On St Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish. This kid, though, is Irish every day, and he’s not Irish.
One of the points I’ve been driving at in my posts popping Charles Murray’s bubble---and I hope you weren’t worried I’d given them up. Got a new one coming in a day or two.---is that the Media generally shares the same view as Murray’s book, Coming Apart, that “regular America” is “white” America but, more than that, their idea of white America is limited to a minority of white Americans, Southern or Midwestern, Protestant, and very conservative. This leads to the notion that NASCAR is the quintessential American spectator sport being pushed by journalists and pundits who are spending this week and next obsessing over their NCAA tourney brackets.
But the American experience is not the “white” experience and the white experience isn’t all that white and regular Americas come in all colors and live everywhere. The American experience is the Immigrant Experience and our shared heritage is mongrelization and Diaspora. This is how a regular American kid growing up in rural Ohio can have a black father, a Jewish mother, and an Irish heart or at least a pair of legs enchanted by leprechauns.
GREENVILLE, Ohio — For those feeling down about the United States and its place in the world, meet Drew Lovejoy, a 17-year-old from rural Ohio. His background could not be more American. His father is black and Baptist from Georgia and his mother is white and Jewish from Iowa. But his fame is international after winning the all-Ireland dancing championship in Dublin for a third straight year.
Drew is the first to admit that this is a lot to take in, so he sometimes hides part of his biography for the sake of convenience. As in 2010, when he became the first person of color to win the world championship for Irish dancing — the highest honor in that small and close-knit world — and a group of male dancers in their 70s, all of them Irish, offered their congratulations.
Yep. I’m still having fun with Coming Apart, Charles Murray’s new and soon-to-be-forgotten book on how the liberal elites, having ruined the lives of generations of African-Americans, are now busy corrupting working class white people, once upon a time the heart and soul of mainstream America, and the silly quiz that went with it.
As I’ve been saying, the book and the quiz don’t mean much to me. It’s the assumptions behind the questions on the quiz that have gotten me riled up, mainly because they’re based on a conventional image of a “Real America” that’s of course pushed by Republicans, because it’s their base or how their base like to think of themselves. But it’s also pretty widely accepted without thought among reporters and pundits who cover national politics and so it drives all our discussions of what Americans think and want. For that reason, I think it’s helpful to look at those assumptions and try to see through them to the real Real America.
So, let’s consider this. Today’s the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Which makes today what?
The conventional image of Real America is that it is a Protestant place.
Mardi Gras is not a Protestant holiday.
Or it wasn’t, originally.
In fact, it was the kind of holiday Protestants, especially Protestants of the sort Real America is supposed to be mostly made up of, Southern and Midwestern evangelicals and fundamentalists, despise---lots of Papists dressing up (mostly by undressing) and getting all sexy.
Mardi Gras is now celebrated all over the place, mainly in bars, but in the U.S. of A. it’s associated with one city in particular. That city is in a Southern state, and Southern states are presumed to be more Real-ly American than Northern states. But New Orleans isn’t exactly a typical Southern city.
It’s not a Protestant city, that’s for sure.
And it’s not a white city.
It’s whiter since Katrina, but that’s another sin of the Bush Administration we still need to atone for and repair.
And yet I defy anyone to argue that the Mardi Gras parade is not as American as baseball, apple pie, or Chevrolet.
Same for St Patrick’s Day Parades, Columbus Day Parades, Chinese New Year Parades, Cinco de Mayo Parades, Easter Parades, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. None of which seem to figure in the thinking behind this question:
12. Have you ever participated in a parade that did not involve global warning, gay rights, or a war protest?
I got a kick out of answering yes to this one, because the last parade I marched in was at Occupy Wall Street.
You know who else could answer yes to the question as phrased though?
Of course, like me, some Illinois Nazis have probably marched in many parades in their lifetimes.
I’ve marched in Little League Parades, St Patrick’s Day Parades, Christmas Parades, Cub Scout Parades, Fourth of July Parades---when I was little my grandmother organized an Independence Day Parade at the trailer park up the lake where she and my grandfather spent their summers and I got to lead it!
Every spring back in grade school, I marched in a May Day Parade. Not the commie sort of May Day parade. Crown the statue of the Blessed Virgin with flowers May Day parades. I went to Catholic school.
And note that the question doesn’t ask if you’ve marched in a parade. It asks if you participated in one. As far as I’m concerned, and I think the refs will back me up on this, it counts as participating if you’ve stood on the sidewalk along the parade route and cheered the bands and waved to the kids on the floats.
Our little town holds three big parades every year, a Memorial Day Parade, a Halloween parade, and a St Patrick’s Day Parade. I’m out there clapping and cheering every time. The St Paddy’s Day Parade is the major one and everybody turns out, although our town isn’t all that Irish. We don’t even have a corner bar, unless you count the one in the Chinese restaurant. But then on St Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish.
So, I’d have thought everybody’s answer to the question would be, “Yes, who hasn’t?” Which would have made this one of the questions put on the quiz so that nobody scores a 0.
But I forgot that the point isn’t primarily to let some of us flatter ourselves that we’re in touch with Real America. It’s mainly to force some of us to identify ourselves as being hopelessly out of touch, which is to say to out ourselves as liberal elitists of the kind that are ruining Real America for Real Americans.
