Monday, February 27, 2012

Looking Backward(ly)

One, almost palpable, aspect of growing older is the increasing amount of nostalgia that permeates one's view of the world at large.

As we grow older, and as change becomes a significant feature of the presentness of the world we inhabit, we begin to remember the past almost as a physical space: houses, landscapes, objects, people. Historians and archaeologists probably suffer more than most, because we "remember" not only our own pasts, but those of others. Whether or not we bathe our visions in some kind of gauzy, golden light, masking difficulties, injustices, or even horrors, we nevertheless tend to paint our ideas of the future with the palette of the past.

Several recent events and observations have brought all of this to mind, the most recent of which is the Academy Awards ceremony (with its focus on early cinema), coupled with Pat Buchanan's departure from MSNBC.

Mind you, I've never thought much of Buchanan's picture of the world which, as Brian Stelter mentions in today's New York Times, is firmly rooted in the idyllic Ozzie and Harriet past that coincides with my own childhood in the fifties. But while my childhood was populated by multi-racial people and multi-cultural life, Buchanan's was white, straight, Catholic, and (in his mind, at least) hewed to those fine Republican values inherited from our Founding Fathers. In my case, although both of my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers were of Canadian extraction, immigration wasn't really part of our background; both my father's and mother's families had been in North America since the Revolutionary War. I'm not sure how long Buchanan's people had been in this country, but like many of his fellow (Tea Party) Americans, he seems to think that early immigrations from Europe were somehow different from those occurring now.

Buchanan's beliefs and politics were informed by Catholicism as practiced in America the Beautiful, while mine were informed by Catholicism practiced in Japan and Taiwan, preached by priests from Italy and China, and were severely tested by Vatican II. By 1963 I had left the Church, primarily because it had rejected many of the traditions it had accrued through time (Latin masses, smells and bells) and that had kept me "faithful" for as long as I was. Having not grown up in suburban America, however, I never did form an attachment to its mythical elements. Not being exposed much to television probably helped.

I try to be a realist, and to ground my hopes for the future in a clear sense of what has actually happened rather than some imaginary Golden Age. In doing so, I am constantly reminded of the criticism directed at William Morris's Medievalist socialism. Whenever I mention his work (at least when the immediate response isn't "Oh, yeah, the wallpaper guy"), the comments that follow usually point out that the Middle Ages he so admired had been radically depopulated by plague, and, besides, who would want to live that way, anyway? And post-apocalyptic films and fiction play on the notion that "Medieval" equals "Stone Age." Get rid of what we have now, the novels all suggest, and we'll be wandering down interminable roads, eating one another, living in squalor, and/or we'll become victims of one or another rampantly repressive ideology. (Update, October 24: a terrific new example is the television series, Revolution.)

All of the above will, according to the Buchananesque prognosis, be caused by lowered birthrates among the middle class (due to the use of abortion as birth control), increasing immigration from third-world countries, rising diversity in the armed forces (gays, women, folk of color), godless humanists, and all manner of plagues and diseases brought on by our increasingly wanton ways. Liberals in general, and Barack Obama in particular, are "destroying America," as I've heard over and over again from participants in the Republican caucuses As Seen On TV. What can only follow is the end of Western Civilization, or at least of American Exceptionalism, as we know it.

Of course, I'm not at all convinced that this is a bad thing. A smaller, multi-racial, more culturally diverse populace might well lead to innovative solutions to economic and social problems. If the self-described Conservatives want smaller government, the only way we can accomplish it is to decrease our population. If we want to increase self-reliance, we need to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, foodstuffs, and technology from foreign sources, and re-learn how to make many of the products we now buy from others, such as textiles.

Pat Buchanan's idyllic mid-century America was only half the size of the current one. Women were only just beginning to acquire the ability to pursue careers other than child-rearing, and Blacks were still being seated at the back of the bus. We were involved in or heading into an interminable series of conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan), and barely averted World War III more than once in subsequent years. Divorces were rarer (although not in my family), but perhaps only because they were harder to get. Infant mortality has declined significantly since 1950, but minority children die at a much higher rate than whites, and the overall rate in the US is rather embarrassingly higher than for any other developed country. The effects on BabyBoomers' lives may not have been as devastating as the Black Death, but neither are they all that laudable.

If nostalgia is, at best, an ambiguous condition, I'm not sure that future generations will be affected by it much at all. As I struggle to reach new crops of students by instilling an interest in the past and what it can teach us, I find myself swimming in a rip-current of apathy, if not antipathy. Fewer and fewer of my pupils consider the past as particularly valuable; instead, they wonder what it has to do with them, now. "How is this information going to help me in my career?" they ask. The question is genuine rather than churlish. They really do want to know what utility I can offer, but I'm never sure how to answer them. The old saws about how general education will make them better people, or how knowing the past will help them avoid making the same mistakes don't hold much truck with a group hell-bent on fame and fortune in the game or fashion industries. The best I can offer is that the past, especially in the visual arts, represents a gold mine of ideas and images. At least as long as you cite your finds properly.

