Sunday, December 14, 2014


Stephen Sweeney, via Wikimedia Commons
The New York Times is currently running a series of essays, under the heading “Menagerie,” about the relations between humans and animals. I’m interested in the word “menagerie,” its relationships to other words, and what those connections among words suggest about the liaisons between the creatures themselves, ourselves.

The French word ‘ménagerie,’ a collection of wild and exotic animals, comes from the word ‘ménage,’ meaning household. ‘Ménage’ can also refer to a sexual relationship among the members of a household.

But words are related not only by etymology but also by association. When I see ‘menagerie,’ I think of ‘ménage,’ then ‘ménage à trois.’ And then, because I love French, I begin to think about merry-go-round horses and Edith Piaf.

“Tu me fais tour-rrrr-ner la tête. Mon manège à moi, c’est toi.”

This is Piaf singing about a lover as “my merry-go-round” in the 1958 song “Mon Manège À Moi.”

“You make my head spin. My merry-go-round, it’s you,” the translation goes.

‘Manège’ means riding arena, a ring where people ride horses round and round. It can also refer to the ring’s amusement-park equivalent, the merry-go-round.

Because menagerie refers to animals, because merry-go-rounds often consist of horses (plastic or metal though they may be), because ‘manège à moi, c’est toi’ sounds like ‘ménage à trois,’ I at first thought that ménage and manège were the same word. In the song, Piaf—well, actually lyricist Jean Constantin—equated the two. Her ménage, her relationship, was her manège, her merry-go-round, her thrill.

But no, they are different words with different roots. ‘Manège’ comes from the Italian ‘mannegiare,’ to handle. It’s based on the Latin word for hand, ‘manus,’ and the idea, I suppose, of maneuvering horses in the ring. 

But how does ménage relate to menagerie? Consult Le Petit Robert, the very thick yet somehow abridged French dictionary, and you’ll find that ménage, in its modern usage, has no animal association. Yet menagerie comes from this root. Is a menagerie a household for animals? Or are houses—and relationships—cages for people?

It turns out that centuries ago, the word ménagerie, at least in French, did have an animal connection: it referred to the running of both household and farm. Along those lines, there is such a thing as a house-barn, where farm animals live in the same building as their owners, conserving body heat. A ménage can be a menagerie.

‘Ménage’ is derived from ‘mansio,’ a Latin word for house or dwelling, and that from the Latin verb ‘maneo, manere,’ meaning to remain, stay.

Thousands of years ago, humans didn't remain anywhere for long; they moved with the beasts they hunted. Dwellings were accordingly temporary. Why stay in any one place unless the animals—and more generally, the food supply—do so, too? With fenced in animals and crop cultivation came more permanent homes. The development of ménages and menageries went hand in hand. 

Thinking of nomadic cultures brings to mind another vagrant, human-animal coexistence: the circus. A circus is collection of people and animals unique and amazing. It involves captive animals, yet it is not sedentary; it migrates, equipped with both cages and tents.

Circus was the word Philip Astley, known as the father of the modern circus, used for a riding ring. Thus the circus began, literally, as a manège, for trick riding, and later grew to include other acts, other animals. A circus is both manège and menagerie.

I once bought a t-shirt showing two birds perched together in a birdcage with its door wide open. The idea, the street vendor explained to me, was that the birds could fly away but chose to stay together in their birdcage (birdhouse?).

As I see it, the chief difference between a ménage and a menagerie is that in a human household, people choose to stay, while captive animals have no choice. There are grey areas in both domains, however. Humans who could quit their ménages at any time feel many pressures to stick around. As for animals: though you might rightly call indoor pets “captive,” they don’t necessarily want to run away.

The message of the Piaf song is that the singer is so enthralled by her lover that she feels no need to rove. “Je ferais le tour du monde; ça ne tournerait pas plus que ça. La terre n’est pas assez ronde pour m’étourdir autant que toi.”  (“I could go around the world and that wouldn’t turn more than this. The world isn’t round enough to stun, or dizzy, me as much as you.”A merry-go-round is, in part, a way to experience the feeling of covering distance without going anywhere, and the merry-go-round relationship is a stationary thrill. The motion of the manège, however metaphorical, enables the stability of the ménage.

