"True or false: our lives have slowed down and acquired more civility and meaning since September 11… sir? Sir? Madam? Excuse me…"
A Few Words from the Editor
Sometimes we begin projects fully aware of their rationale, then find ourselves having to make change after change in response to obstacles, and finally realize that what remains of our original design is not remotely fitted to our original objectives. So it has been with me and the quest for the Center’s tax-exempt status. I saw a chance to do a job that needed doing (and that I loved doing) without demanding extraordinary sacrifices of my family. Specifically, I thought that with 501c3 status in my hand, I could elicit generous gifts from large foundations and—among other things—pay myself a few thousand dollars a year in salary. I was later asked very pointedly by the IRS inquisitor, however, if the main reason for pursuing the exemption were to get myself some money: the strong implication was that an affirmative answer would be crushed under an "application denied" stamp and, possibly, initiate charges of high treason. I must say that I grow quite irritated when looking back on that epistolary encounter. I was not requesting permission to pick the government’s pocket, or even to ease its fat fingers out of mine: I was only asking to be allowed to eat while serving a worthy cause.
In the ensuing months, I mentally trimmed my petition down to the bare bone as I contemplated re-application. I now see that my doing so has dispensed with all advantages of having the coveted status. Last year the Center spent about $450 (more than half of which came from donations: the rest trickled out of my wallet). Much of this, actually, was paid out before Praesidium went online, so the figure for 2002 may well be even more paltry. Merely to apply again to the Charitburo would cost me $350; and, on the unlikely assumption that Comrade Commissaire would wave me through this time, I would be freed only to solicit a few hundreds here and there. That mythical "generous grant" would indeed land me in enormous trouble once I had achieved charitable status by projecting exiguous budgets. Since I can already raise the necessary hundreds annually even without offering a tax deduction as an incentive to donors… well, as you can understand, to continue would be folly.
The Center for Moral Reason remains a Texas non-profit corporation, and I stand firm in my determination to provide a printed copy to those who want one, even if they have donated not a dime. What this means practically is that we shall continue to exist on modest donations—my own and others’—rather than on subscriptions or sales. Quite frankly, experience has taught me that people more readily donate, and in larger amounts, than they subscribe. There is much food in this for meditation, and I offer it to you without further comment.
Should we manage to interest any bookstores in the journal, I shall simply allow them to pocket the profit. Customers may of course send a check to Texas if they feel so moved—and this raises another advantage to conceding the feds their little victory. If Praesidium can politely ask for contributions, it can also drop the name of Arcturus Press from time to time. My personal connection to both enterprises was a constant source of embarrassment while I was being federally interrogated: the state of Texas only demands that I keep the accounts separate and remember that the proceeds of one must never pay my household bills. I know that the CMR Board of Directors will no more begrudge me an occasional plug for the Press than will readers of the former Arcturus—references to which document, by the way, I was getting most awfully tired of suppressing!
I shall include here the further confidence (lest I seem to be shamelessly "poor-mouthing") that my wife’s paycheck now very nearly equals the largest one I ever brought home as an Associate Professor. Her associate degree may soon outstrip my Ph.D. in the salary sweepstakes. Students of victimology would do well to ponder the many profound lessons herein about educational and gender privilege. As for those statistics which show how much higher on the hog graduate-degreed professionals live than peons, they only prove that people on the two coasts (where such surveys are taken) have their own planet.
The present number of Praesidium was intended to explore, in the wake of several terrorist assaults upon unsuspecting, non-combatant Americans, just what may indeed be said to have gone wrong with our nation. The backdrop for this soul-searching, of course, is the academy’s almost immediate and utterly tasteless rush to the rostrum with bloody bodies of terrorists lovingly hefted over our bleeding sons and daughters. We had this coming, professors harangued around the country: we’ve been bullying innocents for years, centuries, millennia—it’s in the male European genetic code—and we should expect more of the same until we humbly embrace some version of the professorial utopia. Homer’s phrase "tongue of brass" began to take on a new meaning.
Well, I realized in putting together the following pages that they look a lot like all the pages we’ve done before. Answering the question of what ails Western culture is our typical modus operandi, it turns out. So our present offering is at most a little more intense than usual. As ballast, Professor Carlson’s poetry and Ms. Maskell’s short story seem to me to tender a rare dose of pleasant irony and gentle humor. May you enjoy and profit from it all!
Toward Anthroponomy: How Western Culture
Has Become Its Own Worst Enemy
John R. Harris
Exactly one year ago, I dedicated an essay to explaining the reasons behind the christening of The Center for Moral Reason (see Praesidium 1.1, Winter 2001). At that time, I not only defended my devotion to the words "moral" and "reason", both singly and in tandem, but also shared my apprehensions about the terms "liberal" and "conservative", whose fierce dynamic has had so much to do with pulling perfectly respectable words to pieces. I enjoyed another ride upon the whirlwind recently when I associated myself with a Website whose address features the signature, "conservative books". (I leave the precise nature of my association and the site’s exact address unstated, for I must not seem to advertise either in the present context.) Objections from certain female academics were quick and strong. I suspect that many of their male peers were just as outraged, and I do not imply that the latter were more courteous and the former more termagant. Maybe so, maybe not. Maybe the women were just more open and honest, or maybe they found conservatism more of a threat to their careers in their special capacity as outspoken feminists (for such were they who decried my choice of words). In any event, I came away with ample cause to conclude (if I had needed further cause) that the very word "conservative" is now reinlich verboten in many academic settings, having achieved about the same PC-offense value as, say, "niggardly".
As I pose myself the question of what is genuinely, profoundly wrong with Western culture—of just what it is about us that might justify the hatred of the Third World or Islam or the self-appointed liminal voices of the campus—I cannot resist starting with this blare of witless vituperation in which we seem to pass our days. Blare itself is bad enough, and we at Praesidium have written critically of it before. The cars, the TVs, the public address systems, the ghetto-blasters, the leaf-blowers, the cheering admonishing serenading computer screens and voice mail and domestic cybermaid services… I have longed more than once for someone to invent an interminably running silence-track which could be turned up full-volume to drown the din and allow one to hear one’s own thoughts.
Racket, however, was not an American innovation. When I was in Dublin more than a decade ago for a Celtic Studies summer program, I had to cut short my visit due to sleep deprivation: I felt as though the ATF had cornered me in David Koresh’s compound. My Irish contacts, of course, were appalled that any Yank (as they call all of us) could imagine their quaint capital city cacophonous, and a few seemed indignant that I should dare to have passed sleepless nights among them, considering where I hailed from. No doubt, Cairo or Bangkok would have been far worse, even before the Industrial Revolution. Especially before then. For the West only rivaled the East in sheer noise when we began to grind out iron behemoths belching smoke and steam; and America, I suppose, being the world’s leading producer of such monsters, won the title of The Great Polluter, though the East greedily devoured our monsters and tortured their bones for a few more thousand miles, a few more million casts and prints, long after we would mercifully have melted the old terrors into sleek new models.
No, I see no seeds of a bellum pium et iustum there. The whole planet is a noisy, polluted wreck, and our pioneering technology is in fact its last credible hope for a face-lift. If the East wants to inveigh against us for having seduced it into laying railroad tracks and developing a taste for Coke and Big Macs, it might as well denounce itself for being so susceptible despite its panoply of ascetic traditions. (The full measure of the accusation’s surly childishness is implied in the Japanese experience of firearms: Japan was the world’s greatest producer of guns during the centuries we call the Renaissance, yet it resolved as a culture shortly thereafter to give them up entirely.) What I find far more indicting of our Western way is that we seriously listen to such frivolous indictments—that we egg them on, quite frankly, encouraging Western-educated Easterners to go home and broadcast or print them among a populace which, at first, can only scratch its collective head. I am bothered, not by our contemporary taste for self-criticism—for we have none, inasmuch as self-criticism requires fine analysis and honesty—but by our incendiary love of perverting rational argument for ideological ends. When I say "ideological", I mean "selfish". For ideology is nothing other than the misidentification of egotism with altruism, the devious representation of self-service as service of others; and this, I would allege, is a peculiarly Western contribution to the miseries of the last century
It is also a distinctly liberal contribution. (Never fear: I have much of a chastening nature to say later about conservatism, or what passes for such today.) Classical liberalism has played an invaluable role in Western culture. It was by no means opposed to tradition—only to the blind reverence of unexamined tradition. It recognized that the tradition’s vibrancy, the very appeal of certain writings and beliefs which allowed them to weather the erosive winds of time, depended upon particular unconditional vectors of human nature: e.g., the aspiration to live above selfish interest, the desperation over human vanity’s omnipresence, and the duty to secure the former’s victory over the latter. These ineradicable tendencies created a body of universal human law which paralleled, and in some ways counterpoised, the universal laws of nature. Insofar as they were essentially human, more or less observable in all times and places, such laws were also non-traditional, since pure tradition originates in accident (or, as some would have it, in revelation—but what can a revelation reveal to a heart not already inclined to receive its truth?)
Yet this science of human universals, which might be called rationalism, was also tradition’s champion. By pondering the traditional, the contemplative could explicate it and renew it for those who had not noticed its true revelations—its special comforts, warnings, and exhortations which do not change in urgency or relevance as generation succeeds generation. Traditions are also always in need of refinement—all of them. Several conservative editorialists in recent months, for example, have made a drum out of bellicose passages of the Koran, which they beat in a harrowing tocsin. "The Muslim holy book overtly calls for war with the infidel," they say, and say correctly. Yet many Muslims are equally insistent that their book calls upon them to cultivate peace and practice mercy. No doubt, the Koran does both in different places: so does the Bible (specifically, the Old Testament). The proper response to such literary contradictions, which of course are insurmountable to dogmatic literalists, must be to meditate in the spirit of the document—in that spirit which lives in all of us yet does not strictly belong to any of us—and distribute emphasis accordingly. In religious circles, such flexibility is often called liberal interpretation. What I should like to know is, how is a great tradition to be kept alive merely by conserving its letters, non-sequiturs and all? Isn’t the true work of conservation properly one of breathing spirit into the letter?
This, as I say, was once "classical liberalism", a vein of spiritually liberating thought whose roots extended back to Socrates, the Academy, and the Stoa. To remark that contemporary liberalism has strayed from the stars which once guided it would be to court falsehood with generosity. In no uncertain fashion, today’s liberalism has aggressively repudiated its commitment to seeking the universal beyond the conditional. It is, indeed, openly hostile in all settings to the notion of universality (or "essentialism", as its votaries say with a sneer). Arbitrary tradition, if not Western, fares very well, by comparison. The contemporary liberal can behold infanticide or slavery or (as Mary Grabar detailed in Praesidium 1.4) cannibalism with equanimity as long as the practice belongs to a non-Western, non-Christian culture. The very injustices which he or she most deplores in Middle America—keeping the wife at home to raise a family, inflicting corporal punishment upon children, exacting full communal participation in religious observances—are stoutly defended, even in extreme forms involving bloody reprisal against dissenters, wherever English isn’t spoken and frozen yogurt isn’t sold. The neo-liberal (if I may so designate this counterpart of the similarly unsavory neo-conservative) hasn’t suddenly discovered an affection for quaint customs and hoary rites, of course. My best guess is that he or she simply does the contrary of everything the bourgeoisie may be seen doing.
This exhibitionist counter-conformity has gone on for most of my lifetime: it dates back at least as far as the late sixties, at any rate. It has been especially visible in sexual attitudes. In the late sixties and throughout the seventies, ordinary parents were still outraged if their daughter moved in with her boyfriend at college, ordinary neighbors whispered torridly if a housewife conversed for too long with her insurance agent, and ordinary citizens grew irate if the local theater started running too many R-rated films. Liberalism assumed its positions accordingly. Bright young people lived together without benefit of clergy, either partner among enlightened couples tolerated (or even encouraged) the other’s brief affairs, and scuffing up the line between art and pornography became a solemn duty. Then things began to change somewhere in the mid-eighties. All of the liberal behaviors just described had become more or less mainstream with incredible alacrity. One would have expected the official liberal position now to be one of satisfaction—perhaps complacent delight—that the message had been so obediently heeded. Instead, the avant-garde liberals in the campus culture ignited a stunning phenomenon: they staged a reversal of sexual attitudes in the PC movement so thorough that its severity far surpassed anything ever observable in sixties suburbia. Any overture or protracted stare from a male could be considered attempted rape, kissing on the playground won the boy (never the tender maiden) instant suspension, and a nude female figure portrayed in a centuries-old oil painting or sculpture qualified as harassment. Middle America had grown sexually liberal only to find that liberalism had grown passionately, even furiously repressive.
I have oversimplified. A tendency to sexual restraint is still somewhat typical of the middle class, while a tendency to libertinage is still easy to identify among the academic élite. The very survival of these tendencies, however, makes the liberal position all the harder to accept as a position, deliberated and arbitrated, rather than as some kind of involuntary reflex. Middle America has actually moved toward the center, coherently and decisively. On social issues, it is in fact moderate-liberal: the most troubling aspect of its shift is simply that it perceives no shift and considers itself to be preserving traditional decorum. This is either disingenuous or just plain obtuse, depending upon what degree of self-analysis you think the average American capable of. It is not, at any rate, irrational. The liberal vanguard, on the other hand, will grind out handbooks for coed freshmen on happy "hook-ups" and force all campus newcomers into coed dorms at the same time as it pursues boys relentlessly for date-rape and offers seminars which warn that all men have always been ravenous sexual predators. In other words, no clear line exists between the "free love" crusade of the sixties and the "all sex is rape" crusade of the nineties: both refrains occur in the same song. The irrationality of a single voice’s raising all these conflicting appeals and alarms has not escaped the faithful of neo-liberalism any more than its critics. The former have indeed adopted irrationalism as a plank of their leaning and weaving platform; and when the latter seek to debate with them, they seize upon superior logic as a longstanding instrument of oppression and try to fume their opponents into silence with the shame of having made sense!
Conservative commentators, in my opinion, are therefore mistaken to read the diffusion of liberalism throughout Western culture as "do your own thing" independence run amuck. World War II was scarcely past when Richard Weaver wrote, "Individualism, with its connotation of irresponsibility, is a direct invitation to selfishness, and all that this treatise has censured can be traced in some way to individualist mentality." I am inclined to believe that his understanding of individualism was rather tendentious even at the time. An individualist, I should say, is someone who knows that ultimately only he is accountable for his actions even when he follows the group, and that all actions he performs are only his even when he imitates everyone around him. He grasps that the circumstances of his socio-cultural conditioning may mitigate, but cannot excuse, any errors of moral judgment he makes—that a socially mandatory behavior is still a choice, and that a bad choice remains bad despite its having been socially sanctioned. Nevertheless, the Right has not been shy about applying Weaver’s dim view of individualism with a vengeance to the conduct of the Left since the late sixties. We are to imagine that recent advocates of liberalism have simply been scratching more itches in more public places as one barricade of propriety after another came crashing down.
