Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rags-to-Riches, Political Correctness, and Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography

I am currently reading THIS free edition of Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography. It offers a thought-provoking window into a particular time and place.* Carnegie was the son of poor but respectable parents (his beloved father was a weaver who, in his son’s words, “failed to anticipate” and adapt to new methods of mechanization, and therefore was slowly driven out of business). In hopes of raising their fortunes, the family emigrated from Scotland to Pittsburgh, and thirteen-year-old Carnegie immediately joined the workforce. His third job, that of a telegram delivery boy, put him into contact with the railroad industry that was to make his fortune. Carnegie worked for the Pennsylvania railroad for some time before becoming a rail manufacturer and businessman on his own. His rise to wealth is of course legendary, as is his delight in “giving back” by funding libraries and cultural institutions across the nation and abroad. I have to laugh at the American insularity that resulted in complaints about his generosity to "foreign places" like his native Scotland.

The events of Carnegie's life are illustrative of the business changes that were then remolding the face of America. The book is not overly self-congratulatory (so far-- I'm not finished yet), and freely acknowledges various mistakes that Carnegie made in his career as well as his debt to many partners and employees along the way. Yet it is the sort that P.G. Wodehouse sometimes makes fun of (see “The Man, the Maid, and the Miasma” in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories, available for free from project Gutenberg). Carnegie’s story is part of the narrative that was so popular in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—the idea that any truly bright, truly deserving boy, from any class, can (and perhaps will) become a millionaire. He need only guard and develop his moral character, cultivate knowledge by studying in his free time, and always go above and beyond in his job. Eventually, his employers will notice and promote him. Thus his chance will come.

Even though Carnegie acknowledges a certain degree of luck in his own early career (for instance, early on he narrowly avoided losing a large sum of money that had been entrusted to him for transport—had he lost it, the subsequent loss of trust from his employers would have been disastrous), his book also suggests that luck and/or Providence favor the deserving. I cannot help suspecting that to Carnegie, because wealth follows merit, it is also evidence of merit. Carnegie seems to see no distinction between the desire to acquire moral and mental refinement, and the desire to mix with wealthy citizenry. He expresses such thoughts with the freedom of a non-politically-correct era. The contrast between modern culture and Carnegie’s outlook was driven home to me when my husband suggested we watch an episode of the wacky Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb. During our episode, a villainous character declares that he will drill from Mount Rushmore to China so as to create a highway through the earth and obtain millions of dollars. At once, a heroic character leaps in to stop this plan. Apparently, the capitalistic desire to obtain great wealth through the transportation industry is automatically villainous.

Our own cultural narratives have shifted so much that Carnegie’s story is no longer held up as suitable inspiration for schoolchildren everywhere. Why is this? It isn’t just because we have more sympathy for workers, or that we no longer admire business success. After all, we offer positive cultural narratives about people who found web companies. We do not withhold criticism from Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Sergey Brin, but it is much more politically correct to offer their stories as inspiration to children than to hold up a "robber baron" like Carnegie.

Why are we willing to admire giants of the web, but not giants of industry?

Perhaps this is because human nature is annoyed by success stories that we have little chance of emulating. Manufacturing is no longer a Wild West of constant opportunity. The industrial economy is no longer exploding. No longer do we perceive it as likely that hard-working boys with little formal education can enter that field and become millionaires. Today, we would rather hear about a small town girl who became a famous actress, or about a high school outcast who started an internet business in his garage. We probably will never be as successful as those people, but we still maintain the perception that we could be. Perhaps that makes all the difference.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Conflict Between "Art" and "Message" (or, Infiltrating the Arts, Part II)

If you are inclined to read Part II of this series, it is available at Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife.

Here's a quote.
It is important to recognize that the most important thing is not to set about creating A Book That Will Convert Everyone or a movie That Tells It Right and Silences All Those Annoying Liberals. What we really need is to cultivate and support good art, and to teach and encourage good Christian thinkers. A thoughtful Christian who is writing, painting, composing, or directing will naturally portray truth as he sees it. He will be able to create material that is based on truth, rather than focused on combatting specific, narrow errors. However, if this Christian is shaped by mainstream values, his output will reflect Hollywood, Oprah, or whatever other source has shaped his view of life and truth.

