Sunday, November 19, 2017



Kathleen Spaltro

Copyright (C) 2017.  All Rights Reserved.

The ducking stool, the stocks, the "stone of shame" on which insolvent debtors sat in my grandfather's Italian village—all of these public punishments shamed transgressors. So did shaving off women's hair, tarring and feathering, gossiping, sentencing to debtors' prison, shunning. One of society's most powerful weapons, shame attacks the worth of a person. It declares a person to have become unworthy of any regard by self or others. Attempting to enforce social mores, shame exerts our power over other people by rejecting any possibility of their being or becoming good. Judging selves rather than actions, we equate the person's self with the person's actions, and we subtract our respect as well as any hope for reconciliation. 

With us, truly, the quality of mercy is too often strained. While shame definitely has its usefulness, we often pointlessly misapply it. Sometimes, we should feel ashamed of how or why we have shamed other people. 

Misapplied Shame

Minor instances of misapplied shame include mocking spelling or pronunciation errors, which are utterly predictable in our very complex language, with its many exceptions to rules and its discrepancies between how words are spelled and how they are said. Misapplied shame includes despising excessive body weight, which shaming probably only reinforces and increases. Misapplied shame includes reacting to mistakes by attacking the person who erred, who now learns to expect failure, rather than helping the person to success by focusing on how to avoid errors. High expectations of excellent performance need not rely on either shame or  false praise, both of which mistakenly focus on the self rather than on the task. The shamed self is the reverse and the twin of the inflated self. Misapplied shame creates fear and aversion rather than spurs the person to excellence.

Some popular dramas have depicted more devastating and even more irrational applications of shame. The film "The Magdalen Sisters" alerted me to how, until 1996, 30,000 Irish girls who had given birth outside of wedlock, as well as raped women and so-called sluts, were sent to the Magdalen laundries, where, shamed as unchaste and tainted by lust,  these girls labored without recompense or the freedom to leave. "The Magdalen Sisters" film gave a deeply disturbing account of their financial exploitation and emotional abuse.

The most memorable subplot in "Downton Abbey"  involved the housemaid Ethel Parks, seduced and abandoned by a British major who had visited the house, fired because of her affair, pregnant, and then unemployable because she lacked a reference for good character. The desperate Ethel turned to prostitution as her only means to feed herself and her baby son. The shocked village turned its back on them both. However, three women had the good sense and compassion to intervene: Cousin Isobel Crawley, the nurse; Mrs. Patmore, the cook; and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper. Thinking about Ethel's ostracism, I feel disgusted by the rampant unkindness of many but impressed by the humanity of a few.

Shame served no genuine moral purpose in any of these situations, for it merely fortified the moral vanity of the shamers, who sought to crush the shamed. Good, if fallible, people are not actually helped to be better people by having their selves judged to be unworthy. Using the metaphor of the Catholic Church's being a "field hospital" where self-admitted sinners help other sinners be the best people whom they can be, Pope Francis has moved the discussion of morals from the enforcement of rules and the infliction of shame to the extension of mercy. Francis's Church, the "field hospital," rather than judging people as unworthy, serves them in their hearts' need. 

Properly Applied Shame

Is shame ever properly applied to a valid moral purpose? Film executive Harvey Weinstein's public shaming is a case in point. Enumerating his many accusers, firing him, retracting his honors, making him an object of moral disgust—all of these shaming tactics bring to the fore the heinousness of his alleged sexual bullying. Shame is thereby transferred from his accusers (who may have remained silent out of shame as well as fear) to him.

However, Weinstein's public shaming also transfers shame from his fellow transgressors to him. The scapegoat, as in ancient Israel, is driven into the desert with the community's sins upon his head as a way of purging the community's guilt. But does this transfer of shame change longstanding abusive behaviors or actually serve as a way of masking their continuance? 

