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Jane Addams's "affectionate interpretation"

. . . with first, a look at the world's imaginative ruts, 2005:

U.S.-armed Israelis besieging Palestinians
& Arab & Muslim world stewing vengeance

Russians attacking Chechens in the Caucasus
& vice versa

Muslim Pakistanis murdering Hindu Indians in Kashmir
& vice versa

"Lord's Resistance" youth armies slaughtering East African villagers

Sudanese Muslims raping, killing non-Muslim villagers in Darfur

Arabic-&-North African-descended youth rioting in France

U.S. bombing Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan
& vice versa

Sunnis attacking Iran-&-U.S.-backed Shia in Iraq
& vice versa

Caucasians attacking Lebanese in Australia
& vice versa


While the above list names 2005's most hopeless cycles of violence, its geographic range suggests something worse:  that we all abstract each other quite universally – that millions everywhere yet kill in thrall but to our rehearsed idiocies in abstracting each other. 

Jane Addams, the founder of Chicago's Hull House of more than 100 years ago, had a term to describe our one alternative to humanity's most common idiocy.  She called this opposite possibility "affectionate interpretation."  Louis Menand recounts this in his recent, 2001 book, The Metaphysical Club.  He describes how Addams, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and others of America's post-Civil War era developed the democracy-enhancing principles of pragmatism, and this to the expansion and successes of progressivism in the U.S.'s early twentieth century.

The key to pragmatism – and to the sweeping reforms of progressivism:  that beliefs, as the Gospels put it, bear fruit – that values link to actions, that we judge one by the other.  According to the history that Menand charts, even the loveliest of abstractions and rational truths, however noble they appear, by themselves too often propel narcissism.  The great social thinkers that Menand follows in The Metaphysical Club differed among them as to the relevance of Darwinism.  They differed as to love of individualism.  But they joined in defining law, roles of government, and the place of regulatory agencies so that democracy could be more and more inclusive – that awareness and acceptance of others could trump the ways our own conceits ever otherwise have us withdraw and retreat into bastions of church, nation, and tribe. 

The progressives won.  American democracy expanded.  It survived Depression and war and, with the New Deal and afterwards, enabled the greatest middle class expansion the world had ever seen.  Post-WWII Japan and Germany and all western Europe emulated these reforms, and secured their own middle class successes.  But even as this history unfolded internationally, and in America civil rights actions continued to carry progressivism on, things also began going backwards.  Reverses set in most spectacularly in what formerly had been the U.S.'s fourth-largest city – home to the greatest labor unions, inaugural point for all Democratic presidential campaigns, and "City of Champions" for sports legends for a generation and more, from Joe Louis and Hank Greenberg onwards to Gordy Howe, "Night Train" Lane, Alex Karras, and Al Kaline.  In Detroit, Blacks got political power, but whites left.  The city shrank in population.  Manufacturing jobs left.  Murder rates rose.  And for years houses burned:  nighttime arson on thousands of boarded-up, empty houses, especially every year on late October's Devil's Night.  Eventually the Motor City no longer had even its original Motown Records. Fully 25% of its land went back to weed-grown, empty lots.  Where working-class, middle-class whites had had the nation's largest percentage of home ownership, ethnic-support neighborhoods, and a fine city-wide public school system, an ever-shrinking white citizenry found itself in isolated pockets, and Blacks triumphal by numbers – now threatening as demonized, abstracted "others."

Paul Clemens tell this story in 2005's best memoir, Made in Detroit.  Clemens was born in a largely Italian-American neighborhood in northeast Detroit, in 1973 – the year the city elected its first Black mayor, Coleman Young.  As Made in Detroit notes Young's reelections all through the e70s and e80s, Clemens looks at the city turning very Black from the perspective of his Italian-American perch.  All his peers went to Catholic schools – to avoid not just Blacks, but the city's continuously drug-and-crime-ridden, failing public schools.  These Italian-American whites stayed in their corner of Detroit mainly as city residency was mandatory for its firemen, police, and other public employees.  Clemens's own father worked with cars – in jobs in Detroit's tool shops, and as avocation in his backyard garage and the racing tracks south of the city.

Clemens had Black friends, or acquaintances, as he played sports with them in the city's still-funded recreation leagues.  While Made in Detroit narrates these meetings of race, it charts the larger, city-wide, more common failures of racial meeting.  Clemens shows how prejudice fed gossip from anecdotes of personal petty rudeness, and how the same prejudice acquired larger, abstracted powers when tagged, too, with a dying city's rising incidence of car theft, robbery, and vandalism.  But he's not writing sociology.  Made in Detroit resonates with actual people in a living culture.  It reverberates with the music of the era – funk, punk, heavy metal, and soul.  Clemens bounces these vitalities off his prolonged readings in Black writers – especially Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison.  They afford perspective to his Detroit experience, to writers he reads probing the Catholicism of his Italian-American experience, and others, from Ze'ev Chafets on Jews in Detroit, to Faulkner dwelling on related themes in the South. 

