Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Urbanity, metrosex, crunchiness

I just finished a remarkable book: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It's not a novel, but it appears to be one; its pace is both fast and carefully controlled, with shifting points of view that practically made me growl at the chapter headings when I realized that Larson was going to abandon the narrative he'd been following in the previous chapter to take up a new one. It's the story, or at any rate a story, of the Chicago World's Fair, or more correctly the World Columbian Exposition, in 1893. In brief, at the same time that a luminous group of American architects and artists was racing first to envision and then to bring about the miracle of the White City, a serial killer was setting up shop at the Exposition's outskirts, taking advantage of the combination of an unprecedented inflow of young and naive women into Chicago and the confusion surrounding the movements of tens of thousands of people at the Fair. I read it in two days, largely because it wouldn't let me sleep.

But - as always seems to happen these days - the convergence of my reading this book for my neighborhood book club with other events triggers the "blogging gene," and a post is born. The "other events": the Oscars, online discussions of the "crunchy con" phenomenon (such as it is), and my kids' getting back into Bambi. Here we go:

In Devil, Larson quotes unstintingly from the correspondence of the actors (pointing out more than once that in those days, everyone who could write did so, at length - I consider myself an heir to that time, and anyone attempting a word count on my blog entries would no doubt have to agree) and from publications at the time. What struck me in so many of Larson's quotations was the character of the writers, exposed in their words. Men praised one another freely. They complimented one another's accomplishments, sometimes with full sincerity, but sometimes out of courtesy at the expense of commenting on their own. People expressed soaring emotions at their first experience of the Fair - notably pride that Chicago, up to then considered a provincial hard-knocks cowtown (actually pigtown), had eclipsed Paris in the beauty, grandeur, scope, and attendance at its Exposition. Garrison Keillor's "where the men are all handsome, the women are all strong, and the children are all above average" formulation for life in Lake Wobegon seems real in these excerpted letters: the people may have been flawed, their faults may have rivalled ours, but they wrote like heroes. And writing, I believe, is a mirror image of the soul of the writer, at least when it's been adequately taught and learned.

So. There is the "urbanity" of the title. The writers were unfailingly courteous even when they were at one another's throats - just as civilized people ought to be. Miss Manners, my favorite etiquetteer, enjoys pointing out to people who say that good manners are wimpy that nowhere is it written that you can't be forceful and mannerly at the same time; in fact, classic Western etiquette contains specific forms even for insults and responses to them. (A terrific example, from the apparently now out-of-print Miss Manners's Guide To the Turn of the Millenium: the mother-in-law who gave her principled-vegan daughter-in-law a fur wrap for Christmas at a "senior relative's" home, which the d-in-law had to open in front of the family; the m-in-law asked pointedly, "How do you like it?" Miss Manners calls this now-rare gambit a classic: the expensive gift given as an insult. The d-in-law, according to Miss Manners, responded exactly correctly when, absolutely straight-faced and with flat inflection, she stared her m-in-law in the eyes and said, "You shouldn't have.") Of course, the fact that this book is about a serial killer too only highlights the urbanity of the rest of its characters.

Now, contrast urbanity with metrosexuality. Metrosexualness? Metrosex. Whatever. Practitioners may think of themselves as urbane: after all, they live in big cities, in which "urbanity" is rooted; they take care to observe the correct physical forms such as how to dress, how to dance, what darn fork to use. But the difference between an urbane man and the metrosexual man who internalizes metrosexual appearances as values is clearly illustrated in George Clooney's Oscar acceptance speech. Not the rather understated politics of it - but the part where he compliments his fellow actors. I've looked in vain for a transcript, but here's what I recall: First, he notes that every nominee turned in a terrific performance and it was a great honor even to be included in that group. But instead of stopping there and moving on to the "I thank everybody" portion of the speech, he has to undercut his own compliment by pointing out that it's impossible actually to compare people's performances unless everyone performs exactly the same role - and then wraps it all up by practically muttering, "Try it in a Bat suit," or words to that effect, which doesn't come off as self-deprecating but rather as sour.

Now, I think George Clooney is pretty cute, though I get tired of tilting my head so I can look at his mug straight-on. I loved him in O Brother Where Art Thou?. But he ain't urbane - just metrosexual.

Let me also say here that I have no objection - in fact, the opposite of an objection - to men's observing courteous forms. A man who dresses well, knows how to make conversation, even gets manicures if that's his bag - these are all great with me. It's the man who confuses these outward forms with inward convictions who's earned my dismissal.

And on to Bambi. It's a movie that - as we choir hounds might say - rather loves the sound of its own voice a bit much; there's so much footage of pretty scenery and innovative animation (the forest fire against the night sky, for instance) that story elements seem almost to intrude on the movie's real reason for being: to elicit "Awwww"s at the cute moments and "Oooooh"s of wonder at the better-than-photography beauty of the forest world. One easy-to-overlook element is that Bambi's parents are a model of what parents used to be expected to be. I'm not speaking just of the heroism of the mother as she lags behind Bambi to draw the hunter's fire, shouting to him to run faster, and not to look back; I'm not speaking just of the determination of the father as he prods and chides Bambi back to his feet to outrun the fire after he's been exhausted by dogs and grazed by a bullet. I'm speaking too of the mother's patient insistence that Bambi "try again" when he falls as a fawn, and the father's, what, four lines in the whole movie. It seems almost axiomatic in the context of the time that the father-figure would be "strong and silent," the mother-figure devoted but not indulgent. One of the great things Disney has done for American society, in my view, is to preserve these images of parenthood: Disney parents, at least in their feature films, are heroic in a manner that other cultural images of parenthood don't support. They're often a bit more hapless now than they were in the Bambi days, but there's a core of Bambi's father's determination and Bambi's mother's self-sacrifice in them still.

