This post won’t be nearly as cute as the title suggests.
The subject matter is, however, oddly related (heh) to the title. Kentuckians are known not only for their tradition of incest but also for their tradition of stubborn self-reliance. Farmer Uncle and Stoner Aunt share the latter Cumberland cracker value in a bad way. It’s a bizarre value to hold when one has finagled a couple hundred grand in free money from relatives and friends to turn a farm into a shantytown and run it into the ground, but logical consistency is of little import when one can just make shit up all the time and never get called out for being a mendacious fuck because that would totally harsh our mellow, man. It’s said that a stopped clock is right twice a day, and it seems that Eastern Kentucky last wound the clock during the Buchanan Administration, but Farmer and Stoner don’t worry about schedules and shit. They’ll be right when they wanna be right, they’ll be wrong when they wanna be wrong, and it’ll be everyone else’s responsibility to get with the program right now or incur redneck assholiness and royal butthurt. Does anybody really know what time it is? (Time to make the payments on the secondary mortgage.) Does anybody really care? (The Rosshole cares.) By the way, to really tenderize this horse carcass, I just checked my watch, and it looks like it’s the Adults’ Hour.
Much like That Old Time Religion, not to mention That Old Time Knowledge of Blood Relations (it’s called “knowledge” because they like them some King James in them thar hills), the grand dipshittery surrounding the management of the farm has become, for pretty much everyone involved but me, just kind of the way things work around here. (You know you’re dealing with subnormal asshats if that’s the only justification they can offer for the rules they’d like to enforce.) Think of it as a cultural form of adverse possession: we squares are paying for it, or having it paid for in trust for us, but the dirty hippies have been squatting on the moral ground for so long that we’d probably have to go to court to evict them. My dad is planning to take a close look at the joint this summer and try to flesh out a plan for cleaning up the mess, but it looks like it’ll be tough going.
Here’s what I find alarming: even though they recognize serious problems with the manner in which Farmer and Stoner have been behaving, my parents have come to reflexively make excuses for them. As far as I know, they don’t do this for anyone else. They certainly don’t for me. They aren’t hardasses by any stretch of the imagination (for one thing, if they were, they wouldn’t have all that money tied up in the farm), but when they have the feeling that I’ve fucked up again they aren’t reticent about telling me that they think I’m on the wrong path. They don’t stumble all over themselves trying to make excuses for me.
Where Farmer and Stoner are concerned, they’ve plunged headlong into the quagmire of moral relativism. One of the bizarre things about this dynamic is that they’ve given Farmer and Stoner quite a bit of money, especially over the past few years, but they, not the beneficiaries of their largesse, are the ones being so brazenly manipulated. This is not, as far as I can tell, a manifestation of the psychology of prior investment; God knows they’ve given me a lot of money, too. I’m convinced that they’re operating on a much deeper, more refined emotional level. They aren’t ones to use money to manipulate other people, and even if they become alarmed that the alms they’ve given have fallen into a sinkhole, they don’t really take offense. (They’ve been good at avoiding this, up to a point, by not giving money to the Aliens.)
The prospect of fractious relationships, however, can put my parents into a state of frantic anguish. They are openly scared out of their minds at the prospect of my stirring up trouble with Farmer and Stoner and causing collateral damage to the family, even though what I’m trying to do is to respond to serious provocations on Farmer and Stoner’s part. Their attitude is that of the pacifist rending his garments at the thought of guns, guns! being used to retake Fort Sumter. I’m trying to proceed thoughtfully and cautiously here, but the circumstances are dire and a number of these disputes are manifestly not my fucking fault. I am not going to take the blame for any of it unless I’m conclusively shown that I fucked up in a way that a reasonable person responding to the same circumstances absolutely would not. The way Farmer has been acting for the past four years or so and the way Stoner has apparently been acting to some extent for her entire life are inherently provocative, and I am not about to let them martyr anyone else for making a good-faith effort to bring them to heel when they’re beyond the pale. We may be Christians, but there’s no reason for us to become Christ. Any passion needs to be on them.
That’s a nice ideal, in any event. My parents seem determined to first try martyring themselves in the hope of mollifying a couple who they agree can be provocative shits. They aren’t masochists. They’ve just been cornered by two people they love who have spent decades pretty much getting what they want through various forms of emotional aggression and lately have been turning up the heat. Like my parents, I’ve usually been conciliatory to the point of showing Farmer and Stoner inappropriate deference in the hope of keeping shit from hitting the fan. My parents appear to be hoping against hope that I’ll show yet more of this deference, since Stoner especially is disinclined to do her part to stop pissing people off when she can instead proclaim her most grievous butthurt.
