Bookish, Outdoorsy … and Conservative

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Disclaimer

The topic below is complex and wide-ranging. Discussing it will require defining some terms, but also making some generalizations. I’ll do my best to honor the nuances of this topic, but it’s not going to be possible for me to cover every subtlety. So please bear with me, assume good intentions, and if I fail to make something sufficiently clear, we can discuss it in the comments.

Defining “Conservative”

This blog (much to my delight) has readers from around the world. That’s a problem for this post, because I will be using the social/political term “conservative,” which means different things in different countries.  Because I am posting about attitudes in the United States, I will be using “conservative” in an American sense.

In most places (so I’m told), “conservative” roughly means aristocratic. Conservatives are assumed to be in favor of existing power structures, and that could include a class system or a monarchy.

American conservatism is a bit different because America, from its founding, was anti-royalist and in fact deeply suspicious of all governmental power. America was also populist relative to the rest of the world. Not that we didn’t have wealthy landowners, but one of our basic values was that anyone ought to be able to buy land and live virtually without interference from any kind of overlord. We also didn’t think there ought to be a national religion, and strove to set up barriers to keep governments from interfering with churches.

In other words, in the United States, the term “conservative” basically means those same values that in the 18th and 19th centuries were called “liberal.” This is why some American conservatives call themselves “classical liberals.”

Political conservatism, as I will be using the term, is the belief that national government is very limited in the range of its legitimate authority. It’s basically limited to law and order, national defense, and a few big public works projects such as national highways. Everything else, including religion, health care, commerce, and education, is outside its purview.

Social conservatism means a belief in what used to be called (before the term was mocked out of existence) “family values.” Social conservatives value clean living (no drugs or alcoholism) and traditional sexual morality (an emphasis on intact families and a disapproval of the sexual revolution of the 1960s). They also tend to value community structures such as churches, synagogues, and local clubs and organizations.

Social conservatives may or may not believe that laws are the way to promote all these good things they value. Increasingly, they are realizing that “politics is downstream of culture,” and that the way to promote all these good things is simply to live them. 

I happen to be both politically and socially conservative, so I’ll be using the term to mean both. But you will occasionally meet people who are one but not the other. Libertarians, in particular, are often politically conservative but socially liberal. They believe government should be very limited, and this includes not outlawing alcohol, drugs, or any dangerous sexual behavior that does not rise to the level of assault.

OK, I hope that is clear enough to go forward.

Defining Bookish and Outdoorsy

I am bookish. Like many fellow book lovers, I started life socially awkward and found a refuge in fiction. I also have an academic bent. While fiction is my favorite, I enjoy reading just about anything (theology, psychology, philosophy, history, memoir … even popular-level science books, though I am somewhat retarded when it comes to science, especially the more esoteric theoretical stuff).  I got this bookishness from my dad, who is a true egghead and reads four languages. Our house growing up was an extremely print-rich environment.

There are millions out there like me.

I am also a little bit outdoorsy. Not athletic, so I’m not a hard-core skier, rafter, or even hiker and camper. But I enjoy being out of doors. I like taking walks (another gift from my dad).  In principle, if not perfectly in practice, I approve of living simply: gardening, keeping chickens, being frugal. Not keeping up with the Joneses.  Some of this is forced on me by a low budget. OK, I admit it. I am kind of a tightwad. I got this from my Dutch mom, and it too is a gift.

Also millions of people like this out there.

Now, This Is Where It Gets Strange

According to the preponderance of American books, TV, and movies … people like me do not exist. You never, never see the possibility entertained that a person could be bookish, outdoorsy, and also conservative.

You will sometimes see rural conservatives portrayed who like to hunt and fish, but these people are not represented as educated or even, in some cases, literate.

When conservatives are portrayed who are not rednecks, they are typically shown as wealthy businesspeople or heirs and heiresses of the kind who might star in a soap opera. The men wear suits, the women get plastic surgery and wear a ton of makeup.  They are less likely to go to the library and more likely to go to the mall or the spa. You would certainly never see them put on old clogs, a kerchief on their head, and go out to weed the garden. 

