Tag Archives: American life

Journeyman oligarch: remembering Scalia

Most everyone here has heard about the death of Antonin Scalia, right? He was the right-winger’s right-winger on the US Supreme Court, the guy who’d voice the outrageous opinions. With Scalia in the background snarling about gay sex (not even gay marriage, but gay sex— he was against legalizing it), torture, and the death penalty, his vanilla right-winger colleagues got to look sane and decent. In the interests of balance and fairness, I should add, my smart, progressive lawyer daughter describes Scalia’s legal reasoning as very high quality– apparently he was not stupid. Stupid or not, though, Scalia did his best to push American morals enforcement back toward the bronze age. Fortunately the tides of history were mostly against him, and he didn’t get very far with that project.

But it’s another story when you think about what he helped do to our public life– because he was highly effective in helping normalize the gift-exchange lifestyle that’s come to define our power elites, liberal and right-wing alike. That’s the system that allows our public servants to cavort with the billionaires, despite earning only six-figure incomes; the truly wealthy supply the merely powerful with golf trips, hunting trips, high-end dinners, private jet travel, and on and on. The wealthy don’t necessarily get favorable laws and legal decisions as payback for their generosity, but at least their phone calls get returned.

Most of our public institutions have various rules and oversight procedures that at least complicate these gift exchanges, requiring say that public business be discussed in the course of visiting some high-end resort, or that speeches be made, or computer factories visited. But because the Supreme Court is the ultimate tribunal for all our national squabbles, nobody gets to tell its judges what to do– and Scalia delighted in reminding us that he didn’t care what the rest of us thought. His best-known escapade came in 2004, when he went duck hunting with Vice President Dick Cheyney, whose big case the Supreme Court had just agreed to hear. (Of course everyone traveled to the hunting grounds by private jet, at the invitation of some billionaire petroleum guy; that wasn’t even the issue that got people riled up.) In response to questions, Scalia assured everyone that “I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned” because of the hob-nobbing.

He was true to that lifestyle right up to the end– he died in bed, in the course of a paid-for junket to an enormous hunting ranch in Texas, owned by a manufacturing magnate and accessible (of course) only by private jet.  Sadly, the rumors that he died with a pillow over his head seem to be unfounded– really, couldn’t the Powers that Rule the Universe have given us a leather-clad gay prostitution scene gone wrong? On the other hand, apparently the folks on this hunting junket were mostly members of something called the St Hubertus Society, which the Washington Post describes as a “worldwide, male-only society” whose members “wear dark-green robes emblazoned with a large cross” and a snappy Latin motto. So at least the kinky, guys-off-by-themselve-in-pseudo-medieval-costumes overtones weren’t entirely absent.

The awfulness in stories like these is truly multi-dimensional. There’s the humiliating spectacle of a smart, accomplished, famous guy depending for his pleasures on the kindness of oil patch billionaires. There’s the hypocrisy of mixing luxury duck hunting with reverence for Christian values, which Scalia ostentatiously endorsed; in Saint Thomas More’s Utopia, in fact, all hunting is classed as “a thing unworthy to be used of free men,” because it makes them indifferent to others’ suffering. There’s the assertive inequality, what with all those exclusive resorts and private jets, and even the Donald-Trump-lite tackiness of it all– if a Supreme Court Justice is going to sell out, shouldn’t it be for something a little more classy?

Usually folks toward my end of the political spectrum tend to credit Scalia with one redeeming feature: apparently he was a good friend, and his friendships didn’t track his politics. Famously, he was “best buddies” (her words) with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, generally viewed as the court’s top liberal. He was also “hunting buddies” (in the words of the Atlantic Monthly) with Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed to the Supreme Court in 2010; she’s less liberal than Ginsburg but way to Scalia’s left. (As a footnote, who knew we had not one but two big game hunters on the Supreme Court?)

Should the rest of us applaud all this good-natured collegiality? Usually we’re encouraged to, because warmth across the political divide offers hope in an otherwise-toxic political environment. It’s supposed to show that good sense and reason can prevail even when people disagree.