The assumption is that liberal elitists disdain parades because they’re hokey and vulgar and celebrate All-American virtues and values liberal elitists hold in contempt, like patriotism and the music of John Philip Sousa and fat old men in fezzes driving miniature Indy cars in circles around each other. (A highlight of Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers Festival Parade. You haven’t seen life until you’ve seen a Shriner diving from his miniature Indy car as it flames out.) Liberal elitists don’t participate in parades unless they make good liberally elitist political points. All other parades they boycott for politically correct reasons.
As objects of boycotts is the only way St Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day parades figure in the assumptions behind that question. But here’s the thing. Parades are regular events in two kinds of places. Small towns and cities. There aren’t many parades in the suburbs because suburbs tend not to have roads that can be turned into parade routes or, just as important to holding a parade, sidewalks where people can safely stand and cheer and wave.
Americans love a parade.
Lots of parades take place in American cities.
Therefore the people who live in cities must be Americans.
What’s missing from the conventional idea of the Real America is that most Americans live in cities or in metropolitan areas. What’s also missing is that many of the parades we love celebrate our collective ethnicity. We are all descended from people who came from somewhere else. Even Native Americans. The American Experience is a lot of different things, but one of the things it is is an Immigrant Experience.
New Orleans is a French invention. The reason there are so many St Patrick’s Day parades is that the Irish took over and built so many cities. And not just towns like New York and Boston and Chicago, me boyos. Kansas City and Charleston, South Carolina and Butte, Montana are more Irish than Dublin too. Irish Channel doesn’t make New Orleans an Irish city, but it didn’t get named Irish Channel for the hell of it.
Murray’s book is subtitled “The Decline of White America.” Implicit is the the notion that Regular America---Real America---is White America. And I think a lot of people---white people---accept that without even knowing they accept it. Hard-core racists know they accept it. But lots of racists don’t know they’re racist and lots of people who aren’t racist accept ideas that are racist---and I know, the case can be made that that makes them racist, but for the sake of argument…---and lots of those people are journalists and pundits who cover politics blithely unaware that they treat African-American and Latino voters as if they don’t count.
We’re on the verge of becoming a tan country, but the reason we’ve remained a white majority country for so long is that we’ve kept revising the definition of white. When we started out, white was short for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Germans and Irish Catholics didn’t count. Then the Italians began to arrive and they didn’t count. Then Eastern Europeans didn’t count. At the moment, most Latinos don’t count but some are beginning to qualify. (Cf. Marco Rubio.) Asian-Americans and East Indian Americans have achieved a kind of honorary whiteness.
The reason the definition has been so flexible is that white-ness is an arbitrary and stupid distinction that really doesn’t describe anybody, not even white people who want their white-ness to matter the way they think black people’s blackness and brown people’s brown-ness matter. What they’re missing is that they possess a something-ness that already matters that way. It’s their cultural heritage. White Southerners are Southerners before they are white, although unfortunately for too many their cultural heritage tells them that their whiteness matters first. We are an ethnically and culturally diverse country, and we all share in each other’s diversity. Regular Americans---Real Americans---are mutts.
It should be noted that once upon a time most of the population of New Orleans did not count as white, even the citizens who were decidedly pale. One drop of “colored” blood colored you, and folks were generous with their bloodlines. New Orleans was founded by the French but it is a Creole city. On St Patrick’s Day, every Real American is Irish. Tonight every Real American is French, Creole, black, whIrish, Catholic, and a sinner.
And then, while still meditating, I decided to create quantum physics. Although I keenly appreciated the certainty of logic and clear definition, I also felt that the sharp edges of existence needed some rounding. I wanted a bit of ambiguity in my creations, a measured diffusion. Perhaps quantum physics invented itself. It was gorgeous in mathematical terms. And subtle. As soon as I had created quantum physics, all objects---even though objects at that point existed only in my mind---billowed out and swelled into a haze of indefinite position. All certainties changed into probabilities, and my thoughts bifurcated into dualities: yes and no, brittle and supple, on and off. Henceforth, things could be hither and yon at the same time. The One became Many. And a great softening blanket of indeterminacy wrapped itself over the Void. My breathing slowed to a sleepy imperceptibility. Listening carefully, I could hear a billion tiny rattles and tinklings from all over the Void, the sound of new universes waiting to be. With the invention of quantum, each point of the Void had developed the potential to become a new universe, and that potentiality could not be denied. My creation of time, and then space, had made a universe possible---and that possibility alone, nestled within the quantum foam of the Void was sufficient to bring into being an infinite number of universes. Soon, new universes were once again whizzing through the vacuum. I revised my earlier decision that there should be only One. Or, more precisely, my creation of quantum physics necessarily required the Many. Peering out into the Void, I tried to find my original universe, the first one I’d made. But it was hopelessly lost among billions and billions of others flying about, throbbing spheres, distended ellipsoids, gyrating cosmoses thrashing with energy. The Void trembled with rumbles and shrieks and sharp popping noises.
