The Politics of Individualism

The right has a tendency to espouse individualism. However, while claiming the ground for themselves they discuss it largely in terms of making money and keeping as much of it as possible, something which of course is very limited in its reach and only of great importance to a privileged few.

When it comes to individuals in many another aspect of their lives, their arguments tend towards social engineering. The creation of a homogenous group of people who look the same, think the same, believe the same, act the same.

In other words, the right tends towards economic freedom and social controls, while the left tends towards economic control and social freedoms.

The legislature exists to maintain social standards insofar as people should not kill, steal, or in other ways transgress upon the rights and freedoms of other individuals in society. Beyond actions that do so transgress, I am not up for the idea of ‘community standards’ given these tend to mitigate against individualism and cultural diversity within a community.

I relish that diversity, both as an observer and as a contributor to it. But even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t feel that it would be right to enter into excessive forms of social engineering in order to try and bring about some idealised world suited to my own personal tastes for its comforting predictability.

A perfect example in my own life is my take on homosexuality. Two guys at it revolts me. End of. (Two women is another story, but let it pass). I’ve stated that fact openly to gay friends to their understandable chagrin, but they can miss the point along with those who would see their activities curtailed. Tolerance isn’t about “I like it.” That wouldn’t be tolerance, it would be choice. If I liked it, I’d be gay myself. Tolerance is about the fact that we live in a diverse world of diverse individuals with their own forms of self-expression, their own tastes, proclivities, cultural backgrounds, personal histories etc. If I want to live my life in accordance with the person I am, then providing I don’t hurt others in doing so I should be allowed to do it. I happen to detest beetroot. However, I do not want to live in a world in which others are banned from eating it. Neither do I want to live in a world in which eating it is made compulsory through legislation designed to inflict upon the entire population some sort of community standard.

I want minorities to have their rights because, in the end, we are all of us a minority of one. In expressing myself I don’t want to tread on anyone else’s toes, and I sure as hell don’t want anyone else treading on mine. If I am going to censure people on the grounds of my own personal tendencies, then I should accept the censure of others. Forget it. It ain’t gonna happen.

So, community standards be damned. My community standard is that of the individualist. I promise to stay the hell out of your face. In return, you can stay the hell out of mine.

Some thoughts on ‘the curse of the ‘gifted’ child’.

[Taken from a conversation I initiated in a discussion amongst Mensans, responding to a not uncommon – though far from universal – theme]

What I am hearing some people say – and I do stress the ‘some’ – is, with precious little exaggeration, ‘Because I am gifted, I have difficulty interacting with normal people because they do not understand or appreciate my giftedness. Indeed, they resent it.’ The most recent example I saw of this was someone who then added that she finds she can’t get on with most Mensans given they have this fault or that she declared herself not to suffer from, which tends to suggest wherein the problem actually lies; finger-pointing instead of critical self-analysis.

From the get-go I have difficulty with the word ‘gifted’. I find it almost invariably used by – though not exclusive to given it has crept insidiously into common parlance among Mensans – such ‘uncomprehending world of normality’ theorists.

The very implication of its usage in this way – elevating oneself above the vast majority who are simply incapable of getting it – suggests a less-than ideal social comportment on the part of the speaker. For sure if we have a particular obsession with pure mathematics, say, we’re not going to find a general audience for that and will have particular friends with whom we can discuss such abstruse matters, but how does that differ from a teenage girl who dreams day and night of Justin Bieber, or some person obsessed with the achievements and history of Manchester United, or a person so fond of his or her cats he or she can’t stop talking about them? Heavens, these may even be highly intelligent people who happen to prefer those as targets for their attention. In any case, are all ‘gifted’ people interested in maths? I’m not, and I’m – supposedly – ‘gifted’ by the definition of the word as it’s being used, (though I reject its usage).

Abstruse topics discussed with the few who are equally interested is perfectly normal, then, and not a manifestation of intellect. It does not explain maladaptive children who, for this reason and others, are often portrayed as functioning poorly in social situations thanks to the lack of the majority when compared with the self-proclaimed ‘giftedness’ of the purported victim. From this, a number of negatives are extrapolated, the key to which is often the idea that the majority resent those of high intelligence. My suspicion is the majority resent something else entirely, the fault lying with the ‘victim’, (an unfashionable notion since we’ve invented the term ‘victim-blaming’ to cover all such instances, any profession of victimhood seemingly always to be taken at face value when some measure of self-criticism may clearly be in order).

