As I write about pop culture regularly, I tend to spend more time thinking about trivial matters than I probably should. However, unlike those who obsess over whether Aquaman or Black Manta is the more worthless superhero, I do tend to have a point beyond pop culture trendiness. Not always, as a few of my gripes about science fiction films and tv show. (Eg. "More Off Topic Musings", "Very Off Topic Post", "Off Topic Comment on Science Fiction", "Ancient Astronauts (Off Topic Post)", "The Grammar Nazi Versus George Lucas"), but generally I do find some larger significance in the trends within our culture (eg "The Dishonesty of Avatar", "Credit Where Credit Is Due II"). Today I had some such revelations, all while engaged in two rather trivial activities. First, I was looking up the release date of "Rio" for my son. Second, I decided to look up some Amazon reviews for a trilogy I just discovered was a "sensation", about which I had never heard until today. (Hardly the first cultural trend to meet that description. I am horribly out of touch, and proud of it!)
The first, looking up "Rio", actually brought about two realizations, the second of which is probably the most significant of my thoughts today, so, to save the best for last, let me start with my other cultural dumpster diving, looking into the "Millenium trilogy".
For those unfamiliar with the "Millenium Trilogy", as I was until today, apparently it is a remarkably successful trio of books by a Swedish author (recently deceased), centering on a womanizing reporter and a genius hacker, who is also somewhat disturbed, yet also, apparently, behaves as an indestructible superwoman1 in at least one, if not all, of the books. I only discovered it exists because I looked up something on one of the many movie and television wikis2, and saw a link to the Millenium Trilogy Wiki. I recalled an entertaining (if highly flawed) television series of the same name, but was pretty sure it was not related. However, my curiosity got the better of me, and I ended up looking up the subject and discovered a supposedly quite popular trilogy of which I had never heard, and so, being curios by nature, I went to Amazon and began delving into the user review, concentrating on the 5's and 1's, as I find the extremes usually do a much better job of fleshing out my impression of a product -- be it book, movie, video game or anything else -- than the more tepid, balanced reviews.
There are any number of reasons these books are of interest to me. The leaden, tedious writing, for example, is hardly unique in our modern society3, does fit well with the premise of several of my recent posts on both the decline of standards ("In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"") and the lack of imagination brought about by our cultural obsession with the juvenile. ( "Faux "Realism"", "Our Complete Lack of Creativity ", "Hoist By Your Own Petard") In fact, the rather pedestrian, overly cliched4, characters and plot elements of the books seem to match that concept as well, though I must say the books do seem somewhat unique in one regard.
Many critics complain that only about a third of the book really has anything to do with the plot, while fully two thirds is either irrelevant back story or completely unrelated filler. Now, this is hardly unusual for many writers, what is unusual is that it made it to press. Books are expensive to print, and with the publishing industry doing rather poorly, fewer and fewer books go to press, and those that do have to usually have some sort of "mass appeal", which massive tomes rarely do. The trend today is the James Patterson "three page a chapter, easy to read on a flight or in the toilet" book, usually running between 150 and 250 pages, with some exceptions. That someone managed to ram this doorstop of a book through an editor, especially someone without an established name, is truly impressive, though perhaps he is more famous in Sweden, or editors there are more generous when allocating pulp. Still, I would have expected more cutting when it went through translation.
But that is my own irrelevant digression. As I was saying, it is not the bad writing or tedious, commonplace plot. Nor is it the cast of characters simultaneously laughable and boring, cliched and over the top. It is not even the fact that our society finds entertainment in a book which includes bizarre, violent, some claim misogynistic sex scenes, most completely unrelated to the plot, or the fact that unlikeable, sometimes detestable "anti-heroes" have become so common that I barely even bother to complain any longer. ("Tired and Annoying Theme", "IMDB Makes My Case", "Why I Hate Modern Humanities Departments", "The Ethical Dimension", "Brief Follow Up To Two Earlier Posts") What surprised me was the way in which all of these elements were defended when a pathetically small number of complaints were raised by the handful of readers who have not yet bought into our cultural trends, at least not fully.
