Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas wish: If only we could rely on private charity

In Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl," an impoverished child freezes to death sleeping on a door step in Christian Copenhaen.
The Little Match Girl, hungry and freezing.

 In Dicken's A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim would have perished for want of good food and medical attention in Christian London if not for the miraculous transformation of Scrooge (in a story that never advocates changing systemic social injustice). In 19th century and early 20th century Christian countries, children went hungry and dressed in rags, and many people died young of preventable diseases--despite all the growth in wealth brought by industrialism and despite the many efforts of well-meaning Christians and others. The needs were simply overwhelming. Even today, in Third World countries without a social safety net, poor people live harsh lives that Christian charity has been unable to come close to ameliorating--in Kenya, a country the British colonists once divided amongst religious groups, including the Quakers, a friend tells me that a Kenyan without money will be left to bleed to death on an emergency room floor, dying while nurses step over him.
Tiny Tim would have died but for Scrooge's personal transformation.

In Middleton in Transition, anthropologists writing in the 1930s outline the almost impossible struggles of private charity to plug the hole the Depression blew in the local economy. A social consensus arose in which landlords did not evict unemployed tenants--and were tacitly relieved of contributing to the many charitable drives designed to stave off starvation. But not until the New Deal sent government money and centralized programming to the town--in reality, Muncie, Indiana--could the aid begin to meet the needs of the local population.

Yet friends or acquaintances of mine often mention their desire that private charity replace government social programs. The government, they say, is not supposed to be in the aid business. Government charity usurps the role of the churches and other religious institutions. If the government did not steal people's money and spend it against their wishes, they would have more to give to deserving causes. If the government would get out of the way and stop dispensing food stamps and Medicaid, the churches could step in and take over, distributing aid with love and individualized care, not bureaucratic coldness.

This is a compelling counter-narrative to the welfare state, and oh, how I wish it were true. If only churches and other religious groups could handle a society's charity: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked. Yet history, as outlined above--and present day experience--tell me this is a fantasy.

We are a much richer country now than in the 1930s, some will argue, and have learned the lessons of the debilitating dependence wrought by the welfare state. We would step up to the plate. But would we? If we would, why haven't we? If we could, why is anyone applying for government aid? I would be more comfortable with withdrawing the aid if it happened in such a way that need for it withered on the vine. Rather than doing  away with SNAP (food stamps) I'd rather see a situation in which private charity was so generous that nobody would think to turn to the government. However, I don't think that world--that shalom kingdom-- is on the verge of emerging.

I fear that for all the talk, if the government were to withdraw what is left of the social safety net, that first, many people would not "snap to it" and hustle into work, because work would not be available to them for any number of reasons. I fear many would become ever more  hungry, ragged and homeless, and that we more comfortable souls would become inured to a situation in which great groups of the poor lived miserable lives. I fear that rather than give sacrificially to meet need,s churches would withdraw, as churches do, and insist their mission was to save souls, not bodies. Even the Quakers, feeling the financial pinch in America during the Depression, balked at giving German Quakers the aid they needed to help people, including Jews, during the crisis of National Socialism. American Quakers, as outlined in the book Quakers and Nazis, remembered the "rice Quakers" in Germany after WWI--those who converted just long enough to get fed--and fell back on the idea of providing spiritual nurture, asking the German Quakers to become materially self-sufficient and help themselves.

How would this not happen across the board if the government safety net were removed? If churches and mosques and other groups could deal with the needs without the government, wouldn't they have done so already? Wouldn't there have been no need for a welfare state? My concern is that when people are asked to dispense aid on a personal level--and when it is voluntary--judgmental attitudes quickly kick in. People in need suddenly "don't deserve" help. Jane Austen nails this mentality--all too human--in Sense and Sensibility--when, urged on by his wife, the half brother of the Dashwood sisters quickly reinterprets his father's dying wish that the son help his wife and daughters in order to be able to do as little as possible.
John Dashwood's wife talks him out of setting up an independent income for his step-mother and half-sisters for after all, they  themselves might someday need the money.

I also worry that the growing trend towards private charity leads to distinctions in which those who are personable and attractive and popular get help, while those who aren't get left at the wayside. As a religion reporter, I covered a number of silent auctions sponsored by churches to help a family with large cancer treatment bills. Inevitably, it was an attractive family being helped, a family that people identified with --usually young, with young children, and active and popular in the church. I often wondered if the same effort would be made for the nasty older woman that people avoided or the elderly man who pissed himself or the pain-in-the-ass woman who was always complaining about her dietary needs--or the family that didn't do much for the church, with the kids that were a little heavy and clumsy. I imagine people would want--or think they wanted--to help--but would they always be too busy to organize, too overbooked to attend the auction? I remember a vulnerable young woman dating a young man I used to work with. She was heavily involved in saving abused horses. She told some people I worked with about a fund raiser--they eagerly promised to attend. Not one showed up, remembering at the last minute other commitments, or that they were too tired. I don't know if she was hurt, as she never came to our office again--but I imagine she was, and I imagine the well meaning people simply didn't like or identify with her enough (she had acne! she was a little needy!) to make the effort. These are realities.

But, people will tell me, more people would convert to Christianity if they had to turn to the Church for their physical needs. I don't believe this. I call this sick Christianity. I believe that having to mouth Christian pieties to get a meal alienates people from Christianity almost more quickly than anything else, a sentiment documented by writers such as George Orwell who lived among the way the "down and out" in London in the 1930s.

So, while Christmas conjures up an image of generosity, love, goodwill and private charity, I for one will continue with all my heart and mind and body to support the welfare state--for it is, I believe, a gift from God that allows us to make life better for all people, a way to bring goodwill to all men and all women.

