Saturday, September 13, 2008


Oy! There was a third disc in the “Manor House” series! This one was a bit hokey and certainly scripted to provide plot line: Monsieur the Cook took to his bed with stomach flu just as a party was planned but the “low” servants coped, Singh got insulted, and so on. At one party a huge bald black man in a lavender suit arrived to take up the duty of being the conscience of the Empire since he was from the Caribbean. At the end the two love birds stripped and jumped into one of the big soft company beds!! Rigid Mister Edgar and the indulgent housekeeper were not able to keep up the pretense of being shocked. In a lovely lingering and leveling parting, people started in their Edwardian role, passed through a door or were momentarily obscured by blowing laundry, and emerged in jeans and leather jackets. The repressed and confined sister went speeding off in a red convertible -- her OWN. The cook leapt over a fence. Mister Edgar went back to being a genial grandpa architect in sweater and cords.

But the disc makes a good lead-in to the article that has been preoccupying me this week. It was on, if you know that crowd: “The Third Culture” and so on, which prides itself on getting out in front by drawing on both science/math and humanities. Jonathan Haidt’s article is called “What Makes People Vote Republican?” I sent it to one of my most insightful and vigorous Unitarian friends who said, “At last! I never could figure out why ANYONE would be a Republican!” Actually, I ended wondering why anyone would join either of these political parties.

Haidt explains his insight by telling how he’d been going along studying morality and culture at fine universities in the US, then had a chance to study in India in 1993. Here he was, a liberal atheist determined to be a tolerant and non-interfering anthropologist. In Bhubaneswar he found a society that was more hierarchical than the Manor House, totally unsanitary (undisgusted by washing and drinking in rivers full of floating bodies, offal, and cows) and sex-segregated. But after living there a while, achieving reciprocity of friendship, duties, and interdependence, it all seemed reasonable. It was simply a way of protecting a maximum of people with a minimum of resources: “A system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.”

Clifford Geertz, another U of Chicago anthropologist, was never one of my professors but I’ve been much impressed by his writing. In particular, he told a story about Indonesia someplace where a man had left his traditional religion, which his neighbors practiced, but then he suddenly died. He had not been in the religion to which he was converted long enough for anyone to know how he should be buried, but they knew he had left their own way. So he lay in his house, rotting. The anthropologist had to tactfully step in to suggest rites that would get rid of the body in an efficient and dignified manner. It strikes me that in this multi-cultural world, where so many are confused among tradition, conversion, and innovation, we are in something like the same position. How do we become “global?” Who can do what and how? Where is the universal?

Normally, a culture emerges from an economy dependent on a climate and an ecology, the resources and history of a place. This happens over a period of time, organically, as people have insights and borrow from others. But if one is DESIGNING a culture, what are the guidelines?

Much of people’s intuitive feeling of what is “right” comes from their life experience. So at First Unitarian Church in Chicago, whenever worship design came up, the black former-Baptists wanted more singing, the former-Episcopalians wanted more ornamentation, the former-Quakers wanted more intervals of silence, and so on. In the same way, when outsiders come to Valier, some insist on sidewalks, some yearn for the opera, some resent the wind, and some locals feel invaded and scolded. The 21st century participants in the Manor House show, both high and low, were always in uproar because of isolation or task loads or house rules they just weren’t used to. Maybe the exception was the lady of the house, an emergency physician who became quite attached to ease and pleasure -- though she did think that such garments as crotchless bloomers made her husband a bit excessively randy. And she wept over her enforced distance from her son.

Haidt is after dimensions and assumptions about what “feels right.” He says to imagine five “sliders” such as the ones that control sound: continuums on the dimensions of ingroup/loyalty, purity/sanctity, and authority/respect -- which are much emphasized by people with Republican-type orientations. Then two values more focused on the individual’s interests: harm/care and fairness/reciprocity are more like the Democrat priorities. But they so emphasize independence and even (let’s face it) self-indulgent narcissism that the unity of the whole is endangered. (Watch the Unitarian movement tear itself apart once again by pulling in all sorts of people without adequately defining a strong reason to stick together.)

There is at a chance to test your own morality. After the first quiz, I wandered off yawning because it was all too simplistic and either/or. There is a series of tests. The first one told me I can tolerate a lot of disgusting stuff. You could have just asked me and I’d have told you.

In fact, the discussion of “disgust” as a moral guide seems to me one of the most valuable and interesting parts of the article. For one thing it seems to me that many young people are so little disgusted by almost anything that one fears for their simple sanitation! But the generations that survived the Depression and WWII have already faced so many disgusting elements, that they seem determined to never again have anything to do with mud, dog poop, soured milk, weeds, dirty hands, unconventional sexual orientations or practices, dead animals, rot or disorder of any kind -- all signs of poverty. They feel that anything that smells bad or is slimy or has to do with the “Other” (animals, babies, women and foreigners) is a threat to civilized living. The “low” servants in the Manor House are the ones who empty the chamber pots, pluck the game birds, deal with garbage and fuel, take out ashes, and get down on their hands and knees to brush the carpets. For doing this hard work, they are paid less.

What is interesting to me is that today’s young have embraced the disgusting as a kind of liberation and defiance! Smelling “natural,” doing icky sexual things, piling up with animals, wallowing in mud, tattooing, piercing, even talking dirty -- they are drawn to the “Other” in any form, including drugs. Addicts, of course, are notorious for their filth and disorder.

What this does in the end is to reinforce the stodgy old Repubs who made it through the disgusting Depression and War -- even confinement and torture -- so that they could have a clean, well-lighted, orderly life in which to raise their children. All they really want is predictable stability, which appears to them to be produced by hierarchy and authority. These sentiments justify seizing control.

The next step, of course, is to figure out how to keep that from going wrong, either through predatory authorities or an ecology simply overwhelmed by its population. Maybe the Edge will get to it after the election, like so many other things. Certainly it will tell us a lot about the “slider” settings of American morality. I predict that the upshot will be another one of those fifty-one per cent decisions and we will go on tussling among ourselves for another generation or so. Unless, as at the end of the Edwardian Era, we are precipitated into another disgusting war winnable only by strict hierarchy. Or worse, ecological chaos.

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