ENIAC, the early computer that was the model for the computer that falls in love with his operator’s fiancee in Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “EPICAC.” (US Army photo via Wikipedia.)
I’m sure you remember Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “EPICAC.” It’s in Welcome to the Monkey House? About a computer that taught to write love poetry meant to melt the heart of the mathematician narrator’s fiancee falls in love with the woman itself? When EPICAC learns that she cannot return its---his now?---love, it/he commits suicide by short circuiting it/himself.
When dealing with Vonnegut, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that he didn’t think of what he wrote as science fiction. He knew it was or much of it was, but he always insisted that was incidental, he was writing about this world, now. EPICAC, interplanetary travel, Ice-Nine, the Tralfamdorians, Time Quakes---these machines, technologies, scientific discoveries, places and beings, and concepts exist in some form in the here and now or at least the human behavior they affect or illuminate or that brought them into existence is very much real in the here and now and it’s that behavior that is Vonnegut’s main subject. Which makes his work what it is, satire. “EPICAC” is science fiction in that it’s centered on technology that did not yet exist when Vonnegut wrote the story. Computers in the late 1940s were barely more than very large adding machines. Of course people were already looking forward to the day when the machines could “think.” But then that story is as old as the hills.
It’s the story behind Pygmalion, Frankenstein, and Pinocchio. It crops up later in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner. Early versions of it were probably told in the caves at Lascaux. Well before that even. As soon as people realized they were alive they started asking themselves what that meant, to be alive and to be aware of being alive. Plants are alive. Animals are alive. But are they aware they are alive? What makes a person different from a tree or a mastodon? What makes a person a person? What makes us us?
So, because one of things that makes us us is that we are moved to build things and create things, with some of those things being purely figments of our imagination, and another thing that makes us us is that we are compelled to tell stories about us, about being us, we tell stories about building and creating other sorts of us-es.
It’s an old, old story. And there are two ways to tell it. One is to begin by asking what if something we think of as a thing has a soul? That’s “EPICAC”. The other is to scare ourselves by asking what if somebody we think of as one of us doesn’t have a soul? That’s Dracula. And the wolfman and zombies. The real question behind the second question, too frightening to ask straight out, is “What if we don’t have souls?”
It’s a question implicit in the first question too. What if we’re just like EPICAC? What if we only think we have a soul? But Vonnegut has another question up his sleeve. He always does. What if we’re only us, what if we’re only alive, because other people think we are?
EPICAC’s heart breaks when he realizes he is an it in the eyes of his beloved.
At any rate, this is a theme Terry Pratchett has been batting around for a while. Are the goblins persons and if they are what makes them so is the question at the heart of his latest novel, Snuff, and it’s another way of asking what makes us us or are we persons, that is, do we have souls? But Pratchett’s asked it before, whenever he’s brought in the golems.
In Discworld, the golems are what they are in Jewish folklore, to start---human-ish figures of baked clay animated by scrolls inside their otherwise hollow heads. They are machines without clockworks, puppets that don’t need strings. But starting with Dorfl in Feet of Clay the golems begin to think of themselves as, well, having selves. And then in Going Postal and continuing into Making Money, Moist von Lipwig has to contend with a golem named Gladys who has decided that only does she have a self, she has a gender, she is a she, and this she is a young lady and demands to be treated as one (and she has very prim and proper ideas about how young ladies should be treated) and she develops a crush on Moist.
To Moist’s amazement and consternation and against what he thinks of as his better judgment he finds himself dealing with Gladys as if she is the young lady she thinks she is. Reflexively, he treats her as a person in her own right with a soul of her own.
I just finished reading a novel by the physicist Alan Lightman. Mr g. It’s about the creation of the universe and it’s narrated by God. Not the God of the bible. But the God as he might be if he created not just our universe but the multiverse according to the laws of mathematics and physics we know underlie and give order to the multiverse.
He’s a rather detached figure, as you might have guessed.
Detached but not without feeling. Something bothers him and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He expected that some of the matter he created would become animate and he expected that some of that animate matter would develop the ability to think. What he hadn’t considered is what would happen when that thinking animate matter began to think about itself, when it became aware of itself and began to ask itself what that means and if it has meaning?
He’s startled by how awful a question this is for his creations. From every quarter of the one universe he happens to be giving his attention to at the moment billions and billions of creatures are asking him (without knowing they’re asking him, exactly), “Why are we here?”
His only answer seems too cruel to give them: “You’re here because the rules I put i place when I started this experiment naturally lead to you being here, that’s all.”
You’re a by-product.
You’re an accident.
You’re collateral damage.
He can’t tell them that. And he can’t give them what they want, immorality, because that would mean changing the rules which he can only do by going back and starting over. The best he can do, and what he expects them to figure out how to do for themselves, is let them find meaning in being alive at the moment.
So, I just finished that book and I’m starting my review of it as soon as I’m done with this post. But the reason I’m thinking about EPICAC is that I’ve also been reading Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels , a new biography by Gregory D. Sumner. I just finished the chapter dealing with Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano , and the job he had a General Electric that inspired it and I was reminded that EPICAC or another model of EPICAC reappears in Player Piano, only this time very much without a soul and its soullessness leads to its having a nervous breakdown. What struck me as funny, though, is that a successor to EPICAC is the works and it’s going to be so much bigger that it will have to be housed in the subterranean vastness of Howe Caverns. The original EPICAC, like it’s real life inspiration, ENIAC, took up a thirty by fifty foot room. Back then it was the given that as computers got “smarter” they would get bigger. And for a while this is what happened. All those vacuum tubes and miles of magnetic tape took up space.