What do you think? What would it take for faith groups to provide for people's needs? Is it possible?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Olney rejects fracking

Olney's No fracking flyer

Olney Friends School has decided not to lease its land for fracking. Although this means walking away from hundreds of thousands of dollars, the school community believes this choice is most consistent with its testimonies and its commitment to stewardship of the land. The school has suffered financially as a result of the recession, which makes turning away the money all the more difficult. Olney has no large endowment to fall back on.  I will watch with interest as this unfolds, to see where "the ocean of Light" may be at work.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

New blog look, dissertation

I am working towards a new look and feel for this blog. Now, especially after the Earlham School of Religion experience,  I am more integrated, whatever that means, and hope the blog will reflect that consciousness. I'm already blogging here as much about my other passions as about Quakerism. Quakerism has become less a goal I am sailing towards than a ground supporting me or, especially since I joined Stillwater Meeting, the air I breathe. I keep thinking of the Buddhist idea (also very Quaker) that religion is a boat carrying you to the shore of enlightenment. Once you reach the shore, you no longer need the boat. I still need the boat but perhaps have reached a marshy ground ...

More appropriate might be the metaphor of the labyrinth. When you walking the path and seem closest to the center, you are often, paradoxically farthest from the center, and when physically seemingly farthest from the center, sometimes closest to it.

After some delays, I am at the very beginning of starting the process of writing my dissertation through the Woodbrooke program connected with the University of Birmingham. Years ago, I earned an MA in English literature, completed coursework towards the PhD and passed my PhD oral exams in English. Last December, I finished my MDiv. Finishing the PhD  continues the process of integration as the dissertation will be merging literature, theology and Quakerism. I hope to blog about this from time to time.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gone With the Wind: Interrogating Racism

This post will fall into the category of BSP--but also promotion for what I believe is a worthy book (I haven't received my copy yet), Civil Strife, published by the Indiana College English Association. I do want to give a special shout out to the efforts of editor Nancy Riecken. My article on Gone With the Wind appears in the Civil Strife anthology.

I argue in my essay that Gone with the Wind is an ironic novel that sharply critiques both slavery and patriarchy While I do not mention Jane Austen in the paper and while Austen is not in any way a direct source for GWTW, Mitchell, I believe, followed in Austen's ironic tradition of the "polite lady" talking out of both sides of her mouth.  Mitchell disavowed liking Jane Austen, but she read her novels as a child and wrote juvenilia that was ironic in the same vein as Austen's juvenilia. (I don't imagine Mitchell read the juvenilia but I place importance on the early "voice" of both authors). For a time in the 1920s, Mitchell wrote an advice column, albeit one that she inherited, called "Ask Elizabeth Bennet," named for the lead character in Pride and Prejudice. Mitchell also stated explicitly that she wrote GWTW to critique the romantic ideology of "The Old South" still current in the 1920s when she began the book.

We often read the novel through the lens of the movie, which misses much of the book's wit and irony. Also, as my friend Ellen Moody points out, because Mitchell was a woman writing in a woman's genre it has been easy to dismiss her.

I am more "circumspect" in this polite, scholarly article than I would like to be. I would like to scream: Scarlett is an idiot! Whites in the novel are idiots! Blacks in this novel (witht he possible exception of Prissy and I wouldn't even be entirely sure of that) are smarter than whites!

What does this have to do with Quakerism? Not much, except that Quakers too critiqued slavery and patriarchy.

The article is below:

Civil War and “civil” war: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: Interrogating

The dramatic intensity of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has captured
the imagination of millions. Readers and critics alike have understood this book
about war’s devastating destruction as serious, dramatic fiction. Critic Amanda
Adams writes that the novel displays “gritty realism:” Mitchell, the “journalist” was
“ever straightforward” (66). John Crowe Ransom attacks Mitchell’s seeming
earnestness and lack of Southern wit, attributing this to Mitchell having, in his
words, “deeply committed herself to the mentality of her Scarlett” (Adams 73). Not
surprisingly, the black community, fearing violence, immediately condemned the
novel and was even more scathing in its reception of the movie (Burks eg. 62). More
recently, Carolyn See writes of Gone With the Wind’s “creepy racism” (Ryan 267).

While its dominant chord is blatantly racist, and while the novel does
promulgate—however inadvertently‐‐ the myth of the happy plantation, a strong
minor chord also runs through the narrative that interrogates this reading. Mitchell
employs irony in this novel, an irony that functions to distance the reader from her
highly flawed white protagonists and their worldviews. Along with irony, Mitchell
uses her slave’s histories to undercut the false ideology her white characters spout,
be it white male supremacy, romantic nostalgia for the Old South or dog‐eat‐dog
postwar Social Darwinism. As her biographer, Darden Asbury. Pyron wrote, in her
personal life, Mitchell, despite the reception of her novel, “mocked, ridiculed and
scorned the myths and pretensions of the Old South” (243).

Mitchell’s opening is littered with back stories of characters which problematize
from the outset a romantic view of the Old South. Mitchell wrote the first chapter of
the novel last, months after the manuscript had been accepted for publication. As
Pyron describes it, Mitchell “fought the first chapter battle as fiercely as any
skirmish she ever launched. … She wrote version after version after version. …"
(291). Because this beginning chapter clearly mattered to her, we can assume
nothing entered into it without her careful consideration, as it set the tone for a
novel that she hoped, wrote Pyron, would critique antebellum ideology (577).
In this opening, 16‐year‐old belle Scarlett O’Hara entertains her neighbors and
beaux, the Tarleton twins, on the front porch of her family plantation, Tara. It’s a
beautiful evening, the dogwood and peach blossom in bloom, and wealth, beauty,
ease and plenty abound. The twins, like Scarlett, “waited on hand and foot since
infancy, ” “lounge” idly. War, however, is in the air, which bores Scarlett. Trying to
please her, the Tarletons share the “secret” (ironically known to everybody but
Scarlett) that Ashley Wilkes’s engagement to Melanie Hamilton will be announced at
the Wilkes’s barbeque the next day. For reasons inexplicable to the doltish twins,
though shared with reader through Scarlett’s thoughts, the mood sours, and after
lingering in hopes of a dinner invitation, the disappointed males finally move to

At this point, readers experience two surprises or revelations [1]—first, the
twins have brought with them their slave, Jeems, who has been eavesdropping on
their conversation with Scarlett. Then a second surprise emerges, one that
undermines immediately the assumption of white superiority on which the
Southern slave economy is built— we learn that Jeems [2] is more intelligent than
his owners.

