Life as a Beauty Pageant

LittleMissSunshineby Tim Jones2/15/15
When self-promotion and competition rule  •  One of my all-time favorite movies is Little Miss Sunshine, an indie film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. It has an outstanding cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Steve Carell and Abigail Breslin in her first movie as a very young actress.

It is one scene after another of hilarious family dysfunction: Greg Kinnear as a failing motivational speaker and writer, Alan Arkin as the heroin-injecting grandfather frozen in a 60s time-warp, Paul Dano as the rebellious son who refuses to speak to anyone, Toni Collette struggling to keep it all together as the family’s maternal mediator, Steve Carell as Collette’s gay brother who survives a suicide attempt and Abigail Breslin as Olive, who the movie revolves around with her dream of participating in a beauty pageant for little girls held every year in Los Angeles.

There are two underlying themes to the movie – that life is a beauty pageant and there are only two kinds of people in the world, winners and losers. It takes aim at those themes by highlighting the dysfunction that is today’s society on the macro level and the american family at the micro level.

I tend to see the dysfunction as one of the unintended consequences that came with modernity. Nature at its most elemental is hostile to survival, requiring the constant vigilance against natural threats along with the constant need for food and shelter. With the emergence of civilized society, none of this has changed, rather it’s been made invisible by the creature comforts that have evolved over time and that we all now enjoy. The threats to survival still exist, they just re-emerged in a lot of different ways.

The paradox of the free enterprise system is that its foundation is competition and economic survival of the fittest while at the same time promoting the values of choice, comfort and pleasure as its underlying objectives. This disconnect leads to desire that slip into addiction and self-promotion that slips into narcissism. It’s become a system no longer based on wisdom but of “success” defined by winners and losers, whether in appearance, the size of a bank account or self-serving accomplishments. The pursuit of money to achieve these ends is not the natural order of things as humans were not designed for it to survive in the first place that has in turn generated unusual, bizarre and pathological behavior and conditions of all kinds not seen in pre-modern times.

Two books that highlight many of the unintended consequences of modern living are American Mania and Modern Madness. Below are brief descriptions of each found on their Amazon pages:

American Mania: When More is Not Enough

“Despite an astonishing appetite for life, more and more Americans are feeling overworked and dissatisfied. In the world’s most affluent nation, epidemic rates of stress, anxiety, depression, obesity, and time urgency are now grudgingly accepted as part of everyday existence they signal the American Dream gone awry.”

Modern Madness: The Hidden Link Between Work and Emotional Conflict

“More and more career professionals say they are dissatisfied with their lives. Depression, anxiety, and anger are common complaints. Working harder doesn’t help. Many try to buy their way to happiness. Others turn to drugs and alcohol for escape. Either way, they are left feeling even emptier and more out of control.”

Both books are outstanding in describing what goes on day in and day out for millions as they ‘struggle for the legal tender’ in the words of Jackson Browne from his song The Pretender:

I’m gonna be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender.

I found the lyrics by another great rocker, Joe Walsh, and his song Life of Illusion also to be perceptive in its description of the the modern ‘rat race’:

Sometimes I can’t help the feeling that I’m
Living a life of illusion
And oh, why can’t we let it be
And see through the hole in this wall of confusion
I just can’t help the feeling I’m
Living a life of illusion

Pow! Right between the eyes
Oh, how nature loves her little surprises
Wow! It all seems so logical now
It’s just one of her better disguises
And it comes with no warning
Nature loves her little surprises
Continual crisis

Hey, don’t you know it’s a waste of your day
Caught up in endless solutions
That have no meaning, just another hunch
Based upon jumping conclusions
Caught up in endless solutions
Backed up against a wall of confusion
Living a life of illusion

“Nature loves her little surprises, Continual Crisis.” That pretty much sums it up.