So far, so troubling. However, what if these people themselves have intelligent children and foster in them this same sense of a hostile environment, thus causing isolationism to be inculcated? Or what if they become self-professed – perhaps even widely acclaimed, it doesn’t seem to take much for that to happen – ‘experts’ in the realm of social and emotional problems confronted by the intelligent child and serves as a mentor to others with gifted children?

I don’t profess myself an ‘expert’, but I was thankfully raised by intelligent parents who were not given to make dramatic distinctions between those of high intellect and the majority of people such that they felt I needed special treatment. I did not merely survive normality, I thrived within it – both socially and intellectually – and am thankful for it. So, this is my advice to parents of intelligent children arising out of my contentions as a self-professed know-nothing, for whatever it is worth.

First, if your child is speaking ancient Greek by age ten, make sure they can also ride a bike by age eight. Better still, a skateboard. Buy your children those for Christmas, not Latin primers.

Second, expose your child to Mozart by all means, but expose them equally to punk rock, heavy metal, rap, house, and Justin Bloody Bieber. Permit them to find their own preference.

Third, don’t let them read ahead in their school work. If they complain they are bored with classes, have a word with the head teacher. Have such children prove they have the curriculum covered, and request permission – to be relayed to the child’s teachers – for the child to be permitted extra-curricula books in the classroom he or she can read quietly.

Fourth, develop the child in areas other than the academic. Try to foster an interest in sports, for example – which is, after all, healthy – and keep a check on their friends by inviting them round for dinner. Don’t be paranoid about it, just make sure everything’s running smoothly in that department. If it isn’t, don’t come to the ‘You’re gifted, so you’re doomed’ conclusion. Whip them off to a specialist. There is, to my mind, something at play here other than their intelligence.

Fifth, never admonish the child in a way that emphasises some difference. “Sure your friends do that, but you’re much more clever than they are” is not helpful and anyway, in its implications it is inaccurate. Intelligence is not wisdom and is far-from a guarantor against folly.

In other words, the default should be normalisation, not making a distinction. It’s my belief that, all other things being equal, the child will normalise of his or her own accord, so it’s far more about letting the child be and not taking proactive measures. Yes, as with the ‘extra reading in class’ idea some adjustments may need to be made, but these may only need to be minor.

If the child fails to adapt to the environment, take that child to a specialist. I don’t mean ‘a specialist in why the gifted child fails to adjust’. I find myself cynical about many such experts for reasons already stated. Rather an everyday specialist who deals with common instances of maladaptive children. If intelligence is at the root of the problem it won’t be difficult for a general specialist to ascertain that and for more specialised help to be – discerningly – sought if need be. If not, you want the actual cause identified and dealt with for what it is.

If all else fails, then, make special provision, but make it on the basis of what that child needs, not by some template of ‘the curse of the gifted child’. Definitely not on the basis of ‘the curse of the gifted child in an uncomprehending world of often spiteful normality’. In my experience, in the experience of most people I know with high IQs, that world does not exist.

Review: Philip Roth – I Married a Communist

I Married a CommunistI Married a Communist by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is going to be one tricky review.

The second of Roth’s American Trilogy, reading it immediately after the first, (American Pastoral), may have been a mistake. I am about to read the third, The Human Stain, given that I don’t learn easily.

I Married a Communist stands up perfectly well on its own. The only connection in terms of character is that of the narrator, but even with him it’s clear that we’re talking about a different life history. Bar biographical details of time and location, the two narrators seem to have entirely different stories insofar as each, though having a strong influence upon the narrator, stands in isolation from the other. We may expect the Swede, or his brother Jerry, from American Pastoral would receive a passing mention here, but they do not appear. Nor, of course, (given it was written later), does Ira Ringold make an appearance in American Pastoral, Ira being the focus of I Married a Communist as the Swede was the focus of its predecessor.

For all that, given the structure of the two works, it is difficult to assess this one without back-referencing. Just as the Swede is brother to the narrator’s school friend, so Ira is the brother of a respected teacher. As the Swede becomes successful, so too Ira. As the Swede married a sexual icon in popular culture, so does Ira. Perhaps stretching the connections a little far, just as it is the daughter of the Swede who provides the destructive impetus that lays the central character low in American Pastoral, so it is Ira’s step-daughter who, indirectly, brings about the demise – socially – of the central character in I Married a Communist.