Encouragingly, I infer that Farmer Uncle recently pulled his head out of his ass with a surprising, uncharacteristic decisiveness, upon being apprised by my dad of my objections to his recent behavior. I doubt that he would have realized that it’s the Adults’ Hour and, shall we say, governed himself accordingly had I taken my usual conciliatory approach to him and Stoner instead of laying it all out on the record in my pro se e-mail to Stoner and making it painfully clear to my parents that shit be wack on the old homestead. Farmer has apparently swallowed his bitter medicine and felt its salutary effects, at least for the time being, but this didn’t just happen on its own. It required a much more concerted effort than would be necessary to convince a reasonable person to stop being an ass clown. Give-and-take doesn’t work with him or with Stoner the way it does with Baywatch, because their impulse is to turn it into take-and-take. This is why even though Baywatch and I have a weird, confusing, sporadic relationship with a tendency to turn into a mutually amplifying hot mess, I still consider it viable because I’m willing to eat my humble pie and homegirl’s got class. She can burn at a hot temperature, but she has manners the way Grandma had manners.
This is where things get deep enough to blow minds not just in Ashland, but internationally. Indeed, I aver that the torch of gracious womanhood has been passed from Grandma to a self-described agnostic hippie, a sexual pluralist and possible libertine who has been known to curse like a sailor and use the term “flavor saver” (a synonym for “soul patch”; just like the proliferation of vague, redundant surfing terms, it’s an OC equivalent to the Eskimos having 71 words for snow, or 69 if you wish). Baywatch’s sexual practices may be looser and more forward than Grandma considered ladylike, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t speak to that because, unlike Lady Lejeune, Baywatch hasn’t semi-publicly spoken of her own bodily functions or sexual practices in front of me, and I get the feeling that she is generally disinclined to be so uncouth except among her closest friends. That’s why the torch hasn’t been passed from devout Christian breeder to devout Christian breeder, passing over a generation with the word “BOOM!”; they’re too busy teaching cuckoo-bananas at Steubenville to teach class. (I never went, but I can’t say I regret it. Shit clearly got florid.)
Many would like to carry the torch, but few are worthy of it, especially those who ask for the honor. Stoner Aunt, for example, thinks highly of herself and has that overly upright prim thing going on a lot of the time, so she’d be a great match on a totally superficial level until one realized that she’s a latter-day Victorian horror-cum-gutterslumming Aquarian. Ladies Kentfield and Kensington are far too forward and vulgar for the honor, but they never put themselves in the running, since they’re cognizant of their fault, their fault, their most grievous fault, even though only the latter is a Catholic. One’s tastes needn’t be as elevated as Vaclav Havel’s in order to live in truth. The strongest contender left among Catholics of my generation is Lady Ballimer, who is definitely too reserved and introspective to ask for the honor, or to forthrightly call Lady Lejeune gross when she gets gross. Neither is anyone else in the Church, except maybe Lady Kensington, which would leave us with a standoff between the uncouthness of a child of the cuntpunting Maryland exurbs in furtherance of social control mechanisms and the uncouthness of a more outwardly belligerent but subtly more pluralistic and humbler daughter of Fishtown in furtherance of screwing her boyfriend on a neighbor’s stoop at dawn and then telling us about it because she knows we’re the kind of earnestly vulgar audience that doesn’t apologize for enjoying such a story.
There are a lot more people in this world who are all different kinds of rude than there are true ladies and gentlemen, especially if one listens to those who are blowing their own horns and drowning out their more respectable but reticent fellows. That said, rudeness is a matter of degree. Bigtime. Lady Kensington isn’t the only local with a disregard for the cleanliness of the streets of Filthadelphia. As Captain Bones once put it, “It’s like these people think a fairy’s gonna come and clean up after them when they leave crap all over the street. Actually, they’re right. There is a fairy: it’s called me and Mrs. Bones walking around the block and filling up two trash bags.” Besides, when Lady Kensington gets raunchy on a neighbor’s stoop, it’s only because she’s being impulsive and doesn’t have a room or a trash can available at the moment. It ain’t exactly right, but there’s no antisocial intent. It’s just high-functioning white trashiness in a declining industrial neighborhood. It’s no Haddonfield Special, and even if she threatens to punch me in the face if I don’t buy her shots, she’s no Lt. Josey. A friend of hers from the neighborhood once pulled up her skirt and put out for a boyfriend while leaning against a railing on the Staten Island Ferry: again, dirty, but a far cry from stop-and-frisk or disappearing Adrian Schoolcraft into a mental hospital for snitching about trouble with CompStat.