The field of evolutionary psychology has emerged in its attempt to describe and define behavior in the context of our “ancestral environment.” From Wikipedia:

“Evolutionary psychology is an approach that views human nature as the product of a universal set of evolved psychological adaptations to recurring problems in the ancestral environment. Proponents of EP suggest that it seeks to integrate psychology into the other natural sciences, rooting it in the organizing theory of biology (evolutionary theory), and thus understanding psychology as a branch of biology.”

It goes on to say: Just as human physiology and evolutionary physiology have worked to identify physical adaptations of the body that represent “human physiological nature,” the purpose of evolutionary psychology is to identify evolved emotional and cognitive adaptations that represent “human psychological nature.”

So what we’re left with is the constant tension and ‘endless confusion’ between the requirements of our physical selves versus the requirements of our socially-constructed selves. And it’s in this tension or conflict that neurosis emerges where the symbolic self must do ‘battle’ with itself in the maintenance of the material self. Nature will always emerge the winner while identity and ego play second fiddle because in the end they are as vulnerable and perishable as the body where they reside.

Little Miss Sunshine is masterful in satirizing our dysfunctional beauty pageant culture built on self-promotion and competition that results in the damaged psyches of both its winners and losers. • (1650 views)

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24 Responses to Life as a Beauty Pageant

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I haven’t heard that Joe Walsh song in years. This is a very thoughtful essay, Tim. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I love that song by Jackson Browne although I’m a bit ambivalent about the sentiment. It seems to me that where the hippies (and others) went wrong was pining for utopia. A recurring theme was, “Ah, shucks, isn’t it a bummer that we have to work and can’t all just sit around and ‘self-actualize’?” Libertarians, via pot, seem to share this same approach to life.

    Granted, one can become too beholden to the almighty dollar, of success in general, and of fame and notoriety. But it’s somewhat ironic having these thoughts often passed onto us by famous and rich rock stars who often are addicted to drugs. That may not be the case with Browne and Walsh and I no desire to besmirch their character. But it is often enough true in this culture.

    Yeah, it sucks that we have to work and suffer. And I can’t help feeling that the more comfortable things get for us, the more we chafe at even the smallest discomfort. Shades of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Princess and the Pea. And if anyone hasn’t read this bit of old wisdom, they really should. It’s a metaphor that probably explains our times better than anything else. We’ve all become such fussy little princesses.

    And just stating my own views on evolutionary psychology, I don’t think that there’s enough information in hand to give that school of thought much credence. Frankly we are faced with this weird mix of apparent design combined with layers of contingency. A purely materialist view of life does not work, and yet we have a material element to who we are. It’s just that some inflate it to being the entire package ignoring the rest of what makes up a human being (many quite intangible and immaterial elements, including consciousness).

    Oddly, the Left generally denies that there is any such thing as human nature (they even are denying such obvious things as gender). But evolutionary psychology apparently fills the bill because it turns man into a completely deterministic creature, which is the preference of many who share what can only be called a materialist/naturalistic religious outlook.

    I’m not sure how all this relates to a movie (which I also thought was a hoot) or Joe Walsh, but clearly it’s time for more people to read a little Hans Christian Andersen. We’ve becomes such a fussy, narcissistic people with little gratitude for how good we have it. That, to me, is the real story behind all this stuff although, yes, there are excesses in terms of living in a pop-minded culture. And that’s certainly one of the cute elements of “Little Miss Sunshine.” Excess finally has its say. And at the end the striving for fame and success turns from “cute” to just downright creepy as you see (if memory serves) all those little girls dressed up like little hookers with layers of makeup and in inappropriate dress.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    The idea that people forget how dangerous Nature can be leads to an interesting idea. When Nature strikes hard, as it has this winter in New England, does this tendency to forget that Nature is and always has been dangerous encourage paranoid delusions that such storms must prove global warming aka climate change aka climate disruption?

    Seeing Alan Arkin mentioned naturally leads me to think of his performance as the lead villain in the superb thriller Wait Until Dark, in which he and a pair of less villainous rogues try to induce Audrey Hepburn as “the world’s champion blind lady” to part with information that (as it happens) she doesn’t even have. It has a climax that literally is as dark as you can get.

