelerate frantically upon spotting a hapless pedestrian on the sidewalk. Not infrequently two pedestrians demonstrate their fright by escaping from each other.
It might be surprising that such false alarms should be so widespread in a society whose crime rate is rather high. Some countries are plagued by prolonged wars; my experience has been that in the American West hostilities start when you step out on the street (in fact often even before that if they can spot you inside your home). You would suppose that oblique or insidious ways of aggression might develop when order is outwardly well preserved and pressures must accordingly find an indirect outlet. Instead, in the American West aggression channeled into physical assault does not diminish this second, veiled form of attack that masquerades as flight. Both types of aggression flourish, one feeding on the other. People can successfully insinuate that they are being menaced because de facto violence is high; and physical violence thrives as law enforcement becomes fragile when the meanings of signs are perverted (when, in other words, truth is impossible to ascertain).
On the Phone
With telephone inquiries it is likely to be the same harrowing story. Answers can be purposely unhelpful and pointedly curt, too soft to be heard by a person of average hearing, snotty, suggesting that you are stupid (“you don’t understand”) or a freak (“you sound different”), mocking (giving back a parodic imitation of your manner of speech). They might burst out laughing at your question in a demonstration of how inept it is even when your question is the most customary and necessary one. Doctor’s offices will routinely ask you to hold even when you are the only one on the line. Calling a larger company or institution, the difference that their self-monitoring can make is dramatic. When you hear the recording, “this call may be monitored,” you will most likely get helpful and courteous answers. Otherwise chances are very considerable that you will be the victim of a cat-and-mouse game, that you will be abused, treated with contempt, cut short, etc.
[On the phone, pretending that the wrong party has been reached.
Giving a false name over the telephone or otherwise.]
They find what they put there in the first place
They stare at your crotch to insinuate that you have an erection. Or for instance that you bend down or squat to conceal it. On the other hand, when they crouch, which they do frequently, it should be understood as… just what, I wonder? I actually don’t know what goes through their minds when they go down on all fours. They are giving an impression of the insect that plays dead as a defense, I guess, and this is part of the insinuation that you are dangerous.
Certain tricks become fashionable; since they are copycats, they tend to adopt a particular one for a while, then gradually get tired of it and invent a new one. This habit of trying out various tricks in succession is in itself an indication (on top of all other evidence) that it’s all playacting. But the absurdity, the sheer incredibility of their pretenses doesn’t seem to bother them. (The emphatic nod that they believe compensates for the fact that something is sham, a lie–I noticed this on the audience when Jack Coe, the Pentecostal faith healer—who died of polio at age 39—performed his miracles.)
Spying, “observing,” turning away, turning their backs, sticking out their rear ends in your direction, raising feet as if to kick you from behind.. They grab the phone when you enter, sometimes pretend to talk into it when there is no one at the other end.]
The Reassuring Nod
At a Coeur d’Alene parking lot, I was backing out my car. A younger man was standing at some distance. As I was slowly pulling back, he gave me an encouraging glance that could only mean, “You are fine, keep on backing.” With this act he was actually distracting my attention from the rearview mirror. Fortunately I shifted my gaze back to the rearview mirror just in the last split second to avoid crashing into a car that, unseen by me, was passing behind. That man clearly saw it, and his glance of reassurance was designed to cause me to get into an accident. When he realized that his trick didn’t work and that what he had been trying to do must have flashed through my mind, he quickly turned around. Thinking of this occurrence makes me shudder to this day. It was something I would be literally unable to do, no matter how I disliked someone; and that person didn’t even know me.
I have come to recognize this reassuring look for example from the surgeon who told me after a hernia operation that the condition would never recur (it did, rather promptly; the operation had been unskilled and perfunctory), or the pharmacist who said that a medication (in fact habituating and highly toxic) was safe.
At a restaurant (for example) someone seated facing you at a nearby table gives you a glance of acceptance/respect/trust/sympathy only to rise and leave precipitately and demonstratively in the next moment. The rationale of this prank is that the prankster wants you to reciprocate with a similar show of sympathy so that in turn he/she may definitively reject you.
A Gentle, Tender Smile
In my experience, in at least nine out of ten cases this type of smile from a Wild-West lady has meant that she was about to practice some particularly vicious trick on me. If it was not preliminary to, so to speak, her sticking a knife in my back, it usually turned out to be a sign that she in fact loathed me. When I see gently smiling, coy former first lady Laura Bush, I am reminded of this. She accidentally killed her high-school sweetheart by plowing into his car at a speed of 55 mph when he had another girl, in effect Laura’s competitor, with him. She was never prosecuted for this; her father was a big wheel in town. And she contributed a moving commemorative piece on him in the high-school yearbook.
Get Out of Here! Well into my tenure as a professor at WSU, walking on campus, I would be told so by Freshmen who were complete newcomers to the place. While I was mowing my lawn in my yard in Spirit Lake, they would yell it out of windows of neighboring homes. One gets the idea that everything belongs to every one of them individually, including literally even the stars. I overheard a neighbor’s five-year-old daughter complain to her father that I was trespassing on her property by walking inside the fence of my yard. This habit of little children to refer to the family’s property as “mine” rather than “ours” is widespread.
“Let’s get out of here,” although ostensibly its converse, has actually a somewhat analogous meaning. [Lying in Wait and Stalking
Ul a vadasz hosszu mela lesben. A type of hunt, killer instinct. E. g., waiting, hiding in a car, inside Post Office, store, etc., until someone shows up, and then blasting out. When you come, I leave. “We made it!” Waiting for someone to look in your direction only to turn your head away violently when your eyes meet.
Pullman policeman who pointed gun at me, saying “Let’s go!” Later I read about a policeman in the Pullman Herald who burglarized stores.]
The part of Washington State where Pullman is located, called the Palouse, consists of low, rolling hills of nearly unvaried size. Formed by wind-blown loess, they remind one of a monotonous succession of sand dunes. No forests remain here. In the spring, the wheat fields turn a bright green, but after the harvest the hillsides take on an aspect of almost lunar barrenness. Mostly at the tops of those diminutive hills or mounds, small patches are left untilled here and there probably because they are too awkward for the plower to handle. With the passage of time, these tiny enclaves have become overgrown with scrub. The stunted trees, shrubbery, and undergrowth hardly represent the original vegetation of the area, yet they seem to offer a nature preserve of sorts and even shelter some wildlife.
One such patch was situated within easy walking distance of my apartment in Pullman. I would stroll there for a breather after giving my classes, enjoying the open air and solitude. I can’t quite say though that no one disturbed me there. Once, on my way back to town, I suddenly noticed at a turn in the trail that a young man, in all likelihood a WSU student, was approaching from the opposite direction. He was carrying a rifle which he promptly proceeded to raise to his eyes, aiming it at me with the apparent intention of shooting me dead point blank right then and there. I continued on my way—it would have been useless to start running in any case, and I was just too baffled to think of what to do—while he kept aiming at me. What actually kind of reassured me was that he nodded as if to say, “You better believe it, I’m not kidding, I am about to shoot you.” When I have seen Americans nod in this manner, they were usually lying, and the nod was meant to make up for the lack of truth. In fact, he didn’t fire, and without looking back I safely got to the trailhead and home.
On another occasion I was seated on a log in a grassy clearing at the edge of the patch in question, relaxing after a hard day, peacefully basking in the gentle late-afternoon sun, when I heard the sound of gunfire. A man came into view at some distance, holding a semi-automatic rifle, discharging volleys that hit the ground in front of me closer and closer, until the bullets, raising puffs of dust, landed only a few feet away. He was grinning widely and seemed to thoroughly enjoy my alarm. Both these valiant types evidently sought out the postage-stamp-sized nature spot to kill whatever wretched creatures still survived there. My status with them was about equivalent to that of the rabbits hiding in the bushes. Open season had not yet entirely been declared on me, but the time was near.
Not far to the east of Pullman, over the Idaho border, evergreen forests spread out as far as the eye can see, and the dreary, uniform ripple of the Palouse mounds gives way to a range of mid-sized mountains. My weekend trips were directed at that area. I discovered the lakes and forests of Northern Idaho. When, years later, I was looking for a vacation and retirement home, I had that region in mind.
Buying a home specifically in Spirit Lake was accidental though. My first trip to the community was a memorable one. A small house happened to be for sale there at a reasonable price. From the main street, which had the aspect of a gold-rush-era movie set in a Western, I drove down to the lake. I decided to ask for directions at the tavern that stood on the lakeshore, called Fireside Inn. The waitress didn’t return my greeting, claimed not to know the people I was looking for, and didn’t answer when I asked whether I could use the phone to call them. I then asked if she would tell me who might be able to give me directions. She pointed to an old woman sitting at the counter on a barstool: “Ask her.” It turned out that her choice fell on this person because she was stone drunk and literally incoherent. I left the premises and wound my way back to town, where I spotted a couple working in their front yard. “Do you know where the [let us say] Smiths live?” I asked the woman. She turned to her husband: “Do we know?” He made no response. She turned back to me and, apparently overcome by an access of benevolence, said, “I guess we do,” proceeding to explain it to me.
Despite that rather inauspicious introduction, I eventually purchased a house there, not the one I was looking for in the above incident, but a new home in a different part of town. Right after I moved in, the locals started their act. Whenever I walked to the post office or just appeared in my yard, doors would slam. A woman of about fifty periodically passed behind my house, making loud, high-pitched, oblique remarks. She lived near by in a tiny house with her husband, her married son, and their children. By some stroke of ill fortune she turned out to be the other subscriber on my party line. At the time there was a power outage, I tried to call the mayor to inquire about when they expected service to be restored. Instead, the lady in question came on the line. We quite politely exchanged a few words about the situation caused by the outage. However, subsequently I received a note from the telephone company that a complaint had been filed against me for making annoying calls. Rather than getting involved in any further squabble by disputing her false claim, I subscribed to an individual line as soon one was available.
On Election Day I went to cast my ballot at the Spirit Lake polling station. As I identified myself, being there for the first time, to the election official, she started screaming at me at the top of her lungs, something to the effect that I was obstructing or interfering with official business. I had no idea what she meant. It turned out that while I was handing her my identification, my left hand was touching the edge of the table behind which she was seated. She was then pointedly polite with the next person, emphasizing that—unlike me—he was an established voter. Her “charge” against me was so palpably absurd as to make it evident that she didn’t even care what she faulted me for: she saw I was diffident, and that had to be taken advantage of. Being exaggeratedly courteous with the next man in line also had its place in the Far-West scheme of things: you more effectively rub it in that way. Some of the rules of the game are: be unfair, discriminate, humiliate, insinuate. That’s what gives savor to life.