From an archaeological perspective, the present is the surface, under which lie immeasurable treasures. Education provides only what amounts to a surface collection of odds and ends that indicate what one might find underneath. The more practical contribution schooling makes to our future lives is to provide us--if we're fortunate to have decent teachers--with the tools we need to excavate the past, connect the ideas and objects we locate there with our contemporary needs and desires, and interpret them carefully and fairly. My parents and grandparents told me stories about my ancestors that made me want to know more about "the olden days." But they also insisted on telling me how hard it had been, and ultimately how unfair things were for others who didn't fare as well as we had.

If real knowledge and wisdom don't somehow emerge from the massive piles of information being heaped on this generation, in their future nostalgia might simply become a dismal undertaking, rather than a potentially rewarding exercise in plumbing memory. Rather than longing for imagined, distant glory, we should be showing our kids how to reflect critically on what they remember in order to faithfully craft the stories they tell their own children.

Note: This essay has concurrently been posted on Owl's Farm.

Image credit: In truth, I don't know where I got this; it was just in my archives for use in class. But the image is a bas relief designed by Philip Webb and executed by George Jack on a cottage in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire. I think the relief was commissioned by Jane Morris, in memory of her husband, and certainly captures his pensive demeanor. I have a copy of it at my desk at school.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fracking the Future

Americans seem to be so deeply mired in oil culture that we're never going to escape.

As I wandered through various websites on my Sunday morning catch-up-with-the-news efforts, several stories caught my attention--from Good, Grist, the Times, and other sites that keep me apprised of the world's goings on (since I can't really rely on the Daily Poop to cover much that doesn't happen locally). I tend to focus on energy issues out of habit, and a number of stories resonated with what I've been noticing about a general reluctance to take alternative energy sources seriously in this country.

I was watching Bill Maher's Friday night show on HBO, Real Time, only because there was absolutely nothing else on, and both the Beloved Spouse and I were too tired to do anything but veg. I find Maher mildly amusing at best, and more often irritating, but his guest was Alexandra Wentworth who is both very funny and married to George Stefanopolis. We stayed with the show until the end, mostly out of inertia. Maher's peanut gallery (consisting of Eliot Spitzer, Erin McPike, and Steve Moore) went on to comment on various news items as Maher brought them up. Moore (a Libertarian, co-author of Return to Prosperity) [note: I originally, and mistakenly, referred to this as "Return to Posterity], when talking about clean energy (wind and solar) kept insisting that it's "not economical" and we have to keep fracking and pumping in order to fuel (pardon the pun) future economic recovery. But as any good logic teacher knows, simply asserting something over and over again doesn't make it true; and Moore lacked the time to back his assertion up with any evidence.

But this general notion--that the only "economical" solution to our dependence on foreign oil is to pump more of our own, or find a "bridge" (like natural gas) to tide us over--seems to be embedded in the "conservative" world view at the moment (which doesn't seem all that conservative, upon reflection). Pundits and politicians alike consistently dismiss renewable resources as not cost-effective, or uneconomical. Then they bring up Solyndra as a whipping boy: see what happens when you fund this sort of thing?

Well, according to David Roberts's article in Grist from Friday, the whole Solyndra episode seems to amount to nothing more than a bad call on the part of the Obama administration. The year-long investigation into the loan has turned up, in Robert's words, "Bupkis. Nothing." All efforts to locate wrong-doing have produced nothing more than evidence that it was "a decision made based on merits, undone by economic shifts in the international solar market, with embarrassing political optics. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing. There is no 'scandal.'"

Opponents to alternative fuel sources seem to want this to turn out badly for purely political reasons. Prove that the administration proceeded with this deal for corrupt reason, and it'll tar (again, pardon) the whole industry.

Another story that gave me pause (and reminded me that folks are constantly trying to invent alternatives to fossil fuels) came from Good: Fuel Gets Fruity: Converting Produce Scraps into Gas. Biofuel made from readily available materials seems to be popping up all over the place. Someday, perhaps, we'll all have home scrap-digesters instead of LP gas tanks or natural gas lines running into our homes. As much as I like cooking with gas, I'm working on eliminating the need for it, since I really do think we're running out, and it bloody well terrifies me anyway. Recent evidence also points to the possibility that natural gas isn't as clean as we're being told it is, and is thus much less promising as a cleaner "bridge" fuel that can help us wean ourselves from oil and coal.

The recent move to take another, closer look at the Keystone pipeline drew the ire of the right (we need the jobs and the oil, they say, even though most of the jobs would be temporary and the oil itself would be exported). But according to another article in Grist, by Jess Zimmerman, anti-Keystone folks are finding new allies in the Tea Party: those who don't like the fact that if the pipeline builders can't buy your property from you, they'll just take it via eminent domain.

If only people could see that reliance on fossil fuels is every bit as dangerous to our rights as the taking of property against our will. Don't basic rights to clean air and water come under the notion of a right to life and liberty?

Perhaps because there aren't measurable price tags attached to the breathability of air or the drinkability of water, we can't see them in the more concrete sense that we can property values (even though these are tied to issues of clean air and water). And how do we begin to attach economic value to the ability of future generations to grow crops on land radically altered by changing rain patterns and mean temperatures, or to make a living from polluted fisheries?

