Yesterday, I received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine. Ostensibly that means that if I’m in the lucky 94.1%, I’m unlikely to die if I contract COVID19. However, that said, I don’t think the science is indicating that having my immunizations means much about any significant changes in the lifestyle I’ve been following since last year. The kind of national strategies adopted by other countries, which has helped them truly flatten the curve during this world crisis, eludes this country, in which people are determined to do whatever they want to, when they want to, all the time. There are plenty like me who’ve been holed up in their living spaces for almost a year. But millions of my fellow citizens have been out and about, attending large gatherings, and not wearing masks. They are utterly defiant. They shout about their individual rights and freedom. They think the virus is a hoax. Or if they believe it’s real, they’re certain they won’t get really sick. Even with the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve died, they are still intransigent toward the recommended, and now, the required rules, put forth by the federal government, like wearing masks in many public spaces. This inconsistent behavior, coupled with the deep divide in our politics and social views have me thinking a lot about rules. Rules. Cancel culture, which I think used to be political correctness. Being “woke.” Lots and lots of rules. What exactly do they mean? And exactly where do I fit into this time when it seems people are ready to pounce on virtually anything that doesn’t comply with their positions ?
You don’t have to look hard to find rules. Many are delineated in religious texts. Above, I include a small visual sample of the myriad volumes which would take up much more space than appropriate for a blog post. Suffice it to say that while there may be commonly held agreements on “the rules” in these books, there are also many digressions in beliefs. Which ones are right?
People have been writing rule books about social behavior for ages. I’m pretty certain that whenever they were written, there were always those who thought they were absolute, virtually written in stone. And for every one of those who believed, there were others who thought the proposed behaviors were irrelevant and absurd.
Let’s not forget the rules of governance and political ideologies. Some read this stuff and accept the precepts verbatim. Others regard them as stretchy, flexible, especially those which were written long enough ago, that they seem irrelevant to our technologized societies which make almost every device obsolete as soon as it’s off the production line. Clearly the premises set forth in those documents need adjustments to mesh with current times which are so different from back then.
I’m reminded of the line from the film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
We have rules for work, rules for sports and rules for play. Rules are on display everywhere, at least from what I remember, since I haven’t been out in the world much lately. Think of the signs we all read that define our daily behavior. Stop. No entry. No smoking. No shirt, no shoes, no service. Exit only. No firearms permitted. For the most part, we don’t think much about these super-imposed rules for behavior. Sure, you make a U-turn sometimes when the sign says they’re not allowed. You enter through the exit door. Rules can be broken with deliberation or accidentally. I get that stuff. For all practical purposes, I’d categorize myself as an inveterate rule-breaker, perhaps because I have a significant anti-authoritarian bent. But that’s mostly about what I do when I’m the only person likely to be affected. When it comes to the overall health and wellbeing of my community, I’m much more conscious of my responsibility to society at large, rather than to my occasional whims.
So how did that happen? I’m not a member of any organized religion. I have awareness and respect for my origins but I don’t subscribe to any traditional practices other than enjoying the food. I’m also not a member of any organized political party. I don’t know of any whose platform lines up with my beliefs. I always vote but my choices are usually not people who I’d consider an ideal candidate from my personal perspective. I haven’t had a heroine or hero since I was a little girl. Every time I chose one, I’d eventually find out something which tarnished the image I thought was the real person. As I got older, through living with my essentially decent family, doing lots of reading, thinking and observing the world around me, both the parts in close proximity and farther away, I developed a code of ethics and morality that I’ve adhered to for most of my life. I’ve been imperfect and made mistakes like virtually everyone. None of them have been particularly heinous according to my own standards, nor anyone else’s, at least as far as I know. I consider myself progressive with a natural empathy for the underdogs of this planet, those used and abused with malicious intent by people who wield power. As I’ve aged, I haven’t become conservative or close-minded. I get irritated when I read snarky “okay, boomer” articles which I consider ageist. If “woke” still means sensitivity to racial and social injustices prevalent in the culture, then I am woke. If I misunderstand something, I try to learn and fix that.
I support the #metoo movement and BLM. To me this is as natural as breathing. I’ve been part of these movements before they had these names, since I was a teenager when it seemed there was always a reason to be out in the street demonstrating. I wasn’t out there because of any rules other than that there should be justice. Pretty simple. Lots of people I knew and cared for, who were on the same side as, me were imperfect to say the least. Sexism was common. Racism not so much. Classism was an insidious invader, unconsciously asserted by many based on years of unacknowledged privilege. Back then, what is now being called “cancel culture” was being PC – politically correct. I’ll admit that I wasn’t then, nor am I now, totally rigid. I could get pretty didactic about certain blatant breaches of behavior. But I could overlook small things and I have a sense of humor. Completely narrow parameters don’t work well for me and lots of people in my sphere. I remember that years ago, I had a friend who was a member of a group called the Radical Union, essentially a Stalinist organization based in Seattle. When he’d come home for a visit, he smoked a lot of weed and spent hours reading comic books. Surely there was middle ground in there somewhere.