Getting repairmen and other help needed around the house proved even more difficult than in Pullman. One factor may have been that this is an area where customers don’t always pay their bills. Repair services located in nearby towns would often fail to return my calls when I left messages on answering machines, would turn me down with excuses that sounded as if they could be pretexts when I reached them, or would not show up even when they made appointments. This didn’t exactly improve my already badly scarred self-confidence. I fretted about the hesitation and anxiety being perceptible on my tone of voice, this in turn contributing to whatever reluctance anyone may have had to come out to this place: the usual vicious circle, in other words.
Spirit Lake turned out to be one of the coldest spots in the area. As well, it had a high annual snowfall. My strength proved unequal to cope with the amount of driveway and roof shoveling needed. A number of local men who advertised in the paper or were recommended for this task were unreliable, and some of them actually did very considerable damage to the roof—as one might perhaps expect from people who do odd jobs—but the conduct of a fellow name of Mike Easly was most distinctively typical of Western ways. Easly came to my house accompanied by his dog and rang the bell, but by the time I opened the door, which took me no more than a minute, he had turned around and was walking away. I called to him a number of times, raising my voice louder and louder, but although he was well within hearing distance he feigned not to hear me. He told his dog to follow him: he was of course concerned lest the animal run back to meet me, as dogs are wont to do. Thus, we had the rather odd state of affairs that he made believe he didn’t hear me while actually demonstrating that he did.
Who could count the ways of their sneaky, insidious, insinuating stunts? I am recounting some elsewhere on these pages…Strangely, slowly backing up their cars or trucks from their driveways when I drive by, getting into their cars and starting the engine while I am walking in front of their homes, following or just driving ahead of me on the road, trailing me, passing in front of my house slowly as if to patrol me. Sneaking after you, literally following you around, even into the public rest room, while making a show of shunning you.
For a while, the neighborhood kids would let out ear-piercing, bloodcurdling shrieks when I stepped out of my house to visit my next-door neighbor. At another period, there would be whistling, and for a couple of weeks or months that seemed to give them a charge. Yet another period, I would hear animalistic, guttural yells and shouts.
Peeking through the cracks in the fence to spy me, then pretending to be surprised and frightened constituted another favored routine. If a child, it would plaintively call for its parent. If an adult, warn the child (always so I can hear it, of course) that I was there. There was absolutely no way out of this; they would have at least one furtive, malicious trick in store for each occasion. I tried putting up a privacy fence, close my blinds and curtains. They always insinuated something, which tended to be in fact usually the very reverse of the real situation. Even when they couldn’t see me at all, they would pass in front of my house and, shouting and screaming loud enough for me to hear, warn each other, “Watch out, he is inside.”
Tricks take an innovative turn from time to time. A new wrinkle tends to be introduced each year. There are subtle variations. If you have an accomplice, you enjoy an advantage over a single person you select as your victim. When the victim approaches within earshot, you can warn your companion, “Watch out!” Of course the alarm must be loud enough for the victim to hear. If your friend is right by your side, and you have to shout your warning because the “assailant” is a hundred feet away, your act is not entirely convincing. This credibility problem however does not seem to worry the Westerner. On countless occasions I have witnessed scenes where the game players actually had to run toward the victim who was proceeding in the opposite direction, to let him know that they were running away from him. Approaching the person from behind, they will wait until, hearing footsteps, he turns his head, then one of them will sound the alarm signal, and they will speed off. Besides “watch out,” “go,” and “run” are favorite choices. Yet chances are this has been played on the victim before, and he will not seem provoked or humiliated. A recent improvement is to actually shout “help!” An ingenious twist I saw was provided by my neighbor’s children. These youngsters hid in their garage, mounted on bicycles. Whenever they heard a car approach, they would storm out of the garage, screaming “no!” They were playing that each driver coming down the street was a child molester whose advances they were spurning. Their “no” had thus the fictive value of protest. Had they been fleeing inside their house rather than out of it, they would have run the risk of the driver noticing them first and turning away before they could say anything. In this social context people are not deterred by the absurdity of their allegations, despite the fact that such antics make it difficult to catch the perpetrators of real crimes.
I was standing by the shore of Lake Pend Oreille once, admiring the view. I suddenly noticed a couple stopped a good hundred yards away, in a sort of silent demonstration that they couldn’t approach as long as I was there. It happened probably during my first summer in the Far West that I drove to a state park. At the public parking lot a man angrily bundled his family into their car, suggestively slamming its doors with a bang. Apparently for these people a state park was not large enough for both of us. As I was coming back from a walk once, filled with a sense of peace that nature usually inspires in me, I heard a series of loud pounding noises. It turned out to be a woman who kept slamming the door of a shed with all the force she could muster to demonstrate her objection to my presence.
Actual Verbal Lies
In the land of my birth, in other European countries where I spent appreciable time, and in the Eastern part of the United States, in my experience habitual liars (persons who make assertions about common, ascertainable facts pertaining to everyday life) were an extant but rare type. A fibber gets found out, and it really just didn’t pay to be one, irrespective of any moral injunctions to tell the truth. Even if it doesn’t seriously damage a person’s overall reputation–telling tall tales, for example, may be looked at indulgently–it turns one into something of a figure of fun. And lying about your obligations, job, circumstances, etc. in a chronic way did destroy your credibility. Persistent liars were identified and eventually whatever they said would be discounted. “X told me that, it’s probably a lie,” a colleague at New Paltz High said referring a person with that kind of reputation.
By contrast, the habitual liar is a frequent Western type. Even the outright mythomaniac is fairly common. In my personal experience, he has been usually not the classic con man who is out to get your money as rather one who will confidentially let you know that he is or was working for some covert government agency, is privy to top-secret information, has been sent on hush-hush assignments abroad, has piloted spy planes… or whatnot. In a number of cases, the stories I have heard were so extravagant as to absolutely defy credibility. I remember meeting a woman who, probably because she had heard somewhere that I had a Ph. D. degree, introduced herself as Dr. Laura So-and-so. The idea that she might be fibbing didn’t cross my mind, and I asked her, as a nearly mechanical follow-up question, where she had taught. She promptly named three or four institutions of higher learning without hesitation, rattling off a list of subjects she had taught, which were however so diverse and numerous that at that point I already concluded she had to be lying. Indeed as she went along it became apparent she couldn’t possibly have earned a college degree, even in this country. And before long she launched on stories of her participation in secret superweapon tests. The other members of the company listened to her manifesting neither amazement nor disbelief.
People of the Far West are among the best liars I have known from the point of view of fluency, self-assurance, and lack of embarrassment. I was brought up with the idea that when one doesn’t tell the truth this somehow runs counter to the natural tendency of a human being and consequently you can tell a liar by an expression on his face, a glint in his eyes, blushing, or some other external sign. Indeed, as a child I had to struggle with a great deal of guilt each time I fibbed as far back as I can remember. But developmental psychologists claim that lying starts at a very early age, and likely the embarrassment and compunction I felt were a result of training rather than some inborn reaction. At any rate, I have learned that some persons are perfectly at ease prevaricating, so that I can discern no physiological clues as to whether they are telling the truth, and seemingly they have no remorse when they aren’t.
I have found that in these parts the credibility accorded to a person has little to do with an objective assessment of the likelihood of the truth or falsehood of his or her statements. One rule seems to be to maintain that your friends tell the truth. Generally, people born outside of the area, particularly outside the States, are not trusted. The criteria for deciding a man’s veracity are similar to those for being right or wrong on a given subject, and neither is necessarily related to fact. My own credibility as well as correctness on issues have been the lowest among Wild Westerners. The reason for this could be that I try to avoid telling lies, am scrupulous about checking any information I transmit and anxious to rectify my mistake when I learn that something I said was false. All this rubs Western people the wrong way. Despairing of my chances of ever being right in the eyes of the people of the Wild West, I once considered changing my name to I. M. Wrong. I think that introducing myself would have made them agree exceptionally with one thing I said.
I was once told by a local attorney that in lawsuits the prosecution customarily makes charges where the limit is the extreme point of what would have been physically possible at all; what actually did happen is not of the slightest interest to them. By contrast, it would appear on the face of it that public figures are held to very strict standards, particularly on statements they make regarding their sex lives. The voters’ imagination is fired by their amorous escapades. Another typical case is the statesman or politician making one ill-considered chance remark or telling a small fib. This may be seized on by a journalist, and the affair is blown out of proportion and may ruin an entire career. The soundness of a man’s policies matters less in comparison with bedroom intimacies or some other trifling peccadillo regarding his personal life.
A trusted recipe is to turn things precisely upside down. This is a very widely observed practice, not only in the courts but in all walks of life.
[Allegations of violence. You hit me (student at Pullman apartment house). He hit me (lady at Post Falls pool). He threw rocks at me. He chased me. They are rogues. They must attach considerable value or discrete pride to being roguish, although typically or at least often they will deny their roguishness and even protest against it, pretending not to understand what you mean (“What?”).
Art of leave-taking, see manuscript, Games, pp. 5-6
Man with lupus who came to visit me with a beer can in hand. Next time, walking in front of his home, which was on my way to town, I noticed that his wife was standing in the door with her arms akimbo, as if I had been the one to initiate this acquaintance. This is the predictable scenario with everything they do–things exactly reversed, and so as to insinuate some iniquity on your part.
WSU Humanities student who admitted to the class in a discussion that, as a result of his studies at this evil place, he had become a nonbeliever.
Game of pretend; of course there are harmless kinds of make-believe, and there is a difference between, on the one hand, simulation/analogy/model in science and make-believe on the other. Fictional make-believe can come near to deception. The Hollywood act permeates and undermines US life. Nothing is for real. Children lie well and often. They grow up in the show biz atmosphere.
An atmosphere that is worse than anything I have ever experienced, including nightmares–the Western horror show.
plea bargaining (Injustice System)
A trick for every occasion. Tricks, games (see manuscript), acts of make-believe. Seeing life itself as primarily a series of tricks aimed not only to mislead but also to humiliate others.
Much is tricksiness and deceit, but not all. Whole areas of life can be exempt from it. This makes the show possible, but also full of pitfalls. Some people are scrupulously honest, e. g., about money, while they are cagey about other things.
Each Western American is a trap.
The readiness to rip into people without hesitation or compunction, to accuse them utterly without foundation of heinous crimes even, although preferably behind their backs or obliquely by insinuation. Mrs. Miller leaning out of her window shouting to friend about some serial killer lurking in Idaho. Student in advanced essay writing course about sex murderers.
