Monday, March 23, 2015

Know Your Place (3 Nov. 2013 [on OpenSalon])

"When Adam dug and Eve spun, / Who was then a gentleman?"
{Genteel folk do no manual labor.}
— From John Ball's Sermon to the Rebels,

Peasants' Revolt, 1381 (modernized, with a note)

            This is going to be a "fun" entry, I promise, and eventually a personal essay about me, but first —

            Back before it was fashionable, about 400 years before it was fashionable, the priest John Ball preached that "From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men," with "naughty" a good deal more powerful a word than it is now. John Ball's rebellious congregation was eventually betrayed by England's King Richard II, who had promised redress for their grievances, and Ball was either hanged (unpleasant enough, given the use of the "short rope") or hanged, drawn, and quartered, which, in this version of the story, King Richard took care to attend and watch in all its gore. Following custom, other rebel leaders were executed, "As may be both due vengeance to themselves, / And wholesome terror to posterity," in an instructive line from the Elizabethan play of Gorboduc. "Oh you wretched men," and "detestable," too, King Richard apostrophized, "You who seek equality with lords are not worthy to live." And he pronounced this curse upon them, one he was ensuring would come true: "Villeins you are" — unfree serfs, one step above slaves "and villeins you shall remain."

            Or at least they remained serfs for another century or so, as feudalism progressed into capitalism and the serfs became free peasants.

            It's just that they remained poor, generally, and definitely unequal to lords or gentlemen and ladies, or rich merchants or guildsmen, or others of their, the peasants', betters.

            So it was, and so it had been for time out of mind, and so it was something natural for most people: at least "most people" who were more or less in charge of the status quo and definitely not those in charge of, or participating in, peasant revolts, slave revolts, organizing of communities of runaway slaves and Indians, and/or guerilla warfare against those claiming to be, by laws of God and Nature, one's betters.

             The most elegant statement of the hierarchy theory went back at least to Aristotle and in its Christian form celebrated what came to be called a, or The Great Chain of Being, which organized the universe in a pretty much linear hierarchy running from the footstool of the Lord — where you got the highest rank of angels — down through humans, lower animals, vegetables, and minerals, to your lowly rocks, or most-lowliest rock.

            It was a pretty good theory in some ways, at least in that it put human society within Nature, put human relationships in terms of bonds of obligation and gratitude, and organized the universe through love — God's love to start with, then all the natural love all God's critters naturally felt for one another.

            For the lives of most people, however, the theory sucked, and it was a good day for humanity when Thomas Jefferson and other members of the respectable slave-owning class returned to John Ball's subversive ideas and presented a creation myth to compete with The Great Chain, a generous myth wherein all men were and "are created equal" and are endowed by a Creator unnamed with "unalienable rights." The hypocrisy of Mr. Jefferson and many of his colleagues is still dazzling after all these years, but their ideas were magnificent, if nowadays getting complex.

            'Cause hierarchy is still with us, and not just when kids play Twenty Questions by the old rules and start with "Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" — in that order — or when we humans look down on "lower animals" and other organisms.

            In terms of social and political power, the hierarchy issue has gotten increasingly fascinating, in a train-wreck sort of way, as income- and, more importantly, wealth-inequality have so greatly increased in the US of A. Given how much the top (say) 1% or .1% or .01% can do directly on their own, without government help or hindrance, given how much government help and prevention of hindrance one can buy with that kind of money — we again live under a ruling elite not all that different in small size and considerable influence from the political class when King Richard II was betraying and executing rebels in the late Middle Ages. Elites nowadays are more subtle, of course — drawing and quartering is definitely gauche — but still there is a sense in which, in terms of power, there is again a thin layer of Them and that large mass of The Rest of Us.

            And there I'll leave that now-cliché thought to ferment and fester and get to those more "fun" and personal topics.

            'Cause hierarchy and the urge to "hierarchize" is still with us among the 99 or 99.99 or whatever percent, and it's going to get expressed in increasingly weird ways as the mass of us have increasingly less significant power differences and rapidly decreasing contact with the real royals and nobles of the 21st century.

            Part of what we're going to do is more of what we've done habitually in modern times in ranking one another. I liked Tom Wolfe's phrase "status sphere," which is a more clever way to refer to what sociologists from Max Weber on would call "status groups" or something similarly non-clever. After we've divided up seriously into classes or other actually-existing and competing groups, we subdivide into different areas in which we can have a definite status, and preferably high and secure status. Sometimes, this is pernicious, as with people feeling racially or ethnically superior. Often, though, it's just harmlessly silly, as when James Franco and Stephen Colbert earn high status among Tolkien-geeks for their incredible knowledge of Tolkien trivia, or when I got a momentary status bump at a convention of SF scholars in knowing the name of the one actor who'd received an Academy Award for a role in a science fiction film (Cliff Robertson, playing Charly Gordon in Charly, 1968). And then there's that great moment of convoluted ironies and brilliant ambiguities in the episode "Kelly Knows Something" on Married, with Children (8.26 [22 May 1994]). Before his daughter, Kelly, replaces him, Al Bundy competes on a sports trivia show, and, as the scene is burned into my memory — possibly incorrectly; I couldn't find this scene on YouTube — as I recall the scene, Al does very well indeed. Then the MC says to him something like, "Given your spectacular knowledge of sports trivia, I assume you have no life"; and Al responds, without missing a beat, but speaking too close to the microphone, "That is correct; I have no life."