The defense of the author is actually probably the best example I have found recently of the tendency to focus on intent rather than action, or intent rather than consequences.("With Good Intentions") Many readers mentioned that the books were filled with scenes of violent sexual encounters, as well as simple violence with strong sexual overtones, all directed toward women, and most having little or no connection to the plot. A few suggested the author was, in the words of one critic, "a sick puppy", and many more pointed out that it is troubling our culture would turn to such materials for entertainment, and, worse, would find such reading entertaining enough to praise the book so highly.
All valid criticism, except for those who focus on intent.
You see, the author was, prior to his death, some sort of feminist activist, strongly involved in "women's issues". According to one site I saw, he even claimed he wrote these books partly because, in his teen years, he witnessed a gang rape5, and was deeply disturbed by it. All of which might well be true, and yet does nothing to prove or disprove whether or not he was a troubled individual, and whether or not his writing revealed some personal issue. After all, many truly evil individuals have involved themselves in good causes, while still performing quite vile acts.
But that is of little importance. The author himself is secondary to the work, and the readers. Does it matter if the author is a feminist activist if his books appear misogynist to those who are not "in the know"? And does it make it less troubling that readers find these scenes of violence amusing? I recall a similar debate surrounding "Natural Born Killers." The argument was that it was disturbing how many found the movie "cool" precisely because of the, for the time6, over the top violence. The defenders pointed out that Oliver Stone was parodying such films, criticizing the way our culture claimed to deplore violence, yet the media had turned violence into a fetish. And perhaps he was. But it did not change the fact that his film was itself full of the same graphic, exploitative violence, and that many who watched the film did not see parody and criticism, but came to see cool violence7.
And that is the point of such criticisms, it does not matter what was intended, nor does it matter what the author's own beliefs were, nor how he lived his life. A book stands or falls on its own8. The reader sees violence toward women being treated as somehow sexually appealing, sees bondage and sexual violence being glorified, and sees the male protagonist treating women as some sort of public convenience for relieving sexual tensions. He draws his conclusions from this alone, not from the author's intentions. If the author wanted him to see these differently, he needed to include something to indicate as much, but clearly that was not done in these works. Even among the defenders, it was admitted that the only way to recognize that the author was not a proponent of rather violent sexual practices was to hold additional knowledge about his political and social beliefs.
Which is why this defense is both pointless and troubling. Pointless, because whatever may be true of the author, the reaction tot he book tells us about society only in terms of what was in the book. In other words, society -- or some subset which creates this sort of "international sensation" -- seems to find pleasure in sexual violence, and that is troubling. It matters not what the author himself believed, the readers by and large do not know that, they draw their conclusions from the work alone9. So knowing the author is still beside the point, as the readers' response is always to the book, and the contents of the book do not change just because the author's intent differs from the obvious intent of the work10.
And that is also why it is troubling. People who claim to be defenders of women, who claim to deplore violence are basically defending violent pornography because they like the politics of the writer, and think that others should dot he same. Somehow, they have managed to blind themselves to the fact that the writing itself is what matters, and instead have come to focus solely on the intent, or just the identity of the writer, and base their judgment on that alone. That is a tendency which has troubling implications11.
Which brings me to my thoughts from reading IMDB user message boards about the upcoming animated picture "Rio"12. Though I did not make the connection at the time, the first societal complaint inspired by this film matches almost perfectly the last few lines I wrote above.
As is almost inevitable when a movie is set in a foreign land, one of the first items on the message board was a complaint about too few of the people of that nation being involved in speaking roles. It is so commonplace, I almost ignored it, but this time I am glad I did not, as it led me to another thought. However, first, let me explain, for the sake of those who have not thought about the issue, the reason this complaint is so silly.
mainly, this argument is because it completely ignores the idea of "acting". Does everyone playing a Spaniard have to be Spanish? If so, does everyone playing a paraplegic need to be crippled? Everyone playing a divorcee need to be divorced? Everyone playing a guy named Sam need to be named Sam? You see the problem? How far do we go in requiring "accuracy"? Why can't a man from Duluth play a Brazilian? If I can play a single, gay atheist names Jack, none of which is true of me, then why not also a Brazilian, provided my depiction is accurate? Except for racial/ethnic politics and the love we have for quotas, why must Brazilians be played by Brazilians?