Parting shot–reserve insinuation, rejection, slur, insult until you leave. This is pretty much the opposite of how my college classmates behaved: they would try to leave on a high or upbeat note, so to speak, which was their idea of show biz and of being a cool operator.
The mouth of many a WA woman is a weapon of mass destruction. Men come a fairly close second.
Students, nurses asking insinuating personal questions and making such comments. “Are you married?” “Your hair is long.” The latter from a student at a time when long hair predominated on campus. What is virtue when practiced by the American is vice when I do it.
Many, many times it happened to me that people indicated they couldn’t enter a store before I left. This is a sport, with many variations to it. Others have to flee before I enter. The first instance of this: two women leaving a store, one saying to the other, “We’ve made it!” I had some vague feeling that they were referring to me, although I couldn’t quite believe it. Later on, especially in light of successive occurrences of similar incidents, I had to conclude that they did. One gets the idea that eachof them, irrespective of age or sex, pretends to expect and fear sexual advances, violence, and larceny from you, I guess the more peaceable, frail, helpless and harmless you look the more. At least this is how I explain that outside the US, the Western US at that, this has happened to me extremely rarely. This activity is often harmful to their material interests. But in many cases insinuation is literally more important to them than their own material interests; they appear to get more out of it.
WSU student who told me that she has four guns to defend herself from rape. She thought the danger of being raped increased several fold when she visited Europe, particularly Italy, where she was in constant danger. Her father was by the way Italian.
Female cab driver in Pullman. She had another passenger, an Oriental. When she heard that I was coming back from France she told me I could sit next to her, but she said this not with a tone of invitation but of command, and in such a way as to make it clear that this was a favor she didn’t wish to extend to the Oriental. He took this with good grace, and as if it were a matter of course, although it was unfair, discriminatory. But ever since I have blamed myself for being an accessory in this act, and I feel still ashamed whenever I recall it, though I obeyed her only because I sometimes mechanically follow orders having to do with procedure from a person “in charge” as it were.
There is an atmosphere of constant and pervasive suspicion, but at the same time this is a make-believe activity as well.
Have you had yourself tested for AIDS?
While I was teaching at WSU, I needed to get a new car, and on one occasion, after parking my vehicle at the university lot, I walked around to look at cars in order to get an idea of what kind of automobile I might buy. In a few minutes a police patrol pulled up by me. It turned out that a zealous citizen alerted campus police that a “suspicious person was looking at cars” at the parking lot.
Training your children to aggressively abuse unsuspecting passers-by, shoppers in stores, etc. who couldn’t in fact conceivably harm them, by pretending that they have designs on them is, for one thing, a form of child abuse. As well, it undermines the social fabric. It facilitates the practices of the real evildoers. In an atmosphere of obsession and hysteria, where everyone, at least most males, are suspect and even accused of wrongdoing, justice becomes impossible to dispense.
Policeman in Pullman Herald who had been arrested for burglarizing stores.
Much of the vicious clowning, make-believe, tricks, etc. is done to provoke you. After they have engaged in some particularly outrageous, brazen, shameless act, they will in fact accuse you of something, not infrequently of the very thing they had done to you, alerting their friends, neighbors and even the police to be on the lookout, apparently figuring that this will preempt complaints from the injured party. This is a trick I had never seen practiced before coming to the Pacific Northwest–such a stratagem would have never occurred to me as possible. Yet the principle is similar to planting incriminating evidence, which is not an unknown practice.
Superiority of Women
What Jean Shepherd called the “great role reversal.” Females appropriating traditional male roles, spheres of action, privileges. Trousers which had been since the late Middle Ages the distinctive male attire have now been adopted by females. On the other hand, men wearing skirts are called cross dressers, drag queens, transvestites and are widely mocked, ridiculed, and condemned, even though in a nominal way they are tolerated. Drag queens customarily wear grossly applied heavy makeup and have exaggerated effeminate gestures; they are an obscenity, a travesty, a farce, comic relief. Women insist on being granted equality in fields where their abilities are just clearly no equal to men’s, such as sports. For instance, they argue that women’s teams should get equal funding, while with these teams the idea is competition: who can run faster, throw farther, knock out an adversary better. Justice would require that women’s and men’s athletics get equal funding, not that you pretend that the sexes have equal abilities in all fields. Men can’t bear children, but if the same logic were applied they should demand equal maternity leaves.
You are a rapist, pervert, child molester. Males in this culture in fact pretty much have a choice between these alternatives, since being a man in itself means being guilty in the eyes of the women. Men seem to be in a state of permanent apologizing. The typical way of showing a couple for example on a TV commercial is that the wife trains, instructs the husband, shows him how he is supposed to do whatever is at stake properly. The woman’s way is invariably the right one. I literally have to see an instance yet of this being the other way around.
In an argument between husband and wife, the reversed-role ethos requires that the wife be right. The skillful way the car-talk brothers comply with this, for example. “Tell your husband that he is a wacko” is fine, but “tell your wife that she is a wacko” would be anathema. Women complain that they are taken advantage of by car repairmen, for example, who charge them more. But what I see, at least in the West, is that women give orders and are charged the minimum.
When we come to the judicial system, women are not often found to be guilty, particularly when it’s a matter of men against women. The woman who pleaded self-defense and was acquitted after having shot dead his sleeping husband is a classic and instructive case. Since then, I have been personally acquainted with the case of another woman who shot a man in the back in self-defense. Maybe we will see the day when they write into law that women cannot be guilty, it’s constitutionally (both by US and bodily constitution) impossible for them to be.
Rape is extremely high in this country, some twelve times more so than in most other countries. Now, either American men are sexually more violent, or incidence is underreported abroad, or the US rape incidence is overstated.. I believe the last alternative has at least something to do with it, not excluding what might be termed the Potiphar’s wife syndrome.
Women not only wear pants, they wear the pants, i. e., they are in command, in the West especially they are the boss. They tell their husbands what their chores are, whom they can have as friends. Already Tippens cited the joke about the husband saying he makes all the important decisions: should we support the UN and the like, while his wife makes small ones, such as: do we buy a car, a house, etc.
Zoology, natural selection revised and summoned to fit feminine requirements. Alternatively, factually correct information from animal behavior used to hint that human females are morally and physically superior to human males. The male lion–all it can do is roar. Grandmothers are selectively needed because they take care of children, but this argument apparently doesn’t apply to grandfathers. Even the praying mantis’s habit of eating her mate at copulation is now seen somehow in a different light.
Men are good for nothing, except perhaps taking out the garbage–I heard this verbatim from a feminist. The majority of US women actually live by a similar philosophy without formulating it in such drastic terms, which might be counterproductive. They don’t agree with feminists for a number of reasons. They have more to gain in other ways. Some feminists fight for real equality, whereas American women are smart enough to realize that they enjoy a position of superiority as it is. This doesn’t prevent even the mainstream female however from complaining that she is not treated as an equal.
Portraying men in literature and the media in general as opportunistic, weak-willed, vacillating, vain, boastful, lazy, indolent, philandering, fibbing, cowardly, grasping, immoral, always wanting to get away with something, shirking their duties despite being reminded of them by women, etc. When did this start? I can’t recall it even in 19th-century American literature. Surely not in Henry James. But what about Twain–are tricky Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn examples of it? Media examples: Fibber McGee and Molly, The Simpsons, The Honeymooners, most sitcoms I see. And let us keep in mind: we are talking about portraits of the average fellow, not of evildoers.
They had witch hunts in the 17th century. They are seen by some in fact as a masculine countermove against women’s emancipation. Today they have warlock hunts, at any rate. The campaign against sexually abusive priests is not without legitimate foundation, unfortunately. (Real cases of it are particularly disgraceful, given the Catholic Church’s great emphasis on purity, abstinence, the superiority of the celibate life [imitation of Christ, who was unmarried, unless you believe the Mormons]). But it is vastly exaggerated. For those making false accusations, it is among other things a money-making scheme. (Victimization that took place up to 35 years ago is just about impossible to prove anyway, and Americans are proficient fabulators.) Its crucial motivating force is however the US woman’s global, all-encompassing assault on or offensiveagainst men. It is actually fueled by women; the men who subscribe to it are in their majority wimps doing what their wives tell them. Women can’t be priests, the Bible is a sexist document–it really is patriarchal. (When it came to misrepresentations in the Bible, female students would accept all the absurdities without a question, but they would disapprove of the genealogies mentioning only the patrilineal descent. In their book, it should have been done the opposite way. The editor at Monarch Press who corrected my table showing family relationships in War and Peace.) This is their revenge or corrective policy, call it what you will. They have to peek into every men’s room, locker room, etc. suspiciously, and they have a point (which is a whole different issue: to what extent it is objectively wrong and whether the women’s goal of extirpating what they regard as queer–partly because they are patently jealous of it–is accomplishable, or whether it just leads to ever shiftier male schemes, as in fact it may not be extirpable much more than breathing or eating), but at present it is an obsessed Jihad where men have become already intimidated, stealthy, and point fingers at each other as persons in an inferior, subordinate position are wont to. L. on men’s camaraderie. Men have become for all intents and purposes in actuality the servant class. They cower before women like abused dogs. Women treat men like disobedient, lazy, perfidious maidservants who have to be kept in line and reprimanded. Infidelity, flirtatiousness have made a U-turn: now it is the male sex that has a reputation for flightiness and philandering. Note that the word philandering itself etymologically describes a woman loving a man. Evolutionary biology portrays male promiscuity and female monogamousness as selective traits respectively, and this is translated into the popular notion that men are unfaithful as opposed to women. It is not altogether justified to make such sweeping analogies between animal and human conduct. However that may be, it is certainly not warranted to posit that there is one sex, the female one, characterized by probity, while the male sex embody improbity. Nonetheless, not only is this very close to the feminist view but more or less generally shared by feminine opinion.
Particularly in the West, women feel that they represent the moral high ground, they are the legislators and judges, and men are obligated to carry out their orders.
Spirit Lake senior citizens’ cook who had her companion handcuffed by the police. He appeared to be a kind of male sex slave. he was an epileptic who eventually died in a seizure. She was paid on a permanent basis by the government to take care of him. I have no way to judge whether his life could have been saved, by his being transported, for example, to the emergency ward of the nearest hospital, but knowing some of the circumstances it crossed my mind that she had got tired of him.
In Hungarian lit. (A. Kertész) husband slaps dishonest spouse as a mild reproof–you shouldn’t beat a woman, but a slap should teach her–this is the traditional treatment of a moral and social inferior. In US movies, in the 50’s it became a kind of commonplace scene to show a woman slapping a man to teach him morals and manners.