What if the idea of prosperity had more to do with well-being than with cash? A transformation in the national psyche from a monetary model of the good life to one based on sustainability and long-term viability seems to be in order. But there seem to be only small glimmers of hope that our national preoccupation with the cash value of what we're leaving our kids (rather than the kind of a planet they're going to inherit) is going to change any time soon.

Image credit: The photo is of the Urban Planet building at Shanghai's Expo 2010. According to its designers, "The exhibition was characterized by a dichotomous structure illustrating the two-faced character of the city as both a consumer of environment and as a place for innovation and technology in the service of an ecological renewal for the future." (via Wikipedia)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Bicentennial, Mr. Dickens

This is quite the year for anniversaries, so I thought I'd start acknowledging them both on the Farm (when appropriate) and on the Cabinet--beginning with Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. Dickens worked and wrote tirelessly about the appalling social conditions in nineteenth-century England, and many of the causes he championed were the same ones William Morris embraced.

If I needed any prompting to remember the date, Google's Doodle for today provides a cute reminder, along with a linked Google search on Dickens (coming up with the Wikipedia article first, of course, followed by Google Books editions of his works; you can get a better list using "Charles Dickens"). But since I try to encourage inquiry beyond the obvious, I thought I'd link a few choice bits here for anyone inclined to celebrate.

During my otherwise largely misspent youth, I binged for some time on nineteenth-century English novels, especially those of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Dickens. My interest paid off, because when a grad student in the English department at Penn needed someone to type his dissertation on Dickens's serial techniques, I got the gig, and gave him a deal: 50 cents a page. I loved doing it, and took away a much deeper understanding of the man and his work.

The Dickens oeuvre is massive (online versions of his works abound, but go to Project Gutenberg for a list that includes audiobooks (the link is to the "D" page; scroll down). Folks like me, who prefer hard copy, can find numerous editions at Half Price Books, and occasionally snag nice old copies with pretty covers, like my People's Editions from 1883. Marks inside the covers show I spent between 50 cents and a dollar for each. I bought a good acid-free copy of Our Mutual Friend in London, and should probably begin again to remedy lapses in my library.

This week's news outlets are packed with stories, and many tout his social views: against slavery, supportive of "fallen women," and especially his identification with the poor and downtrodden: The Guardian (on literacy), The Christian Science Monitor (on the 19th century 99%), but not, alas, the Daily Poop, which has noted only what others are doing. My favorite bit is from The Guardian: A Fiendishly Difficult Birthday Quiz, for the true aficionados. And no, I haven't taken it, nor would I do all that well if I did, having not read the man's work for forty years. But that copy of Our Mutual Friend I bought in 1971 is next on my list of bedtime reading.

Some of the absolute best sources on Dickens can be found on the web. My favorite is the official Dickens Museum site, and the Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth (a late, dear friend of mine was also born in Portsmouth, and loved this museum). The Morgan Library and Museum's online exhibit, Charles Dickens at 200, is spectacular. If you're in New York, you can visit it yourself--although it closes February 12.

Huge numbers of films have been made of the books, most of which I have refused to see because Dickens's plots and characters are far too complex for Hollywood not to mangle. The 1946 David Lean version of Great Expectations is the only exception I can think of (mainly because I saw it when I was young and, as yet, untutored in things Dickensian; the link is to the Criterion Collection edition, which is beautiful)--although my husband swears by the 1977 serial television production of Nicholas Nickleby. Perhaps on some dark and stormy night I'll relent and start collecting selected DVDs.

There was also a PBS biographical series on Dickens back in 2003. It's probably time to see if that's available, since his own life story is every bit as interesting as his fiction. Speaking of biographies, there's a relatively new one out by Michael Slater (2009), Charles Dickens: A Life Defined By Writing (Yale UP, 2009), which I haven't read but intend to get. Last November, David Gates reviewed two more in The New York Times (by Claire Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst).

There are a number of good Dickens portraits available online (my favorite is the George Herbert Watkins photo that opens this post), in many media. A quick image search can locate dozens. But because Dickens was such an outspoken figure, he was frequently lampooned. The best of the caricatures is probably this one, by André Gill ("Dickens crosses the English Channel, carrying books from London to Paris" from the cover of the French newspaper, L'Eclipse. Gill was a prolific caricaturist, and many public figures relished being portrayed by him.

Not far from where I lived in Philadelphia, in one of the vest-pocket parks the city has sprinkled all over the urban environment, is this statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop. I remember a lit prof once telling the class that ships passing one another while crossing the Atlantic as the book was appearing in serial form would call to one another, "Does Little Nell still live?" My, how things have changed.

I'll have to think of an appropriately Dickensian brew for the Beloved Spouse this evening, and raise a glass to a superb novelist with an admirable social conscience. He ought to be assigned reading for people running for political office.

Image credits: Photograph of Charles Dickens by George Herbert Watkins; albumen print, 1858. (National Portrait Gallery; also available on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons). The photo of Clark Park's Dickens and Little Nell statue is by Bruce Anderson, via Wikimedia Commons. The Gill cartoon is from the Wikipedia Article on L'Eclipse.