  3. Rosalys says:

    >i>”And I can’t help feeling that the more comfortable things get for us, the more we chafe at even the smallest discomfort. “

    I had never been so impatient as when I finally, after holding out for years, got a microwave oven. Suddenly, that two minutes it took to heat up the water to brew my morning cup of tea, became an eternity!

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Who hasn’t been guilty of something like that? I sometimes yell at my computer for being slow, and yet it is thousands of times faster than the one I used 20 years ago.

      Would it have made sense 2000 years ago (or less) to say “Pursuit of happiness”? Weren’t most people dealing more with subsistence living, just trying to get by from day to day? A full belly and not having your wife or child sold into slavery could have been considered a successfully day throughout much of history.

      I recognize this as a spiritual problem. If you lack gratitude, if you lack a measure for life more than just “stuff,” then that paragraph that Tim quoted from modern madness is more likely to describe you:

      “More and more career professionals say they are dissatisfied with their lives. Depression, anxiety, and anger are common complaints. Working harder doesn’t help. Many try to buy their way to happiness. Others turn to drugs and alcohol for escape. Either way, they are left feeling even emptier and more out of control.”

      One reason I have a soft spot for traditional (read: non-liberal) Jews and Catholics is that both understand the role of suffering, or at least they understand that it is unavoidable. But our culture now has expectations for life that are so high and unrealistic that this can’t help but bring disappointment.

      What the hippies and the Left tried to do was have their cake and eat it to. First they killed God, and then they announced to the world that they were going to live lives beyond the mere material (while getting stoned, either literally or on some vapid utopian doctrine or another). This hopeless contradiction led to a lot of people – then and now – who haven’t the vaguest clue for how to break out of the poison of our secular/materialist culture.

      I read an outstanding article today at American Thinker by Denise Shick: Daughter of LGBT Family Pleads for Calm after Alcorn Suicide. A couple of the comments under the article were priceless:

      Artaud: The loss of life is tragic, but not, I think, caused by society’s failure to accept the transgendered, but from society’s willingness to accommodate them.

      “Dr. Paul R. McHugh, the former psychiatrist-in-chief for Johns Hopkins Hospital and its current Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry, said that transgenderism is a ‘mental disorder’ that merits treatment, that sex change is ‘biologically impossible,’ and that people who promote sexual reassignment surgery are collaborating with and promoting a mental disorder.”

      “He also reported on a new study showing that the suicide rate among transgendered people who had reassignment surgery is 20 times higher than the suicide rate among non-transgender people. Dr. McHugh further noted studies from Vanderbilt University and London’s Portman Clinic of children who had expressed transgender feelings but for whom, over time, 70%-80% ‘spontaneously lost those feelings.’”

      And the response to the above…

      Hack2ey: When young and impressionable minds are confused and seeking answers about their gender, our sick society inflames their confused thinking by encouraging and almost requiring them to make wrong, self destructive and antisocial decisions. Perversion advocates in public schools even require that any gender-confused kid can use any restroom, no matter what’s between his legs. And isn’t it horribly sad that – as described in this essay – people who actually go through all the hormone therapies and physical mutilations to effect the coveted “sex change” discover that they don’t feel better afterwards? This to me is most telling: The problem is demonstrably NOT what is between a person’s legs – it’s what’s between their EARS! Gender confusion is a spiritual matter – it happens in the heart and mind. Physical characteristics are secondary manifestations that matter not nearly as much as what is happening in the Spirit.
      Suppose what would happen if the same amount of effort was put into correcting young minds and getting them pointed in the RIGHT direction as we’re presently putting into ruining them…much of the heartache and woe for these kids could be avoided.

      But they are essentially being sacrificed on the altar in worship of the twisted God of Self. This is where we are and what we’ve become (not individuals like AT posters, but our society in general). I don’t think we’ll last much longer. We as a nation have sold our Birthright for a mess of pottage.