It is perhaps especially difficult to create literature from a Christian perspective in a world that sees cynicism and despair as more true, and more artistic, than joy or goodness. THIS is a thought-provoking article about that very issue.

So-- what is the solution?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Infiltrating the Arts, Part I

Stories are powerful. Can the arts (broadly defined to include popular forms of storytelling) be used to shape people's beliefs? Can they be used a subtler form of apologetics?

Conflicts about ideas and beliefs tend to be messy. This is in part because, even if ideas themselves are logical, human allegiance to them is based on a chaos of feelings, assumptions, and preferences. Often we are not even aware of the presuppositions with which we approach an argument. Merely being right does not necessarily make a position convincing. When Christians try to engage in the interplay of ideas, we often find that our audience does not just disagree with us—instead, it actually cannot give us a fair hearing, and cannot truly understand what we say. This is observable in many different settings. Missionaries to unreached peoples cannot start with the story of Good Friday and Easter, but must first teach Genesis and the concepts of sin, God, and the soul. Missionary-citizens in the United States are also faced with a culture that is often a barrier to communication. Addressing these barriers is part of what we call apologetics.

Read the rest of the article HERE.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Sort of Vacation Notice

Dear Readers,

If you happen to notice a lack of posts for a week or three, that is because I am engaging in the following pursuits.

I am:

Packing baby toys, baby food, extra baby diapers,
and etc., so as to prepare my child to . . . .

. . . . take a plane across the country. . . .

. . . . where we will enjoy many cups of tea
with relatives and old friends. . . . 

. . . . play a Jane Austen-inspired
bachelorette game. . . . 

. . . . hope that my son sleeps,
despite the time change, and does
not insist on getting up at 3 a.m. because
he thinks that it is 6 a.m. . . . 

. . . . get my dear sister married. . . . 

. . . . fly back home. . . .

. . . . where we will load up our belongings . . . .

. . . . transport them. . . .

. . . . move into our new house . . . .

. . . . and then, write more blog posts!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Does Modern Respect for Artists Undermine Art?

People used to respond to art with strongly-worded judgment. They might declare a particular piece to be good, bad, dangerous, correct, incorrect, beautiful, or overwhelming. They put their fists were their words were, too. For instance, a calculated and bloody riot occurred over one of Victor Hugo’s new plays, and it included beating up critics who opposed his Romanticism. People would also incur financial losses for the sake of their artistic judgment. For example, Theodore Roosevelt refused to sell a large screen of Tiffany glass back to its creator and instead ordered that the “decadent” piece be smashed.* I am struck by how seriously people once took art. How many of us today would riot about an offensive painting or drama? How many of us would take a fist to the mouth for literature, or strain our throats heckling a playwright? Imagine the scandal if we did! Nowadays, simply criticizing the ideas behind a work of art can be enough to earn one the reputation of an uncouth, would-be censor.

I find it curious, as well, that so much great art was created by people who were viewed as craftsmen and, in a sense, merely well-trained laborers. Leonardo da Vinci worked during an era in which artists did not even sign their work, and when many pieces were the work of a studio instead of an individual. Johann Sebastian Bach was a mere church organist whose workaday compositions happened to be rather brilliant, but which were not seen as particularly artistic (he did not fit the mold of an Enlightenment musician). Nowadays we have elevated the status of artists. We tend to speak of art and artistic creativity as something romantic, high-brow, and rebellious. Artists must be uncensored and unfettered. They cannot be “wrong.” They should challenge prevailing notions. They must not follow any specifications but their own inner vision. They should wear their hair differently from everyone else. Their work is seen as different from workaday, useful, mechanical skills and endeavors. It is at once freed from the practical sphere and the moral sphere (this is a change from the day in which Roosevelt would smash a stained-glass screen because of its supposedly immoral effect).  

Yet by freeing artists from limitations, we have also lowered the place of art in the world. How many ordinary people think that it really matters? How many elite people act as if it could really threaten, improve, or derange society? By claiming that art cannot be wrong, we have made it irrelevant.

