Category Archives: culture

The Butcher, the Baker, and Bain?

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of jeff-for-progress.blogspot.com)

. Old adages die hard. Just consider the longevity of Adam’s Smith characterization of the self-regulating market as an invisible hand in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations. As Smith opined, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This sentiment, a persistent trope reverberating from one generation to the next, has become a center-piece of the American ethos as well as a mainstay of the Republican party. Nowhere is this more evident than in the on-going Republican electoral campaign. Thus, it is only by invoking the mantra of the invisible hand that Romney can criticize President Obama’s economic strategy, and get away with it, without having to lay out a strategy of his own. He claims to have the magic formula! So, instead of policy ideas, we hear the old refrain, “what’s good for business is good for the country,” or as updated by Romney, “What’s good for Bain is good for the economy.”

The Tooth Fairy  (courtesy of zazzle.com)

The Tooth Fairy (courtesy of zazzle.com)

Call me a skeptic, but having faith in the invisible hand today seems no different to me than believing in the Tooth Fairy. After all, no one can seriously claim that bankers, investors, and equity firms, such as Bain, were not pursuing their own interests when the economy went belly up. How else to explain that big business magnates increased their wealth dramatically in the wake of the 2008 recession, while those lower on the rung experienced calamitous losses. But this begs the question: if businesses were doing what they are wont to do, why then did the market fail to regulate itself? Might this be black magic?

Perhaps is is time to forego the rhetoric of the Republican Party and take a hard look at Smith’s long-standing dictum. To date, neo-classical economists offer little hope in this regard: Try as they might, they have yet to explain how individual actions at the level of the butcher or the baker translate into macro level outcomes, whether good or bad. Fortunately, some nontraditional economists, viewing the economy from evolutionary and complexity perspectives, have provided some promising new insights.

Robert H. Frank, in his book The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, addresses the issue of the invisible hand head on. As he contends, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, especially as it relates to the role of competition, is far more accurate about the nature of economic life than Adam Smith’s account’s in The Wealth of Nations. In Frank’s words:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, as it clearly does in a host of domains, all bets regarding the efficacy of Adam Smith’s invisible hand are off. Notwithstanding the uncritically enthusiastic pronouncements of many of Smith’s modern disciples, unbridled market forces often fail to channel the behavior of self-interested individuals for the common good. On the contrary, as the pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin saw clearly, individual incentives often lead to wasteful arms races.

Combining the wisdom of evolutionary and complexity thinking, economist, Erik Beinhocker points out that the equilibrium outcomes, associated with the invisible hand, are entirely unrealistic. As he notes in his pathbreaking book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, the economy is not a static phenomena, but rather a dynamic, complex adaptive system, which is subject to oscillations, power laws, and phase transitions. Moreover, outcomes, as traditional economists would have us believe, are not the product of predictable linear processes; instead, they emerge from the bottom up as the result of the constant interactions and adaptations that take place at all levels of the system. Hence, policy interventions–be they Republican or Democratic–may play a role in determining outcomes, but they are only one factor in a myriad of influences on the economic system.

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

rough_seas (courtesy of adpulp.com)

When the economy is conceived in complex, evolutionary terms, the present economic crisis makes a certain amount of sense, unpleasant though it may be. However, what makes no sense at all, given the complexity of the economy, is to blame Obama for the present state of affairs, as Romney so flagrantly does. To the contrary, in times such as these, when the seas are rough and the future uncertain, what’s needed is not someone like Romney, who flips and flops floundering with the waves in the hope that equilibrium will naturally follow, but rather a captain, such as Obama, who will be steady at the helm and stay the course.

Cultural Contradictions

In the primary madness of the Republican Party, much is made of the cultural divide between urban supporters of Romney, and rural supporters of Santorum. Meanwhile, an equally, if not more, consequential clash is occurring, which has received far less public attention. This is the growing conflict between cultural and economic values, a tension that sociologist Daniel Bell first pointed out thirty six years ago, in his classic book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

I was first introduced to Bell’s work when working at the Office of Technology Assessment on the study Intellectual Property Rights in the Age of Electronics and Information. In fact, the ideas he discussed in “Cultural Contradictions” provided the basis for my analysis of how intellectual property rights might be affected by a changing information environment.