Though they insult him with the ease of those who have the uncontested right
to bully, it is Jeems who supplies the explanation for Scarlett’s mood:
Look ter me lak she sho glad ter see you an' sho had missed you, an' she cheep
along happy as a bird, tell 'bout de time y'all got ter talkin' 'bout Mist' Ashley
an' Miss Melly Hamilton gittin' mah'ied. Den she quiet down lak a bird w'en de
hawk fly ober.
The twins looked at each other and nodded, but without comprehension.

Jeems’s story begins a series of scattered slave vignettes that call into
question the myth of the happy plantation. We learn that Jeems, although
clearly always enslaved, had first been the twins “playmate,” a term connoting
equality. Then, he “had been given to the twins for their own on their tenth
birthday,” the “for their own” emphasizing the twins’ now overt control over
him. One could skim over that change in status—or one could stop long
enough to feel a chill for what it might have been like for a boy to be handed
over as property to two lively 10‐year‐olds, who could do with him what they
pleased, including casual brutality. Not long after leaving Tara’s porch, for
example, Stuart threatens to “beat” Jeems’s “hide off” for insulting a poor white
man—a threat Jeems treats with unconcern but which focalizes the violence
that maintains the slave culture. Likewise, Mammy’s back story could give a
thoughtful reader pause:

She had been raised in the bedroom of Solange Robillard, Ellen O'Hara's mother,
a dainty, cold, high‐nosed French‐woman, who spared neither her children nor
her servants their just [!] punishment for any infringement of decorum.
Beginning as a child slave to a cold, exacting, punitive woman more than suggests
an unhappy childhood. And while Mammy harangues Scarlett, mostly by invoking
the power of Ellen, Mitchell from the start makes clear who is slave and who is
mistress: though weary, elderly Mammy must lumber up the steps to fetch teenaged
Scarlett’s shawl, while, having set her to the task, Scarlett runs off, shawl‐less, to find
her father.

A final vignette woven in early on, while demonstrating Gerald O’Hara’s
benevolence, also illustrates the slave’s plight. Pork, Gerald’s valet, “had deviled his
master night and day” to buy his wife Dilcey, and finally, “his resistance worn thin,”
(ch.2) Gerald complies, buying not only Dilcey, but her daughter Prissy. That this is
an act of extraordinary kindness is underscored both by Scarlett’s dismayed
exclamation that Gerald didn’t need to buy Prissy and by Dilcey’s words:
Mist' Gerald … I wanted to come here and thank you agin fo' buyin' me and my
chile. Lots of gentlemens might a' bought me but they wouldn't a' bought my
Prissy, too, jes' to keep me frum grievin' ….

Mitchell’s vignettes depict a system based on the almost unlimited power of
whites over blacks. The narrative illustrates the variety of cruelties (beatings, family
break‐ups, disregard of grieving) that easily could‐‐and did‐‐ befall slaves not
encased in the magical world of Tara and its environs, troubling white dreams of
happy plantations.

Morever, the plantation system , as described by Elizabeth Fox Genovese in
Within the Plantation Household, “at all levels … reflected and reinforced a view of
the world in which women were subordinate to men” (195). It was supposed to be
an ordered world, in which contentment would reign as people adopted their
“natural” places—the white men, physically and intellectually superior, at the apex,
white women subordinate to them, and black slaves gladly accepting eternal
servitude to whites. Gone with the Wind exposes that social organization not only as
implicitly cruel, but also as a sham, revealing a comically upside down world, upheld
and enabled not by the “superior” white men, but by the intelligent and able house
slaves and by women who night and day deceive their so‐called masters.

For Jeems is not the only slave smarter than his owners. Mitchell continuously
reveals whites as less intelligent and capable than their supposed inferiors. Dilcey
doesn’t waste the opportunity afforded by her audience with the O’Hara family, in
which she thanks them for buying her and Prissy. Instead, she immediately and
assertively thrusts Prissy at Scarlett to save her child from becoming a field hand:
“Miss Scarlett, Poke done tole me how you ast Mist Gerald to buy me. [There’s no
other evidence in the text to confirm this and Scarlett’s own words deny it.] And so
I’m gwine give you my Prissy fo’ yo’ own maid.” When Scarlett demurs, stating that
Mammy is her maid, Dilcey persists—and as we find out later (ch. 8), gets her way.
Intelligent slaves also include Mammy, whose “eyes were sharper than Ellen's …
Scarlett could never recall in all her life having fooled Mammy for long.” Uncle
Peter, Miss Pittypat’s slave, is, however, the most intelligent of them all, for he runs
the Hamilton household, raising the orphaned Melanie and Charles, and managing
the “grown‐up child,” Aunt Pitty. Peter makes the kinds of decisions usually the
province of white males, deciding to increase Charles’s allowance when he turns 15
and insisting he go to Harvard. (ch. 8)

Charles’ description of Peter, especially when he calls him “devoted,” may smack
of See’s “creepy racism,” but Peter’s overwhelming competency undermines any
notion of innate white supremacy. Further, while the narrator often refers to blacks
as childlike or animals, the same fate befalls the white characters, who are also
repeatedly referred to as children or likened to animals.[3]

Women too are depicted in the novel as more competent than white men. For all
Gerald’s bluster, all of Tara knows Ellen runs the show: “everyone from Ellen down
to the stupidest field hand was in a tacit and kindly conspiracy to keep him [Gerald]
believing that his word was law.” Gerald, ostensibly the person at the top of the
plantation pyramid, is handled rather handler—and everybody knows it. Ellen was
“obeyed instantly at Tara;” Gerald “quietly disregarded.”