As always, Chesterton said something highly applicable (and this is one of the quotations that Chesterton actually did say). 

“It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.” From Heretics.

Some sort of philosophy is behind all art. I was fascinating by this discussion of the Enlightenment’s revolutionary (and damaging) reinterpretation of the nature and meaning of art. Suzannah explains that the music (and other forms of art) that flowed from the Enlightenment was frothy. Pretty. Intended for temporary enjoyment, not deep study, because according to the Enlightenment, what you see in this world is what you get, and therefore there is nothing profound for art to say. This is in contrast to the deep symbolism and complicated patterns of Christian art.

Surely these two things (the elevation and romanticization of the artist, and the Enlightenment's rejection of meaning behind art) are entwined. Perhaps, in slowly losing our interest in the meaning of art, we found it easier to romanticize the role of artist instead of passionately critiquing each artist’s work, thus leading to the decline of art’s importance. If so, I have to wonder if perhaps we should instead do a bit more rioting and screen-smashing. That might revitalize the arts more than public funding does.  

*Incidents as described by Paul Johnson 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When a Historian's Opinions Don't Come With Citations

Reviewed: Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney by Paul Johnson, 2007

Paul Johnson profiles a diverse range of individuals by assessing their creative work and, in some cases, providing “the dirt” on their personal lives. He certainly piqued my interest and left me with a desire to read Chaucer, but I was also frustrated by the difficulty of interpreting how much of his material was opinion and how much fact. I am all for historians allowing themselves to possess and display lively opinions. However, I also appreciate knowing their evidence and their reasoning. Because he speaks so authoritatively, Johnson’s work becomes less convincing as soon as one realizes that some of his unequivocal statements are debatable. For instance, he discusses the tragedy of Jane Austen’s death from Addison’s disease, and shares his frustration over the fact that, had she lived today, she could easily have been cured. However, according to Wikipedia, Austen’s diagnosis with Addison’s disease is only one tentative modern theory among several. Johnson also delivers announcements such as his claim the elderly Louis Comfort Tiffany was sexually active until the end. Yet I cannot help wondering whether Johnson has a witness to this, or merely theorizes it from the presence in Tiffany’s house of his mistress. In addition, Johnson tends to credit his “creators” with all subsequent similarities to their work, but I must counterclaim that, for example, Americans would still have delivered “one-liners” had Mark Twain never written.

As I read the book, I found myself increasingly inclined to discount or accept Johnson’s interpretations somewhat at random, based solely on my own preconceptions, which is not exactly a desirable way to learn history. I am ready enough to swallow his account of Pablo Picasso’s despicable and loathsome personal life because I myself do not care for the man’s art, but I question whether the portrait of Victor Hugo as an idiotic, egotistical hypocrite and turncoat is entirely fair, because I do admire Les Miserables (and surely the man that Johnson describes could not have written such an exploration of law versus mercy?).

However, I was fascinated by the author's interpretation of Picasso's role in art history. Johnson sees Picasso as transforming art from a representation of nature into something purely introspective, based entirely on fashion and therefore on continual change (he says that because Picasso is so easy to copy, even the artist himself did not always know which works were his own, and that the value of his pieces depends entirely on proper authentication: they have no intrinsic beauty or value). The idea that art, like couture, is now based on fashion is illuminating and provides a way to understand the modern art movement. The flow of fashion can be mystifying ("Why are intelligent girls wearing tights as pants?"), and so can the flow of modern art ("Why is that particular canvas/string cheese/bottle on a pedestal considered art by intelligent people?"). 

Creators is interesting. Johnson makes it so. Some would argue that my desire for further research proves the book to be a success. However, for me, at least, he did not make it entirely satisfying. He reminds me of various people I have known who were good storytellers. Their accounts of personal experiences were always fascinating and entertaining, but the details tended to change with each telling. They were not the sort of people who would lie, but they were also not the sort of people who always restricted themselves to facts of which they were fully certain.

Is this fair? Or am I maligning Johnson?

