It’s Not That Hard, People

(That’s what she said.)

David Brooks is annoying me again.

He does this thing every week with Gail Collins (who I had not been reading until my dad sent me something. Why had I not been reading her? I’d certainly heard of her. And she is absolutely delightful.) where they have a little conversation about whatever. This week it’s Herman Cain. (If you follow the link, I want you to know – normally these conversations are a lot less one-sided. Here it seems like David Brooks is just writing a column and ignoring Gail Collins’s interjections.)

And here’s the thing. I am paying zero attention to whatever allegations are being made against Herman Cain. Because he’s not going to be the Republican candidate for president in 2012. I don’t think he even wants to be the Republican candidate for president in 2012. And if he’s not going to be the candidate, then he’s just a successful businessman and lobbyist who’s a creep towards female underlings. Yawn.

But it’s really irritating that in 2011 a man as well-respected as David Brooks (and yes, I’m being serious. I may disagree with the guy 75% of the time, but he’s smart, erudite, has a column for the New York Fucking Times and several best-selling books. He’s not just a doof.) can write so ham-fistedly about sexual harassment.

I mean, first he talks about “Hey, if Clinton got away with it, heh heh,” like, no, Clinton didn’t get away with it. Clinton got impeached about it. It derailed his entire second term. Sure, he didn’t lose his job over it but, you know. We’re still talking about it over a decade later so I’d say he didn’t exactly get away with anything. And I’m not saying that anything Clinton did was, you know, okay, but let’s not pretend that the whole country went, “Blow job? Who cares!” and returned to their daily business.

Then he wants to do this thing where you’re morally suspect if you take a pay-off in a sexual harassment case. He says, “In the old days, somebody who allowed a predator to continue his hunting in exchange for money would certainly be considered a sinner.” Well, yes, but that’s sufficiently vague that I’m inclined to ask, “A predator of what? A hunter of what?” And even with those vague terms, let’s not just say “somebody,” like they’re a random witness or even, say, the owner of the hunting grounds. Let’s say “a victim of the hunter who maybe didn’t have a gun with which to fight back and just wanted to go lick his wounds in private.” Because that’s what we’re talking about here. And that victim of the hunter is maybe not the world’s greatest hero for choosing to lick wounds instead of fight back, but I’m disinclined to call the person a sinner.

(Also, “sinner,” David? We’re not talking about standing before God, here. I know you’re all for bringing back old-school morality, and I only partially disagree with you, but we are talking about the legal system. Let’s talk “actionable” and “not actionable”; not “sinner.”)

I really enjoy when he says, “I’m reluctant to judge people in these circumstances, but I’m inclined to agree. Am I missing something?” You crack me up, David. “Reluctant to judge,” indeed.

Finally, he goes into this dither:

Where is the harassment line these days? If an employer asks a woman to come to his hotel room and she says no and he lets the matter drop, is that harassment? I confess I’m not sure. I’ve worked at places where people who worked together had romantic relationships. I presume those relationships started with one person making an overture. Is it harassment if the overture is rejected but not harassment if the overture is accepted or is any overture between people at the same firm harassment on its face? Again, I’m not saying this is proper behavior, I’m just wondering if it’s harassment.

I swear, Michael Scott made the same speech in the episode of “The Office” that dealt with sexual harassment. First of all, all of this “Where’s the line?” shit has been covered by every HR department in every company everywhere. Sure, every company’s lines are different and every company enforces a little differently, and maybe you think the rules at your own company are excessively draconian or excessively permissive, but either way, it’s been rhetorically covered. Since, like, 1992. I swear to God, we sat through a sexual harassment seminar when we were in middle school. You know, the last age where it was funny to pretend flirting and harassment are the same thing?

I know there are complicated questions arising from romantic relationships in the workplace, but David Brooks is acting like he’s never heard of the role power differentials play in these discussion. “Is any overture between people at the same firm harassment on its face?” Of course not! Overtures between equals made in a respectful, non-demeaning way that don’t create an uncomfortable environment are not harassment. Your company might discourage them anyway, because they don’t want to get into these kinds of arguments, but that’s a separate issue.

And don’t pretend you don’t know what comments create an uncomfortable environment. Usually, the people making such comments are trying to create an uncomfortable environment. Usually the people making demeaning comments mean to demean. Maybe they don’t really think about how it will affect the demeaned person, because they don’t really consider him/her a person, or they think they’re being cute, but very few people actually respect others and are trying to be nice and flub themselves into sexual harassment.

