More than meets the eye

The middle of the road approach to interpersonal politics.

My new job requires me to be a lot more delicate in expressing my political opinions, which isn’t that hard for me considering my exposure to that most sacred of diplomatic forums: the extended-family get together. If anyone in the world has a family that falls down a single party line, I think they deserve a medal, or perhaps a sitcom.

These days I have to be even more careful; working for a “real” newspaper, my Twitter, my jokes, everything I do or vocalize is subject to a lot more scrutiny. Not that I’m in any way the subject of very many people’s attention–I’m an intern, and we all know how much weight that carries–but I’m monitoring myself more closely than I had before.

Armed with this camouflage, I’ve had the opportunity to enter some new territory. If you’ve ever spoken to me for more than thirty seconds about, say, public education, global warming, or the American prison system, you could probably figure out my political allegiances. But in the interest of my new non-disclosure policy, I’ll leave my ideology up to your imagination. The point is, this non-partisan Nora recently trespassed into the heart of the “enemy” camp: I spent the day with delegates who played for the other team. In this case, they literally did play for the other team–they were participating in a inter-party baseball game.

Enter Nora: fresh-faced, struggling with proper nomenclature (Mister? Sir? Congressman?), timid around all these old important white men–and they greeted me with open arms. They joked, they winked, they called me a “nice girl” (let’s save a discussion of the patronizing possible sexism for another post, shall we?)

I wonder if they thought about what my political affiliations were; their sense of humor certainly suggested they thought we shared common interests. One joke about God’s voting preferences certainly stands out in my mind as an example of a place where our mentalities diverged.

All of this meditation on our perceptions of one another reminded me of Marcel’s family’s relationship with Swann in the opening of Volume I (first Proust segue! How’d I do?). No one in his family stops to think that there may be more to Swann than his pedigree allows, and he, in turn, is happy to let them do so.

For many years, during the course of which–especially before his marriage–M. Swann the younger came often to see them at Combray, my great-aunt and my grandparents never suspected that he had entirely ceased to live in the society which his family had frequented, and that, under the sort of incognito which the name of Swann gave him among us, they were harbouring–with the complete innocence of a family of respectable innkeepers who have in their midst some celebrated highwayman without knowing it–one of the most distinguished members of the Jockey Club, a particular friend of the Comte de paris and the of the Prince of Wales, and one of the men most sought after in the aristocratic world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

Our utter ignorance of the brilliant social life which Swann led was, of course, due in part to his own reserve and discretion, but also to the fact that middle-class people in those days took what was almost a Hindu view of society, which they held to consist of sharply defined castes, so that everyone at his birth found himself called to that station in life which his parents already occupied, and from which nothing, save the accident of an exceptional career or of a “good” marriage, could extract you and translate you to a superior caste. – Proust 16

Why do we deceive others about our “true” nature? Is it because we enjoy the privilege dual identity affords us, the Jekyll and Hyde-esque thrill of doing one thing by day and another by night? I could also point out that having cultivated these relationships will make it easier for me to get stories when I need to in the future, but it’s more than that–I think it’s a basic human trait to adapt oneself to the group by which he or she is surrounded–my laugh at the God joke, if somewhat forced, was at least instinctual. “True” nature is, I think, a more fluid concept than we admit. How many identities do we possess? And how many does Mr. Swann? As the above quote suggests, it doesn’t take only one actor to succeed–we are conditioned to project what we expect to see onto other people, whether we are middle-class Parisians living in the 19th century or the American political elite of the 21st.

Marcel, as a child, seems to be particularly inept at adapting anyone else’s point of view, which consistently manages to land his friends and family, such as his great-uncle and Bloch, in trouble. I wonder how long this habit will follow him into his adulthood.

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