However, this particular argument was especially absurd, as it both over-simplified Brazil, and then offered up some very strange "solutions".
First, Brazil is a very big and diverse nation. Yes, it officially is a Portugese speaking nation, but like many nations in the new world, it was settled by a lot of different ethnic groups, and many remained relatively intact, creating enclaves of Brazilian Italians, for example. In addition, as the lands around Brazil were settled mainly by speakers of Spanish (with a few Dutch, French and English speakers thrown in), Brazil contains a large number of Spanish speakers as well, whose presence is especially prominent as neighboring Spanish speaking nations make it easy for them to retain their original language. All of which makes it very funny to hear the comments complain about using Spanish speakers to portray Brazilians, as there are a number of Spanish speaking Brazilians. In addition, the author then tries to act as if Portugese speaking Brazilians were all there were, which seems to show less respect for the nation he is supposedly defending than the movie shows.
But the truly amusing part comes when he draws up a list of those "well known" Brazilian actors and actresses he would suggest they use. The problem being, either the actors is well know, yet accent free, or else may have an accent, but has a name I have never even heard before. Which means he is suggesting the movie either use unknowns who "sound Brazilian", or else use famous Brazilian, or part Brazilian actors and actresses, who sound no different from most Hollywood talent, just to fill the Brazilian quota. And this in an animated movie, where voice is all that matters!
Just think of it this way. Would a movie sound more authentically Brazilian by using Morena Baccarin, Camilla Belle and Jordana Brewster? How so? You could hold open calls in Minnesota and probably get a cast which sounds every bit as Brazilian as that list. And so what would be the point? Other than fill some sort of Brazilian affirmative action scheme, which imagines any film about Brazil must cast so many stars whose ancestors at some time sojourned in Brazil. It is not as if "Brazilian" is even a racial category, or a religion, not even an "ethnicity" or "nationality" in the sense nationalists usually use that term. Brazil is a country and a variety of races and cultures have gone into forming it, but there is nothing distinct about coming from Brazil any more than there is something distinct about coming from Maryland or Ohio. I would never imagine there is anything distinctive about those descended from residents of Maryland, nor would I suggest a film about Maryland must include a percentage of those form Maryland, so what would be the point of doing the same for Brazil?
It just makes no sense to me. But then again, even the more plausible claims from racial and ethnic pressure groups puzzle me, so maybe it is a shortcoming of mine.
Whatever the case, this indirectly led to my final realization, one not much related tot he preceding, and yet one which I find quite fascinating.
When writing a response (which I never finished) to the comment above, I described the actresses I mentioned as speaking "California/mid-Atlantic neutral English". It is a clumsy designation, but it is the best way I can describe what has grown up to be the default accent of American films and television. It is influenced, clearly, by Californian accents, but as anyone who knows someone from California can attest, it is not purely California, if only by virtue of being more terse and faster than is normal on the West Coast. That part seems to arise from the second source, the media and news centers of Washington and New York, whose Mid-Atlantic accents have contributed the rest of our common accent. It works well as the accents of California (actually certain areas of California, as the whole state has a range of accents) are quite similar to the accent of the Mid-Atlantic. And, it has also benefited from the fact that, though New York has long been the home of television, the stronger New York accents have been consciously kept out of most programming, allowing more Connecticut-like, or upstate New York, accents to prevail, which are more similar to the rest of the Mid-Atlantic, and to California as well. And so we have ended up with a single accent used for most of our broadcasting and entertainment, similar to, but not identical with, the English spoken in the Los Angeles area, as well as along the strip running from northern Virginia to Connecticut, though excluding some regions of New York and New Jersey, as well as the more rural areas of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware (and the ethnic enclaves present in all the major cities13 lying in that region)14.
The reason I mention this is that my home, and everyplace I have lived throughout my life, has been located int he heartland of the Mid-Atlantic accent. And thus, when watching television and movies, listening to national news, and so on, I have never even noticed that there is a specific accent in use. Since everyone on television and in film sounded more or less like me, it just never struck me that there was a single accent being put forth as THE accent. To my ears, it was just how everyone spoke.