I just read an interesting article on how this pertains to acquaintance rape. The article posits that, in fact, there are men out there who rape in settings we think of as “acquaintance rape” settings – parties, dates, etc., who are not ordinary guys who do a bad thing but are actively seeking situations in which the girls are drunk, the girls are flirty, the girls have a history of psychological whatever (like, who doesn’t?), and in which they KNOW that ordinary guys are going to get behind them because they’re going to use the “She was drunk/flirty/crazy” stuff to create a story in which this kind of accusation could happen to ANY guy! So all those ANY guys say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had sex with a drunk girl; I’ve had sex with a girl who was all flirty and coming on to me, I’ve had sex with a girl who was on psych meds! She could totally accuse me of rape! And I’m just a nice, ordinary, non-rapey guy!” Whereas, argues the article, actual nice ordinary guys can tell when a woman is into it and don’t want to have sex with a woman who’s not. I’m not 100% behind the article. I think sex and rape are more complicated than that, and while I’m willing to believe a lot of acquaintance rape is committed by these predator-types who commit the acts specifically in settings where they’re not going to get prosecuted or maybe even accused, I bet there’s also some ordinary guys who do bad things, maybe because they’re in a group of guys doing bad things, maybe because they care theoretically if the woman’s into it but right now they’re willing to go with anything that sounds like a non-no, or any number of complicated situations which will take this post totally off the rails if I try to go into them now.

But that aside, I can see how this model works with sexual harassment, too. There are people (and I know a small portion of them are women) who want to harass, who want to demean, who want to power trip in an office. And they’ll get away with it because they’ll do it in settings where they can be all, “I was just flirting! Just because you don’t like me doesn’t mean I was harassing you! Come on, baby, can’t you take a joke?” and the other people in that setting will go, “Yeah, I flirt at the office sometimes! I make jokes! An accusation could totally happen to me!” So they back the harasser instead of the victim of harassment. Again, I don’t think that’s always the case. But I think it’s a possible factor. And the factor is made stronger when guys like David Brooks back it up in their columns on the web pages of the New York Times.

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I Can’t Quit You, David Brooks

This is an interesting column, or, at least, it’s a column that raises interesting questions. (I don’t want to dole out the praise to David Brooks too vociferously.)

I must begin by questioning the survey, and David Brooks’s quoting of the surveys. For one thing, 230 individuals interviewed is not a huge sample size. It’s not nothing, but David Brooks wants to leap to national trends and the way youth are now, and in that context, 230 isn’t nearly enough. It’s also unclear to me what his source is. Has he read the survey conductors’ book Lost in Transition and is quoting from that? Did he interview one of the authors of the study? Is he, himself, looking over transcribed interviews? Then I need to ask, how representative of the United States are the 230 young adults interviewed? Where did they come from? How were they chosen? David Brooks says they’re “from across America” but that doesn’t really mean anything. I suspect the 230 were chosen from the more interesting or willing of the respondents to the more general surveys that Christian Smith and team were conducting, but I don’t know that and I don’t know if David Brooks knows that. How well were the interviews conducted? Christian Smith is, according to David Brooks, an “eminent sociologist” (and I’m not doubting him on that point; how would I know if he is or isn’t?) but a) David Brooks isn’t, and b) I remember being pissed off at Caitlin Flanagan for not understanding how to ask young teens about their sex lives. Not that she’s an “eminent sociologist.” But I’d just like to know.

Beyond that, the puzzle that David Brooks brings up is troubling. Because on the one hand, I have officially become too old to be a respondent in this study, so I’m more than willing to be all “These kids today with their low morals and disgusting behavior and they should GET OFF my goddam LAWN!” And I’ve already discussed in my somewhat discombobulated post about rape that I think part of the problem there is that our discourse on the subject leaves young men and young women unsure of what even constitutes rape. I think that uncertainty is applicable to other areas of life as well.

On the other hand, I don’t really want anyone but me deciding what the moral code in this country ought to be.

I have been known, on occasion, to tell friends and family what I would do if I were dictator. Maybe I’ll write a post about that soon. And I’m mostly joking about it. But underlying the joke is the idea that, while I would like to be dictator because I know how best to run things, I don’t want to live under a dictator who is not me. Because they’d do it wrong. So if I can’t be dictator, I want, more or less, what I’ve got now – people who have to appease and please the citizenry if they want to lead.

It’s the same issue here. I can clutch my pearls and nod along with David Brooks, “Yeah, yeah, these kids, they need a strong moral code; they need a culture that fosters right thinking and behavior, so that they have the categories and vocabulary to understand moral dilemmas,” but the truth is, I only want that if I get to define morality. Sure, I’d love to be in charge of the moral instruction of America’s youth (and, well, I’m a Hebrew School teacher, so I am in charge of the moral instruction of a very small group of America’s youth for a very short period of time), but I don’t want someone else to be in charge of my moral education or my daughter’s. Unless I agree with them.