Even small girls in the US West tell their boy siblings and, in a wider context, boys generally what they are supposed to do; they order them about, and are generally obeyed. They are more mature. But their moral values tend to be self-serving. In Pullman the neighborhood children set up a kind of tent in my backyard, probably because it was untended and secluded. Once when I happened to look in that direction, I saw that two older kids of about thirteen, a girl–who generally acted as a leader of the smaller kids–and a boy, were in orderly fashion, one by one, masturbating the smaller boys who lined up in front of them. Whatever one’s take of the ethicality of this activity, it hardly fits into the image of demure girlishness cultivated in American society.
Some US women in fact live up to this picture of moral superiority, but many don’t. They all take advantage of it.
The criticism of Islam has a whole women’s lib dimension. Unquestionably the position of women in Moslem countries leaves much to be desired, to say the least. In contrast, the US in some of its characteristics is a budding feminine tyranny, at any rate a culture of feminine superiority and in a number of aspects, domination.
A veritable campaign to turn men into women, to assign traditionally masculine characteristics to women. Men who don’t conform to the new stereotype are mercilessly persecuted, pilloried. Frank’s students who harassed him and nearly succeeded in having him fired, alleging he acted “patronizing” toward them. My French reading class at NYU practically conspiring against me. Then they gave me a Verlaine volume as a gift, in fact probably an innuendo, though.
Whenever I would pronounce the word “man”–this goes back to the first courses I taught at WSU, French 2 (and Humanities 101, I think, though I cannot specifically recall this)–several in the class would give me a dark, reproachful, suspicious look. “What does ‘neither fish nor fowl’ mean?” In my first WSU Fr. 2 section, insinuating, meaningful grimaces and comments (man’s voice on tape recorder). This treatment proved so effective that I developed an acute anxiety over articulating the word, avoided it, tried to paraphrase, find synonyms…. I would only choose passages to read before the class where it didn’t occur.
I didn’t realize that my personal ordeal connected with the use of he, him, his, man, etc. was, for one thing, but a facet of a widespread feminine campaign that, among other matters, involved language coming under the category of “sexist usage.” I had been, blissfully or regrettably, unaware that a battle was raging that made people to fracture grammar, using singular subjects with plural pronouns. E. g., a person who knows their rights.Avoiding sexism is in fact a laudable effort inasmuch as it strives to eliminate traces of a patriarchal legacy that had secured an unfair advantage for men. It took it for granted and affirmed that only men really matter. Employing man generically to signify all human beings is the same sort of presumptuous (and potentially confusing) usage as saying American for a citizen of the United States–which nevertheless occurs widely with very few people objecting to it, even though it could hurt Hispanic-American and Canadian sensibilities at least as much as sexist usage hurts women. While redressing inequities is fine, women in this country have gone overboard on the other side. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
My Humanities 101 student who told me the she and another girl who was in a different Humanities 101 section agreed that they must have the same instructor when discussing their instructor’s personality (mean by that, from her tone, a queer). I sadly reflected that there appeared to be another unfortunate soul who was silently suffering the same ordeal as I.
Overhearing two women cab drivers. One talks about a man, the other interjects, “Are you kidding?” – meaning that he is not a real man. At the doctor’s office, secretary on the phone, loudly so I can hear it, “He gave his name as Leslie three years ago.” I believe that on one form the nurse left the box for sex blank.
L. told me how she talked to boys who went to school where her husband was on the faculty. On the phone she pretended she thought they were girls. “I know you are a girl,” she would say, despite the protestations of the boy in question. In fact L. teased her husband with being a woman. She kept him under control, jealously trailing him, discouraging all male friendships, particularly with younger men.
US women want to peep into every corner, suspecting that sex is going on between men, considering it their sacred duty to discover it, expose it, and root it out. This literally includes the men’s room. I heard a woman commentator on PBS who related how she liberated the men’s room–women have to spend more time in the rest room, so there is always a line; justice demanded that she go to the men’s room, and bravely she did.
S. talking about several if not most of her male professors insinuated that they were connected by intimate ties. There was this employee of her father with a masculine name whom she suspected of really being a woman. The irony of it is that at one point she became a fanatical feminist and lesbian.
Female student in report on Montaigne saying significantly that M. wasn’t married but had some close friends. Another one angrily charging not only that medieval institution of apprenticeship was actually a sexual arrangement but that I showed an educational movie on it to advocate this.
M. picking up the lore at the embroidery workshop. After listening to the ladies there, she progressively developed a view of her husbans as Lucifer. She accused him (utterly groundlessly) of sexually abusing his children, passing on sexually transmitted disease to her; treated him as totally worthless, repugnant, and superfluous. She blamed him for being oversexed and lecherous, but when he didn’t make love to her she ascribed this to his cheating her with other women. She physically wrestled and punched him. She at the same time wanted to control him, train him, and reject him. She poisoned every minute of his existence and in all likelihood shortened his life considerably.
The responsibility US women bear for bringing up violent boys who become violent men. The soccer mom.
The neighbor woman referred to her baby son as “Lucifer.”
Barabas said that American women are so insufferable that, had he grown up in this country, he surely would have been driven to homosexuality.
US women play at being little girls. Grandmothers will articulate like toddlers. The teenage grandma is a frequent phenomenon–garish and revealing clothes, playful gestures. Almost as embarrassing as drag queens. Of course, the same ones can act like furies, hard-as-rock upholders of moral standards (reminding men of their duties, preferably).
Eric J. Dingwall. The American Woman. New York: Signet, 1958.
Covert but desperate husband-and-wife competition
Obscenity, Vulgarity, Porn, Debasement of Sex
The prevalence of vulgarity and obscenity is not distinctively Western American; it is pervasive in all the USA. I first encountered it at Fordham College as a boarder. For persons who are used to this it may be fine. For me it was, initially, just repugnant, then more and more embarrassing.
To take vulgarity and profanity first: there are almost two sets of vocabulary. One is official or recognized, the other is actually used in daily social intercourse. On the Nixon White House tapes, vulgarities were expunged and the word “expletive” substituted. So-called bipolar or manic depressive disorder is among the labels US psychiatrists have a predilection for assigning to patients. But most persons in the USA are bipolar in their choice of words. Vulgarities debase, but that’s more like the real world to them; the uplifting terms are for Sunday worship.
Obscenity is much worse than mere vulgarity, because of its insidiousness. It is here that their considerable poetic gifts find an outlet. One of my roommates at Fordham College, Dick, told me that he worked summers as a milk delivery runner. The driver of the milk truck systematically padded the bills, using all the extra money earned this way for visits to brothels. But what Dick considered most remarkable about this man was the astounding variety of expressions he used for “masturbate.” Dick quoted a fair number of these, of which I only remember “hug my bug.” Scores of ostensibly innocuous words and phrases have double meanings, often unknown to the foreigner who is acquainted only with the dictionary definition.
It would be wrong to say that everyone used vulgar, bawdy, scatological, obscene language at Fordham, where my introduction to American civilization in the flesh took place. But it was very widespread; in some groups and coteries more pervasive than in others. Many over here regard it as a sign of masculinity, and by and large men are proud of it. Thus, if you eschew it you are a wimp. On the other hand, if you use it, they can fault you for being a boor. You are in fact damned if you do use them and damned if you don’t; those succeed best who perform a nimble dance between the two.
My classmates, particularly the boarders in my suite, regarded learning four-letter words as an essential part of my education, an introduction to American civilization as it were, such as college courses fail to provide. “Leslie asked, ‘Fuck? What is fuck?’” one of the boarders in my suite, Nick, would say, recalling what a greenhorn I used to be. Often their first question about things Hungarian was how to say some vulgarity in Hungarian. “How do you say ‘bullshit’ in Hungarian?” asked another boarder, John, promptly upon being introduced to me. And he actually learned the word.
At the same time of course it was always members of other nations who were dirty, perverts, sex maniacs, etc., with particular emphasis on Frenchmen. One of my classmates thought the phrase “cherchez la femme” meant that you should run after women, as of course those dirty French bastards do. Parisian panhandlers sidle up to Americans to sell them “feelthy pictures.” They were under the impression that European women could be had for a Hershey bar. Never mind that what seemed to be almost permanently on the minds of many of my classmates was sexual intercourse, referred to, for instance, as having “a piece of ass.” For me this was a very impoverished and crude view of what sex is all about. Though sex meant mostly dirt and rottenness to them, they didn’t necessarily identify themselves as dirty or rotten, so when not projected into outsiders such as foreigners or colored people, this was somewhere in a grey area. In fact, women in turn were largely angelic creatures, not so much another sex as rather a different species. All lust and craving resided in us men, women were thought to have no sexual desires. If they did, it meant they were nymphomaniacs, and you had to shun them. This perspective forces a hypocritical, distorted image that women must conform to.
Matrimony was part of a religion course entitled Grace and Sacraments, taught by a Jesuit who resembled Mickey Mouse. One got the idea that matrimony had nothing whatsoever to do with sex. It couldn’t really, except in an abstracted, bleached-out way, since sex was dirty and matrimony was a sacrament.
[Dick L.: if European men are embarrassed to swim naked, it is because they are queer. 99% of New Yorkers are queer (New York is not America).]
Scatological expressions make up a good part of the vulgarity. I believe a tally would have indicated at Fordham, which was after all an institution of higher learning run by pious clerics, that shit was the most frequently used word. It largely substituted for thing, as resorted to by people with a limited vocabulary. But it also added a note of contempt, it meant that the world is basically garbage. Their world was. A culture of consumption that turns everything into garbage overnight as it were. Shit was closely followed by fuck and fucking.
“You are full of shit; he, they are full of it…” so the formula went. The scatology and obscenity eventually came back to haunt me, turned my life into a nightmare, some of it acting with a considerable time lag. With the extremely frequent “you are full of shit” formula, it happened like this. It is after all true that the colon must contain feces. I am literally “full of it,” I just never used to realize it.
The second shock came when I started teaching.
Sexual metaphors abound to a degree unparalleled by any other culture I know.
A five-year-old American child uses language that would make a Paris cab driver blush.
Slurs (this is also connected with obscenity, vulgarity)
“Sucker,” “it sucks,” “you suck.” Concentration on oral sex, certainly not exclusively, as anal eroticism and other nonreproductive sexual practices also seem to have great allure.
“Queer” and “weird” spewed at you as from a volcano, a universal sprinkler system of malice and spite. May be taken largely as a self-introduction, a projection.
