Saturday, July 18, 2015

A mother’s whisper

Hmmm. I like to be surprised by people. I have had, till now, a fairly negative opinion of Cass Sunstein. He is an American lawyer and writer who has a penchant for using lessons from psychology and microeconomics to facilitate government control over people's decision making. He is obviously a smart person and he argues and writes well, but I struggle to get past the shortsightedness. The State exists to serve its people and yet he focuses on how to enable to the State to get people to better serve its interests.

But then he goes and pens a remarkably sensible Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind by Cass R. Sunstein.

Progressive zealots have sought to capitalize on the tragedy of Charleston, absent any of the Christianity, grace and class which both the victims and the Charleston community have displayed. With great political courage, Governor Haley took the bold step which so many had long sought, to dissociate the State from the battle flag of the Confederacy. Sure, there are a lot of nuances to the argument and the pro or anti flag camps both have solid people making honestly believed arguments. The tragedy served as the catalyst to crack that nut.

That was insufficient to the ideological zealots for whom that Orwellian and profoundly statist phrase "the personal is political" is the anthem. Without catching breath they immediately turned to pressuring retailers to remove the flag from stores, and discussing when might be the right time to remove all the War Memorials to the fallen that blanket the small towns and cities of the South. Some wanted to discuss sandblasting the four Confederates from the face of Stone Mountain. And then there was that book near and dear to so many Southern hearts, Gone With the Wind. The progressive extremists thought it might be a good idea to ban that apology for the Confederacy from libraries and schools.

That's the problem with statists. Sometimes they identify legitimate problems that need addressing. But usually they are simply indulging their own prejudices dressed up in some form of moral crusade. And almost always, even when they have a legitimate issue, their solution involves giving the state more power over private lives, coercion against the wishes of citizens, and ultimately and inevitably, failure to actually solve the problem because their ideological lenses prevent them from seeing and understanding the real root causes.

Along comes Sunstein doing three things that are not commonly associated with progressive statists. First, he actually read the book before forming an opinion. Second, he formed an independent opinion based on his interpretation of the evidence. Third, he made public his departure from the received progressive statist received wisdom. Good for him.
When Americans think about the Confederacy, they often think about Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic, Gone With the Wind. Inspired by recent debates over the Confederate flag, I decided to give the book a try. I confess that I did not have high hopes. I expected to be appalled by its politics and racism, and to be bored by the melodrama. (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes? Really?) About twenty pages, I thought, would be enough. I could not have been more wrong. The book is enthralling, and it casts a spell.

Does it make a plausible argument for continuing to display the Confederate flag? Not even close. But it does raise a host of questions—about winners’ narratives, about honor and humiliation, about memory, about innocence and guilt, about men and women, about what’s taken for granted, about the particularity of human lives, and about parallel worlds. Teeming with life, it offers surprising insights into the Confederacy and the Old South. To be sure, its presentation of slavery is appalling. But at its core, it’s much less about politics than it is about the human heart. On that count, it has a lot to say, not least about how to come to terms with history.
Read the whole article. It is a good refutation of the common cargo cult mentality in academia and the chattering classes where the mantra of "the personal is political" is so common and so strong. No, you won't be tainted by reading something against which you might be uninformedly biased and yes, it is appropriate to change your mind when the evidence is against your prejudices.

Regrettably, Sunstein has to throw his fellow progressive statists a few bones. It is not sufficient to argue that GWTW is simply a good story that can be enjoyed on its own terms and is not an apology for either slavery or the Confederacy. He has to find further justification. So there are some nods towards other mantras. "The book has strong feminist themes" and "Mitchell also offers diverse voices." But he comes back to the central issue.
Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy. Mitchell is interested in individuals rather than ideologies or apologetics.
There is hope for Sunstein. As long as you care more about individuals than ideologies and abstract identities, then there is hope for you.

A wonderful passage:
She is elegiac not about politics, but about innocence, youth, memory, love (of all kinds), death, and loss (which helps make the book transcend the era it depicts). Irrevocably stuck in the past, and a bit of a ghost, Ashley Wilkes reminds Scarlett of “the sad magic of old half-forgotten songs,” and “the far-off yelping of possum dogs in the dark swamp under cool autumn moons and the smell of eggnog bowls, wreathed with holly at Christmas time,” and “Stuart and Brent with their long legs and their red hair and their practical jokes,” and “a whisper and a fragrance that was Ellen,” Scarlett’s mother, who died during the war. Mitchell draws a sharp distinction between those pathetic souls who keep hearing that sad magic, like Ashley, and those who want to move forward, like Scarlett and Rhett. Her own heart ultimately sides with the latter. But she also cherishes, and tries to capture, the magic, the yelping, the practical jokes, and a mother’s whisper.

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