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    In which our protagonist decamps to the intersection of Rant Avenue and Harangue Boulevard

    I remember Anne Lamott’s column in Salon’s Mothers Who [Over]Think column from years ago, though I never happened on her stuff otherwise. That was clearly a blessing. Ann Althouse has a gloriously derisive post about Lamott’s new LAT column about her recent trip to India. Seriously, not even Forster, after a week-long bout of dyspepsia, could have devised a traveling heroine who was this fatuously un-self-aware.

    Equally seriously, my tiny but dedicated readership, if I EVER ONCE write about my life in Japan or travels in Asia in a fashion this exploitative and patronizing, you are to form a posse among yourselves and kick me in the head until I stop moving.

    Uh-huh. That bad.

    I’ll just cite the two bits I can bear to deal with in my post-brunch mimosa haze:

    But after a few days on the subcontinent, I came to the unshakable belief that we will have decent enough healthcare reform, and soon. What’s going to help America rebound from Bush/Cheney is what saved and saves India — love, nonviolence, a lot of help, radical playfulness and perspective. I saw Indians living in spaces the size of my bathtub, giddily colorful amid the squalor and deprivation, making themselves beautiful and focusing on what they do have.

    When I get ready to travel around the globe, I tell the people of my church how afraid I am and ask for prayers, for safe flights, for travel blessings and for avoiding death by snake bite. My pastor always reminds me gently that when you get on the plane, it’s a little late for beggy, specific prayers — rather, it is time for trust and surrender.

    Okay. Lots of people find flying scary, and it is true that once you’re strapped in, you’ve surrendered control of your safety for several hours in a way that you haven’t when you’ve boarded a bus or train. Point taken.

    But only to a degree. The reason most of us are willing to get on planes is that people who didn’t just accept, with good humor, our lack of wings were willing to push aviation forward, at great (often fatal) risk to themselves, to figure out how planes could take off, be kept in the air, land, and hold increasing numbers of passengers safely. Without the insolence of human inquisitiveness pushing against the strictures of nature without accepting them, Lamott wouldn’t have gotten as far from San Francisco as Chico between the day before and the day of the Massachusetts election.

    I know this is going to sound corny, but I turn into a little boy again whenever I board a plane. Once we’re at cruising altitude, it’s time to gripe about the nearly-unpotable wine and the cramped toilets and the bad movies and the dry air and such. But takeoff and landing, when you’re physically immersed in the reality that generations of stored knowledge have led to your ability to sit with several hundred people in a machine that can fly—that’s the stuff of magic. Or it used to be not so very long ago.

    I am not trying to argue that Lamott is wrong to say (implicitly) that Christian faith is compatible with the enjoyment of the multifarious gifts of Western culture, but I will say that what she mostly relies on to get her flights from here to there is not “trust and surrender” but brassy human inquisitiveness and the refusal to accept our natural lot. If she really wants to be trusting, she can always build herself a natural reed boat and try using it to get from San Francisco to, say, Chennai.

    All this matters because Lamott goes misty-eyed over the ways poor Indians “[focus] on what they do have,” without seeming to notice that those coping skills mean a lot more to them than they do to her. For her, making do means recognizing that your side sometimes won’t win politically, or that jet lag might make you run into the glass door of a coffee house when you return to your pampered American existence, or shrugging it off when a monkey pulls some of your dreads loose. To the people in India she’s talking about, though, it means accepting your bathtub-sized space as home and not breaking your own heart over and over and over again by pretending that you can ever find a way to move beyond it. Call me a nit-picker, but those things strike me as just the eensiest bit different.

    Of course, the problem with freeing people with nothing to demand the right to something more—whatever they have the wherewithal to achieve—is that they may not want what you want them to want. Mouthy proles back here in the West have the damnedest way of asking whether taxes really need to be raised or that new sun-darkening behemoth of a health-care plan really needs to be put through. Better to avoid awkward issues like that altogether by focusing on the noble, exotic poor of distant lands, who can be left behind with their mysterious thoughts once the plane takes off.

    11 Responses to “In which our protagonist decamps to the intersection of Rant Avenue and Harangue Boulevard”

    1. Marzo says:

      I’m not going to read that column (life’s too short); but, if I felt mischievous, I could say from your quotes that she is suggesting that, in order to gratefully accept Obamacare, a level of contentedness comparable to that needed to be colourfully happy in the midst of Indian-like “squalor and deprivation” will be neccessary. Which ferocious enemies of said plan would perhaps find ever so slightly hyperbolic.

    2. Rondi says:

      Ugh. Such condescending nonsense (from Lamott — not you!). It reminds me of that great post on Stuff White People Like about “knowing what’s best for poor people.” http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/02/10/62-knowing-whats-best-for-poor-people/

    3. Sean says:

      Yes, Marzo, I wondered about that, too.

      Rondi, another relevant one is Being an expert on your culture.

    4. Sarah says:

      As someone who quite often gets mistaken for a noble savage because she comes from a Latin-language country that’s quaintly screwed up — urgh. Just Urgh. (on Lamott, of course.) Urgh. People like this tempt me into being sarcastic, which — as you know — I never am otherwise. My favorite is when they tell me how wise and compassionate my culture/tradition must be. No, seriously, they do. Oh, bother. I rarely can come up with answer to that one.

    5. carolyn says:

      This post was as well-written, incisive and heartfelt as Ms. Lamott’s column was staggeringly narcissistic and (yes, I’ll say it) racist. Speaking as a white liberal, I find her brand of white-liberal racism — the kind that expounds on how “noble” and “beautiful” these poor brown foreign people are — to be particularly offensive.

      On a less-inflammatory note, I especially loved what you said about flying. I feel the same way every time that plane takes off, that combination of fear and wonder that this incredible feat of gravity-defying engineering was actually accomplished by human beings. We humans can really kick ass when we try hard enough. ^_~

    6. Sean says:

      Well, Carolyn, it’s not unheard of for a certain kind of conservative to get all mushy-wushy over the simplicity, spirituality, family-centeredness, a-materialism, and imperviousness to evil pop culture of the poor, especially in developing countries. They don’t have as many outlets for expression in the major media, but they can be just as gratingly mawkish about it.

      And while I think Lamott was, certainly, working the wise-brown-people angle, it’s possible she would have said similar things about holler-dwellers in Appalachia (as long as they weren’t too devoutly Christian).

    7. Sean says:

      Now, Sarah, don’t kid us. We all know that, as a Hot Latin Chick, you’re incapable of sarcasm or irony. But that’s not a problem, of course, since your graphic forthrightness and tempestuous sensuality are an inspiration to all of us Northern people trapped in our iron-butt, soulless little worldview.

    8. carolyn says:

      That’s a good point — makes me wonder what my banjo-playin’, ‘bacco-chewin’ great-grandpappy the West Virginian coal miner would have made of such fawning over his Zen-like life in his plumbing-less shack on the mountain.

    9. Sarah says:


      You are a baaaaad, baaaaad man. Makes me proud to know you. :)

    10. Julie says:

      The comments on the LAT column are hilarious. The comments were, indeed, so enjoyable that I feel compensated for the time lost to reading the column itself.

    11. Sean says:

      Sarah, I’m an angel. Everyone knows that.

      Julie, yes, they are. I actually thought the column was highly entertaining in its own right—I wish I were a nicer person sometimes—but the comments are fantastic.

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