            I'm sure almost all the audience for Married understood and generally appreciated sports trivia, but they could still laugh at Al Bundy for being quite so expert at it: such expertise went along with "I have no life."

            My major experiences with status games lie somewhere between the utterly somber and depressing — slavery, serfdom — and the amusing.

            As an graduate student, I sometimes helped out my father around the car wash he managed by pumping gas, and on occasion got hassled by guys who had no one in the world to hassle except the pump jockey at the car wash. (Yes, Virginia, there were once people who'd pump gas for you; they can still be observed in the US State of Oregon.) I took to wearing my overalls fashionably open to the waist, with my Cornell sweatshirt under it, and responding to the hassling with "Excuse me, gentlemen, is there a problem?" — and watched them strip their figurative gears moving to re-place me in the American social hierarchy. My girlfriend at the time had the same experience with the women she served in the bargain-basement sweater section of a major department store. (Yes, Virginia, there were once salespeople in ordinary stores who'd help customers find stuff.) She got the same hassling and used a similar bit of social-caste jujutsu: Those who look down their noses at people doing service jobs deserve to have those noses twisted a bit.

            Such experiences were mostly funny.

            Only partly funny was the quite competent ranking of teachers at the U of Illinois in Urbana in the late 1960s. There were multiple-choice portions of the survey forms, but more important were the spaces for comments and the fact that the comments were summarized by student editors who were quite good at what they did.

            Two things: (1) The head editor called me up one day and said, more or less, "All right, Erlich, you win. Since we've done the ratings you've come in last, dead last, every time, for the entire University faculty for 'Professorial Dignity.' But your students keep writing comments in the margins, and we get little essays in the mail and a couple phone calls and finally someone came in and asserted vigorously that, yeah, you had no professorial dignity whatever but a lot of human dignity — so we're dropping the goddamn category. Okay?!" (2) As a teaching assistant or glorified TA — my official titles got complicated — just starting out, I was competing with full professors who'd taught for decades and were experts in their fields. At least one was a bloody mad genius who managed to run discussion classes with ninety people. The evaluations book assigned teachers decile rankings that were exactly the divisions that were statistically appropriate, and from students' point of view a teacher is a teacher is a teacher, and if they can get top-tenth, wildly-praised full professors and not some newbie TA, hell, yeah, they should go for them.

            Still, I was a 20-something beginner competing with some folk who also competed for things like Nobel Prizes.

            Anyway, such fancy-schmancy, statistically valid, labor-intensive, and expensive evaluations didn't last long with the cutbacks in higher-ed funding starting in the 1970s. During most of my teaching, evaluation was on an absolute scale — not literal ranking — using "instruments" that the mathematically-literate members of the Miami University administration had to know were only marginally valid; but by the time I retired, such evaluations had been augmented (for student they'd been supplanted) by "Rate My Professors" and its on-line clones.

            "RMP" — top rank among the raters — allows professors to fire back, and, apparently, the prof-rating people read their mail. They removed a low rating for me when I pointed out that I was sure the student disliked my teaching, except he — I'm pretty sure it was a guy — was complaining about a course I'd never taught. And I don't mean getting the course number wrong; I mean it was a course I'd never taught, and if I had done so he'd have every right to complain since it wasn't in my field. And it looks like they took down all the rankings for me when I pointed out I'd retired in 2006 (at 12:01 AM on 1 July, not that the event was dead center in my consciousness for a few years).

            Professors can now go on line and discover whether or not they're among the top teacher in the country (in the world?) and the world rank of the schools they teach at or — which makes me feel better — the ones they graduated from. (When the Chair of my Department told me I had "a second-rate mind," I countered, "Yeah, but I'm at a third-rate university." He didn't argue the point, and now I could point to numbers, largely bull-shit numbers, but significant for prestige, and numbers he'd credit more than either of us should since we both got our PhDs from a high-ranked school.)

            But the winner for me is in my new trade of Hollywood whore wannabe, or maybe more exactly Hollywood pimp, since I'm semi-officially a producer, and part of a producer's job is fixing up talent. (Insert joke here on complaints from pimps who don't want to be classed with movie producers.) I can go to Internet Movie Database-Pro — I'm "slaved" to my boss's account and don't have to pay for it — and check out STARmeter™ and learn that as of 10 PM Pacific time on 2 November 2013 and for about a week around that, Richard D. Erlich was #527,975 among pretty much all the people who've every been in the movie biz: "STARmeter rankings," saith the STARmeter™ portion of the site, "provide a snapshot of who's popular based on the searches of millions of IMDb users." In case you're curious, current #1 among actors: Jamie Dornan, whose Fifty Shades of Grey is about to come out as I write; current #1 actress: Chloë Grace Moretz, whose Carrie (2013) was recently released. Steadier in rankings — and STARmeter™ provides graphs — Angelina Jolie: 116; Sandra Bullock: 9; William Shakespeare: 9,859. (Being dead might get you off of Rate My Professor, but STARmeter™ has stricter standards.)

            "Know your place" was the advice given to subordinates for several centuries, and a lot longer than that counting the thought in languages that preceded modern English. In the first couple decades of the 21st century, and increasingly, we can know that politically our place isn't too bad if we have the education, time, and money to read and write blog posts; but if you're reading this you're certainly not among the 1% or so of people who really count: provides me with user data, and it's a safe bet really rich people aren't reading anything on and certainly not among the few — if tasteful, insightful, and intelligent — people who read me. 

            How few readers I get is also reported: another ranking.

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