Of course I would notice when someone spoke with a southern drawl, a Boston accent or some other regional intonation, but that was the point. The Mid-Atlantic/California accent was the baseline, all other ways of speaking were "accents"15.
Which brings me to my point. It is interesting how many times we hear the left claim there is no bias in the news, and how many times we also hear conservatives claim they are lying. But this revelation made me rethink that position. Yes, some probably are making self-serving statements, but other probably do not see a bias. ("Interesting Phenomenon", "The Liberal Bubble", "Rethinking My Earlier Position") As I never noticed that there was a single accent in the media, because it was an accent I shared, many on the left may not see there is press bias, as it is the bias they share as well. In fact, it goes beyond that. Even those who do not share that bias, but who live in largely left wing enclaves, such as New York City, central Maryland, Washington DC, San Francisco and so on, may not see a bias, as the way news is presented is the same way those around them speak. To them, it is just the way facts are always presented and debated, not a bias.
This also explains why even modestly conservative news, such as Fox, or the more temperate talk radio shows, are portrayed as extremely right wing. It is not that the critics want to make them sound worse than they are (at least to liberal ears), but because the critics live in a very liberal environment, and have heard nothing but the same slant from the media, making even a balanced program sound incredibly right-leaning. It is akin to coming out of a cave into the light (or going into a cave after being in bright sun), the contrast itself makes the effect more intense. Likewise, the accepted liberal slant of the media, combined with the liberal bias in many communities, sometimes reinforced, or perhaps even instilled, by the media bias, makes conservative opinion seem much more conservative.
This even helps explain some things I never understood before ("More Conservative Media?", "The Conservative Media?", "Right Wing Media"), such as the complaints from some liberals of the "conservative media". Some, of course, are simply bemoaning the simple existence of Rupert Murdoch (hardly an exemplar of the right), or talk radio, but others, because they live in a very liberal milieu, mostly in universities, find the positions embraced by the media to be too far to the right. Without a range of opinions available in the media at least not until recently), the media was seen as largely monolithic, and taken as expressing the conventional wisdom and shared beliefs of America. And to those who agreed with those beliefs it reinforced those beliefs and made them think everyone, or at least the majority agreed with them. But for those to the left of the media, seeing the media as middle America, they came to deplore it as "right wing" unable to even imagine there were positions to the right of that liberal media. And thus, the absurdity of college kids and others decrying the conservative mainstream media.
There are many more things this helps to explain, such as the way that so many bad ideas, and strange cultural phenomena came into existence, and even thrived, during the dominance of the "Big Three" networks, as well as a limited handful of major motion picture companies. With the means of transmission for our common culture limited to a few small groups, it was easy for ideas to remain current even when they were opposed by a huge number of individuals, as the persistence in the media and entertainment managed to convince many the majority supported them, even when it was not true, and the persistent message that they were in the minority eventually wore down many middle of the road conservatives.
But looking into these ideas at length is far too much to undertake in a silly, "mixed bag" hodge podge post such as this. This is intended only to point out a few thoughts I had, maybe entertain or, hopefully, inform my readers just a little. Really thorough examinations take much more effort and time. And so, though it is a fascinating idea, let me leave this topic for now, and promise I will come back to it again soon.
Until then, please check out my old writing on the media, some of which can be found at "Some Thoughts on the Media", "The Press Versus The Nation", "The Death of Impartial Media", "An Adversarial Press?", "Reporters' Opinions", "The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting", "The Rebirth of Skepticism" and "Media Double Standards and a Proposed Solution", our universities at "The State Versus Universities", "Subsidies and Censorship", "Patronage Versus Choice", "Asking the Wrong Question", "My Censorship Is Your Discretion", "Publish Or Perish" and "Funding and the Corruption of Science", and on our common culture at "The Fascination with Change", "Uniqueness", "Juvenile Intellectuals", "Pushing the Envelope", "Trophy Spouses", "Cranky Old Man?", "Faux "Realism"", "Our Complete Lack of Creativity ", "Hoist By Your Own Petard", "Slippery Slopes", "Frightened for our Future", "The Adoration of Youth", "I Blame the Romantics", "Revisiting an Old Topic", "Changing Incentives", "How Fast Things Change", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "In Defense of Standards", "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"", "Deadly Cynicism" and "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events" . Hopefully some of those posts will prove as amusing or enlightening as I hope this one has been.