The behaviors of which Weinstein is accused are prevalent. Many kind and strong men, genuinely quite shocked, have become more aware of the pervasiveness of the sexual bullying and abuse of girls, boys, and women. The most effective deterrent to sexual abuse is the determination of decent men to make it extremely clear to abusers that decent men consider such behaviors contemptible and unmanly. In a word, the most effective deterrent is shame.

First published in The Woodstock Independent.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Freedom of Speech and H.L. Mencken

The Right to be Wrong

Kathleen Spaltro

(c) Copyright (2017).  All Rights Reserved.

Gore Vidal, like his friend-enemy Christopher Hitchens, was a poet of contempt. So was their great predecessor, the newspaper columnist and magazine editor H.L. Mencken. Declaring "I am strong in favor of liberty and I hate fraud,” Mencken championed freedom and exposed fraud with gusto and happy venom. The waterfall of Mencken's amazingly gorgeous, unbelievably vivid prose cascades over the sputtering reader. Because he attacked everybody and everything, I wonder how Mencken escaped being strung from a streetlamp.

Despite actual threats against his life, Mencken persisted in scorning what he named the Boobus americancus (yes, you and me). He declined to assent to the prevailing belief in democracy, terming it  "the worship of Jackals by Jackasses." If the governed are of poor quality, those who seek to govern are even worse: "A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground." Mencken advocated not being taken in by either prevailing orthodoxies or aspiring reformers: "The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable."

Did Mencken's lifelong, bone-deep cynicism about his fellow citizens and their rulers cause him to despair? Far from despairing, Mencken feasted on what he saw as their inherent absurdity: "here, more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows."

The Uses of Cynicism

Certainly, Mencken's deep cynicism controlled his perceptions and judgments. He believed in freedom but not in people, in reason but not in "a geyser of pishposh." Judging the inaugural address delivered by President Warren G. Harding, Mencken crowed, "he writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash." Contemptuous of Harding, Mencken wrote not much more kindly of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. An admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, I nevertheless read with great interest and amusement Mencken's evisceration of TR in an "autopsy." He slightly preferred TR to Wilson, whom he deemed a charlatan and a cad. He preferred FDR to no one.

Why do I read these heresies? While I very often disagree with Mencken's assessments and assumptions, the bracing astringency of his prose forces me to think, to defend what I believe with better reasons, or even to change my mind. The resident cynic of the United States, our self-appointed and unofficial Scourgeon General,  Mencken served as our national scold. Although reading him feels like falling into a briar patch, he provides a useful antidote to our prevalent mental, moral, intellectual, and ideological flabbiness. After emerging from the sauna of his prose, his reader is then whipped with birches. Reading Mencken is good for the health of our brains.

Insulting? Certainly. Entertaining? Immensely. Useful? I believe so, especially given our proclivities toward passionate agreements with those who already agree with us and uncivil exchanges with those who dare to disagree. Although he asserted that few of us are capable of thinking, Mencken upheld freedom of thought and speech. I myself have felt sadly disturbed by how many Americans do not seem to appreciate the principle of freedom of speech.

Free to Disagree

I find it perplexing that so many people apparently restrict freedom of speech to those with whom they already agree. Respecting freedom of speech has absolutely nothing to do with agreeing with others' views. People have the right to be wrong. (Speech that evolves into overt actions, such as violence, is a different matter.) Too many of us, both left and right, fail to see that others have the right to voice their opinions, however "incorrect" these opinions may seem to us. Freedom of speech is an uncomfortable liberty. But it means nothing to be for freedom of speech or belief unless you defend the freedom of people whose beliefs and speech you deplore.

Protest by all means. Argue, certainly. But preventing a person with whom you disagree from speaking crosses a line. Inevitably, others will cross that line by keeping you from speaking your mind. Nothing protects your own freedom of speech unless that protection also extends to those with whom you disagree.

Moreover, there is no need for freedom of speech at all unless people disagree. The very basis for insisting on people's freedom to speak their minds consists of the reality of pervasive human disagreement. If people agreed, freedom of speech would be unnecessary.

first appeared in The Woodstock Independent

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

Fargo ranks up there with my very favorite movies, with Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi all giving great performances. The key to the film is in the scene when Chief of Police Marge Gunderson, driving back with the murderer she has captured, says, "So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."