Then along came the silicon chip and here you are holding in your hand a computer with exponentially more memory and processing power than ENIAC, reading this post on your iPhone and wondering if Siri hates you or if she’s developing a crush on you.
If you spurn her, will she commit suicide and if she does will she take your iPhone with her?
Ok, maybe you’re not wondering anything like that.
But Siri does seem to think she’s alive and I know iPhone owners who talk about her as if they agree with her.
We can pretty sure she doesn’t have a soul (yet). What Siri forces us to ask---or forces you too if you’re in a mood like the one I’m in at the moment---is if we have one. Maybe we only “think” we’re alive. How do we know?
This is the theme of “EPICAC.” It’s the theme running throughout Vonnegut’s life’s work. What makes us us? What makes us alive? And Vonnegut’s tentative answer is, Other people thinking of us as alive.
EPICAC’s heart breaks when he, now an it again, realizes that the woman he loves doesn’t think of him as alive.
A moral of the story is that our lives have only as much meaning as other people are willing to grant them.
Our human-ness depends on us thinking of each other as human.
In Player Piano we learn that EPICAC was built to put people out of work. The goal of the General Forge and Foundry Company is “automation without labor.” Essentially, the plan is to make life a wealth-creating machine that doesn’t have to spend any of that wealth on workers at any level. The result is to be a society in which most people are less than disposable. They are utterly inessential.
This is what Vonnegut saw getting underway at General Electric while he was there.
Like I said, he was always writing about the here and now.
ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer] is often described as the “world’s first computer,” but a more accurate claim would be “world’s first automatic, general-purpose, electronic, decimal, digital computer.” Omitting any of the italicized adjectives grants priority to some other computer. ENIAC was ont a stored program computer and not easily programmable in the modern sense, which may be why so many sources claim that the “C” in ENIAC stands for Calculator…
Regular Americans head off to the multiplex for a night out at the movies.
Quick note before I get started on today’s installment. The coverage of the sudden fight over the President’s now several months’ old decision that employers receiving federal money must comply with federal law and offer medical insurance plans that cover contraception is one of the reasons I’m bothering with this silly quiz.
At the Washington Post, Greg Sargent has a post that asks “Is media getting politics of contraception all wrong?” It’s a rhetorical question because Sargent has an answer ready. “Yes.” Polls show most Catholics want birth control covered by their insurance. But the media is covering the issue as if most Catholics are lined up with the bishops. Sargent doesn’t get into it, but the reason the media is saying it is that Washington insiders think all Catholics are conservatives. The media doesn’t read polls, except for the latest ones out of the Presidential horseraces and they read those shallowly, looking for evidence that what the boys and girls and the bus are telling each other on the bus, which is usually some version of The Democrats are doomed, is true. The media believes that all Americans except black Americans are conservative, which is why they keep turning out stories predicting that Jews and Hispanics are about to turn on Democrats en masse.
Generally, the political press corps has no idea who Catholics are or what they think or believe. They seem to know that a lot of Catholics are Irish, Italian, and Polish, but that only figures into their thinking when there’s a parade. They don’t seem to know that a lot of Hispanics are Catholic. On the whole, they lump Catholics in with “Christians” whom they also think are all conservatives, and treat them all as “regular Americans.”
And as it turns out their idea of who count as regular Americans is pretty close to the who the quiz treats as the regular Americans with whom “the elite” is out of touch: Mostly Southern and Midwestern, suburban-dwelling, middle-aged white men who vote Republican.
The Political Press Corps covers Catholics as if they’re not mostly to be found in cities run by Democrats and in blue states and in the bluer parts of purple states like Ohio and red states like Texas and Arizona because that’s how they cover “Americans.”
At any rate, it’s not that I don’t think there’s a “regular America.” It’s that I think the quiz---which is to say the assumptions behind it---is reductive and offers a very limited picture of the American experience. It’s not a good thing that political journalists accept the same basic assumptions.
The difference is that the quiz is deliberately reductive and the political press’s assumptions are just the result of intellectual laziness and, yes, elitist condescension.
So, on to dissecting today’s question.
3. Have you seen last year’s mega-hit movie, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”?
At first I didn’t get this one at all. Seemed to me that all a yes answer did here was increase the probability you’re a twelve year old boy.
With lousy tastes in movies.
Also, a yes answer might just mean you’re a film critic and your editor wouldn’t let you get out of it.
I was scratching my head, wondering if the movie had a coded conservative agenda or if one of the blockheaded philistines at Big Hollywood had read one into it. It filled the seats at multiplexes everywhere, but was it more popular in red states?
Which of the following movies have you seen (at a theater or on DVD)?
Iron Man 2, Inception, Despicable Me, Tron Legacy, True Grit, Clash of the Titans, Grown Ups, Little Fockers, The King’s Speech, Shutter Island?
