Back in a comment on this post, I referred to the Kurt Vonnegut term "granfalloon." Let’s examine it further.

I was never that big a fan of Vonnegut back in the day, when so many of my friends were into him. I disliked anything that smacked of nihilism, and Cat’s Cradle in particular seemed to preach the message, "Why try? Everything is pointless." There is something in me that rebels fiercely against that. I remember writing an essay in high school comparing it unfavorably to Catch-22. Yossarian seemed trapped in malignant absurdity, too, but at the end (warning! plot spoiler coming!), there is a life-affirming burst of hope when he learns that Orr had paddled all the way to Sweden, whereas at the end of Cat’s Cradle, the protagonist is contemplating tasting ice-nine.

Maybe I would feel better about it if I read him now; I don’t know. Maybe I could accept fatalism more favorably coming from a soldier of the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division (which may not qualify as a granfalloon, since so many of its members, such as my own father-in-law, indeed shared a similar fate, which might make it a true karass). But having granfalloon pop into my head while typing that earlier response at least causes me to have greater respect for him for having invented that term.

It’s an important word to have, because it explains why the politics of identity leave me cold. I simply don’t ever feel the impulse to identify with, or stick up for, a person who simply has the same color skin that I do, or is the same gender, or believes in the same religion (even though Catholicism for me is a choice, rather than an accident of birth). Assuming a kinship with someone over such things seems every bit as absurd as the shared association of being Hoosiers, to cite one of Vonnegut’s examples.

Sometimes in the past, I’ve tried to express the thing I object to in terms of "teams." I apply this in particular to the political parties — another form of voluntary association (even though, once people have joined them, they seem to act as though they were born into them and are congenitally incapable of contradicting the party line). Since I don’t see either Democrats or Republicans as embracing coherent, rational philosophies, but being coagulations of people with unconnected goals who have decided to band together, I think of them as having formed teams for purely pragmatic reasons — safety in numbers, pooling resources for organizational purposes, etc.

And teams are not a thing I’m into. The importance that some people attach to identification with, say, the Gamecocks seems to me suggestive of something far uglier. I know that’s ridiculous; it’s generally innocent, but such massive demonstrations of pointless solidarity put me off.

Anyway, now that I’ve retrieved it from my memory banks, I should use "granfalloon" more often.

11 thoughts on “Granfalloons

  1. weldon VII

    I wonder who will write it first. The people who post here certainly constitute a granfalloon.
    This is the best, most active blog I’ve ever seen (no, I really don’t get out much), yet sometimes the only thing I think all of the regulars here have in common is the need to express self. It’s not like talking. It’s more like hanging your opinion on a wall somewhere and waiting to see who knocks it down.

  2. Mike Cakora

    Some folks illogically need to belong to groups to bolster their notion of self-worth. I guess that’s what “identity politics” are all about, convincing folks that they’re in a group and that you can help them.
    So I wonder if the you’re influenced by your religion — one gains salvation through your own efforts — or by the Objectivist camp, not that it really matters.
    What does matter is that individuals find for themselves a point to what they’re doing — a goal, an objective, a reason — and then work toward that. To do so they have to understand that friends, family, associations, and whatevers are important, but it’s the individual who has to hunger — have the fire in the belly — and strive to achieve. The rest is essentially meaningless without the individual effort. I think that applies to life in general, not just to those of a religious bent.
    So what about a politician who seems to act more on principle than politics? It’s a wonder that such a person could get elected, but look at our governor, a guy who eschews identity politics. Don’t you and others criticize him for being an ineffective executive? Can one be effective without bending one’s value system into knots?
    Does politics require granfalloons? I think it does and that’s why I want small government. Hey, if folks understood that it’s up to them to achieve and not up to the politicians to deliver, we’d have a fairer society, one in which folks would strive to meet their own needs rather than counting on some program to give them what’s hard to get.