In all this marked similarity of structure, and parallels in the plot lines, there is an impediment. It is difficult upon entering I Married a Communist not to have one’s mind upon the recently-lost Swede, both in missing him as we get to know Ira, and in confusing the two. This is made a little worse, ironically, by ways in which the structures of the two works differ. A long introductory to American Pastoral presents us with a neutral background to the Swede largely drawn from the distant observation of the narrator. The narrator takes us through his own high school reunion which furnishes the work with prescient echoes of themes to come. In I Married a Communist, however, Ira is thrown at us from the start, both through the personal relationship the narrator himself had with him, and through the eyes of his brother, the narrator’s erstwhile teacher, in reminiscence. Ira must be assimilated far more rapidly. Again, we are seeing events after the passing of decades, but where the narrator in American Pastoral has the luxury of constructing the Swede in his head from scant information and making it an all-but first-person narrative, Ira comes complete with commentary as a consequence of his own presentation. This can make him a little distant for the reader as we disentangle fact from interpretation; so distant, indeed, that a surprise revelation towards the end of the book comes as no great surprise at all. We are aware that we have never truly plumbed the depths of the character.

However, it may be argued that the character here verges upon being secondary to the central theme of McCarthyism and the witch hunts of which Ira is to become a victim. Roth does not give us a character who is undeserving of his punishment insofar as Ira was, indeed, a Communist, though he certainly poses the question as to whether it ought really to have been such a crime in the first place. Ira’s Communism is homegrown, a response to injustice and the plight of the working man and not, as the accusation made against him states, the result of his being a direct stooge of the Soviets. That he admires them is undeniable. That he is controlled by them is a falsehood in keeping with many another falsehood of the era in its almost hysterical condemnation of supposed fifth-columnists, a condemnation which many a European finds bizarre in hearing its echoes in the words of many an American even in the present day.

Roth’s critique of McCarthyism through Ira’s brother is condemnatory, and yet that condemnation is ameliorated somewhat by the surprise revelation at the end which shows Ira never to have been a particularly good person. Indeed, there is the suggestion that the idealism, the emotion, the energy behind Ira’s support of Communism has an ugly side and this, perhaps, may be what attracts Ira to the ideal. Certainly the three main Communists in the work do not emerge from it as sympathetic individuals.

If I have said little about the plot here, that is because the plot of I Married a Communist – as with American Pastoral – is secondary. What we have here is an analysis – perhaps Roth’s, perhaps not, but certainly not all Roth’s since he offers differing viewpoints – of politics, of the zeitgeist, of social structures and hierarchies, of folly, of relationships both personal and not-so personal and the damage they can do.

As good a work as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist tends to suffer from, rather than being enhanced by, the structural resonances with its predecessor. On the one hand, those similarities justify – indeed, almost compel – the two works being placed together as two of The American Trilogy, but they would most assuredly benefit from being read entirely separately with a long space of time in between.

Sue in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’

Jude has been done to death in terms of comments and reviews since first it was published, so I’ll restrict myself to what I find most intriguing about it, something I’ve not seen written elsewhere.

Sue fascinates me as a character. We have something strange in her tendency to gravitate towards men attracted by her as illustrated by Jude himself, and Phillotson. In each case, she is reluctant to engage with them sexually, but her presence in their lives, at once their partner and yet unattainable, makes her presence highly destructive.

This would be enough in itself to make Sue a strangely ambiguous character, but Hardy is at pains to introduce another character from off-stage – a student who had undergone the same at the hands of Sue, suffering to such a degree that his involvement proved fatal to him in the end. The introduction of this anecdote in no way serves the plot which would tick on quite nicely without it. Clearly, Hardy wanted to emphasise this aspect of Sue’s character and to make sure it was regarded as being central.

How are we to interpret it? Hardy leaves that open for us. On the one hand we may condemn her for the repetition of actions that prove damaging to those with whom she interacts. On the other we may sympathise. In the society at the time, a woman was highly dependent upon having a man in order for her to have social acceptability and Sue’s asexuality under those circumstances leaves her in a very difficult position.