Read more reviews at the Housewifespice linkup!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Could You Write a Book Review Without the Letter “Z?”


No doubt you could. Probably you could write quite a good review while avoiding any other particular letter of the alphabet, or even, if you were attentive, several letters. Yet what would be the effect on your composition? You might focus on each word in a new way, noticing and enjoying its sounds, and vocabularizing creatively, but the effort of constantly redirecting around forbidden words would surely also sap your will to write. Especially if the penalty for “slipping” was prohibitively severe.

In Ella Minnow Pea, a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable (or, in paperback, Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel without Letters), Mark Dunn’s 2001 story, the nature of language and censorship are explored. This YA, epistolary novel is set in the fictional island nation of Nollop. The inhabitants of said island eschew technology and revel in language. They revere Nevin Nollop, creator of the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” and have in fact erected a statue to that celebrity with a tile for each letter of his famous sentence. When, one day, a letter tile falls down, the council of Nollop reaches a strange decision. They announce that Nollop is speaking from beyond the grave, and that he wants the islanders to ban the letter that has fallen. Anyone caught writing the letter or speaking a word in which it is found will be subject to severe penalties. Of course, the rest of the tiles do not stay put, and the council’s decrees become more and more paralyzing to the culture and daily life on their island.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Participation Trophies and the Value of Human Life

Yesterday I read an opinion piece in the New York Times that was modified from the book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting. In the adapted excerpt, the author, Alfie Kohn, argues that popular disdain for children’s “participation trophies” (and the like) comes from an unhelpful desire to emphasize competition and to ensure that kids experience repeated failure. He discusses this focus on winning and losing, and claims that it teaches a child to believe that his parent’s love as well as his own value as a human being are conditional. They must be earned through success. In fact, Kohn says:
“A commitment to conditionality lives at the intersection of economics and theology. It’s where lectures about the law of the marketplace meet sermons about what we must do to earn our way into heaven. Here, almost every human interaction, even among family members, is regarded as a kind of transaction.”

He contrasts this conditionality with the strong need of children to receive unconditional love and to develop unconditional self-esteem. Leaving aside his unfortunate understanding of Christian theology (which actually teaches the impossibility of earning one’s way to heaven), it is fascinating that the heart of his argument is about raising children who feel that they are inherently valuable. The same theme is echoed constantly in discussions of body-image. It is one of our cultural values that girls and women ought to be told that they are all beautiful, not because anyone truly thinks that all females are equally gorgeous, but because “You are beautiful” is another way of saying, “You have value.”

Monday, April 28, 2014

Princesses Always Cause a Fuss

File:Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 4.jpg

If you don't follow me on facebook, you may not have seen my Friday article in The Federalist.

Here's a quote:
Correlation is not causation, but I wonder if, in a broad sense, the cultural message of pink princesses ultimately makes girls more receptive to stories in which traditional happy endings are impossible. Initially, many small girls really believe the princess story. They live and breathe it, plastic tiaras and all. What is this message that resonates with them? On a basic level, it is of course merely human to be attracted to youth, beauty, success, and happiness, as demonstrated by the friendly smile of the white-toothed heroine and opposed by the scowl of the witch. It is also the nature of a three-year-old to believe that she is not only special but also probably the center of the universe, that she should be served by admiring retainers, that she is the best at everything, and that she should win the prize in every competition. The princess fantasy lures little girls in with shiny rhinestones and simultaneously tells them everything that they already believe. In a sense it is developmentally appropriate. However, the job of adults is not merely to mirror children back to themselves. Our job is to help them mature and grow beyond the narcissism of babyhood.

It's interesting that discussion of little girls and princesses always seems to bring out strong feelings and lots of opinions. Another article ran in The Federalist today about how the author has made her peace with Disney princesses

I am beginning to think that part of the disconnect we see in such discussions is centered around a confusion of what princesses represent. To feminists, they are merely oppressed and spineless women who require a man on a white horse. To anti-consumerists, they are merely plastic merchandise that generates a gazillion dollars. To psychologists, they are often an example of how we prime girls for body-image issues. To defenders of traditional femininity, they may be examples of good, old-fashioned romance and chivalry. To parents of small girls, they may be simply something that their children love. 