In her own realm, Scarlett fumes at having to play a fool:
"Why is it a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?"” she asks Mammy.
"Ah specs it's kase gempmums doan know whut dey wants. Dey jes' knows
whut dey thinks dey wants. An' givin' dem whut dey thinks dey wants saves a
pile of mizry ..”

With perhaps unintentional irony Mammy goes on to explain that it’s good
that Scarlett isn’t a fool because men expect to marry fools and wake up with
competent wives. Everyone but the white men knows the feigned idiocy and
helplessness is a game—and everyone colludes in the deception.

While women and slaves manage the Old South’s world, we, the readers, see
that Southern women, as well as slaves, pay a heavy price. Although Scarlett adores
Ellen, who she doesn’t perceive as unhappy, and although Ellen epitomizes the
Southern “great lady,” the narrator describes her as an automaton or a ghost—
something uncanny—“She would have been a strikingly beautiful woman had there
been any glow in her eyes, any responsive warmth in her smile or any spontaneity
in her voice …” Having been forbidden to marry her true love before Gerald came
along, she is “a gentle shell.” (ch 3) Gerald, more interested in the shell—a lady from
one of Savannah’s first families‐‐ than its interior, is thrilled with the ghost‐girl he
has gained, guided the entire way to matrimony by Pork. (ch 3) The narrator, in
backhanded fashion, implies that Ellen believed her marriage a mistake: “If Ellen
had ever regretted her sudden decision to marry him, no one ever knew it, certainly
not Gerald.”

Eventually, the narrator cuts to the chase and explains that Ellen’s fate is the
southern woman’s fate:
Ellen's life was not easy, nor was it happy, but she did not expect life to be easy,
and, if it was not happy, that was woman's lot. It was a man's world, and she
accepted it as such. The man owned the property, and the woman managed it.
The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his

We do not get such insights into the private sorrows or thoughts of the slaves,
for Mitchell wrote this book as a story of the Civil War seen through the eyes of
white women (262) but as Charles Rowan Beve notes in his essay “Gone with the
Wind and Good Riddance,” a “central truth” of the novel is that ’life for women and
slaves alike was a vast prison in which these unfortunates were enslaved to free
white males.” While Beve may be questioned for equating white women—“ladies”—
and slaves, as slaves fared far worse, his insight aligns with what the novel tells us
—that Southern ladies led severely limited lives.

Beve, one of the few critics who notes the intelligence and agency of women and
blacks in the novel, resists, however, the idea that Mitchell is writing ironically. Yet
the persistent pattern in the text of the lower orders being smarter than the higher,
Mitchell’s own history of writing comedic juvenilia (Pyron, 58‐60, 322) and
Mitchell’s frustration with the reception of the novel as plantation mythology all
point to her deliberately using irony as a rhetorical device to reveal the hollow core
of ante‐bellum ideology.

While Beve dismisses the idea of the novel as ironic because it is told from a
woman’s perspective (!), itself an astonishing claim, on some occasions, particularly
when men are courting Scarlett, we are allowed to overhear their interior
monologues—or are told their thoughts. The Tarleton twins mistake Scarlett’s
manipulative use of flattery and feigned fascination as genuine admiration. Charles
Hamilton, the first man Scarlett cynically marries, comically misinterprets Scarlett’s
self‐serving and calculated ploys, as well as her self‐centered distraction, through
the lens of “Southern lady” mythology. While she is regarding him
contemptuously—eg, “Here was this fool expecting her to be excited about Mr.
Lincoln” he gushes inwardly: “How fragile and tender women are, he thought, the
mere mention of war and harshness makes them faint.” The clashing interior
monologues are the stuff of high comedy—and of social critique. Scarlett will
likewise later coldly manipulate Frank Kennedy, deceiving him with astonishing—
and comic—ease into perceiving her as a delicate, empty‐headed flower in need of
his protection.

From this male unawareness in the face what is obvious to women characters,
we can extrapolate that the interior monologues white characters—male and
female—have about blacks may be just as misinformed. Are the “darkies” as loyal,
devoted to their masters, simple, content with slavery and childlike as the white
characters think—or is this simply the product of another set of manipulations, with
the blacks playing subservient roles as blatantly as do women? Certainly, we are
given enough information about black intelligence, perceptiveness, competency and
networking—eg, “their negroes, who had been told nothing, knew everything too, by
that black grapevine telegraph system which defies white understanding” —that the
alert reader might call into question the self‐serving racist ideology of the ruling
class. We just may suspect that rather than loyal and devoted to white interests, the
black characters we meet, caught like the women in power‐less positions, are
primarily meeting their own interests.

Thus, in Gone with the Wind, the plantation ideology of male and white
superiority is exposed. Yet living this collective lie, as the novel shows, hastens the
collapse of the untenable system it means to preserve —and this may be the book’s
central irony. As anyone with the scantiest knowledge of the Civil War would know,
the bragging of the plantation class men at the beginning of the novel—"We could
lick them in a month‐‐" "Why, one Southerner can lick twenty Yankees‐‐" —
overflows with irony, for in a few years, the South will be shattered by the North’s
industrial war machine. The novel reveals to us that a system of oppression based
on lies will so inflate the sense of dominant class invincibility that tragedy becomes

Further, Adams’s contention that “if the novel is indeed propaganda, it is … for
the … marketplace, laissez‐faire ethic” (60) is also questionable. Mitchell skewers
this post‐war ethic as readily as the plantation ideology. In fact, what the novel
communicates, despite Mitchell’s overt straining against it, could be summed up as
The Who’s “hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.” Laissez‐faire capitalism is
little different from the slave economy in Mitchell’s view—both economies, as
Mitchell describes them, are openly built on the exploitation of the weak and
helpless. Scarlett uses convicts to man her lumber mills. Scarlett’s new cohort, after
she is rejected by the old guard, include people whose veneer Rhett loves to
skewer—"Ralph, if I'd had any sense I'd have made my money selling gold‐mine
stocks to widows and orphans, like you, instead of blockading. It's so much safer."
Whether the widows and orphans are white or black, exploitation remains the
foundation of both systems.