Daniel Bell (courtesy of us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com)

Daniel Bell (courtesy of us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com)

According to Bell, society consists of three realms–the political, economic, and cultural–each governed by differrent values and norms, or as he put it, axial principles. Looking ahead, he predicted that, as electronic technology enhanced the value of information in each of these realms, they would be brought into increasing conflict. Looking at how these conflicts might be played out in the policy arena, our OTA study concluded that:

The resolution of these issues in an information age will be more problematic. . . .Given the variety of opportunities that the new technologies afford, the increased value of information, changing relationships among the traditional participants in the intellectual property system, and rising expectations about the benefits of these technologies, the number of stake holders with disparate interests and competing claims on the system will be greater than ever before. In such a context, the granting of intellectual property rights, instead of mutually serving a variety of different stakeholders may actually pit one against another.

This theme has been developed from a variety of different angles over the last several years. For example, in his book, The Cultural Economy of Cities, Allen J. Scot, lays the groundwork for further discussion, describing how the economic and the cultural realms have converged: as he points out, today, economic products now have greatly enhanced semiotic value, whereas cultural goods are increasingly capitalized for sale. Taken together, these products comprise a rapidly growing portion of the nation’s economy, and–as Daniel Pink contends in his book Whole New Mind:Why Right Brainers Will Rule in the Future, they are the new source of America’s competitive advantage. Richard Florida would presumably agree, having argued in The Rise of the Creative Class that today’s creators now constitute a class in their own right.

Ironically, the predictions about a culture/economic clash would seem to have proven wrong. What has happened instead is the colonization of culture by the economic realm, a point that I make in my paper, Creativity: The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. Whereas I make my case based on shifts in the architecture of the creative landscapes that allow economic actors to assume a defining role in the cultural realm, Lawrence Lessig draws a similar conclusion arguing from a legal standpoint. In his book, Free Culture he points out that, given the growing economic value of creative products, the danger today is that the laws governing the economy will come to encompass norms and activities associated with culture and creativity.

The Proof of the Pudding is in the public silence. The only place where one can see contention is in the Republican primary, where Santorum carries the banner of culture, while Romney touts economic profits.

Republicans in Wonderland

Alice_in_Wonderland  (Wikipedia)

Alice_in_Wonderland (Wikipedia)

Following the Republican Primary I feel that I am, much like Alice in Wonderland, trapped in a fantasy world full of bizarre happenings, none of which make any sense. “Curiouser and curiouser” is all I can say!

Like the unpleasant characters that Alice encounters along her way, the Republican candidates appear consumed by their own sense of importance. They contort their appearances, much like the Cheshire Cat, as they obfuscate and twist facts to suit the audience of the day. As Alice said to herself: “[They] look good natured, but [they] have very long claws and a great many teeth.” So behind the masks, Ron Paul the libertarian glad-hander is an angry bigot; Mitt Romney the conservative businessman is a closet social engineer; Gingrich the intellectual genius is unable to tell the truth; and Rick Perry the Christian preacher has forgotten about the word Love. Clearly, the candidates must have met the Duchess along the campaign trail, and taken her advice when she said:

Cheshire Cat (Disney)

Cheshire Cat (Disney)

Be what you would seem to be, or if you would like it put more simply–Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would appeared to have them to be otherwise.

Now then, how do we know where the truth lies? Certainly not by whose winning and losing. For just as Alice, upon drinking the potions and eating the mushrooms and cakes, vacillated abruptly from being ten feet tall to two inches small, so too the candidates, when imbibing the nectar of success, have had their sudden ups and downs.

The Queen of Hearts has the solution. A caucus, or better still a trial, she said. On the condition that there be no judges, Gingrich concurred. Quoting the Fury’s invitation to the mouse, he proposed:

Let us both go to law; I will prosecute YOU. . .Come I will take no denial; We must have

I'll be judge I'll be jury

I'll be judge I'll be jury

a trial; For this morning I’ve nothing to do.’ Said the mouse to the cur, Such a trial, dear Sir, With no jury or judge would be wasting our breath.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury, Said cunning old Fury: ‘I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.’

Such nonsense can be very irritating, indeed. Like Alice I hope to wake up soon from this bad dream. Fortunately, Alice shows us the way out. Reaching the limits of her patience, Alice regains her true size and stature, and then, standing tall, she speaks the truth to absurdity.