But yet, in real life, I know quite a few conservatives who do just that. They are educated. They aren’t overly concerned with looking like Barbie or with getting a new outfit of clothes every season. They garden. They pinch pennies. They might not even own a TV (rarer these days). I was raised among people like this. Quite a few of them were farmers; others were academics.

Public libraries in the U.S. still haven’t gotten this memo. Based on the activities they offer, the things they post on their bulletin boards, and the types of books they feature prominently, it’s pretty clear that their assumption is, if you’re bookish enough and frugal enough to be coming to the library, you must be a leftist. By which I mean, you are probably in favor of a big, extremely involved “nanny state” style national government. You may be Marxist. You probably approve of the sexual revolution and all its fruits, including the LGBTQ revolution. You might be in to the New Age, but you certainly hate “organized religion” (because what educated person wouldn’t?).

Wendell Berry is a good example of this attitude. He’s a writer and a farmer. A few years ago somebody gave me a book of essays by him (because, hey, he’s a writer and a farmer!). He writes beautifully about farming, about the earth, about the relationship of people to the earth and the spiritual aspects of farming. And then he goes on to assume that his readers are leftists and would vote for leftist candidates.

One Partial Explanation

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for this widespread assumption that people who are educated and fond of a simple lifestyle are leftist. As I said above, this post touches on several spheres, all of which are complex and can’t be discussed exhaustively. I’m just going to focus on one possible explanation: the conflation of capitalism with consumerism.

Capitalism, as I understand it, has two components. The first is private property. On a socialist or Marxist philosophy, nobody ought to own anything. Everything belongs to everybody, which in practice means everything belongs to the government and if you try to “hoard” something of your own they will take it. Capitalists, on the other hand, are big on private property. So, if you buy some land, it’s your land. If you buy or build a house, it’s your house. You can’t be forced to share or give your house or land to someone else, because it is yours. People tend to take better care of things when they own them. They tend to work harder at a job when they know that its fruits will not be capriciously taken from them.

The second component of capitalism is the free market. This just means that if I want to sell you (let’s take a really woodsy example) a cord of wood off my land, no third party is going to step in and say “You are charging too much” or “You have to give me a percentage of the sale” or “You don’t have a license to sell that.” If I agree to sell it and you agree to buy it, the wood and the money can change hands, and everybody’s happy.

Now, it should be clear from my explanation that neither of these principles has any quarrel with the simple life. Quite the opposite. Farming works better when private property rights exist. So do gardening, making art, selling your work, or building up a personal library.

However, in many people’s minds when they hear capitalism they immediately think of consumerism. They don’t think of private property and unregulated sales for the small farmer, shopkeeper, or artist. They think of huge corporations. They think of advertising, overspending, jockeying for social status by virtue of our possessions. They think of consumerism.

Hence, if they write a book that combats consumerism, such as a book about how to live a simple life, they assume that they must necessarily combat capitalism as well.

I would argue that these people have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Consumerism is certainly one possible result of capitalism. But it’s really kind of a separate problem. Capitalism might make a consumerist culture possible (any other system prevents the kind of wealth that allows widespread consumerism), but if a culture is very consumerist, it’s really because of other cultural values that they hold.  It’s not because somebody told them they could have private property. Private property and a free market, as I have shown, are just as a friendly to a simple, quiet lifestyle as they are to consumerism. And if we stamp out private property in an attempt to get rid of consumerism, we will end up getting rid of quite a few other things as well.

We Are Invisible to Each Other

It’s weird to me when people assume that the wealthy, consumerist lifestyle is characteristically conservative. I was raised by conservatives who lived a simple, bookish lifestyle. All the new clothes and cars, the plastic surgery, the materialist beliefs that I saw were coming from the people I saw in the movies and on TV, who were consumerist and leftist. I figured those two things went together.  But apparently … not always. Apparently there were a bunch of leftists out there who were living simple, bookish lifestyles, but because they were not on TV I could not see them, just as they could not see me.  

And they still don’t.

Books I Want to Have Read, but Don’t Want to Read

For those uninitiated to book blogging, a tag is when another book blogger assigns you a series of questions or prompts. For each one, you name the book that it makes you think of. And rant about it, if you so desire.

The blogger and author who tagged me was Katie Jane Gallagher.