This view, I repeat, does not convince me. It entirely fails to account for that virulent anti-rationalism so prominent in today’s avant-garde. After all, mere hedonism can be quite deliberate: it is probably the oldest ethical system of all—or the oldest ethical imposter, I should say, whose facing down was the first task of true ethics. (One can see the fight joined in Plato’s Gorgias, for instance, when Socrates struggles to convince Polus that doing wrong is a worse evil than being wronged.) That arch-Tory, Thomas Hobbes, reminds us that the calculations of the sybarite can be made with utter lucidity. Many who wish to conserve the comfort, security, and privilege of traditional ways are very familiar with such balance sheets. The bottom line may well favor a life nestled warmly among the herd (as Hobbes argued) rather than the cold, dangerous isolation of the rogue non-conformist. Preoccupation with animal pleasures adds up to communal participation (however shallow or duplicitous), not general resistance.
What we see happening on the Left today is much closer to the antithesis of a zeal for individualism, and often resembles an irrational frenzy of self-annihilation. When campus firebrands cry for liberation from sexual pressures, liberation from boring duties, liberation from social discomfort, and the rest, their chorus may sound like one of "I want what I want," but their longing’s essential characteristic is precisely that it speaks in chorus. The phenomenon here borders on mass hysteria. Individualism is jealous of its elbow room, its private time: it has to think things out. In contrast, today’s liberal élite explicitly mistrusts and loathes calm reflection. It is Dionysiac. It wants ecstasy—the special ecstasy of being swept up in a vast surge, a swarm of waving hands and ululating voices that could become a blood-dimmed tide in an instant.
To my mind, this dementia is the single most alarming symptom displayed by our ailing society—the single Worst Thing Wrong with America. Dionysus has always ruled somewhere, of course, or (better yet) has always ruled in some wild corner everywhere. To define civilization as an etiquette which limits his crazed reign as much as possible would not go very wide of the truth. Our problem is that we have thrown open the gates to his tiger-drawn chariot. Not our most ignorant and unintelligent, but our best and brightest seem to have pledged their lives to his worship. As long as American culture tolerates rant and rodomontade in places where serious discussion should be going on—as long as we permit ourselves to be governed by sound-bite and shouting match—the infection will only spread. On our death bed, we will end up looking very like those who now hate us most: a body whose energies are concentrated so consumingly on keeping its moribund appendages in minimal obedience that it cannot so much as sit up straight.
Because I regard our internal war against rationality to be of supreme concern, and because neo-liberalism has chosen the wrong side in this war, I usually describe myself as conservative. Yet it is impossible to exonerate the Right’s intellectual ineptitude fully when one attempts to explain the Left’s intellectual disintegration. We are, after all, one body. If the legs are too shaky to walk, perhaps the spleen is at fault for not providing enough red blood cells. The neo-liberal infatuation with delirium is an extremely complex phenomenon requiring an extremely intricate diagnosis and treatment. I shall not attempt such intricacy here. Others have cited the dissolution of the family and its impact upon children who grew up viewing themselves as unwanted by one or both parents. The divorce culture itself, obviously, was fueled by the major components of the sixties uprising: raw hedonism, male cowardice and loss of purpose, female discontent with traditional roles, and so forth. Why these forces should have come to a head in the late sixties is, by comparison, little discussed. I have seen Howard Schwartz and Peter Singleton reach about the same conclusion from very different directions: i.e., that the American family—and especially the woman at its center—lost respect for the male breadwinner when he became a "company man", seldom seen at home, always weary, never able to demonstrate or explain with pride to his children just what he did all day. Ironically, this is the lackey’s existence which Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem "freed" their sisters to pursue. No wonder they continue to feel shortchanged!
The Company… The Corporation… the private-sector Big Brother… the villain in so many film noir classics made just after World War II: is this not supposed to be the driving force of conservatism? It isn’t to Richard Weaver; but to the so-called neo-conservatives who began to emerge as early as those fateful late sixties and burgeoned until they took over the eighties, full-throttle capitalist growth is indeed the white knight of the romance. Market forces are supposed to topple all despotism worldwide as (it is claimed) they did the Soviet Union, to lure the indigent out of a torpid despondency in which the welfare state has only mired them more deeply, to sustain domestic prosperity by concocting new "necessities", and to contribute to universal health by making the progressive conquest of mortality immortally profitable. To my ear, much of this sounds overtly anti-conservative. It is almost exclusively economic conservatism—and exclusively a defense of private property wedded to a laissez-fairism governing the acquisition and exchange of property. Yet this is an uneasy marriage. In my lifetime, the unscrupulous acquisition of property has steadily vitiated the meaning of property itself. Unfettered development and aggressive marketing, for instance, have placed my present residence under continuous assault by noisy, smelly vehicles and garden equipment and have rendered my neighbors incapable of staying at home. My books cost more and more, yet their paper is cheaper and their print less legible than ever; and much of what I want is out of print, besides, since little of any depth gets published today. At the grocery store, producers of breakfast cereal are so eager to addict me to sugar that they seldom allow me to choose my own dosage; and indeed, I find that most of what lines the shelves resembles a spoiled child’s birthday gift on the outside as much as it does his birthday cake on the inside. I can’t get the quality I once knew out of this brave new world, the old favorite things I possess are often degraded by their coarser surroundings, and a product such as a book which requires silence and stasis to enjoy is scarcely even dreamt of now. I live in a constant and unnecessary flux whose alterations threaten every pleasure I take in life more and more. That the whole dizzying career toward the outer darkness of uniform vulgarity and inanity should be styled "conservative" in any sense of the word would strike me as outrageous if it were not so manifestly idiotic.
How does this "neo-conservatism" conserve taste? Taste must be painfully cultivated and requires an intellectual subtlety that many people will never possess. That which is painfully acquired does not sell well, and that which may never be widely acquired can only look to "niche marketing" for its salvation. Taste must be written off in this race for big, fast bucks as a net loss. How does a neo-conservative conserve such attributes of character as honesty, endurance, and self-sacrifice? These, too, are painfully acquired and perhaps even more thinly distributed than taste, inasmuch as their root is spiritual as well as (probably much more than) intellectual. Will the open marketplace assure their rise to the top? No marketplace could be much more open than the Internet. The newsletters I regularly receive through e-mail telling me how to rope in customers and have them pulling out their plastic before they can think are enough to give me some very blue moments of misanthropy.
Of course, the recipe of neo-conservatism calls for a generous leavening of religion (any religion will do, as long as it exerts those old-time restraints against anti-social behavior: Original Religion Lite). Shadia Drury has recently penned an interesting book about the thought of neo-conservatism’s grandsire, Leo Strauss. I am wholly unversed in Strauss’s philosophical bequest, but I tend to take Drury at her word about it, first because she is a sound scholar, and second because what she says tallies with what I have seen. I believe she is entirely correct, therefore, that religion for the neo-conservative is a strong desideratum not because all the world’s vanities must fall prostrate before its higher summons, but because it is, rather, the glue which holds this great capitalist generator of secular bliss together. It channels ruinous concupiscence into market-making greed and gluttony, sterile envy into what we call "motivation": it keeps the family together and makes the neighborhood pick trash off its lawns (or pay to have someone pick it off). It also allows a hard-working, prosperous citizenry to view material success as the fulfillment of a holy covenant rather than as an obstacle to spiritual maturity. It makes people behave themselves out of a sense of communal expectation without tormenting them over the tawdriness of motive behind their behavior.
I have paraphrased Drury for the sake of brevity and emphasis. I wish to quote her directly at a particular point, however, which seems to undermine a crucial insight into neo-conservatism. Here is her assessment of the conservative orientation’s liabilities:
Now, Drury does not advance this capsulized criticism to distinguish between neo- and proto-conservatism. Though the Mills dig at Tories obviously belongs to an earlier time (a time, in fact, when one could be a Millist progressive without having to apologize for our nightmarish modern experiments in social engineering), her intent seems to be that neo-conservatives have preserved this much of their ancestral plumage. As a description of abiding conservative traits, the passage strikes me as needlessly argumentative. That the conservative hangs on to values "whose rationale is all but totally lost" hardly seems a fair measure, for instance, of Jonathan Swift or of La Rochefoucauld, whose suspicion of human nature was no less profound for being legendary. John Locke, to be sure, believed the human mind to be a blank slate before culture and environment scribble all over it; but as much can certainly not be said of Plato, or even Aristotle—and in what sense could anyone be dubbed a custodian of Western tradition who rejected both of those two (and with them, almost every shred of patristic and scholastic philosophy)? Immanuel Kant was clearly as immersed in this tradition as he was critically supplemental to it. One might object—many nowadays will immediately object, I am sure—that Kant is as vigorously disavowed by contemporary conservatives as he is arrogantly ignored by contemporary liberals. The former cannot forgive him for making sense of the classical heritage (especially the ethical heritage, which he absolutely insists on severing from such perceptible phenomena as voices from golden clouds) in the very way which Drury finds lacking in their approach. The latter have simply airbrushed him from history for being a despicable "universalist" (which, by happy coincidence, excuses them from the labor of actually trying to read him).
I should not like to detain this discussion in arguing that Kant’s critical idealism is the zenith of that analytical conservatism which embraces classical liberalism. One "ism" too many could easily halt my broader argument in a fatal doldrums. I am content to observe here simply that raising rigid barriers around schools of thought can be highly subjective and self-serving. Let me put it this way, using Kant as the wedge behind which my greater point may enter. If one actually reads the man’s work—not one of two passages, or even one or two treatises, but a substantial part of his corpus—one cannot seriously doubt that Kant a) believes that moral duty must always preempt material tendency and aesthetic pleasure, b) considers such duty to justify the supposition of a supernatural and supremely good power, and c) regards all possible human progress as ultimately indexed to this duty and this power. In other words, Kant maintains that people will become better because they will strive after moral improvement, and that they will strive after moral improvement because, as beings granted freedom by and under an all-good power, they have no higher destiny.
What has this to do with Fichte and Hegel, let alone Marx and other social engineers with whom some conservatives have joined Kant? The views outlined above certainly do not amount to a license to overhaul society from the ground up, or even to an admission that such overhaul is possible. In its totality, Kant’s stance is a principled prohibition against despair—than which, of course, nothing could be more conventionally Christian. It is a solution—a version of the only solution—to the great enigma of faith: i.e., how do you find the energy to fight battles which will mostly be lost in a war which has already been won? If Kant rejects despair at the secular level of this great struggle, he rejects complacency at the metaphysical level. We must actively hope in a goodness not of this world—which means that we must strive after it, that it may become a little more of this world.
A conservative who cannot accommodate this solution has conserved nothing worth having. His neo-conservatism might as well be called pseudo-conservatism—a set of barrenly atavistic postures struck for their effect upon others rather than for their expression of an inwardly felt truth. And such is just what Drury has described as essential conservatism throughout the ages: review her angular portrait, and you will find not a glimmer of inner conviction in the smug Dutch merchant who sits for it. Why not? Because Drury has refused to paint fine detail—because she herself is a professed liberal of the old school who has neither abandoned rationality nor conceded it to the other side? I think not. I think her pseudo-conservative portrayal of conservatism is actually a fine likeness of neo-conservatism. The atavistic pose of her subject has beguiled her: she has assumed that his grandsires really did look the same. The rejection of Kantian rationalism by these young upstarts is scarcely more typical of principled conservatism than the rejection of all rationality whatever is of classical liberalism. John Calvin tossed out Plato with one hand while slipping the other around Cicero’s shoulder: his "repudiation" of inner enlightenment in favor of phenomenal revelation was petulant, sporadic, and self-contradictory. Enter the affected "returns" to the fundamentals which cropped up throughout the twentieth century. Karl Barth surpassed Calvin in the process of reviving him. Patron saint of the soi-disant conservative movement after World War II called neo-orthodoxy, Barth mounted an opposition to conscientious reflection and rational analysis which was consistently belligerent (and would probably have left Erasmus’s star pupil aghast). His new following—his neo-conservative sectarians who have joined hands with the Jewish eudemonists of Irving Krystol’s camp—continue to eat it all up.
Again I ask, why? Why is neo-conservatism so heavily invested in mimicking the antediluvian religion of a patriarch who chats daily with God even as its faithful build Websites, juggle cell phones in their mini-vans, and divorce at rates exceeding those of the general populace? Is the disparity itself the explanation—have these people advanced so far into the postmodern limbo of constant harrowing change and gaudy, raucous surface without substance that they have compensated by creating a primitivism of mythic proportions? Where young liberals have responded to chaos by letting down their hair and streaking through the wilderness with cries of "Euhoe!", have conservatives answered by raising a marble edifice in the city’s center and chiseling "Nomos" across the architrave?
I wrote earlier that a religious veneer gives the economic conservative the comfort of thinking his affluence ordained from on high and the security of seeing his fellow congregants denied the more spectacular forms of anti-social behavior. I was not being entirely serious then, for I doubt that such cold calculation of self-interest enters the neo-conservative’s head at a time when his neo-liberal adversaries are running amuck. On both sides, rather, I suspect the bedrock motives of being quite visceral. The hostility of both to rationality clearly calls for that conclusion. If Messrs. Schwartz and Singleton are right and the new generation of liberals despises its absent or emasculated fathers, perhaps the new generation of conservatives longs for a father who exercises arbitrary and absolute control. These zealots do not want a God who sits at their bedside and soothes, "Why fear the dark? You’ve seen all that surrounds you during the day. Whatever else creeps out with the shadows is something you yourself have put there…." No: this requires too much steady, concentrated effort, I suppose, of a terrified child who cannot stop shaking. And so the Father, as a non-negotiable element of the faith, must solemnly declare, "Of all ghouls and goblins that haunt the night, I forbid a single one from harming a single hair upon thy head!" There, now: evil spirits exorcised, doubts eradicated, case closed. That the divine fiat is wholly arbitrary, its power wholly incomprehensible, makes it all the more reassuring. In a word, it is inhuman—and the human is precisely what dismays us most. We want something utterly not us to make being us as safe as when a magnificent figure leans over a toddler and lifts the child into the sky with a laugh.