Morgan Wallen’s sales spike, his sister slams ‘cancel culture’ after he’s recorded using racial slur Elise Brisco USA TODAY
So now this Morgan Wallen guy, a country music singer comes along and uses the n-word. He doesn’t get a pass from me for that and getting outed for it. Radio stations aren’t playing his music but evidently his fans are still backing him up. His sister is using the cancel culture mantra that Republicans are currently employing to slam every idea or recommendation for change which stems from people of color or anyone on the left. Her claim is that he made a mistake from which he can learn and grow. Given the madness of increasing blatant white supremacy on display in this country, that excuse doesn’t fly for me. What culture is getting canceled in this circumstance? The culture of degrading black people? Fame is expensive. When you reap the benefits, you also pay a price. And certainly that price is being exacted from lots of people whose career choices put them in the public eye, exposing their dark corners to prying eyes. In this technological age of rapid-fire publicity, their every move, from the most incidental to the biggest, is on display for the world to see. And that’s where often “the rules” are getting blurry for me.
Woody Allen has been being called out as a pedophile for some time but the condemnation is intensifying. I remember years ago I watched his film Manhattan which was about a relationship between a teenager and a much older man. The movie preceded his scandal but I felt really uncomfortable watching it back then. Autobiographical? When he became deeply involved with his young adoptive daughter, the rumbling about his behavior got louder. Eventually the actresses who chose to work with him despite his personal behavior were sharply criticized as being essentially complicit with him. Should I not admire their work any more? Are they co-conspirators? Of course not. And my other big question is this: does his art have to be disappeared? I love the movie Annie Hall. If it still makes me laugh am I in league with a twisted abuser?
What about Michael Jackson? His music is still played on radio stations and streaming services. If I’m not turning it off, if I’m still dancing to it, is that tacit approval of his perverse lifestyle? Is it wrong if I think he had a pathological psychological disorder? Or is that canceling his victims?
I understand the intense desire to remove the statues of Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery and destroy the Union. That war never really ended and is still being waged today. This cancel culture lingo used on the right is a thinly veiled attempt to validate the tenets and values of a racist ideology, disguised as a defense of history. I’ve read enough to know that for some, The Cause is still alive and well. No confusion on that count.
But I’ve recently read a number of articles about whether or not the teaching of Shakespeare should continue to be included in high school curricula. One teacher complained that teaching the works of a long dead British white guy was irrelevant to her diverse classes, and that the human condition could just as easily be learned through more current and relatable works by modern authors. I can’t deny that. But is there no value in the literary canon that goes back hundreds of years? Can’t we sample a wide variety of authors from different time periods? Is it that too many are white? What defines a broad liberal arts education? I actually appreciated Shakespeare more as an adult than a high school student. Fifty five years ago, a lot of what was taught in school seemed irrelevant during the fiery 1960’s of my youth on the south side of Chicago.
I remember reading The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel which I found so dull and boring as I plowed through each page, that I wanted to tear my hair out. My English teacher said the theme of the book was that people grow better through suffering. I thought I must really have been becoming fantastic because that book was making me suffer profoundly. Looking back, I’m not romanticizing what I know was really annoying at the time. I do think that designing education to be exciting, relevant and engaging is a worthy goal. But so is being exposed to lots of different writing from different times which require a different type of mental discipline and encourage a curiosity about what brought the world to now. Isn’t that valuable? Or is that concept just another statue in a less tangible form that needs to be taken down?
For many years Michael and I played the card game Spades with various friends. He was a more serious player than me, way more competitive, and as bridge player, someone who paid attention and counted cards. I just had fun. One night we sat down with some people who we didn’t usually play with and discovered what we thought was a phony new rule called “nil.” Actually it was a rule that simply wasn’t part of our practice. We didn’t like it and scornfully pronounced it a sneaky way to win with what otherwise was a losing hand. Of course, it was a real thing, just outside our habits. That’s sort of how I feel about these rules that come rolling along pretty fast these days. I’m trying to keep up and go with the flow, thinking and deciding what rules I want to choose for myself. I never got used to “nil” and didn’t ever play Spades that way again. Not sure how I’m going to play some of these new rules yet, either. I’m likely going to break some, in keeping with myself. And I’ll be fine with my decisions even if I’m swinging in the breeze on my own.