Exploiting Self-Consciousness, Embarrassment, Tact; No Shame
Sniffing out your interlocutor’s weak point, Achilles’ heel like a hyena, preferably a bunch of hyenas. Of course these weak points are often created by this civilization in the first place. Shame apparently has a (biologically) selective function; whether group selection exists or not, it can be useful for the group. At any rate, all human beings presumably possess a predisposition for shame that can even become incapacitating. The Wild-West tactic is to gradually break down a person’s resistance by relentless insinuation and then pretend that he/she is embarrassed because he/she is objectively culpable. More on this in Guilt section of Applied Ethics, New Ethic Chapter VII. Instances of this are abundant.
According to Jacques Cousteau a fish that acts strangely is immediately attacked by all other fish in the area.
The captive raccoon who had been driven crazy by the game warden’s children. Monkeys in like manner driven out of their minds by experimenters who give them contradictory stimuli.
Shamelessness is in practice regarded as a virtue. Being unassuming and humble, ironically the virtue that Christ prized most highly (meekness), is in actual fact a fault in the US, where self-esteem and self-respect in practice have come to mean the ability to treat others arrogantly or even contemptuously and to assert oneself aggressively. Extroversion is practically always preferred over introversion, the latter almost implying that one is a sexual invert. Lack of self-confidence, shyness, embarrassment, shame are not merely taken as an indication that you are objectively culpable of something (i e., that you are shy because you have to hide something about you that is morally evil); they are in and of themselves the evil in the eyes of the US person, and the question of being actually culpable is secondary and may be negligible or even irrelevant. The important thing is to seem and act innocent, the image. Professional actors, who are gauged on their ability to appear what they are not, are adulated. Hollywood, show biz run the show, meaning the whole culture.
Putdown artists–this is part of the syndrome that life is a desperate and implacable competition.
It is not surprising that, say, racecar drivers should be in competition with other racecar drivers. But in the US the competitive strife is spread over areas and relationships that are practically exempt from it in other parts of the world. Spouses are quite commonly in competition, and not only in the way that husbands are jealous of their wives’ male acquaintances and wives of their husbands’ female acquaintances, which occurs elsewhere as well, although perhaps not with as high a frequency as over here, but also women being jealous and suspicious of their husbands’ male acquaintances, so that it all becomes a mind-boggling game.
I am great, you are small. Big is good, small is bad. “Your little car.” “This is what a small kitchen looks like.” Truth is proportionate to the amount of rudeness with which you express yourself. I have everything, you have nothing. (Lawyer who literally explained this to me over the phone.) Keep smiling, so I may call you a would-be rapist, lecher, queer, etc.
Girl giving me directions, saying, “You will pass a BIG house”–but when I repeated her directions, I could see on her fact that the house was in fact not big. And as a matter of fact it wasn’t.
If you happen to mention anything about yourself that might belong to what they consider the “big” category, they will take this as a challenge, a personal insult, and typically refuse to believe it, or they will belittle it. “Belittle” was the word used by the Humanities 101 student who had repeatedly insulted me until I finally tried to rebuke him–he promptly went to the department chairman to complain.
All Idahoans are big. Most of them are presidents of one thing or another. Owners of businesses that have no employees routinely refer to themselves as presidents. I used to say in jest that if an organization needs a president, vice president, and a secretary, then in Idaho no less than three organizations can be founded at a time, because no one would be willing to be less than president.
Neither A. nor Ray believed I could read.
Starting with a complaint or blame puts you in an initially good position. “Where is my term paper?” “Why didn’t you come to see me?” Conversely, when asking for a favor you do as if you were granting a favor.
Calling your children–cats or dogs may have to do if you don’t happen to have any (the Whitneys, the people living above me in Pullman).
Strip-tease act of Western person, done with an angelically innocent smile. I once saw a hustler, probably only an occasional one, as many of them seem to be, producing this angelic innocent smile while he was being picked up suggesting that the transaction was an exercise in purity.
What you are saying is odd – what an odd thing to say.
Mrs. S: “See you in the comics.”
You should never leave your home assuming that you can go about your business in peace and tranquility, or that you can expect most people to behave in a straight manner. If you do, they will tear you to pieces and dance on your grave.
Advice I overheard one graduate student at WSU giving to another: try to keep your sanity.
The phrase “psych out” is very indicative of the Western US ethos.
The word straight, literally “not curved,” has two logically distinct metaphorical senses in current usage: (1) sincere, honest and (2) heterosexual. There are plenty of heterosexual crooks, thus it is inadmissible for me to assume that because I am a heterosexual I am honest. That assumption is nevertheless frequently implied by Western Americans, which strikes me as very odd indeed coming from them. I have found that their decisive trait is feigning. By disclaiming it they overmodestly do not take credit for what they are best at.
They will emphatically refuse to admit their weird shenanigans. One tactic: they don’t know what you are talking about. Another: it is proof that you are obsessed. This is of course particularly insidious. Or they will admit it in such a way that it is turned around, given a false meaning; a malicious act will be dismissed as an innocent pastime. KWSU radio saying that foreign students claim WSU students hide. The way they are typically transformed from reality unto the TV screen in, for example, a sitcom, is a travesty – the kernel has been removed or the arrows reversed or the purport emasculated. The message as filtered through the WSU medium was: Americans shy away from foreigners. But what they were actually complaining about was not so much that WSU types didn’t want to befriend them as their creeping, deviousness, underhandedness; the dubious, ambiguous, indefinable nature of their activities. In Twain’s novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn perpetrate mischief after mischief; they are tricksters, yet the narrative is fashioned in such a way that they don’t come through as evil. What might be regarded as histories of two juvenile delinquents become amusing incidents in the lives of two full-blooded, essentially pure-hearted boys. This tendency is even more evident on TV. Take for instance the series Love Boat, which was a very proper and heartwarming, uplifting show. There the “good” characters perpetrated what may be otherwise termed dirty tricks (i. e., pretend to be talking on the telephone to mislead someone; calling someone out of the room on the pretext that he is wanted elsewhere; planting a false explosive device), yet the general drift of the play makes the viewer accept these subterfuges and pranks because they are done for a laudable purpose.
The student (Ginny) who wrote in her term paper how the whole show is about humiliating provides another rare example of “admission.” No matter how they have belittled, dragged you through the mud, insulted and hurt you, they will find a way to twist the knife in your wound by yet another turn. What made her admit this, when otherwise it is nearly always a pretend?
It would seem as though a given society were structurally incapable of admitting certain basic rules of its functioning. Verbalized unwittingly by the naive and the insane or as a protest by the rebellious or by those who simply can’t bear it, they are thought to appear in the media only through error. Yet these seeming errors are probably not due to chance.
Assigning your identity, your age, etc. The Western American may reason as follows. “When I ask a person who he is, what his profession is, why he came to see me, etc., I run the risk that the answer won’t please me, viz. his status might be higher than mine, his age lower.” At any rate, many WA’s prefer to tell you about these things rather than ask, even though they have never met you and know nothing about you. Thus they can fit you into their world as they want to see it, conveniently reducing you to a size with which they can live. For instance, when I would say that I was a professor, they would often take this as a personal insult they should expunge from the record. It is presumably to anticipate such unwanted intrusions of reality into their minds that WA’s will provide your introduction for you gratis and totally independent of fact. Waiting for someone in front of an apartment house once, I overheard a child ask his father about me, “What is he doing here?” “Probably looking for something to steal,” came the reply. Being new to the ways of the WA at the time, I was foolish enough to feel indignant at what may have been a routine answer, even a routine put-on routine between the two.
The P.s pretending that I was their caretaker; it’s not only that apparently this was what they told to the neighborhood behind my back, but Mabel insinuated it in front of me, having invited, without asking me if that was all right with me, her relatives to the house I was renting from her. This is I think an example that they will just try to say whatever they can get away with.
A the Coeur d’Alene hospital I was taken down the service elevator after surgery.
Western Americans are two-faced to a degree I have never encountered in any other group of people, even to a degree I would have never imagined possible for humans to be. It puts one’s sense of reality to the test. I have often wondered how life could be rewarding for persons as worthless as they seem to me. But what if this is precisely what makes them feel proud of themselves? Most of them would not admit their duplicity, but after all this very refusal makes their conduct consistent.The question is just how they settle it with their own conscience.
Linda I., who kept coming to my office for chats as a friend only to complain about me to the dept. head.
The whole L.complex.
R. talking about the Harvey Milk case (actually relating it upside down, saying that a homosexual murdered a member of the California legislature) with an air of personal blame, as if I had something to do with it (!) only to suggest that we should have sex. But while talking about Milk he insinuated that my ways were perverted and evil like his (Milk’s that is), and homosexuality and murder were congenitally related, now that he tried to persuade me into a homosexual act this became one dictated by friendliness, one that I should have consented to as a gesture of good-neighborliness, so to speak, and turning him down was unsociable and churlish. “You and I.” Describing how bad his marital relations were going, how he and his wife slept in separate beds. But when I made a casual remark to Mabel about R. complaining about his marriage, she seemed genuinely surprised–he probably invented most of it in an effort to gain me as a confidant/partner. R’s “secretary” he wanted me to befriend; it later emerged that this coincided with the first stages of a pregnancy apparently caused by him and that he would have liked me to be responsible for.
The innocent, childlike, dewy-eyed high-pitched, cascading, charming peal of laughter, which is actually malicious glee, gloating, schadenfreude. Young woman who vacuumed water out of my carpet after my house was inundated by the builder who was testing the pressure in the adjoining building. Laughter I heard out of a window when going back to language building at WSU campus–whoever it was saw that I was filled with anxiety. Student in first row laughing out loud after class was over. They will produce it also when in fact they have done damage to your property. Young woman who broke vent while removing snow from my roof with husband. Afterwards I figured that she broke out in this innocent laughter just when she smashed the vent, which caused a great deal of damage. When the job was done, I apprehensively asked the man if I was going to have any trouble. “Not until the weather gets warmer,” he answered with an accuracy surprising from his type of person. I was terrified, but dared not ask the meaning of his sentence, surmising the truth. When it started to melt water dripped from the ceiling. They had actually managed to wreck the roof that day, not only breaking the vent but tearing and grating the shingles.
[[ WHAT CHARACTER? ]]
While much of this work deals with Western American character traits, in the present section I will focus on character in its specifically Aristotelean sense as the core of virtues that makes a person act in a consistent, dependable manner. I will also make some related comments on the contemporary revival of character education in this country.
Right after coming to the US I was struck by the ease with which Americans can adjust the terms of their relations with you depending on the company they happen to be in. While they may accept you as an equal on a one-to-one basis, they can drop you–typically even make fun of you –without the slightest hesitation and instantly, should someone turn up whom they rank a peg higher in importance. I saw this, not so much as two-facedness as rather a lack of solidarity, loyalty–in my book, once I accepted someone I felt I was obligated to keep him at the same level in our relationship, as it were, in any combination of people. This was my ethical credo, which I had initially picked up probably from my parents and by then consciously held.