Rod Dreher points to a "new" subgroup among conservatives, the "crunchy cons." He compares this group to David Brooks's "Bobos":

Admittedly, this is very close to what David Brooks identified as classic bourgeois Bohemian ("Bobo") behavior. "Marx once wrote that the bourgeois takes all that is sacred and makes it profane. The Bobos take everything that is profane and make it sacred," he writes in Bobos in Paradise, his highly entertaining foray into pop sociology. "We take the quintessential bourgeois activity, shopping, and turn it into quintessential bohemian activities: art, philosophy, social action."

He speaks of "authenticity" as a value after which crunchy cons strive: a sense that they have contributed meaningfully to their own lives. He gives the example of homemade apple butter; he talks about the organic food co-op to which he belongs; he says, "All I can tell you is that the crunchy-granola lefties are often right about little things that make life richer."

I'm terrribly uncomfortable with his conclusions. I am the kind of person who keeps a pantry stocked with ingredients rather than mixes; I am the kind of person who prefers an old house in an old neighborhood, where even if the houses when new were all on the same plan, time has allowed subsequent owners to leave a unique stamp, to new developments; I am the kind of person who makes apple butter. (Actually not apple butter but jams of various kinds; I don't like apple butter.) But a few years ago I stopped hating Sam's Club and starting actually enjoying it, smiling at my fellow shoppers who, like me, didn't see shopping in a warehouse as either a Sacrament or a soul-sucking ordeal - just a shopping trip - and the sense of superiority in Dreher's and Brooks's prose bothers me to no end. One of Dreher's crunchy friends said,

"Every single thing that comes into my house, down to the salt shakers, have to first pass a test of being persuasive, winsome, original, odd — 'authentic.' I think that this is a cousin to what you and Julie are doing with food and other tastes. You're looking for true quality and refusing to be satisfied with Purina People Chow. You have your antennas up for what is real, original, worthy. And to many conservatives, that sounds stuck-up and suspiciously lefty."

It is stuck-up. Look at the words she chose: "real"; "worthy"; "Purina People Chow." In what way can we interpret this sentiment as other than "My choices are better than those of people who shop at Wal-Mart"? Now, when I'm shopping for the trappings of our life, they're required to be both pleasing and functional to the greatest degree possible, because, why not? When it's reasonable to combine beauty and practicality, who would choose the ugly-but-functional thing, or the beautiful-but-useless thing? (All right. I know there are people who would choose each of these, for principled reasons I don't share. I'm trying to show, here, why I mostly fit the profile of the crunchy conservative but hate the implications of it.) The key for me, though, is reasonableness. My household goes through almost a gallon of milk a day; I'm darned if I'm going to buy it from an Amish farmer in Lancaster County fresh from the cow. I buy three gallons at a time, twice a week, at Sam's Club - not because we can't afford or perceive "better" but because "better" isn't sufficiently "better" for me to expend the effort on it. I'm not less authentic because of that choice; I'm just practical about something that doesn't require more than practicality. Similarly, I haven't bought Bisquick in years - maybe ever; it was a fixture in my husband's house growing up, so he may have bought it for us at some point. But I don't see buying Bisquick as a character flaw, just as a choice a consumer makes on the basis of different priorities than mine.

How does this point of view square with my flat-out judgmentalism concerning the difference between urbanity and metrosex? A reference to My Fair Lady sums it up pretty well: Col. Pickering treats a flower-seller like a duchess; Mr. Higgins treats a duchess like a flower-seller. Col. Pickering is a courteous man; Mr. Higgins is a boor in metrosexual clothing. Both men may prefer vintage port and fine pipe tobacco; their choices in that regard are unimportant compared with their character.


Gahrie said...

Well, I'm definitely not a metrosexual. I learned all I need to know about grooming and clothes from a man who had a big impact on my life. Thank you Mr. Brooks, where ever you are............

Jamie said...

Oh Lord, say it isn't so...

While I've got you here, Gahrie, would you be at all interested in guest-posting on Hamas? You know a lot more about the situation vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine than I do.

umbrelladown said...

just want to give a compliment:

Sometimes products or practices have a cult-like sense of d.i.y. that lures me in beyond the pragmatics of price.

But, my mother and I think of these things (such as things found in a whole foods store, continuing with your food examples) as expensive indulgences in the realm of fun.

I like that philosophy. Nice one for when my hipster snob instinct starts to take over my sense of basic virtue and common sense.

"But I don't see buying Bisquick as a character flaw, just as a choice a consumer makes on the basis of different priorities than mine."

I'm saving that one.