But I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the collegial warmth thing, as readers here probably picked up long ago. I mean, I’m all in favor of max politesse in the day-to-day, but actual friendship, in the face of disagreement over the death penalty, torture, and sexual freedom?? Actual lives are at stake in these matters, right?  If that’s not important enough to strain a friendship, what would be?   Klan membership?

My suspicion is, the gift exchange culture and the collegiality are just two more sides of our contemporary oligarchical culture. Within the oligarchy, you’re all friends.  Friends help one another out with the occasional hunting vacation, and they socialize without causing troublesome rifts. Good-natured ideological banter is fine, even pleasing– it shows our diversity, the vigor of our democratic debates. But treating torture or the death penalty as life-and-death, friendship-ending matters– that’s going too far.  It would just make everyone uncomfortable.

Scalia’s explicit moral crusades were mostly a bust– but in the work of oligarchy-building, he leaves behind a solid journeyman’s legacy.


Historians and progress, some further thoughts

A few weeks ago, I offered some thoughts about the tangled, mixed-up relationship we historians have with the idea of progress. My own entangled feelings include love for our modern gadgets and means of communication; worries about climate-change, atomic war, and all the other killer threats that lurk right around the corner; sadness at the human connections we’ve lost in the last few decades; delight in the easing of the puritanism, sexism, and racism that still ruled in the 1950s; fear that those achievements are about to be rolled back. And then, like most historians these days, I take cultural relativism seriously– meaning, in thinking about societies, my starting assumption is they’re all about equally successful in organizing themselves. Can you even have an idea of progress without the belief that some ways of living are just plain better than others?

My post talked about the strangeness of doing history in this post-idea-of-progress world. Of course we can still write about the past, and do it very well. But can we believe in the significance of what we’re doing? If we don’t believe the world is going anywhere in particular, does it matter all that much where it was a few hundred years ago? I quoted the historian E. H. Carr, who thought you actually couldn’t do history without believing in progress. A fair number of our students seem to agree with him– they’re very interested in the recent past, whose connections to their own lives they can see, but they have no sense that what happened during (say) the sixteenth century shaped their own lives today.

Thinking about that question of historians and progress got me thinking more than I usually do about why our sense of progress is so weak these days. I’ve come to think it’s a more interesting question than we usually imagine.

I mean, we’ve got all the usual suspects that explain cultural pessimism neatly lined up, the kind of forces that historians like to cite to explain (for instance) Europe’s dark mood after World War I.  Just in the last two decades, we’ve had wars, economic crises, genocides, destabilizing scientific discoveries. But the interesting thing is, these forces for doubt loomed even larger for previous generations, without cutting into their belief that the world was moving vigorously forward. My parents’ generation lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, atomic threats– our next door neighbor even built himself a backyward bomb shelter. Yet back in 1950s-ville everyone took “you can’t stop progress” as a slam-dunk life principle. It didn’t just come from the enthusiasts, either. People who hated the progress they were seeing shared the basic belief that it was inevitable.

So maybe we should consider the possibility that the external shocks — the wars, crises, and collective crimes– aren’t the whole story, maybe not even the main story. Maybe this is an area where we should highlight human agency, and look to political choices, made by identifiable groups of people, instead of big outside forces.

To see that side of things, think about what’s happening to today’s children and young adults. Almost nobody nowadays believes their kids will live as well as they do, and it’s likely things will be even worse for the following generation. We believe that because we see the mechanisms in action, in all those recently-installed measures that screw over the younger generations: we’ve ended low-cost higher education, crapified the public schools, shoved older folks’ health-care costs onto the healthy and young, ended workplace protections, created the monstrous student loan empires, and on and on.

So it’s not surprising we don’t believe in progress, despite all the miraculous inventions of the last few years– if you think life is going to be worse for the next generation than it is for us, that pretty much defines not believing in progress. But that disbelief isn’t a side effect of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or awareness of the Holocaust or the Global Economic Crisis of 2008 or the rise of China. It’s actually because we seem not to want progress in its most basic form, that of making young people better off than we are.

There’s a glimmer of hope in that conclusion, since collective decisions like these can be reversed. But this line of thought also raises a big historical question, that nobody seems to be asking these days:  why on earth are we mistreating the young people like this?

