Friday, March 16, 2012

A little light culture

As the complacent chronicler of cathedral cities and mildly erring parsons, Trollope has charmed and repelled modern readers in about equal numbers.
That bit of condescending twaddle is the way the blurb on the Penguin edition of The Last Chronicle of Barset begins. But not to worry because modern academics have to come to thee rescue and found a "darker" side:
In recent years critics have discovered in his later novels a gloomier, more profound, less comfortable Trollope hitherto neglected by his most ardent admirers.
Notice the values being pushed here: happy people are complacent whereas gloomy people are profound. I've never seen any evidence of this in real life. Gloomy people actually tend to be bores because they keep getting gloomy about the same small set of complaints over and over again. (The most untrue sentence ever written is Tolstoy's canard about happy families.) Happy people, on the other hand, live varied and interesting lives. And I've never seen ordinary middle class people half as smug and complacent as your typical intellectual. As exhibit one, I give the two sentences above and put it to you that only a very complacent person indeed could write such silly crap and only a very smug person would so casually assume that all those "ardent admirers" weren't smart enough to spot the gloomy profundity that only "critics" can help us find.

In a similar vein let me tell you about the conversation I overheard yesterday on the bus. The bus was packed and everyone standing cheek by jowl (that turns out to be an important detail). A couple of graduate students were discussing some social experiments they had students doing. This experiments required the students to "violate" what the two called "social norms".

One of the two was concerned they might have to modify the experiment, however, because some of the ordinary citizens who were the unwitting subjects of these experiments had reacted badly to some of the things they had been subjected to. What sorts of things you ask? Well, some of the students had been asked to cut into lines ahead of people and others had been walking right up to people and standing very close to them and "invading their personals space". It seems some people took this badly and actually, imagine this, criticized the students for what they were doing and suggested the might act so as to stop them doing what they were doing.

Again, notice the moral values being pushed here. Students at universities are being taught that being a rude and inconsiderate jerk is just "violating social norms".

And it's not just stupid cultural relativism. There is a complete inability to do even the most basic critical thinking that goes along with it. The grad student went on to say that other cultures weren't so touchy about personal space as we were. She particularly seemed to think that Europeans were better about this than we are. This is where I had to resist pointing out that we were crowded onto this bus and that no one was complaining even though everyone was standing so close to everyone else that we were all in physical contact, suggesting that North Americans aren't quite so uptight about this as she thought and that perhaps our notions of personal space are context specific; that maybe people who live in crowded cities are more tolerant of others standing close to them in places where everyone realizes it is inevitable and less so in places where there is lots of room. I wonder for example, what would happen if you went to rural Europe or rural Africa and went and stood right close to people?

Actually, I don't wonder at all—they'd take it badly—for this isn't a social norm at all but a universal value.

This sort of stuff is what you're paying thousands of dollars for your kids to learn folks.They are learning to be so wrapped up in theory that they cannot see what they are actually experiencing.

One related note from else where. James Taranto caught a good bit of nonsense yesterday. Here is the first quote from Roseann Lake writing in Salon who is discussing how hard it is for university-educated women in China to get married:
In China, there's a deep-seated tradition of marriage hypergamy which mandates that a woman must marry up. 
Notice it's a "deep-seated tradition". That means there is nothing natural about this, it's just a cultural value that can be changed. Now read the second quote, which we have discussed before, Stephanie Coontz discussing how difficult it is for university-educated women in the USA to get married:
 From 1940 to the mid-1970s, the tendency for men to marry down educationally became more pronounced and the cultural ideal of hypergamy — that women must marry up — became more insistent. 
Notice that this also is merely a cultural "ideal", and one that should be changed, in Coontz's view. I'll let Taranto field this one:
What are the odds that two so different cultures would somehow develop a "tradition" or "ideal" that is so similar?
Good question. Particularly as you also find hypergamy in Africa, South America, Iceland even, as Taranto notes in answering his own questions, among other species. It's not a cultural trait at all. It's an absolute certainty that human beings will react this way. You know that woman with multiple degrees and still single in her late twenties and early thirties? Be gentle with her because she is probably going to end up single. She and whole lot of other women.

They'll probably also be poorer, a lot less happy and lonelier than they figured too. But at least she won't be smug and complacent like those people who dare to like Anthony Trollope's mildly erring parsons. 

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