The Rules:

  • Link back to the original tag (this post, and Jami!)
  • Complete the questions with books you want to have read but don’t want to read
  • Tag some people at the end to do the tag next

OK? OK. Let’s get to the prompts …

The Prompts

A book that you feel you need to read because everyone talks about it

Twelve Years A Slave. Obviously that is going to be a heavy read.

Also, the Federalist Papers. Maybe “everyone” doesn’t talk about them, but people who seem to know what they are talking about keep mentioning them. Obviously there is some very important stuff in there that I need to know.

A book that’s really long

I mean, look at it.

I think there are seven of them now.

But I really need to get to these some time, if only because readers of George R.R. Martin might also be interested in my series some day. And I won’t make you wait decades either!

A book you’ve owned / had on your TBR for too long

A few years ago, when my boys and I were studying American History, this novel was recommended as supplemental reading.  I had all the more reason to want to read it, because Naya Nuki is Shoshone and when I lived in Idaho for a few years during my teens, it was near the Shoshone/Bannock Indian reservation. Our local library didn’t have it. I ordered it through interlibrary loan, but it never came!  Must have been a long waiting list.

Fast forward three years. We have now moved back to Shoshone/Bannock country. I go to the local library here, and not only do they have Naya Nuki, they have the entire series by this author!  Only problem is, the kids and I now have other required supplemental reading, and we’re working through that. I figure I’ll just zip through it by myself and return it to the library. But the due date approacheth, and I never do.

While still in this uncomfortable situation, my husband brings me home a surprise gift from his travels. It’s my very own copy of Naya Nuki! He thought it looked like something that would interest me.  I’ve gone from not being able to get my hands on a copy, to an embarrassment of riches.

So I was free to return the library copy … but you guessed it, my gift copy is still sitting there unread. Why? Why???

A book that is ‘required’ reading (eg, school text, really popular classic – something you feel obligated to read!)

Everything by Freud and Nietzsche.

A book that intimidates you

Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson. He spent, what, decades on it? Rewrote every sentence at least 50 times? It sounds like it would be heavy going. A really thorough student of archetypes would read it, but I feel like this was the book where he developed his ideas, and now we can get the highlights of those through his class lectures on YouTube and through Twelve Rules for Life.

A book that you think might be slow

I know this one is slow, because I started it. I still think I might end up really liking it. Actually, I hope I do, because it’s sort of the same genre that I write in. But it requires a lot of attention during the first several chapters, as you have to learn a lot of different characters and figure out to who root for. It’s not the kind of book you can pick up and dive into for 20 minutes while eating your lunch, which is what I need right now.

A book you need to be in the right mood for

Circe. The main reason I haven’t read this is that it hasn’t shown up at the library yet, and I am too cheap to order it online.  But there’s another reason as well.

I love the heroic age of Greece. As a teen I spent several years, off and on, immersed in this milieu. At one point I was going around telling people, “The Iliad is taking over my life!”  (I also, when reading The Odyssey, had a crush on Odysseus. *blushes* Because who wouldn’t? I mean, the man can shoot an arrow through the centers of 12 ax heads lined up in a row!)

So I’m frankly super jealous of the author for having immersed herself in these books and written what everyone agrees is a fantastic novel that is true to the tradition.  If I’m going to read it, it will put my head right back in that space, and I have to be ready for that.

Call, and raise you The Song of Achilles.

A book you’re unsure if you will like

Oh, so many. Pick any YA fantasy with a mermaid, vampire, or young woman on the front. I “ought” to be reading more of these, because they are fantasy and we are supposed to Read Widely In the Genre … but I just don’t find them appealing usually. Especially if the back cover copy deals with how mean everyone is to the young woman, or how she’s a member of an ostracized group.

And lest you misunderstand, I don’t say this dismissively. Probably some of these books are as meh as I expect, but no doubt others are gems. Maybe it’s even half and half. I’m not being superior. I just … can’t … get … interested …

People I Want to Tag but Also Don’t Want to Tag

Honestly, tagging activates my social anxiety. What if you’ve already been tagged for this? What if you don’t want to be tagged? What if I leave someone out? Gaaah!