1. One critical review in Amazon deserve to be quoted in full, both for its criticism of the writing style, and the content:
I am currently on page 472 of 630 in The Girl Who Played With Fire. That means I am 75.07% finished with the book. I am typing this review on a black Labtec keyboard, attached to a 20" Dell monitor, hooked up to a gray Dell Latitude D630 laptop which is running Microsoft Windows XP Professional Version 2002. The Dell has a Intel Core 2 Duo 2.2 GhZ processor with 2.0 GB of RAM. This morning for breakfast I had a Chobani Greek Yogurt and a coffee. I was going to have Billy's Pan Pizza, but my local 7-11 was out. 7-f-ing-11 b****rds! I plan to drink 10 more coffees before the end of the day (at least 20oz each). Once I've successfully given myself an ulcer and an enema all at once, I plan on chain smoking in the hopes that it will help me fall asleep. If that doesn't work, I will spend the twilight hours committing various online (and sometimes offline) crimes related to: privacy, identity theft, bank fraud, tax evasion, breaking and entering, obstruction of justice, statuatory rape, and plain old cyber terrorism. After that's over I'll probably pop a few prescription meds and fall into a coma induced sleep until 1 pm or so, in my penthouse apartment of course which no one knows I live in. But it was expensive, let me tell you. I decked it out completely in IKEA. Only the good stuff like: Ektorp, Besta, Karlstad, etc. And its so awesome BECAUSE, despite the fact that I have several tattoos and piercings, am 4'11" tall, and weigh next to nothing, putting on a wig makes me COMPLETELY unrecognizable to anyone who may be looking for me or who has seen my face on TV or on the cover of every newspaper in Sweden. That picture they're using was taken 8 years ago and thanks to my boob job, I look TOTALLY different now. So my advice, if you ever want to avoid the cops in Stockholm, all you have to do is turn off your cell phone and wear a wig. Oh, and even though I'm only 4'11" and 90 lbs, I can beat up and subdue guys who are 10x my size with no problem. Sweet.It fails to raise the two other objections I saw repeatedly (graphic, violent sex scenes that had little to do with the plot and a male lead who is obviously the author's wish fulfillment character, as he seems to be a walking Tom Jones concert, drawing panties and room keys from every woman he meets).
2. I have forgotten which it was, but I think it may have been "Wookieepedia". Though since my son was watching cartoons this morning, it may have been "Bulbapedia", as sometimes I pay enough attention to Pokemon cartoons to wonder precisely what the back story is for certain characters. I don't know if that is a sign of being an endearingly doting father, or a man with absolutely no life.
3. Though I am no fan of Brett Easton Ellis (far from it), he did a good job of parodying the mindset which seems to lie behind this sort of "name dropping" writing in his American Psycho. Sadly, he seemed at times to indulge in the same sort of behavior he mocked, and not always intentionally. Sadly, many writers, like Ellis, who show occasional flashes of brilliant insight, especially early in their careers, tend to later in life fall into the very patterns they once mocked, and tend to be rather humorless, even hostile, should anyone point out this irony.
4. Only in our age could "sexually abused, emotionally scarred hacker uberwoman" or "womanizing, genius crusading reporter" be considered cliches, but thanks to both our love of the modern anti-hero and our culture's obsession with victims, the more damaged the better, such characters are more common than what once were the traditional cliches. And so, though they sound complex on paper, in practice they are nothing but carbon copies of characters found in a dozen other works, none of whom are particularly well fleshed out.
