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A Revolution of Crazy Aunts and Uncles

If we want an extravagant democracy, we should live together like one another’s crazy aunts and uncles.

We are, after all, a nation founded by aunts and uncles. Take the family of Vilhelm Moberg, the Swedish author of the monumental "Emigrants" saga. "All of Moberg’s aunts and uncles had gone to America," said one reviewer of Moberg’s sources for the epic. Moberg’s family wasn’t unique.

There are other reasons behind this mad suggestion for the materteral and avuncular model of citizenship. For one thing, it’s a handy excuse to incite more use of the neglected adjective, materteral, meaning aunt-like. Aunts can be just as crazy and wise as uncles, yet a Google search of the word materteral produced only 4,110 responses to avuncular’s fat 237,000.

How many have experienced a home (or a school or a neighborhood or a bureaucratic state) that has sobered and tidied itself into choking boredom? How many have noticed that escape into Life doesn’t take a Moses, but just one rocking, rule-breaking, self-assured and crazy aunt or uncle to liven the place up?

Conjure someone recognized as a relation. But this relation is also a unique and maybe dangerous "Other" whose otherness comes with seductive and liberating promise. Such a person reminds us that the human heart is always too big for the ribs of law and etiquette we hide it beneath for safety’s sake. In a democracy, shouldn’t that describe us all?

In her marvelous book, Novel Relations, Ruth Perry notes that 18th Century women often turned to their aunts for emancipating assistance when threatened by parents’ selfish, authoritarian demands for love-denying arranged marriages.  In fact, Perry says that was the beginning of the modern role of the aunt. And what Perry says of aunts is also true of uncles:  our deference to them is voluntary – one reason, perhaps, that they are good symbols of both wise authority and freedom.

In a democracy of freethinking aunts and uncles I bet we could at the very least eliminate some cruel instances of man’s inhumanity to man – speed bumps and parking tickets, for instance.

More seriously, what would become of prejudice and bigotry in such a land? Confronted with someone strange and different, or when we ourselves are looked upon as strange and different, wouldn’t it be humanizing and liberating if the first thought was, "Hey, it’s another nutty uncle! What will I learn of freedom from this person?"

It was the 20th Century French filmmaker Jean Renoir who provoked these thoughts. Renoir comes with credentials: "Everyone who believes in democracy should see this film," Franklin Roosevelt said of Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece, Grand Illusion. Joseph Goebbels ordered all negatives of the film destroyed in 1940. Set in a World War I German prison camp, Grand Illusion is not an anti-war polemic. It’s not a political movie. Then again, its promise of egalitarian love under political duress makes it a revolutionary film. We might to pay careful attention to what Renoir has to say about democracy (and uncles), given that Roosevelt, one of the 20th Century’s great champions of democracy, loved Renoir’s masterpiece while Goebbels, one of history’s greatest enemies of democracy, hated and banned it.

During his wartime exile in America, Renoir wanted to make a movie of a 19th Century novel that should become the founding document of our materteral, avuncular democracy: Claude Tillier’s My Uncle Benjamin. In a memo to Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck, Renoir said:

Claude Tillier’s novel, My Uncle Benjamin [is about] the birth of democratic ideas in my country. The worth of this book lies in a kind of shrewdness and peasant common sense, closely related to a type of wit that is very popular in America. For several years I have dreamed of making a film of this book.

If I can’t convince you to join the uncles and aunts at the barricades, maybe I can at least persuade you to read My Uncle Benjamin. The action takes place in a rural French village inhabited by a wonderfully irreverent cast of mid-18th Century peasants. It is no rural paradise. They are messy and imperfect. They hate pretentiousness, they mock the throne, they love one another, they worship freedom, they eat, drink, err, make love, argue, bond, give birth, die. As Tillier’s biographer, Melvin B. Yoken said, Tillier "portrays vigorously the robust, hearty life and activity of the little man in its splendor, folly, and serenity."

Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne considered My Uncle Benjamin a classic. He poked fun at himself for thinking he’d discovered it. It’s telling that Milne talks lovingly of the book between mentions of Shakespeare and Wind and the Willows author Kenneth Grahame.

Dr. Benjamin Rathery’s grandnephew narrates the book. Uncle Benjamin Rathery is a compassionate quack and hard-drinking raconteur. We’d call him self-centered, except his compassion is boundless. We’d call him lazy, except he’s always on the move. We’d call him a coward, except he puts his life on the line for others. Benjamin is the model crazy uncle. "If you have not read how that jovial giant impersonated the Wandering Jew for the simple folk of Moulot, you have skipped as good a thing as you shall find in Rabelais or Le Sage," said essayist Michael Monohan.

Tillier, of course, is only one of many who wrote of aunts and uncles. Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt is another grand testament to our cause. Greene’s character, Aunt Augusta, is the model crazy aunt.

I know that "sisters" and "brothers" are the conventional salutations of solidarity. "Brother" and "sister" do evoke a healthy, anti-authoritarian horizontality of democratic relationships. The trouble with brothers and sisters, though, is that ghostly parental figures are always hovering about the frame.

Frames and narratives of family dominate the language of politics. For instance, we say "Mother Country," or "The Father of Our Country." As George Lakoff has shown, though, it goes further than that. Metaphors from two broad categories of parenting – responsibility-building nurturance and obedience-training authoritarianism – are mapped onto progressive and conservative political culture, respectively.

Conservatives have long exploited the framing potential of the strict, authoritarian parental narrative. Progressives have been slower to exploit their own responsibility-building nurturant narratives.

We can’t escape these structures in our brains any more than we can escape having mothers and fathers. But maybe we can create new pathways for politics by using metaphors of misbehavior and nurturance that evoke our values of empowerment, responsibility and independence, too.

That’s where Uncle Benjamin and Aunt Augusta come in. Let’s tell their stories. Let’s subvert the narrative models of familial oppression that infect our politics.

The 19th Century authors who made Uncle Sam the mythical embodiment of America knew what they were doing: they substituted an extra-nuclear family member for parental authority, directing the nation’s nieces and nephews toward loyalty to the State.

I want something different. I want all of us to be free as the crazy aunts and uncles we adore, to be citizens who don’t look up to an Uncle Sam, but across the table to our neighbors.

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Glenn W. Smith

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