A poignant image… and, if we never knew such a father on earth, perhaps a pathetic one. But it is also dangerous in its disparagement of the human ability to understand—the moral obligation to attempt understanding (part of which attempt is discovering just what we cannot understand: Kantian critique, in other words). We must get over this self-indulgent craving to be little children again, to be excused seventy-times-seven of our tantrums and solecisms and fears of the bogey man. The neo-liberals among us must stop thinking it important that they "feel threatened" and, instead, assume some resilience and dignity. The neo-conservatives among us must stop thinking it the objective voice of God when they "feel called" to do something against responsible counsel or in defiance of others’ claims upon their loyalty. We must all grow up. To be sure, those who do not become as a little child will never enter the kingdom of heaven; but since when did any child want to remain a child? The distinctive quality of child-like innocence is its self-oblivion, its headlong pursuit of an admired adult state without being the least daunted by its incapacity to wear such big shoes. My little boy wants very much not to cry when he hurts himself: he wants to "be a man". I dread the day when he entertains the insight that most of the adults around him are lustily broadcasting their loves, hates, fears, and wants to all the world with the narcissism of a spoiled brat.
In calling for reason from both sides—from the one anti-rational phalanx that they form—I am not denouncing sentiment. As was said somewhere in our last issue of Praesidium, a deliberate emotion is actually a more sincere, profound, and humane emotion. What I deplore in contemporary American culture is not the reign of feeling, but the kind of feeling which reigns: impulsive, shallow, egocentric, implacable, tasteless, and disastrous to both self and others. Thoughtful people have finer emotions. The music of Vivaldi or Beethoven or (my personal favorite, however decadent Richard Weaver finds him) Debussy is not unemotional just because it doesn’t jerk out physiological response at the rate of rap music. Otherwise, why not make a symphony out of detonating bombs? The art of Titian or Vermeer or Friedrich is not unemotional just because it doesn’t represent a familiar icon in media that induce vomiting. We need to recover our reason so that we may reclaim a finer quality of emotion. A rag-tag bunch of juvenile derelicts with stupendous funding behind it which succeeds in murdering 5000 people seems an unlikely delivery system for this message. In a way, though, it is fully appropriate: its self-absorbed, exhibitionist thuggery is the logical conclusion of campus anti-logic, and its self-righteous, ostentatious bibliolatry is the logical extension of Big Tent illogic. Al Qaeda is a glimpse at what our Left could become: small wonder that the PC crowd sprang to its defense, for ideologues dream in cataclysm. The Taliban is a glimpse at what our Right could become: small wonder that American fundamentalists want every trace of it expunged from the earth, for it could eventually be a rival gang fighting for the same Far Eastern turf.
How do we recover reason? If diagnosing the sources of our irrationality is as complex a task as I suggested earlier, then what chance have we of a simple cure? I recur to Kant. Each of us, as an individual, is responsible for his or her choices. Whatever degree of conditioning may have been inflicted upon us by family or peers or culture, we can always start out the new day by proclaiming, "I’ve had enough of wearing this crowd’s livery: today I change." We must all wear someone’s livery, to be sure: even Robin Hood’s men wore Lincoln green. It is our duty, nevertheless, to insist that the greater powers to which we pledge allegiance adhere to certain minimal principles. Many would rather accept the colors than responsibility for the ideas and actions nourished under them. In any given situation, many—perhaps most—human beings are weak-willed. We must recognize that our groups do not usurp our will, but merely express it. Everything they do with our approval is something we are doing. We must gravely ask ourselves if we can bear the consequences of that reflection.
In my opinion, the remaining classical liberals who refuse to admit that their project is now essentially conservative, given the virulence of the assault on rationality, need to consider the consequences of their position. Shadia Drury is pleased to label the more oppressive strains of the PC crusade as something vaguely right-wing. There are one or two good reasons for that claim: but it is not broadcast resonantly by her coterie, and almost never in those quarters where it might do some good (that is, where it would create an uproar). Besides, the fact remains that the avant-garde has only oppression of inquiry in common with some of the Right. The core notion that all history is a conspiracy and all discourse propaganda is as counter-conservative as it is anti-rational. No doubt, Drury would like to elbow (or finesse with the proverbial ten foot pole) her camp’s holy warriors off the ledge where they perch precariously in the hope that some fourth dimension would carry them back up on the Far Right. In campus curriculum wars, however, her crew puts up the weakest of fights and immediately rolls over at the first shout of "Racist!" or "Sexist!" In politics, it tags along on a leash as candidates make extravagant appeals to helter-skelterites. On the social front, it smuggles its offspring off to private school in a more fuel-efficient line of vans and provides condoms for Courtney’s coed sleep-over just in case a profane pair or two may take in vain those giggly reassurances that everyone is "just friends". With friends like this—with friends like themselves—why do moderate liberals imagine that they need conservatives for enemies?
Neo-conservatism, which at least talks publicly about repealing the rule of hysteria, wants to ensure major change by preempting mass vacillation with an unquestionable and irrevocable command. Since the command’s authority, however, may neither be examined nor doubted, this strategy only extends the rule of hysteria. How can you not doubt what you have not examined? On the contrary, only by examining something can you locate its assumptions—its working axioms—and decide if these deserve to be doubted because of their great number or because of their tendency to impair rather than elicit good conduct. In my opinion (frankly, it is a conviction with me), Christianity requires very few assumptions to make sense of life’s mysteries; and it also pulls our contradictory human motives—our fear and lust and envy, our guilt and self-loathing and very occasional eagerness to trade our death for another’s life—into a coherent and productive forward surge. I cannot understand why any conscientious, practicing Christian would applaud, or even tolerate, manic displays in the pulpit when the case for faith can be made with such harmony and such profundity—with such intelligent emotion. The present trend toward irrationally ungrounded and unlimited trust in a higher power to arrange one’s physical safety, comfort, and prosperity is simply an alternative kind of PC cultism. The campus radical demands perfect sexual experiences, perfect jobs with perfect pay and hours, perfect civility on all occasions: the pious eudemonist has unshakable confidence that all his diseases will be cured, all aspects of his marriage and family life blessed, and all his financial pressures resolved. There isn’t enough space between the two to insert a fuse.
For neo-conservatism’s flight from "reckless individualism" always comes full circle: self-preoccupation always draws a large following, and crowd-followers are always courting a selfish desire to escape themselves. Sparing a tender heart and an untrained mind the "anguish" of private reflection doesn’t ensure a well-integrated, communally directed person farther down the line: it ensures, rather, a shallow community whose dominant concerns are no less selfish for being general. A girl who has been saved from the challenges of great books may want the same liposuction as her friends are having, and may want it to make all the boys of her acquaintance happier. Is this, then, self-sacrifice? By the same token, a poorly read young person who is taught to approach God in prayer with all his wants and never doubt of their fulfillment will end up composing a Christmas list wherein money and popularity are sure to figure prominently. For true character and genuine spirituality, the results of such a catechism are calamitous.
Descartes was able to peer inside himself in the Meditations and find both God and his fellow man. Such discoveries, he claimed, are based on common sense, which is "the best distributed thing in the world." The neo-orthodox and neo-conservative equation of inward study with self-absorption is a direct assault upon moral reason, which requires a painfully acute analysis of personal motives in all circumstances. With attacks like this from within Western society, who needs terrorists?
On Left and Right both—but especially on the Right, where tradition enjoys a good name even if it is little respected—we must strive to recover the sense of a higher purpose, a moral duty whose roots extend beyond the depths of our personal being to a metaphysical author. We must seek (to use Kant’s contrast) "anthroponomy" over anthropology. In today’s correct-speak, we must labor to see that cultural diversity leads us toward, not away from, our common humanity: we must devotedly study the fixed stars behind history’s variegated fireworks—not the spectacular differences which can so easily blind us to our shared mission. Many, I repeat, will resist the new emphasis (the old emphasis renewed), or will be too blunt to see beyond the spectacle. We must try, then, to court a larger few, and cease being consumed by the movements of the many. The many are always followers, in any case. The only real issue is whether the thoughtful will debase themselves in concocting schemes which feign mass enlightenment, much to the delight of fools and the consternation of the lost; or whether, instead, they will tell the truth and leave the masses to grumble over an unwanted challenge. I submit that it is our inescapable duty to pose the challenge and withstand the grumbling.
Allow me to underscore with my closing words the painful divisions and continued strife to be expected of such truth-telling. I am not advocating peace at all costs, but ascent at all costs. I am not proposing that we "reach out" to Muslims or "sit down" with Hindus, but that we insist upon the service of goodness in our own acts and welcome it gratefully when we find it in others’ acts. The critical line of differentiation which I see running through human affairs does not respect skin color or choice of holidays or number of genuflections in the temple. It cuts right through the grain of every major religious faith, rather, stirs complacent neighborhoods into unrest, and pits members of families one against another. Good men who mitigate a bellicose passage of the Koran will be denounced by the weak-minded and the politically devious as betraying The Prophet. Good men and women who dare to assert that the true God could never have intended Abraham to sacrifice his son will be denounced by the same parties in Christendom and Judaism—the many who are too dull and the few who are altogether too shrewd—as blasphemers against holy writ. The position I recommend is not middle-of-the-road, come-together appeasement. It is intelligent, energetic, uncompromising service of moral right. Conservatism and liberalism are not two polarities whose bisecting I urge in high Aristotelian fashion. Both, rather, have put other things before goodness, or perhaps have reverted to that paleolithic definition of goodness as "feeling good". I argue for feeling bad, instead—lonely, beleaguered, ignored, slandered, persecuted—whatever it takes, so long as the right thing gets done. To be exact, we should learn how not to feel bad when doing good rather than how to avoid feeling bad as we find ourselves now.
We of the West are no longer tough enough: is that what the Third World has been saying about us? If so, then its furious voices are correct—but not, I suspect, in any sense that most of them understand.
1 See pp. 405-406 of Die Metaphysik der Sitten in Kants Werke, vol. 6 (Berlin; Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 203-494.
2 Cf. Noel Perrin, Giving Up the Gun (Boston: Godine, 1979). I am indebted to Peter Singleton’s Return to Chivalry (Tyler, TX: Arcturus P, 2001) for bringing this splendid little book to my attention.
3 Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1948), 181.
4 Simply because it is at hand, I might cite from the introduction of David Walsh’s powerful book, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (Washington: Catholic U of America P, 1995), such phrases as "driving passion for messianic self-salvation", "the expansion of individual egotism", and "the destructive delusions of self-perfection" (see 1-7). I would strongly recommend this brave, original study to anyone who honors truth. My point is merely that it has become a locus communis to attribute our postmodern self-absorption to the individualist tradition of self-analysis, whereas I find ample evidence that self-absorbed people do very little analysis of any kind.
5 See and Howard S. Schwartz, The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001); and Peter T. Singleton, op. cit. (n. 1 above).
6 See Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999), 159.
7 Ibid., 159. If I may be permitted a marginal protest which is not at all irrelevant to the main issues of this essay, I would like to object to Drury’s characterizing of Strauss’s philosophy within a few pages of this passage: "The phalocratic character of Leo Strauss’s philosophy is undeniable" (167). The preposterous word "phalocratic" says virtually nothing, says it with crude provocation, and reflects an altogether typical habit of speech in liberal scholarship. If Drury means to maintain that Strauss’s ideas were unconsciously but significantly influenced by certain prejudices stemming from his masculinity, she should spend enough words to do so. The term she has chosen, instead, does him the abuse of alleging that he thought with his genitalia—a scurrility which defies rational construction except as a patent insult. We need not wonder how a feminist would respond to being labeled "cliterocratic" or "uterocentric"; and her furious indignation at such a term, in my opinion, would be fully justified. I realize that Drury did not begin this jargonized mud-slinging and is, indeed, only using the common parlance of her field. Nevertheless, to sloganeer the writings of an intelligent human being with a phrase like "Phalus rules!" partakes of the same vindictive hysteria as we see in the more volatile campus uprisings.
8 The ascription of a utopian faith to Kant has become almost universal among conservative scholars, who conclude that his wresting the Jacob’s ladder of moral knowledge from the rather low celestial vault of miraculous revelation in history must leave it inclined upon humanist and scientific ends. I do not entirely understand the stages of this deduction. I would guess that it is affected by Kant’s treatise, Zum ewigen Friedan (Toward Perpetual Peace), whose availability in translation suggests that it has crossed the path of many political science professors. Yet this work is directed at the conduct of nations and must be viewed, besides, against the backdrop of Machiavellian statecraft and unscrupulous protection of inherited privilege which colored the political landscape of Kant’s time. In other works composed throughout his life, he is both reluctant to extend an optimism about the possibility of individual moral progress to any political system and outspokenly opposed to all types of civil disorder. (See, for instance, the conclusion to Part One of Die Metaphysik der Sitten, where Kant warns that "to rebel against it [governmental authority] is nevertheless absolutely impermissible and criminal." For more on the subject, visit the online journal Anthropoetics for a 2002 special number [edited by Thomas Bertonneau] on Eric Voegelin, wherein my own paper about Kant offers this defense at length.) I must insist, then, that to speak of Kant in the same breath with starry-eyed poets of revolution is grossly ill-informed and unfair.
9 Cf. the early treatise (1759), Versuch einiger Betrachtungen über den Optimismus.
10 Cf. Kant, Die Metaphysik der Sitten: "For by this method [i.e., adhering to the Golden Mean] moral quality is not determined; on the contrary, all depends on whether or not conduct is in proper accord with duty." (Op. cit., 404.)
Academentia: Making History
Mary Grabar is putting the finishing touches on her dissertation at the University of Georgia, Athens, where she also repels Vandals from the redoubt of freshman composition. We ask, by the way, that admirers of former president Clinton observe how her criticisms of that charismatic figure originate in and focus upon her concerns as a woman: this is scarcely a political diatribe. Surely any fair person would admit that, all things considered, Mr. Clinton’s conduct toward women was reviewed with a benignly blind eye by current Gestapo standards.
Never debate a former 1960s protestor who was "there" and helped bring the government "to its knees". The aging radical will fall back on his old tactics.
The conversation began innocently enough last summer at a pickin’ party/pig roast in an idyllic farm setting in rural Georgia. It’s an annual event and I got invited because I belong to a group that promotes old-time music and folk dances. At such gatherings, I find myself sharing my love of traditional music and dance and some liberal concerns such as land preservation and ecology with men wearing skirts and women who think this Grateful Dead-inspired fashion is sexy. I avoid political discussions, so I maintain friendships (though during one conversation my aesthetic objection to flowery skirts flowing over hairy legs encased in tube socks was insistently attributed to my narrow upbringing). We have a good time dancing, and though I have my doubts about the effectiveness of "dances for peace" that are sometimes held by the same participants (except of course for the peace among the dancers themselves), such a setting is the most conducive I know to having people of all political persuasions "get along". Other than church, I know of no place where I feel safer than at a dance weekend.
The day began with my usual Saturday morning visit to the tiny local organic farmers’ market for fixings of the potluck.