We can understand this novel as a celebration of capitalism only if we see
Scarlett as an admirable character—but Mitchell comically deflates Scarlett at
almost every turn (except for Scarlett’s true heroism when she returns to the
devastated Tara.) Scarlett is depicted from the start as dangerously unreflective, a
Bertie Wooster figure, a pampered personality ignorant about anything beyond her
narrow world—an ignorance she re‐embraces in more hardened form after Rhett
marries her after the war. Mitchell uses this ignorance to humorous effect. Early in
the novel, Scarlett astonishes even the besotted Charles by not knowing who the
Borgias were.

Scarlett thought quickly but could remember no family in the County or Atlanta
or Savannah by that name [Borgia]. "I don't know them. Is he kin to them?
Who are they?" An odd look came over Charles' face, incredulity and shame
struggling with love. Love triumphed as he realized that it was enough for a girl
to be sweet and gentle and beautiful, without having an education to hamper
her charms, and he made swift answer: "The Borgias were Italians." "Oh," said
Scarlett, losing interest, "foreigners." She turned her prettiest smile on Ashley,
but for some reason he was not looking at her. He was looking at Charles, and
there was understanding in his face and a little pity. (ch 6)

She later on misses every allusion Rhett makes to Shakespeare. When she tries to
conjure the Gotterdammerung for Rhett, she can’t remember the word—“Some
funny foreign name that sounded like profanity”‐‐but he understands the allusion
immediately when she explains:
"Why, Ashley said‐‐" "Yes?" "Once at Tara he said something about the‐‐a‐‐dusk of
the gods and about the end of the world and some such foolishness." "Ah, the
Gotterdammerung!" Rhett's eyes were sharp with interest. (ch 49)

This is not a celebration of anti‐intellectualism, as Adams contends, but an
indictment of it. We are invited to laugh not with, but at, Scarlett. If Ashley is caught
in a dream world, Scarlett is just as destructively trapped in her self‐centered
ignorance, leading her to drive away everything that matters—the virtues of
kindness and honesty, the ability to see clearly, community, even Rhett. Capitalism is
not her salvation.

By examining more closely at the irony and back story of the novel, we can see
how Mitchell subverts and exposes racist and sexist ideologies. The novel is neither
endorsing the Old South nor the new Social Darwinism, but critiquing both. The
subtext creates a comic and inverted world—a carnival world—in which hierarchies
are skewered. Beneath the surface of a racist text bubbles a mirror world in which
blacks and women run the show. This world is largely erased from the movie
version, which has unfortunately conflated in the popular imagination with the
more subversive written text. The novel engages us in a battle where the chief strife
is not North against South but rhetoric against reality. Given Gone with the Wind’s
continuing place as a cultural artifact, it behooves us to read it in ways that
acknowledge its subtext and give credit to Mitchell’s intelligence, complexity and
Copyright Diane Reynolds
[1] Although she analyzes them in terms of psychology, not in terms of class, race
and sex, Blanche Gelfant, in “Gone With the Wind and the impossibilities of fiction,”
The Southern Literary Journal, vol 13, no 1, fall 1980, 3‐31, understands that “secrets
are Gone with the Wind’s explicit concern” (5).
[2] The name Jeems sounds like Jeeves, the all‐knowing butler who serves the
wealthy and clueless Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novels. The popular
novels were appearing in the 1920s, and while we don’t know that Mitchell read
them, chances are she did, as she was a voracious reader who enjoyed popular
literature (Pyron 220). We do know that she chose character names carefully (Pyron
262), so if she had read Wodehouse, it’s plausible that she intended a connection
between Jeems and Jeeves.
[3] The references are almost overwhelming. A few—the Tarleton twins are
likened to horses and hounds, the Southern men to wild animals. At the end of the
book, Ashley is described as a “cold animal” and “a child.” Rhett has a voice “as silky
as a cat’s fur” and is—at least once‐‐apelike. Scarlett calls herself a “child” at the end
of the book, and Rhett likens her to a “kitten.” Melanie’s childlike figure and qualities
are referenced throughout the book.

Works Cited
Adams, Amanda. “’Painfully Southern: Gone with the Wind, the Agrarians and the
Battle for the New South.” ’Southern Literary Journal, volume xl, number 1, fall
Beye, Charles Rowan. “Gone with the Wind” and Good Riddance.” Southwest Review,
vol.1 , June 1993.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. “Gone with the Wind: black and white in Technicolor,”
Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 21:53–73, 2004.
Conde, Mary. “Some African American Fictional Responses to Gone with the Wind,”
The Yearbook of English Studies, vol 26, 1996. 208‐17.
Cronin, Jan. “’The Book Belongs to All of Us:’ GWTW as post‐cultural product.”
Literature Film Quarterly, 2007; 35 (1): 396‐403.
Fox Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White women of
the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Gelfant, Blanche. “Gone With the Wind and the impossibilities of fiction.” The
Southern Literary Journal, vol 13, no 1, fall 1980, 3‐31.
Pyron, Darden Asbury. Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York,
Oxford University Press, 1991.
Ryan, Tim A. “Designs Against Tara: Frances Gaither's The Red Cock Crows and
Other Countemarratives to Gone with the Wind,” Mississippi Quarterly: The
Journal of Southern Cultures, Dec. 1 2005.
Vials, Chris. “Whose Dixie? Erskine Caldwell’s Challenge to Gone with the Wind and
Dialectical Realism.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Criticism and the Arts, Dec. 1,
2006, 61‐94.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Barnesville and Fracking

I got home today from Quaker business meeting and did a quick clean up as everything seemed to need tidying. So I washed dishes, swept the floor, put a new tablecloth on the kitchen table, moved piles of items to bedrooms, wiped counter tops and moved laundry around. Order restored. If only it were always so easy.