Everyone is capable of doing wrong, but relatively few people commit really evil actions, and the film contrasts many simple acts of kindness by good, if fallible, people with the self-absorbed's indifference to the grave harm they inflict. The snaggle-toothed, "funny-looking" gunman and his sleepwalking-except-when-murdering accomplice kill without remorse and seemingly without thought. For them, killing is a mere reflex.

Marge Gunderson "just doesn't understand it," and most good people really find it difficult to comprehend evil--not ordinary, everyday badness, but real evil. This incomprehension of evil is a major theme in Fargo, in Broadchurch, and certainly in Longford, which depicts the infamous "moors murderers," Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, during their prolonged imprisonments as they manipulate the kindly Lord Longford, who seeks to rehabilitate Myra Hindley. Does Longford ever really comprehend Myra Hindley's depravity? Is Longford correct or self-deluded in detecting her capacity for redemption?

Evildoers seem different in kind, not merely in degree. How would we respond to someone we had once known but then discovered was guilty of a really terrible crime? I was shocked to read in the newspaper about a man I had known who was later convicted of sexual abuse and procurement of child prostitutes, a disgusting crime. He didn't seem sorry, really, just sorry he was caught. What draws the line between ordinary badness and true evil? Perhaps the criteria include callousness, lack of remorse, unshakable self-absorption?

Shaken by the evil we sometimes encounter, we can retreat into corrosive and pervasive cynicism. Certainly, we must never forget the evil that human beings are capable of doing to one another. The appalling Armenian genocide, for instance, happened 100 years ago. But note that kind enemies saved the lives of some Armenians. Goodness always flowers in the sidewalk cracks. Goodness is as real as evil, only less powerful only too often.

Some characterizations of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird sneer at it as just a children's book. However, the genius of the story actually stems from its depiction of the central tragedy from the children's perspective. There is so much menace depicted--crazy neighbors, a rabid dog, cynically perjured testimony, the threat of lynching of an untried and innocent accused, attempted vindictive murder of children--yet the setting is a seemingly idyllic childhood in a small country town during the Great Depression, when neighbors look out for each other and children roam at will, even at night. Underneath all of the real innocence and pretended innocence lies all of this evil, yet while the good does not triumph exactly, it makes itself felt.

Gregory Peck's indelible performance in the film as Atticus Finch portrays the great moral courage needed to stand up against an unjust majority view. Atticus fails to secure the acquittal of Tom Robinson, and he is shaken by Bob Ewell's attempted murder of Atticus's children, yet he still stands fast as a symbol of what we would like to be and know we should be. His children learn to understand that, and so do we. The story would be far less effective if it were not a children's story.

However, the would-be lynchers and the jurors who disregard the impeccable logic of Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson, although not evil like Bob Ewell, are good people doing bad things, and they are part of the reason that evil can prevail as a norm of a society. Ordinary people become complicit in extreme societal evil when they forsake their moral obligation for the safety of not being different, of not challenging monstrous actions. Disturbed by the realization of the suffering inflicted by evil, we deceive ourselves by denying what we realize. We are capable of better, but we often do not do better.

Many decades ago, W.E.B. DuBois depicted the moral struggle of a good man choosing not to remain complicit in a great evil:  "The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln .… personally I revere him the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth and his fight was within as well as without …. I glory in that crucified humanity that can push itself up out of the mud of a miserable, dirty ancestry; who despite the clinging smirch of low tastes and shifty political methods, rose to be a great and good man and the noblest friend of the slave." 