When the cage door is open, my fancy flies pretty far and returns with diverse ideas for me to assemble. I want them all in my menagerie. They make my head spin.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Postmodern Chivalry

This is the second article in the "Too Much Independence?" series about social atomization in the US. 

Meet a Postmodern Knight
On the Fourth of July, I went to join a friend, Emma, for dinner at the home of two of her friends. The minute I walked up to the Park Slope stoop, Emma pulled the cushion out from underneath her and gave it to me and also proffered her plate and knife. In this small but symbolic way, she took care of me not after she was situated comfortably but at her own expense. “I hate to see people hungry,” she commented later that evening, once we were all seated at the dinner table inside. Emma is a rail-thin vegetarian runner who loves food and revels in the sensations of hunger and satisfaction. Yet I wonder if other people's hunger pains her more than her own. 
Emma is, in a word, chivalrous. In the spirit of a medieval knight, she puts others before herself. She's also a rarity. The vibe coming from Emma is such a different one from that of other students and young professionals I have known. I think the focus on independence and individuality in the US today has caused people to regard chivalry and altruism, which were once seen as laudable character traits, as unrealistic and irrational.
Emma and others like her prove that altruism is possible. It may not, however, be consistent with the packed inflexible schedules and obsessions with measurable self-improvement that characterize so many people today.    

"Organization Kids" and the Decline of Chivalry
In a 2001 Atlantic article, David Brooks characterized what he called  “organization kids,” the elite college students who work all the time, sleep little, and make appointments to see their friends. "Often," Brooks wrote, "they don't get serious [about romantic relationships] until they are a few years out of college and meet again at a reunion—after their careers are on track and they can begin to spare the time.” The particular kids he was talking about were undergraduates at Princeton. Yet zealous personal striving is not unique to college students; many working professionals are also this way.
            The organization kid, as Brooks describes him, avoids controversy, confrontation, and politics because they get in the way of the smooth running of things. “They are disconcertingly comfortable with authority," Brooks quoted Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow as saying. "They're eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty puts in front of them, eager to conform."
            Brooks’ article was written before September 11, 2001, written before the Great Recession, before Occupy Wall Street. For this generation of kids, as Brooks said, “there have been no senseless bloodbaths like World War I and Vietnam, no crushing economic depressions, no cycles of assassination and rioting to foment disillusionment. They've mostly known parental protection, prosperity, and peace.”
I am of the same generation as the students Brooks interviewed, and even during Occupy Wall Street, I didn’t let the protests happening in my city (New York) distract me from the obligations of school and regular exercise. I didn’t see how my participation in the protests would change anything about society, whereas I knew that my individual efforts could make a difference in my own life. Moreover, I was quite sure that neglecting my personal responsibilities would have measurable negative effects. Participate in social affairs to no definite societal reward and the possibility of personal harm? To someone who prioritizes the self, it just doesn’t make sense.
            In “the Organization Kid” piece, Brooks compared the Princeton class on which he reported to classes of the early 20th century, which, he said, were encouraged to follow a “chivalric code.” Brooks quoted a 1913 speech by then Princeton president John Hibben urging graduates to heed “the human cry of spirits in bondage, of souls in despair, of lives debased and doomed.” Nowadays, we are encouraged to avoid getting involved with such souls who may drag us down with their “drama.”
For fun, imagine a knight's to-do list:
  •       Help those in need
  •       Be generous to everyone
  •       Defend honor
  •       Take care of horse, etc.
You get the idea. This is not the schedule of an "organization kid." When your job is to help those in need it's impossible to be organized—you can’t organize the world—and likewise it's impossible to help everyone in need and maintain one's schedule. I’m not just talking about actual medieval knights, of course. I’m talking about people who believed in chivalry, such as the past Princeton leaders Brooks cites. Of course organization kids are less chivalrous than past generations. 
            Brooks claimed that today we don’t teach our children character or talk with them about morality. Although today's Princeton and today's parents impose all sorts of rules to reduce safety risks and encourage achievement, they do not go to great lengths to build character, the way adults and adult institutions did a century ago.

