July 30, 2012

Thank you,

thank you, Mr. Romney. No one else could have managed to unite the country so completely with a few disobliging sentences. All the PR gurus and advertising mavens and feelgood experts must be chewing their arms off with rage, since no campaign they could have devised would have done the job more efficiently.

Mr. Romney, I suspect, does not understand quite a lot of things. The one thing he really does not comprehend is that Britons are the only ones who are allowed to bitch and grouse and grumble about their own shortcomings. The British have a slightly odd habit of taking a twisted pride in thinking of themselves as a little bit crap. Britons moan and groan about their football team crashing out of tournament after tournament; they know they no longer rule the waves; they understand very well that the tube and the NHS are a bit of a shambles.  Mr. Romney clearly has no time for the shambolic; he dreams of the coming American century, the shining city on the hill. They know their city will always be a little dusty.

But just because Brits take an almost perverse pride in the crapness of everything, adore to complain, and indulge in heavy irony rather than Pollyanna-ish sanguinity, it does not mean that anyone may come in from the outside and tell them how feckless and pointless and hopeless they are. That is their job.  (Obviously not every last British person will subscribe to the shambolic sentiment.)

Within hours of Romney talking of the British public’s lack of enthusiasm for the games, calling poor old Ed Miliband ‘Mr Leader’, as if he were a character in Star Trek, and saying he had just looked out of the ‘backside of Number Ten Downing Street’, seemingly unaware that backside means arse in British English, the hashtag #romneyshambles was trending on Twitter. Outside, the British public was crowding the streets, hanging from lampposts as the Olympic torch went by, roaring with approval in Hyde Park as Boris Johnson said ‘There’s this chap called Mitt Romney who wants to know if we’re ready. Are we ready?’ I thought; I think they are ready.

Good old Mitt, with his extraordinary lack of grace and shocking manners, has added vastly to the gaiety of nations, and to this one in particular. They may criticise themselves as if grumbling were itself an Olympic sport, but when an outsider doubts them, they rise up like tigers. As Churchill said … we will defend our island. The Romneyshamble jokes came thick and fast, and everyone seemed to decide dear old Blighty might be able to put on a party after all.

I suddenly realised that, for all the fumbles and missteps (I do think that getting a hamburger chain to sponsor a sporting event is quite odd), it is damn well the greatest show on earth and this crumbling old island nation might just do it proud.

Watching the happy crowds, I felt oddly patriotic. Thanks to Mitt Romney, I became fired with Olympic zeal and Corinthian spirit.
Go, Team …

A gloomy day today and I did not take the camera with me. Here is a nice picture of a great horse and rider instead to get you in the Olympic mood.

 Mary King on Imperial Cavalier, Getty Images

July 2, 2012

What is a Lady?

When I wrote about "The Fabulous Madonna” one of the Privilege[d] Anonymous wrote to say that I wasn’t one. Wasn’t a lady that is.

And I haven’t forgotten. It bothered me, despite the typographical errors. Even now, career had, family fortune fading, I hope to be a lady.

Wait. What is a lady, after all? Why do we care? Given the emotional charge, I am going to bet that ladyhood can still matter. However, I do not think we can locate its meaning without some deconstruction. Without some stakes in the ground.

Random Internet sites say ladies can’t wear wrinkled clothes, they don’t like airport searches, and they don’t have dirty hands or feet. Silly and as easily ridiculed as those statements may be, they point to a larger issue.
My thesis is that the term “Lady” has become so colonized by different interests that we need a revolution if we are to continue to use the word.

    1. arch. A woman in family relationship, either daughter or wife, to a lord. “Lord,” defined as a man given a title and land-holding by his king. Lords were the upper class, ladies the women of that class. (The Apocryphal Privilege[d] Dictionary)

In the centuries since the term originated, lordship, the signs of upper class status, and the role of women have all changed beyond recognition. The constants which originally defined “Lady,” floated, leaving the term itself vulnerable to misuse.

I hope that there’s still reason to aspire to being a lady. I hope social class status brings with it certain standards of behavior and taste, but I also wish that women weren’t held to different standards than men. I wish the term gentleperson had prevailed in place of “Lady.”

When Social Class Was Rigid, and Lords Were Lords centuries ago, it was easy to keep track of who was a lord. Whoever the king said was a lord, that’s who. Eventually, it became possible to enter the upper class in other ways, at least in America. ‘All men are created equal’ meant you too could become a lord. Of sorts. George Washington decided against an aristocracy for the United States. Thanks, Mr. Washington.

Centuries ago, it was also easy to keep track of who was a lady. Married to a lord? Done. Have a castle? You’re probably a lady. Horses? Optional. Pearls? Depends on the plundering abilities of your father, or husband. But once America did away with lords, the idea of an American ‘lady’ entered free fall.  What Do You Mean, No Lord?