Connected with this relativistic, variable, “functional,” or “pragmatic” approach to relating to people was that they were also fairly ready to modify their views depending on whom they were talking to. The reason for this, too, seemed not primarily that they were deceitful but that they had no real convictions–and no deep, abiding interests, for that matter. This fitted into the picture of the superficial and immature American as generally envisaged by European intellectuals. I recall the remark a friend of ours, the novelist Sandor Marai made to the effect that Americans had by now reached the mental age of eight.
Here I was, a denizen of the Old World, burdened with the recent memory of the war, full of worries and apprehensions, and beyond that shouldering the ponderous heritage of European history, of allegiance to my particular culture, family, and moral commitments. Americans appeared somehow weightless. This had its obvious good side in that they tended to be optimistic and free of cares and inhibitions. My own stilted, grotesque formality and stiffness had something to do with being an EastEuropean, but had their roots also in shyness and self-consciousness that were even then distinct aspects of my personality. On the other hand, the lightness I perceived in them meant also that one could not take them quite seriously. They lacked substance, they lacked character, I thought. “Educated” or “cultivated” Europeans (I am using apostrophes deliberately to indicate that these adjectives don’t stand for unchallengeably superior attributes) have long prided themselves on asserting that Americans have a mass culture, that they are all formed on a common mold, lack originality and individuality, and think in stereotypes. Coming from an intellectual and academic background, I was acquainted with these views, and I may add that I used them as a sort of shield to defend myself against the overwhelming onslaught of the new environment as well as a compensation for being a penniless refugee from a country, Hungary, that didn’t enjoy a high status.
Thus I arrived with a set of prejudices, if you wish, or at any rate expectations. As anyone who has ever contemplated the dilemmas posed by epistemology recognizes, it is never easy to establish the objective validity of impressions; to mention just one problem, you see reality in a certain matrix. Yet the criticism that Americans were liable to let you down whenever it suited them was based on my observations–painful experiences–not on previous information of any kind. And it had something to do with the superficial character of their friendships as I witnessed this, also irrespective of any preformed judgment. Let me give just one example. Nat and John were almost inseparable buddies in the dorm where I spent the first semester of Freshman year. Some time later Nat came around to see me, and I asked him how John was doing. “I don’t know,” he replied, “now that he is staying in a different dorm I rarely see him.” They were now living at a couple of hundred feet’s distance from each other. It was apparently more convenient for Nat to hang around with other guys. What a strange way to look at friendship. The reason had to be that people are basically interchangeable, one person will do as well as another. The unkind way to state this is that Americans are mass men.
Among the good traits of my classmates was that they were much less likely than Europeans to hold lasting grudges, did not submit themselves to the authority of the institution unquestioningly, and were not nearly as jealously attached to personal property as the average European. There were other qualities to recommend them as well. In Hungary I had attended a Catholic school run by a religious order that put much emphasis on honesty, yet paradoxically cheating on tests was more common there than in my new surroundings. And I found that my classmates at Fordham were not generally fibbers or braggarts either. So, putting the pros and cons on balance, I would reflect that the scales might on the whole tip in their favor, particularly because their lack of convictions and shallowness were compensated for by being free of the ballast of ethnic, class, and family prejudices and hatreds that bedevil European society.
But when I moved to the West, I found a very different climate. Certainly Westerners seemed to exhibit the lightness I noticed in the first Americans I met on the East Coast; they were yet more informal and easygoing. In contrast to the average New Yorker, let alone Hungarian, they knew how to keep their cool to a degree that hasn’t ceased to impress me ever since. When I was teaching in New York State, my colleagues and the principal would tell me that I was too placid and even-tempered. They urged me to “get mad at them” (the students)–incredible as this sounds to me from a Western point of view, even at this writing. I learned that Westerners seldom show their anger, which for them would be an admission of weakness, of defeat; instead of being a display of strength, proof that you cannot cope with the situation,. And they rarely threaten you; almost never if they plan to harm you. In fact that’s one occasion when they are most likely to smile. They make much of their lighthearted and open ways; alas, these are a disguise, and unless you realize this you will pay dearly for it. Unlike Eastern Americans, who are inclined to forget their gripes against you, Westerners keep silent and wait patiently for an opportunity. They strike back when you expect it least; they have in fact long memories, and they are vindictive. Worst of all, what they accuse you of may well be something they made up in the first place, with no basis in truth. In this sense, they indeed have character, a malicious one. Being dissembling, tricky, and sneaky shows consistence of a sort, but in a rather paradoxical sense. If your definition of character includes correspondence between words and actions, between outward appearance and inner reality, then they lack it. And Eastern and Western Americans are similar in what I referred to above as a relativistic, variable, pragmatic, or functional approach to people, in their uncanny ability to drop and turn on you without a moment’s notice. In fact, Westerners have perfected this ability to a high art; calling it relativism in their case is a bit euphemistic. It is more precise to say that they are two-faced. And, to an even grater extent than Americans in the East, they also lack character in the sense of individuality, deep interests, and consistently held convictions.
Ever since early childhood I had been keenly conscious of my faults. Mother’s devout religious orientation contributed to my penchant for questioning the true motivations of my actions. Father in turn instilled in me particularly the importance of being fair and equitable. I early developed a habit of probing my deeds sub specie aeternitatis, as if I had to account for them before a tribunal composed of all humankind or as if they were to be judged by history. This may indicate overweening self-importance, but I believe it has acted as a moral reminder and restraint.
Aside from my college ethics courses, which I thought hopelessly antiquated because founded on Thomism and adhering to the partisan, sectarian, narrow-minded version of Catholicism current in the United States, I did not formally study ethics in those days, although I read many works in the fields of philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, and fiction where ethical concerns were paramount, and I continued to feel that I had something important to say on the matter. In my graduate studies at NYU a professor of a teaching methods course, Anna Balakian, said that trying to lecture to teenagers about morals was a useless exercise, they won’t respond positively to it, yet I often reflected that there should be some course in the secondary school curriculum devoted to morality.
Many years later, after my Ph. D. studies and a teaching career comprising educational levels from middle and high school through college to graduate school, I fulfilled a long contemplated aspiration when I returned to and began to concentrate on problems of moral philosophy and applied ethics. I discovered that the issue of character–which, as I indicated above, played a crucial role among my first impressions about the people of this country–particularly character education had been the object of a great deal of attention by American scholarship at a time prior to my stay in the US, and that the Hartshorne and May Character Education Inquiry of 1928-30 constituted an important chapter in the annals of developmental psychology. Moreover, I learned that, after years of comparative neglect, the subject was enjoying a renaissance.
I have stated my position on (especially the right-wing branch of) the comparatively recent or second-wave character education movement in a study entitled The Character Education Dilemma, which is available on the net. Placing it in autobiographical context here, I deem it important to repeat, at the risk of sounding pontifical, that the absence of character was one of my first impressions concerning the people of this country. I also wish to reiterate that this personal opinion accords with the judgment of many thoughtful observers of the American scene.
The contemporary revival of the character education movement is a child of the new conservatism starting with the Reagan years. Proximately it was in part a reaction to the excesses of the student revolts and civil unrest of the late sixties and seventies, but in a wider context such symptoms as rising crime rates, the decline of the family, drug addiction, the lowering of academic standards, and laxity of school discipline are cited by its advocates to explain its rationale. One of its founders, Thomas Lickona, lays the blame for this slackening of moral fiber in the United States at the doorstep of Darwinism, personalism, and logical positivism, these trends having influenced education in an adverse manner. He says that positivism, which (like all bad things, one gathers) came from abroad, relativized morality. I personally do not find Lickona’s philosophical detective work convincing. The impact of logical positivism on American society hardly compares with Dewey’s instrumentalist pragmatism, particularly in light of the fact that progressive education is indissolubly linked with Dewey’s name. It is in fact progressive education that is the real culprit in the eyes of the conservative character education movement. And pragmatism and instrumentalism, instead of being imports, are about the most distinctively American philosophical trends. Both are relativistic.
What William James and Dewey say has its recognizable roots in American culture, and perhaps its offshoots were not just coincidentally farcical in the case of James and a failure in the case of Dewey. Yet James’s relativism had many built-in restrictions, and his stance is understandable in the context of what it opposed: dogmatism and rationalism divorced from experiential evidence. Dewey’s progressive education incorporates some of what has been identified as American in the best sense of the word: freedom, democracy, and equality. The scholarly contributions of James and Dewey were at a level not accessible to the general public of the time. Dewey’s theory anticipated a society that would have come into existence had developments continued in a progressive direction. Under the circumstances, it may have just been a noble failure. And contemporary American culture presents a parody of James’s pragmatism, where “truth is what works best” has come to mean “truth is what sells.”
Character educators like Lickona, Walberg, Kilpatrick, Ryan, and Wynne would like to go back to the halcyon days of the McGuffey Readers. They were based on the Bible which, as everyone knows, “was writ in English” and thereby is not attributable to alien influences. Those foreign Redskin Indians should go back to India.
In their influential handbook, “Our Schools,” Wynne and Ryan advise educators to rely on uniforms, posters, rituals, pledges, ribbons, banners, trophies, pins, pep rallies, and cheerleaders to further the cause of morality. Externals to hide the void behind. Let the show go on. Let’s make a racket, because one quietly spoken true word might cause the stage of make-believe to come crashing down. These academics a la mode who, from their bases at various schools of education, invoke the so-called Great Tradition, appear to have a very superficial knowledge of the educational philosophy of the past. Yet they are outdone by the strictly (although unadmittedly) commercialized wing of the character education business. Organizations that are usuallynonprofit, you understand, will sell you all the hats, ties, pins, posters, and patches, including toolkits and special value kits at bargain prices, that the scholarly types ever dreamt of. And what about the seminars and lectures (some available at attractive discounts), the ethical fitness (a registered trademark, this) seminars, the keynote speakers whose inspiring and stimulating presence is offered by their bureau with discretely marked tags, such as “15.5k to 20.0k”?
Actually, in our day of unabashed entrepreneurship and corporate as well as media dominance, a partnership is being struck between academia, show business, and commerce. Ethics associations with seats at institutions of higher learning have corporate executives, financiers, even entertainers on their advisory boards, while academically unaffiliated ethics organizations, along with CEOs, athletes, and celebrities, feature a sprinkling of college professors on their advisory councils.
