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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Biff's advice: make like a tree and get out of here!

A thought about why living and working in Georgia, the former Soviet country, was so satisfying:

As an English teacher, I was the voice of all English literature, the owner of all English idioms. Knowledge that had been valueless to date--the meaning of the cliche "a stitch in time saves nine" and its possible origins, for example--was suddenly priceless for its glimpse of the English of a native speaker, and its window into American culture, so prized there. And in my job in the presidential administration, I was not limited to my official role as a peon, but was in effect a consultant for a huge swath of political and cultural orientation: how the stock market works, what the leading trends in deregulation are, how to write a budget. I was a fount of wisdom on management merely because I'd watched enough TV and movies to absorb the conventional wisdom of the West on the subject; I was the nation's vanguard of women's liberation and gay liberation because I could describe these in cogent terms that deflated the bugaboo variants that had been handed down from Soviet times as reasons why the West was mad.

This was addictive to someone who dreamt of being influential, but feared the weight of responsibility. Here was the promised land: a place where I was important, but did not need to lead; where my knowledge was prized, but I did not need to study. It recalled for me the second Back to the Future movie, where even an idiot, armed with the common knowledge of the present and a way to travel into the past, is able to become a king. No suprise, then, that Georgia attracted a rogue's gallery of rejects from Europe and the US. Some came to start over, like a friend who has a penchant for addiction to any substance you've ever heard about; last I heard, he had gotten clean, married a Georgian, and started a successful newspaper. The rogues are not usually so impressive, however, like the erstwhile Economist writer I hired for a government writing project who was halfway done by deadline, plagiarized large sections, attributed false quotes to ministers, and threatened me when I decided not to pay him in full.

But there was also something innocently wonderful about the role I found myself in. Here I was an emissary for America, and to my surprise I found myself knowledgeable about my homeland and proud of its virtues. But even more I was affectionate for the quirks and customs of my land and language. Stories of history and word etymologies came bounding out of my mouth, and with each explanation I was able to know the story intimately as never before. Daniel Dennett theorizes that human consciousness grew out of our ability to talk to ourselves, which grew out of our ability to talk to others; here was a pattern like ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, where by communicating to others facts I had collected I was able to taste them for the first time. What charm lay in "I've created a monster!", and what tragedy lay in the great but brief successes of racial integration into politics during Reconstruction!

The best part is, Georgia isn't necessary to bring me to this appreciation for what I know and can teach. I have taught all sorts of things in the US, and I suppose the big draw to me is the ability to hit both the notes I credited to Georgia above: the chance to be the master of knowledge, and the chance to know it as an evangelist. (I really cannot enjoy Shakespeare except as a teacher, and am not surprised that my former students were as unconvinced by King Lear as I was in high school.) But these joys have dulled in me over the years, and Georgia refreshed them as if it were a trip to the past and I was the only repository of the built-up insights of future decades.