      This is what the unrestrained “pursuit of happiness” has gotten us. We’re not even willing to admit to mental illness. Happiness is king.

      Personally, I think happiness is over-rated. I think it’s a caustic goal for life if only because one has very little control over those happy moments. It’s nice when they come, but you can’t depend upon them. I would rather be at peace, deeply fulfilled, or mildly contented. One of the things I disagree with is Dennis Prager’s emphasis on “happiness.” I think he’s still got a little too much California in him.

      And think about that for a moment. You live in America at one of the most prosperous times in history. And you live in one of the most prosperous and beautiful places in the world: California. And yet most of these people are dissatisfied. They do not appreciate what they have. They devalue it in their search for Utopia. Some of the most bitter, unhappy people I’ve met online have been from California.

      Leftism, materialism, hippie-ism, and a whole host of doctrines of this kind purport to be fulfilling ideologies. But what they have done is made people unhappy. We’ve become a silly, superficial people. And you don’t gain depth via making an idol of the material.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I do a lot of yelling at my laptop, I admit. When things go really wrong, such as Internet Explorer going out on me (but not Mozilla Firefox, oddly, which would make it all right if I could access my g-mail account and blog on Disqus using Firefox); if I tell it to “get online” it will says it’s not on-line, only to say I’m already on-line when I tell it to troubleshoot the problem. When that sort of thing happens, I start damning everyone at Microsoft to Hell. (This is, as Charlton Heston pointed out about the ending of Planet of the Apes, not a case of taking the Lord’s name in vain, since at those moments I actually mean it.) It also doesn’t help when some website hangs up — not merely sluggish, but not responding at all. This requires restarting Internet Explorer.

        If I ever stop blogging, it will mean either that this malevolent entity drove me to a stroke, or it drove me to taking a hammer to it (which would be unfortunately, since that’s my music source as well until I can get a CD player working).

        There. I got that off my chest. For now.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          There’s an old saying, Timothy: What’s life without a good rant now and then.

          If fact, you’ve spurred me to think of formalizing a section for that: “Rants & Stuff” perhaps. Why not have some fun with it? Bitching and complaining is an American right, even before “a right to a living wage” and all those other newfangled rights. What do you think?

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Well, considering that Internet Explorer went out on me again last night after writing that, and has already done so twice this morning . . . and in all 3 cases, even Firefox didn’t work. (On the other hand, I try not to make audible rants when Elizabeth is trying to sleep. She has to be at work at 7 a.m.)

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Personally, I think happiness is over-rated. I think it’s a caustic goal for life if only because one has very little control over those happy moments. It’s nice when they come, but you can’t depend upon them. I would rather be at peace, deeply fulfilled, or mildly contented

        Some forty years ago, I determined that happiness was a fool’s goal. I hoped for contentment, interspersed with moments of joy and sadness.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Mr. Kung, we are of much that same mind. And it should be noted that I wasn’t born with this insight. Through lots of failures at adapting to life, I started to take a (Catholic) friend’s advice: Stop beating your head against the wall just because it feels good.

          I think one of the things that gives people such melodramatic and overbearing “angst” is that their expectations are all out of whack. Not to mention the very idea of “Thou shalt not covet” is not only almost unknown in the culture, it seems billions of dollars and the entire economy are structured around invoking the opposite.

          A successful man or woman does not diminish my life. We shouldn’t forget that any success usually comes at a high price as well. And we should also remember that the success of people such as Steve Jobs often trickles down and brings us “cool stuff.” Marxism is not in my blood. I don’t want to eat “the rich.” I don’t sit at home (anymore) and lament that I’m not rich, famous, extremely happy, and uber successful. That’s a loser’s game. I don’t envy someone their success, although it can be crazy-making at times to see talentless, tasteless hacks make millions off a public with no or low taste. But what can you do but laugh about such stuff and turn on the Mozart?