5. I found this whole bit a tad disturbing. I admit I do not know the details of this anecdote, but I am always leery of those who "happen" to witness rapes, murders, and other crimes. Generally, if you avoid criminals, you tend not to see such crimes. Yes, there are exceptions, there are innocent witnesses to crimes, but gang rape is a crime which seems especially unlikely to be witnessed by one not somehow involved with those committing the act. In this case perhaps there is an innocent explanation, or maybe the author made some sort of mistake to which he confessed, I have not had the interest to investigate. But in general, when I hear someone claim to have just happened upon a crime, I am dubious, to say the least. (Should my parents ever read this, yes I know my teen years were full of events I just happened upon. This is not a confession that I was a little dishonest as a teen, but I would have to say that perhaps you should reread the preceding paragraph before deciding whether or not I was telling the truth. Or, since I survived and grew up to -- eventually -- become a responsible adult and a good father, maybe you should just keep your happy memories and assume my innocence anyway, after all you no longer need to protect me from my own stupidity. At least not as often as you did in my teens.)
6. Sadly, in the short time since that film, our tolerance for violence has increased to the point where the film seems relatively tame.
7. It is not relevant here, but I always suspect those who claim to be critics writing satires or parodies know that they will also attract those they claim to be satirizing, and don't care. While adopting a high moral tone about deploring violence, I am pretty sure Stone knew violence seekers would account for a big part of his bottom line. The same for those who "satirize" and "parody" the "exploitation of women", yet do so by including scenes of nudity and sexual activity which are hard to distinguish from what they are claiming to criticize. For that matter, I wonder how much the feminist author in question recognized that rough sex was marketable to a certain demographic, and allowed his ethical standards to slip in favor of the bottom line.
8. I know Lit Crit types debate this ad infinitum, but I think for purposes of casual reading, we can agree that casual readers are not going to do deep research on the author and his life. So, for the purposes of what an average reader will find in a book, this pseudo-New Criticism approach works best. The book alone is the sole source from which the reader will draw any meaning. Yes, he will interpret it using some sort of shared cultural context, but in terms of original material, the book stands alone, the author's life, his actions, the context in which it was written, unless it is included in the material distributed in the book, will have no role in what the reader experiences.
9. Even those who know the author's beliefs must have some fondness for the sort of violence sex portrayed as well, as they are still happily reading a book which revels in such activities, whatever the author's beliefs. If the most saintly man int he world wrote a book, but the book was full of graphic violence, crass and profane language and graphic sex, would it be a defense of the readers that the author was a saint? Or would it be more likely the readers who enjoyed the book were the sort who enjoyed cursing, sex and violence, rather than the knowledge of the author's saintliness?
10. At one time films about "lewd" topics were sold as public health films. Later, both nudity and graphic violence was sold as "anthropology" in "studies" of nudism, or in "mondo" films supposedly exhibiting odd behaviors from other cultures. However, does anyone think the audience, knowing the supposed purpose, saw those films differently? Saw them as public health or anthropology? Or did they see them as pornography and exploitation, as they were? Similarly, anyone reading and rereading about sexual violence for entertainment is not doing so because the feminist author wrote it as social criticism. We may suffer through something unpleasant because of our beliefs once, but we do not commit our free time and our pleasure reading to enduring the unpleasant because of our ideals. Anyone reading about rough sex is doing it because they find it somehow pleasing, whatever the political views of the author, or the intent of the work. (And no, this does not apply to cases where villains do bad things in books. In those we endure the villain's villainy because we know the hero will set it right, and because we are not asked to empathize with the villain. In these works, the protagonists are as involved in rough sex ad everyone else, making it something we are expected to accept, even embrace, as the audience identification figures find it normal, even pleasing.)
11. This is hardly new. For example, compare the Clinton hearings to the Thomas confirmation. When a woman came forward years later to make unsubstantiated claims about Clarence Thomas, women's groups came forward to ask "Who would lie about rape?" When women came forward years after the fact to make largely (though not completely) unsubstantiated claims about Bill Clinton, those same groups tore those women apart. As in this case, it seems the identity, in this case the political leanings, of the accused matters more than anything else. (To be clear, there was much, much more evidence in the Clinton case than ever existed concerning Clarence Thomas. However, when writing this, I was thinking of a few specific accusers who came forward with little physical evidence, and were pilloried by members of NOW and a host of other women's groups, despite their claims a few years earlier that there was simply no way a woman would ever lie about such things.)
12. Just to be clear, as far as I can tell at the moment, I have no objections to the film "Rio" itself. My thoughts here solely derive from the comments I read on message boards, and so these criticisms are not of the film, they just happen to have been inspired by people writing about the film.