The radical and I had met once before. The conversation began with work. He teaches geology and environmental science at a local college. The latter piqued my interest. I told him about a paper I had presented the previous weekend on T.S. Eliot’s concept of environmentalism, as he spelled it out in his "Idea of a Christian Society". I also told him about my frustration in trying to find an anthology for a special topics freshman composition class I had devised that would include the environmental point of view of someone like Eliot; the anthologies I had found had three sections: animal rights, deep ecology, and ecofeminism. All three views start from an anti- Christian premise and reject the idea of anthropomorphism, while purportedly attempting to change the "consciousness" of readers. All wrongly assume that environmentalism started in the 1960s.
I made the mistake of telling the radical this before knowing his history. Though I claimed to be an environmentalist, I also admitted to being conservative and Christian.
The latter two aspects negated the first for him.
Though the radical had never heard of, much less read, the pre-1960s writers like Richard Weaver or John Ruskin that I mentioned, he insisted that the environmental movement had started in the 1960s because that’s when people’s "consciousness" began to change. Innocently, I thought that this teacher of environmental science might have been interested to hear what a Victorian had to say about the environmental and social havoc wreaked by industrialism.
The conversation moved to a general lauding of the sixties. He took partial credit for the civil rights movement and ending the war in Vietnam.
Since I had been doing research for my dissertation that involved the history of the 1960s for my chapter on Gravity’s Rainbow, I told him that it was my impression that the civil rights movement had started before the white sixties radicals got involved and that some historians and political scientists believe that the sixties protest movement actually prolonged the war in Vietnam.
"Who are these authors?" he demanded.
I gave him names of scholars.
He dismissed them as part of some right-wing conspiracy and quoted Ho Chi Minh’s statement about the impossibility of the U.S. winning the war.
Then began the charges typical of the sixties radicals once you challenge their view of history. I was castigated as a right-wing fundamentalist on the side of corporations and overall repression of freedom. My references to specific writers and titles, either pre-sixties or conservative, fell on deaf ears.
He accused me of believing in "God, work, and the family". I replied, "What’s wrong with that?"
"You probably even like John Ashcroft!" I asked him what problems he had with Ashcroft. He named an organization that he alleged was racist. The charges against John Ashcroft range from his associations with Southern Partisan to his sinister background as a composer of hymns, as an exposé by The New York Times—with entire verses as evidence—revealed.
The radical, with the years having added some girth to the six-foot-plus frame, morphed from a placid banjo player to an enraged boy. He began shouting. I had to walk away.
I removed myself and sat down with a retired professor, his wife, and sister-in-law who was in a wheelchair. Not mentioning my conversation, I said something about the state of academia, that history is taught as if it began in the 1960s. The woman in the wheelchair smiled and said, "They were just teenagers. They thought they invented sex." The makers of the movie Pleasantville, promoting the revisionist history of the radicals, would have us believe that everyone in the 1950s was a repressed Puritan. (Then see the realistic 1970s representation in The Virgin Suicides of a beautiful teenage girl deflowered on prom night and left by Narcissus to wake up alone on the football field.)
Clearly, something emotional was going on. I had struck a nerve with this unmarried, childless man in his late forties. As a woman, not only did I symbolize potential confinement and restriction of his unlimited male freedom, but I was a bad woman—one who overtly championed the idea of "God, work, and family". I was not even like most of the women he had probably dated: women who would grant this bad boy of the sixties all the privileges he had come to expect, up to co-habitation and then abortion if necessary.
But his type are all around us.
Paul C. Vitz, in Psychology as Religion, exposed the aggressiveness that the focus on the self bred among men (and women). The cult of the self as evidenced in therapy and books that, in short, advocated looking out for number one produced a generation of men who never emerged from the egotistic and narcissistic stage of adolescence. The hostility and rage that Vitz had diagnosed in 1977 have been compounded by the passage of time.
Some of the radicals, though, express some regret for protesting against their own country but attribute the phase to misguided youthful ideals in the midst of overwhelming peer pressure. Last year, the novelist Pat Conroy had published an essay expressing these sentiments in Reader’s Digest; he claimed that instead of protesting against the Vietnam War, he should have done what his buddy did and fight in the war. But some still insistently cling to their own notions: any "progress" not yet realized is due to the incompleteness of the revolution. One suspects a defensiveness about a less than glorious past: of converging barefoot and shouting against your government while your parents are supporting you.
They are still in rebellion. Many of the men who imbibed the predominant ethos of draft-dodging of the sixties or disco-dancing of the seventies now find themselves single and childless. They are angry and don’t know why the chicks who would "do it" with men who refused to fight are no longer chicks. In their anger, the women have turned to worshiping themselves in the form of goddesses or have surpassed the rebels in terms of job titles, real estate, and 401(k)’s.
The latest psychobabble directed to women who love too much or love the wrong man is that the need for someone to complement their traits and protect them really indicates the need to nurture that aspect in themselves. So the desire for a member of the species with more muscle mass than you have indicates the need to develop your own muscles. While the advice to exercise more is probably good in most situations, women now are counseled to become emotional and physical hermaphrodites. Nurture yourself, we are told. Don’t depend on anyone. Men like "independent" women.
Former male rebels without a cause have told me that allowing a man to buy me lunch is the equivalent of prostitution (the category into which marriage has also been cast). That women "use" men to have babies. That no one in his right mind would get married without a pre-nuptial that would detail the fair distribution of property, down to deciding who gets the couch and who gets the recliner (with a clause in the event that there are two couches and a recliner, or two recliners and a couch, etc.). Similarly, women insist on paying their share of the restaurant tab and insist on an equal payment from the man in terms of potatoes peeled for dinner. Babies are had at their convenience. The mutual stand-off is described in the more nebulous terms as "fear of commitment" and "problems with intimacy", problems which have provided the material for many therapists, book contracts, and radio advice talk shows.
Granted this is my experience with a selective pool. I, after all, am referring to single, heterosexual, middle-aged men. But whereas in times past such a man was a rarity, today many such men choose this state. Marriage, because it involves duties to "God, work, and family", might interfere with the principles they attempt to adhere to: self, fun, and freedom. Or they will complain that they cannot find the "right" woman: i.e., one to take on Mommy’s role: as provider of creature comforts for when Johnny comes home from play. To be fair, I know men who have tried to meet women’s demands that they become more like women (i.e., "sensitive"); but such men are usually ruined, either by capitulating and then whining about "feelings" or becoming defensive and angry—or else (the worst combination) by turning whiner and pseudo-he-man men’s rights advocate. Men in their thirties have their own quirks, I am sure. But the free-wheeling sixties and seventies—the decades of "make love, not war"—seem to have produced a group of single men, who, despite their attempts at Buddhist meditation, yoga, release therapy, and sitar lessons, are very angry.
Pat Conroy’s statement of if-I-could-change-things-I-would was one I had heard from a former ashram member, hitchhiker, acid-dropper, daily pot-smoker, ex-social worker, now "healer", "psychic", and men’s rights advocate. Months before its publication in Reader’s Digest, he had sent me a copy of Conroy’s essay which had been circulating through an e-mail list-serve. During the presidential campaign, my friend had castigated John McCain for his "traitorous" behavior while prisoner of war. Even former domestic terrorist and Pentagon bomber, Bill Ayers, now Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois and Director of Center for Youth and Society, has the audacity to broach Bob Kerrey’s behavior in Vietnam.
But the man before me did not even grant the Conroy-ian pseudo-admission of youthful misjudgment. At forty-eight, he stood as firm in his conviction as he had at eighteen years old. He was still the rebel who had made history by that brilliant stroke of genius that had inspired his peers: to change the world by gathering themselves into a mob to force a democratic government to "its knees".
The position of the anti-hero is either in the middle of the mob or on its fringes. In either case, his identity as a man with a place in a social order is obviated. He can lose himself in some back alley alone and experience the rush after the needle has found the vein, or he can find himself in the midst of a throng and experience the rush of power that comes from losing himself in its frenzy.
* * *
The 1960s produced its own twisted version of the hero: the stoned-out drop-out who screamed he would not fight in a war, or study for tests, or support a family. In retrospect, I realize my protestor-interlocutor was assuming that I, like most women in his social circle, would view his history as heroic. I did not, and he was deeply insulted. His students, I am sure, look adoringly at him as he regales them with stories about "changing history", though they are not mature enough to question how being loud, obnoxious, and intimidating en masse is really a courageous act.
Heroism itself has changed. The "reality" shows that re-enact gladiatorial contests where men and women "survive" by physical and emotional subterfuge present mini-dramas of life in the workplace and sometimes home. Women break through the glass ceiling through guerilla business tactics or gain tenure through "scholarship" that engages in warfare with every critic coming before them (now even with earlier "mothers" of feminist criticism; nastiness somehow has a way of coiling back like a snake). "Courage" has been changing indeed: eat fried rat on a staged Galapagos Islands.
The recent re-definition of courage by Susan Sontag and others to include the terrorists who fly airplanes through buildings is really an extension of the sixties reversal. Heroism was a notion ostensibly ridiculed by these anti-heroes and then changed in meaning to suit their purposes. Any act of rebellion was therefore categorized as courageous.
But the middle-aged, who no longer have parents to rebel against, must put themselves into the role of heroes. Just as the definition of "courage" is changed from meaning selfless acts to protect the weaker to meaning crazed terrorism that kills the weaker, the definition of heroism is changed as well.
One can, like Pat Conroy, chalk up his own past of less-than-exemplary warrior heroism to being misled by peer pressure and claim from the safe perspective of middle age that one would do things differently now.
Or one can continue to insist that protesting was more heroic than going off to Vietnam. One was fighting the enemy: the "military-industrial complex". In a parallel move, communism has to be recast as a nebulous, and probably more just, form of government. What is important in terms of the new heroism is defying the traditional order, questioning and then subverting traditional notions of right and wrong. If one does not do this, does not agree with the sixties radicals, then one is "following like sheep", which my interlocutor indeed accused me of doing. The government was the real enemy and these protestors were engaged in guerrilla warfare.
Those buzz phrases remain in my mind as they were shouted at me that summer day: "following like sheep", "changing history", "bringing the government to its knees," "John Ashcroft", "God, work, and family". I have known too many such men—often the most liberal and claiming feminist credentials. There is something scary about a man shouting down a woman, though I have never known one who was conservative to do it, as much as he disagreed with me. But shouting was the predominant form of protest in the sixties; it’s part of letting it all hang out. My debater was continuing to practice what he probably had been doing with his mother, sisters, and ex-girlfriends.
College students, I have found, do not question the version of history promoted by those like my interlocutor: the vaguely idealistic goals of "brotherhood" and "love", nor the Marxist means proposed to achieve them, expressed in "The Port Huron Statement", a position paper of the Students for a Democratic Society, that presumed through its sweep to rewrite the New Testament. The music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan is still popular with them. In contrast, one cannot imagine a teenager of the sixties listening to anything that old and dated—from his parents’ generation, yet! (Another tribute to George Harrison on NPR as I write this; one of those insipid commentaries by a mother of a small child who ends by pointing to the "wisdom of youth" as her three-year-old comments that George and John are dead together.) One of my better students approvingly quoted in a paper the now sixty-year-old lyrics of Bob Dylan’s (né Zimmerman before the image change): "Come mothers and fathers, throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand… your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your road is rapidly aging. Please get out of a new one if you can’t understand, for the times they are a-changin’."
These students have a vague belief that every right and freedom they have is due to the efforts of the guitar-strumming saints of the sixties. But with the elimination of standard courses on American and European history (unless it is the multicultural fare of presenting these cultures as oppressive), they have nothing against which to gage the version of the sixties propagandists. Certainly, these students will not get a different perspective if they are taking classes in environmental science from my debater.
Their teachers, still caught up in their adolescent narcissistic desires to be the center of the universe, insist that history began with them, when they began making it. Don DeLillo captures such self-infatuation of tenured radicals in his satirical novel, White Noise, in such scenes as a lunch gathering of middle-aged adolescent men who throw food at each other while they discuss the glory-studded events of their youths—where they were when James Dean died, and where they were when they brushed their teeth with their fingers: the "seminal events… Woodstock, Altamont, Monterey."1 As recent college offerings on such banal and trite topics as Oprah Winfrey and The Simpsons indicate, the curriculum is changed to include any and all topics, topics akin to those DeLillo’s academics work to implement in their own courses: the "ethos of the road" and "the culture of public toilets."2 Students have been taught that to be naked and stoned is the ultimate form of resistance and heroism. But each generation of radicals must surpass the older one. It is no wonder that the children of the original Woodstock generation (those who could afford to travel and buy pot) destroyed the cash machines and other property at their Woodstock II concert a couple years ago.
* * *
As our conversation had become heated, I had tried to find some common ground. I had told my interlocutor that I had at one time been in a landscape architecture program. I had told about my discoveries in my research, that some of the same concerns that his generation was voicing in violent and chaotic form had been voiced reasonably and with knowledge by those like Richard Weaver. Though there was far from total agreement, older conservatives (not the free-market, self-gratification apologists one associates with conservatism today) voiced some of the same concerns that the radicals did about rampant corporatism, materialism, alienation, consumerism, environmental destruction, and mechanized warfare. But I should have known better. "Woodstock nation", as Abbie Hoffman proclaimed, would not engage in linear, rational, Western thought and read philosophy and history. So my references to Ruskin, Eliot, and Weaver were to no avail. In the sixties, "poet-warriors" would declaim feelings on the streets and in coffeehouses. Now the beats’ dictum of "first thought, best thought" is heard in poetry slams, MLA panels, and classrooms across the country. And I was encountering the self-righteous wrath of one of its veterans personally.
As displayed by my interlocutor (as well as by refereed journals and hiring committees at the most prestigious universities), the claims to openness, free thought, non-judgmentalism, like all absolute claims to relativism, are self-negating. While an adolescent may be humored to a point in his attempts to think independently or not be "brainwashed", as he might misguidedly put it, prolonging the rebelliousness that rejects all standards except its own into middle age implies the opposite of its intended effect.
Such claims become simple assertions of power, and like all assertions of power, carry threats of violence. DeLillo satirically presents his academics as "thug-like", with qualities akin to Mafiosi and brown shirts.
On a practical level, the tenured radicals have control of most of the universities and dictate what students will learn. But unlike the presumably authoritarian strictures of a traditional curriculum, which looks to a historical consensus on what is the best that has been thought, these curriculum changes are made arbitrarily—by none other than those who "were there". And their qualifications need not be more than having been there (or now for younger academics to just share their sympathies), notwithstanding a certain technical proficiency that has come to substitute for wisdom. (I am sure my interlocutor was an adequate geologist.)