          In “Little Miss Sunshine” this hilarious, dysfunctional family (Tim’s got that exactly right) sets off to chase their “dream.” I’ll have to watch this again because it’s been a while. It seems to me there is an indulgent innocence in the dream of the young girl to win a beauty pageant. It seems age-appropriate to her (although not to the rest of the family). One reviewer at IMDB.com called it “the quintessential messed-up family with good intentions.”

          I think we’ve all experienced parts of the (so-called) dysfunction of this movie family. I say so-called because I’m not sure that a fully “functioning” family bereft of oddities, fights, angst, self-absorbed drama, etc., has ever been the norm. I understand the Left’s pining for Utopia, their hope to rise above the family and achieve some kind of community-wide kumbaya to replace it. It’s the kind of “Little Miss Sunshine” pursuit suitable to children who have not yet grown up. As I say, the hippie generation did not leave us well prepared to face life.

          This movie family is full of drama queens of one variety or another. And it’s always been in the back of my mind here, at StubbornThings, that even as we talk about the problems of life that we never ourselves become that kind of dysfunctional family. I don’t consider it a worthy goal to be the troubled son with the Nietzschean vow of silence, the grandpa who spews profanities, the forever bickering mom and dad, and the suicidal uncle. I would hope we could all be self-aware enough to avoid becoming caricatures. Characters, yes! That’s good. But not caricatures.

          There’s also an aspect of this movie that is like adding a chapter after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Instead of shooting for a higher goal, it has become standard for slob-Americans to instead glorify their slobbness. I think “Married with Children” was the coronation of this principle. This is why it is customary to laugh at the supposed naivety and unrealism of “Leave it to Beaver.” What is considered “real” in today’s culture is the vulgar, the gritty, and the dysfunctional. We’ve pretty much given up on ourselves.

          And a movie such as “Little Miss Sunshine” seems caught between holding a mirror up to ourselves and just being another celebration of this dysfunction by normalizing it. At the end of the day, it seems to portray much of that dysfunction as cute and funny — and certainly inevitable. I don’t, for example, remember anyone in the movie having an ounce of self-awareness and saying something such as “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t do this.” Instead, they are the archetype of the truly “modern” man who is materialist not only in regards to coveting money and fame, but in the idea that man has no free will and his behavior is determined by his genes and the environment.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Instead of shooting for a higher goal, it has become standard for slob-Americans to instead glorify their slobbness. I think “Married with Children” was the coronation of this principle. This is why it is customary to laugh at the supposed naivety and unrealism of “Leave it to Beaver.” What is considered “real” in today’s culture is the vulgar, the gritty, and the dysfunctional. We’ve pretty much given up on ourselves.

            I agree 100%. As a culture, we no longer strive for excellence. We are quite happy to drift ever downward to the lowest common denominator of existence.

            It should not be forgotten that much of the impetus for excellence came from so-called “middle class” mores. Standards of personal behavior and achievement developed in the bourgeois milieu, contrary to the lies spread by the Left and supercilious elites who despised achievement through self control and hard work.

            Like you, I hated the trash series, “Married with Children”. I was living overseas when it aired and only saw a few minutes of a couple of programs. But those few minutes were enough to exhibit the complete cynicism of the the entertainment types and collapse of morals of the show’s viewers. I ask myself why anyone would eat horse shit when good healthy fare is available for nourishment for the same price?

            • Timothy Lane says:

              There are some interesting ironies here. You may recall Alfie Doolittle’s complaint about “middle-class morality” in My Fair Lady, and he was clearly speaking for Shaw (a Fabian Socialist) here. By contrast, the progressives of that era were trying to impose bourgeois morality on the poor and the rich; in many ways the original progressive was the early 18th Century artist William Hogarth.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Yep, life’s complicated.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Truthfully, these days I find myself more aligned with the elitists rather than “middle class morality.” Have you seen “middle class morality” lately? Yikes. Let’s just said that it would be much more difficult for Norman Rockwell to paint the images today that he did back then.