13. The rural accents are actually becoming more like the urban and suburban accents as "smart growth" and other building restriction push the suburbs into the rural areas. (And also as mass media reaches into the more rural areas in ways it did not 60 or more years ago.) Similarly, many ethnic enclaves are no longer so isolated, or possess distinctive accents of their own. For example, while the Italian-American enclaves of New York and, especially, New Jersey maintain a distinct accent thanks to their strong identity, Baltimore's Italian and Ukranian communities are very assimilated, as is its Jewish community. (Again, unlike the many insular Jewish communities of New York. Though in New York, many secular or reform Jews maintain a separate identity as well, though it has little to do with their religion itself. But that is an interesting topic for another post.)
14. It is hard to define the area which possesses this Mid-Atlantic accent, as the states involved are quite diverse. For example Maryland is nominally southern, but as any resident cant ell you, those living in the 95 corridor, between Baltimore and DC, and along the strip between Baltimore and Annapolis, feel they are northerners. And their accents and behaviors agree, as do the accents of many living in the DC suburbs of northern Virginia. On the other hand, the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, and southern Maryland are quite similar to the tidewater of Virginia (in behavior and culture, not in accent), and fit well into a southern designation. But, moving westward, though a few parts of western Maryalnd resemble West Virginia, for the most part it is more similar to Ohio or northern Kentucky, more "Ohio Valley" than southern. And Maryland is hardly alone, Pennsylvania and New York have similarly diverse natures, even Delaware is hard to categorize. So, for our purposes, let us say that the Mid-Atlantic accent is the one spoken by the middle and upper classes (for the most part) along the 95 corridor, in suburban and urban settings, from Washington to Bridgeport, excluding those urban communities with strong ethnic or national heritages. It is a clumsy definition, but it is the best I can do. (Note that the I-95 corridor is not the only area where the accent exists, there are many other areas where it can be heard, but if we are defining the accent, it is heard all along 95, sot hat makes for a convenient definition.)
15. Actually, this is not completely true. My maternal grandmother grew up in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia and retained some of the accent. I can't do it justice in print, but for her the word "red" had almost two syllables, one of them containing a long "a" sound. And, as did many Marylanders, especially those with Germanic ancestors, certain short "a" sounds seemed to accumulate additional "r" sounds, turning "wash" to "warsh" and "water" to "warter". (Though I did not possess the horrible Marylandism of turning "crayons" into "crowns".) It was not a thick accent, but my mother had it as well, and I noticed I possessed some of it as well. And so, at age 10 or so, I made a conscious effort to eliminate those sounds to sound more like those around me at school and those with whom I played. It wasn't that anyone had made fun of my accent, I simply did not like the sound, and wanted to adopt the more neutral, proper pronunciations. So my accent, though a copy of many Maryland accents is not completely natural. (German enclaves, especially in Baltimore possess a number of other distinctive linguistic traits, such as turning "s" into "z", such as the word "zink" for "sink". And the lower class in Baltimore possesses an even more elaborate set of distinctive pronunciations and grammatical structures. To give just one example, visiting the beach at Ocean City, Maryland is referred to as "going down the ocean" which sounds to those hearing it a lot like "goan downy ocean".)
I want to mention one more time, I have not read the books I criticized above, nor, obviously, have a seen the movie I mentioned. I said this before, but I want to make it absolutely clear. My opinion about the books comes from reading a combination of negative and positive reviews, from which I think I have a pretty good idea of what the books contain. It is, obviously, a bad way to review a book, and if I were writing about the book as a book, I would certainly force myself to read the books themselves, probably multiple times. But this is an essay on our culture, not the books as literature, and so, the reaction of readers to the books is actually more important than the books themselves, and I definitely have a very good grasp of the reader reactions, as I spent most of today reading samples from the several thousand reviews posted on Amazon for the three books. So, if anyone had read the books and thinks I am mistaken about them, go ahead an let me know, but don't believe it will alert my conclusions, as the specific contents, unless they differ radically from what was said by a combination of critics and defenders, are irrelevant, it is how people view those contents that matters, at least in terms of analyzing our culture.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2011/03/28.