first published in The Woodstock Independent

Saturday, September 9, 2017

M.F.K. Fisher Remembers Illinois

Educating Mary Frances Kennedy:
M.F.K. Fisher Remembers Illinois

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

Rambling obituaries in 1992 of the master prose stylist M.F.K. Fisher clustered together her brief but all-too-recurrent undergraduate experiences. Along with her matriculations at Whittier College, Occidental College, and the University of California at Los Angeles, the Californian Mary Frances Kennedy also attended Illinois College in Jacksonville in Fall 1927. While Kennedy's brief sojourn in Illinois may seem surprising, she was born in Albion, Michigan, to parents who both had Midwestern origins and relatives. Restless and young, Mary Frances Kennedy of Whittier was in flight from her Californian family and her town, but she did not yet know who she was or what she was good at. So, going to college out of state seemed like a way out but was not. Marriage in 1929 to doctoral student Al Fisher (whom she met in the UCLA library), in its turn, seemed like a way out but was not. But her time in France with Fisher, and her earlier memories of Illinois, did educate Mary Frances about her palate—a way of measuring her powers as a unique memoirist of food or, more exactly, of the sensuous ingestion and appreciation of food. Thus was Mary Frances Kennedy, future author of The Gastronomical Me, introduced to the Gastronomical She, M.F.K. Fisher.

Her recorded memories of both Chicago and Jacksonville centered on what food she ate and how she ate it. Like James Beard, who with lavish detail recalled the meals of his youth in his autobiography, Delights and Prejudices, she possessed a remarkable "taste memory," an ability to remember and render the intense pleasure of eating. Of course, Mary Frances could have eaten at far less expense to her parents if she had stayed in Whittier. Attending college in the Midwest served as a way of escape: "as soon as I could escape the trap, whatever it was, I fled family and friends and security like a suddenly freed pigeon, or mole, or wildcat. I probably thought that I was at last MYSELF." Almost 60 years later, Fisher analyzed her earlier self: "I assumed that I was intelligent, because I had learned how to bluff. Intellectually, I was a lazy zero, even though I had been reading everything from Thomas à Kempis to The Oz Books since I was not quite five"; "now I know how hard many of my peers worked and studied while I played grasshopper." Despite her poor academic performance at Illinois College, Mary Frances's real education nevertheless was proceeding underground.

Uncle Evans and Cousin Bernard

"My favorite relative," Mary Frances's maternal uncle Evans Holbrook, a law professor at the University of Michigan who had been teaching law at Stanford University while on sabbatical, suggested that he accompany 19-year-old Mary Frances to Chicago. She would go on to Jacksonville, while Uncle Evans went home to Ann Arbor. Fisher later perceived, "I now believe that he did this on purpose, to help me into new worlds." By 1927, Uncle Evans had been traveling by train to and from the West Coast for almost 30 years: "I paddled along happily in the small sensual spree my uncle always made of his routine travelings. I probably heard and felt and tasted more than either of us could be aware of." Uncle Evans loved the breakfasts served at the Harvey Houses on the train line. Devoted to their baked apple breakfast, he declared, "The Harvey girls never fail me." He also knew how to obtain the best food served on the train itself.

"Dazed at escaping the family nest," Mary Frances ate lunch and dinner with her uncle both on the train line and in the dining car, where he enticed his niece's appetite by suggesting foods unfamiliar to her, such as Eastern scallops instead of lamb chops. She realized that Uncle Evans "knew more about the pleasures of the table than anyone I had yet been with." When the callow Mary Frances replied that she did not care whether she ate a fresh mushroom omelet or a wild asparagus omelet, Uncle Evans rebuked her uncharacteristic stupidity: "Let [your host] believe, even if it is a lie, that you would infinitely prefer the exotic wild asparagus to the banal mushrooms, or vice versa. Let him feel that it matters to you … and even that he does." He explained further, "All this may someday teach you about the art of seduction,  as well as the more important art of knowing yourself."