Friedrich Nietzsche, football, and American weirdness

American football is about to start up again– the professional teams have already played their first exhibition games, the college teams are busy training. So it’s a good moment to revisit that eternal question, what is it with us Americans and football? I mean, it’s by far our favorite sport, while most everywhere else in the world it’s a freak-show curiosity. (The NFL tried establishing a branch in Europe, but it never caught on.) On this one, at least, American exceptionalism is alive and well. So if football is one of the things that separate us from the rest of humanity, what kinds of self-knowledge should it teach us?

Of course some of the lessons are pretty obvious. If football’s a window into American psyches, it’s clear we like violence and bright, crayola-style colors. We admire size; we like military discipline, fancy uniforms, and dictatorial leadership. No other sport gives as much power to its coaches, or so consistently tells its players to just shut up and do exactly what they’re told. Not just on the field, either. The coach in Philadelphia makes his players take a urine test every single day, to make sure they’re eating and drinking properly.

You might also think football shows that Americans believe in competition and that we take winning really, really seriously. After all, the NFL’s championship trophy is named for a guy who went around saying “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”– and (so Wikipedia teaches us) he wasn’t even the first football coach to use that line. Given American fondness for winner-take-all, everything-on-the-table capitalism, you can see how football fits in.

But here’s where things get complicated, because a lot of what goes on in football doesn’t quite track with a win-at-all-costs philosophy. Take the hiring and firing of coaches. Especially among the professionals, unsuccessful coaches get hired by new teams over and over; here in Buffalo, they just hired a guy who directed his previous team to a 48 percent winning record over six years, and he’s locally regarded as a huge catch. Meanwhile San Francisco just fired a coach who’d been fantastically successful, apparently because he pissed off the owner’s family.

Sometimes it’s the same with players. Just before last year’s Superbowl, I recounted the story of Marshawn Lynch, right now probably Buffalo’s most famous ex-resident. Lynch is a terrific player, whom the Buffalo citizenry pretty much drove out of town after a few minor misadventures. Since leaving, he’s taken the Seattle team to two championship games, while Buffalo has stayed mediocre– but I haven’t heard a peep of regret about his leaving. On the contrary, the main emotion has been complacency; you could sum it up as, “now the rest of the world will see why we didn’t like this guy.” (In fact it hasn’t played out like that, and Lynch has made it onto the list of adorable American sports stars, on the Shaquille O’Neal model– check out the videos of him gaming with another Superbowl star, playing kickball with kids in Oakland, and embracing another athlete’s mother at a celebration in San Francisco.)

Back in January, I thought Lynch’s story just showed the pleasures of moralizing. My line was, my Buffalo neighbors would rather be judgmental about bad behavior than watch their team win games. But now I’m having doubts, partly because Buffalo has just brought in several documented bad actors, without anyone getting too agitated about it. In fact the local paper ran a “he deserves another shot” column about the worst actor of the bunch.

So we’ve got something of an intellectual mystery here, and in those cases (as I’ve argued before) turning to the Great Philosophers can sometimes help. Where football’s concerned, I think we can do worse than turn to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The basic Nietzsche story, in case you haven’t encountered it before: he was a boy-genius professor of Greek, who turned increasingly to philosophical questions, became increasingly strange as he did so, and eventually went completely off the rails. Almost no one read his philosophical work during his lifetime, but that changed fast after his death, and for the last century he’s had hall-of-fame status among the Euro thinkers.

Nietzsche can help us divide the universal-human-nature layers of our football question from the what’s-with-us-Americans? layers.  On the universal side, he thought that most young men liked bashing into each other, and that we all like watching acts of violence and cruelty. So he’d say there’s nothing especially unusual about football-style games or about masses of people showing up to watch them. They express the basic human condition.

What he would say is distinctive about our football situation is the organization, and here the relevant idea comes from his 1887 Genealogy of Morals: “all utilities are only signs that a will to power has become lord over something and has stamped its own functional meaning onto it.” Which I take to mean, more or less: “lots of social arrangements look like they’re practical means for getting to reasonable objectives, like winning games or making money, but that appearance is deceptive. Really those social arrangements just show that one group has taken power over others, and thereby taken to itself the power of defining what constitute ‘practical means’ and ‘reasonable ends.’ The real story is about the power of some people over others.”