                It’s useful to note again that conservatives acknowledge that America is a republic, not a democracy. Any society without an upper class will have no standards to shoot for. America is, in part, a meritocracy and an aristocracy (the Senate, for instance, was meant to reflect that some people necessarily had more wisdom than others due to age and experience). Any society wishing to be truly “democratic” will not likely become anything but the amalgamation of the lowest common denominator.

                Look what we’ve done in our society. We’ve made heroes out of unwed mothers, homosexuals who come out, and people who bash America. This is not quite the equivalent of reading Mark Twain, going to the opera, or learning a new skill or refining an existing one.

                Instead, we do truly brainless things such as “celebrate diversity.” This is what people with silly aspirations do.

                Myself, I think the middle class is a mere effect of various other forces. And to some extent, it’s not a thing at all. Thomas Sowell notes that to hate “the rich,” for instance, is somewhat pointless for those who populate “the rich” (or any class) are a constantly changing bunch.

                The “middle” in “middle class” tells you all that you want to know about an alleged group. They have mediocre aspirations, coming and going.

                Granted, many may have medium or middle-of-the-road incomes. But defining class these days is even more difficult due to a circumstance that Theodore Dalrymple has talked about, and that is that the “upper classes” are now aping the behavior of the very lower (often criminal) classes. This is when you know that the head of civilization is rotten. And it is.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Middle-class (or bourgeois) morality is as much an aspiration as anything else, and can be considered standard morality. The poor (as Alfie observed) can’t afford it, and the rich can afford to indulge themselves (a point Hogarth made).

                But the bourgeoisie didn’t always live up to those standards, of course. One thing I recall from reading The Communist Manifesto when young (my father had a book with various Communist documents on the basis of “know your enemy”) is their defense of holding women in common (I think I’d already read Animal Farm, so I was at least aware of the concept). They argued that the bourgeois already did this in practice. Of course, they were writing in Paris.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                these days I find myself more aligned with the elitists rather than “middle class morality.” Have you seen “middle class morality” lately?

                Brad,

                I am using the term, “middle class” in the classical sense, i.e. the group of citizens between the aristocracy and the peasants. Thus, one could be extremely wealthy and still be considered middle class. In fact, the old aristocracy did not consider wealth as a sign of class.

                As Tim notes, much of middle class morality was aspirational, but aspirational in what sense? For more money and a better life; certainly. To find one’s place in a new world were one did not have to stay in the same profession as one’s father and grandfather? To rise above the ignorance and sloth of many peasants. To contribute something to society as opposed to being something of a leach such as aristocrats such as de Sade?

                No, I will stick with my definition of middle class morality. Many in today’s middle class are simply low class prolis who are lucky enough to live in a society with such material abundance that they can consume like the middle class yet exist in a moral milieu of the lower classes.

                The creation and growth of the “Middle Class” is, more than any other factor, what made the modern world the success it became.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Being naturally NOT A COMMUNIST, Timothy, I tend not to speak in terms of “class.” Sophistication? Skills? Ability? Trustworthiness? Intelligence? Sincerity? Wisdom? You bet. All those things can come from anywhere on the economic scale. It’s just that I don’t measure life or human beings according to Karl Marx (or Karl Rove, for that matter).

    America is the land of opportunity (or should be). So it’s great to cheer on people who better themselves. But as for “middle class morality,” I admit that much has been said about it, but I’m not sure that it’s much more than a talking point, fiction, or worthless stereotype at this point.

    Granted, economic opportunity combined with freedom and technology will tend to produce an overall prosperity. We can then slice off a big section of the middle and call it “middle class.” But I’m not sure I’d want to read much more into it than that. I don’t believe that necessarily better values automatically extrude from the “middle class.” And if they do, it will be by absorbing the extraordinary and good ideas of others (of whatever class they are in).

