Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an incredible post up about David Brooks' latest lament for a lost American Civilization. A place of certainity, beauty, calm and, well...perfect humility.

When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.

What came to my mind, as a woman, were the phrases "sugar and spice," "tomboy," "ball buster," "madonna," and "whore" and all their connotations--weren't we raised to be "different" from half the population, and didn't that difference require us to know our place, whether on the pedestal or on the floor? What came to my mind as a white person were these three pieces of received Race Wisdom (not current in my family, or even in my state, but certainly ambient knowledge) "Free, White, and Twenty One," "Mighty White of You," and "In the South they don't care how close you get, as long as you don't get too high. In the North they don't care how high you get, as long as you don't get too close."

And what about Class? Even though Ta-Nehisi quickly, cleanly, and with razor like precision cuts to the racism of the assumption that American Society was ever one, and whole, and purely unified Brooks' post is as much about class and culture, high and low, as it is about race. He just doesn't know how to ring the changes because he's fabulist, and an apologist, not a historian, anthropologist, or even an honest man.

Basically, Brooks' writes about an impossible world of clean shaven heroes and their strong, silent, housefraus, all of them white, and compares them to the current generation who are now seen as lesser and, mysteriously, all of a sudden, mixed in race. That's the racist nostalgia part of the discussion that is so genteel that the casual reader fails to grasp it. Here's nice Mr. Brooks talking about the age old problem of "kids these days" and their wacky music and their in your face attitude. Why, in my day, kids knew their place and always called you "sir" or, in a pinch, "madam." Fallen silent is the fact that, once upon a time, "we" called them "Uncle," "Auntie," "Boy," "Girl," and "Miss," "Honey," and "Bitch"--depending on who "we" were in an already given hierarchy of race, class, sex, and power. Maybe "they" were polite back to us? But, what, didn't Brooks ever read "Down and Out in Paris and London," and realize that the waiter that you demanded "humility" from actually went back in the kitchen and spat in your dinner? Did he miss the entire Feminist movement, as well as the struggle to bring Civil Rights out of Un-Civil America? Did he miss the entire Civil War, and the recently revived memory of the caning of Sumner?

You don't get to assume that the "greatest generation" and their post war experience was uniform and defined by the stories of white people you saw on the screen without being reminded that you are purposely forgetting the color bar that influenced their entire war experience--the Tuskegee Airmen? The Zoot Suit Riots? And what about the women? What about Rosie the Riveter? What about the real women who went out into that workforce and were forced back into the home to make room for those returning soldiers? What about the GI bill and fair housing and the ways that its color bar broke up the fantasy notion that "we" were all "the same"--there was a we who got to go to school on the GI bill and a we that didn't, a we that got those home loans and a we that didn't.

In Brooks's historical memory we don't seem to have had a period of, say, slavery, segregation, or sexism. Its not even clear we had black people, before he noticed them acting up. Brooks seems to think that, somehow, all these celebrity worshiping, hysterical, self indulgent, narcissistic, black and white people have leapt upon the world stage and demanded their fifteen minutes of fame. Where did they come from? Why are they here? What can be done about them? Brooks isn't sure, but he knows their ilk have never walked the world before--and more to the point, if the period of America's greatness coincided with their absence from American Public discourse then it must follow, as the night of our weakness follows the day of our strength, that their very existence now signals the end of our brief period of national greatness. The comments that follow the piece are absolutely fantastic and they should all be read, especially those by Kid Bitzer.

The reason I think Ta-Nehisi does his job almost too well is that Brooks isn't writing for people who think, or who grasp that the history they have lived is different from the history in which they are living. Brooks' point is that today we as Americans have a vulgarified culture in which low class people dance and strut their way across what were once jobs and public spaces reserved for the likes of John Wayne, or Ronald Reagan, or the unknown soldier. That's false on its face as any actual student of American society or Culture or history would tell you and way down in the comments Ta-Nehisi points it out, as does Doctor Cleveland in this hysterically apt comment:

"I'm that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning, and slip without a scratch down a honey locust." - Congressman David Crockett

Brooks's conclusion is clear:

Davy Crockett was a gangster rapper.

Its all there, in that thread. My hat is off to Ta-Nehisi and his commenters on this one. It is the exact opposite of what I now think of as the Atlantic Experience--you know, the one where you start to read Megan MacCardle and her commenters and you feel yourself getting stupider with every post?

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