As far as I can see, the entire character education movement is more about fiction than fact. This goes even for its liberal branch, which continues in the footsteps of Simon’s values clarification and Kohlberg’s moral dilemma approaches. It is not without foundation that the left-wing or liberal faction is accused of being unrealistic. The mainstream, conservative movement, with its pins, posters, pep rallies, and seminars, can hardly be expected to appeal to thoughtful and sincere persons. Their purported core values would be for the most part laudable, but they remain empty slogans, whether we are talking about school or office culture.
Offices tend to have a cutthroat ambiance. Schools in this country are pressure cookers that occasionally explode. Students are under stress, ultimately because of the reckless, nihilistic, and inherently conflicted, contradictory nature of the society. The authors of “Our Schools,”mentioned above, advocate “conspicuous public.” Although their promotion tends to be an exercise in make-believe, the core values in question are per se by and large unobjectionable. Humiliation is, on the contrary, an evil practice: potentially an effective measure, it will however further increase the hatred and frustration brewing in the schools.
It is revealing that when they are dealing in realities the champions of the conservative branch turn to an instrument such as humiliation. The pin-and-badge circus doesn’t deal with realities and is highly unlikely to develop human beings who have character.
The philosophical corroboration for US social practice by which it is what we agree on that counts irrespective of fact is: “reality is perception” –you can find plenty of this and similar phrases in the media and even colloquial speech from people who know nothing about epistemology, because it is tailor-made for the US character or lack of it. “Reality is perception” does not lead them to solipsism but rather to a kind of collective subjective relativism where the truth is equated with what the majority accepts as such. I noticed it early in my experience of US civilization, and I formulated it as the misinterpretation of the meaning of democracy in a country where the word democracy has great appeal. Democracy doesn’t, at least it shouldn’t, mean that the validity of the theory of thermodynamics, evolution, or gravitation can be established by taking a vote on it. But somehow many Americans have come to believe that it does. According to this practice, if three persons tell the same lie against one who tells the truth, their lie ought to be accepted as the truth.
The postmodern props this up.
Psychiatrists tend to a de facto acceptance of this as a premise. In the name of scientific objectivity they refrain from making value judgments on human behavior, dealing with ethics from a purely descriptive standpoint. Thus they will characterize certain behavioral patterns as unacceptable by society, by social norm, as if they were neutral in their approach. But they in practice identify with those norms, while if it is true that their discipline assures them a privileged position, an understanding of the human psyche superior to the rest of mankind, they should instead exercise a corrective and critical role. In this country, they on the whole serve the system and help maintain injustice and prejudice. In the erstwhile Soviet Union psychiatrists would rule that persons dissenting from official government views were mentally ill. US psychiatrists on their part legitimize the prevailing social order as sacrosanct.
Other people’s property is garbage. Ray pretending that my screwdriver didn’t work. But when they misappropriate something, the article in question suddenly becomes good and valuable by some miraculous transformation. Ray going through a little pretense game in front of my eyes, looking at something that actually belonged to me. He took it in his hand and examined it as if to say, is this a useless bit of trash, or is it mine? He then pretended it was his, in other words, a dependable tool that will work OK. For a second a show of trusting flashed across his face. It was all make-believe.
Intolerance, Unfairness, Partiality, Bias, Xenophobia
Easily the most intolerant people I’ve ever dealt with. Where is the supposed democracy? Where is the equality? In the laws, often, at least to some extent, but not in human relationships, not in the society at large. And of course often the laws themselves are not applied equitably.
In northern Vermont, near Lunenburg, locals said they didn’t know where the Catholic church was when my parents wanted to attend Sunday mass. It then turned out that the spot where I asked was within a block or two of the church.
Senior citizen special at fast-food restaurant (Skipper’s): “Are you a citizen?” the waitress asked slyly. Of course no one ever asked me to prove that I was a senior, because being one puts you into a lower category. Often their rejection is instant and spontaneous, yet leaves me at a loss as to what it is they object to in me: do they consider me suspicious, different, foreign, weird? For, though far from being the only target, I am an unusually frequent one.
In stores and at restaurants the salespersons and waiters indicate by their posture and facial expression that the specials which are good buys and meal items in demand are actually not meant for me. Once I was looking for some obviously loss-leader type produce at a grocery and couldn’t find it. I eventually noticed that a salesman was deliberately blocking it from my view as if to shield it by standing in front of it. To reach the item I had to ask him to move away. When I was in the habit of periodically going to restaurants with an American, I got used to being consistently served considerably smaller portions than my companion. When I spoke, however commonplace the subject, people at the neighboring tables would listen with silent disapproval, passive repugnance, a kind of “let him talk, we will keep mum” attitude. Clearly, I was an enemy in their midst, although for what reason I had to guess. Accent? Appearance? Manners? Just what? This would often characterize students in my classes; I remember one occasion when a student said loud enough for the whole class to hear something like “don’t contradict him” or “let him say it”, with an intonation that suggested, “we know better anyway.”
CdA cafeteria-type restaurant where waitress came around literally every five minutes to offer service to the couple at the next table, such as pouring water into their glasses, asking if they desired anything else, etc., without offering me service even once. The purpose being clearly to rub it in. Was in fact take visible pride in being unfair, it is a guiding principle in their lives. With all the talk about equity.
Indiscretion, secretiveness, concealment, spying, hush-hush activities, wanting to stick their noses into everything, creeping, phone tapping, bugging… Privacy is such a big issue because this is a society where office superiors, colleagues, manufacturers, media people, advertisers, spouses, neighbors, etc., nearly everyone is avid for rumor, indiscrete intimate details. Under regimes where the state controls the media and the secret police is powerful, more activities are officially banned, but the social pressure, inquisitiveness, prying, snooping in the US, particularly in the West, is unequaled in my experience. It would have to be a police state like North Korea that might at the bottom line equal the intrusion into privacy practiced in the US. I lived under undemocratic regimes that nevertheless didn’t approach it and have never experienced anything like it anywhere else.
The tendency to smear without foundation, knowing nothing about the objective merits of a case, without trying to find out about it, in a wild and unrestrained manner.
Advice on Rules of Proper Social Conduct (The American Way)
There are certain types of advice on rules of proper social conduct as usually, almost proverbially, given by Americans, typically to foreigners, that must be ignored in order to avoid very costly mistakes:
“Smile, keep smiling.” In the American East, people don’t smile much, period. Nevertheless, both in the Eastern and Western parts of the US, they may tell you to smile. This is in fact to sort of unarm you. If you obey, this will deprive you of one option, feeble as it is, of putting up a defense against them. By smiling you expose yourself to the charge of making illicit advances to them. If you are a man and you smile at someone of the opposite sex, it means you are a rapist; at another man, and you are a queer; at a child, a pedophile. Expressions of icy coldness, of contempt, rejection, condescension, belittling, and mockery from them have been incomparably more frequent in my experience. Yet the belief that they smile is an article of faith among them. For example, I heard an American lady mention as a curious (and un-American) sight that the members of some visiting foreign dance company kept a serious fact.
I may have a solution to this paradox. In the States you smile when you don’t feel like it and in fact don’t mean it. There is, for instance, the martyrized smile of the American woman putting up with her family: “I am doing this gritting my teeth, I am a sacrificial lamb.” Or: “Grin and bear it.” Then you have the gentle, even tender smile of the distinguished-looking Western lady ( beware of it: she probably loathes you and wants to kill you). There is, or at least used to be, another safe smile, chiefly Western American: idealistic, clean, forward-looking. One can see it on early photographs of Richard Nixon. (I think it’s out of fashion, however.)
The above is not a hard-and-fast rule; nothing regarding human conduct ever is, but a rough distinction between the European smile, generally one of sympathy, and the American one, in which sympathy is merely an occasional motive.
Establish eye contact. Much of what I said about smiling applies here too.
[[APPENDIX: THE HEALTHCARE RACKET]]
The AMA is a pressure group out to push for the interest and privileges of the profession without regard for the welfare of the patients. The media present an image of the profession that is ludicrously eulogistic. This is a turnaround of the oft-encountered traditional picture of the quack doctor in literature (e. g., Rabelais, Molière, G. B. Shaw). There seem to be no suchin the media image in the US. Example: plastic surgery, the way I was drawn to it on the basis of TV presentation. I have yet to see a lax, irresponsible doctor in a TV series. Physicians back each other up in the most unrealistically dishonest and irresponsible fashion. E. g., dental assistant about damage caused by dentist who cleaned my teeth; dermatologist telling me that Guth who removed mole couldn’t have caused hernia because such moles are superficial just after I explained to him that he went in deep. Nurses, laboratory assistants, technicians back up doctors and distort test results to please them. Blood pressure readings have been fancifully incorrect. Some do not do these, but they are definitely in the minority in my experience.
Dentist who wanted to pull my wisdom teeth because they can cause lockjaw. When I declined he told me about all those people he sees in the hospital who can’t open their mouth because their third molars were not extracted. He apparently didn’t know that there is such a thing as a tetanus shot (should this extremely remote risk be considered).
US doctors overprescribe drugs, perform unnecessary operations. According to former Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Herb Denenberg, who teaches at the Wharton School (U. Of Penn.), two million unnecessary surgeries are performed each year in this country. That equals to nearly 20 %. A congressional investigating committee came up with the same estimate. 90 % of hysterectomies. Prostate removal, one-third of heart bypass surgeries, tonsillectomies, cataract removal surgeries are some others. 50 % of antibiotic prescriptions are for conditions antibiotics cannot help. Denenberg says: the doctor is also a businessman. Many operations are “remunerectomies.” Doctors have lucrative networks of referrals. Money is the driving force. Surgery is where the big bucks are. The medical profession meanwhile is in denial. All the above are Denenberg’s views and figures. But there are not more than a handful of doctors and experts who share them, and they receive a great deal of criticism.
Psychiatry would deserve a much lengthier discussion, but its abuses (even though not sufficiently recognized by the state or realized by the public) are relatively well documented; I will therefore limit myself to stating a few essential points.
On several aspects of mental disease my views roughly concur with those expressed by Thomas S. Szasz, who says among other things that brain disease can be diagnosed and treated, but mental disease is a metaphor.
Psychiatric drugs may be succinctly described as a highly dangerous and toxic fraud beyond simply blunting the minds of those who take them. The best presentation of the topic of psychopharmacology I am familiar with is by Peter R. Breggin.
Electroconvulsive “therapy” is one of the most scandalous practices engaged in presently. Electric shock used as a treatment on humans is associated with the name of an Italian doctor, Ugo Cerletti, who was inspired by noticing the calming effect of it on bewildered pigs that were being butchered. Electroshock treatment was discredited for a while, as indeed the idea that it could cure mental problems is counterintuitive and irrational. It has been documented to cause brain damage in the form of memory loss and diminished intellectual ability. Yet today it is again recognized as a legitimate procedure. Although the mechanism by which it is supposed to act is admittedly “unknown”to science, the National Institutes of Health endorse it, and anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000 patients are subjected to it annually. There is a very useful website on ECT by Lawrence Stevens.