While these new heroes of the self attempt to extricate themselves from duties to God, family, and country, they elevate themselves as that one to whom duty and honor should be shown. Self-help shelves sag with tomes that are variations on "Women Who Love Too Much", i.e., "at all", which emerged from the earlier genre of "Look Out for #1". The message to women is to match men in selfishness.
Now the former peaceniks, like my debater, I have found, are not bleeding heart liberals (that’s where women’s misplaced compassion goes), but libertarians. But libertarianism, though on the surface falling into the conservative category, is really suited to the demands of these Peter Pans. They use it to justify shirking financial as well as moral responsibility. They did have to get jobs eventually, and now, rather than clamoring for government programs (for which daddy is no longer paying taxes), they want to keep the money for themselves. Their protests against taxation are not based on a philosophical quarrel with how the money is spent, but rather with the idea that they cannot keep all the money for themselves. They also do not believe in contributing to charities (unless maybe it’s the ACLU. or another organization that would fight for their freedoms), or in tithing, or supporting children. (They might chip in for the girlfriend’s abortion, relieved that the amount is minuscule in comparison to eighteen years of child support payments.) They claim the libertarian ethos of rugged individualism but have had college educations paid for by parents and may have started their own businesses in the homes of girlfriends long discarded after the entrepreneur was able to pay his own rent.
The "spiritual paths" follow the self in a similar way. Zen Buddhism is a favorite. So is anything New Age or anything that mimics the "feel-good" seminars of the seventies. Anything with repressive "thou shalt nots" is out. Commandments might make them feel guilty about their behavior to women and country and, presumably, carry the danger of making them "follow like sheep".
Indeed, they have no Good Shepherd to follow. As they refuse to follow any authority, they place themselves into that role. Hence, rules change according to their own whims: for marriage, fidelity, support of children. But could anything less be claimed for those who presumed the authority to change "consciousness" itself? No wonder that the former "consciousness" changers have become self-described psychics, shamans, astrologers, and healers. The pool of available middle-aged men seems to be filled with those who will predetermine that the relationship will not work out because of your sign, your childhood, or aura. Not surprisingly, many of these men are suspicious and accusatory on matters ranging from fidelity to ulterior motives for marriage.
The old strictures of order, respect, and compassion that emanated from a Judeo-Christian tradition have been replaced by constant rebellion, suspicion, and manipulation. Underlying it all is the perpetual adolescent’s egotistic desire for power.
* * *
Though I claim responsibility for making stupid "choices" for whatever reasons, and for going along with the dominant ethos at one time, I do not think that my experience is that unusual. The sixties ethos has seeped into the culture at large. I have seen my married peers go unthinkingly into the materialistic acquisitiveness and conformity for which their fathers were criticized; their changes are minor—"business casual" instead of the gray flannel suit (including for women) and a joint instead of a martini on the weekend. They are the "bobos", the bohemian bourgeois who buy the trappings of peasant culture, while enjoying the gadgets and luxuries technology has to offer. They’ll take a toke at a party while they worry aloud about their teenage daughters doing dangerous drugs or having birth control failures. They pass on the stories of their era to their children. A teenage Boy Scout glowingly related to me his father’s story of sixties heroism: about a graduating high school senior who stood on a chair during commencement to protest the administration’s policy of preventing those like himself, with long hair and beards and unkempt appearance, from walking across the stage to pick up diplomas. But the "social progress" evidenced by allowing someone who looks like Taliban John to parade across a stage during a graduation ceremony is a dubious one and is evidenced indeed today in a new policy of tolerance for various sorts of appearances of increasing outrageousness. I don’t know how much farther the children of these sixties heroes can go than the tattooing, hair-dying, piercing, and branding they have been inflicting on themselves.
Revolution is inherently violent, and sado-masochism, self-mutilation, and terrorism are an extension of the violence that undergirded the revolution of the sixties. Furthermore, violence was not an unfortunate, unforeseen outcome when flower-bearing, peace-loving children were forced up against the wall by the "establishment". Rather, violence was justified and advocated by some of the most respected intellectual leaders of the protest movements. The revered novelist Thomas Pynchon actually celebrated the Watts riots in the 1966 New York Times Magazine.3 Here, Pynchon, from the privileged perspective of someone "hip" (an attitude often nurtured by trust funds and Ivy League educations) presented the violence of Watts as justified and authentic. Assuming the empathetic stance of one of the oppressed, Pynchon wrote,
One wonders how much time the Cornell-educated young writer spent in Watts to present this authentic thumbnail sketch with the confidential "you".
The authorial stance of one among the "cats" veers into aesthetic appreciation:
One can imagine the readers of the Sunday New York Times appreciating Pynchon’s glimpse of "reality" of Watts and his assessment of the riot’s aesthetic qualities from their doorman-guarded penthouses or summer cottages on the Vineyard. Rioting since then, from the Rodney King riots to the lootings in Cincinnati, has similarly been rationalized from the distances of ivy-covered enclaves or security guard-manned editorial offices.
Those who have government supported round-the-clock bodyguards make similar pronouncements on cases of violence. Former President Bill Clinton’s rationalizations for the terrorist attacks of September 11, or at least his inappropriate pointing to the political sins of Western culture at a speech at Georgetown University last fall, drew the wrath of the right-wing. Many of the Clintonesque statements made on campuses that traced the terrorist attacks back to U.S. policies were gathered into a report put out by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Liberal commentators like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman called the ACTA’s report "hysterical", and implied that any criticism of the Left’s supposedly open views was being quashed by the radical right wing. (On the board of ACTA, Bookman suspiciously pointed out, sit Lynne Cheney, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and William Bennett.) Newspapers like the New York Times that covered the report quoted the more nebulous remarks repeated from campuses, and by implication charged ACTA with hysteria also. Bookman quotes a passage from the ACTA report that is presumably self-indicting: "Rarely did professors mention heroism, rarely did they discuss the difference between good and evil, the nature of Western political order or the virtue of a free society…. Indeed, the message of much of academe was clear: BLAME AMERICA FIRST." The key words quoted by Bookman to support the charge of "hysteria" are "heroism", "good and evil", "political order", and "virtue", terms the Left loves to scoff at.
Liberals use a different form of rhetoric, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out in Eugenics and Other Evils. This rhetoric masks such terms as killing with euphemisms like "choice", or "dignity". Chesterton was already onto their game in 1922. (Surely even some hysteria should be allowed in the wake of 3,000 deaths. To express no outrage at such a time is the pathological response.)
Bookman concludes after quoting the report,
Bookman, obviously, has not spent much time on campuses. The attitude of "honest discussion" goes so far only to grant prestigious chairs to "philosophers" like Princeton’s Peter Singer, who promotes infanticide and bestiality. Given the current climate, future "honest discussions" on campuses might entertain the equivalent of sending Grandma out on an ice float. But "honest discussions" do not go so far as to entertain the notion that euthanasia goes against divine law (the word most often stricken from discussion on campuses is "God"). They do not go so far as to include conservative views, including those who claim that some professors do "blame the United States for Sept. 11".
Bookman does not mention the fact that real "honest discussion" has already been squelched on campuses across the country. There is no dissent likely to come from the nineteen-year-old sitting in the environmental science class when his professor tells him the environmental movement started in the sixties. Nor is he likely to challenge the professor’s point that protestors like himself changed the world into a more harmonious, peaceful place to live. What does the nineteen-year-old have to compare it to? (Besides, he likes the fact that his parents buy him $40,000 toys to drive around in and let his girlfriend spend the weekends in his room.) The nineteen-year-old has not heard otherwise. The professor, who is in a position of authority, is likely to dismiss out–of-hand any suggestions to his own reading list that do not jibe with his egocentric world view.
This is a world view that has come to dominate education. Clinton’s speech, as an example of sophistic pandering, did not overtly promote treason; instead, it just presented another tallying up of the standard list of Western political sins (which could have been lifted from any seventh grade social studies textbook). Similarly, the "texts" disseminated in the classroom have the appearance of open-mindedness and objectivity. But by the fact that the radicals in power preclude the broaching of another view, the discussion is cut off—contrary to Bookman’s claims of "honest discussion".
Another text that students are not likely to be exposed to is Norman Mailer’s 1957 tract, "The White Negro", the position paper on the new male ethic that was to emerge in the sixties. Arguing for an existential authenticity, Mailer predicted that the "psychopath may indeed become the perverted and dangerous front-runner of a new kind of personality which could become the central expression of human nature before the twentieth century is over." For Mailer, the psychopath and part-psychopath attempt to overthrow western "sublimation" and "create a new nervous system for themselves." Aligning the psychopath’s impulses to the "Negro’s" (or Mailer’s stereotyped presentation of the jazz-playing proto-hippie sexual adventurer), who had been living between totalitarianism and democracy, Mailer then predicts the rise of the "hipster". But the hipster, because of his repressive society, must imbibe the values of the psychopath (it was society that was diagnosed as crazy in the 1960s, after all). The psychopath tries to live the "infantile fantasy" and by "instinctive wisdom"—wherever this takes him.
I can think of no clearer expression of the extreme claim for "authenticity". After all, if your feelings lead you to murder, then murder you must, implied Mailer. Indeed, the psychopath murders "if he has the courage".
Mailer acknowledges the counter-argument, that to murder a "weak fifty-year-old" candy store keeper who is likely to be the target for the authentic psychopath could be considered an act of cowardice. But then he offers the justification that one murders not just the man but
Already, in 1957, courage is associated with the courage to murder—for the American terrorist on American soil. The small-scale act of terrorism against the hallmarks of Western order (an "institution", "private property") that is rationalized by Mailer in 1957 is extended in 2001 to skyscrapers and jet planes. (A more outrageous example, cited in the ACTA report but not mentioned in the newspapers, was an assessment by City University’s George Lakoff of the "planes penetrating the towers with a plume of heat. The Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air. . . .")
The fact that some people are killed or hurt in the destruction of "institutions" and "private property" is secondary to the hipster’s quest for—ironically—love:
But such a search for the "Holy Grail" of the "apocalyptic orgasm" is fraught with "ambushes of violence" and "retaliations among the men and women among whom he lives his life," and thus becomes unattainable. (Ask any woman who has been with such a man.)
Society, therefore, must be changed. The hipster must replace the "square": "the hipster may come to see that his condition is no more than an exaggeration of the human condition, and if he would be free, then everyone must be free." Such freedom requires courage, though not the courage of old to live up to one’s duties to protect the weaker. Modeling this new-man-as-hipster on what he perceives to be the "Negro’s" position as outlaw and as violently and sexually authentic, Mailer writes,
Hip has, indeed, been absorbed into American life. Sex is now flaunted by twelve-year-old girls. Repression is the closest thing we have to sin. Norman Mailer is an esteemed literary lion. Rap, which promotes not only the orgasmic quest for "bitches" but the destruction of private property (except the rappers’ own), is reviewed as legitimate art in the pages of The New York Times. Today, hip has been absorbed to the point that only fuddy-duddy enemies of the First Amendment would object to the language of the rapsters’ expressions of authentic rage. The sixties radicals made the world safe for rap and pornography.
Sixties ideology and the version of history—that it was "made" then—is disseminated not only in the humanities through political and poststructural theories, but also in the sciences, where a new catechism replaces prior attempts at objectivity: "Class repeat after me: When did the environmental movement begin? ‘The environmental movement began in the 1960s when people’s consciousness began to change.’"
But a look around suggests that other than environmental protection laws (which are often traded off in the marketplace) and efforts to recycle the exponentially growing amount of garbage produced, no profound change has been made, indeed, in terms of "consciousness". As Eliot and others stated, no profound change comes unless there is also a change in values or religious beliefs, hence Eliot’s prescription of a "social-religious-artistic complex". Lacking discipline that is rooted in a firm spiritual belief system, the baby boomers live in bigger houses (often alone), throw away more garbage, and have more energy-consuming gadgets than their parents did. And from my experience on campus of being threatened daily with being run down by cell-phone wielding student-commandeered SUVs, they have no qualms about making sure their progeny have all the comforts technology and oil can offer.
To be fair, the protest movements helped advertise environmental concerns, which helped institute those laws (and which I would support). But the environmental movement has alienated many potential allies by its alignment with such fringe groups as animal rights and ecofeminism, and such alliances themselves demonstrate its tangential nature. Not much has been done on a personal level (where true change must originate), despite all the rhetoric of "lifestyle" choices. Many of the original alternative businesses, like Horizon Farms and Ben & Jerry’s, have sold out to large corporations, inviting a cynic to conclude that "organic" or "worker friendly" were used as marketing techniques. These idealists apparently did not want to give up material possessions to truly live their ideals. I have the same criticism of professing "Christians" who use Christianity in their business enterprises, from selling septic tanks to theme parks. They too confuse the worship of Mammon with the worship of God. Neither group has tried to diminish its reliance on electronic gadgets or the internal combustion engine.
I recall that as I had navigated down the dirt road to the party, I had encountered two young men driving environmentally obscene, loud, three-wheel off-road vehicles. The orgasm-seeking described by Mailer got played out in the marketplace, with electronic spectacle-producing toys marketed to kids and "adult" entertainment to their parents. There had been many SUV’s parked along the dirt road to that party, as one also finds at a Dave and Buster’s or "multicultural" alternative festivals like the Lake Eden Arts Festival near Asheville, attended by an overwhelming majority of white people who can afford to pay $30 for a session of laying on of hands and who congratulate themselves for their cultural diversity as they watch young white women perform African dance. (I laughed last year when the security blared over a loudspeaker in the campsite, "You will need to move the Land Rover. Please move the Land Rover.")
Admittedly, there have been attempts, such as the organic farmers’ market I try to patronize. And certainly such small-scale, "earth-friendly" endeavors are in keeping with Christian ideas of stewardship and community. But changes cannot be maintained unless the change in consciousness goes beyond the self-glorification of the hipsters, unless it involves the idea of self-sacrifice for the greater and ultimate good—indeed, what allegiance to God, country, and family entails.
The chest-pounding of the graying veterans of the revolution for the self would be merely amusing were it not for the fact they now are in positions to change consciousness, namely in the academy and in the media. The danger lies in the false history they present to students. They present themselves as harbingers of peace and love and cooperation, but do not present the violence that undergirds the rhetoric and actions of their revolutions. Logic, like the other institutions of Western culture, has been torn down by the poet-warriors of the sixties. Without restoring the "open discussion" that would entail traditional dialectic, the notion that the attempted destruction of family (and its bonds of love) and country is antithetical to peace cannot come out. Being presented with the idea that marriage is a vestige of that old repressive system of subjugation and property exchange (as is likely to happen in a class taught by a Marxist or feminist) and not the Christian notion (automatically excluded from serious consideration in a public university) is hardly an example of "open discussion". But what is more loving than the husband and wife who take their vows to each other sincerely? Certainly, the bed-hopping promoted by the sexual revolutionists left many women feeling used and abandoned, and many men feeling Nietzschean surges of power. The alternative of family (not the pro forma type, but the truly loving family) has its rightful place in building community and, dare I say, bringing us the closest we can to world peace. The jealousies, envies, and back-stabbings of sexually profligate pagans certainly do not lead to the order and security that is necessary for a peaceful society. The personal is political, after all. Let love begin at home.
