Thursday, January 08, 2009

`A Small Girl Almost Smiled'

The daughters of a woman who works with my wife spent the afternoon with us on Wednesday when their school was closed because of flooding. The girls are roughly the ages of my younger sons and they’ve become compatible if not best friends. Both girls are bright, articulate, personable and affectionate – kids whose company is easy to enjoy. At the library they collected their stacks of books and we met at a table in the children’s section. The girls favor manga, Japanese comic books about which I know nothing. My 5-year-old and the younger of the girls sat on my lap as the older one showed us the back-to-front layout of the manga.

A library patron, a woman of about 35, was watching us – watching me. My arms were around the kids and I had the uncomfortable sensation of being evaluated as a possible pedophile, if not already convicted. It was the glare of the relentlessly virtuous, and here was my dilemma: Do I do what comes naturally and what I would do without a second thought at home – that is, go on holding the kids? Or do I loosen my embrace and move them away – subtly, as if that would somehow absolve my guilt in the eyes of this woman? And why do I care what she thinks? She’s a nosy, suspicious stranger, someone whose opinion ought to mean nothing to me. I waffled and told the kids we were leaving – sooner than any of us wished. My discomfort in the library was hardly unique. D.G. Myers at The Commonplace Blog has touched on this uneasy subject:

“The denigration of normal men is not the only consequence of the general dirty-mindedness. When all men are potential perverts, actual perverts disappear into the crowd, losing their special brand of evil. They can no longer be distinguished from other men.”

In other words, more is at stake than my occasional uneasiness. David was responding, in part, to an essay at Pajamas Media by Mary Jackson, who writes of the corresponding situation in England:

“It is acceptable — just — for a woman to talk to someone else’s child in a public place, but a man who does the same thing must be a pervert. Has it come to this? How many perverts are there, for goodness sake?”

I resent the intrusion of the virtue police in our lives. Even more, I resent that I have internalized their intrusion and learned to question and stifle my nature. “Don’t smile please,” by the late D.J. Enright, dates from the early nineties and nails this phenomenon with rueful precision:

“Since the primary school is next door
You can’t help passing the playground
But don’t you smile at the children
Whether a small girl or a little boy
Don’t you even look
You know what people will think
And you really can’t blame them.

“What a world we live in! What went wrong?
If there’s another world to come
Let’s hope it’s one where people smile
And you can smile back safely.

“Once they asked you to return their ball
It had sailed over the palings –
Eyes cast discreetly upwards, you stepped
Into the street and were nearly run down
Still, a little boy said `Thank you, mister’
A small girl almost smiled.”

There it is: “You know what people will think.” Life grows a little grimmer when we mind the business of others.


Art Durkee said...

When you're a hammer, all you can see are nails. The blue-nosed busybodies are winning, as we live in a surveillance culture in which everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential pervert or criminal, and everyone is guilty until proven innocent. The politicians both echo and enable this.

But the flip side is also true: If everyone is a pervert, than no-one is. And so forth.

The thing is, children have to be taught to hate and fear. I still hold hope that some children will escape the indoctrination.

Mr Bleaney said...

Thank you for the post, and for the poem by D. J. Enright (a wonderful poet and writer).

Coincidentally, I find that, like Mr. Durkee, the same word came to my mind when I read the post: "busybody." When I was growing up (in Minnesota, in the early sixties), my grandmother, mother, and aunts (soft-spoken, good-hearted Scandinavians all, if I may say so) would use this word as a term of severe censure. It is unfortunate that it has lost currency.

I will myself risk censure by posing the following question: Is it the case that people who think of themselves as "progressive" or "open-minded" are more likely (in today's world) to be busybodies? Personal experience (i.e., living in Seattle for the past 28-odd years) tells me that this is the case. Call me a reactionary, call me old-fashioned, but this soi-disant "progressive" burg seems to border on the totalitarian at times. I have probably taken this way too far, so I'll stop.

Art Durkee said...

Mr. Bleaney, having lived in Minnesota, having spent significant time in the Northwest, and having lived in New Mexico, being a Michigan native, and now living in Wisconsin, I find that the regional differences, or styles, if you will, make a huge difference. My experience of Minnesota was that it was socially very withdrawn, suspicious and cold. In 7 years, I only made 6 permanent friends, two of whom we permanent friends before we all moved up there. The shadow side of the epithet busybody is "Minnesota nice," wherein people are polite to your face, and stab you in the back once you leave the room; that happened to me several times during my stay there, and once almost cost me a job, for no reason other than that us Michigan natives are raised to face issues head-on rather than in a passive-aggressive manner. In New Mexico, I found apartheid going on: many communities coinhabiting but not talking to each other. In Wisconsin, I find it possible to have a meaningful conversation with a stranger in the grocery store checkout line; something quite unknown to me in MN or NM.

Wisconsin has a strong reputation of progressive politics, but it's also a rural state with a strong agricultural history. So politics and culture here can be very divided between progressives and right-wingers. What we don't have, however, is the level of busybodies that I have found elsewhere. For whatever reason, it's more tolerant and less divided here than other places I've lived.

I think all three of the Pacific Coast states have schizophrenia about progressive vs. reactionary politics and culture. On some issues they're very progressive, on others very regressive.

My impression of the Northwest is that busybodies are pretty much evenly distributed along the political/social spectrum. I felt that way living in northern California, too, and every time I spent time in Portland or Olympia, where I have friends and family.

My experience is that the urge to tell other people how they should live is not limited to progressive politics, as you seem to chafe. My experience was that it was some form of local smugness: we've got it great here, and you should agree with us.

Mr Bleaney said...

Mr. Durkee, thank you for your response to my post. I fear that I was inarticulate. My post was not intended to be a paean to Minnesota culture (whatever that is, or was). I was just trying to put my experience of the use of the word "busybody" in context (a now vanished world). (After all, given the fact that Minnesota has produced such a baleful cultural influence as Garrison Keillor, I fully concede that it has a lot to answer for! Oops, I may have done it again.)

I hope that I am not being presumptuous (or impinging on Mr. Kurp's authority over this blog), when I say that I make the assumption that the readers of this blog (like Samuel Johnson) are all sworn enemies of cant and hypocrisy (as embodied in busybodies everywhere, and of whatever political stripe).

Anonymous said...

Yes, probably a busybody, but also perhaps someone who was abused as a child?

Zo said...

Very unfortunate, yes, but it is the male sex who preys, who commits, by and large, the ghastliest crimes upon children. What can we do?

Clearly, testosterone unbalanced is somehow poison.