I don't think that all of these people are talking about the same thing.

I love folk tales and tales of the fey. There are plenty of lovely, true, excellent stories in this genre about princesses. That is one kind of princess story. The movies of Disney are another. I like some of them in some ways (Tangled is hilarious). Yet the merchandise of Disney, in which all the characters lose their individuality and become products instead of characters, is not something that I want in my home. I'm just not going to buy my kid underwear that advertises for some company, ya know? I'm cranky like that. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Comedies of Humanity: Then vs. Now (With Pictures)

Have you ever thought about how funny our human race is?


Throughout history, we humans have tended to think that we are progressing and that our ways are superior to those of the past, but we also tend to bewail the inferiority of the current generation of youth.


Before no-fault divorce, people seemed less afraid of getting married. They did it young. They did it often. Why weren’t they worried about getting stuck? You would think that nowadays, with our easy divorce laws, society would feel less need of  live-in courtship to test potential spousal compatibility.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kirsten Dunst, Gender, and Too Many Victorian Novels on My Kindle


Apparently I am stingy, because I feel that intangible ebooks should be cheaper than tangible, second-hand paperbacks. This means that much of my Kindle reading involves free or cheap files filled with long-forgotten fiction of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Most of it was forgotten for a reason.

Oh, my gosh. So… much… melodrama. The “Greatest Mystery Collection, Volume 2” contain gems like this: Imagine a mystery novel in which it turns out that the victim, a philanthropic and lovely older woman, actually stabbed herself in the heart. This was because she saw her adult son burst into her house (he didn’t know that she was his mother—all of her previous babies had died under what she felt was a curse, so she gave him to another woman to adopt in order to save his life, and herself took that other woman’s dead infant in exchange so that the other woman’s husband would think the babe was his). She is convinced, from the wild eyes of her unfortunately somewhat disreputable but handsome son, that he intends to rob her of the large sum of money which is concealed in her cupboard. In order to save him from committing such a vile deed and thereby descending along the path of wickedness, she stabs herself. Motherlove! When all is revealed and he is finally acquitted of having murdered her (apparently she forgot to think about the legal issues surrounding her noble deed), he honors her forever and goes every year to weep upon her grave. The text even tells us that she is the only woman whose memory is more dear to him than his love for his lovely young wife, and the wife is apparently totally OK with this. I could go on, but this gives you an idea of the style of Agatha Webb by Anna Katherine Green.

Even in the less sentimental, more humorous stories of the early Twentieth Century, such as Seven Keys To Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers, one finds beautiful blond girls who do things like tell random young men (I paraphrase), “You must trust me, and steal the money for me with no explanation. I will sit about helplessly and berate you as a traitor every time you fail. In the end, you can propose to me. I will point out that we just met, and you will say that doesn’t matter. I will finally surrender and go limp in your arms. The end.” I must mention that in his last and final proposal, the young man’s endearing argument against the girl’s hesitation over the fact that he doesn’t even know her last name is to tell her, “That’s women’s logic.” I rather like old-fashioned values, but this is too much for me.

Such books appear at first glance to be the antithesis of modern feelings about gender roles, romance, and correct behavior. It is easy to read this stuff and be glad that modernism brought us out of the age of swooning and sentimentality. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not as different from the Victorians and their Edwardian children as we think we are.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Let’s Play, “Spot the Killer in Three Easy Steps” (or, Why Dorothy Sayers is Awesome)

(Image from HERE)

The problem with mystery novels is that they are expected to be surprising. This of course makes them unrealistic, because in real life, the sort of people who are the most likely to commit crimes usually do commit most of the crimes. In detective fiction, they rarely do. Readers of such literature will be aware of the following sacred and hallowed genre premises:

1. The least likely suspect is most likely to be guilty.
2. There are no random crimes.

Not to mention:

3. The inhabitants of small country villages spend so much time bashing each other on the head and having affairs with each others’ spouses, per capita, that it’s a wonder they get anything else done (or retain any population).

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