Rick Perry & The Return of Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry (monsterhunter.coldfusionvideo.com

Elmer Gantry (monsterhunter.coldfusionvideo.com

My mother, a young adult trying to get a handle on life in the chaotic thirties, was an avid reader of the works of social critic and Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. His stories satirized the hypocrisy of the time, be it with respect to religion, capitalism, the bourgeoise, or politics. Happy to share her books with me, my mother introduced me to Sinclair Lewis one summer when I was confined to a chair on the screened-in porch of our Lake cabin, recovering from a nasty foot injury. Although an antsy teenager at the time, I was happy to stay put, enthralled as I was by Sinclair Lewis. Now, many years later, I find myself sitting on the same porch, in the same wicker chair, struggling, much as my mother had, to make sense of the politics of our times. Then, in a flash seemingly from nowhere, I recall Sinclair Lewis, and the story of Elmer Gantry.
Sinclair Lewis (findagrave.com)

Sinclair Lewis (findagrave.com)

To fully appreciate the book Elmer Gantry it is important to keep in mind the context in which it was written. The year was 1926, a time of tremendous social and political upheaval arising in the wake of the First World War, which took the form of mounting economic woes, labor strikes, and violent racial confrontations. Fueling these tensions was an underlying intense cultural conflict in which a rapidly growing and increasingly vocal evangelical movement pitted itself against raucous, flamboyant, urban moderns, who personified what came to be known as The Jazz Age.

Life1926-02-18 (courtesy reading.cornell.edu/.../ gatsby/jazz_age.htm)

Life1926-02-18 (courtesy reading.cornell.edu/.../ gatsby/jazz_age.htm)

These two movements fueled each other’s flames, and intensifed their rhetoric, raising the ante for both. The stakes were exceedingly high–nothing less than sin and salvation on the one hand vs. freedom and autonomy on the other.

As described by Barry Hankins in his charming book, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars, the character Elmer Gantry, a narcissistic, opportunistic and–more often than not–ruthless Baptist (and later Methodist) preacher, epitomized the rise and confluence of these two seemingly contradictory social phenomena, which actually fed upon each other. An adherent of the evangelical tradition, Elmer preached the literal Bible; called for the renunciation of sin and salvation through a personal Jesus; advocated prohibition; and lambasted evolution. At the same time, Gantry’ behavior and rhetoric typified the individualist, anything goes, attitude of the roaring twenties. In contrast to his pious, dour colleagues, Gantry was a very charismatic figure; his revival meetings were major productions, exceptionally well marketed and carefully scripted and staged with music, costumes, props and gimmicks, all aimed to capture the hearts of wayward sinners. And not withstanding the many betrayals he carried out; the people whose lives he ruined; and the scandals in which he became involved; Elmer Gantry always came out on top. This cynical, no less than satirical, outcome might explain why the book was banned in Boston, and why, after its publication, Sinclair Lewis was threatened with imprisonment and death.

I had not thought about Elmer Gantry for years, that is, not until, late in the summer, when my husband read a newspaper article to me about Rick Perry. Perry, a Governor, had called upon Texans to pray for rain in their drought-ridden state. Not soon thereafter, and not long before the Iowa Straw Poll, and his presidential announcement, he hosted a ‘day of prayer,’which had all of the trappings of an evangelical tent revival. With God in his heart, he then sought to intimidate Ben Bernanke, by threatening to make life difficult for him if he were ever to come to Texas. On hearing this, I felt that I had met this guy before. But where? Of course; here again was Elmer Gantry. Didn’t Perry and Gantry both have the same modis operandi –charming on the outside, ruthless within. As telling, both are evangelicals first, citizens second. Both put religion over reason, leaving it to God to solve complex world problems, such as climate change. Both employ the Bible to dispute evolution. Both wear their religious faith on the sleeves, but rarely live up to it in their pugnacious, arrogant dealings with other people. Driven by their individual fervor, they both leave no holds barred.

In writing his satires, Sinclair Lewis intended not only to expose the hypocrisy underlying American society and culture, but also to make the country sit up and take notice, especially of the rising threat of fascism. His book, It Can’t Happen Here, reminds Americans that they too are subject to over simplifications, false promises, and rhetorical sway. The book tells the tale of how a a charismatic character, much like Elmer Gantry, or Rick Perry for that matter, might employ inflammatory rhetoric in the name of ostensibly religious goals to fool the public and build up a popular platform that can undermine democracy in the United States. Athough It Can’t Happen Here was written with rise of European dictatorships in mind, it is still a provocative read that can better help us understand the politics of today.

He Who Forgets History. . .