And these women are most certainly not concerned with the private, consensual sexual behavior of others. Shit, they aren’t even that concerned with public sex. If a horny young couple have sex out on the ferry deck at night and the cops on board don’t cite them for public lewdness, was the deed actually done? You know what? The cops are probably too busy hanging out downstairs, maybe getting pleasantly chatted up by some goody-two-shoes civilians, and being thankful that they drew the best assignment in the 120th Precinct and aren’t stuck responding to shots fired in the Stapleton projects. Besides, Lady Kensington and her friend show more concern for the welfare and sensibilities of others when they have sex in public than Lady Lejeune shows when she asserts herself as an arbiter of official Catholic sexual morality for the public at large. Lady Lejeune doesn’t even attempt to tone down her behavior in consideration of prevailing community standards. And don’tcha know, neither does Stoner Aunt. The assholy butthurt doesn’t have to be about sex, but it doesn’t hurt. (Heh.)
The opposite of moral relativism is not Manicheanism. This truth is easily lost in the din, but there is a very real difference between moral absolutism and Manicheanism. The former allows for a degree of nuance, common sense, and maximization of the commonweal that the latter does not. It’s easy enough to see how this distinction got erased in the public discourse. The people who have the most to say about the dangers of moral relativism are consistently some of the most unhinged Manicheans: Reform theologians, monomaniacal anti-abortionists who can’t process any of the harm caused by unwanted children or recklessly profligate breeding, busybodies who demand the imprisonment of those whose sexuality they find insufficiently holy. The critiques of moral relativism have been left to an unseemly coalition of zealous yahoos, many of them from the intellectual and ethical dregs of society. The weird thing is that they’re of above-average intelligence, eloquence and logical reasoning abilities, but they take faulty or depraved premises and run with them to the ends of the earth.
Meanwhile, what their pluralistic opponents offer in response is mostly mushheaded bollocks. Many on the left are too solicitous of the feelings of every conceivable nutcase constituency to take a real stand on anything, so of course they end up with less credibility than authoritarians who yell about total depravity, being washed in the Blood of the Lamb, “conservatism,” “family values,” manipulatively narrow definitions of the “Heartland,” spats over forty-foot crosses in National Forests, reestablishing compulsory prayer in public schools, “judicial activism,” and the Meese Report. Their opponents may be crazy, but at least they stand for something. On the other hand, the mushheads propose a quiet, if uneasy, coexistence instead of perpetual war on dissidents and minorities. As we saw last year, much of the Republican Party is now in the hands of people depraved and Manichean enough to make Claire McCaskill look like a woman of great principle and courage. McCaskill is an exemplar of Blue Dog suckage, but she was able to win reelection by asserting that discussions of illegitimate ways to rape women so that they like it are not fit for polite society, or even for Congress.
One needn’t spend much time around monomaniacs to realize that that way lies madness. At the same time, it isn’t the moral invertebrates who stand up and tell people like Akin to go fuck themselves. It takes a degree of moral certitude, if only a small one, to recognize that that is simply not the way a decent person talks about rape. Revulsion at that sort of language is a value, and the belief that such language is uniformly beyond the pale is most certainly a value. Notice that no one opined that while it was inappropriate for Akin to speak of “legitimate rape” on behalf of the citizens of St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia, it would have been appropriate to speak thus on behalf of the citizens of Cape Girardeau in consideration of the prevailing local culture and Rush Limbaugh’s childhood. No. The message was simple: Akin’s language was unfit for all of Missouri, even the most backwards parts, and it served as a rare opportunity for Claire McCaskill, of all members of the August Body, to join Vertebrata.
To a large extent, it’s a matter of gut feeling. Trying to balance and accommodate every conflicting interest at once would be highly illogical. Gut feeling, not cold logic, is what allows Akin’s observers to stand up and say, “Dude, what the fuck?” It is Captain Kirk, not Spock, who exercises command authority here. They said so on Radio Lab a few weeks ago, and it made a lot more sense than any of that bullshit in Ashland, or my parents’ response to it.
Gut feeling does a lot to explain why I’ve made such an effort to stay in touch with Baywatch over the years. If Data were to add up the sum of our interactions, he would see no reason to make further investments in the relationship as a matter of cost-benefit analysis, but I’m not an Aspie quant. I can tell that that girl is special (a term that for once I don’t use cynically), so I don’t see any need to subtract her propensity for teh hawt mess from her graciousness and divide by the amount of time we’ve spent together in order to know that she’s worth making an effort to keep in my life. At the opposite extreme, I don’t need any quantitative metrics to know that Farmer and Stoner are hella fucked up, although personality disorder diagnostic criteria are helpful for understanding just what’s wrong with them and being able to present it coherently to, say, my parents when they’re in the mood to excuse objectively rude or even depraved behavior.
