In defense of prejudice

Dear M,

Once a man reaches a certain age he begins to forget how he got there.  He forgets because he has to.  He has no time to remember the little, successive steps that built him into who he is.  Unless he's dull, a man is always on the move, always thinking, churning, taking steps in a new direction that will change him, imperceptibly at first, into someone else.  Even if his mind won't change his body will; and the body will begin to change the mind itself.  He either takes the initiative or God does it for him.

Who has the time to remember how he got here?  Who has the power to see where he's going?  The whole of man's development, in hindsight, seems like an inevitable accident -- and then the past gets sacrificed, or flushed down the drain, to make way for thoughts which build the next man.  Thus every man is a series of men -- or, perhaps more accurately, a river of manhood.  Every day we see the same river, and every day the water is different.

When we look back at our past selves we see pictures but not mindsets.  We seem foreign to ourselves; almost strangers.  We remember some feelings vividly and others barely, still others not at all.  An intellectual, if he leaves a record of his thoughts, sees the arguments he left behind but lacks the emotions that went with them.  The eurekas he had years ago, things that used to electrify his whole soul, seem stale and obvious to him; he neglects to go over them because they bore him, and once they bore him he forgets them.  He forgets the long train of ideas that led him from the left wing to the right; or from lousy women to good ones; or from bad style to good.  All of these things cease to take hold of the imagination, gather dust, and the bridges are burned.  Those of us who age without remembering become unintelligible to our children, and the children then see us as prejudiced.  We are what we are -- can we really explain it*?

Each man is much more than a continual development of thought.  He's a development of taste.  He may not be an artist but he's a consumer of art.  Thus a middle aged man may prefer a good voice to a nice rack; and he loves a rare act of honor more than a hip pair of jeans.  We get picky as we get older, and especially with women when we've got less women to pick from.  We call it "growing up" or "maturity" but it's really that we're bored.  We've devoured the lesser things and now we need better.  Are old men old and tired?  Or is the world not enough to excite them anymore?  I suspect the fault is ours, and we're not interesting enough for them.  Children will play with almost anyone.  But how many people does an old man choose to play with?

The area of art is where the most dynamic men leave others behind.  Not only in that we make it but in that we get taste for it.  Not art in the sense of paintings but art in the sense of living.  How we got here on this planet is irrelevant.  What we know is that we arrived here, and when we got here we judged nature.  We were a part of nature but we pretended we weren't; and we decided what it gave us was too little.

This was the beginning of all art.  Desire and imagination and poverty.  Richness, really, in the midst of everything; but an everything that wasn't quite good enough as it was.  Thus the first men saw meat and they improved it with fire.  This was the beginning of cookery.  They were hit with cold and they made clothing, and they fashioned the clothing to be comfortable, and to look interesting.  This was the beginning of style.  They needed shelter from the elements beyond what clothing could offer; so they piled wood and skins together and this was the beginning of architecture.  Two people made a baby and needed to take care of it.  This was the art of all parenting.  They became jealous over one another and they came up with an art known as marriage.  They found certain ways to talk to people, ways to make yourself agreeable, rules for what you couldn't do -- and thus kicked off the arts of language, and manners.  There was nothing we saw that we didn't dream about improving, and each man had his own dreams, and each dream led to an art form.

Sometimes these dreams spread far and sometimes they were incompatible.  Some of them were useful and other ones were stupid.  When too many dreams collided, we created the arts of war.  Learned to run fast in groups and how to swoop down when other groups weren't expecting it and cut them to pieces.  We dreamed how to beat them and built weapons, armor -- fortifications.  When we exchanged dreams about property peacefully we called it trade, the art of business.  When we didn't dream peacefully we created the art of plunder.  Some men dreamed big dreams about how we were connected, and could live in peace, and this gave birth to the arts of leadership, and rhetoric, and citizenship, and law.  The great lawgivers arrived, Numa and Solon and Moses and Lycurgus and Hammurabi, and gave us the arts of government.

No man, once he's experienced a taste for something, is able to really go back to what he left before it.  Not fully happily.  He can do it but he'll always be looking back**.  And so we live in environments of inherited art, and build our tastes on the already refined tastes of others --  most usually our ancestors.  We're not born into the wilderness, but into civilizations full of artful prejudices -- social organisms, complex beyond understanding, full of little ways to do this and that, and which none of us, unless we leave, are capable of throwing off entirely.  Even if we leave we bring too many of the art forms with us.  Every exile is the germ of a whole civilization***.

If you don't know who this is, God save you
We call the custom of an art, and the feelings that defend the custom, a prejudice.  We can handle some arts getting bucked but not too many of them.  We expect art out of others and if they can't deliver it we shun them -- as barbarians, or dimwits, or animals***.  We pretend we're against prejudice but a nation is only a mass-scale prejudice.  All nations began in barbarism and slowly branched out until some art forms grew one way and others in others and their feelings defended the branches.  A culture is a series of prejudices that overlap peacefully; and when people have been doing it so long it's almost invisible to them -- until you try to do things differently.

We say we want to be unprejudiced but this, quite frankly, is impossible.  Tolerance, which is always necessary, in some degree, to progress and civilization, means putting up with things you personally don't like.  We can only devalue our particular prejudices, and when we do this we only make way for another nation -- with a whole different series of prejudices.  You can examine your prejudices and change some of them, but you can't (and shouldn't) change all of them and you certainly can't get rid of them.  Exchange is the only option, and if there isn't anything better you have to go with worse.  A man who tells you otherwise isn't a saint, but an enemy.  If he's from your culture he's a traitor.  If he's from another culture he's an invader.

Your father,

*I believe a man can relate to youngsters, although most of us choose not to; and that it's one of the chief duties of a parent to think hard about the things he left behind --  so he can bring his children up to speed.   The art of studying children and young people, and learning how to grow them in wisdom and the best traditions, building, step by step, from naivety to know-how, is one of the most sacred of all arts -- and usually left, by feckless conservatives, to silly women and leftists.  We call ourselves conservatives, but snub the art of conservation.

One reason we do this is for the simple fact that teaching children is boring; and generally speaking, repeating things you learned a long time ago, over and over again, to people who probably don't want to be there, is a painful experience.  Thus we often relegate these duties to radicals, who want to steal children, and mercenaries, who teach primarily for the paycheck.

Some honor has to be given to the intellectual who steps, day after day, into arguments he's already had a hundred times.  I say I won't read right-wing papers because they're obvious to me, but they serve a purpose.  They were interesting to me when I needed them, and they're interesting to a whole horde of people arriving on the doorstep every year -- who are either turning from leftism, or are in danger of turning towards it.  These non-thinking thinkers, repeaters of known things, are heroes in their own way -- and should be celebrated for taking bullets that I've long since refused to take.  Martyrdom and drudgery all involve suffering.  We have learned to glorify one of them because it's sensational, but completely disregarded the other.

**Much of the horror of post-apocalyptic films revolves around this.  Yes, the lawlessness is bad.  But what are we going to do without toilet paper?

***We pretend to worship our ancestors but the truth is that we'd scorn them.  We've gotten too rich in many ways and too poor in others.  Our conversation would probably bore Thomas Jefferson to death.  Abe Lincoln's hygiene would probably ruin our conversation.  Our ancestors would think we were effeminates and degenerates and city slickers.  We would look down on them -- as country bumpkins, religious fanatics, and radical prudes.   

****The chief value of travel is learning that your art isn't the only art.

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