However, both these interpretations leave something wanting. Clearly Sue is not oblivious, nor heartless, when it comes to the affect she has had upon these men. On the other hand, living with the student out of wedlock, with Jude out of wedlock and abandoning her own husband to do so, are hardly the actions of a woman desperate to fit in with societal norms, nor would connection with a student or with Jude in this fashion in any way be likely to elevate her social status or respectability. These are not ‘successful men’ who take her on as, in the world’s eyes, a mistress.

The question is left open, then. Sue is a complex character in her own right who offers no easy answers, but plenty to think about.

‘Chinese Characteristics’ not Characteristically Chinese

The Chinese are inclined to contend — at least, those with the loudest voices in positions of power who profit from them are inclined to contend — that China has ‘characteristics’ that are somehow unique and eternal. Very often, those same characteristics are seen in the outside world as inimical and yet, again, somehow uniquely Chinese, somehow eternal.

The reality is those characteristics — though now being fostered by vested interests well beyond their sell-by date — are neither singularly Chinese, nor eternal.

Much of what we see in China, much of that which is dying out, can find its parallels in European and other histories. Thus, for example, listening recently to a talk given on behaviour in the fourteenth century in Europe, the speaker told of people wanting large families, as many boys as possible, and of female infanticide being a regular occurrence.

This is not particularly surprising. Child mortality in less developed societies is higher than in developed societies. Societies are largely agricultural, and the more individuals in the family the more the land that can be worked. Boys are favoured both because societies tend to be patriarchal, boys tend to stay ‘in the family’ rather than marrying out and because boys have more physical strength for labour.

In developed societies, large families are not favoured. Rather than producing, children tend to consume resources. Child mortality is relatively low. In an urban environment, girls are as well-equipped as boys to serve as producers and families, tending to be increasingly nuclear, tend to ‘lose’ their boy children and their girl children equally as adults after marriage given that expansion of the household in an urban environment tends not to be an option.

Japan and Singapore are two examples of places where not so long ago large families were the norm but which now are having to introduce governmental incentives to encourage people to have more children in the face of declining populations.

Whatever their parents may think, I can’t recall a student here in China ever talking to me of wanting six or eight children, but I can think of many who have spoken of wanting one or two; some, now, who have even expressed the desire for girl-children over boy-children; and even the occasional individual who has said he or she doesn’t want to have any children at all, including women who say they would far prefer to focus upon their careers.

Regardless of history and culture, there is an inevitability about certain aspects of change that occur as any society becomes increasingly urban and increasingly developed. Smaller families is one. Other things that the Chinese feel is something that always has been Chinese and always will be such as guanxi, (connections), and mianzi, (face) have their own counterparts in the history of European culture, (‘the old school tie’ and ‘honour’ for example, remnants of which we still see today), and these too will change. Mianzi is an aspect of any strongly hierarchical society where complicated shows of adherence to the societal structure are required to reassure those with authority that their position is secure. What others may think of them is immaterial; it is the showing of respect that is important. As societies become increasingly reliant upon cooperation the hierarchy tends to break down, and gaining the genuine respect of others becomes important. Guanxi secures the kinds of ties that are required both to keep one’s position or to elevate oneself in the hierarchy, but development leads societies more in the direction of meritocracy. The idiot son of a local official in one’s organisation was once an asset in any society, but as societies develop — not only such that organisations within societies compete but also such that societies compete between themselves — such people became increasingly a drain on resources rather than an asset, thereby decreasing efficiency. Other forms of more apparent corruption become increasingly curtailed for much the same reason.

My personal bugbear in China — that upon which I am inclined to blame all China’s ills — is the propaganda department and its related bodies. This, today, is China’s most blatant anachronism, and without its controls many of China’s woes would be rapidly extinguished. However, their maintenance continues as a valuable tool for those who profit from the system as it stands as those in positions of political power abuse their privileges and reformulate themselves as individuals with economic power. Again, however, go back a few hundred years in England and you find much the same thing happening. Then and there the church was used as an organ of state for the dissemination of propaganda and church attendance was compulsory. The means of transmission may have changed, but the attitudes underlying CCTV and China’s distorted history text books are further hallmarks of any underdeveloped society the world over, or a developing society in the hands of a corrupt elite. However, on this one I am more cautious. Clearly the corruption of political power is not something limited to developing societies; nor is the use of propaganda arising out of that corruption. There are times, unfortunately, when China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, scores in the credibility of its reportage over the likes of Fox News.