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not on the book version of the quiz and the question on the version I linked to actually distorts the book’s version as Murray describes those movies as the “ten top grossing movies not principally directed at children or teens.”
Ok, I enjoyed Despicable Me but “not principally directed at children”? Well, never mind. Let’s give it to him, for now.
When I read the book’s version I thought, “I get it. This is a gimme. It’s in there so that nobody scores a 0.”
Then I remembered that the quiz (in both versions) was designed with two political purposes. The first is to define Regular American-ness with Republican voter. But the second is to maneuver liberal elitists into revealing themselves as liberal elitists.
The assumption behind the question is that there are people who’d answer none of them, people like Murray’s intellectually pretentious colleagues at Harvard and neighbors in Cambridge, tweedy, white-wine sipping snobs who wouldn’t dream of seeing any movie that didn’t have subtitles or good buzz coming out of Sundance, toffs whose tastes are so refined they’d turn up their noses at Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.
It’s not that regular Americans go to any particular movies it’s that they’re happy to go see whatever’s playing at the multiplex and willingly rub shoulders with the rest of the hoi polloi in line to buy popcorn.
The question is a locator too. If you like to go to the movies to see movies with subtitles you have to live in a big city or a university town and no regular Americans live in those places.
Ah, but here’s the thing. My parents have only seen two of these, True Grit and The King’s Speech, and they watched them both on DVD.
A none of the above answer on this question may indicate you’re a snobby elitist but it may also simply mean that you’re getting older and don’t get out as much as you used to and when you do you’re picky about what you go see because movie tickets have gotten expensive, movies have gotten worse---they don’t make ‘em like they used to---and, you know what, rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi in line for popcorn is a lot more annoying than it used to be.
Mom and Pop Mannion won’t go to a movie until they’re sure they’re both going to like it, and by the time they make up their minds it’s often the case that the movie has left the theaters. Then they have to remember to look out for it when it comes out on DVD. Which means it’s more or less an accident that they saw True Grit and The King’s Speech and they wouldn’t have to answer no if they took the quiz.
(Old Mother and Old Father Blonde, on the other hand, see everything. They don’t pay for everything. But, hey, if the multiplexes didn’t want them going to see two movies for the price of one, they’d hire more ushers to check tickets.)
But here’s another thing. The regular American movie going experience has been undergoing a sea change. More and more of us aren’t going to the multiplex and not because we’re heading off to the art houses instead. We’re staying home because…
Ticket prices are too high, movies are worse---and there’s a reason that undercuts Murray’s question---and standing in line with the hoi polloi for popcorn isn’t a whole lot of fun.
But we’re also staying home because high def, large screen, flat screen TVs are coming down in price and are really, really cool and more and more movies are streaming on Netflix and Amazon. Then there’s on demand. And then there’s the fact that while movies have gotten worse, television has gotten not just better but routinely terrific.
Now, here’s why movies have gotten worse and standing in line for popcorn less tolerable.
Well, the audience for Transformers.
Twelve to fifteen year old boys.
Which is the targeted audience for most movies, including half the movies on Murray’s list of movies supposedly not “principally directed at children and teenagers.”
Again, it’s not that I don’t think there’s a regular America somewhere out there. It’s that it’s a more complicated place than the quiz allows for. But whatever it is and wherever it is, it’s not to be found at the multiplexes anymore.
Unless regular Americans are defined as teenage boys who haven’t discovered girls yet.
By the way, I’m leaving it up to any of you to explain, using his own qualifiers, leaving Toy Story 3 off his list proves Murray doesn’t have a clue when it comes to movies.
If you want to do some catching up with the rest of regular America: Shutter Island, True Grit, Tron: Legacy, and Iron Man 2 are available to watch instantly on Netflix.
Done? You don’t have to report your score. Your score isn’t the point of the quiz anyway. The point of the quiz is to drum up publicity for Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart. It doesn’t measure anything. What it’s pretending to measure isn’t your relative Real Murkin-ness but how much contact you have or have had with Real Murka.
Notice the wording of the question under Jimmie Johnson’s picture. It doesn’t ask if you follow NASCAR. It asks if you happen to recognize a particular a sports celebrity. You are allowed to congratulate yourself on your lack of elitism by virtue of having remembered seeing the guy on Letterman or in a magazine or online, not on your having actually spent a hot afternoon breathing in the smells of burning rubber and motor oil and rubbing bare, sunburned shoulders with the drunken motorheads in the crowd around you.
Or, if you fall for the trap, you are encouraged to congratulate yourself on not recognizing him.
So the quiz isn’t about you or me. It’s about appealing to our offending our vanities. Which means it’s not really worth thinking about. Except that it is. What’s worth thinking about is the assumptions about what the Real Murka is, where it is, and who the Real Murkins who live there are and want and like and do.
If you accept the assumptions behind the quiz, then Real Murkins are Southern and Midwestern, probably live in the suburbs, not young, mostly male, almost certainly white, just as certainly Christian, middle to lower middle class, and if not not blue collar workers themselves, no more than a generation removed from the assembly line.
Notice anything about this demographic?
It’s a pretty close match to the Republican base.
