Uncategorizable

Two nights ago a man, a farmer, who I have known and idolized since I was 8 years old, passed away at the age of 87.  Raymond was uncategorizable.  You might not believe me, since I just told you that he was a farmer. Clear-cut category, right?  You would be wrong.  In addition to being an American History buff, he loved opera. Raymond had traveled far beyond his native township in Wisconsin, not only because he served in the Navy for four years during the Korean War, but also because he was curious.  Raymond stopped by to admire my mother’s tulips on our family farm last June.  I was afraid that it was a good-bye visit, because his health had been failing for some time. But Raymond hung on for six more months.  What made the visit feel like a good bye was that he explained so much of himself to me, and the stories added to the rich texture of my perception of him as uncategorizable. 

In the Korean conflict, Raymond was an underwater welder.  I had known that fact about him for years.  One glorious fruit of this talent emerged in his granddaughter, now an expert welder, who also creates works of art with this technique; her grandfather’s legacy.  Raymond took his time telling me about what wet-welding entailed, and dwelled particularly on the danger posed by the necessary super-high voltage, in addition to the conductance of the water.  He was smiling as he savored these details, and I shivered.  Weren’t you scared?  How come you did that? I asked many such questions. Raymond shook his head, still smiling, and said, “Well, it was an adventure I guess.  I was young and I could do it.”  That day in June, Raymond skipped over any discussion of finding and collecting body parts around blown-up ships.  I was grateful for that.

Another thing that Raymond told me felt at once like a good bye, but also like a hello (a sort of Welcome back to the United States after living abroad for so long).  He said that he was very happy to be an American, and also to live right there where he lived and farmed the land.  No angst, no self-consciousness, no regrets.  The comment about being American wasn’t linked to the stories of the Navy.  It emerged from his unconscious as a sort of assessment of the world as he had seen it, near and far.  Not a patriotic statement, but a summary of the best representation of his values, good and bad taken together.  As for the specific farmland he was referring to, in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, he was just admiring the beauty.  He told me that he never tired of it.  Not a single day. And finally he admitted that he wasn’t ready to leave it.  But he did.  Just two days ago.

I thought about Raymond when I was reading the latest social psychology of ideology of sorts.  Haidt and Wilson ask, in a recent TIME article, “Can TIME predict your politics?”  They write, “Research by Sam Gosling, at the University of Texas, has found that liberals generally score higher than conservatives on the trait of “openness to experience.” They are more likely to seek out new experiences (such as fusion cuisine), choose to watch documentaries, or enjoy art museums. They have less conventional notions of what is proper in a romantic relationship, so solo pornography consumption is OK. Conservatives are more likely to stick with what is familiar, what is tried and true. Hence, they are more likely to use a PC than a Mac and are more likely to stick with that PC’s default browser, Internet Explorer. Conservatives score higher than liberals on the trait of conscientiousness. They are more organized (neat desks), punctual, and self-controlled (rather than emphasizing self-expression).”  So, on-line, you can find out how “liberal” or “conservative” you are by completing a short survey.  These kinds of tests use beliefs and preferences (in this case) that just happen to be correlated with a predicted variable (like endorsement of a political party or an ideology) to indirectly assess the latter. 

When I read through the items on the test, I suspect that the reason that they discriminate well between people with different ideologies is because strongly ideological people are very worried about their attitudes towards objects and behaveiors that are (frankly) arbitrarily associated with their ideology. They are especially worried about public expression of these attitudes.  Ideological liberals, when they read the TIME piece, will double their love of fusion cuisine and sweat openly but patiently through their spouse’s dallying.  They’ll try to persuade themselves that their son or daughter skipping classes at that expensive art school is correct in their insistence that self-expression that is un-fettered by training is better than actual art instruction.  Strongly identified conservatives will throw their cats into the street (because the Humane Society would be a liberal destination) and trash their iPads.  Oh how ideology simplifies personal expression! 

Me?  I just got cowboy boots for Christmas.  Probably, I will use them to go dancing to Country & Western music.  Although I love dogs, I have only cats.  I love Brazilian-Japanese fusion, but a great cake donut from Greenbush Bakery is what I crave of a weekend morning.  What a world that I live in!  The place I live in my head is one that doesn’t help me complete the TIME survey in any meaningful way and still live with myself.  I inhabit a place where I can be uncategorizable and still recognize that American citizens actually do not all have the same possibilities and benefits and that some indeed need to be helped by the collective; where Teddy Roosevelt, originally Republican, thought we should define public lands and keep them safe, as precious natural resources for future Americans; where FDR really did help people psychologically, including my own relatives, during and after the Dustbowls of the 1930s (despite what revisionists, who focus only on some non-emotional aspects of economics, may write). 

I live in a state where Raymond was born; that was the birthplace of Lincoln’s (anti-slavery) Republican Party, home of La Follette’s Progressive party, founders of the first public Kindergarten in the US, first passers in the Union of laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation (in 1982; and, when Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus signed the law, he said that "It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love." Interesting).  And, I acknowledge, a state that also stumbled through McCarthyism and has missed huge opportunities during the present Governor’s term (except the opportunity to elect the first openly lesbian US Senator, which was an opportunity that was not missed).

Not even the ideology of specific states of the Union should be simplified and clichéd. Complexity; I learned that from a lot of farmers.  And as for Raymond, I think that when he visits it’ll be as a hummingbird.  He loved them so.

Paula NiedenthalComment