APRIL 9, 2012 9:51PM

Meditation on a SNAG

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         Before the Monica Lewinsky affair at least, Bill Clinton was known in some circles as not just the first Baby-Boomer president but also the first SNAG: "Sensitive New Age Guy," someone capable of saying, "I feel your pain" and actually kind of meaning it.

         "I feel your pain" became a generalized cliché — applied beyond the AIDS context of Mr. Clinton's original comment — and I react to it by snapping back that politicians don't feel the pain of the American people, that they can't: to do so, literally, would destroy them.

         I didn't want people in power to feel my pain or anyone else's; I wanted and want them to do something about it.

         In a way, that was a strange position for me to take.

         The centerpiece of my dissertation was Shakespeare's King Lear, and I was in the tradition of seeing feelings as central to the play.

                                                       Take physic, pomp;

                       Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

                       That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

                       And show the heavens more just.

I.e., if there is to be any justice upon Earth, it will come from humans, most especially humans in high places learning compassion for the wretched, feeling at least enough to give said wretches a share of their excess wealth.

          (That an early-seventeenth-century, fairly conservative English royalist like Shakespeare is to the left of a fair number of current US Republicans is a point I'll just mention and move on.)

         King Lear is a hard-nosed, brutally honest, highly logical play, with a gooey sentimental center: If the source of all evils is the combination of pride and greed and malicious cruelty, the counter-acting good stems from compassion: feeling with others.

         But the compassionate people in Lear don't yap on about it — "Love, and be silent" — and by the eighteenth century sensible, literate English folk were being taught to be highly suspicious of "the Man of Sentiment": the sensitive guy who felt (he said) all the right things.

         Other reasons for my suspicion of all the right feelings included my having done hospital work and admiring the emergency room staff. These were people who had to encyst their feelings to get the job done, and did.

         More personally ….

         Well, I'm a good listener, partly because loss of runs in my family, and I figured out early on that I too, would soon enough lose the upper ranges, and I'd better learn to listen carefully. (That steady look I give you when I'm talking to you is in large part my watching your lips and facial expressions for cues.)

         Anyway, by the time I was nineteen or twenty I had a reputation as a good listener, and all my adult life the damaged, needy, and occasionally neurotic tracked me like a Stinger missile going after a Zeppelin.

         Still, in my teaching and even some personal relationships I've been far from a SNAG or nurturer.

         An illustrative story: One day, a student came in for a conference, and before we got started I said, "Before we get started — thank you for that comment in class today! It was really nice.

         She said, "Then you're not angry?"

         I said something smooth and sophisticated like, "Huh? Why would I be angry?"

         She said, "I thought you were angry with what I said; I thought you disagreed."

         I said, "Well, in theory, if my courage held, I'd die defending that principle."

         "But you argued with me."

         "Uh … they pay me to do that. In all my courses, but especially in a writing course, I'm going to press you a bit on what your evidence is, how you can support your assertion, where you can go with it —"

         "You should have told us," she put in. And I paused and thought for a moment and said, "Yes; you're right; I should have told you."

         And the next time the class met, I told them.

         When I was a freshman, I assumed my teachers would argue with me; and if I wasn't bullshitting, the argument would be fun. Or if I was bullshitting competently — well enough for a more professional bullshitter to be entertained — the argument would be even more fun, at least until the instructor outmaneuvered me and taught me a trick or two.

         I grew up in Chicago; I was trained to argue — at home, at school, in the schoolyard: trained to argue politely, usually, but energetically and (always, in part) for sport.

         Nurturing, I wasn't trained in. Not in the classroom. Not for the undamaged, non-needy, and/or non-neurotic who weren't homing in on me for a surprise during a conference (including one suicide threat).

         It was a matter of proportions, but as time went on in my career, fewer students wanted to argue — or even put the effort into competently pulled-off bullshit — and more wanted reassurance.

         And this meant less enjoyment for me in my teaching, and somewhat lower evaluations from my students.

         The "fit" between me and my students decreased, and their enjoyment also decreased.

         And I put it the way I intended with "me and my students": I'm not a SNAG; my feelings are primary for me, as is my (very closely related) sense of integrity.

         I continued to work hard at my teaching until I retired, because teaching is what I did. It wasn't immediately important if I liked or disliked my students. From the beginning I graded "blind," with only the rarest exceptions not knowing whose essays I graded; so I was free to respond humanly to my students and like or dislike them as I felt. Insofar as I had to grade (and grading and sorting is a major function of schools), I graded essays, not students.

         So that was one reason I was suspicious of The Man of Sentiment: I wasn't very good at sentiment, not in my profession.

         I also wasn't good at sentiment in my political activities and didn't see that much of it. "The personal is the political" started out meaning that one should avoid hypocrisy and take care in dealing with those around you in the Movement, not just the abstract masses. How can people "Who care about strangers / Who care about evil / And social injustice" be such assholes to their friends and associates? Easily, apparently; I'm fair-use quoting there a song from Hair (1967), so the phenomenon has been recognized.

         I tried to avoid being an asshole in politics, as did most people; but some guys and gals I worked with in "The Movement" and later did a good job looking after the interests of strangers and serving social justice without caring much about, say, my feelings. And I preferred such insensitive Lefties to unctuous politicians full of caring and other things, but who didn't deliver.

         George W. Bush was the unSNAG and anti-Clinton — with none of the "kinder, and gentler" sentiments of George H. W. Bush. That's an extreme I can also do without, plus, of course, I didn't like GWB's policies and politics. Barack Obama, when in professional Presidency or Chicago politician mode, is more to my taste: "No drama Obama," cool and unsentimental.

         It's nice if people like one another; it's necessary to be able to aid the damaged, needy, and often neurotic. And compassion is a major virtue.

         Still, there's much to be said for loyalty, professionalism, integrity, efficiency and getting jobs done, without schmaltzy mouthing all the right sentiments, without displaying all the approved feelings. 

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