And the truth is, if this country right now had some sort of Board in Charge of Deciding Morality, it would be staffed by the same people who think homosexuality is an evil sin and that social programs designed to cushion the blows of poverty are a waste. I really, really, really don’t want those people in charge.

Given that we don’t live in Rickitopia, but instead the epitomatically pluralistic United States of America in 2011, I don’t think the sentiment expressed by some of these respondents and quoted derisively by David Brooks are necessarily bad or amoral positions to hold. He quotes one respondent as saying, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.” Yes, that’s definitely moral relativism. But it’s also non-judgmental and respectful of differences between people. Those ARE moral positions that are, to my liberal way of thinking, ideally suited for a country like ours.

On the other hand, David Brooks doesn’t think, and I don’t think, that these respondents are necessarily staking a claim to a certain moral position, like “I respect all values systems,” or “I rely on my own inner goodness to find the Truth.” David Brooks and I suspect that they’re more accurately saying, “Uh . . . I dunno.”

If, for whatever reason, you’re not clicking the link to his actual column, here’s his last, “back in my day” paragraph:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

He’s more or less right about that. Back in the day (back in some day), a person’s world was smaller and more defined by the community in which they lived, which was in turn more often than not defined by a specific religion. Ah, the good old days. Just ask Nathaniel Hawthorne about them. (Seriously, ask. He’d probably cross over from the world beyond just to hate on Puritans some more, don’t you think?)

This “old” way of doing things (which is older than David Brooks is making out; it started eroding for Western culture with the Romantics, who were the ones saying “Morality should emerge from the privacy of your own heart!”) is really, truly fantastic in a lot of ways. A sense of place in the world, a connection to a group of people, a purpose – all great things. But they can come with a load of shit that American artists have been depicting for centuries now. And even as I long for the good stuff that comes with that kind of community, that load of shit is a load I’d personally like to do without, as it includes hatred for outsiders, judgmental attitudes, small-mindedness, pettiness, and hypocrisy. Not to mention phoniness.

But given the kind of America most people live in now, those flaws are killers. Moral relativity does seem like the only way to get along in an ever-more pluralistic society.

This is not to say that I think all moral judgment should come from one’s heart. I am, after all, a Hebrew School teacher. And here’s where I get a little religious on your asses. The Book of Judges (which, for those of you who really don’t know, is one of the books of the TaNaKh. It’s the second book after the Torah ends.) is a propaganda piece (by which I merely mean it has a point it’s trying to make in its relating of the stories) in favor of the notion that Israel should have a king. To that end it portrays the pre-having-a-king Israel as a place of chaos and violence. And the phrase that crops up over and over again is that people “did what was right in their own eyes.” That’s when you know a storm of shit is about to happen in the Book of Judges – some person or group of persons decides to do “what is right in their own eyes.” That’s how you end up with raped and dismembered young women and a really bloody civil war that nearly wipes out one whole tribe – people doing what’s right in their own eyes.

I think David Brooks and I agree that it’s sad (if it’s really true) that young people cannot express themselves on moral issues, lack the categories and vocabulary to understand moral issues, and lack any sort of moral conviction or even an understanding that to have morals is a good thing. Where we differ is that, for David Brooks, the ideal (I think) is that young people should be able to say, “This is right, and that is wrong, and I’m sure because I have the values instilled in my by age-old religion, culture, community, etc.” I want young people to say, “I have thought this out, using factors such as religion and community, but also what is in my heart and what I see in the world and what I can discern from that, and I’m pretty sure this is right and that is wrong, but I’m open to changing my mind about that if new information does not fit my schematic. And in the meantime I’m going to try really hard not to hurt anyone.”

So that should be easy-peasy, right?

Thank You, David Brooks

This is going to be a little half-baked; forgive me.

I know I said some bad things about him before, but sometimes David Brooks hits the nail on the head so perfectly I’ve got to give thanks. Not just for the fact that this column was good, but for the fact that this column encapsulates stuff I’ve wanted to say, stuff I’ve been trying to say for years. Stuff I’ve been thinking ever since I read this at fifteen, which permanently altered the course of my thinking forever even if I don’t 100% agree with it now and if you want a book that says a lot of the same things but with more, how you say, research, try this.

