Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Case Of The Moth-Eaten Inverness

"Then He said to them, 'Watch out, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.'" - Luke 12:15

Back when I was a kid in what my generation called junior high school (that's middle school for you who are now kids), it was the job of the English teachers at our school (who would now be called "language arts teachers" in most places in our country) to pour what our society called "culture" into our pubescent brains, by means of making us read "literature" whose origins were almost entirely British or American.  This "literature", packed into 7th and 8th grade anthologies called "readers", contained a large assortment of the kind of stories that would bore most 11 to 14 year old boys to tears.  However, these books did contain a few inclusions from more spicy authors.  (As an aside, I remember one English class in which we were told to read a slow story about a complicated adult situation and to analyze the feelings, emotions, and responses of all the characters.  I just couldn't bring myself to be interested, so I flipped ahead to a Mark Twain story, and spent the rest of the period trying to stifle frequent snickers and chuckles while the rest of the class wondered what was wrong with me.)

One of the more spicy authors included in my "reader" was Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  These stories naturally appealed to me, as they involved danger, solving mysteries, and catching bad guys.  But there was a side effect to these stories which I did not notice until many years later.  For Sherlock Holmes was presented as the sort of heroic character which one might naturally expect to be produced by British society, a society which was itself presented as the most refined, intellectual and "civilized" society on earth.  Thus were the tastes, customs and culture of upper-crust British society presented as the pinnacle of human development.  And Sherlock Holmes became a pinnacle of civilized fashion (at least when he was out in public), as a representative of the British gentleman class.

When this gentleman class (and its American cousins) deigned to look at members of other cultures, it was usually with extreme disdain - disdain especially at the tokens which those other cultures used to honor those members whom they deemed to be worthy of honor.  Thus the civilized Anglo upper crust despised the feathers of the headdress of many Native American warriors, and refused to learn the meaning behind that headdress or the significance of the honor it represented.  This disdain extended to the art and music of various African tribes and nations, the food and religion of many Latin American countries, the rites of passage experienced by Australian aborigines in their cultures, the rituals of respect and honor of elders embodied in many Asian cultures.  After all, why was there any need to respect these?  The Anglo-American culture (and its European cousins) had conquered all, and in conquering all, had shattered the soul and identity of these other cultures, producing generations of people who no longer knew and who were therefore not comfortable with who they actually were.  The most these "lesser" peoples could hope for was to somehow learn to become a feeble, dark reflection of Sherlock Holmes, with his trappings of civilization: his Inverness cape, his cravat, his briar pipe, his various habits.  Or, to learn to be the 20th-century reboot of Holmes, namely, James Bond or any of the other macho spies with expensive tastes and really cool stuff who were spun off from him.  Or, failing that, simply to live large like the Anglo-Americans and the Europeans who had managed to fill their lives with really cool possessions.

And this is what I began to realize many years after my exposure to Sherlock Holmes: that Holmes, and the smug, upper-crust society he represented, were guilty of the very things they had despised in the cultures they conquered and subjugated.  And this guilt extended far beyond the veneration of the tastes of a couple of glorified fictional Anglo action-adventure heroes.  How was the fixation of 19th and 20th century British upper crust on their fashions any different or better than the reverence of any other culture for its tokens of honor?  To call one such reverence idolatry would be to automatically condemn the other reverence.  Who says that the tastes of a violent British spy who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, are any better, more refined or more "civilized" than the tastes of anyone else on earth?

This leads to a larger question, namely, why anyone should consider the culture of Europe or the Anglo-American empire to be any better or more special than any other culture, especially when that claim to specialness rests on nothing more than having acquired more stuff than any other culture.  European and Anglo-American claims to specialness have come to rest on the possession of more, better and cooler "stuff" than anyone else has come up with, and this possession of "stuff" has even produced class consciousness and social stratification within European and Anglo-American society - a social identity based on creating a material paradise for one's own class while excluding everyone who is deemed to be beneath one's class.  But as the Good Book says, "...we brought nothing into the world, and we certainly can't carry anything out."

And even in this life, those who have based their identity on their stuff can lose it all, thus losing their identity in the process.  That has already begun to happen to the Anglo-American empire and to Europe.  The process is driven by the cold, hard limits to the global industrial economy which I mentioned in a previous post, and which others have explained in depth.  (See this, for instance.)  There is nothing that can be done to stop it.  The loss is striking at many who are, no doubt, very surprised at the losses they are suffering, as seen in the following links:
There are many sources like these which describe the recent and increasing vulnerability of people who are in professions formerly considered to be immune to economic troubles.  Many of these people face a future in which the tokens of honor which they have collected will be forcibly taken from them, and they will be stripped to a level of nakedness which will shatter their souls and identity.  For it will destroy all they thought themselves to be.  (I could post some stories of the newly homeless, if I had the time.  Some of them never imagined that they'd be in that situation.)  What is Sherlock Holmes without his Inverness cape?  What is James Bond without his martini, shaken but not stirred?  If you can no longer afford an upper-class life, then welcome to the ranks of the permanently embarrassed millionaires.  Now you look just like the rest of us.

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