It’s windy again. The peaty hanging basket with the begonias blew off the hook yet another time, scattering dirt and limp little begonias all over the porch. I decided, finally, to give up on the lightweight hanging baskets—Anything without heft is sure to go helter-skelter on this hilltop.

Since I live on one, I like the idea someone put forth that hilltops are sacred places.

Place, however, is colliding with petroleum, as fracking comes ever closer.  “Comes” is the wrong word. Fracking is here. The pipelines are going in as we speak. People have signed their contracts for cash upfront with royalties, every half-acre lot getting its seemingly huge payout. Given the way the money is moving, there must be the proverbial gold mine underground. Looking back—but who could have known? (we own no land and so are unaffected by the dizzying offers)—it might have been better for the townspeople and other locals to bind together and negotiate as a group with one just one gas company—it would probably have made for a better deal upfront and an easier class action lawsuit if needed on the other end. But we are a country sold on individualism.

Stillwater Meeting is preparing to sign a contract—fracking and all its by-products will be all around us whether we sign or not--and the Meeting could use the money. The refrain that fracking will surround us no matter what we do sounds over and over as does the argument we are all already complicit as part of an oil-addicted society. I understand the logic of getting the money for what is essentially a done deal. The social pressure in this area to sign is intense. But I  think fracking money is a lottery "win" (of sorts), not the answer for the Meeting’s financial needs. It’s no more sustainable than powering a world by pumping all the oil out of the ground. 

I’m trying to envision the world that is coming when the last shard of coal and teaspoon of gas is pumped out of the earth. Already we’re at peak oil, though we keep finding ways to extract more and more. But eventually it will be gone, like that last tree chopped down on Easter Island. I like to picture the end of oil ushering in a harmonious, sustainable way of life—goods floating to market down rivers and canals, pushed by wind and water, people traveling by trolley and train—these fueled by renewable energy—or biking from place to place. I see more ocean liners in this vision and fewer airplanes. A slower pace of life. Time literally to cultivate one’s garden.

One of the best uses of the fracking money coming to Stillwater will be to invest in alternative, sustainable energy—in the future we can have if we want it and plan for it. The more we do now to prepare, the less the shock will be when the oil ends.

When we moved here five years ago, we certainly didn’t dream we’d be living in the midst of what essentially is becoming a huge oil field. This is a lovely, lovely place, with hills and orchards, ponds and hay fields, Amish farms and wild turkeys, woods and streams and wildflowers, two lane roads and breathtaking views.  It will be damaged; the question is how much and how hard it will be to repair. Except for the temporary boom that resource extraction brings, I don’t see much upside to this—except too, that we still live in a stable country. Arguably, it’s better to pump the gas out now than in more desperate times. Further, being at ground zero of the oil and gas industry  has already sensitized our Meeting to the need for more and better regulation of this wild West type of industry—how such a mindset will go over in a Republican-dominated state will be hard to say.

Since we’re caught up in events we can’t control, but perhaps can influence, it will be interesting to see what happens. Where is God in all this? I don't know, but a sense a peace seems to pervade the Meeting that is difficult to understand outside of the spiritual realm. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A quartz contentment, like a stone

I have been going through some interesting experiences of community, so called. It's instructive to have what Bonhoeffer called "the view from below."

Thus, this poem speaks to me:

After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?
The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
     Emily Dickinson

"A quartz contentment, like a stone."

Then I happened to find this passage yesterday, randomly, as I opened a book:

"He began to be troubled and deeply distressed. He said to them 'My soul is exceedingly sorrowful... Stay here and watch!"

"Stay here and watch!"  He speaks urgently. Did his friends stay and watch? 

Not one. 

What I respond to in the passion story is this: it's dark and unflinching about how human beings are.

Yet I do believe, like George Fox,  that over the ocean of darkness is an ocean of light.

Friday, March 8, 2013

On Charisma, charism, popes and Quakers

Charism: "An extraordinary power (as of healing) given a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church."

Charisma: "Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others."

I read in the newspaper that the Cardinals electing the new pope hope to find someone strong enough to clean up the corruption in the Vatican and charismatic enough to appeal to the masses.

I have a charming vision of these Cardinals in their red robes and caps gathering amid the splendors of the Sistine Chapel to engage in an ancient process. I hold them in the light and hope they are Spirit led.

I feel fearful when I read that the Cardinals seek someone with charisma, because I worry that what they want is a leader with "compelling attractiveness and charm," when what they really need is a person with charism, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, when I read their desire to elect a man with the strength to clean up the corruption, I worry they mean strong  in a worldly sense:  A man with a domineering personality who will not be afraid to bring his fist down on the table and smash the parasites.

At its worst, this worldly, charismatic strongman sounds like Adolph Hitler.

I know that's not what the Catholic Church really wants. The body longs for spiritual renewal, for the healing of a wounded institution. That won't happen as long as the Cardinals  choose the next pope according to a laundry list that  adheres to worldly standards. The new pope needs to speak Italian? Really? Is that what God requires in a great spiritual leader: Italian? He needs to be in his early 60s? Really? Joan of Arc was purportedly 14, Jesus purportedly 30. He needs to be a he? Really?

The church needs a person with charism, not charisma, and a person with the strength of a Jesus or St. Francis: someone who in his, or dare I say her, seeming weakness can discern God’s love and  speak truth to power. I think of a movie I saw about the new Dalai Lama being a child; I think as well of Isaiah's "and a child shall lead them;" I think of Jesus' disciples, a lot a careful corporate manager would never pick to grow the brand.

I wish something like a Pentecostal fire would descend on those Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, and that they would feel moved to throw out the check list and let the Spirit lead in their choice of a new pope. 