Paul_Reveres Ride

Paul_Reveres Ride

There is considerable irony in the fact that Tea Party groups have sought to legitimate their cause by choosing a name that evokes the Founding Fathers and the events that culminated in the writing of the Constitution and the birth of the Republic. For it is, in fact, these politicos who have conjured up and propagated a totally slipshod account of early American history. Of course, history is open to interpretation, and reinterpretation, but not to distortion of the facts. As Cass Sustein emphasizes in his book Republic.com 2.0, what’s alarming about today’s historical expediency is that, for many undiscerning people, it fills a gap in their historical knowledge, substituting fiction for fact.

Perhaps no one has gone further to link him or herself to the trappings of American history than Sarah Palin who, while coyly avoiding questions about her potential candidacy for President, undertook a bus tour of historical places as a means of educating Americans about their origins. (Presumably, if people understood American history, they would see the merits in Palin’s political positions) What hubris! The trip backfired, to say the least. Visiting the home of Paul Revere, Palin garbled the story of his ride, contending that Revere road to warn the British rather than the militia. When challenged by Fox News, Palin denied her gaffe, insisting that she “knew her American history.” So ended her tour, if not her presidential ambitions.

Palin is not alone in crafting historical events in accordance with her own political objectives. Speaking to the group Iowans for Tax Relief, Michele Bachmann claimed, for instance, that equality was not something that was contested and fought for, even at the expense of a civil war; rather, as she said, individuals, regardless of their origins, came to the United States and were treated as equals.

Slavery in America

Slavery in America

Acknowledging that slavery existed at the time, she contended that the Founding Fathers — especially John Quincy Adams–vowed to work for its elimination. No matter that a number of Founding Fathers–including Washington and Jefferson–were slave owners; that the Constitution counted slaves as three-quarters of a man; or that John Quincy Adams, a young boy at the time, was not a Founding Father.

Even more alarming than these individual cases is the formal rewriting of history, as in the recent case in Texas. Concerned that American textbooks veered too far to the left, the Texas Board of Education (comprised of ten Republicans and five Democrats) unabashedly voted to alter the American narrative to bolster a conservative perspective. Most outlandish of all, the Board voted to discount Thomas Jefferson’s role in providing the philosophical underpinnings of the new Republic, notwithstanding his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. As Fritz Fischer, national chairman of the National Council for History Education characterized it: This should not be a matter of partisanship, but rather of good history.

As George Santayana said, He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it. Might Santayana’s admonition provide a clue as to why Tea Party members, and others of their ilk, seek to distort it? I believe so. In fact, it would appear to me that today’s Conservatives would like nothing more than to return to a semi-mythical past when, according to their lights, life was much simpler, God prevailed, and Government was more circumspect. It’s time for a rereading, not a rewriting, of history.

Who Turned Out the Lights?

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

My father could not abide waste. To encourage my sisters and me to consume each and every crumb on our plates, he not only told us about “all the poor starving children”; he went much further, instituting the Clean Plate Club. Each time we finished a meal, we received a badge of honor–that is, a medal that he made by wrapping the cap of the milk bottle with tin foil. Sadly, the scales testified to the success of my father’s endeavor.

My father’s campaign to induce us to turn out the lights had far less impact, however. Exasperated by our failure to respond to his admonitions, he resorted to bribery. Leave it to a banker!

My father as a young man.

My father as a young man.

Leave it to a banker. He offered us a deal.

Here was the deal: If my two sisters and I would only turn out the lights, he would give us the difference between what the electricity bill was, and what it would have been had we simply clicked the switch. A no-brainer to be sure. My father’s efforts, however, were to no avail. Speaking for myself, it wasn’t a disregard for financial rewards, nor for that matter laziness, that fueled my resistance. No, at an age when one’s imagination runs wild, I found it reassuring to be ensconced in light.

Today, I feel the same way. Wherever I look, there are dark clouds overhead–the depressed economy, the BP oil spill, the war on terror, the rise of the Tea Party and the mid-term elections, and, oh yes, the slaughter of the bears in my beloved New Jersey. It’s time to turn on the lights!

Washington Revels (revelsdc.org)

Washington Revels (revelsdc.org)

However, having absorbed my father’s penchant for efficiency, and my husband’s concerns about the environment, I certainly don’t advocate wasting electricity. No, my recommendation is far brighter: a performance of the Washington Revels. A yearly event in Washington, the Washington Revels have used song and dance to reenact, according to one traditional narrative or another, how mankind has, over generations, endured the Winter’s darkness by celebrating one another in a spirit of good cheer and benevolence, as they await the return of the light.