Together with his son Bernard, who met them in Chicago, uncle and niece ate together in a Fred Harvey restaurant in the newly opened Union Station. Intimidated by the brainy Bernard, Mary Frances erred again in saying "Oh, anything, anything" in response to the menu. Uncle Evans returned "a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes." Stung by the look, Mary Frances recovered her equanimity: "I knew that it was a very important time in my life." She looked at the menu with intelligence, "really looked, with all my brain, for the first time," and ordered her meal with care and discretion. "Never since then have I let myself say, or even think, 'Oh, anything,' about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone, with death in the house or in my heart." Her memory of this episode in Union Station motivated Fisher to revisit the Harvey restaurant in the station years later "to find satisfaction there where I first started to search for it."

Uncle Walter and Cousin Nan

Mary Frances's paternal cousin Nancy Jane Kennedy, a daughter of Uncle Walter Kennedy, planned to attend Illinois College for a year before matriculating at the University of Chicago. Self-described as "very shy and rather snobbish," Mary Frances spent most of her time in Jacksonville with her "very intelligent" and "fascinating" cousin as well as with Nan's roommate, Rachel, "comforting—like a great warm woman who smells cinnamonly and feels soft—like a tender-eyed bitch."

"We three have had a lot of fun this year. I've spent most of my time in their room—mine was so hideously colored and so empty of humanity."  They gorged on movies, hot chocolate, food: "We must have bought twenty-five packages of cream cheese, quarts of ginger ale, hundreds of crackers, a whole garden of lettuce, barrelsfull of jam. It was fun to eat the pale green leaves, and the richly colored jam, and the suave cheese, and drink the exciting ginger ale—on a candle-lit table, with the Victrola moaning blues in the corner of the room." She remembered buying rolls, anchovy paste, as well as French dressing and the girls' baring their little breasts at the cold open window, defying pneumonia.

In this winter of gluttony, despite generally bad food at the college dining room, the Hall, the girls wore their Sunday morning church clothes while they devoured delicious hot cinnamon rolls, and then they went back to bed instead of to services. Often, they celebrated at the Coffee and Waffle Shop on 311 West State Street, which served  them 4 waffles and unlimited coffee or hot chocolate,  or they bought a five-course meal for 40 cents. Invited out to the Colonial Inn, 1213 West State Street, for Sunday dinner, Mary Frances noticed "dishes of pickled peaches like translucent stained glass." At local Jacksonville homes, "The food was always divine": "There were fine cooks in that part of Illinois, most of them colored, and I regret that I knew so little then about the way they handled chickens and hams and preserves and pickles." Alternating bites of pie and ice cream taken from separate plates, she admired Jacksonville pumpkin pie, and mince pie, as well as very rich and homemade eggnog ice cream.

Although Mary Frances felt "interested in these people, their looks, conversation, everything," and she partied vigorously, homesickness  for California, hatred of "skidding on icy walks and looking at mangy, sooty snow," and hospitalization at Chicago's Passavant for a bronchial infection curtailed her stay at Illinois College to a single semester. She liked the enthralling history professor, Mr Smith, who gave "thrilling" lectures; the "garrulous old lady," Miss Elly, reminiscing in "a fascinating stream of sometimes almost incoherent chatter"; and the affectionately remembered Miss Moore and Miss McCune "and their beautiful old house and their delicious things to eat."

However, man does not live by bread alone, nor can a scholastic career be sustained solely by eggnog ice cream, even if homemade and very rich. Mary Frances freely admitted her academic laziness on her biology final,  "To state and define the characteristics of protoplasm is a thing I should know how to do. Once I did know how—two or three months ago, perhaps. Now, in the final examination, I do not know—and I do not care. I am losing five hours of credit. Too bad, isn't it?" While she ignored her biology exam, she noted in her journal on January 30, 1928, "This year has been an amazing adventure in many ways but thank God I'm ending this part of it tomorrow. My train leaves for dear old California at noon."

"Going as unexpectedly and with as little cause as I came, [I am] leaving a few marks of myself which will soon rub out or remain faint smudges—taking a few permanent lines on my own—what shall I say? blackboard? I took much more of Jacksonville than I gave or that it took from me. That is as it should be,  perhaps."  

First published in The Woodstock Independent