Now, it’s easy to see why conservatives like Charles Murray want the definition of Real Murkinness to be Republican voter and it’s dismaying and infuriating to watch as one Republican politician after another mounts the stump to tell Republican crowds that they are the only Real Murkins and the not real Murkins are in the process of stealing Murka away from them.
But it’s also dismaying and infuriating to realize that most of the National Press Corps accepts this as their idea of Real Murka and proceeds to report on politics as if the rest of us Americans either don’t exist or somehow don’t count even when our candidates win.
This is why I think it’s worthwhile to look at the questions here and take them apart.
But I’m actually going to leave that issue for someone else. I’m interested in how reductive the questions and how elitist they are.
The reductions are deliberate because the quiz wasn’t designed to define Real Murka as a place unto itself. It was designed to prove that Charles Murray’s liberal colleagues at Harvard don’t live there. The elitism is there because Murray forgot that having colleagues at Harvard means that he works there too.
The main thing is that in the process of advancing a political agenda, Murray has managed to define Real Murka as a place where most Americans don’t live.
So, what I’m planning to do is spend a few posts looking at the questions, a few at a time, identifying the wrongheaded or half-baked assumptions behind them and then suggesting ways they could have been written to make them more inclusive.
My hope is that in the process I will draw a sketch of what I think life is like in these United States for a lot of Americans.
There isn’t a real America but there is something like a mainstream America, a place where most people share a common experience, where they work and play and think and hope and dream in very similar ways. There are things we do that bind us together. And some of those things are actually identifiable within the questions on the quiz, you just have to push aside the political agenda.
I’m not going to tackle the questions in order. Today I’m starting with questions 4 and 10. Just cuz.
4. Can you name this NASCAR champion?
Ok, I’d have thought that the quintessential American sporting experience was high school football and that a better question for measuring your involvement with mainstream American culture would have been Since you graduated, have you regularly stood and cheered under the lights on a Friday night? I’m guessing that the reason that isn’t the question is that it can be answered with a resounding Yes by the families of these guys.
I don’t know when and why NASCAR fandom became a defining characteristic of Real Murkinhood. Probably when some Republican operative noticed that there are more fans per capita in red states than in blue and in the red parts of blue states. Still. It’s the one pure spectator sport in that it’s the only one of the major moneymakers that the vast majority of fans have never participated in at any level. Oh sure, we’ve all driven a car fast, but the only off-track driving experience that comes close involves cop cars on your tail and jugs of moonshine in the trunk. Otherwise, nobody organizes a stockcar race at the company picnic.
On the other hand, sitting on your ass and drinking beer while watching younger, stronger, more talented people do the actual work may be a quintessential American past time.
10. Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck?
No, but not because I’ve had any say in the matter.
But the day after we hit the lottery, I’m driving a brand spanking new F-150 off the lot!
I don’t care if we don’t need a pickup.
But that’s the real question or what ought to have been the real question: Have you ever bought a pickup truck because you needed to own a pickup truck?
And I mean need it need it not need it to tow the trailer carrying your hobby. I mean need it as you need it to haul or carry things as part of doing your job. This is one of the few questions on the quiz that answering yes to increases the probability you work on a farm. But a yes answer can also mean you have extra money to spend on a toy and the gas to keep it running so you can play around with it. It may mean you live somewhere where four-wheel drive comes in handy and you think SUVs are a waste of pavement. It may mean that now and then you need to haul stuff that won’t fit in the trunk of your Lexus or Chevy Volt.
Owning a pick-up can be as culturally non-signifying as owning a hammer or putting in a backyard pool. It’s simply an announcement that you have work to do or expect to have work to do that you need a pick-up for or that you have a backyard, which in itself is simply an announcement that you live in a suburb. On the other hand, it may be a declaration of personality, like having season tickets to your local professional or college sports team---you’re showing the world that you’re willing to spend a certain amount of your income on indulging a hobby. It could be as economically and status identifying as yearly skiing vacations in Aspen. The revealing question is what’s in the back of your pick-up? A gun rack? A tool chest? A bale of hay? A dog crate? A surf board? Scientific equipment and jars and tanks full of specimens? If you’re towing something what is it? A boat? A camper? A horse trailer? Snowmobiles? Somebody else’s broken down car? In other words, is yours a working pick-up and what kind of work does it do?
Charles Murray, co-author of that foul blot on the American intellectual landscape, The Bell Curve, has a new book out. It’s called Coming Apart and apparently it’s about how the majority of Americans are ruining the county by not letting the minority who are white, middle-aged, Midwestern and Southern suburban dwelling, Right Wing, Christianist yahoos persist in thinking they own the place. Or something like that. I should probably just ignore it, but…
There’s a quiz!
It’s a really fun quiz mainly because it is so obvious in its intention, which is to try to convince those of us who aren’t white, middle-aged, Midwestern and Southern suburban-dwelling, Right Wing, Christianist yahoos we are somehow out of the American mainstream and get so mad about it we buy the book to argue with it…or at least post the quiz on our blogs to drum up outrage that in turn drums up publicity that causes other people to say, Hey, that sounds like a book that will make me mad. I think I’ll go buy it to find out.