Or to put it more crudely: making grown men take daily urine tests isn’t a means to victory, it’s just a humiliating demonstration of power. Imposing your will on others is the objective.

Historians and irony, Part II

My last post talked about historians’ irony, which I presented as a way of approaching the past, a tendency not a specific interpretation. Irony-friendly historians tend to see people as having a limited handle on their circumstances, and even on their own intentions. Not knowing the world or ourselves very well, on this view, we humans regularly blunder into tragedy, generating processes we can’t control and outcomes we didn’t want. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.

I also suggested that irony of that kind is out of fashion nowadays. Not among all historians, and not 100 percent among any historians– as I said last time, we can never give it up altogether, because we know more than the people we study about how their stories turn out. But historians and irony are mostly on the outs right now, and that counts as something important about our era of historical writing. Open a recent history book, and you’re likely to encounter words like “contingency” and “agency.” Even late in the day, these words tell us, things could have gone differently, and individual decisions made a real difference. These words also tell us not to condescend to people in the past– not to view them as the helpless puppets of bigger forces, not to dismiss their efforts, hopes, and ideas, good and bad alike.

Things were REALLY different back in the mid-twentieth century, and they were still mostly different in the mid-seventies, when I got my PhD. In those days, the talk was all about long-term processes, societal changes, and the blindness of historical actors, and you found that talk pretty much everywhere in the profession, among Marxists and Freudians on the political left, modernization theorists and demographers in the middle, political historians on the right. These scholars mostly hated each other, but they agreed on a basic interpretive stance: big forces trumped individual wills.

So what happened? How did the history biz go from mainly-ironic to mainly-non-ironic? The question matters, because it touches on the ideological functions of history knowledge in our times. Mainly-ironic and mainly-non-ironic histories provide different lessons about how the world works.

Of course, some of the change just reflects our improving knowledge of the past. We talk more nowadays about contingency because we know so much more about the details of political change. We talk more about the agency of the downtrodden because we’ve studied them so much more closely– now we know that serfs, slaves, women, and other oppressed groups had their own weapons of small-scale resistance, even amidst terrible oppression. They couldn’t overturn the systems that enclosed them, but they could use what powers they had to carve out zones of relative freedom, in which they could live on their own terms.

And then, there’s what you might call the generational dialectic. Like most other intellectuals, we historians tend to fight with our intellectual parents– so if the mid-twentieth-century historians were all into big impersonal forces and longterm processes, it’s not surprising their successors looked to poke holes in their arguments, by pointing out all the contingencies and agency that the previous generation had missed. That’s one of the big ways our kind of knowledge advances, through criticism and debate. (For a discussion of this process as it works in a neighboring  discipline, see here.)

So there are plenty of reasons internal to the history profession that help account for irony’s ebb– and that’s without even mentioning the decay of Marxism, Freudianism, and all those other -isms that tried to explain individual behavior in terms of vast impersonal forces. Almost nobody finds those explanatory theories as persuasive as we once did, in the history department or anywhere else.

But having said all that, we’re left with an uncomfortable chronological juxtaposition: the historians’ turn to mainly-non-irony coincided with the circa-1980 neo-liberal turn in society at large, the cultural revolution symbolized by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. There’s a substantive juxtaposition as well: while we historians have been rediscovering agency among the downtrodden and freedom of maneuver among political actors, neo-liberal ideology has stressed individuals’ creativity and resourcefulness, their capacity to achieve happiness despite the structures that seem to imprison them. Unleashing market forces, getting people off welfare, reducing individuals’ reliance on public resources– these all start from the presumption that people have agency. They know what they’re doing, and they should be allowed to do it.

In other words, Edward Thompson’s warnings against “the enormous condescension of posterity” weirdly foreshadow various neo-con one-liners about how social programs and collective goods condescend to the disadvantaged. (For an example, check out George Will and George W. Bush talking about cultural “condescension.”)

Which of course is a pretty ironic thought, given that Thompson was a committed political activist and brilliant Marxist theorist. But if it could happen in the 1950s, it can happen now: intellectuals who hate each other and disagree on many specifics can nonetheless be teaching the same basic ideological lessons.