Clemens doesn't simply mix music and literature into his memoir, but shows them as if yet acting in the very lives of people.  He sees all culture as part of lives.  This may surprise most of us, who have learned to see culture as stuff to buy, as experiences to have paid for, and had, as if we thus owned them, as if we were then elevated above them.  Our combined commercial and corporate academic culture has fed these conceits – has made us all largely consumers.  Many of us think it's all a game.  We think that, before buying the stuff arranged for us on TV, or following the tracks made for us in schools, we can see it all advertised, and laugh at the ironies in the former, the banalities in the latter.  The promises built into commercial and corporate academic culture join in telling us that we're above all that drollery, that we're all in on 1) the jokes of commercialism and 2) the specialized, de-humanized hoops of academe.  Not only are we all above all that – yuck-yuck, or tsk-tsk – some part of us tells us that by playing those rote empowerment games we're all, too, a bit of a fraud.  We learn that "others" are likely as fraudulent as we – that all belong to a "culture" basically buyable.  Coddled as we are in the entitlements of consumerism, we flatter ourselves that we can see through the lies, that we can play the games without injury to ourselves or others.  We seldom get the skills to see our way out of our conceits, our self-distancing and ownership designs.  Most of us sink deeper and deeper into most deadly vantage points for viewing cultures, ourselves, others.

When Paul Clemens looks at his boyhood Detroit people, he sees them in – not above or beyond – their styles of food, transportation, clothing, landscape, and buildings.  Befitting an account of Motor City – befitting, too, his love for his father, and his father's love for cars – Clemens shines on the pull and shapes of internal combustion culture.  He attends less well to food, even Italian, but his entire memoir revs with the vitality of how all inhabit any culture – how all of us expand or shrink our degrees of humanity through the choices we make (or have made for us) in the five areas of any culture.  When he gets to his discussions of writers Malcolm X, Baldwin, and Ellison, these secondary, literary forms of culture live because he's already arranged space for them in the primary ones of landscape, buildings, cars, clothes, and food. 

Jane Addams, as Louis Menand reminds us in The Metaphysical Club, called it "affectionate interpretation":  how we may recognize mutual interests – walk in others' shoes, do unto them as we would have them do unto us.  It's an old idea.

In another memoir, one of the greatest in our literature, Pico Iyer also noted the Golden Rule, and located it, grounded it, in the ways that people inhabit cultural differences, and in the ways all of us in our differing cultures may realize ourselves in relation to others.  In The Lady and the Monk:  Four Seasons in Kyoto, Iyer found himself, or placed himself, in Japan.  He reveled in the cultural particulars there that differed so from those in his American and British upbringing:  landscapes, foods, clothing, transport, and buildings.  "The more we know of particular things," he quotes Spinoza, in helping him negotiate these differences, "the more we know of God."  Iyers's observations, stories, anecdotes, and literary analysis all dovetail into this desire to know aptly, to hallow with due reverence.  Throughout The Lady and the Monk he reads and meditates on the great poets of ancient Japan, exploring the mysteries of Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Shintoism – mysteries he finds recurrent and further compelling in the contemporary world.  Even if modern Japan seems so unlike the old, with its plastic surfaces, bullet trains, and neon electricities, Iyer knows that, to plumb the ineffable and eternal powers, one cannot shut out the baffling people and new age oddities around one.  "Religion is not to go to God by forsaking the world," he quotes the monk Sōen Shaku, "but by finding him in it."

If we want to find divinity, and evanescent spirit, taking cultural shapes and blending into others, we have an obligation.  We have it not to books, nor to music – maybe none to any forms of optional or secondary culture.  We have an obligation, instead, to see individuals in their particularity.  Even in our otherwise specialist-posturing classrooms, we can note the people actually in the room with us, and link outside stuff to the inner values everyone has, and everyone shows:  in the shapes of our landscapes, the ways we travel on or through them, the foods associated with land or far from it, our buildings and their interiors, the garments that hide and reveal us.

Those who ignore this obligation have one thing in common:  they are ever abstracting "others."  We can see this in our American "leaders," those who for corporate loyalties have long supported the worst dictatorships around the world, and those of the Cheney-Rove-Rumsfield-Feith-Rice-Bush cabal who rushed us into the recklessness and incompetence of their newest Iraqi war.  They yet mouth "sacrifice," when none of them ever risked any military danger themselves – when none in their families will ever risk it.  Abstractions like theirs fueled the sorry ruts of wars, hatreds, and killings around the world as the year 2005 came to its end.  Too many of our leaders have equipped themselves in similar abstractions as our elites practice in corporate academe, those whose hypocrisies in "humanities" gild the very specializations whereby they systematically de-humanize.  We could have more skilled in the arts of seeing "others."  We could act upon more of our mutual connections – more of Jane Addams's "affectionate interpretation."

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