    I love “Animal Farm.” And it’s certainly a good lampooning of the way the Left sees us. We are sheep being led to the slaughter.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Our notions of class come from Europe, where the aristocracy was based primarily on land (and, to some extent, service to those above them in the hierarchy). The bourgeoisie were those in business, either merchants or perhaps very successful craftsmen. And the poor were peasants (still serfs in some parts of Europe until the 19th Century) and ordinary town laborers. These were generally rigid categories, which is the point of Moliere’s ironic title (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme), as my French teacher pointed out when we read it in high school. British classes were less rigid, but this also reflects some of Hogarth’s works.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        It’s interesting to read of the Middle Ages when the “merchant class” was making inroads into the “upper classes” because of the wealth (and likely influence) they were accumulating. Same as now, if you have the money, you can eventually buy your way in (with some exceptions, which was the interesting tragedy of that Selfridge character of department store fame in England…he never could manage to buy his way into the British upper classes…he had the double-whammy of being a mere “shop keeper” *and* an American).

        I think it was Rush who was talking about the “acting class” (although he didn’t call it that) a few days ago. He was talking about why some movies may get lots of Oscar nominations while others don’t. Long story short, he thinks one of Oprah’s movies did not get a lot of nominations because Oprah, despite her attempts to join it, is not “one of them” in terms of being in the acting class.

        I thought that was interesting. To actors, Oprah is merely part of the media, which is apparently a self-evidently lesser class. It was interesting hearing him talk about this (it was in the assured “don’t doubt me” category). I don’t run in those circles. Most of this was new to me. But it’s humorous in the context that actors have always generally been looked down upon by those whose conceit was that they were of a higher class. But, nope, there’s apparently an even lower one — the media.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    No, I will stick with my definition of middle class morality.

    I’m not so sure, Mr. Kung, that we’re not giving life to a cliché every time we say “middle class morality” rather than describing a real thing.

    But I can think of two divisions of morality that do exist, perhaps one is “middle class.” Let’s see.

    1) Work hard, get a good education, stay out of trouble with the law, don’t do drugs, and do get married. These are generally acknowledged by conservatives as the way to get ahead economically, to move from poverty to “the middle class” (or even higher). And it’s darn good advice if “joining the middle class” (economically) is the goal and leaving poverty behind.

    But, of course, this is StubbornThings where free thinking is not just a cliché. I would say there is another type of morality, and it is very traditional and it may or may not bring economic advancement:

    2) Love truth, love God, be good to your neighbor, love justice, hate evil, work to improve your character, do not sin, bear suffering with grace, turn the other cheek, be thankful for what you have.

    Note that the second morality, of course, is primarily Judeo-Christian. Also note that the “prosperity church” seen in America (and that is taking over many churches) is the first kind of morality.

    Pope Francis seems to stress the first kind of morality as well. Much of conservatism, at least in politics, has punted on the second definition and tends to stress the first as well. And as Nik and I certainly believe about this country, the politics is wasted unless one can make a moral argument for a particular policy or idea. And a policy or idea rooted primarily in mere economics is merely a version of America that reduces it to the material in regards to what we are all about.

    I’m not sure that citing “middle class morality” helps delineate any of these factors.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Your 2 alternatives are hardly incompatible. The first is primarily concerned with behavior (and probably is a good description of bourgeois behavior, or at least its idealized from), and the second primarily with values and attitudes.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I agree there is some overlap, Timothy. And given that I wrote it at the spur of the moment rather than a carefully-considered term paper, I’d even make some adjustments on second thought.

        But the overall points I would make would be this:

        1) Yes, there are classes, real or imagined, a result of real achievement and/or of self-identity, of coercion or free will. It is part of human nature and the normal organization of societies. And such organization is a good news/bad news situation. Class can act as the holder of good things or bad things.

        2) We need role models and exposure to excellence. There is little I will learn about how to live a noble and worthwhile life from watching Prime Time TV.

        3) America’s “middle class” (thanks in large part to the academic class) has been degraded in terms of morals, values, and education over the last 40 years.

        4) The answers to what ails us are not a matter of mere economics or of the material.

        5) I’d love to hear what you or Mr. Kung would term “middle class morality.”