To me this suggests it may be time to rethink concepts like contingency and agency, or at least re-regulate our dosages. Maybe our alertness to agency has diminished our sensitivity to tragedy, to the ways in which circumstances really can entrap and grind down both individuals and whole communities. Maybe we need to think more about the long chains connecting specific political actions and constricting everyone’s freedom.

Maybe we historians need to stop being so damned optimistic!


Junior oligarchs in America: the Samantha Power case

My last post talked about some ways that power seeps into American intellectual life. It’s a complicated process, with lots of moving parts. But (I argued) it’s unwise to ignore any of those parts, even the ones that look like decorative frills. Ballet companies and English departments are remote from the world of policy think tanks and political candidacies– but funding the ones helps the others function effectively, by creating new spheres of influence and new sympathies in once-critical audiences.

Now I want to consider another example, which has more to say about the receivers of culture patronage. It’s the case of Samantha Power, currently US ambassador to the United Nations and the subject of a lengthy, fascinating New Yorker profile. It’s a case worth thinking about because Power so perfectly embodies the top echelons of American intellectual life. She has two Ivy League degrees, from Yale and Harvard, and she’s a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; she writes a lot, three books over the last decade, one a Pulitzer Prize winner, plus a stream of articles and occasional pieces; her husband Cass Sunstein belongs to the same world– he’s an ultra-prominent Harvard Law School professor.

So Power gives us one glimpse into American intellectual life at the center, where it has the greatest potential leverage. As you’ve probably noticed, it’s twenty-seven years and counting since we had a president without at least one degree from either Harvard or Yale; like Samantha Power, George W. Bush has two.

Of course the New Yorker article has lots to say about Power’s intellectual gifts and her capacity for nonstop hard work, but it also says lots about her personal charm; she’s tall, athletic, dresses well, and apparently enjoys the galvanic effect she has on many people she meets. Sure, all these details are there partly because of journalistic sexism (it’s hard to imagine Cass Sunstein getting quite the same appearance report card), but I don’t think that’s the whole story — charm takes multiple forms, and it seems to be a real component of intellectual life at the level Power inhabits. After all, most private universities in the US select for personal qualities as well as for grades and test scores; and as the most selective of the bunch, the Ivies can put extra weight on that side of the application process.

Certainly Power’s charm isn’t just a matter of good looks and athleticism. It also includes a warm, healthy, happy home life. The profile describes at length her attachments to her parents and her story-book wedding; and it describes her husband and kids watching from the gallery as she undergoes her pre-confirmation Senate grilling. Her family’s warm support is a part of what she’s giving us.

Reading all this reminded me of two brief observations about this top-echelon world that I recently encountered– both of them from outsiders, both off-hand remarks, yet both sharp enough that they’ve stayed with me.   One’s from an anonymous blog commenter, apparently a non-Harvard philosophy graduate student or youngish professor (all he tells us is his gender), describing a chance encounter with some apparently Harvard-connected young scholars– whom he sums up as “these happy, wholesome, self-confident, new-vanguard, shiny people from great schools going great places together.”

The other observation comes from the science journalist Daniel Bergner, toward the end of his wonderful book about current research on women’s sexuality.  The research he describes includes some pretty out-there experiments, testing physiological responses to porn images, for instance, and it generates some out-there conclusions, for instance, that women by nature are just as non-monogamous, sexual, and potentially crazy as men. Toward the end of his inquiries, Bergner realizes that the scientists he’s been tracking tend to work at non-top-echelon institutions; and finally he asks one of them “why I never found myself phoning the psychology departments of Harvard or Yale or Princeton, why I never spent time with their professors, why so few of America’s most elite universities devoted any attention to her field.”  The researcher replies that the Ivies just don’t do this kind of thing. Exploring sex in these ways is too weird, too potentially upsetting; it may contribute to happier homes, but it’s just as likely to blow up the whole concept.