But the adolescent, motivated by his surges of sexuality and new-found independence, cannot see that far down the road, and therefore is drawn to the adults’ pictures of their halycon days. The former radicals, in their presentation of the history they "made" as full of peace and love, fail to note the violence that underlies it or else celebrate it as a necessary part of the quest for the new world order. But Norman Mailer should be presented realistically: not only was the "White Negro" a polemical statement to a generation of men who wanted to escape marriage and work, but the values expressed in it had reverberations in actions. Mailer stabbed one of his wives and was instrumental in getting a convicted murderer out of jail, only to have him murder again. This is not to say that all the sixties hold-overs are violent. Indeed, I know some, who after turning to Buddhism or The Celestine Prophecy, have settled down into peaceful lives as sculptors or computer programmers. My point is that the fundamental position of the sixties, the dispensing with the old, by its very indiscriminate dismissal of what came before, is inherently violent. Revolution by definition is violent. The justification for overthrowing Western civilization extended into destroying what were perceived as edifices of the culture, and no distinction was made between good and bad. All institutions had to be destroyed. In the process, people got hurt.
My memories from the sixties as a child involved those very acts of violence that Mailer was heralding as expressions of authenticity in The White Negro. In my inner-city Rochester, New York, working-class neighborhood, Otto’s candy store, where we would converge to spend our nickels—where a patient 50-year-old Jewish shop owner filled our bags with penny candy—was looted and forced out of business. Otto himself was roughed up. I doubt that my former protestor-environmental science professor "was there" in inner city neighborhoods when rioting broke out. He, like most of the protestors, lived in secluded suburbs, far from the "institutions" they advocated tearing down.
Mailer’s followers did "violate private property" and beat up the "weak 50-year-old man" who owned it. I get angry as I think of this: Otto did the world no harm running his little store to which I would be sent for an emergency quart of milk or loaf of bread. In fact, in retrospect, I have come to admire the patience of one who could spend long days behind the counter, facing red-cheeked children, filling up paper bags with penny candy, to retire at night with his wife to the apartment above the tiny store. What a small, limited world compared to the globe-trotting of the executive today, I think. What mundaneness in comparison to the computerized wheeling and dealing that now goes on. In my memory, this adult stands out among others who trudged to assembly lines or sewing machines and had no desire to inquire about their children’s progress at school at the end of the day. The Friday afternoon trips to Otto’s broke up the long walks home over frozen snow banks and gray slush and the round of anxiety over money, sickness, and drunkenness that were to fill my family’s home with increasing intensity. My experiences were not unique; I had a friend who was too embarrassed to invite me over after her parents and older siblings had had a drunken gathering the previous night. I still remember the disarray on the table I had inadvertently stumbled upon after the Friday night debauchery. In high school, the poor girl confided to me about her attempts at suicide. I point this out for the bad boys on tenure or with big book contracts: because someone is white and lives in a house (amidst other pieces of "private property") does not mean she is privileged. (Something conservatives also need to remember in their often over-romanticized portrayal of all families).
In context of the meanness of that world, the Mary Janes and shoestring licorice were all the sweeter. But they were handed out over the high counter by what Mailer would derogatorily call a "weak" 50-year-old man who owned an "institution"—cramped and as small as it was. After the rioters came through and beat Otto up, he left. The windows were boarded. It re-opened some time later with new owners who put bars on the windows and sold alcohol. I do not see the likes of Norman Mailer walking through this neighborhood now.
Thanks in no small part to the rhetoric of the radicals, the civil rights movement turned from a Christian-based one of peaceful resistance to one with arms. The militant arms-bearing black radicals were ironically photographed on campuses of Ivy League schools that my Eastern European classmates could never hope to attend. Their violence seeped into my junior-senior high school, where as a seventh-grader I, along with my classmates, was locked into French class as looters rushed down the hallways, broke windows, and beat up teachers. For the dance lessons I had never been allowed to take, I tried to substitute what was offered in my high school (which had started busing in students): traditional African dance. Not quite up to the Shirley Temple tap-dancing I had longed for! But when government programs are instituted, the "underprivileged" are assumed to be non-white: imagine the outrage were Eastern European folk dance be offered as the only option (at taxpayers’ expense) to African-American high school students. In other classes, I never learned about the World Wars, but was expected to read newspaper articles about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, dutifully copying down undigested "facts" in a report for a lazy social studies teacher who thought of himself as liberally enlightened. Another social studies teacher held rap sessions about sex (he is now a high level administrator in the school district). Planned Parenthood distributed brochures, but the English teacher did not teach the poetry of Dante or Donne. Students proudly displayed "Black Power" buttons, but European history, including my own (then Yugoslavian, now Slovenian), was ignored. I think my art teacher came in stoned every day.
The graduate school that I finally entered when near middle age presented much of the same. I had to hunt out the few professors who had not retired and who provided alternatives to the meanness (in all senses of the term) of life I had seen. The clawing and subterfuge of adults who jostled in sweatshops for the most profitable "bundles" as my mother did (unions providing no help in dealing with the envy the forelady had for the industrious) was perpetuated in the Marxist and feminist drivel trotted out by the privileged children of the suburbs (who needed to create their own ugliness and "worker struggles"). My more ambitious classmates had landed jobs in the darkrooms of Kodak or the assembly lines of General Motors. Where was the truth and beauty I had sought? Certainly, any evidence of it in the poetry of Shakespeare or Donne was soon quashed by the theories of nihilists who attempted to spread ugliness out of their own boredom.
I have witnessed too many scholars taking early retirement or simply quitting graduate school in disgust after the first theory-driven seminar, as the feminists and poststructuralists take over departments. The street protests are now carried on in the classroom. Violence underlies the ideological wars in the academy today. Ad hominem arguments have become the standard fare in the classroom and academic journals. Similarly, in the personal arena, one need only draw anonymous charges of racism and sexism to be dismissed. I have seen it happen.
The radicals have made curriculum changes. But in overthrowing history, these radicals place themselves in the position of history-makers, or, in other words, God. In ages past, it was thought that God determined history. Now the presumption is that the sixties radicals determined history. They have taken on Mailer’s imperative: every act, even murder, can be justified by the highest authority recognized.
Having replaced God with themselves, the old hippies outside of academia have become shamans, healers, and psychics. These are positions of power, however much the practitioners may protest that they are tuning themselves in to "Nature" or "inner powers". Perhaps an example of the extreme form of such violence and arrogance is the case of the two therapists who smothered ten-year-old Candace Newmaker to death as they presumed to lead her through a humiliating and abusive re-birthing experience. They make good money through these "alternative therapies" and often teach at our most prestigious universities. So does former sixties terrorist Bill Ayers. Musings on abortion as performance art are accepted on MLA panels, as a Web site by a radical feminist and former phone-sex operator reveals. These women laugh about their second trimester abortions, I have found after reading one of their online journals.
The gospel of freedom, self-actualization, and self-determination is a false gospel indeed. (I say this with qualification: I was of neither the right economic nor racial group to have ever been fully accepted by the liberals). These are code words for the shirking of responsibilities and for assertions of power by the privileged. Most of those who shout for freedom have had too much freedom and recognize no limits in their ever-elusive quest for it. The orgasm-seeking hipster becomes a metaphor. The angry hipsters in their impotent rage seek outlets of violence.
So I saw in my debater not a hero who had fought the protest trench warfare of the sixties, but a coward. But I do not mean a coward simply in terms of refusing to fight in a war out of conviction of conscience.5 As Mailer and others admitted, these protests were not just for civil rights and an end to the war. They were part of the larger effort to shed the constraints Western culture had imposed on men. These constraints have included rational discourse; disciplined study of history, philosophy, and literature; protection of children and their mothers; manners; and respect and civility toward women.
These are mean people in all senses of the term. I have witnessed their meanness on a personal level and through their rhetoric. They have lost their manners and sense of compassion. The older conservatives like G.K. Chesteron saw this and pointed out the obvious: people who advocate the elimination of those they deem less than perfect or inconvenient to their lifestyles are just cruel.
The radicals present themselves as nice, open-minded people, until their opinions are challenged (or even when they are presented with facts contrary to their views; I would have loaned some books to my interlocutor). They are nice until they are expected to perform duties. Limits will set them off into a rage—the rage of the academic asked to demonstrate justification for a new type of "studies" (Afro-American studies sometimes being instituted at the point of a gun), of the graduate student expected to pass a test, of the boyfriend asked to consult on schedules. All is sacrificed to their self-gratification: God, family, and work. Anyone who threatens that elusive goal of sensation-producing orgasmic thrills is vulnerable to their wrath. But to look at them in their casual dress, easy demeanor, and placid non-judgmentalism, one would never suspect this. Indeed, about their own transgressions, a little fling, a little lie told, they are quite placid and non-judgmental.
We come to the speech made by the heir of sixties "consciousness" at Georgetown. Liberals see Clinton as the pinnacle of reasonableness. Conservatives rightly detected something insidious beneath the patina of non-judgmentalism. It was the political version of the betrayer who says, "Honey, she meant nothing to me. Why should a little dalliance affect our relationship? You know I love you." (The rationalizations went on, going back, as they typically do, to early childhood. Remember Hilary Clinton’s references to her husband’s experiences as a three-year-old after the Lewinsky affair? But any woman with experience knows that these issues never get resolved by analysis.) And so it went with Clinton in his recent speech. What he said essentially was, "America, you know I love you. But I have to think of these other countries and will honestly point out your flaws to the world." Clinton’s words were the words of a betrayer, and were all the more evil because of the calm with which they were spoken. Certainly, there was no "hysteria" evinced as Clinton made his speech. The hysteria comes instead from those who feel betrayed by such a man’s words: whether they are the citizens of his country or his wife. The hallmark of the liberal is that he has no loyalty, neither personally nor politically. The Rhodes Scholars, the Ivy League graduates, are clever about their own violence. The name of the new violence is passive-aggressiveness in the form of either neglecting to prosecute foreign terrorists or rationalizing and supporting domestic terrorists. The liberal then furthers the violence by accusing the wronged party of "hysteria".
* * *
On that summer day, with the strains of fiddling in the air, the former peacenik came over to my little group a little while later and engaged us in a chat, as if nothing had happened. Like the hipster in The White Negro, he had vented his rage and now presented himself as the most peaceful man on earth. I pointed out that he had seemed pretty upset a while ago. "Oh, we were just having a little discussion," he said.
Those like him carry a sense of self-satisfaction, having convinced themselves and others under their sway that they have made Mother Earth more just and healthy. But their loud clamors for love and peace did not prevent violence or suffering, as the millions murdered in Cambodia revealed. Their calls to free love meant the end of real love because "free" love eliminated what is essential to love: duty. Their irresponsibility has led to suffering among those who in times past would have looked to them for support: women, children, the weak, and the old. (They have, as they will likely find out, also hurt themselves as they find themselves aging alone.) For example, their abandonment of pregnant girlfriends to abortionists in the name of freedom did not solve anything. The killing of a human being at that early stage of existence does not negate its existence; it just means that its existence was much shorter. As in Crime and Punishment, the rationalizations and justifications, however complex, cannot obviate what has been done. This is a more distanced and socially accepted form of killing (our society having in some sense accepted Raskolnikov’s theories). The attempted rationalizations that come with the shirking of duty have been evinced in myriad other ways. "Dropping out" is reflected in everything from frustrating, non-committal relationships to outright abandonment. Violence, now of the passive type, reveals itself by the refusal to make any kind of commitment to others. In the process, the innocent become victims of real acts of terror, as the violence is celebrated in the media and the academy.
The violence that these radicals thought they could eliminate by simply willing it ("think peace"; "make love, not war") or refusing to fight has come out in another battlefield. The war is now carried out with women. There has been a change in consciousness. I realized this as the middle-aged man, frustrated by the vicissitudes of time and imagining women’s infringements on his quest for the holy grail of the orgasmic rush—whether sexual or egotistical—had shouted the same accusations at me that he had shouted at parents, law officers, and educators. About twenty minutes later, he was sitting next to me in my little group with the calm, self-satisfied look of an ex-president who had refused to fight for his own country but pinned the blame for terrorism that threatened it on the Western world.
1 From p. 67 of Don DeLillo, White Noise. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985.
2 Ibid., 68.
3 12 June 1966.
4 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. November 29, 2001. A18
5 Weaver in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences makes the criticism that modern warfare is mechanized so much and in the interests of big business that it no longer tests courage.
Clowning with Cloning:
Where Clouds of Witness End and Cloudy Witlessness Begins
Peter T. Singleton
Peter Singleton’s Return to Chivalry: How Contemporary Men Can Recover the Dignity of Living for a Higher Purpose, was published late last year by Arcturus Press. Besides living off his lavish royalties, he writes, edits, teaches, and does yard work cheap.
This may not be the time or the place, and I am almost certainly not the person. Nevertheless, I have begged and been granted a bit of space to ruminate over human cloning. I present myself exactly as I am: not a geneticist or even a biologist, not a clergyman or a politician, but a somewhat educated and reasonably well-informed private citizen who is being submitted to a barrage of news coverage on this subject and who, besides, has a special interest in popular culture. I do not much care for the things that vast numbers of people do, say, drink, eat, read, watch, and listen to, but those same things interest me. They are shaping my world, whether I like it or not, and to understand the forces behind them gives me the same satisfaction, I suppose, as a good engineer derives from knowing why his flight has suddenly started plunging to the ground.
Praesidium has become a safe forum for crying, "A plague on both your houses!" I give fair warning that this is that kind of essay. Both extremes seem to me to be uttering mush, as usual.
First we have yet another chorus of "Hands Off the Mystery of Life" from the enemies of medical technology. I find that I cannot sit still for this old favorite. Life is indeed mysterious, because its value far exceeds the total of material pleasures—sex, food, hot showers, wide-screen TV—that go into it. Some people will even forego one or more of the sensual thrills just mentioned for a cause which has no tangible presence at all. That’s quite a mystery. Personally, I would name it The Power of Moral Principle, for one encounters it when people are striving after a higher good.
