Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Using Meanness for Good, Not Evil

I inherited a mean streak from my mother—a tendency to be critical of my betters and unpleasant precisely in those situations where deference and conciliation are demanded.

I would be quite happy to be a wealthy man, but fail to see the logic of paying someone no better than I am 636 times my salary. I don’t really care what the job is; it can’t actually be worth that much more than what I do. Period.

In my life, I have rarely had kind words for wealthy people. Wealth is something I just can’t respect, in and of itself. (By contrast, beauty or a sense of humor, all by itself, counts for a great deal with me.)

I am also not the guy who will ever say these words: “Let’s vote again to make it unanimous.” I don’t get it, frankly. We weren’t unanimous. Some of us wanted this, and others wanted that. We decided on a vote to settle it—so it’s settled, but clearly some of us did not get our way. Why pretend different? Deal with the reality.

If we decided to settle the matter with three tosses of a coin, would we then have to pretend that a 2:1 divide was really 3:0?

I am not an etymologist, but “mean” meaning “low, degraded in behavior” seems related to “mean” meaning “average”—and “kind” meaning “noble and good” seems related to “kind” meaning “of the same type.” Who would come up with such a moralized dichotomy of “mean” and “kind”?

Well, the old aristocracy, that’s who. For them, the “average” human being was despicable. What right-thinking lord would want to be thought of as merely ordinary? And “kind” simply meant, for them, “like us”—our kind. That is, better.

Later, the middle classes acquired some posh, and nobody wanted to be “mean” anymore, not even the poor, who were demonstrably less than average—in wealth, education, position, prestige, power, health, and autonomy, at least.

Noblesse oblige became mandatory even for the ignoblesse.

Whoever dismissively spoke of the “lowest common denominator” must have had the same idea. “Lowest” kind of puts “common” in its place.

None of this is metaphysical. Being mean won’t send you to hell, though it may make a lot of people tell you to go there.

Sarah Palin comes off as mean, but I don’t fault her for it. When she identifies with Joe Six Pack and pit bulls, she’s talking about “salt of the earth” people—who will never be accepted by their betters as “our kind.”

Governor Palin is inept, coquettish, dull-witted, mendacious, venal, superstitious, and narrow-minded, for which I have to admit I despise her a little—on top of which, she’s wealthy, which doesn’t help her in my book—but none of this is related to her being mean.

Molly Ivins was mean, so was her pal Ann Richards, who, if there was any justice in the world, was the governor who should have had a crack at being VP. Jonathan Swift was mean, but a greater defender of the Irish people never existed—and he wasn’t even Irish. Mark Twain was mean, too, Twain, the quintessential American patriot, who famously once quipped, “All right then I’ll go to hell.”

The Democrats who refused to support Howard Dean four years ago because he hollered like a common yahoo got the four more years of George W. Bush that they deserved.

For a classless society, America puts a whole lot of stock in being classy. Being mean—belligerent, cantankerous, and unpleasant—is the only way a lot of poor people got anything out of this world.

I’m mean. It’s the only thing my mother gave me that I haven’t had cause to regret. I hope I use that meanness more for good than for bad, more realistically I probably just break even, but every now and then we need somebody to cut through all the crap of being nice and proper. I’d like to offer my services.

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