All this to say, it’s not just Samantha Power. A certain vision of American-style middle-of-the-road happiness, health, and flourishing seems built into the intellectual world around her. A starker version of that commitment also comes out at the confirmation hearings, when senators ask about some of her early writings, in which she’d occasionally dissed the US. Of course she vigorously backtracked, calling America “the greatest country on earth” and “the most powerful country in the history of the world. Also, the most inspirational;” and she emphasizes that she “would never apologize for America.” The senators are impressed, and Power is confirmed.

Like any political encounter, Power’s confirmation hearing lends itself to multiple interpretations. We can read it as an ambitious political actor doing what’s necessary to reach a position of authority, where she can do some good.  Or we can read it as a textbook demonstration of how the real boundaries on American political discourse get set– namely, by those holding the real political cards, not by Harvard professors.

Or we can conclude that Power’s walk-back expresses beliefs she actually holds. Probably back home in Cambridge she wouldn’t use quite this Red State rhetoric. But the policies she’s advocated throughout her career– first as an intellectual, now as a participant– presuppose more or less this stance: from the outset, she’s endorsed American military intervention in troubled societies, on the assumption that it’s an inspirational force for good. That faith apparently remains unshaken by the disastrous results of our interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya– the last a project that Power herself helped design and continues to endorse.

My point is, we don’t need to look for a George Soros or a Koch brother pulling the strings in cases like this. Samantha Power shows us the deeper micro-processes in American intellectual life, processes that attach brilliant young people– “happy, wholesome, self-confident, new-vanguard, shiny people”–to the twenty-first-century American project.

Daughter of the sixties

My mother died just before Christmas, and of course there’s sadness about her being gone. Since the mid-eighties, we’d been spending a lot of time together, and we’d become way closer than when I was a kid.

But mostly this is not a sad story. Instead, it’s a story about what makes a good life in these weird modern/post-modern/pre-apocalypse times.

Certainly my mother had a good death, the kind we all dream of: in her sleep, at age ninety-seven, in the apartment she’d occupied for the past dozen years, surrounded by her favorite objects and furniture, following an afternoon of chatting and joking with her good-natured, affectionate, and effective caretaker. She’d been bed-ridden for the previous year, after a bad fall, and her mind had faded somewhat. But there was no pain, and the cognitive short-circuits were limited and mostly funny–to her as well as the rest of us, because although she lost some real memories, she also gained a set of vivid fakes, which she would humorously defend against my critical queries. Many had to do with driving, a skill she learned late and gave up early, without complaint. Who knew that all the while it had such a central place in her psychic life?

But otherwise she wasn’t that different, even in her last bed-ridden year. She still enjoyed her friends’ visits and news, had questions and opinions about world affairs, and indulged her appetites for dark chocolate and creme sherry. Anyway, she’d been playing the twinkly-eyed eccentric-little-old-lady role for years, so the last, bed-ridden version of it wasn’t really such a big change.

The course of her life had the same exemplary quality as her death. She was born at her grandparents’ farm in the southern tier of New York, and except for a couple of brief interludes lived the rest of her life within ninety miles of that spot– first at the farm her own parents bought in the same town, then in Rochester, where she became a nurse and worked at the main local hospital. Even then she remained connected to the farm– her parents lived there until they died, and she kept it for another decade after that. Various cousins still live in the area.

My father provided the only big disruption in this long tranquility. He was a non-practicing Ethical Culture-ethnic Jew from New York City who arrived in Rochester for medical school, fell for her, and insisted they get married. She thought it was a mistake, as did her future mother-in-law, who lived on Central Park West and prided herself on big-city sophistication– and of course they were right. In the end the marriage lasted fifteen years, but they’d already split up once before the final ending. My sister and I moved away with my father and his new wife, and my mother went back to work at the hospital. The next year she moved into a nearby duplex, which she bought when the owner died, and she lived there for the next fifty years; the retirement home where she died was a half-mile away.

You get the idea: farm childhood, strong family ties, decades of meaningful work for a single employer, a tranquil old age, a half-century in the same house — could you get any closer to an archetypal American life? Of course my father’s arrival and departure shook up the picture, but even they fitted one of the great American story lines. It was World War II, lots of people were being thrown together who otherwise would never have met, the ensuing relationships could be seen exploding all over the 1950s landscape. After it was all over, my mother’s life resumed its tranquil course, with the unexpected addition of her ex-mother-in-law. They became great pals, and spent a month together most summers.