I’m tagging you anyway. Don’t take it personally. If you hate the tag but want to please me, just do a super perfunctory and sarcastic tag like Bookstooge did that one time.

I’m tagging people who post frequently, because if you want something done, ask a busy person. So, if you post infrequently and didn’t get tagged and want to do this, go for it!

Complete Nonsense, Delightfully Expressed

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

We would sit down, and think which way

To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Should’st rubies find; I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the Flood;

And you should if you please refuse

Till the Conversion of the Jews.

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires, and more slow.

An hundred years should go to praise

Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze

Two hundred to adore each breast;

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For lady you deserve this state;

Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wing-ed chariot hurrying near;

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found,

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song: then worms shall try

That long preserved virginity:

And your quaint honor turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust.

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires

And every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may;

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour,

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball;

And tear our pleasures with rough strife,

Through the iron gates of life.

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

“To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)

Did any of you fellas talk like this when you were dating your lady?

Perhaps you did. This is, after all, just a better-expressed version of the old line, “Do you want to die a virgin?”

That’s why I call it complete nonsense. Come on, Andrew Marvell. Was this girl really expecting you to wait centuries for her? Or was she just hesitating for a few weeks? I’m guessing probably the latter. And you decided to bring the specter of mortality before her in order to guilt her in to your bed immediately.

But I honestly can’t dismiss this poem because, oh my gosh, it is so well expressed! I hope you laughed several times while reading it, because so many of the lines are funny and clever. The AA BB CC rhyme scheme is flawless, and the rhymes, together with the four feet instead of five per line, run through the middle of sentences in order to hurry us along through the poem. We want to get to the next rhyme, just as Marvell wants to get to the next … thing. And many of these images are so evocative that they get quoted frequently: “deserts of vast eternity” … “time’s slow-chapped power” … “all our strength and all our sweetness.”

I think the content of this poem is a huge piece of eye-roll worthy male manipulation. But the form is so terrific that I love the thing despite myself. I almost have it memorized. It’s a 17th century ear worm.

Marvell has taken a quintessential line, and he has elevated it, through the magic of poetry, into something else entirely.

Love Ruins Everything

OK, not everything that Nicholas Cage’s character says in this little seduction speech do I endorse. For example,

“I don’t care if I burn in hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell.”

This recklessness is indeed what we sound like when we’re in the grip of headlong love (or lust), but I still don’t recommend saying it to your significant other.

But.

The way he winds up the speech is just … brilliant.

“Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks our hearts. We are here to ruin ourselves and love the wrong people and break our hearts … and die!

Right on, Nick! The only thing that loving another guarantees us is heartbreak. No one knows this better than our Lord. He definitely “loved the wrong people” … and it got Him killed. Sure, love wins in the end, but let’s not skip over this part. The stories we tell will ring hollow if we skip the part where love ruins everything.

When Romance Goes Rong: A Review of Tyler Perry’s A Fall from Grace

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A Fall from Grace is a movie that’s out right now on Netflix. This post will contain spoilers, though not for one particular twist. Which shows, by the way, how good of a movie it is, that I can tell you a good bit of the plot and still hold back a twist.

I had a feeling this drama was going to be good as soon as I saw Tyler Perry’s name on it. I haven’t seen all his Madea movies, and of those I have seen, I haven’t liked all of them equally well. But I loved Madea’s Witness Protection. It was obvious, watching it, that there is not just comedy here but some human wisdom as well. I don’t know whether Grace is Perry’s first drama, but it’s the first one I’ve noticed circulating. Something told me that after years of making movies, he would be maturing as a director and ready to make impactful dramas.

I wasn’t disappointed. Grace is a really good drama, in the sense that after watching it, I honestly feel as if I have personally been through Grace’s experience. As of this drafting, I watched it about 24 hours ago, and have been thinking about it more or less continually ever since.

The title character, Grace, is a lonely divorceé with a grown son. When the movie opens, we are told that she has killed “her husband,” and that this is really out of character as she is a Sunday School teacher who bakes cookies for the kids in the neighborhood, etc. But she has confessed to the murder. The young public defender who is assigned to Grace is expected to plea bargain, and it’s expected that this will be easy to do given Grace’s (up until now) stellar character. For different reasons, the public defender starts digging in to what really happened. And from those events flows the title of this post.

