Back in grad school I taught a creative writing class for the university's correspondence degree program. I was teaching online before there was an online.
A student, a wife and mother on a farm in the west of Iowa, out where the difference between Nebraska and Iowa is lost in the endless cornfields, submitted a long poem detailing her many hardships, troubles, and sorrows.
And she had many. It was a heartbreaking poem. It was also a good one. But its last verse bewildered me.
It was very upbeat. Literally her un-ironic riff on God's in his heaven and all's right with the world.
She finished saying she had a good life and she was happy. There was no blessing counting either. I didn't know what to think. Still don't.
I mentioned all this on Twitter tonight and a friend posted a possible explanation: “Poetry/prayer as self-medication?”
I think he may be right. It was a prayer as much as a poem.
I was reminded of this student and her poem by today’s overhyped news story of the day.
A study has been done showing that Republicans have happier marriages than Democrats.
Well, that’s what the stories are saying the study shows.
You know how well journalists handle stories that involve numbers and research.
The headlines are click bait and the stories themselves are written to emphasize controversy and stir up arguments.
What do you know, news outlets in the Digital Age doing the cyber-equivalent of trying to sell newspapers!
If you want to give them the page views, I’ll be putting links to a few of the stories at the bottom of the post.
But, boiled down, the study does seem to show that if you want to know if someone is doing well financially and if their kids are all right and their marriages stable, and you don’t want to pry too deep, ask them how they vote.
When it comes to those measures of the quality of people’s lives, Republicans are better off and as a result report that they are happier all around than Democrats, especially when it comes to their marriages.
This is causing consternation among many liberals online.
It’s a part of our conventional wisdom, a point of pride, and a key component of our economic and political argument that red states---those states where Republicans run the show---are by most measures worse off than blue states. This is as true of people’s domestic lives as their economic lives.
So we think.
Red states have higher divorce rates, more children born out of wedlock, more high school dropouts, more poverty, more violent crime. But people forget that there are Democrats living in red states and Republicans in blue states, and if you look at where the Republicans are clustered in just about every state, you find that people in those areas are, like I said, doing just fine and are on the whole happier.
Their marriages last, their kids finish school and go on to college, they report they’re generally satisfied with their lives. It’s related to money, of course. People are happier and more content and better able to cope when they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and if they’ll still have a job next week and what they’ll do if their kids get sick.
Well-off white people living in affluent neighborhoods and towns have more stable marriages. The assumption behind some of these stories seems to be that stability must be the result of happiness. The reverse seems more likely. But it’s not that Democrats are unhappy. (We’re still talking about well-off, mostly white, middle and upper class people of both parties.) Republicans are more likely to say they’re happy. Very happy. But Democrats don’t say they’re unhappy. They just say they aren’t as happy as Republicans say they are.
The important word in those statements is say.
They say they’re happy. Are they really? We have to take their word for it.
And what do they mean by happy?
Some people confuse complacency with happiness. Some people confuse discontent---the natural unease caused by the sense that things not only could be better but should be better that’s one of the curses of consciousness---with unhappiness. The former sounds like many conservatives I’ve known and the latter like many liberals. And in my experience, conservatives tend to be more self-satisfied, unreflective, and accepting of the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. Liberals tend to be anxious, self-doubting, and incapable of relaxing and enjoying the moment---which is to say, the liberals I have known and loved have shared a bad habit of making themselves unhappy.
This doesn’t tell you anything about anything except the kind of people I’ve happened to know.
But among those people, it’s the conservatives who have been more inclined to make a virtue of putting on a happy face.
But maybe that’s a necessary step towards being happy.
I had no way of knowing how that student voted. Out in Iowa back then, being Christian and living in a farm town was as likely to mean you were a liberal Democrat as a conservative Republican. It was the summer of 1984, but there was no sign in her poem that she thought it was morning in America, and it was God who gave her hope and comfort not Ronald Reagan.
What I do know for certain about her is that she did not have a good creative writing teacher or at least not a very wise or sensitive one. He was young, inexperienced, and full of himself.
I was arrogant enough to think what she wanted was an honest critique of her poem so in my notes I told her how much I liked her poem and pointed out the lines and images I thought were very well done but I added that her last verse didn’t fit with the rest of the poem, either thematically, tonally, or stylistically. As gently as I could, which probably didn’t strike her as at all gentle, I suggested she just cut the verse and end the poem with whatever solid image she’d crafted for the last line of her penultimate verse.
I never heard back from her.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Republicans More Happily Married!:
Sez Emma Green at the Atlantic here: One Shortcut to a Happy Marriage: Vote Republican. I recommend this one because it’s a little more in-depth and skeptical and because Green suggests that an alternative headline for the story might be “In Polling About Marital Happiness, Nearly All Americans Are Liars.”
Sez the New York Times’ David Leonhardt here: Republicans Say They Are Happier With Their Marriages.
But not so fast, sez our sociology professor pal, SocProf, pointing to this post by sociologist Philip N. Cohen at Family Inequality: That thing about Republican marriages being happier (isn’t true).
Updated: an extra to the extra: At the Guardian, Thomas Batten offers The Republican guide to a happy marriage. I think some sarcasm might be at play in this one.