  3. Karen McLeod

    Human beings seem to be hardwired to be social animals, that is, animals that stay in groups (e.g. dogs, some birds, sheep, gorillas, etc). There’s good here; it encourages communication, provides protection, and promotes true charity. Unfortunately it also encourages an “us/them” polarization. It can be, and usually is, comparatively harmless. But it keeps people from really seeing others. If a person is of my specific faith path, I tend to think that they are clear thinkers (that is, they think the way I do) despite having been shown to be wrong many times. This clearly leads to catagorizing unrealistically all sorts of people. And, I don’t know about you, Weldon, but I enjoy seeing the opinions of others, and sometimes they even persuade me. When they don’t, I can at least get some insight into how they formed their opinion. And Brad, I’ll give you odds that there is some circle, large or small, that you consider “like you.” If so, you probably don’t proclaim it widely, but its the herd you run with. Your clan. And its probably hard wired within you.

  4. weldon VII

    Good post, Karen. I do enjoy reading other people’s opinions, even if I disagree with them, and I agree with you that there’s good here. I also agree about social hardwiring, and I think it goes a step farther. The us-them thing is probably hardwired, too, to encourage survival. Be they clans, tribes, nations, states, religions, college football programs or soccer fans, the us-them thing seems psretty pervasive.
    As much as I like being devil’s advocate, I wasn’t trying to criticize the blog or bloggers in any way, shape or form. Another way to put what I was thinking: What shows up here is not as surprising to me, usually, as what DOESN’T show up, perhaps because Brad keeps posting and posting and posting, unlike other blogs, where posts on the same subject occur months apart.
    Here, arguments often end before they’re finished, probably because Brad has taken us five posts farther down the road before some subjects are exhausted.
    And, again, that’s not a criticism. It’s just an observation, and it might even be a compliment, even if I don’t like his gas-tax idea. 🙂

  5. bud

    The ultimate granfalloon would be an orgainzed religion. The Catholic Church is the ultimate ultimate. How anyone could remain a member of the Catholic Church after the catastrophic priest scandal is a mystery to me. Why can’t someone just believe in God without all the cult-like trappings of an organized religion?

  6. Gordon Hirsch

    The herd mentality seems positively primeval when considered in the context of offensive and defensive human behavioral history — more proof that Darwin was further evolved than the Right, to cite two contemporary warring Granfalloons.
    Whether hunters, gatherers or cave-dwellers, people have huddled together for protection or ventured forth in bands since our beginnings. There is safety in the anonymity of numbers and danger in the isolation of individuals.
    Clemson-Carolina, Bloods-Crips, Republicans-Democrats, Right-Left, Young-Old, Black-White: We all find identity, acceptance and protection somewhere, consciously or otherwise.
    What keeps life interesting is the need for some individuals to break from the herd and express themselves. Then we all may witness the carnage, a societal favorite pasttime as old as man himself.

  7. Brad Warthen

    Karen, I’m technically a member of some granfalloons, but I don’t really identify myself in terms of membership in those groups. “Catholic” comes close; so does “American,” the one consistent identification outside my own family that I’ve had all my life. I also have a vague association with being Southern, but recoil at those who would make a big deal of it. But BECAUSE I have a strong identification as an American, I’m wary of certain traps — such as, say, thinking American lives are worth more than others. For instance, when I hear people say, in a very pat way as though they think it’s simple, that they will support someone who will “end the war,” I have come to understand that they mean withdraw American forces. And that seems very inwardly focused to me, to an unhealthy degree. It’s like, if OUR people aren’t there, and we don’t have constant “news” coverage of it, all those deaths over there aren’t my concern…
    weldon, sorry if I don’t linger on a topic long enough. Jumping from one to another in a seemingly random (although it’s not really random) manner is my way of staying interested. Being the intuitive type — and I’m giving my detractors ammunition here, but that just keeps the blog going, too, doesn’t it? — I tend to reach conclusions quickly, and the urge to move on and examine something else is very powerful. It’s related to why I like blogging. I always have far more things that I want to write about than I can write columns about, due to limitations in both space and time. I can express a larger fraction of the number of topics that interest me by blogging. There’s also the wonderful tool of hypertext linking, which gives (illusory?) depth to such rock-skipping.
    And bud — no cult-like trappings? What, you want us to leave out all the cool stuff?
    But if you want the serious answer — I’m Catholic because it’s the original church, providing a continuous line reaching from the very beginning. Going out and forming your very own church seems presumptuous to me. You deal with the one that is, was, and will be. In Bokononist terms, I’m operating on the belief that in a mysterious way, the ultimate karass is contained within the thing we call the Church, running as a living thread through human history. But it’s like, way more profound than any silly pseudo-religion invented by a satirist.

