The title of this post is perhaps unduly provocative. I don’t intend to bash all white people, just 21st century white Americans. Let me also assure readers that some of my best friends are white folks.
About 5 years ago I noticed something wrong with white people, but first a little perspective. I grew up in the racially-charged 1960s, when there was much turmoil over issues like school desegregation. Many white parents didn’t want to send their kids to schools that had lots of black children, out of fear that the academic standards would be too low. Then about 5 years ago I read about white parents in California who pulled their kids out of heavily Asian school districts, fearing the academic standards were too high. This struck me as odd; can’t white parents make up their minds about whether they want low standards or high standards?
I was reminded of this when I read of the huge hubbub over the Amy Chua book on strict Chinese parenting. Apparently many people were outraged that Ms. Chua pushed her kids too hard to succeed. Once again, this brought back memories of when I was younger, and I’d hear middle class white people complaining that welfare moms don’t push their kids hard enough to succeed.
What’s the right way to raise kids? In my post “The arrogance of the here and now” I hinted at one answer. The right way to raise kids is the way “we” raise kids “right now” around here. Isn’t that obvious?
I know that some commenters will accuse me of “relativism.” I seem to be claiming there is no right or wrong way, and we have no right to criticize others. They’ll insist there is objective evidence that welfare moms don’t do a good job raising kids. They’ll point to high rates of incarceration and low levels of income for kids brought up by welfare moms. OK, let’s say that’s true. Let’s say it proves “our way” is superior. Isn’t it also true that Chinese-American kids earn even more than white kids when they grow up? And aren’t they less likely to go to prison than white kids? If so, then what’s wrong with white kids? Why aren’t they pushed harder to succeed?
Some may argue that the big fuss over Amy Chua had no broader implications. It wasn’t an implied criticism of Chinese parenting styles, just an expression of outrage against a single person. Yeah, and the huge fuss over the mother of octuplets who got public assistance was just about one family, with no broader implications about society’s attitudes toward welfare moms.
If those with stricter parenting styles than us are bad people, and those with less strict parenting styles are also bad people, then doesn’t this imply that we also used to be bad people? After all, weren’t our ancestors much stricter with kids a few hundred years ago? And aren’t our descendants also likely to be bad people too, after all (extrapolating current trends) they are likely to be much less strict than we are. I find most people are happy to confidently declare that “we” raise kids better than welfare moms, and better than tiger moms, and better than moms who used to send their 12 year old daughters to work in textile mills. But they don’t necessarily agree with my view that the future moms will also be horrible. I think that’s because in some sense “the test of time” is implicitly viewed as providing the last word as to what’s right or wrong.
Richard Rorty was once asked what people meant when they said “people currently believe X, but eventually it will be shown that Y was true.” He responded that this was no more than an implied prediction that people would later believe Y. I’m predicting that future parenting styles will be very different, and that they will look back at moms of 2011 as some sort of horrible monsters, cruelly abusing children.
Part 2: Hollywood’s ultimate insult
Each January, Hollywood inflicts upon the world an insult so exquisitely cruel, so mind-bogglingly un-PC, so appalling lacking in taste and refinement, that it goes by completely unnoticed. I’m referring of course to the best picture nominations. As you know, in recent years they’ve had to struggle to find 5 worthy entries. To cover up this embarrassment they recently expanded the category to 10 pictures, in the hope that the mind-numbing mediocrity will be hidden my sheer numbers.
Consider the following 8 best picture nominees: Grand Illusion (1938), Z (1969), The Emigrants (1972), Cries and Whispers (1973), Gandhi (1982), The Postman (1995), Life is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000.) I’m not certain, but I believe these are the only 8 films ever nominated where English was not the dominant language of the film (some films are bilingual.)
Now I know what you are thinking, “Sumner’s going to complain that they didn’t nominate more of those artsy foreign films that nobody wants to watch. This is our celebration, let Cannes cover the foreign films.” Actually, that wouldn’t be a good argument, as there are lots of great foreign commercial films. No, you’ve misjudged me, the real outrage is that they’ve nominated 8 too many! It’s what makes the insult so sublime.
Suppose no foreign films had ever been nominated. What would people say? Obviously many people would point to the separate category for foreign films at the Oscars, and perhaps note that it makes sense to have two separate categories. Not optimal, but perhaps at least somewhat defensible.
Alternatively, Hollywood might have nominated around 200 foreign films, out of the roughly 400 films that have received nominations. Again, it’s slightly insulting to the rest of the world to claim that we have produced half of all the great films, but then people could say “naturally Hollywood would focus a bit more on their own films, which they know best.”
But Hollywood didn’t choose either option. Instead they nominated about one foreign film a decade, and only Gandhi actually won. And Gandhi was partly in English, so no completely non-English film has ever won best picture, not once in 83 years. Why 8 films? Why not 200? Or zero? Here’s my theory. Hollywood has an inferiority complex. They constant prattle on about being “artists” precisely because they know that they aren’t artists. They are resentful of all the critics who rave about uncommercial films by Antonioni, or Kairostami, or Hou Hsiao Hsien.
So they devised the ultimate insult. Open up the best picture category to all films, of any language, but never let any non-English language films win. That will show all those snobby French cineastes who’s really on top of the world. You might then wonder why they didn’t nominate zero foreign films, to maximize the insult. Ah, but that’s the beauty of this outrage. If no foreign film was ever nominated, it would be assumed that, de facto, the category was only open to English language films. Especially given that there is a separate category for foreign language films. No, this is much better, have the category open to all films, and then nominate roughly one foreign film a decade to remind the rest of the world that we do consider your movies, we just don’t find any that meet our high standards. Truly an insult of John Malkovichian subtlety.
Just as white folks don’t like parenting styles that are more or less strict than their own; Hollywood doesn’t like films that are more or less “artistic” than their own. BTW, when I say “artistic” in scare quotes I don’t mean having aesthetic merit. Lord knows that’s not what determines which films get nominated for best picture. If you don’t believe me, just look at a list of films directed by Hitchcock in the late 1950s, and then look at the films nominated for best picture in the late 1950s. No, Hollywood equates “artistic” with films about the way we live. And by “we” I mean English-speaking people. More specifically, white English-speaking people. Movies with which ”we” can identify.