If being a lady means belonging to the upper class, now, several centuries after the American Revolution, women are ladies independent of their father, or husband. Took a lot longer than freeing men from their fealty to the king, but there you go. It was tough to participate in revolutions before birth control.

So this is where we have to use another charged term. Feminism. We have to say it. Whether one feels feminism is a good thing, or not, one cannot deny that women may now determine their own position in class structure. Women don’t have to enter the upper echelons attached to a man. It’s 2012. I’m not talking here about feminism and private relationships. That’s your business. I’m talking about social class. The two things are separate.

If You Can’t Find Her Title, Look For Her Necklace.  So if we aren’t ladies because of our men, what’s left? Is a lady simple a woman with a lot of money? They say class in American can be bought. But here I wonder do we even want to tie the concept of a lady to the usual class parameters – income, wealth, education, background? If not, and I vote not, we should look for over-reaching principles.

I vote not to tie the concept of lady directly to the concept of upper class precisely because the concept of upper class in America is still in free fall itself. Can class in America be bought? Is America a meritocracy?  Are education, sophistication, good manners required? Or are we all about power? Those are bigger questions than I am qualified to answer. Everything I say here is true. I don’t know if it matters. Let us say that the upper class is privileged, and leave it at that. For now.

Let us say that ladies act as though they have learned what privilege can teach. A privileged upbringing should enable us to live up to some sort of ideal. Because if amassed resources don’t move us towards whom we believe we should be, then wealth creation and privilege are nothing but greed. I don’t want to live my short life believing that human beings organize their societies all around greed. Even if it’s true.

Is ladyhood about the stuff, then?  Yes and no. One of the results of privilege is often a discerning style, a taste and aesthetic. The desire for beauty sits in our human core. As soon as we can eat, we paint. Or sing. Or dance. Sometimes even when food is hard to come by. Aesthetics do matter, and we hope that a privileged experience of all kinds of beauty develops our larger understanding.

Ladies should appreciate the spirit that moves people to art, and should look to broaden, deepen, and refine their love of things beautiful. The ladyhood aesthetic translates to clothing, and house decor. Ladies, in my opinion, should have a sensibility for style. I could be wrong. But let’s say I’m right.
There are two problems with style and ladyhood.  Personal taste is just that, personal. Of course, I will always feel that my taste is best. It is a certainly a marker of my upbringing. I apologize in advance, we like to apologize prophylactically.

It’s a huge leap from preferring Modigliani to Matisse to the idea that ladies, by definition, must wear matching pearls. Pearls in their beauty I applaud. Pearls as a signal of a certain set of political and gender role beliefs I do not care for quite so much. Lists of ladies’ style often pretend to be about taste, or associated social class, but slip in too many gender expectations.

The principles of “ladylike” remain inferred, unstated. To define ladyhood, let’s take a risk and say some things out loud.

A lady acts the way someone who has no excuse for bad behavior or bad taste ought to act. And the taste part should run a distant second to behavior. Aesthetics are not ethics.

How Do Ladies Behave When They Don’t Have A Castle Any More?  I suggest that the primary marker of lady hood ought to be consideration for the human social contract. A deep understanding of the balance between social context and beliefs on which you will not compromise. When interrupting a speaker is a necessary statement of your self, and when it’s just rude. Good manners are important, protocol only matters when and where protocol is called for.  Consider others’ feelings, particularly those less fortunate than you. Respect the mores, values, and protocols of the cultures in which you find yourself. There may be several.  Try to do the best job you can at any task you undertake. No matter the reward.  Develop an aesthetic. Seek out, support, wear, hang on your walls, the best creations of your fellow humans.  Deserve the resources you amass.

What Does Not A Lady Make?  Political affiliations do not a lady make. The concept of lady hood ought to have weight beyond politics, beyond what have, quite frankly, been conservative definitions of women’s roles.

Being a good person does not a lady make. You can be a good person without respect for the social context, or a honed aesthetic. But not, in my opinion, a lady. It’s much more important to be good. But good is a bigger question than lady, and one I’m no more qualified to address than anyone else in this life.

Wealth does not a lady make. But you knew that already.  I applaud the concept of ladyhood, especially when we understand that one can be deeply, achingly good without ever approaching “Lady.” I fear the concept of ladylike. Ladies can take power. No fair using the threat of not being a “lady” back us down from years of progress. No fair co-opting a term, one that could have broad meaning, in order to further sectarian goals. Or we risk implying that women are forever, de facto, lower class citizens.

My maternal gandmother. Was she a lady? As far as aesthetics, yes. As far as the rest of it, she tried her best. We all fail to reach our ideals now and again, or else they aren’t ideals.