        6) My own class is that of benevolent subversive intellectual. And if one isn’t at least a little subversive in this overall “Progressive”/Marxist society, one is part of the problem.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Remember, “middle-class morality” is Shaw’s term (through Alfie Doolittle). In a pseudonymous letter probably written by Shaw, the writer referred to Paul’s epistles as “the silliest middle-class stuff on record” (he gave his initials as JC and made other references to suggest he was giving his own interpretation of the views of Jesus Christ). One can also look at some of Hogarth’s works, such as “Beer Street” in contrast to “Gin Lane” or his “Industry and Idleness” sequence.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Love truth, love God, be good to your neighbor, love justice, hate evil, work to improve your character, do not sin, bear suffering with grace, turn the other cheek, be thankful for what you have.

      These were around long before there was any “middle class” as we understand it. Plenty of poor people would have lived by these rules. But as Tim said, aspiration is something which marks the movement of the middle class. The desire to improve one’s lot in life i.e. rise above one’s station, the ability to see positive possibilities where others do not, these are just a couple of things which distinguish the middle class from peasants.

      That is not to say there are cross-overs in class behavior, but when talking about broad historical movements and cultural changes, we are talking about percentages and group tendencies.

      And if we can’t use a type of short hand to describe cultural phenomena then we will be forever writing on this blog.

      Who do you think the Communists have seen as their enemies for a couple of hundred years? And the animus went much deeper than just the means of production.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        But as Tim said, aspiration is something which marks the movement of the middle class. The desire to improve one’s lot in life i.e. rise above one’s station, the ability to see positive possibilities where others do not, these are just a couple of things which distinguish the middle class from peasants.

        I would say, Mr. Kung, that those are very American aspirations. The result of having those aspirations is what we somewhat arbitrarily call “the middle class.” Where I tend to disagree with many Republicans, in particular, is to see the “middle class” as a sort of thing unto itself. I think it’s best described as a result of other influences. I think to try to build a strong “middle class,” for instance, is to severely misread not only what America is about but how that “middle class” came to be in the first place.

        Certainly, as you know, the draw of culture is very powerful. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a very real phenomenon and could be said to be main organizing influence for “the middle class.” People look around and see that it is normal and desirable to have a house, car, video games, two kids, vacations, “free” health care, etc. And that, unfortunately (to my mind) produces today’s “middle class morality.”

        This is a difficult subject and I don’t blame me or anyone else for having some trouble defining it. You see a Pope or two sometimes stumble badly when trying to articulate the problems of materialism (and not articulating, for starters, the difference between philosophical materialism and a consumer materialism….making things complicated is that they are also both connected).

        Further complicating the argument (at least complicating Pope Francis’ argument) is that his critique of materialism/consumerism in tinged by Utopian Marxism. As I’ve said, if the worst part of capitalism is that you have people working too many hours in order to make more money, and you have people getting a bit too attached to their “stuff,” then I will gladly take this over the ills of poverty, ignorance, and the tyranny of any sort of Communist state which would purport to “free” us from all this material angst.

        I consider the Pope a sort of useful idiot of the Left. It’s certainly not wrong to teach “middle class” values such as hard work, getting an education, getting ahead, etc. Unfortunately we see our society turning from a sort of personal-character Judeo-Christian morality to an almost economic-pathic (if that can be a word) focus on “stuff.” And I don’t necessarily mean a LOT of stuff. But the modern “middle class” mind is almost bereft of an idea of right and wrong because right and wrong are not even on the radar. All that matters is getting one’s material jollies, scratching every itch, confirming every feeling, following every impulse (no matter how stupid or destructive). That is now America’s “middle class.”

        That this class has been instituted by the academic (aka “Marxist”) class is of interest. But that transition has now been made. Now Americans are, in the words of Dennis Prager, “nice” but they’re not particularly good. And we see this ratified in the guise of B. Hussein Obama, who was not only elected but re-elected.

        Americans right now are, I think, just about at the start of the equivalent of wandering 40 years in the desert.

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