August 5, 2012 @ 10:34 am
My summer reading binge was shortened to a single week this year. Oh sure, I re-read Paul Shepard’s Nature & Madness as preparation for the Lama Foundation Workshop/Retreat, and while I was there I read a couple of chapters from Loren Eiseley’s The Night Country, but I didn’t tackle anything big. Likewise, with my last only real week of free time, I just finished up The Other Wes Moore and a couple of short things. I’ll have much more to say about TOWM throughout the year, since we’re using it as our common freshman reading for 2012-13 (towm, towm – I like the sound of that), but before classes start I want to talk about the other two and how they relate back to TOWM. That’s always the game for me; I read multiple supposedly unrelated books at the same time and let them percolate through my noggin for a while. Often they recombine in weird and wondrous ways.
James C. Work’s Don’t Shoot the Gentile is a memoir like TOWM, but told for entertainment more than any deep desire for productive social change. Young white Presbyterian guy takes his wife and two kids to Cedar City, Utah, to teach at a two-year college in the process of transforming itself into a more prestigious four-year college. It’s a state-sponsored public school, but just about everyone at the school and in the town is Mormon. What follows is jokejokejokejokejoke, one amusing culture-clash anecdote after another, with more one-liners and puns wedged into any cracks.
“Mormons don’t drink beer.”
“You mean Mormons don’t buy beer.”
See, Work buys it for them, with his state-issued alcohol ID card (which tracks his purchases; maybe it’s no coincidence that the NSA is building their giant data-storage center in Utah) and leaves it in his garage, where they pick it up after dark and leave cash thumbtacked to the wall joists. Usually it’s more cash than he paid, so he profits. Most of his interactions with Mormon culture are equally generous.
It reads kind of like a standard Hollywood “fish out of water” sitcom (Northern Exposure being the absolute pinnacle of that genre, in my humble opinion). There’s an overall message of amused tolerance based in safety. We can confidently assume that nothing Work does is going to change the Mormon culture, and the big punch-line of the book (given away on the back cover, so I’m not being a spoiler) is that the Mormons are conspiring to keep him ignorant of their culture so he won’t convert and ruin their efforts at religious diversity. In other words, their culture is just naturally superior, and if they let him in on it, of course he’ll want to join it – how could he not? If the outcome were in question at all, for many people it would stop being funny. Work would not be a clown and a valued bootlegger; he’d be a rebel. Those cultural differences would become serious threats. Fear leads to resistance.
That’s the context of The Other Wes Moore. The larger culture is afraid of poor inner-city black people, especially young men. We’ll come back to the why of that fear later. For today the point is that the relationship is poisoned by fear. Wes Moore’s serious, reasoned calls for justice fall on frightened ears, and frightened ears do not hear.
So, to summarize and provoke, which was a more effective catalyst of cultural change, The Wire or The Cosby Show?