But how is the mystery of life preserved by prohibiting the creation of life in the laboratory? If we know that life might be so created yet refuse the option, we may have many good motives for our refusal—but preserving mystery cannot be one of them, for we know that the option is viable. (In this case, of course, we do not know conclusively, but the remaining obstacles are plainly not immovable.) Are we supposed to pretend that legislating against
further advance in this direction is tantamount to admitting that we could not have advanced farther? Is the biological process mysterious if we forcibly keep it uninvestigated—isn’t that like saying that Santa could be real as long as we don’t actually stay up on Christmas Eve with the chimney in view? Is the "normal" way of creating life, then, treated with such mystery-revering delicacy in our society? When is the last time two of our number got married because they wanted to produce a family rather than because they had a smashing good time in each other’s company? If this estimable institution is making a comeback, it nonetheless accounts less and less for each year’s crop of new babies. Perhaps the whole thing really is a mystery to a significant portion of the populace, since so many become pregnant in circumstances where one would presume any sane person would prefer not to. Naturally, there are remedies to dispel the unwelcome consequences of this mystery. That they are resorted to by fewer expectant mothers these days may reflect a new respect for life… but mystery? Wouldn’t a true reverence for the mysterious demand that people attend the entire Mass rather than consent not to pour out the consecrated wine when it shows up somehow in their Coke can?
I have known enough childless couples, some of them very closely, that I have little patience with such sentimental exclusivity (I mean, the argument that only the old way "feels right" and that these "feelings" are an objective measure of moral worth—this from a crowd which usually rejects the authority of feelings claiming to be the voice of conscience). The same shudders of horror greeted the arrival of in vitro fertilization. That unholy process showed disrespect for the mystery of life. God was somehow actively involved when the village idiot was siring his tenth child on the bag lady or when Billy and Sally parked the sedan and flopped into the back seat; but two responsible, intelligent, mature adults were going behind His back if they used medical technology to overcome a fertility problem. Why, then, is heart surgery or cancer treatment not a similarly sacrilegious end-run? "I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith, but your cancer will almost certainly spread and kill you within a year. We would treat it if we could, but successful intervention at this point would violate the mystery of mortality."
It is a far greater mystery to me why some couples, having reproduced in the time-honored manner, promptly surrender their infant to a poorly paid stranger while they go amass enough money to finance a new mega-van, or why they pressure their older children into majors at the university which promise lucrative employment opportunities but no food for the mind or solace for the heart.
It is a mystery to me how people can so misplace life’s essential mystery.
On the other hand, it must be said that cloning is not a very plausible strategy for healthy reproduction. No mystery there. Even if all the health risks could be removed (and they are so many and severe that, were the embryo considered human life, the parent would go up for reckless endangerment), why incur all the expense and trouble? In vitro is infinitely cheaper and easier. Even women who can absolutely not produce viable ova may have recourse to relatives or friends for "donations". The medical procedure involved, once painful and costly, is little of either now. Under these circumstances, the conclusion that cloning pioneers want not a little bundle of joy, but themselves all over again, is very hard to avoid. The would-be parents I have seen interviewed are of two types, and sometimes both at once: rocket scientists who believe that the world cannot turn without their brain to grease its sprockets, and New Age cadets who intend to run a relay race with eternity. Just what we need: more egomaniacs and space angels.
To summarize: the problem here is not the menace posed to mystery, but the needless risk imposed upon the yet-unborn. The assistance of technology is no more Faustian in treating reproductive disorders than it is in curing malaria or fighting multiple sclerosis. People who want us to cover our eyes lest we get too smart should spend some of their limited imagination picturing themselves in their pre-scientific Eden. They should envision their child lying at the foot of a tree with a broken arm and facing either a lifetime of one-armed dependency or eventual death from gangrene. But then, I suppose the tooth fairy would touch the arm and make it well.
As outrageously dangerous a method of reproduction as cloning is, it promises other uses, we are told, which are unambiguous in their humanitarian value. The notorious stem cell is always mentioned in this context. Well, who wouldn’t want to see the lame rise up and walk, the mute open their mouths and speak? These beatific visions are sullied for some, however, by the reflection that the cloned creature which gives its life (whatever life it has) to heal the sick is, after all—medical liabilities and all—an embryo. A child in the earliest stages. And here, in my opinion, the progressives tip their hand. They sigh deeply, roll their eyes, and grow vexed. "Come now," they condescend, "this lump of cells would probably never develop into a functional human being." (If you didn’t wrest this admission from the pro-cloning camp before, it’s because you were talking to the wrong side of the corridor: New Moon Reincarnationists over there, AMA over here.) "Just think of the human misery that could be alleviated by exploiting this otherwise useless resource." And these exponents of growing and harvesting life for research are quite right: their research could well make life worth living for thousands of fully developed, highly endowed human beings whose body has become a prison for one physiological reason or another. Don’t these helpless victims of a cruel fortune deserve a chance at life outside the casket—is it fair to keep them sealed up over a quibble about the potential within a lump of cells?
My own conviction is that it is not only fair, but morally obligatory. Invoking the mystery of life would be far more appropriate here than in the matter of bringing a cloned embryo to full term. The mystery resides not in a stubbornly guarded ignorance about how life may be created, but in a tirelessly cultivated veneration for the purpose of all human life. I once posed a freshman composition class the question: Would you brutally torture a terrorist’s three-year-old before his eyes if doing so would extract information about where he had planted a nuclear time bomb? I am happy to report that every member of the class responded in the negative (though some never forgave me the brutal torture of their fun-loving minds and were moved to protest my unwholesomeness in the term evaluation). If we were really as pragmatic as we make out, we would tear the toddler limb from limb. After all, many of those innocents who stand to be vaporized are also toddlers. But it isn’t even a close call for us: better to die innocent than to torture innocence.
Plundering an embryo for its experimentally useful guts and tossing the remnant out with the garbage is very like torturing the child in a "good cause". Because the child cannot turn big brown eyes upon us or scream shrilly while in embryonic form, we find it easier to shrug off the atrocity. Perhaps the pro-research chaps would be a little less unsavory if all of them were staunchly opposed to the execution of infants halfway out the birth canal. Unfortunately, experience teaches that they are often as coldly indifferent when the baby is within mere seconds of screaming as within months of it.
And what, then, of those fully sentient victims who are facing a life sentence of wheel-chair confinement or of devastating seizures? I would say two things to them. The first will sound platitudinous, but it remains true: a painful life may still be a valuable life. I may as well confess that I am very near to believing this platitude in an extreme and rough-hewn form: comfortable lives rarely seem to have much meaning at all. Pain and debility separate individuals from the crowd, and this separation makes them more meditative, more creative, and more productive in the ways that matter. Hardship also makes them more compassionate than the average happy, healthy clod. Mary Grabar recently wrote a piece in Praesidium about the condescending folly of a textbook which included Flannery O’Connor under the rubric of the physically handicapped because of her mortal struggle with lupus. Who can say that an O’Connor without lupus would have possessed the gravity, the focus, the spirituality, and the quirky irony to author such splendid stories? Would a wealthy Van Gogh have become a painter? Would a Leopardi afflicted by neither physical nor psychological frailty have been a poet?
From the other direction, look at what we make of happy, healthy people (this is my second point): surfeited consumers, all too often, who do virtually nothing to justify the space they take up. Most people do little more with their good eyes than watch TV, little more with their strong legs than walk from parking lot to mall. In a recent U.S. News cover story on human cloning, the young physician who donated his cellular matter to the Worcester, Massachusetts, experiment, himself wheelchair-ridden from an accident, defends his participation by saying that he would like to walk his daughter down the aisle on the day of her marriage. Well—and I would like a major league ball club to let me pitch an inning someday before I am too old to stand up straight. If a certain club’s owner would allow me to do just that in return for my donating an embryo to his research project, where would be the harm? The embryo would never know what hit it.
You will accuse me now of being facetious. You will insist that walking or seeing or breathing under one’s own power is no sunny afternoon’s diversion, but a major improvement in the quality of life. In a way, though, my example remains very apt. Most of the pro-cloning bunch, if pressed, would admit that they really do not see any transgression in my swapping an embryo for a few pitches. Their stressing of the research’s immense importance, therefore, is in bad faith: the decisive factor in their judgment isn’t the research’s great worth, but the embryo’s utter worthlessness. A stimulating workout on a sunny afternoon is exactly what they want for their patients. Stephen Hawking can already map the universe in a body that has to be carried around like the shrunken Tithonus: "quality of life" for them means having a good time, not fusing atoms or composing sonatas.
How important is Saturday on the links or (to allude to countless commercials for pills) taking a grandchild to the zoo? All right, it’s fun, and it nourishes family values: but having the grandchild wait for the wheelchair also teachers a kind of value—a kind so alien to our culture now that, behind all the miracle drugs and smiles, we seem to be running from our little cherub’s whine, "This is boring!" What about the cherub who never got as far as a grimace, or even a wheelchair? Have we done him a favor by sparing him birth? Was our day at the zoo worth his missing a chance at life? Don’t say that the chance never existed—that he was germinated only to be dismantled. He had the chance as soon as the first cell cleft.
For several years now, adults have been designating on the driver’s license their consent to have their organs removed in case of sudden death. The mortality rate among infants is, sadly, not negligible: some do not survive birth. May I ask why we cannot harvest stem cells from these unfortunates? Most parents would readily consent. The contribution to humanitarian purposes would help them come to grips with a devastating tragedy. Why do we human beings have to open a door just because it is clearly marked, "Do not open"?
In one way, at least, I find all the sniper fire along this Maginot Line to be quite diverting. The "mystery" people seem to be convinced that if Mr. Jones clones himself, the Jones clones will all drink his brand of tea, replicate his nervous habit of twisting his mustache, and fall asleep before the same passage in Samuel Becket which always puts him under. They will be Mr. Jones, precisely. This is part of the great sacrilege against holy mystery, it would appear: God’s distinct plan for every human soul will be short-circuited, because the Ur-Joneses will all have the same plan.
Honestly, this is pretty shallow stuff! Of all the people who believe in biological determinism, the "mysterians" should have been the very last converts. Instead, they have put up no fight at all. I myself will go out on their vacated limb, then, and say that I don’t believe the cloned Mr. Jones would necessarily be anything like his father/twin where it counts. One would tell the truth where the other lied, one would stand fast where the other ran. In a word, they would have different souls. I believe that, and I am shocked (and mightily amused) by the people who do not believe it.
Barbara Walters and crew, of course, have regaled us for years with stories about identical twins separated at birth who wear the same tasteless clothes and listen to the same insipid music. Am I supposed to hold my breath waiting for even one of these stories to ask even a single question which will put the subjects’ moral acumen to the test? I don’t need to. I need only look into my own heart for the answer. I know perfectly well that I myself would be a slightly different person if any of a dozen major events in my life had taken the other path at the fork. If several together had taken the same kind of divergent path, I should perhaps be very different. I am not substituting environmental for biological determinism here—or only on the surface. What I mean to say is that something which was permanently stifled in my heart might have lived, and something which lived might have been permanently stifled. My soul would have developed different muscles. It would still be my soul—the response to outside stimuli would be my will—but the nature of those stimuli might well have involved my will in different kinds of resistance, unpredictably intricate yet still in toto a response to my surroundings.
Naturally, all of the "eternarians" (read, "new Age egomaniac MDs") are also counting on the restoration of their pallid, clammy souls in their Klonekind. One can only wonder what pleasure or profit they hope to derive from a second or seventh or hundredth incarnation if biological determinism is so rigid that all of these descendants are indeed them. What more or what different would or can they do? Mr. Jones 17 can only repeat the circle through which the lives of Jones 1-16 traveled; or if this is not so, then in what sense is J17 a reprise of J16? What has it all been for—was it to keep one’s precious self in the center of material existence, or to have a crack at escaping oneself within that existence? God knows. And in the God who knows, I suspect, the stunning ironies of all this dizzy futility have to be stirring a divine smile.
Speaking of smiling, I have not launched the occasional flippancy and facétie from my bow with any so orderly intention as pinpointing the ills of the Western world in a Robin Hood flourish of marksmanship. If I have succeeded in offending the reader (and whom could I have entirely missed), I ask him or her to take it in good humor, for amusement was closer to my purpose than autopsy. If I were to advance a weak claim, however, to relevance in this special issue of Praesidium, I would say that I enjoy living in a free society because I can write articles like this without fearing for my safety. I value our tolerance of extreme views, and I think it deserves to be said that we usually end up striking a compromise in delicate matters which all sensible people can live with. At the same time, I have rarely observed us to follow a course simply because some nation or other would inevitably do so and outstrip us in exploiting all of its "profit potential". In this case, the Europeans will clearly clone human beings for all purposes, whatever we decide, just as they quickly embraced euthanasia. Though our technology tends to beat the rest of the world to every new existential precipice, we are also the most likely of the "advanced nations" to pull up short, take a long look into the abyss, and finally walk away. I like that about us.
If I have any great reservation about us, it is that these qualities are eroding around our edges. On certain college campuses, a writer might indeed be in physical danger after publishing an essay like this one in the student newspaper. On the national scale, compromise is vanishing from politics. Those who see its demise as a triumph of honesty or principle should wait until their party is out of power, and then see how they enjoy feeding by ramrod. As for international expediency, that has always been a thread in the fabric of diplomacy. Perhaps if we can put our domestic crises in order, we can continue to exercise moderation and judgment in what we export to the rest of humankind.
The Anthropological and Psychological Origins of
Political Correctness… with Emphasis on Howard Schwartz’s
The Revolt of the Primitive
Thomas F. Bertonneau
All high-school biology students, I believe, know the "boiling frog" thesis: place a frog in a vessel of water, then warm the water slowly, no more than one degree every minute; the frog, allegedly, will not notice the rise in temperature and will perish, quite obliviously, when the water at last comes to a boil.
The "boiling frog" is an allegory of political correctness, about which one is likely to read that it has in recent years receded after peaking in the early 1990s. Those who say so are like the frog in the ever-warming vessel. Either insufficiently sensitive to begin with about changes in the civic climate or sufficiently desensitized to their own plight by the inveterate claims of the victim-mongers and by the barking preachments of tolerance, so-called, they fail to appreciate not only that political correctness has absolutely not gone away but that the ambiance of it has grown increasingly caloric. Should we not yet have reached the moment of oblivious lethality, we all the while hover—witlessly, as it were—a mere degree or two from its onset. Thus, in the aftermath of the massacre at the World Trade Center, college students who displayed the paraphernalia of their outraged patriotism themselves came under attack from politically correct administrators determined to quash any type of expression, particularly any type of self-identification, that did not fit within the narrow parameters of diversity, so-called. In addition, American politicians and leaders from President Bush on down have treated their constituents to condescending sermons on the peaceful nature of Islam, while urging them (as if they were the aggressors or were likely to form lynching parties) not to blame all Muslims for the 11 September attacks. When Muslim students in the New York City public schools received license to pray during class-time, the ACLU uttered not so much as a squeak.1 But when columnist Anne Coulter wrote that, while all Muslims aren’t terrorists, nevertheless all the terrorists were Muslims, her press syndicate, National Review, promptly sacked her. This was a particularly telling indicator of the moral environment, since what Coulter had written was empirically true; and even more so because National Review enjoys the long-standing reputation of the conservative journal of note. There stood before us, if we cared to see it, the spectacle of a prominent conservative institution conspicuously dissociating itself from a former contributor simply because she had remarked an empirical truth. It was evidently not correct at National Review to observe that all the attackers were, in fact, Muslims.
