One of my favorite memories of childhood is lying on the floor of my Dad’s office at Northbrae Community Church – he was the minister, about which I have a great story that has been cut for time – in Berkeley, California, reading Peanuts strips, of which my Dad had several collections shelved alongside Bibles, commentaries, philosophy and whatnot. I want to say those comic strip collections had pride of place on that bookshelf, but the truth is I was lying on the floor and that’s the only reason I spotted them there on the lowest shelf. So who knows?
Somehow I got to reading some about Charles Schulz and his approach to his work. Maybe there was an interview in the back of one of the books. Early on, I took in his opinion that the reason we all love Charlie Brown so much is that “he keeps on trying.” To kick the football, to talk to the little red-haired girl, to win a baseball game, to belong.
I didn’t connect with that sentiment. It’s not clear what I did do with it, but I never felt like that was a reason to love Charlie Brown. At the time I just loved him instinctually. Here was this kid who, like me, didn’t really fit in, and got a lot of shit thrown at him for no reason that he could see – maybe just because others needed some entertainment. Just like him, I didn’t have the tools to deal with that harassment, not without poisoning myself a little bit inside every time, and just to mix metaphors and switch over to the Peanuts animated cartoons, none of the adults seemed to be speaking my language when I asked them what to do. Their advice – just ignore them when they pick on you! – might as well have been a series of muted trumpet sounds.
I didn’t love Charlie Brown because he kept on trying – I loved him because the alternative was loving a world that thinks some people are just better than others, and that those people who don’t seem to have the world’s favor should certainly never ask why or why not. They should just keep on trying. (Charles Schulz, by the way, was a lifelong Republican donor.)
Now, I’m notorious for reading literature a bit shallowly (and yes, Peanuts is literature, up there with The Great Gatsby as some of the greatest and most iconically American of the 20th century, but that’s another post), and I miss layers of meaning sometimes. My dad pointed out as I was writing this that reading Charlie Brown more generally as hope, and specifically as a tragic hero defined by his inability to give up hope, is a pretty strong reading that also supports that Schulz quote. Personally, I could see Schulz connecting with Charlie Brown more on the level of commitment to one’s job; the fact that Schulz could do the same gags with Charlie Brown for 50+ years and never have to deal with him changing is something he could feel good about (n.b. his own career as a cartoonist, and the occasional strips about Brown’s father, a barber, and his connection to that craft). Charlie Brown kept showing up for work, which Schulz and others could admire and enjoy on more than one level.
But permit me an indulgence. Lately I’ve been nursing this crackpot theory that the American Civil War actually started in England in the 1600’s. I have another theory on the side, more straightforwardly supportable, that said war is also ongoing. To get at my case for its beginning, though, I’ve gone to Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by historian David Hackett Fischer. One of the so-called folkways – a “normative structure of values, customs and meanings” – Fischer chronicles is that of the Royalist side of the English Civil War that became known as the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers were, as you might guess, known for having horses when their opponents more often didn’t, but also for mostly being wealthy and interested in letting you know they were wealthy, and for their interest in having big estates with really, really big fuck-off lawns; a particular style of being landed as well as moneyed. The English Civil War separated the monarchy from political power – if not quite for good, and as it turns out, Puritans make lousy rulers – but it didn’t separate the Cavaliers from the kind of power that they had. And when England got cold for them in the 1640’s, a lot of them moved to more receptive territory in the colonies, namely in Virginia and points south. Fischer draws a strong correlation between this migration and the “Southern Strategy” that put conservatism back into its current power in America.
In the English Civil War, the King and the Cavaliers were opposed by a bunch of factions which, thanks in part to the close-cropped Puritan hairstyle, became collectively known as Roundheads. I was so happy when I heard that. I imagined that round-headed kid, good ol’ Charlie Brown, in peasant clothes holding up a pike, demanding an end to the divine right of kings. Permit me that.
I allow that Charlie Brown is an awkward symbol for forces aligned against conservatism. He doesn’t win much, for starters. There’s also the uncomfortable invitation to misogyny in the relationship between failed jock Charlie Brown and frequent football holder Lucy Van Pelt, which a certain flavor of person will accept wholeheartedly. Speaking of which, one facet of Charlie’s woes is a major contributor to the entitlement we now see in certain nerd cultures gone sour. (There was a point when it could easily have done that in me. I’m still not entirely sure how I avoided this.)
Instead, I ask you to respond to Charlie-Brown-the-symbol the way I did as a child, but couldn’t articulate until recently: negatively. I want you to tell him to stop being who he is, to grow out of his perhaps-essential nature and start making demands. But stay his friend, by demanding that the forces that make his world step into the frame and be seen, lose the muted trumpets this time, and name their reasons for letting this world exist. Charlie Brown has hope, but he shouldn’t need it.
This is obviously personal for me. I didn’t become tough and wise by virtue of recreational abuse at the hands of my peers; any wisdom I have I was able to get in spite of their best efforts. Any strength is left over from what they sapped. Some kids might respond to abuse and interpersonal adversity by getting stronger, but if you’re writing off the ones who don’t as losers, or trying the same methods over and over of teaching them to cope, you’re indulging yourself in a toxic, convenient fantasy. Making others feel small to feel bigger yourself is no more inevitable a part of human life than humans killing one another for sport. Polite society eliminated one of those; it can lose its taste for the other.
When people become identified with a power they take for granted, they go halfway into bloodlust when you threaten to mitigate that power in even the smallest way. In the end, that’s the basis of conservatism. But the power to take a shit on someone, at some point, when we’ve decided it’s okay, might be one that we all identify with. So I don’t have a lot of hope that we’ll change this in my lifetime, or even make a dent. But I want to stop kicking the football. I want to start asking the question.