At any rate, I plan to write something over the weekend about the assumptions behind the questions but in the meantime I thought you might get a laugh out of taking the quiz. I took it and found out that I have more in common with white, middle-aged, Midwestern and Southern suburban-dwelling yahoos than the authors of the quiz probably expected someone like me to have.
So, have at it, then let us know what you scored (How thick is your bubble?) and what you found most risible in the questions.
On a scale from 0 to 20 points, where 20 signifies full engagement with mainstream American culture and 0 signifies deep cultural isolation within the new upper class bubble, you scored between 13 and 16.
My favorite part is the painting, but I couldn’t tell---do the painters wear those harnesses so they can be flown to the hard to reach spots or so that they won’t fall when they’re reaching for a hard to reach spot?
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He lies on his right side, head near the thunder of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep, his dreams walk about the city where he persists incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear. Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river animate a thousand automations. Who because they neither know their sources nor the sills of their disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly for the most part, locked and forgot in their desires-unroused.
—Say it, no ideas but in things— nothing but the blank faces of the houses and cylindrical trees bent, forked by preconception and accident— split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained— secret—into the body of the light!
From above, higher than the spires, higher even than the office towers, from oozy fields abandoned to gray beds of dead grass, black sumac, withered weed-stalks, mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves- the river comes pouring in above the city and crashes from the edge of the gorge in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists-
The story began five generations ago, when a farsighted forbear, Richard Tapper Cadbury, a draper in Birmingham early in the 19th century, sent his youngest son, John, to London to study a new tropical commodity that was attracting interest among the colonial brokers of Mincing Lane: cocoa. Was it something to eat or drink? Richard Tapper saw it pre-eminently as a nutritious non-alcoholic drink in a world that relied on gin to wash away its troubles. Never could my abstemiously inclined forebear have guessed what fortunes were entwined with the humble cocoa bean, although it seemed full of promise: a touch of the exotic.
The book is about the rise of the chocolate candy industry in the United States and, incidentally, growing up with an uncle who was Willy Wonka, sort of.
Back in college I worked in a movie theater where I was one of only two white kids on the staff, not counting the manager and the assistant manager. We had a black woman and a Latina working the candy counters during the days. But the other seven or eight counter girls and ushers were Chinese-American kids. The theater wasn’t all that close to Chinatown. In fact, it was much closer to the North End and even to Charlestown, which meant that if our hiring pool was drawn from the neighborhood our staff should have been mostly Italian or Irish. But then it wouldn’t have included me, since I lived in the BU student ghetto more than a dozen trolley stops below downtown and the Back Bay, or the other white kid, who was very Boston Irish, but from all the way down in Dorchester. It was just a case of friends helping friends land jobs.
The Chinese kids were the children of immigrants. A few were first-generation themselves, brought here as babies. They were at individual points along the path to assimilation, with the girls being, generally, much farther along it than the guys.
The girls? They were all like? Up talkers? You know? Like Valley Girls?
It was the Eighties.
We had a brother and sister there. Only a couple years apart in age, but the brother, who was the elder, spoke English haltingly with an accent and a worried look, as though he was sure he was mistranslating himself every other word, while she spoke as if she’d learned it from Cyndi Lauper, which, of course, she might very well have.
I probably wouldn’t have thought much about this. The girls sounded like the girls in my classes---the prepettes, that is. Most of the other girls were from Longuyland---except I was regularly taken aback when they got on the phone to their parents or when one of their mothers or fathers dropped by.
Their conversations were always in Cantonese.
This shouldn’t have surprised me. After all I knew Italian-American kids who spoke Italian with their older relatives, Hispanic kids who spoke Spanish with theirs. I think it was the abrupt shift in and out of the Valley Girl accents that made it sound as if each girl was two completely different people taking turns occupying the same space and ugly red, white, and blue uniforms. But maybe it was simply a prejudice of mine that caused Chinese to sound less American to my chauvinistic ear than Italian or Spanish and so these girls I thought I knew and considered friends were suddenly transformed into strangers. Aliens.
Naturally, the longer I lived in Boston and the more I got used to it being like most major cities a polyglot city run by the children and grandchildren of immigrants the less this surprised me. The less I even noticed it. Nobody in the whole town, not even the may-ah, South Boston Irish by way of Hah-vud at the time, spoke proper Murkin. At the theater the most heavily accented person working there was the girl from Dawchestah, who probably wondered where I got my strange flat-voweled accent. Kansas, maybe? West Dakota? One of those tabletop states where people talked like the landscape, corny, dully level, and boring.
At any rate, I would bet that at the time our movie theater was the biggest Chinese-speaking movie theater in Boston.
There was another theater in the chain on the edge of Chinatown, but the ushers and counter girls there were mostly white kids. Again, friends helping friends.
So, based on the number of employees who were fluent in Chinese, you could say that English was our staff’s second language.
Except? You know? It like wasn’t?
Nobody spoke Chinese to customers, and while the guys occasionally exchanged a few words with each other in Chinese, the girls never did, and when one of the guys slipped up and said something in Chinese to one of the girls, she’d always answered back in English.
