Anarchism

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


I had my first revolutionary encounter at another Cub Scout camp near a different lake. We were organized in squads of six, as I said, each with its appointed leader. One day, my squad leader gave me an order I did not like. Or maybe, I just did not like his tone. I said “No.” He insisted. Our voices rose. His authority contested publicly, he shoved me lightly. I shoved back and I called him out formally. We repaired out of sight to the lakeside. It was not the Clash of the Titans because I must have been nine and he, eleven. The leader must have lacked faith in his own charisma, or else, I got lucky because I gave him a bloody nose. This stopped the fight in accordance with the ancient dueling rule of “first blood drawn.” He washed off the blood in the lake. We walked back to our tent separately. It was sunset; everyone went to bed. Nothing more was said.

I remember the fight clearly and I remember well that the squad leader was the furthest thing from a bully. He was not a bad guy and I did not even dislike him. I just did not like hierarchies. I was a natural anarchist in the true, etymological sense of the term: I did not want to have a chief, or a leader, or whatever you call them these days. This trait never changed. I am just the same as I was at nine in this respect. I have never had any desire to exercise power over others either. Most exercises of power repel me viscerally. I suspect many or most are unnecessary. Moreover, I now think coercion is the worst way to obtain the orderliness that is necessary to a good society. I am pretty sure coercion causes more disorder overall than it eliminates or avoids. Its costs are usually too high.

“Growing up” did not help me in that department either. I never “learned through experience;” life did not “beat it into me.” In this respect, as in many others, I keep marveling at the constancy of individual characters from childhood, perhaps from infancy. I don’t know why there isn’t more mention of this constancy except that it contradicts the namby-pamby liberal faith in environmental determinism. If you believe religiously that societal influences – such as poverty, emotional abuse, being deprived of cookies, being fed the cookies of the wrong color – decide what the adult’s character will be, it’s hard to notice that much of the character was already in the child, or even in the toddler. It’s difficult to even imagine that it was possibly already in the zygote. This possibility was an academic taboo subject for the best part of forty years. Hardly anyone felt free to study it.

Skills and creativity

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


My mother was pretty much a part-time monster but she had big talents and one immense virtue.

She had been trained as a seamstress in a good technical high-school. Sometimes, when my father was working at night, she would hustle the five children through a hasty dinner of coffee with milk, bread, butter, jam and cheese and then, send everybody to his or her room. (She had to do that behind my father’s back because he belonged to the old French school that believes that if you don’t get two five-course, balanced meals a day, you will sicken in a short time.) She would lock herself in the dining room with fabric, her sewing machine, and her big scissors. By morning café au lait time, she would have a new outfit of extreme chic with appropriate gloves and detachable collars. Once, she produced in two nights matching tweed overcoats and golf pants for the three boys. Even little boys could see that the outfits were exquisitely elegant though the pants felt scratchy. No matter, we had to wear them to church and for a part of Sunday afternoon.

As long as she had defenseless offspring at home, my mother never saw a children’s costume event she did not like. She would enter as many of her children as would submit. The last time it happened to me, I was eleven and tall for my age. She dressed me up as a Roman legionnaire, with a cardboard armor ingenuously painted with stove silver coating. It almost killed me, not the armor, the embarrassment. I never wore a costume again until I was twenty-five though I must admit I have retained a certain flair. At least, I was never one of those social cowards who go to a Halloween party in jeans and keep a cowboy hat in their car just in case everyone else is costumed. (You know who you are, spineless scum!)

I was aware early that my mother used her talent to gain face and to pull rank on almost all other neighborhood women. Nevertheless, watching her cut and sew through the glass door exposed me early to the concept of creativity in general, and of visual creativity, in particular. I also picked up the broad notion that creativity not served by solid skills is meaningless. In my fifties, I began to paint, without hesitation although I am quite critical, because I had retained from observing her two forceful ideas: Skills will reveal talent, if any; with practice, skills can only improve.

My mother’s living example of inventiveness was at the antipodes of the narrow, sober petty-bourgeois values my whole environment projected. It belied what she was trying to teach her children every day. She contradicted with her hands what she  preached with her mouth.

Our Daily Bread and a Horse’s Ass

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


A little later, the old man harnessed his plow horse to the cart. The women climbed with great caution onto the wooden benches in the back, all three in their Sunday best, including hats, and leather shoes instead of the usual wooden clogs. The old man motioned me to the seat near him, up front. While this seemed the normal place for a boy, I was suspicious because he kept cackling unnaturally and his wife reprimanded him in dialect several times from the back of the cart. Before we had gone a hundred feet, the horse started blowing powerful and odoriferous farts right into my face. It never let off until we reached the church. The old man had deliberately fed him a breakfast of oats to which the beast was unaccustomed. Everyone thought that was a good joke but the old lady was concerned about my big city sensitivities. I just thought it was the old man who was the horse’s ass but his precise planning and his foresight impressed me all the same, not to mention his control over the animal’s gut.