My parents have accused me of viewing Farmer and Stoner through a Manichean lens, but I do not. They aren’t reincarnations of Stalin. I’d be stunned if they turned out to be the proprietors of a Robert Pickton-style graveyard for prostitutes, in a way that I would not be stunned to hear that the Temple Clinger had gone full Sodini on a bunch of innocent coeds. I see nuances in their behavior. That said, psychopathy is not the appropriate threshold for a response to asshattery in the family. Mendacious, schadenfreude-tinged narcissism on a chronic basis should be more than enough. They’re acting that way as a defense mechanism because they’re ashamed to be insolvent and financially dependent on others? Blow me. They’re making me look bad through their insistence on fraudulently misrepresenting themselves as independent yeomen at a time when they, like me, are financially dependent on my parents. I should not be penalized for making an effort to live in truth, and I damn well should not be penalized for calling sleazy relatives out on a campaign of bullshit that has the effect of punishing me for trying to live honorably.
My parents’ stance, in effect, is that Farmer Uncle and Stoner Aunt should have license to act like children. Frankly, the amount of maturity that I expect them to show is quite modest. In no way do I expect them to become financially independent, and I don’t even expect them to be candid about their personal or business finances, except in serious financial discussions with their investors or prospective investors. I merely expect them to refrain from actively misrepresenting themselves, emotionally manipulating the rest of us, tarring me as a fuck-up in order to divert attention from their own shortcomings, telling other self-serving fantasy tales about me and my motivations, and engaging in tortious and criminal behavior out of sheer idiocy. My position is that immorality informed by a desire to gratuitously offend and provoke others and amorality informed by capricious narcissism are not worldviews fit for polite society.
Manichean this is not. In fact, it is much more restrained and magnanimous than can reasonably be expected of me. There is no ethical obligation for me not to tell them both to their faces that a friend of mine showed a world more maturity as a twenty-year-old undergraduate, even when I got weird and clingy with her, than either of them have shown in their mid-sixties. It would be a pertinent lecture. Baywatch’s subsequent willingness to move forward with near-total goodwill and magnanimity after a heartfelt total freakout over my clinginess is an example of class that damns both Farmer and Stoner as ill-mannered semigeriatric children.
Nor was it Manichean for me to keep hanging out not just with Farmer and Stoner but also with Junior Bear and his posh knuckleheads back east for years, and to magnanimously return to them after massive blowups that were entirely or overwhelmingly their fault. My parents are simply mistaken to think that I’m reflexively judgmental and petty towards these people. I’ve gotten angry with them, but I have certainly not been unduly vindictive.
It took a hell of a lot of bad behavior to get me so riled up against Farmer and Stoner. Again, this is not Manicheanism, but realism, a stern but proportional response to behavior running a gamut from the provocative to the objectively deranged. Yet I’ve ended up on the phone with my mom insisting that Farmer Uncle’s drinking behind the wheel with me as his passenger was not a tort. Of course it’s a fucking tort! His whole goddamn pattern of behavior surrounding this habit has been tortious. He deliberately committed a crime against me for shits and giggles and then declared his intention to persist in similar criminal activity in my absence for the purposes of aggrandizing himself as the alpha dog and vexing my parents. Saying that he can’t be sued for any of this is like saying that Child Protective Services can’t be contacted about Uncle Dwayne’s custom of screwing his teenage nieces in the tobacco barn. For crying out loud, I have the right to press criminal charges against him, and a good chance of establishing criminal intent; in a civil trial I could fucking cream him. It was his idiotic decisions, not mine or my parents, that got us into this mess. We have a similar dynamic with Stoner Aunt’s decision to smear me to my parents in retaliation for my e-mail asking her and Farmer to back the hell off because they had been disrupting my work life. Of course I can sue for an equitable relief injunction compelling her to shut up if I first warn her to stop denigrating me to my parents and then suffer additional annoyance because she won’t stop being such a hideous shrew. That would be a textbook case of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Contrary to my mom’s feverish assertions, that would be a circumstance in which it in fact would be lawful to “tell people what they can and cannot say to other people.” It doesn’t matter that she has always had a tendency to be a provocative, self-righteous horror. Decent people, and indecent people who don’t want to get their asses sued, back down when rightfully accused of anything resembling a tort.
But we’re family. Blood is thicker than water. Uncle Dwayne has always been having his way with his nieces in the tobacky pile.