Meritocracy: the self and the social

While I’ve read some fine books in 2021, my favourite this year has to be Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Central to this book is the idea that thinking we live in a meritocracy – an idea much-used by politicians – has created a false sense of deserving and has alienated the unsuccessful. Sandel points out that many who have not received the rewards of their hard work, in particular those who have been most effected by the economic crises of recent decades, blame their governments and/or immigrants, giving rise to populists’ movements in democracies such as the UK and America. Reading this book made me re-examine my own thinking on meritocracy and how it has changed over the years.

When I was a child, I believed that if I tried really hard at something I would reach my goals. Watching Jimmy Stewart films and being told by teachers and parents that anything was possible if you worked for it, I was a product of my culture. Yet, I knew even then that there were limits. I was never going to be Miss America (because I didn’t have the looks), nor was I going to be a professional baseball player (because I was a girl). By the time I was a teenager in the 70s, the women’s lib movement made me all too aware that adult life was not played on a level field and that if I succeeded at anything, I would be paid less than my male counterparts.  

While the bubble was deflating, there was still enough air in it for me to believe that hard work and ambition would have their rewards. Living in predominately white, working and lower-middle class America, believing in meritocracy was a default position. On top of that, I was caught up in the wave of aspirational coaching and new age spirituality espousing the notion that positive thinking yielded positive results. My reading list in those days featured self-help gurus Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay. It was all about self-improvement – it was all about me, me, me…

Although I found such thoughts empowering, there was a flipside to all of this: that failure was something I projected on to the situation. I would never blame a government or social structures – that seemed a sign of weakness, blaming others as a child would. By my mid-twenties, I easily blamed myself for the jobs I didn’t get, the publications not realized and for times of being negatively targeted by family members or colleagues. Likewise, when I did achieve and accomplish something I owed it to myself (and sometimes luck). I was being rewarded for my labours and for jumping over obstacles. It was still all about me, me, me…

Over the years, the more I talked to friends, the more books I read in politics and sociolinguistics, the more films and stage plays I saw, the more my thinking included how the power of social structures, the media, advertising and popular culture, along with money of course, dictates who achieves and who does not. Sandel’s book deconstructs our so-called meritocracy in a similar way. I was particularly pleased to see how he uses corpus linguistics to illustrate points on language used by politicians and advertisers to sell the idea that we live in or could live in a meritocracy if we vote a certain way or do certain things.

But Sandel has done more than just validate my own thinking. He has made me aware of the judgements I have made in recent years about the less educated, noting how they tended to vote more for Brexit and Trump. Sandel points out that a university degree is on the one hand not always given to the smartest or most deserving and is on the other hand an entrée to the jobs our society places more value on. He also looks at education in the climate change debate, again making me think differently. Politicians on America’s far right who are climate change deniers are just as educated as those who believe that climate change is real and human made. Both sides of the argument have used their schooling and analytical skills to justify beliefs they already had.

As 2021 winds down, my thanks to Michael Sandel.

Michael Sandel

Gifts for Her – Headless Women?

The Observer recently published in its glossy magazine ideas for Christmas gifts, the latest items to buy that you can’t think of yourself. Under the category ‘Gifts for Her’ were candle holders in the shape of a partial female nude. It only had the upper thighs and beautifully fit buttocks, stopping at the waist. That is, it also lacked breasts and legs, one could argue, making the objects less titillating and therefore something appropriate to purchase for ‘her’ this Christmas. But not this ‘her.’ Straight away, I felt uncomfortable with this gift idea.

from The Observer Magazine 5 Dec 2021

As the photo in The Observer only showed the back of these candle holders – a set of three in the female-friendly colours, I suppose, of red, pink and purple for £110 – I visited the seller’s website in the hope of seeing the fronts. I was curious if they had a triangle of pubes or were more like Barbie and bald. This curiosity was not to be satiated. The items weren’t there and I had to assume that they had sold out. Obviously, others weren’t put off by these objects as I had been. On that point, I also noticed that there haven’t been any published Letters to the Editor or comments on the website about these female-buttocks candle holders.

I did, however, find some candlesticks by the same designer, Anissa Kermiche. These were also of women’s bodies, including breasts, but still excluding heads. I found these shapes aesthetically pleasing and reminiscent of Matisse’s famous blue and white paintings of female nudes – only his women had not been decapitated. Perhaps it is the lack of heads in these gift items that bothers me. Headless women objectify the female body and in ways for which you’d be hard pressed to find male equivalents. Nude male bodies without their heads if used for household items, usually come with a wink and a chuckle.