Barriers To Ideals
I would say that we were taught that ideals are too simple to be true and that morality too often veers toward moralism. We have a natural skepticism toward all things warm and fuzzy. It’s difficult for me to even speak in idealistic terms without scare quotes. The right thing becomes "the right thing," implying that there's more than one way to live and that no one way is completely right. People of my generation have grown up with the idea that there's very little anyone can do without causing someone else harm. It's always a choice between two evils, and you try to choose the lesser one. Today people accept that every time they turn on a light, they contribute to global climate change. People live with the idea that things you do with a positive goal in mind also have a negative side; for example, frugality, a positive ideal, means buying inexpensive goods, which comes at a cost to the people earning not-enough money to make the cheap products. On the other hand, even refraining from materialism, not buying crap at all, cheap or expensive, can hurt the people who can no longer be employed to make the stuff you're refraining from. 
We are all enmeshed in human society whose unfairness has been pretty well uncovered. It's hard to try to live according to ideals without feeling like a hypocrite. Maybe in the 60s, people thought an ideal world was possible. That's just not the way we think today.
 Susan Sontag was a bit more blatant about the decline of idealism in her 1996 afterward to Against Interpretation and Other Essays. “Instead of a utopian moment,” Sontag wrote, “we live in a time which is experienced as the end—more exactly, just past the end—of every ideal. (And therefore of culture: there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.)”
I don’t know what Sontag meant by “true culture,” but she recognized (in 1996) the decline of altruism and the sense that ideals are "unrealistic." “Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, ‘unrealistic,’ to most people, and when allowed—as an arbitrary decision of temperament—probably unhealthy, too.” Her seriousness, I think, means deciding what’s right, what separates right from wrong, good from bad, okay from great, in life and in art, and proceeding according to those ideals. That seriousness isn't gone from today's young people, but I think that some large part of what people are serious about is keeping up appearances. 
For example, students today are serious about getting good grades out of the fear of failure and rejection. But are they serious about the material they are studying? An example of unserious scholarship: In high school, a teacher who wanted me to join the academic team once described how I might need to study lists of great books and their authors; it wasn't necessary to have read the books, just to know trivial information about them. I was not interested. Or to take an example of my own lack of seriousness: in college, where I studied biology, I was very interested in doing lab research my senior year. I loved experiments and liked molecular biology but I didn't have any specific research interests beyond that. I expressed interest in working in the lab of an immunology professor not because I cared particularly about immunology but because I had already done an internship in the lab of an immunologist and I thought the experience would give me an edge. I pursued success rather than science. An academically serious science student would not disregard the larger questions: What is this research ultimately about? Are the questions this research is trying to answer the ones that I want to pursue in my life? I have much more admiration for the student who decides they want to learn about Alzheimer's because their beloved grandmother died of it and they want to help people like her than for the student who wants to get good grades and succeed at things.

The Role of Empiricism
In a 2013 column in The New York Times, Brooks revisited his collegiate character assessment and suggested that the perceived decline of idealism might have to do with the rise of data. Brooks quotes from a student of his at Yale, Victoria Buhler, who describes what she calls “the Cynic Kid”: “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.” These empirical tendencies could explain why our generation is less political than those before us.
Because we are only willing to do things with a tangible effect, because we are wedded to cost-benefit analyses, we stick to self-improvement, actions whose effects we can measure.
Try to analyze how your choices will affect the whole world and the results will be fuzzy, leaving you back where you started, acting on faith and hunches. If you require measurable ends to justify the means, then it’s hard to argue for faith in ethics—or in love or in anything. 
It is unclear to me whether the trend toward empiricism has made people less idealistic and more self-centered or if people are more interested in data because it appeals to their self-obsession.