Psychiatric brain surgery is an outrage surpassing even electroshock if possible. By far the largest number of lobotomies (over 40,000) were performed in the US; in Europe moral reservations were expressed from the start, and the practice remained limited. The great pioneer and advocate of the technique was Walter Freeman. He perfected the “ice-pick method” of lobotomy. He was never prosecuted for the butchery he perpetrated. On the contrary, honors were lavished on him for a while. In 1948 he was elected president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and he became a celebrity, traveling around the country promoting his specialty as a means of controlling society’s misfits, such as schizophrenics, homosexuals, and communists. However, criticism gradually mounted, and in 1956 his surgical privileges were removed after he lost a patient he had operated on. (See Robert Youngson and Ian Schott, Medical Blunders, NYU Press, 1996.) He had, by the way, no qualifications as a surgeon to begin with. Freeman coined the term lobotomy. The practice eventually became infamous. One of the objections against brain surgery was that the invention of new drugs made it obsolete. This argument presumably did not displease the drug industry. Yet before long interest in psychiatric brain surgery was rekindled. Euphemistically rebaptizedpsychosurgery (cingulotomy, capsulotomy, leukotomy, hemispherectomy, and corpus callosotomy according to the particular procedure utilized), it is, at the time of this writing, fairly extensively performed, e. g., at Massachusetts General Hospital and Johns Hopkins Hospital, and is advocated not only for epileptics but also obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and bipolar disorder. Like electroshock, it is performed on patients in the absence of neuropathology, that is, when no demonstrable brain abnormality is present.
It is worth noting that two Nobel recipients owed their laurels to patients who had been irreparably crippled by lobotomies or callosotomies. The Portuguese Egas Moniz (Freeman’s inspiration who was nevertheless not quite as unscrupulous and homicidal as Freeman in wielding his instruments) was awarded the medal in 1949 for psychosurgery and Roger W. Sperry in 1981 for discoveries concerning the functional specialization of the cerebral hemispheres. I believe that Sperry performed surgeries only on animals: human subjects were supplied to him by colleagues. What strikes me above all in Sperry’s case studies is the tone of with which he described the befuddlement of the disoriented, cerebrally vandalized patients. They appear to have afforded him considerable fun and amusement (in excess of recognition, fame, and profit).. All in all, the annals of psychosurgery may serve as a remarkable example of the abuse, victimization, and mutilation of humans practiced as medicine.
Plastic surgery Samuel Scher turns out to have been a race-car aficionado who bought expensive vintage cars (e. g., a Bugatti). The secretary showed me a photo gallery of his former patients, among them Jan Murray, a 50’s game show host.
Hospital charges are wildly excessive, exorbitant.
At CDA hospital it appeared to be routine for the nurse to ask patients which side they had the hernia on, probably because performing surgery on the wrong side wasn’t an unprecedented occurrence.
First hernia surgery. While lying in my hospital room, I heard my nurse say in the door to someone standing in the hall, “I hate him.” Discharged from the hospital, I was wheeled into the service elevator. A woman drove me to Twin Lakes and there let me take over. In retrospect I wonder what the logic was behind this particular weird move. In typical Wild-West fashion, she let me understand that she just wanted to be sort of legally rid of me, so whatever happened wouldn’t be the hospital’s responsibility.
The circumstances of my second hernia operation. The nurse who checked me out before surgery treated me as a captive she could torment as she pleased, being at her mercy. After the operation two nurses who were propping me up on both sides to help me walk into the discharge waiting area let go of me when we got to the armchair I was to sit in, and I plopped into the seat like a piece of wood: they didn’t take into consideration that, as the lower part of my body was still anesthetized; I had little control over my leg muscles. One of the nurses said something like “Now you’ve done it,” which sounded as if she meant, “Now you have done yourself in for good.” Needless to say, she blamed me for what was plainly and wholly her and her companion’s fault. That was not particularly encouraging; not exactly how nurses are pictured on TV either. Well, at any rate, I was hoping she was wrong, and the incision hadn’t opened up. Next morning when I looked at the hernia site I saw that my scrotum, into which the veins apparently drain from an inguinal hernia, had turned crimson. In a panic, I went to the hospital emergency room, where the doctor on duty assured me that “this happens in some cases,” was nothing to worry about, and the color would be back to normal in a day or so.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is about as scientific and valid as the medieval theory of the four humors.
[[ CONCLUSION ]]
How the insinuating, insidious, malicious, furtive, tricky, clowning, suspicious, abusive, sneaky, two-faced ways of Westerners grew on me gradually.
I–and I am necessarily talking about myself as an outsider, although of course many of these disadvantages affect the insider as well, since to a large extent it is a bellum omnia contra omnes–have found the atmosphere in the American West more oppressive, threatening, and damaging to the autonomy of a person than at any other place during any other period of my life, including German Nazi occupation and totalitarian Stalinist rule. In the US, government control and interference in your life are less pervasive and, particularly at the federal level, governmental activity is often beneficial to the individual citizen: one finds both greater freedom and more helpful services at these levels, particularly the federal one; of state and local governments this is less true, in that order. By contrast, ethically unjustifiable social pressure, control, and interference, often amounting to an abusive, pernicious assault especially on outsiders in the areas of privacy, personal dignity, the conducting of one’s life in peace and tranquility, etc., is much greater. Under the George W. Bush administration, partly as a result of overzealous activity on the home defense front, both governmentally guaranteed individual freedoms and services wre curtailed. Whether the Obama administration will substantially change this is yet to be seen.
___________________________ “Creeping horrors” are the words that occur to me when I see how they act. Or Jokers out of Batman.
I am dealing here with the (Far) West, but also more broadly with the US: it has to be made clear which one I am aiming at but also that much is overlapping.
Using American for US is misleading, but I have conformed to this usage to some extent where the context makes the meaning clear.
Many Wild Westerners are rogues; many act like reptiles]
[It is my earnest hope that, besides being a documentary, my writing may serve as a survival kit: I have tried to set down what a college course on American civilization won’t tell you; what the US media and even popular and scholarly nonfiction publications generally pass over in silence; and what Americans themselves will rarely admit in personal contact. I would like to spare someone who comes to this country relying on any of these sources the agony I have gone through. This work is the result of the knowledge I have gained through over half a century of experience in this country.]
A. S. moved abruptly away from me when his son opened the door, trying to hint that he caught us in some intimate position, I suppose.
How did the WA stereotype or image come about? It’s preponderantly self-generated. See manuscript, Games pp. 6-8
Over the years I have developed a growing sense of being a sort of counterman to the extent that what constitutes Americanism is seen by me as negative.]
[Make-Believe, Lies, Tricks, Strange Games, Clowning, Sneakiness, Hiding, Insidiousness, Innuendo (throughout)]
[Say offensive, insinuating things “confidentially” or “between us” while making sure that it is heard by the person you pretend to keep it from. This act sometimes necessitates yelling at the top of your lungs to someone standing right next to you when the intended victim happens to be at a distance.]
[These categories are greatly overlapping. ]
A.: you bought this fur cap in Russia.
Post Office employee at Rathdrum pretending I wanted foreign stamps or didn’t know US ones.
[Clandestine, Spying, Furtive, Devious. Sneaky, Hiding, Shifty, Creeping activity (also throughout) Dante reserved the eighth bolgia, the deepest corner of hell, for the falsifiers. But in a civilization of fakes, it is the straight who must spend their lives in a condition worse than the traditional concept of hell.
The open society as applied to this one, a joke. There may have never been a more closed society, I certainly haven’t seen one.]
[My experiences at KPBX: introducing my commentaries with deprecatory phrases, censorship, etc.]
[Misinformation (other than commercial) on the web.]
[Exchanging knowing glances (manuscript), the knowing nod.]
If they notice that you feel lost, diffident, embarrassed, self-conscious this is the moment for them to start their fun and pounce on you (generally US life is based on this premise–it is indispensable in understanding their culture). Examples: They will bang their stuff around and clear their throats (a frequent act). They will sidle up to you with the inimitable sly, roguish smile and watch you pretending, for instance, that you are a thief. Or they will quite often become indignant (like the baboon with the leopard) and question your right to be there at all–how dare you? At the store, salespersons will play such games when the profit is small, as at a service station, or they do not get a percentage of the sales price. When considerable profit is at stake, they are affable.]
[Hunting, the hunting instinct, gun culture, the chase, police chases, chases in films.]
As a child I played with toy soldiers, and I must confess that prior to the war, in my tweens, I was fascinated by modern weaponry. Experiencing war at first hand greatly reduced my enthusiasm, to put it mildly. Of course in those days I saw many soldiers with guns but, to my best recollection, up to the time I moved to the West I personally wasn’t on familiar terms with any civilian who owned a gun. I remember Father telling us once that he had met a hunting enthusiast. This man told Dad that the sport in question made him enjoy the great outdoors, the beauty of nature. Dad recounted this with an air of incomprehension: how does killing an animal contribute to one’s appreciation of nature, he wondered.
In some Western states, e. g., Idaho, ten-year-old children can legally use large-game hunting rifles that will easily kill a human.
Forest rangers, even some police are afraid of people who have guns and are disinclined to act against them. “I don’t tangle with people with guns” (Evans). A number of times I’ve had guns pointed at me threateningly. ]
To a certain type of people the very idea that someone can peacefully enjoy the scenery without engaging in an occupation with the purpose of killing or destruction represents a challenge. They resent it.
Over the years, perhaps half a dozen Western persons vaguely threatened me with guns. A child of about twelve pointed his revolver at me which looked quite real, but may have been a toy. Someone fired his gun, making a deafening report, in front of the post office while I was there. From his grin I gathered that this was a cute joke to scare me. Characteristically, no one took him to task for it.
Many US primary, middle, and secondary schools are terrorist training camps in a perhaps no less nefarious way than some Moslem ones are thought to be. Multiple school murders have decreased since the 9-11 terrorist act, possibly because terrorism and massacres of the kind are seen by young people as activities in which aliens, outsiders, and therefore geeks, persons who do not appeal to them as models, engage. Actually, school shootings have never been a significant cause of death for children or adolescents. They are rather like the conspicuous tip of the iceberg. They are an indication of the malaise, frustration, discontent, even rage seething below. Violence of a lesser than homicidal kind is however rampant.
Media Violence Video games, crime shows, crime fiction,
[Spirit Lake wasn’t large enough either (meaning, large enough for me and those using it).]