All of this brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s much-quoted essay on the female body, which includes this vignette:

The Female Body has many uses. It’s been used as a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreaths, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.

Conclusion, if you want to buy me a present this Christmas, skip the headless women, a book is always a safe bet, or perhaps a Matisse 2022 calendar.

Allyship – Word of the year 2021

Dictionary.com has announced that allyship is its word of the year. A word I have never seen before, let alone this year. I was expecting vaccine, variant, renewables or some neologism, like antivaxxer.

According to Dicitonary.com, allyship is a noun referring to ‘the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.’ It’s a straightforward blended word, combining the word ‘ally’ with the morpheme ‘ship.’

Although allyship is new to Dictionary.com, its origins go back to the mid-1800s, but that was in a broader sense, a group of allied organisations. The modern sense used by Dictionary.com can be traced to the 1940s but didn’t come into more regular use (apparently, even though I missed it) until some 15 years ago.

These lexicographers go on to say, ‘Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of 2021 – and crucially, how the public processed them.’ For me, recent examples of this include white protesters at the Black Lives Matter marches and heterosexuals across the world actively supporting gay rights in Ghana, Uganda, Russia and Poland. Though some in these pools of partisans have been accused of virtue-signalling (another good word), I’d like to think that the vast majority are genuine.

But I was put in my place when I did my own corpus search on allyship and found an article from The Guardian. Questioning the allyship of whites who support black causes, Kelsey Smoot had this to say:

‘The truth is, genuine allyship is not kindness, it is not a charitable act, nor is it even a personal commitment to hold anti-racist ideals – it is a fall from grace. Real allyship enacted by White Americans, with a clear objective to make equitable the lived experiences of individuals across racial lines, means a willingness to lose things. Not just the extra $50 in one’s monthly budget by way of donating to an organization working towards racial justice. I mean palpable, incalculable loss.’

Smoot raises some good points about empathy and activism. Nevertheless, I like the social justice flavour of allyship and might start using it myself for actions I think are genuinely deserving. This might be a tall order.

Dying languages, changing climates

With the recent publication of ‘Native Speaker 2,’a few people have asked me about the inspiration behind this story of a feisty nonagenarian who is one of the last speakers of an American Indian language. It was loosely based on a talk that I heard at a linguistics conference back in 1995. When an old American Indian woman spoke in a quivering voice of her sister’s death marking the demise of their language – with no one to speak to, a language doesn’t live – there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. Some 25 years later, the emotion of her words stays with me. My retelling added some humour in the characterisation of the aged woman, and I used the Wintu language group of Californian languages as the language on the verge of extinction. My gratitude to Leanne Hinton’s Flutes of Fire, a highly readable book about Californian Indian Languages.

Dying and extinct languages are undoubtedly one of the many consequences of colonialism. One of the other consequences is that countries colonised in the modern era (16th century to the present) are more vulnerable to disasters brought on by climate change. This has been highlighted these last few weeks with coverage of COP26, where indigenous peoples and their supporters had a more notable presence than at previous COPs. One native Brazilian, protesting against the destruction of rainforests, also made the point that the rich nations that colonised the southern hemisphere have caused most of the devastation to our planet and are still reaping the rewards.

endangered languages
Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Okay, I was talking about California earlier, a rich state in rich country (speaking in broad terms). America has been both colonised and coloniser. Though it could come down to the appellations, Native/Indian American and just American. Nevertheless, the cultural and linguistic side of these dual roles, coloniser and colonised, has been surreptitious and slow, taking place over decades and centuries. But on the environmental side, the spirit of both roles can be seen in the damage the US has brought upon the world, including itself, in my lifetime. America has become the bully who self harms.

On a lighter and nerdier note, according to linguists and anthropologists, the relationship between climate and language has other direct links. Differences across languages can be explained in part by different regional climates. For example, languages spoken in warm, wet and heavily wooded areas, such as in the Asian-Indian subcontinent, tend to use more vowels and fewer consonants. At the other extreme, languages used in arid, desert-like regions are more consonant heavy. One of the explanations for this has to do with the effects of dryness on the vocal cords (all vowel sounds are voiced, involving vibration of the vocal cords).

The conference I went to back in the nineties was my first and last native American language conference. As fascinating as it was, I was among the few non-indigenous people in attendance. The linguistic field of language documentation for dying languages had moved on and was starting to hand over the reins to those whose ancestors spoke the native languages. Although people were welcoming, I felt like an intruder, a descendant of contemptible European colonisers. I only wish now that my younger self realised the full extent of the harm of colonisation, damage that goes far beyond languages and cultures.