The Benefits of Altruism
What Brooks calls chivalry, biologists refer to as altruism—according to Merriam-Webster’s second definition, “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” For example, altruistic bacteria infected with a virus kill themselves to stop the pathogen from spreading to other bacteria of their species. Altruism does not pass an individual cost-benefit test, but it does help a group.
As everyone knows, helping people is gratifying. A New York Times Magazine article about a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Adam Grant, whose research has found that people who believe that they are helping others are more motivated than when they are working to help themselves. They’ll raise more fundraising money at a call center when they know how much the money benefits its recipients; they’ll wash their hands more thoroughly when they think of it as a way to keep others healthy. Grant is obsessively devoted to his students. He's no roving disorganized knight, though; his schedule is packed; his chivalry involves packing it fuller.  
In my opinion, altruism is a big part of why families function, when they function. I think that kids thrive in part by making their parents proud and that parents get up and go to work with thoughts of their children. I think parents make dinner with a starch, a meat and a vegetable for their families when, on their own, they would eat PB & J or cheese and crackers or Lean Cuisine or their cultural variety of easy food. On the other hand, family devotion can also go too far, swallowing up individual identities. Think of the parents who willingly subsume themselves in their kids, and the kids who lack a sense of identity apart from their parents' expectations. Still, I think a lot of good comes from thinking of the other people in your family and having them there to think about. Pets and plants play an analogous role.  

Some Faith Required
The good news is that being altruistic really isn't that complicated. My friend Emma is not Mother Teresa; she's not a saint; she's a real person. In her generous behavior, Emma sees herself as just being polite. And I think it’s true that a big part of chivalry is manners—traditionally, manners governing the behavior of men toward women. Built into those manners is the idea that people should take care of each other: “After you”; “ladies first.” At the dinner table, manners dictate that you offer food to people around you before starting to eat, which is a formal way of making sure that everyone gets fed. As manners become ingrained in people, so does altruism. Though hopefully it won't go entirely unexamined, altruism is blessedly simple. It is based on the faith that putting others first is the right thing to do, the correct thing, not in the empirical sense but in the moral one.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Too Much Independence?

This post is the first in a series of articles about social atomization in the US.
“Fasten your own oxygen mask before assisting others,” they tell you on airplanes. If you black out for lack of air, the logic goes, you won’t be able to help anyone at all, so look out for yourself first. Theoretically, the oxygen benefits should sort of trickle down—the instructions are rational—but I find it hard to imagine a mother who would not strap the lifesaver to her child’s face first.
The self-centered oxygen-mask instructions have become the standard approach to life and relationships in the US today. Accumulate a stable income of your own before starting a family. Put education and career before friendships and dates. If you do pursue relationships, make sure that they stand up to a cost-benefit analysis. Prioritize individual responsibilities over politics and causes.
It is a time when many people, of all economic classes, are struggling for air. From the Occupy Wall Street protesters who want jobs and places to live to Ivy Leaguers whose ideas of being situated involve university tenure, law-firm partnerships, establishment in top hospitals, etc., it seems as if everyone wants to move up; nobody is settled. It’s as if life has become a permanent state of emergency to which people respond by focusing on themselves. Not helping the situation is the tendency toward the collection of data on everything from SAT points earned to steps walked and stairs climbed; these empirical leanings place quantifiable personal achievements over imponderables of great importance, including such fuzzy abstractions as morals and ideals.
Taking care of oneself has become the cause and the struggle.