  8. weldon VII

    Gosh, Brad, I said I wasn’t being critical. The ground you cover actually makes this blog attractive. This place is actually a news source, unlike most blogs, where snail-paced rehashes of the same old same old and childish back-and-forths between seeming sibling rivals rule the months.
    Of course, some of the stuff that gets your attention, particularly the inner-Columbia stuff that doesn’t relate to the Clemson-Carolina us-them thing I always have going on (I went to BOTH schools), has little interest for me.
    But that’s OK, too. I don’t have to live here. You have to be who you are. This place gives me plenty else to chew on. And I can take days off.
    In fact, starting tomorrow, I’ll be gone for five days. It’s time for my annual Las Vegas retreat.
    Here’s hoping I have enough money left to keep me exposed to cyberspace when I get back.

  9. Brad Warthen

    Well, maybe YOU’RE not on my case about it, but my teachers, my wife, my co-workers — they all have this thing about wanting me to pay attention to one thing at a time. Which, for some of us, is not easy. It’s like trying not to think of an elephant. Or a donkey, if you prefer.

  10. Herb Brasher

    But if you want the serious answer — I’m Catholic because it’s the original church, providing a continuous line reaching from the very beginning. Going out and forming your very own church seems presumptuous to me. You deal with the one that is, was, and will be.

    I don’t often thoroughly disagree with Brad, but here’s one where I do. First of all, there isn’t really a continuous line back to the beginning in the RC church. Not if one takes the biblical data as it stands. Or show me in the NT where Jesus made Peter into the bishop of Rome?
    Secondly, the Reformation was a gallant attempt to go back to the basics, to the original NT church, without all the layers of hierarchy, indulgences, and additions to the Gospel. Martin Luther was exactly right–prove to me from the Scriptures, otherwise my conscience is bound . . . .
    Thirdly, there have been constant attempts all through church history to go back to a simple faith, and simple community, something that Donald Durnbaugh wrote about years ago in his book, The Pilgrim Church. (And Bud, once you’ve experienced real, caring, Christian community, you won’t want to go back to just believing in God on your own. Besides the devil believes in God, but does that help him–or it–what gender is the devil, anyway?–neutral, I think)
    I hereby contend, without any intention of animosity toward my RC friends, that RC church has unnecessarily complicated the Gospel of Christ, and has been in desperate need of reform many times over. The same thing could be said of course, of every other denomination and category of Christians.
    Please don’t take this as a put-down. I’ve studied the Bible together in small groups with Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and goodness knows what other color and stripe. I’ve been a member of several different denominations (albeit all Protestant), and now I’m a Presbyterian. I never really thought that our denominations were necessarily a hindrance, but actually the various emphases and approaches brought a color and uniqueness to the whole experience. Of course, the center has to be Christ, and not just theology about Him, otherwise one gets hopelessly off track.
    But one question I do have, Brad. You said once that your denomination doesn’t proselytize. I find that to be a detriment, first of all because Jesus told his church to go out and make disciples, and secondly because if it is worth having, it is worth sharing, isn’t it?
    And I conclude with a quote from a Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, who left a career at Yale Divinity School in order to be a pastor of a small community of people with profound developmental disabilities.

    What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Mt. 20:21). … We have been tempted to replace love with power.

    Whether Protestant or Catholic, Nouwen’s indictment of human nature stands, as does the simple message of the Cross in contrast.
    Pardon me, but maybe I’m waxing eloquent (or just long-winded), after having visited the Billy Graham library in Charlotte yesterday, which I really liked, all except the talking cow . . . .

  11. Karen McLeod

    Have a great time in Las Vegas, Weldon! Brad, most of us out there who aren’t part of the Holy Roman Church consider ourselves to be restorers of a corrupted church (altho not everyone may be right about what they’ve ‘restored’ in all areas). At any rate, I proclaim my ‘granfallon’ to be the human race all of whom (I’ve been told by someone who should know, are my brothers and sisters). My worst problem with the ongoing war, is that we’ve ‘saved’ so many Iraqis by killing them. We haven’t got the manpower to impose peace. We haven’t successfully rebuilt the infrastructure we destroyed, and we seem to be promoting justice with special renditions without access to habeus corpus.


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