Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Causes and Effects

David Brooks Is Mistaking Poverty's Symptoms For Its Causes

So when Brooks writes, "It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms," he's being willfully blind. Stable marital norms are difficult to develop, refine and maintain at any income. In the face of extraordinary adversity—consider that approximately half of American students are growing up in low-income families—we should expect what he terms "an anarchy of the intimate life."
Brooks worries that, for the poor, "there are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically." But there are codes! They simply happen to be punishing, degrading codes shaped by poverty and material and educational inequality. In short, norms are built on resources and opportunities.

The column’s real sin is to mistake symptoms for causes. And Brooks does so because it's ideologically comfortable to cast stones at the poor for their behavior, and ideologically uncomfortable to admit that their behavior is partly an outgrowth of extreme inequality and social immobility. 
-- and since I am still pretty wobbly from hard news on the home front -- I thought I would take the lazy man's way out and and repost this from May of 2014.  This is by way of agreeing with the author that no project to reconstruct the manners and mores of The Good Ol' Days (tm) will ever get off the ground as long as the basic building materials from which those manners and mores are derived remain broken, or toxic or simply out of reach and fading like a sunset for the vast majority of the poor and soon-to-be-poor.

Bob Benson's Loveless Erector Set -- UPDATE

Over in the Mad Men universe, it is June of 1969.  And, right on schedule, the Idealized Nuclear Family which the Barons and Baronesses of Madison Avenue had created twenty years before as a means of selling Pall Malls and Ovaltine is turning on its creators.  

Because the Idealized Nuclear Family was always an unstable repository of the American Dream: a stripped-down, road-ready, artificial 4.5-person unit invented to take advantage of America's unique position of economic and political dominance after World War II.  

Human beings were evolved to be social, tribal creatures, relying for survival on the relative stability of a large, extended family within a small village or town.  The presence of multiple generations under one roof that was anchored by deep roots in the community, made for a family unit designed to withstand hardship and privation.  

But the Idealized Nuclear Family that Madison Avenue sold us was an incredibly fragile, volatile thing.  It pared immediate adult family members down from aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents to One Male Breadwinner and One Female Homemaker.  It moved that family away from its ancestral roots and into Suburban Anywhere USA.  It put a social premium on outsourcing everything from food preparation to child rearing and the ability to up and move wherever the corporation needed you to go.

And in the 1969 of Mad Men, conforming to this image -- presenting this face to the world -- is no longer optional.  As Bob Benson makes explicitly clear, "[Buick] expects a certain kind of executive”.  If you want to succeed in the orderly, Pax Americana world the Mad Men have created for you, the price of that success is that you had damn well better drive what Madison Avenue tells you to drive, wear what Madison Avenue tells you to wear, speak as Madison Avenue has taught you to speak and marry and begat to Madison Avenue's specifications.  

And like any other fantasy, it runs along fine only as long as no one breaks character: white men must always be free to thunder from the mountaintop, women must always remain submissive and sexually available or maternal or just disappear into the wallpaper, and minorities must always hover gratefully at the margins, just happy to included.  Of course there will always be some discord caused by deviants and criminals and foreigners and outsiders, but that's why God invented Richard Nixon and the NYPD. 

So those are your choices: put on your assigned costume and join in, or be cast out.  

Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, that American Dream is quietly starting to collapse under the pressure of the American Establishment's two, signal public failures -- Civil Rights and Vietnam (by the recession and oil shock of 1973, the divorce rate will begin to skyrocket as the Idealized Nuclear Family shatters under an economic and social weight it was never designed to bear.)  Even on America's Glass Teat, happy families with a mom and dad and a couple of kids are in full retreat, appearing almost exclusively in teevee shows about monsters or witches or our outer-space future, while the space reserved for "normal" families is rapidly filling up with...

...single parents!
“Does this family exist?” Peggy asks. “Are there still people who eat dinner and smile instead of watching TV?”
Of course they do, Peggy.  Unfortunately, your profession is dedicated to eradicating them.  Ironic, no?

Of course, teevee single parents almost always have terrific jobs that afford them an enormous amount of free time and economic autonomy.  And they're usually assisted by aunts or maids or other adult helpers who are only too happy to pitch in as surrogate parents for little or no remuneration.  However it is amazing but true that even as the America of 1969 was desperately struggling to keep the facade of the Idealized Nuclear Family Nixoned firmly in place, on teevee the "Father Knows Best" template was quickly vanishing in favor of Family Affair (an uncle raising orphaned nieces and nephew), The Courtship of Eddie's Father (widower), The Beverly Hillbillies (widower), Julia (widow), Bonanza (widower), The Andy Griffith Show (widower), My Three Sons (widower), The Brady Bunch ( a widow and widower, although all references to previous marriages are kept deliberately vague), etcetera.

It's a long damn list.

And so we find ourselves in June, 1969, watching a system shuddering on the verge of implosion because it is a system which took some of humanities oldest and proudest achievements -- art, storytelling, psychology, technology -- to warp the basic rhythms and desires of human life in order to serve post-WWII America's shallowest and most transient commercial interests.  And as the need to be human comes into more and more direct, violent conflict with the Mad Men imperative to go along with system at all costs, our characters find that their lives don't work, their marriages don't work, their jobs are killing them and even shopping barefoot through the stone canyons of the city at the pinnacle of the American Empire only makes them miserable and gets their feet hobo-dirty.

And so, as the credits roll, we meet the two, contending visions of the American Family which will dominate our cultural and political landscape for the next 40 years.

One is the family-of-choice: the mutants and strangers and bastards and imperfect darling ones with whom we gather because we love them somehow, and they love us somehow.  We are with them, scars and secrets and all, because we choose not to be alone in the good times or the bad times.

The other is the Bob Benson's Erector Set Family. The family that comes with a set of prefabricated parts and an instruction manual -- all you need to do is slide it out of the box, put the pieces together as directed and, bingo, you're on your way to a perfectly constructed, loveless marriage, a mansion in Detroit and a little freaky on the downlow to keep you from blowing your brains out.

Yeah, sure, your mansion will be made of straw and you will live in terror of all the Big Bad Wolves who can blow it down with the slightest breath, but maybe, just maybe, with enough money and bullshit at your command, the wolves will never come.

Which is about as accurate a description of the American Dream as I'm likely to come up with for awhile.

UPDATE:  Welcome Vanity Fair readers.  Remember, here at the driftglass blog we always treat you right!

From a writer’s perspective, no series, indeed no film that I can think of, has outdone Mad Men in showing what the creative process is really like in its problem solving and puzzle cracking—the trial and error, the ruminative pondering, the verbal doodling, the hazy spaces and pauses while the subconscious percolates. The product idea seems to work, its pieces fit, the whole thing flows, the tagline ties it up in a neat ribbon bow, it’s what the client wants and expects, and yet—a worrying whisper in the ghostly attic keeps nagging that this isn’t the way to go, there’s something better being missed, a hidden key to the treasure chest.
I couldn't agree more.  For example, I loved how right "Wonder Boys" got the weirdness of writers and the ultimate futility of trying to "teach" the act of voluntary, solitary soul-spelunking that can take the assemblage of words beyond mere craft, but Mad Men can't be beat when it comes to the most important part of writing:  showing not telling.

Of course, let us not forget the second most important part of writing.

Paying the writer :-)

1 comment:

Fritz Strand said...

The two parent family proves pretty fragile when thrown into history's spin cycles of wars, depressions, booms and busts. And history's up cycles are just as destructive as the downs.

I recall one of your podcast's referencing how many 'irregular families' appeared on the TeeVee. A lot of truth to that.