So too, in our own lives today. Accompanied by a glass of good cheer, my husband Brock and I, rejoice in in the song Drive the Cold Winter Away. Verse seven is most enlightening, as well as one of my favorites. We’d be happy to have you join in.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
And neighbours together do meet
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet;
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the youth doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away.

Gone Fishing

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

My blog has been so dormant over the summer, one might wonder where I have been. To borrow a term from Tom Sawyer, I would simply say that, this summer, “I went fishing.”

The place was our family’s summer cottage on Hawthorne Lake, a community in the New Jersey Highlands established by my great grandfather, H.P Dillistin, together with his friends and relatives. Dating back, in fact, to Mark Twain’s days, it shares much in common with St. Petersburg, Mississippi, the town along the river where Tom Sawyer had his adventures.

Grandaddy Dillistin

Grandaddy Dillistin

Like the people in St. Petersburg, Mississippi, we have lived together in close proximity for over five generations, experiencing good and bad times, intermarrying, sharing common lore, befriending and sometimes feuding with one another, as in one big, extended family.

My own recollections of Hawthorne Lake are very vivid, dating back to the Second World War, when we spent the summers together with the wives and children of my parents’ male friends who were off at the front. So sparsely populated was the Lake at the time, we shared the waterfront with deer, beavers, muskrats and otters. And we children were much like Tom Sawyer and his friends, preoccupied with the adventures of exploring, frog hunting, cooking mud pies, turtle trapping, and looking for hidden treasures, totally oblivious to the raging events around us.

As in Tom’s case, one special past time was fishing; for the lake is home to many good fish–bass, pickerel, perch, and the sunnies that nip at you as you dip your toes in the water. As a young girl, I often accompanied my father fishing, rowing the boat as he wound reel and cast his line. It was a way of sharing with him, drawing him out, and perhaps getting hints about what was really going on in the world beyond the Lake. But my father was reserved with his children, and said little, as he waited for the fish to bite. I sat there patiently, watching the ripples wrap around the oars of the boat. But–not liking to eat fish, much less to skin them–I secretly hoped the fish would not take the bait.

No wonder I have come to believe that fishing is not so much about catching fish, as it is about capturing our thoughts and our daydreams as they float on by. So this summer, even though I was not sitting on the river banks, as Tom was inclined to do, I was fishing for ideas as I sat with my husband, in our wicker chairs, on our screened in porch, observing the world around me. Energized by LIFE, I am–as we used to say–now ready to roll.

Up, Up, And Away!

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

Up, Up and Away in my beautiful machine. Remember that song from Sesame Street? Driving to the lake in our new Ford Focus, I felt like I was flying high. Off we were to our summer cottage in the New Jersey Highlands, with two cars in tandem, both stuffed to the brim with our treasured possessions–our books, are tapes, our CDs, our cloths, and of course our dog Sparky.

A new car you say? You are environmentalists, non-materialists! How did that come about?

Well, we had been thinking about it for a long time. Although our 20 year old CRX si (the last of its make) had served us well, it had seen better times. As well, we were beginning to creak, just like the CRX, so it was harder and harder to take advantage of its sporty appurtenances. Nonetheless, we procrastinated, not wanting to let go of the happy memories and associations that our CRX evoked. As importantly, negotiating a car deal is intimidating; much as in the case of birthing a baby, we had to wait until the pain of the previous experience had subsided before trying again.

We had to wait until the pain of the previous experience subsided, before trying again

What helped to overcome our inertia was our desire to bring all our stuff with us on our vacation to Hawthorne Lake. No doubt, it would take two cars. Did we really need all this paraphernalia? Most likely not! But, as one might well imagine, even though we could not possibly read all the books, wear all the cloths, nor listen to all the CDs that we had packed, together they comprised a web of connections and affordances, which made it easier for us to carry out our routine away from home.

so many choices

so many choices

The subject of things continued to preoccupy me even after we had unpacked our cars, put everything in its place, and settled into our cottage on the lake. For once I was ensconsed in the old wicker chair at the end of our long screened-in porch, the first book I drew from my grand pile was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self.

Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s perspective on the role of things is quite unique. Unlike most sociologists, they are not focused on the relationship between things and status. Nor do they take an especially critical perspective of things, bemoaning the evils of consumerism. As significant, the authors rise above the technology determinism vs. social constructivism debate. Instead, grounded in the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, and the philosophical pragmatism of John Dewey, they view the interactions/transactions between people and and things as a two-way street.

Generations of Things

Generations of Things

Embodying past associations and psychic investments, objects convey symbolic meaning to those engaged with them. At the same time, the users of objects can extend that meaning by investing their own psychic energy in the object to pursue their own individual goals. Growth occurs in the process, with respect to both the object and the individual. As importantly, because objects embody meaning at three levels–the self, the community, and the cosmos–the network of objects with which we are surrounded help us to orient ourselves to function both as individuals as well as participants in a larger whole.

Our home at the lake epitomizes the narrative that Csikszentmihayli and Rochberg-Halton lay out. As they point out:

One of the most important psychological purposes of the home is that those objects that have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely those aspects of the self that one values are kept within it. Thus the home is not only a material shelter but also a shelter for those things that make life meaningful.

Crossepatch

Crossepatch

Built by my grandfather in 1908, our house at the lake is home to prized possessions that span five generations–the deer head over the fireplace, first edition books, the mission oak furniture, blackened cast iron pots, my mother’s rolling pin, my father’s fly rod, my childhood toys, my son’s tools, my grandchildren’s paintings, and–last but not least–our new car. They serve not only to link me back through the generations that preceded me; they instill in me the insight and impetus to keep our house and its environs in tack for the generations yet to come.

The World Turned Upside Down

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

My mother was a fine artist, always painting, sculpting, or making woodcuts. Although she maintained a studio-like setup in our basement, she and her work always seemed to make their way upstairs, giving rise to a world of clutter.

Worse still, as a youngster, I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable: knock on our door and you would fine a handsome women, wearing her red plaid flannel work shirt atop a pair of well-worn jeans, a pencil behind her ear, and the remains of paint and printers ink lodged under her nails. If that wasn’t enough! Just consider what was, perhaps, my most embarrassing moment, when I brought a school friend home for lunch, only to find my mother “cooking” her etchings on the kitchen stove.

I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable. 

Given my mother’s interest in art, one can understand why, as children, we spent a lot of time in museums, as well as browsing through the numerous art books that my mother collected. Whereas most parents spend a lot of time reading to their children, my mother spent much of our quality time sharing her thoughts about paintings and art.


The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

One of these paintings is still vivid in my mind–The World Turned Upside Down, painted by the Dutch Master Jan Steen sometime around 1669. Relating it to my own family life, and envisioning my world falling apart, I was horrified by it, so much so that the painting is still engraved in my memory. Of course, I now know that I needn’t have worried. As with most of Steen’s works, this painting not only characterized daily life in Holland; as importantly, it employed humor and allusions to proverbs, symbols, and myths so as to depict a moral parable. In fact, this particular painting became a trope in Dutch life, as burgers came to describe a lively, untidy home–such as the one I had been raised in–as a “Jan Steen Household.”  Still very young at the time, I was too innocent to appreciate the duality in Steen’s painting: I saw the chaos, but I failed to see the spirited activities that gave rise to it.

The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Revived during times of trial, this schematic of the world teetering on the edge of chaos has endured for centuries. Not surprisingly, it accompanied the revolutionary era, appearing first in England and then in the United States. (See Chris Hill, The World Turned Upside Down; radial ideas during the english revolution, Penguin Books 1991.) In 1643, for example, a broadside first published the English ballad The World Turned Upside Down, whereafter it was sung as a protest against Parliamentary policies, which sought to outlaw traditional Christmas Celebrations. Rumor has it, moreover, that American troops also played this tune during the American Revolution, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Most recently, the author/journalist Melanie Phillips has borrowed on this theme, attributing todays absurdities–such as climate change, the war in Iraq, fraud, bank failures, etc.–to a world run amok. According to her, science has been overturned by ideology.
Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Having become far more cosmopolitan over the years, I can now see the world in complex terms. What to earlier generations was considered a world upside down, now looks to me like a phase transition. Fortunately, for me, growing up in a bohemian household has helped me to deal with ambiguity, such as is depicted in the paintings and tropes I have mentioned. Better still–although there is no paint or printers ink under my nails–the way of life I learned from my mother has prepared me to follow in her footsteps, and enjoy complexity to the fullest.