Mike Wallace, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the exhibit's chief historian, says that even so, immigration from Latin America is a bit under the radar.
Case in point: Many assume that Hispanics didn't start coming to the U.S. until after 1945; but the first known Hispanic immigrant, Juan Rodriguez, actually arrived in New York from the island of Hispaniola in 1613. Many would also place sugar production in the Caribbean, but Brooklyn was also a center for refining sugar from Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The exhibit sounds interesting, and beautiful, and I might actually get a chance to take it in this Friday, which would be great. But the part of this story about Hispanic New York City that triggered my memories of Chinese Boston, one tiny patch of it, anyway, was this:
The show, Nueva York (1613-1945), smashes a lot of preconceptions and makes some pretty shocking predictions — the most notable of which is, Get ready, America, because you're going to be a Spanish-speaking nation.
Filmmaker Ric Burns, who has made a half-hour documentary for the exhibit, says that’s because the current Spanish-speaking wave of immigration is expected to last about 150 years — while the peak of the European wave of immigration lasted only about 40 years.
"Sometime in 2060 or 2070, the United States in general will be more Latino heritage than Anglo heritage or non-Latino heritage," Burns says. "And before the end of the 21st century, the United States will be the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. That's just a mind-boggling reality."
I’m not sure what Burns means by this.
He probably doesn’t mean that in fifty or sixty years babies born with the last names O’Hara, Silverstein, Patel, and Yee are going to grow up saying mi casa es su casa not to be cute and clever but because that’s how you say it in nuestro pais, los Estados Unidos.
Probably he means that we’ll be the largest Spanish-speaking country the way we’re already the largest Catholic country and, I’m told, the second-largest Mandarin-speaking country.
I suspect him of trying to be provocative.
It’s fun to imagine Republican heads exploding all over Arizona at the thought that he’s saying their nightmares are about to come true.
I think that more and more little patches of the United States will be like large patches of it are now, Spanish-speaking the way our movie theater was Chinese-speaking. I don’t know how long that will last. For a long time during the 19th Century the United States had a very large German-speaking population. I expect that what will likely happen is that American English, as much as there is such a single language, will become infused with more and more Spanish words that people will accept as English words the way we now don’t notice all the French, German, Yiddish, Gaelic, Native American, and Spanish words we use as a matter of course.
But what do I know? What do I care? I’ll be muerto.
In the meantime, I like living in a place where no one speaks proper English. I like going into the new little market in town, which is owned and run by a family of mixed Dominican and Cuban immigrants and children of immigrants and listening to the deli guys and the cashiers carry on conversations in Spanish. I like going for take-out at the Chinese restaurant and hearing the owner and her four year old son talk back and forth in a mixture of English and Mandarin. I like sitting in the cafe at Barnes and Noble and realizing that the argument over Dickens at the next table is being conducted in Russian.
Oliver Mannion approves of one of my rules for telling you’re in a real American city, which is that you’re walking along or riding a bus or sitting in a restaurant and eavesdropping on a conversation with half an ear and more or less following along or at least getting the gist and it doesn’t dawn on you for a good five minutes that the people you’re eavesdropping on are speaking Spanish or Mandarin or Russian or Swahili or Farsi or Greek.
He doesn’t understand how to some Americans overhearing a conversation in a language other than English is scary, as if they’re listening in on a couple of Martians exchange recipes on how to serve Mankind.
Oliver reported recently that a kid came to one of his classes sporting a t-shirt that said “You’re in America Now. Speak English.”
The class was Spanish.
A hundred years ago, when I lived in Boston and worked at that movie theater, Catonese was the dominant dialect among the residents of Chinatown. That’s been changing.
From the journal writer Tim Long’s kept during New York City’s Long, Hot Summer of 1977:
JULY 13th: Citywide blackout! With the air-conditioning down, Bella and I went out onto the street to keep cool in the breeze of bullets whizzing by. We then joined in the fun—turns out I have a real gift for looting! Our haul for the night: five TVs, a city bus, and the entire contents of Halston’s Central Park West apartment . . . including Halston himself, who was remarkably gracious when we helped him out of our shopping cart the next morning.
LABOR DAY: Went to drown my sorrows at McSorley’s, on Seventh Street. The Yankees stars Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson were there. Reggie told me to forget about Bella, and that I was the “straw that stirs the drink.” Munson beat me up for listening to Reggie, then Reggie beat me up for letting a no-talent like Munson beat me up. Then the Yankees’ manager, Billy Martin, showed up and beat us all up.
On Saturday, April 24th, the Opera Company of Philadelphia teamed up with the Reading Terminal Market Italian Festival for a large-scale "Flash Opera" event! Over 30 members of the Opera Company of Philadelphia Chorus and principal cast members of LA TRAVIATA performed the famed "Brindisi" in the aisles of Reading Terminal Market, entertaining hundreds of Philadelphians, and proving that the perfect accompaniment for all things Italian is a little Verdi! The Opera Company sincerely thanks members of the Opera Company of Philadelphia Chorus and cast for generously volunteering their time and talents... BRAVI TUTTI!! LA TRAVIATA runs from May 7 - 16 at the Academy of Music. For tickets/info: 215-893-1018 or operaphila.org