But in any event, thanks, David Brooks, because now I know how to say the thing I want to say, which is “haimish.” For those of you who for some reason don’t want to click the link to David Brooks’s column, which you should, because it’s a really good one, “haimish” is a Yiddish concept (Of course it is. Yiddish has all the good words.) of homeyness, of “unpretentious conviviality.” (Even when I disagree with him, the man can write.) David Brooks writes about how we often trade “haimish” for, well, wealth. He starts the essay by comparing camps in which he and his family stayed in Kenya and Tanzania, some of which were not so full of the modern amenities but very haimish, and some which were more modern but also less haimish, and then goes on to talk about how that’s frequently a trade-off we make – more privacy, more luxuries, more shiny things, but less haimish-ness. I think it’s not just as individuals that we do this, and it’s not even just as Americans. I think the whole of civilization is a move towards less haimish surroundings but more stuff-oriented ones. And we think we’ll be happier with the more stuff but we’re not.

I went to visit a friend at the sleep away camp where she was working recently. Afterwards I observed that the kids at this camp were, largely, from fairly privileged backgrounds. They weren’t necessarily the richest of the rich – although some were – but they were all kids who were accustomed to things like their own bedroom, delicious and/or nutritious food for every meal, air conditioning, etc. I mean, they are the kids whose parents can afford to send them to a private sleep away camp, well into their teens. They come to camp and they sleep 20 to an un-air-conditioned room on scrawny mattresses, use a bathroom that they have to go outside to get to and which they share with dozens of other kids, in which the water pressure and quality leave something to be desired. And the food is marginally acceptable at best at most sleep away camps. And these kids, who are accustomed to every kind of privilege in regular life, could not possibly be happier than when they are at this camp. They are thrilled to death to leave behind their iGadgets and their mall trips and their private homes to come here. But I, a child of privilege myself, am not surprised. I went to sleep away camp, I went to NFTY events, I went to a small liberal arts college. I remember why I loved them. Because they were haimish.

I think the increasing loss of haimish-ness is what makes something like Facebook or Twitter so successful. It’s not the real deal, exactly. But when I can know that a person who I knew fifteen years ago just had a baby, or my sister’s friend had salmon for dinner last night, it makes the world feel a little smaller. Which is nice.

In some ways, it’s the whole of the internet that’s like that. You go for years thinking you’re the only person who likes to embroider important scenes from Star Trek: The Original series, with the characters replaced with wide-eyed panda bears, onto table runners, and it turns out there are thousands of you spread throughout the world, and suddenly you have a community. Or you read a David Brooks column, and instead of just turning to your spouse, who does not care, and fuming about/praising the column, you can e-mail it to your closest friends and family, tweet it, “like” it on Facebook, and write a blog post about it which as many as fifteen people might read. It’s a whole new thing. It’s haimish-ish.

The problem is, it’s illusory. We don’t just like haimish, we need haimish badly, and we don’t have enough. I live in a neighborhood that is nice, yes, and people here are reasonably friendly and there are at least five houses within a few yards of mine where I can go and ask for an egg if I’m one short while I’m trying to make super-fudgy brownies AND custard-based ice cream at the same time (not that that’s happened). But the local elementary school is about a mile away, and the kids have to take the bus, because there aren’t sidewalks between here and there. If there were sidewalks, they’d probably still have to take the bus, because people are so scared of “predators” that we’ve lost all reason. As if nothing bad ever happens to kids on a school bus. But there aren’t even sidewalks, so you can’t even really make the “choice” to have your kids walk to school. Kids walking to school is haimish. Also, this elementary school is one of three pre-high school schools Zoe will attend. It’s the third- and fourth-grade elementary school. There’s a K-2 and a 5-8. Separating these is, in my opinion, also not haimish. Haimish is when kids of a wide variety of ages figure out how to play and learn together. That’s why people pay out the nose for Montessori and Waldorf schools. Because they’re haimish.

Driving cars is not haimish; walking and biking and public transportation are. But we designed all our suburbs to be driven in, not walked or biked or with lots of bus routes. Single-family homes on large lots are less haimish than apartment or condo complexes with shared public space, but we think the former are better than the latter (and I’m not being superior here; I live in a single-family home on a large lot). I know small towns are classically haimish, but also cities are more haimish than suburbs. A work or school environment that focuses on collaboration over competition is more haimish but we think softer and less likely to produce “results,” because we ignore over and over that the best “result” we could possibly get is haimishness.

And again, there are psychological studies I’m too lazy to look up (though I will link you to this, and just looking for that link has cost me at least 20 hours of productivity; thanks, internet), but it seems that what we need most of all is haimishness. Happiness depends much more on having a community in which you feel comfortable and happy than on anything else – including the next iPad. Swear.

I don’t really have a conclusion here. What I have is a new paradigm I’ll be quoting ad nauseam any time anything remotely related comes up. So on behalf of my friends and family, thanks a lot, David Brooks!