Before my first semester of high school an as-yet unknown English teacher sent me a message commanding that I should read four books during vacation and prepare detailed reports on each, due on the first day of class. At the time, I thought this was a pretty intense increase of difficulty compared to middle school. On the other hand, I enjoyed reading and wasn’t scared of the challenge. I got home, looked through the book shelves and dug out three Tom Clancy novels and a giant book about baseball statistics. That would work.
It was around this time I got as close as I’ve ever been to having a “heritage” – at least one that I care even a little bit about. I was listening with approval to a lot of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s admonitions against libertine decadence, enjoying a lot of Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy and thinking that the whole redneck thing might just be my style.
This had some benefits. It was easy in the sense I could look at a person – the way they dressed and moved and spoke – and immediately figure out where I fit in. It gave me a delightfully abstract enemy – the trisexual transgender AIDS infected swingers and recreational abortionists of the dreaded “liberal elite” – that I could both hate and conveniently never quite connect to any particular human being I’d ever meet. Then, best of all, it implied that the self-esteem cliches were true; namely the fiction that “you’re special just for existing.”
That first day of high school I walked into the English teacher’s room and listened in mild shock while he described my fellow students and I as “the cream of the crap,” implied that we probably wouldn’t survive his class and slammed us with at least three times as much homework as I’d ever gotten from a single class in my life. He then conducted one on one discussions regarding the books and book reports we’d done over the summer. Eventually, it was my turn.
Part of me was nervous. This was, after all, by the far biggest hardass teacher I’d ever met. But part of me was also excited. This hardass teacher was, in his very intimidating way, challenging me. Challenges are fun.
I sat down. The teacher looked over my reports and shrugged.
“I will accept your reports this time,” he said. “But from now on you will need to improve dramatically.”
Then, waving to nothing in particular, he pointed to Tom Clancy’s name on the report and spoke again.
“You’ll never amount to anything if you stick with this stuff. Why are you wasting time on garbage?”
I can’t honestly say I was offended but I was surprised. Tom Clancy was my favorite author at the time and I had thought the baseball statistics vaguely highbrow in a nerdy sort of way. This stuff wasn’t garbage, it was the cultural currency of my people, the proud hicks of rural Nevada!
My indigation at seeing my heritage compared to garbage motivated me to show this teacher that whatever fancy Shakespeare or John Donne nonsense he thought was so great wouldn’t be beyond my capabilities. I somehow suspect this had been his intention all along. If so, it worked.
And I say it worked because my English teacher had done me a great service. Jeff Foxworthy is funny, but he’s also not very sophisticated and, more importantly, he caters to a type of people who are generally kind of marginalized. Tom Clancy is no worse than most boiler plate thriller writers, but he made his fortune by catering to the cliche, the comfortable, the self-esteem nonsense about virtuous little guys being oppressed by omnipotent elites. Even Dr. Laura is no worse than former New York Times editor Sarah Jeong, but Dr. Laura caters to the hatreds of the downwarldy mobile while Jeong caters to the hatreds of the aristocratic classes.
Of course it wouldn’t have been helpful if my English teacher had simply informed me of how my heritage was limiting me. There had to be an alternative. In my case, it was an invitation into the snobbiest, highest brow literature and philosophy a 15 year old could be expected to grasp. When I took that teacher’s class again as an 18 year old, it was the snobbiest, highest brow literature and philosophy an 18 year old could be expected to grasp.
And he was right when he proposed the practical supremacy of elite cultural figures – Shakespeare and Donne, Stephen Frye and John Cleese, Fareed Zakaria and Paul Krugman – over the champion-of-the-little-guy types I’d grown up with. I don’t say the fancy pants figures are superior to the redneck heroes necessarily on content – I’d rather listen to Larry the Cable Guy tell poop jokes than listen to Louis CK crap on his own kids any day – but because on a fundamental level it is better to speak the language of the rulers than the language of the ruled. Shakespeare is good on his own merits, but he’s useful for impressing rich old ladies at fancy parties in ways that a redneck poet, no matter how skilled, just isn’t. Same thing for Sarah Jeong and Dr. Laura. They’re both awful, but if I want to stimulate the worst impulses in a powerful person I’m much more likely to succeed using Jeong’s elitist venom than I am using Dr. Laura’s down-homey venom.
You might reject this on the grounds that the powerful are bad and the marginalized are good – and there certainly is a Christian argument for that position. However, if you believe that you could do good things with your power, with your ability to change the environment and change the minds around you, then you must reject this Christian position and embrace power at least to some extent. And if you reject the Christian position, you also need to reject the idea that being weak is as good as being strong. I certainly feel like mostly good things happen when I have power, so this is an easy decision for me. Maybe it’s different for you.
Through the experience of my English teacher and countless other good influences I have come to see heritage as merely a tool kit. That is, a smart person picks and chooses whatever cultural practices and proud heritage stuff will gain him or her the greatest benefit in whatever situation they encounter. In Nevada, that meant Shakespeare and the New York Times. In Korea it means Jeong Yak-yong and KAIST. These things are “better” for the simple reason they work better for the problems I faced, nothing more. No reason for shame when your toolkit doesn’t work, no reason for pride when it does – just a pragmatic commitment to making the things in your life function.
Am I missing something? Should people feel ashamed of their heritages when those heritages stop working? Should we encourage people to take pride in their heritages regardless if they are working or not? Am I a traitorous bastard who needs to be punished? I’d love to hear your thoughts.