The Turn Toward Independence: A Shifting Cost-Benefit Analysis
Being independent is more important than it once was. In the past, women largely depended on men for financial support. A relationship was key to a woman’s stability. Now, at least in the Western world, unless the relationship leads to marriage, it risks undermining a woman’s individual stability by stealing her away from school and work.  What once was key to security is now a threat.
In the much-discussed New York Times article about “hookup culture,” or casual sex, among college students, reporter Kate Taylor described young women at the University of Pennsylvania as regarding “building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn.”
 “We are very aware of cost-benefit issues and trading up and trading down,” Taylor quoted one student, “A,” as saying of relationships, “so no one wants to be too tied to someone that, you know, may not be the person they want to be with in a couple of months.” Another interviewed student saw her plans to go to law school as a blockade to starting a relationship in college.
I’m not interested in the sexual preferences of college students, nor do I think that one can extrapolate from news stories about the dating styles of women at Ivy League schools to US women in general. What interests me about the hookup culture articles is that they are an example of the way people prioritize individual achievements over relationships.
Young people not only defer dating; they also postpone marriage and childbirth. At the time of a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 21 percent of Millennials (people who came of age around the millennium and were 18 to 29 at the time of the survey) were married, as compared to 29 percent of people of Generation X and 42 percent of Baby Boomers at the equivalent age, according to a Pew report on Milliennials. People also have children later and more often resort to assisted reproductive technologies, whose use doubled in the last decade, according to the CDC.
In delaying childbirth to establish themselves financially and professionally, parents subject reproduction to a cost-benefit analysis. A woman weighs the costs of declining fertility with the benefits of the career advances and savings that another full year at work could provide. Childbearing becomes a deliberate, rational act, as opposed to sex itself, which, despite whatever rational conversations about children may have taken place between partners, is in the moment, a sensual, intuitive thing. I certainly don’t say this to encourage unprotected sex and unplanned pregnancies; rather, I want to make the connection between rationalism and having children later in life.
Granted, weighing the costs and benefits of relationships is not a new thing but an old idea leftover from the days of marriages arranged to keep money in the family. The difference today is that the conclusion of the cost-benefit analysis is not "marry someone else" but “stay single.” New or not, the problem with these cost-benefit analyses is that they discount what can’t be measured, things like warmth of feeling and love, things that require a certain faith or reliance on intuition. Maybe relationships don’t make total sense. But do they need to?

Independently Poor
The employer-employee relationship has also weakened and turned to its own version of hooking up: part-time employment. Hiring a cohort of part-time employees gives a company the benefits of having employees they are needed without the cost and commitment of responsibilities like paying for health insurance or contributing to retirement funds. Part-time work, often without benefits, is on the rise according to The New York Times Economix blog and other sources (though the rise described has to do with the Great Recession and not necessarily with a longer-term trend), and many of those who work part time do so not by choice but because they cannot find full-time work.
More generally and beyond the most recent recession, with the widening gap between rich and poor and the decline of middle-income jobs, people can depend less on their employers for economic security. Globalization did away with the idea of US factory work (à la Ford Motor Company) that paid a living wage. Downton Abbey-style live-in help (though of course Downton Abbey doesn’t represent the US or reality), in which families of servants counted on employment and room and board from wealthy families, is relegated to television and the homes of the unusually rich. Call it the employer-employee relationship or call it the relationships among the economic classes: the relationship between the rich and poor is dysfunctional.  The weakening of class distinctions may give some people a chance at the American dream; it may also make life harder for those who remain on the lower rungs of the workforce.
On both individual and societal levels, we are failing to cooperate and work together. Much of this probably has to do with the Great Recession and scarcity of resources—in case of an emergency, fasten your own mask first. But as I’ll discuss in a subsequent post, there was a time when altruism, or helping another at one’s own expense, was an ideal to which even the elite college students were encouraged to aspire, whether or not doing so made sense. A state of emergency was a time not to hunker down but to stick out one’s neck and demonstrate one’s chivalry. In this time of too much independence, the ideals of chivalry and altruism have weakened.
There’s a cost to this tendency toward independence. Less dovetailing of lives. Loneliness. A sense that everything important depends on what happens to you and the resulting anxiety. Independent striving alone doesn’t account for anomie and similar complaints, as I’ll discuss in a subsequent article. Post-modernism, cynicism, and a preference for hard truths over ideals also contribute to the way things are, and no list of factors will ever fully capture culture.
I have no prescription for changing the way we live and certainly don’t want to return to a previous era. My only exhortation is that people not discount the immeasurable benefits that relationships of all kinds can bring to our lives.