Christmas & More About School

I love Christmas. All of it. Carols. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Tacky Christmas decorations. Elevator music. Crowds. Lights. I don't much care about being stuck in airports overnight. But otherwise, I'm a big fan of just about everything to do with Christmas, spiritual and commercial.

I mention this because I get tired of the either/or mentality attached to so many things in our culture (like Christmas). I don't know where it comes from; I've run into it more since I returned to college (alongside phrases like "exclusive" and "hegemonic"). Not accepting an either/or mentality means you are naive since you don't grasp how truly divisive and class-oriented and exclusionary everything is. It's all rather pompous and tiresome.

I can't blame it all on the academics. I run into it other places as well. I can remember, several years ago, listening to some talkshow host going on about the horribleness of Disney, and how exposing children to Disney will damage them for life. This is a theme you will hear from conservatives and liberals. Disney is corporate and sexist and monolithic and the characters wear skimpy clothes.

I rolled my eyes. I watched Disney as a kid. And listened to Disney records. I also read Grimm, Perrault, Lang, Andersen (who I don't care for) and a host of other fairytale collectors/writers. Why choose? Why limit yourself? I certainly don't eat only hamburgers or only pasta--if I'm going to read fairytales, why deliberately limit my understanding and then get all angsty over it?

I feel the same way about the people who think you have to choose between the spiritual aspects of Christmas and the commercial aspects. And people who think that you can't like pop culture and classics and Elvis Costello and Shakespeare and T.V. shows at the same time. Who are these people?

They do exist. In one of my academic classes right now we are discussing "those people" (the great and terrible THEY!)--cultural arbiters who create canons and cultural programs. But instead of trying to understand the arbiters' motivations, their intent, their mentalities, we label them "hegemonic," "exclusive," "imperialistic" and well, that takes care of them now. But we ourselves never get behind the labels and the either/or mentality, never try to understand such cultural arbiters at the same time we are trying to understand people who resist the arbitration. Yesterday, we discussed Oprah's bookclub; the professor seemed more bothered by the idea of Oprah "arbitrating" a "classic" like Faulkner than interested in what Oprah's motivations might be, placing those motivations in their particular context and discussing whether, in fact, those motivations might be meritorious. We received no historical background to the rise of "middlebrow" culture (some of which I happen to know since I'm researching it for my thesis); placed nothing in its time frame; did not address the issue of personality development versus character development (thank you, Joan Shelley Rubin). Instead, it was more linking-things-together-and-insisting-on-similarities. (This is the class where I get accused of relativism if I want to avoid linking stuff up and accused of Jungian universalism if I want to insist that good literature actually is good.) But then, we spend a lot of time in this class coming to terribly profound conclusions like, "We are affected by our culture when we read books!"

I'm back on academe again. Either/or-ness isn't just an academe thing, although in general, academe does seem to be more obsessed with drawing neat lines between things than any body of people I've ever meant. Perhaps these people have always existed, and they are attracted to the academic environment because it enables them to draw lines around things. I suppose fundamentalists may be attracted to fundamentalism for the same reason. And extremists on both sides of the political continuum. But it does seem ironic to me that the people who beat their brows over Western civilization are so unwilling to construct a different framework for examining things. The language may have changed since the 19th century, but until we abandon our desire to label the past, we will simply be reissuing similar orders in a slightly different accent.


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