I think too about the Quakers. In the absence of hierarchy, I believe we often become too reliant on personality, on charisma-"attractiveness and charm"-- and not charism. I met a Quaker years ago who said she could only determine what she thought about Thomas Kelly's Testament of Devotion if she could meet Thomas Kelly, who, unfortunately, was long dead.  Really? He'd have to be personable before she'd accept his wisdom? Where would that put people like Van Gogh, Beethoven, and even, I suspect, the Apostle Paul? 

I hope when it comes to choosing a pope or the next leader of a Quaker organization, Spirit's wisdom leads and that those tasked with making decisions can discern substance from shadow. I wonder how we develop the trust that makes that possible.

Birds and abundance

With all the snow this winter, I have been attentive to putting bird food in the feeder outside our kitchen window. But with my broken wrist, the food ran out.

"We need to take the rest of the bird food and put it in the feeder," I said to Roger, pointing at the bag on the counter. "It's snowing again, and the birds have nothing to eat."

"They can eat at Fran and Richard's feeder," he said. Fran and Richard are our neighbors down the street. They are not so close. Would the birds know to go there?

Roger poured the rest of the food into the feeder, because of course he was joking about sending hungry birds to Fran and Richard.

All winter, I, the urban-suburbanite, had been marveling at how long the seed lasted when we poured it out. At first, I chased off the fat red squirrel who beelined for the food, fearful he would take it all and hoard it in his nest, but I found I didn't to worry. He would come, take his supply and leave.

None of the birds took all the food. Sometimes cardinals would chase off the smaller birds, but once the cardinals were done, plenty was left over for the wrens, finches and chickadees who would join the red headed woodpecker for a feed.

The food would last and last.

But this latest refill attracted crows. Two crows ate while a big black crow sat on the roof of the feeder, keeping guard. They were ominous looking, big and shiny. Oh dear, I thought, birds so big and smart are going to eat all the food and none will left for the little birds.

This was not true. The crows ate and flew away. Soon all the hopping and perky little birds had flocked to the feeder, and when they were gone, the squirrel came and ate.

I can't stop marveling at this. The birds, the squirrels and the mice who no doubt come at night, treat this food as manna from heaven: provision for today. Yet why wouldn't they hoard? From what I understand, cold and snow take quite a toll on birds in terms of mortality.

Perhaps the real question is how I've become so indoctrinated into an ideology of hoarding that it seems amazing to me that some group of animals--the "stronger," of course--wouldn't come in a strip away every last tiny seed from the feeder in the first hour it was put out, so as to secure themselves--but they don't. Outside of the grasshopper and locust hordes familiar to readers of the Little House books and the Bible or the relentless assault of the killer ants in The Poisonwood Bible, animals don't strip a landscape bare. As we know from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, animals can devour each other in ruthless and ingenious way, most of them grisly, but they do this--primarily, though let's not forget the wanton killing of the fox or weasel in a henhouse-- on the basis of need, not greed.

I learn so much living in this rural area just by looking out my windows. I like to imagine myself, like Coleridge or Wordsworth or, for that matter, Beatrix Potter, living in an American equivalent of the English Lake District, and while we don't have as many lakes, we do have hills and I do have a view of a small lake from my bedroom window. But I digress.

What I learn from nature is, as with the injured crows, the natural world is not the "dog eat dog" monolith we are led to believe. It's much more complex and nuanced. Thus, there's simply no firm basis for it being unequivocally "natural" that the "strong" humans in our culture take and hoard vast swathes of resources, leaving others sick, hungry and fearful.

Environmentalists and Native Americans have been saying this forever, of course, but there's no greater teacher than the experiential. I read the Sermon on the Mount with new insight, and meanwhile Hopkins's poem "God's Grandeur" keeps running through my mind: I see in the birds that "dearest freshness deep down things" and am reminded that over the "bent" world "the Holy Spirit broods" with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Downton Abbey

Like many, I've watched Downton Abbey, partially to engage in a cultural phenomenon, partially because I enjoy looking at it, and partially to follow the unfolding story.

Primarily, however, I've watched it because it troubles me.

Downton presents a false worldview and sticks to it unwaveringly, no matter what the twists and turns of the plot. It's the worldview of the southern plantation, the aesthetic of the Nazi. As the photograph shows, it's a society of rigid hierarchy, with a visible gulf between rich and poor, a world that promises harmonious--in fact beautiful-- functioning as long as everyone knows and accepts his or her place. Masters are masters, servants are servants,  and never should the worlds mix outside of their ritualized and circumscribed boundaries.

Much--arguably most--of the plot revolves around challenges to the hierarchy, but such threats are always deflected: the moral righteousness of the plantation system always triumphs; the logic and aesthetic of its order are ever on display. Transgressors, nay, sinners--defined as those who bring confusion into the hierarchy--are justly punished and the rightful order always restored.

The examples of the validation of this plantation worldview are almost too numerous to list, but I will offer a few:

Early on, Matthew Crawley, the middle-class son of a doctor, finds he is heir to the Downton estate. A great climatic moment arrives when he allows a valet to dress him. He has provided a job to a suitably grateful underling.  That the money spent employing this person might be better used supporting a job with social utility--say another teacher in the village-- never crosses the consciousness of the Downton ruling class.

Disruption occurs when Lady Sybil, the earl's youngest daughter, elopes with the "socialist" Irish chauffeur. He naturally must be humiliated in some way to atone for the deadly sin of socialism--the idea of leveling the social classes. He's unmanned by his inability to "protect" his wife, reduced to crying, sniveling and taking unsolicited advice from a servant. Any "socialism"--which seems to manifest chiefly as his initial refusal to dress for dinner--quickly crumbles in face of the logic of the plantation--in fact, too, his vague socialist mutterings early on morph into an equally vague Irish nationalism. Socialism and nationalism might be at odds, but why quibble? The salient point is that he must be brought to heel and he is, for after all, such an emasculated child-man only needs firm guidance.