Notes on Trauma

I keep on bumping into the topic of trauma. Our society, literature and art, at least in the West, are dealing with this topic more openly and more creatively than they did in the not too distant past. So far, I just have some disconnected notes.

  • In the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a woman and her eight-year-old child escape from the brutal massacre carried out by a Mexican cartel of sixteen members of her family– that’s the opening chapter, no spoilers here. As mother and son flee this tragedy, they carry their trauma with them. The narrator, at this point focalized on the mother notes: ‘Trauma waits for stillness. Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.’ 
  • A CfP (that’s ‘call for papers’ in academic speak) came up for an article collection on the theme of extremities, not to be confused with extremism, following on from the work of Catherine Malabou on neuro-literature and the recent wave of ‘extreme’ texts in literature. In brief neuro-literature is something of a template for literary and art criticism that is post-deconstructive (sorry Derrida) and post-sociocultural interpretations, drawing from the sciences, including neurobiology. ‘Extreme’ texts seem to have many definitions, but I divide them simply into structurally experimental and/or radical in theme. On the CfP’s list of potential topics within the idea of extremities is ‘post-trauma, witnessing, silencing and reorientation in literature.’ This makes me wonder if trauma reaches an extreme, an outer edge, of human experience.
  • Some excellent novels in recent years have dealt with the topic of rape, how it traumatises as it shames and alienates the victim and the victim’s family. A melange of emotions with an undercurrent of misogyny and patriarchy. I mentioned in a recent blog, Girl by Edna O’Brien, which is about the abducted girls in Burkina Faso. To this I add, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, which is set in the US and shows how the rape of one family member can over time change the lives of the entire family.
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk has been referred to as the ‘trauma bible.’ Van der Kolk, a trauma specialist, recounts his decades of work with trauma survivors, showing how this is not only a psychological condition and phenomenon, but also a physical one that can alter the body’s health. It was on the New York Times bestseller list. I think says something about the time we are living in.
  • A zoom talk by Women’s Human Rights Council featured Jeanne Sarson and Linda Macdonald, who were promoting their book Women Unsilenced. The book is about the male torture of women in domestic violence and in slave trafficking. The authors mentioned how they are not referring to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the usual way, for them it is PTSR. The R is for response – we respond, we naturally react to stress and trauma. To call it a ‘disorder’ further victimizes the victim. I agree with that.

It’s a humourless topic, which makes it hard to write about. It might take some journal entries and blogs to get to grips with this. But the topic is also ubiquitous, and writing about it is crucial.

Poetry Days

I don’t live with poetry the way some writers do. Poetry comes up on me in seasons, lasting a few months, and sometimes in comes along for a couple of weeks before fading away again.

I’m in one of those short spells of poetry, triggered by National Poetry Day producing a list of the nation’s top ten favourite poems as voted for by the British people. To no surprise, something by Shakespeare – the sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – was in the number one spot. Of the remaining nine, only two were by women – Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Maya Angelou. That shouldn’t be a surprise either as the list reflected works typically found on the school curriculum, until recent years teaching the predominately white male canon. Other worn favourites included Kipling’s over-simplistic ‘If’ and Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic ‘Jabberwocky.’ This makes me wonder if childhood is so influential that it shapes our tastes for the rest of our lives. Taking a more cynical view, it could be that institutions of formal education are among the few places where we get exposed to poetry, thus making these works more memorable. Having said that, performance poetry, poetry slams and YouTube are doing their bit to take poetry outside of the classroom. I would like to think that future surveys of the nation’s favourite poems will include works to emerge from these newer formats.

Nearly all my favourite poems come from twentieth century writers – e.e. cummings (‘love is thicker than forget’), Stevie Smith (‘Not Waving but Drowning’) and Fleur Adcock (‘Against Coupling’) come to mind. Many of these poems can be found in university textbooks and papers in literary stylistics, leading me to think that the study of certain poems makes them our favourites.

This spell of poetry continued along last weekend with a memorial service for Anthony Thwaite, one of my favourite poets and a personal acquaintance. Anthony passed away earlier this year and was given quite a send off by the British press (The Guardian and Times among them). For the writers of these obits, Anthony was a ‘mover and shaker’ of post-war poetry, a literary editor and close friend and literary executor to Philip Larkin. I met Anthony some 15 years ago at his Norfolk home that he shared with his wife, Anne, and which hosted many East Anglia Writers’ summer parties over the years. The Anthony that I knew, while still funny and forthright as in his younger days, displayed an easy-going cleverness – the sagacity of a life well-lived.