In a series of flashbacks, we see Grace fall in to an unexpected romance with a younger man. (It’s hard to tell his age exactly. I first thought he might be about 10 years younger that she is, but it later seems it’s closer to 20.) This man pursues her, and at first she is skeptical. She even asks him flat-out, “You have probably been with many attractive younger women. Why me?”

He answers very wisely, “We tend to do that to ourselves as people. We ask, ‘Why should this good thing happen to me?’ The real question is, Why not you?”

Over a three-month courtship he overcomes her defenses. They talk for hours. Even at this stage there are a few red flags. For example, on their very first date he tells her, “As you get older, you start to get interested in people who have a wise way of looking at the world. You are a woman who sees the world etc. etc.” But at this point he’s only known her for a few hours. He started pursuing her literally after only a few minutes of conversation. He has not had time to find out how she views the world. This is flattery. But it’s done so sincerely.

He also, with remarkable insight, says to her, “There’s this thing you do. You’re judging. Stop it.” Of course, she is judging. She is an upright older woman. She is always judging herself and others. This is how we live. Hence, this young man could probably say this to any older woman and be 100% correct. But at the time, it seems like a sensitive perception. Later it becomes obvious that he was trying to get her to turn off her faculties of judgment for reasons of his own.

After an incredibly romantic proposal scene, Grace marries this man. She’s never been happier. She never felt this loved and understood, even with her first husband who later left her for his secretary.

Then, within a few months of getting married, she finds out that her new husband has: taken out a huge new mortgage on her house (which was previously paid for) … stolen her passwords, forged her signature, and embezzled funds from the bank where she works. She loses her job. The mortgage is unpaid, and she has no way to pay it. She is facing losing her house and possible jail time. She calls the police, but legally her house is now her husband’s and they can do nothing. It becomes obvious that the entire courtship and marriage were a scam.

Even then, she doesn’t kill him. She keeps trying legal ways to get him out of her house, but there are none. She is reduced to repeating emptily, “I want you to give me back my money.”

Finally comes the scene where Young Husband is justifying himself. This man who seemed so understanding and caring is sitting with his back to Grace, sprawled in a chair, saying casually, “Actually, the way I see it, you owe me that money for all the sex and all the joy I gave you. Women your age … you’re low-hanging fruit. In a way, if you think about it, all this is your own f—ing fault for making this so f—ing easy. For being weak.”

By this point in the movie, I already knew she was going to kill him and I was pretty sure this was the scene where it was going to happen. But I was confused. I didn’t see a gun anywhere in the house, and wasn’t sure Grace would even know how to use one.

Then I saw her walking up behind him with a baseball bat, and honestly, my impulse was to jump off the sofa and scream, “Do it! Do it!”

Once she does it, of course, her life is completely ruined. She is now a murderer.

Watching this, we are forced to ask ourselves … “In Grace’s position, would I fall for this?”

I can’t arrive at any answer other than Probably Yes.

Grace is about my age, give or take 10 years. I happen to be happily married. But what if I wasn’t? What if I had a job at a bank and a house that was paid for? It’s quite a blow to the pride to admit to yourself that these things are more appealing to a young man than your very soul. Not to mention your body, which after all was once considered attractive.

Grace isn’t stupid. She’s pretty savvy, actually. And she has been scarred by divorce. Yet she still falls for this extremely cruel scam. Primarily because he puts her in a position where, in order not to fall for it, she would have to decide she is basically worthless as a person.

So I guess you could call this movie a public service announcement.

Self-Pitying Quote of the Week

Mr. Haig-Ereildoun may be like me. Full of charm, winning everyone’s affection, but somehow not quite doing the job. I can say that the advertising agency chose me to fire because I was the youngest … But I know it was more basic than that. I did win awards. But I lost hours, days, weeks, trying to make jewels out of the twenty-five-cents-off coupons ads. Everyone loved me, but in a practical world I wasn’t what they needed. It’s hard, actually scary, being the kind of people Mr. Haig-Ereildoun and I are.

The Diary of an American Au Pair by Marjorie Leet Ford, Anchor Books, 2003, p. 182