So there’s an American Archetype version of my mother’s story, but it leaves something out, namely, the 1960s–because NYC-meets-farm girl wasn’t the only fault-line in her life. There were also the fault-lines that came from coping-in-suburban-America, and they may have been the bigger deal. Not for my father, who eagerly engaged with all aspects of suburban life, and never considered returning to the big city, even when that would have been the sensible move. But my mother could never quite make it work. She never got the codes, didn’t dress or talk like the other wives, became stiff and shy at strange moments, did too much at others. She was trying, but she just didn’t look or think like the others, and there were occasional meltdowns when she sensed my father’s dissatisfaction with her performance.

And then there was the question of work, which she gave up on marrying and only took up again after the divorce. Of course that’s what marrieds did back then, and she never expressed regret or talked of going back, at least in my hearing; probably both she and my father would have seen that as a humiliating sign of failure. Which in fact was strange, because her backwoods parents had a completely different idea– her mother was a teacher, kept teaching all through my mother’s childhood, and believed strongly that her daughter needed a profession of her own. It was my big-city father who took my mother out of the workplace and locked her up in new-growth suburbia.

I only understood what all this meant when I saw her back in the worforce after 1960, both at the hospital and hanging out after work with her fellow nurses. Of course they were a pretty rowdy crowd, having spent their days with naked bodies and big-time physical troubles, and my mother fitted right in. After fifteen years as a klutz-out, slightly off-kilter suburban wannabe, she had returned to competence and to socializing on her own terms. It was much the same back home at her duplex– not that she ever stopped being a little weird, but once she was out on her own, she started having a good time with it. (My daughter gives a terrific description of this mixture here.) The meltdowns had been a regular feature of her fifties life, but they pretty much disappeared after 1960.

I’ve made it sound like a feminist morality play, and that’s pretty much how I came to see it. My mother lived out many of the sixties liberationist themes, and she benefited from all of them. Her work, her own house, her own rowdy friends– suddenly she was a happy person. But the interesting thing is how she used all that sixties liberty– mainly, to get back to the life-tracks that had been laid out for her early on and that fitted her ideas of comfort, fun, and competence. In her life, it was the great fifties suburban enclosure that was the weird deviation; sixties radicalism allowed her to reconnect with her oh-so-traditional-looking past.

Were her experiences and emotions typical? Certainly not– suburbia keeps growing, faster than ever and world-wide, so people must be getting something out of it, as my father did. But maybe my mother’s experiences were typical in another sense, in what they show about the real dramas of the suburban/American way of life. We’re so accustomed to seeing suburbia as an effort to recreate small-town life that we don’t see its revolutionary force, the many aspects of ordinary life that it disrupts and reconfigures.  The standard labels–   preserving versus transforming, conservatives versus radicals– are even less help here than they usually are.

For my mother at least, the American Archetype story and the feminist morality play were pretty much the same thing.

Super Bowl edition: Achilles in Buffalo

For anyone interested in how American culture works, it’s worth considering the case of Marshawn Lynch, NFL star and ex-Buffalonian.

Most Americans already know the story, but readers who show up at this site may be a little behind the curve, so here are some basics: Lynch played for Buffalo during his first three years in pro football but failed to impress, and the team traded him to Seattle, where he reached mega-stardom and helped win last year’s Super Bowl; largely thanks to him, Seattle is back in the Super Bowl this year, a pretty rare achievement given how the NFL now works. His playing style is old school, exemplifying the coach-speak virtues: he’s apparently fearless, loves to hit, and has carried his team through several difficult moments. The sportswriters have been seriously impressed: “arguably the greatest individual run in football history,” is the line on one performance; and about another, “it has become impossible to imagine this team without him …. Each time Seattle needed a play as the game wound down, he was there with one.”

Even the position Lynch plays is something of a throwback. Running backs like him were the big stars of the 1950s and 1960s, but they’re an afterthought in the modern, passing-centric game.