Indulge me with closing this blog entry and this poetry mini season with a poem printed in the order of service and one that coincidently puts a twist on my thoughts about the nation’s favourite poems:

Simple Poem

I shall make it simple so that you understand.

Making it simple will make it clear for me.

When you have read it, take me by the hand

As children do, loving simplicity.

This is the simple poem that I have made.

Tell me you understand. But when you do

Don’t ask me in return if I have said

All that I meant, or whether it is true.

Anthony Thwaite

Stories About Girls

Having recently written about Roald Dahl’s Matilda (the Literary Encyclopedia), I’ve become more aware of stories about girls. By ‘girls’, I mean under the age of eighteen. Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was not about a girl – it was about a young woman. 

So many stories about girlhood depict heroines battling against adversaries and situations that often stem from simply not being a boy. Matilda is a gifted child who can read and do maths well beyond her years. Yet, she has to fight the negative gender stereotypes  promoted by both of her parents, who blatantly favour Matilda’s little dimwitted brother. When Matilda displays a stronger ability in maths than her father, he calls his daughter a stupid liar. Her mother tries to dissuade her from being smart as it would make it harder for her to get a husband. These characters, referred to by one scholar as ‘.the most thoroughly unpleasant personalities in children’s fiction’ are seen by some as exaggerations for the amusement of children. But I would argue they are not too far off the mark in western societies even today and in some parts of the world, this hyper-sexism is spot on. What makes this a good story about girlhood is that Matilda triumphs using her brain and her telekinetic powers which come from her extraordinary powers of concentration – her brain again.

While working on this Matilda article, my pleasure read for part of that time was Edna O’Brien’s brillant novel Girl, based on the kidnapping of 276 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. Given the subject matter, it might not sound like a ‘pleasure read’ and I had hesitated to read it at all because I thought it might be too distressing. We all knew at the time that these girls were abducted in order to be raped or forced to be soldier’s brides – another form of rape. While, yes, the rapes occur, they happen early in the story and are described from one girl’s perspective with a focus on the emotional experience of confusion and disgust. Once the girl, Maryam,  is married off and gives birth – she is barely pubescent – she is able to escape. The story becomes one of survival in terrifying circumstances. Upon Maryam’s return to her family the story shifts to one of coping with trauma and rising above the superstitions and condemnation of her family and community. In its own, strange way, O’Brien’s retelling of this horrible crime against humanity is life-affirming.

I realise that this blog, thankfully not a book review article, makes an unlikely comparison between a children’s book known for its dark humour and a contemporary adult novel replete with uncomfortable naturalism.Both Dahl and O’Brien see the innate oppression in the lives of girls. 

Fence Painting in Durrell’s Cyprus and Our Afghanistan

As I don’t understand and can only feel rage over the crisis in Afghanistan – Biden’s long game, the shambolic withdrawal of troops and civilians, NATO’s apathy – I’ve escaped this past week to Cyprus. That is, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, written in 1957. To achieve total escape, I decided to experience this not as a written book, risking my thoughts drifting to Afghanistan, but as an audiobook – my first audiobook ever. This neatly coincided with the task of 18 meters of rickety old fence to paint.

A friend recommended Durrell’s autobiographical account of his three years in Cyprus. Strangely devoid of sex for a L. Durrell book, the narration is straightforward and the descriptions are rich with Mediterranean flora and the spirited people of the island. As I listened to amusing encounters between Durrell and the locals as he tries to buy a home, my paint brush slopped over old twigs stuck between panels of rotten wood. To dislodge the twigs would have caused the panels to pop out.

The book gradually introduces the political context through how it manifested itself in the daily lives of locals and expats. Cyprus was trying to gain independence from the British, who still controlled it as a Crown Colony.

A couple of days of rain meant I had to leave the fence about one-third painted. I watched Afghanis crowding into Kabul Airport, a few men jumping onto the underbelly of a US military plane as it taxis towards a runway. Feminist Current’s blog relayed a story about Taliban troops going door to door in search of ‘wives’ (translation – slaves). I followed the links to find that the story originated with Bloomberg, but I haven’t heard anything since.