Early on, the servants O'Brien, the lady's maid, and Thomas, a footman, are a disgruntled twosome,   bitter and questioning of the Downton social order. Each wonders why it is that they must grovel and labor while others, by the mere accident of birth, live in luxury and leisure. Both, naturally, get their comeuppance. Thomas decides after the war to leave Downton and go into business speculating on black market foodstuffs. He sinks his savings into bad merchandise and must creep back to Downton for a job. He had the audacity to try to rise above himself; how much happier he would have been if he'd simply accepted his place as a servant in the great chain of being. Likewise, O'Brien, overcome with remorse for her malice when "her ladyship" Lady Cora gets sick,  repents of having thought ill of her betters. Both servants are devious, dishonest operators, underscoring by their character flaws the immorality inherent in questioning the social order--those of evil, impure character challenge the system; pure characters, like the maid Anna and her valet husband (not coincidentally a manly-man), accept it without murmur.

When, during the war, the maid Ethel crosses class lines to have an affair with a major, not only is she fired, she gets pregnant, has a baby and  resorts to prostitution to survive. She is redeemed, but at the cost of her child, for, when finally broken, she sees the wisdom of allowing the upper class grandparents of the boy (the major is killed in the war) raise him.

When Lady Mary Crawley sleeps, under the very roof of Downton Abbey, with  a Turk (shades of Princess Diana), he dies in her bed, and worse, her sister finds out. To keep her secret, Mary betroths herself to a self-made newspaper magnate she despises, punished by the purgatory of an ill-suited male. Happiness arrives when she eventually marries the Downton heir.

Lady Edith, the second sister, throws herself at older man, desperate to marry. In doing so, she doubly offends the social order. First, it violates the Downton code for the young and healthy to mix with the old and/or infirm, a morality constantly reinforced by her grandmother, Lady Violet. Second, as is underscored by Anna, the maid who represents the moral center of Downton--blond, pretty, exemplary as a servant in her ever competent, wise, deeply respectful and loving care of her masters, as well as perfect in her understanding of her female role--a woman should never, as she tells the scullery maid, Daisy, throw herself at a man. Lady Edith's punishment is the humiliation of being left at the altar. Afterwards, she emphasizes her renewed understanding and acceptance of the social order when she insists on getting up and going downstairs for breakfast--breakfast in bed, she says, is for married women, not spinsters.

One might argue that the series merely mirrors the social mores of the period. Perhaps true but problem is that the show, in fact, reinforces rather than critiques these values. Downton might allow the window-dressing of challenges to the social system: a woman in bloomers! a socialist chauffeur! but in the end the power and the rectitude of the traditional order triumphs.

I believe the show appeals because our hearts long for an ordered universe. In a rightly ordered world, hunger, violence and unnecessary suffering would disappear. Yet what these various ideologies of hierarchy-of plantation, Aryan race or manor-- offer is a distortion of an order that emerges most perfectly when people are treated as equals. The Southern plantation system, for example, exemplifies, in the nostalgic retrospective of some white southerners, an idealized social order. If only people would have accepted their places in the hierarchy, what a beautiful world it would still be. If only the black slaves would have devoted themselves with pure hearts to serving their masters, the system would run have smoothly and benignly. The fault was not in the system or the superiors, but in the uppity underlings. The problem is that this story is untrue. Likewise, in the Nazi aesthetic, if only the lesser races (at least those not exterminated) would have accepted and served Aryan superiority, the world would have run as a well-ordered machine. The brutality of both systems might be obscured, hidden under the loveliness of flowing hoopskirts and beautiful blonds in slinky silk gowns but nonetheless was real and possible because of the almost unlimited power of one group over another. (A rule of thumb: the real brutality of a world is proportional to the beauty and luxury its upper classes display.)

Thus, beautiful Downton troubles me because it too depicts a  highly unequal hierarchy based  on birthright as fundamentally right and good. Servants who accept their God-given places have good lives in this world. For all the talk of hard work, we never see a servant worked to exhaustion; in fact, the lives of the staff seem a veritable smorgasbord of community, abundance and treats. Under the benign eyes of their "parents," the butler and housekeeper, they are, as children would be,  indulged with goodies like a day at the fair--provided their chores are complete.  And who would not want to be of the suave, adult upper classes, waited on hand and foot, floating through life in beautiful clothes and gracious surroundings, secure in the knowledge that one's  privilege is both deserved and positively contributing to the good of the universe? I am reminded of Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst," about another "rightly ordered" country house in which the fish eagerly jump out of the stream in their rush to be served on the dinner table, and the fruit falls effortlessly from the tree.  The realities of toil are eradicated in favor of a myth that serves the interest of those on top.

We know, of course, that the great country houses often did offer the most comfortable terms of employment, and hence skimmed off the most qualified servants. We know, too, that the lives of the staff in lesser homes could be much rougher. Were there any question that the life of a servant was often harsh, we need only look at the "servant problem:" given a choice, working people flocked to the factories and offices. In Downton, one servant does this; however, this  is quickly glossed over and forgotten. In Downton, the real cruelties and abuses of servitude simply don't exist, just as in the movie Gone With the Wind's Tara and Twelve Oaks, the laughter of the happy slaves fills the air.

Downton makes its plot decisions in service of a ruling class ideology that validates and adulates the class system. Yes, Sybil's death may have arisen from the desire of the actress playing her to leave the show, but that didn't necessitate her dying as a result of childbirth. What if she had died bravely standing up for genuinely oppressed workers, perhaps as part of a coal miner's strike? She would be just as dead, but the series would have complexified the happy plantation mythology--and added historical realism--by showing how the ruling class often did behave abusively and cruelly in order to maintain their luxuries. What if Matthew Crawley had insisted on using his valet budget for a schoolteacher and housed him at the abbey? What if the Crawleys really had lost their money without a deus ex machina salvation?

Quakers have challenged this mirage of social order from their earliest days. Against the myth of the happy plantation, Quakers continue to provide a counter narrative of a society built on principles of equality.  Yet I am troubled that the discredited worldview of Downton Abbey remains so seductive. Why is this so?