All of which ought to have made him a big favorite in Buffalo. Up here we take NFL football very, very seriously, and we’re pretty old-school ourselves. In the abstract we know the 1950s are over, but we haven’t fully processed the information; we’re still mad that glamor quarterback/21st-century archetype Tom Brady once complained about our hotels.

Despite which, Lynch irritated the locals almost from day 1, and they’ve stayed irritated in the years since. It’s the quality of that irritation that seems to me so interesting.

Of course, the story includes some bad behavior on Lynch’s part. He was arrested one off-season for having a gun in his car trunk, and another time for a hit-and-run with his SUV; this happened on one of Buffalo’s premier night-life strips, so it’s not impossible that alcohol was involved. Lately he’s toned down the nightlife, but he’s been refusing to talk to the press, enraging journalists, internet commenters, and the NFL itself. The commissioner fined him $100,000 back in November– so rather than avoid reporters altogether, Lynch now shows up and repeats the same sentence in response to every question.

And of course race looms in the background, as it always does in American football. Nowadays two-thirds of NFL players are black, while most of the owners, coaches, quarterbacks, journalists, and fans are white. That reality comes up constantly when fans discuss players, especially when they discuss player misbehavior. Spend a half-hour or so reading internet comments about pretty much any football issue; if you had any delusions about America as a post-racial society, that’s the cure.

All this helps explain Buffalo’s Marshawn Lynch problem, but it’s not enough. On the race angle, Lynch’s replacement is also black, and he’s a local fan favorite, the public face of our biggest bank. And whatever race feelings are out there, Buffalonians are desperate for a successful team– we’ve had fifteen straight years without making the play-offs, the NFL’s longest losing streak. So you’d expect some regret that we gave away one of the sport’s reigning superstars, or some wondering why the success story didn’t happen here, or whether the coaches mismanaged a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Instead, the dominant motif in the stories I read is “good riddance.”

Doesn’t anyone care about winning anymore? Marshawn Lynch cares–otherwise he wouldn’t have dragged his team to the big win two weeks ago– but do Buffalonians, aka garden-variety Americans?

Well, that’s become my new hypothesis– maybe we don’t care about winning, or at least maybe we care more about the pleasures of moralizing, disciplining, and punishing; maybe keeping everything in moral order matters more than practical success.

For evidence, I’ll just offer the example of Buffalo’s leading sports columnist, Jerry Sullivan. Sullivan describes himself as a liberal Democrat, and by all appearances he’s a thoughtful, enlightened guy; at this point his column is about all I read in the local paper. He’s also a consistent critic of the team’s management, so he’s certainly not trying to whitewash a bad personel decision.

But Sullivan’s as angry about Lynch as any internet redneck, and as obsessed. A few days ago, he asked, “How about Marshawn Lynch, the sullen ex-Bill? Will he even show up to Media Day? Will he speak, grab his crotch, scatter a bunch of hundred dollar bills on the artificial turf to pay a fine up front to the NFL, then stalk off into his own Beast Mode universe?”

(Sorry for the long quotations, but you need them to get the full flavor.)

When Lynch showed up but said nothing beyond “I’m here so I don’t get fined,”
Sullivan devoted the whole of his next column to the episode: “We tried to understand Lynch when he came to the Bills. … Lynch never let people in. He was a miserable character who shunned attention and caused trouble off the field. If he was uncomfortable with interviews, fine. But don’t cry about being misunderstood. He brought his problems on himself, and from what I can gather, he’s still doing it. He has said he shouldn’t be ‘forced’ into it. He’s making almost $8 million a year to play football. There are certain sacrifices, like being on time and practicing. He says he’s not a ‘media whore,’ as if there’s nobility in not speaking. Maybe he thinks cooperating would cost him valuable street cred.”

Talk about old school– this kind of sermonizing was already a joke when it was directed at Joe Namath back in the late sixties. Of course it’s extra preposterous now that we better understand the drastic sacrifices that football in fact demands of all who play it.

But that’s my point. The Marshawn-Lynch-in-Buffalo story tells us that American culture has changed less than we like to imagine, and that in it angry moralism still rules, leaving far behind pragmatic calculations about costs and benefits, successes and failures.

If football is any kind of metaphor for the other arrangements of American life, as we’re so often told it is, these are not comforting thoughts.