The weather improved, and I returned to the garden with my bucket of cedar red. Durrell started his journey as a writer looking for a change of scenery, but ended up working as a press officer for the British foreign office.  One of Durrell’s neighbours talks about the need to fight for independence if independence is supposed to have any meaning at all. Does the Taliban feel the need to fight even though they’re being handed their independence on a platter? Durrell observes the British officials’ sense of entitlement to have a British Empire. One officer bemoans Britain leaving as ‘Cyprus is the backbone of the Empire.’  I’m living through the crumbling of the American Empire. Given the US government’s failures at nation-building through military means, this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps it’s time for America to exercise more soft power through its technology and medical science in parts of the world in need (for me, this includes America itself). By the time Durrell left the island, he had witnessed death and destruction, his lyrical travelogue turned into a treatise on human failings.

Unfortunately, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, beautifully read by actor Andrew Sachs, is only three hours long. My escape from the news in Afghanistan and my painting job had to be supplemented by a radio podcast about Nina Simone and the start of my second audiobook, Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit (more on that another time).

With my work completed, the old wobbly fence is still an old wobbly fence, but now at least it’s of one colour. I have performed a cedar-red wash over chipped paint, rusty nails, decaying wood, empires, soldiers and refugees.

from Woody to Cuomo

With the news of Governor Cuomo resigning after nearly a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment, I’ve been thinking about my Woody Allen boycott.  For just a few moments this week I felt that same ache I felt back in the 90s when Allen fell off the pedestal I had made for him. 

By the 90s, Woody Allen movies had long since become one of my annual traditions as Allen makes a film every year. I know what you’re thinking – they have not all been great works – some have been real stinkers. But in my childhood and early teens films like Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, Sleepers and Love and Death were formative in teaching me about life – the societal hypocrisies and the need for psychotherapy.

As Allen films became more sophisticated with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Zelig, I began to appreciate a well-written script, and that lead to my discovering Woody Allen the writer of short stories and essays (mostly in The New Yorker). Allen’s world was funny and cerebral, self-effacing and philosophical. I don’t know what this says about my younger self, but I relished in his misanthropic humour. Among my favourite Allen quotables are: ‘Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.’ And ‘If my films make one more person miserable, I have done my job.’

Then there was the downfall. Soon-Yi Previn, Allen’s adopted daughter became his romantic partner in 1991 when she was 22. At first it was just weird. For the love of Woody, I shrugged it off, convincing myself that it was okay since Soon-Yi was an adult and of the legal age of consent. Moreover, Woody Allen was more like a step-adoptive father to Soon-Yi (the first adoptive father being Andre Previn). Downfall part two – in 1992, Allen was accused of sexually abusing his other adopted daughter, Dylan, when she was seven-years old. It was easy at the time to place this accusation in the category ‘ex-partner gets her revenge,’ the ex-partner being actress Mia Farrow. While Allen falling in love with his other adopted daughter gave him an air of guilt, he was never convicted. To this day, I’m still on the fence about his culpability.

When Woody and Soon-Yi married some five years later, I felt more justified in my acceptance of this relationship. Between the announcement of their being in love and the marriage, Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite came out – two of the best films of the 90s.  But as the years passed, I came to realise that issues of consent are not so straight forward. With Woody Allen, the complication arises from his changing roles from father to lover to husband, where the first role was one of familial power followed by roles that by definition involve sexual relationships. For me, the age of consent laws and marriage certificate no longer legitimise this creepy coupledom.

On top of that, I was growing uneasy with his films – he might give actresses some strong parts, but Allen has also made otherwise intelligent women characters weak in the face of compliments about their looks. I mean weak to the point of falling for the bespectacled, maladroit played by Allen himself. It’s in several Allen films, including Annie Hall.

My boycott of Allen films started in 2011 and has continued to this day, with an exception made in 2014 for Colin Firth in Magic in the Moonlight – Firth and the French Riviera was too much to pass up. The boycott is my way of saying that I object Allen’s use of power, and I am not going to continue to support it by contributing to the offender’s income, however small my contribution may be.

In the case of Cuomo, again I’m looking at a man in a position of power changing that role to one of sexual intimate, regardless of the other person wanting that relationship. But in this case, there’s nothing to boycott. The Democratic party, to their credit, have done that for voters by pushing him to resign. Of course, they’re doing this for political reasons, but I’m glad that our post #metoo society has helped to create that political environment. That just leaves me being miffed that someone I had admired for his support for women’s issues – calling himself a ‘feminist’ – and his anti-Trump handling of the pandemic could plunge so disgracefully.