A moral inquiry

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


Note: I was born and reared mostly in Paris but I spent most summers in Brittany. Brittany summers left a deeper mark in me than the Paris school year.

In the Breton architectural fashion, my grandmother’s granite house shared a wall with the houses of two neighbors. On one side was the good looking old guy and his too virtuous old wife. On the other side of my grandmother’s house was a family of fishermen: old Pop, old Mom, grown daughter and grown son. They all lived in a single room that served as kitchen, dining room and bedroom. The parents shared a carved oak armoire-bed, accessible by climbing on a trunk and equipped with a sliding door to provide privacy. The adult children each had their small iron bed, placed at opposite corners of the room, I am pleased to report. There was no bathroom, of course, only an outhouse in the backyard. It was never scooped, never moved. It was surrounded by the most beautifully, healthy cabbage I have ever seen. The fisherman’s children never married. Perhaps they were too afraid of their parents; or, they liked each other too much. (But this is only hearsay.)

At the end of the dirt road, fifty yards away, lived the town ditch-digger and his large brood. The ditch digger’s boys were always hungry. They stole eggs, from wild birds’nests and from hen houses alike. They also picked wheat and toasted it in the fields, which was tolerated. In September, ripe hazelnuts were available for the picking. I don’t know what they did after September and I will never know because my family never stayed beyond that month. But school was back in session then, and there, they got at least one square a day.

Sometimes, we would climb over the priest’s orchard wall to steal his excellent pears. This happened less often than one might think because it presented moral problems: Everyone knew that the priest would not beat you hard if he caught you so, it was kind of unsporting to pick on him. And there was the issue of having to tell him in confession that you had stolen his pears. We discussed whether one would go to Hell for abstaining from confessing that single particular sin. There was no theological consensus.

Safe Places, Continued

This is in response to Will’s response to my initial post on safe places. I’d add it to the comments section, but that area has already been bloated.

If I understand Will correctly he is pointing out that in order to be harmed by words one must to an extent cooperate. If we were, for example, to mail the site’s founder with USC memorabilia the act in itself would be meaningless unless he decided to interpret the act to be an attack on his UCLA background. There are exceptions to this rule, such as those with certain mental conditions (e.g. PTSD).

If this is the point Will is making, I agree with him. I do however feel compelled to add that there is another group of individuals, besides those with mental disorders, who cannot willingly change how they react to certain words or cues – children. Why do I bring children into this discussion? Isn’t the safe place discussion mostly about their inclusion in universities? Let me make the case that a large portion of a university’s student body is composed of children; and to be clear I do not say this with malice towards said students.

The concept of childhood is relatively new in human society. It used to be that once a toddler was old enough to move around they were given work to do, be it helping around the farm or the factory. Delaying entrance into the job market required having parents able to ‘buy’ children’s time and so childhood was only possible following the industrial revolution. I’m sure everyone has heard of a version of this story before. If not I recommend the Cunningham book on the subject.

What if these calls for safe spaces are a response to the development of new period between childhood and adulthood? By all means the students on university campuses are physically adults, just look at their facial hair and sexual activity. They aren’t meeting the traditional landmarks of becoming adults mentally though. They are pushing back having children. Many of them are returning to live back home or never left to begin with. I know of several 20-30 somethings who are still trying to get on a career path.

Many, myself included, have seen safe places as infantilizing students. What if it’s the reverse though? It could be that students were already infantilized to begin with and that safe places are a symptom of universities having to respond to that.

If that is the case it is tempting to want to find out who is behind this. As with the development of childhood though the source of this post-childhood stage is our wealth. Our wealth has increased life expectancy. Our wealth has allowed parents to ‘buy’ more and more of their children’s time. Our wealth has allowed us to subsidize institutions (e.g. universities) that give these post-children a place to go and further delay their entrance into the labor force.

Should we really be angry then? We will have to adapt certainly. We will have to stop thinking of universities, most universities at least, as places populated by adults. We need to update our institutions. Should non-adults have the vote? Etc. Etc.

What is our alternative? Destroy our wealth so that this post-childhood pre-adulthood stage can’t exist?

Thoughts and comments are always appreciated.