What grants political correctness its insidious mimetic capacity, so that, after a while, even its opponents begin to internalize its rigid ethos?
I have pondered the question myself, without ever formulating a satisfactory answer. I have posed the question to leaders of the academic resistance—once, indeed, to Steven Balch of the National Association of Scholars at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society in Chicago—without ever receiving a convincing reply. The manifestations of political correctness have meanwhile continued to proliferate and metastasize. In 1998, for example, I agreed to serve as executive director of a scholarly association founded on the idea that it would act as the vanguard of reform against the incursion of political correctness into the humanities, only to confront, after a few weeks on the job, the demoralizing fact that the board and the membership were so terrified of offending the politically correct that they had become politically correct. A woman stopped me in the lobby of the Marriott World Trade Center, where the association’s annual conference was being held, to complain that I had placed advertisements in Commentary. Her son, she told me, also an academic, had objected that this might lead people to think that the association was linked somehow to "those people". Since I was present in my official role, I did not ask whether, by the phrase "those people", she meant conservatives or Jews. The statement was a bigoted one either way; nor had the woman appreciated that I had also placed advertisements in New Republic, about which precisely no one complained.2 When my former dissertation advisor and friend Eric Gans spoke at one of the conference sessions, the chairman of the panel treated him more wretchedly than I have ever seen anyone treated in an academic setting—even at the MLA.3 Gans had invoked René Girard’s notion of sacrifice as the matrix of institutions and this struck the chairman (so one might guess) as impermissible, or quite simply as incorrect and therefore intolerable. Gans’ own analysis that the intolerance of "victimism" stems from ressentiment carries weight for me; he had trespassed, so to speak, on the chairman’s territory of classics. But there was more to it than that. I had the impression that his deepest offense lay in suggesting that the ideals of tragedy could be traced back to their ritual—that is, to their actual—origins. The real had contaminated the purely mental; a wraithlike image of cherished purity had been defiled by an invocation of the adamant world.
Gans has written about political correctness and victim-speak in a number of loci. In Signs of Paradox (1996), he remarks that:
The sparagmos is the moment in the Dionysiac orgy when the encircling crowd contracts on the victim tethered or trapped at its center and tears it to pieces. It is a pathetic all-against-one arrangement, the classic articulation of which is Ovid’s description of the poet Orpheus’ death in Metamorphoses XI. (I will return to Ovid.) An aperçu in Gans’ Originary Thinking (1993) on the esthetics of literary realism adds something to the passage cited above:
Like the realists (Zola, Dreiser), the claimants to group-mediated victim-status purport to depict reality (in the limited terms of oppressors and the oppressed) only after they secure the license, quickly expanded into a right, to choose the constraints on what will be admitted into the picture of reality. The non-intervention of the interlocutor, his "discomfort", is a sine qua non of the procedure. The motto "j’accuse" perfectly summarizes it.
Elsewhere in Signs of Paradox, Gans argues that "victimary discourse" effectively piggybacks on the universal revulsion felt by the civilized world over the Nazi holocaust against the Jews. Of course, the Jews really were victims. The several millions of them brutally extinguished in the death-camps relied on the depleted survivors to tell their story. Its Christian decency moved the West, particularly the United States and Great Britain, to extraordinary solicitousness in their relations to those who now had tales of their own persecution to tell. This hypothesis suggests why the United States, for example, should have become so zealously determined in the two decades after the war to solve its own minority problems: the civil rights movement stemmed benevolently from the new ethical sensitivity. But there is no virtue that cannot become a vice. Not everyone is genuinely a victim—except perhaps of his own perversity or laziness—and a habit, generous in its origin, which compulsively fails to distinguish between the actually and the imaginarily oppressed swiftly makes for much mischief in the social sphere. The politically correct assertion that I am a victim leans for support on a browbeaten, semi-guilty willingness to countenance that declaration; and the fact that victim-status comes to be assigned to the individual merely because he can show the marks of his adherence to a group said to be structurally oppressed depends especially on the neutralization beforehand of any critical inquiry into individual claims. From a deeply felt revulsion over Auschwitz, then, comes a form ripe for abuse and exploitation; comes, indeed, a route to power for those who feel no compunction in the indignity of using it.
And many people in all sorts of situations—some calculated and some spontaneous—use it. Even the woman who whined to me in the lobby of the Marriott World Trade Center was making use of it, for what else was she doing but claiming that a remote and morally neutral act (advertising an academic conference in Commentary) amounted to an offense against her? Her implied dichotomy of malevolent "conservatives" and right-thinking people, whom she naturally represented, corresponds to what Gans calls the sparagmatic model of social relations, in which all distinctions are absolute; and under her own terms she clearly saw herself as the injured party.4 She was invoking the royal claim of lèse majesté, which has been born anew in the egalitarian vocabulary of structural maltreatment. She was also asking for something—to be the center of attention, the vox primus inter pares, and the arbiter ad hoc in a re-alignment of the organizational hierarchy. So must it have been, for she more than hinted in tone and posture that her wishes ought to leapfrog the organization’s duly constituted table of order and its legitimate parliamentary agenda. She assumed her own special status.
Gans gives us an anthropological insight into political correctness, without however making a special study of the phenomenon: the plaintiffs reverse the asymmetry of the sparagmos in the full knowledge that no one, in fact, intends them any harm; but by identifying themselves as "victims," they activate an exploitable trait in the very milieu that they indict as authorizing their persecution—its penchant for mercy and generosity. Of course political correctness has a psychological as well as an anthropological character. Howard Schwartz, a philosopher by training who has long been interested in the psychology of organizational structures, gives us a book-length psychoanalytical discussion of the topic. Schwartz’s The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness, issued recently (2001) by Praeger, traces political correctness to the resurgence of a deeply seated archetype.
Like Gans, Schwartz is originally a New Yorker; both are from the Bronx. Also like Gans, Schwartz can trace a biographical trajectory from early, radical left-wing involvement through a type of revulsion-cum-conversion to what might, for lack of a better term, be described as a "conservative" point of view. Schwartz studied in the 1960s, in California, with Herbert Marcuse, among others, and on his own admission expended great quantities of his human energy in the furtherance of various radical causes.5 The Revolt of the Primitive begins with an anecdote. Schwartz recalls how "K", a graduate student at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, pointed out a story in the campus newspaper about a women’s group that had marched, during the previous week, to "take back the night" (xiii); under pressure, the group’s spokeswoman had uttered an apology for forcing a "trans-gendered individual" to leave the march. The reason? The organizers "perceived this individual to be a man" and "it was stated that the march was for women" (xiii). "K" contemplated writing a letter to the editor commenting on the weird contradictions implicit in the account but, as Schwartz reports, gave up the idea. "To be un-PC in academia is a career-killer," "K" said, "so I won’t" (xiv). For Schwartz, the irreducible bizarreness of the event—feminists taking back the night from predatory men who expel someone from their march whom they take for a man, who then turns out to be a "trans-gendered" individual and thus holier and higher up than they on the politically correct Ladder of Being—affirmed anew the importance of certain ethical and epistemological principles that he had long cherished.6 Says Schwartz:
It appeared that the cultural condition was no longer merely neurotic in a way that mild irony might disarm, but pathological. Schwartz had previously concluded that a great deal of what comes under the rubric of political correctness has its origins not so much in politics as in "a sexual holy war" (xiv), but that this jihad of women against men indicated, behind or beneath itself, something more profound, "nothing less than a revolt of the primitive against the mature, driven by the most powerful forces within the psyche" (xiv). The "sexual holy war" pits the "toxic man" against the "Madonna-and-Child" in a Manichean conflict where goodness is the inalterable quality of the female and evil the ineradicable characteristic of the male. In Chapter 1, Scenes from the Sexual Holy War,7 Schwartz records how a raft of falsehoods deleterious to the reputation of men has established itself as undoubtedly true despite either a lack of evidence or the massive presence of contradictory evidence. Among these are the story that recent decades have witnessed an unprecedented epidemic of domestic violence by men against women, and the assertion that the "deadbeat dad" (26) as the predominant type among divorced men. One might add here the by now prevalent notion that institutional medicine treats women as second-class clients and that such cynicism results directly in higher morbidity and mortality rates for women than for men. Sally Satel has tackled this logos pseudos in a number of talks and articles. None of these stereotypes is true, as Schwartz (or in the added instance, Satel) meticulously documents. In fact, men have much higher morbidity and mortality rates than women, who, on average, outlive them. In fact, wives and other female partners are as likely to unleash violence on their husbands and boyfriends as vice versa. In fact, women instigate divorce in more instances than do men, who, by and large, succeed in maintaining their children as prescribed under the law. "The myth of the ‘dead-beat dad’ is a variant on the fantasy of ‘toxic man’," Schwartz writes; so are the others. The myths seem to spring from a domain in the collective psyche that exists at a remote remove from empirical reality, in a subterranean stratum where the charisma of the image trumps the adamancy of facts, where the subjective and personal simply do not acknowledge the objective and the impersonal. Writes Schwartz: "The subjective views are not, for those who promulgate them, ways of interpreting facts. Rather, the subjective views come first, and then the facts are given weight in accordance with whether they support these views" (28).
Beneath the contest of "toxic man" versus "Madonna-and-child", then, there lurks a wider and altogether more threatening struggle between subjectivity and objectivity, between an irrational revulsion against the Reality Principle and a rational acknowledgment of reality. "The picture of the sexual holy war is a comprehensive image" (35) that focuses a multiplicity of unreal complaints on the figure of the "toxic man." In Chapter 2, The Sexual Holy War and the Meaning of Work, Schwartz identifies "primitive feminism" or "feminist primitivism" (xv) with the child’s "primary narcissism" (37), the stage of psychological development in which the child is totally dependent on the mother and automatically justified by her in his needs and dispositions. The child, at this stage, sees the mother as an "omnipotent" creature "whose love will make life perfect for us" (37). Freud, whose assumptions about emotional development Schwartz largely follows, understood that primary narcissism served both a social and biological purpose. The child is vulnerable and helpless and requires the close bond with the mother in order not to be harmed by an indifferent reality that will slay him as swiftly as it will spare him. The nuclear family appears to have arisen for the salient purpose of protecting children. The mother’s role is to bear and raise the offspring; the father’s job is to keep reality at bay. Normally, the child would leave the exclusive orbit of the mother and begin his assimilation of the father’s point of view. All mature individuals have come to terms with the indifferent reality, "introjecting" (in Freud’s term) the point of view of the father. Learning from the father is a matter of survival, not an arbitrary endorsement of ideology.
Yet, as Freud claimed, while the infantile image of the omnipotent mother must be suppressed, it is never destroyed, and always lurks in the psychic depths as a temptation to seek refuge from reality. Nor does the image of the omnipotent mother appeal exclusively to the infant (or to the infantile urge in all of us); as an image it also exerts a strong attraction on the woman-and-mother herself, who is afflicted with the same tendency to greediness and self-love as the man. The child validates the mother mightily, absolutely, and she, like every other human ego, seeks the maximum of validation. In the traditional arrangement, the husband’s validation of the wife-mother augments the child’s and latterly compensates for the loss of maternal esteem entailed by the maturing and departure of the children. But here is an important question: what happens when the affluence and ease afforded us by technical progress and by a burgeoning economy palliate what were formerly pressing requirements? What happens, in other words, when social conditions have become so perfected that they place too great a margin between individuals and the indifferent reality?
Such a situation—and we now near the core of Schwartz’s thesis—creates an opportunity for the image of the omnipotent mother to assert itself nearly without limit against the Reality Principle. "The problem is that if the work of the male is sufficiently successful in distancing reality, the idea that reality is different from fantasy can be lost" (57). We must keep in mind in considering Schwartz’s argument that it is not women who assert themselves opportunistically in this manner, but an infantile petulance and self-absorption ("primary narcissism") to which all people, men and women, are susceptible, and in which the ego of the child is fused with the ego of the omnipotent mother. This explains how feminism ("feminist primitivism", as Schwartz says) can have been abetted by a phalanx of both women and men, and how peripheral issues like affirmative action for minorities can have become so easily adjoined to the insurgency. The accusers of the Patriarchy are all children of the omnipotent mother, who rise up to defend her against the pernicious influence of the "toxic man", rather like the demons rising up to defend the primordial mother Tiamat against the upstart male divinity Marduk in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. And like the totemic deity described by Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the maternal principle is "immanent in the world, diffused throughout a multitude of things" (Durkheim 141), and ergo omnipresent, requiring constant deference from her worshippers. Everything must be reconstructed (or deconstructed) to be compatible with her image.
One important manifestation of the feminist insurgency (a campaign, as it were, to re-assimilate everything to the primordial mother) is the drive to restructure work, formerly the dominion of men. Ignoring the fact that male productivity, dependent on a certain hard attitude toward life and other people, has made possible the conditions in which she can assert herself, the omnipotent mother charges that the values of the workplace unfairly discriminate against women (and against those who align themselves with women, the ethnic and sexual minorities). As Schwartz notes,
Feminists have made particularly harsh—and, as Schwartz sees it, thoroughly uncritical—criticisms of male concepts of work: they denounce work as compulsive, as exercising what Schwartz calls "the displacement of affect" (47); as mandating an "imposition of order" (47); as relying on "impersonal rules" (47) that repress feeling; and as fostering a pathological form of "competition" (48) that "gives men a way of measuring ‘progress’ by using comparative means" (48). But such charges are rather like chastising an orange for having a brightly colored rind, sweet fruit, and pips. The task of keeping the indifferent reality at bay so that the woman as wife-and-mother might bear and raise the children out of harm’s reach necessitated just these traits, which amount, in fact, to one of the colossal achievements of civilization.8 Yet displacement, order, impersonality, and competition affront the image of the omnipotent mother, because they violate her demand for a cozy egalitarianism in which all of the children earn the same praise merely for being, rather than for doing anything. The traits of the male-oriented workplace are, moreover, rational; and rationality is necessarily not subjective or personal but objective and impersonal. "It must be the impersonality of male work that, more than anything else, has been criticized by feminists" (49), Schwartz writes. Impersonality strikes feminists as offensive because it expels feeling, warmth, and tenderness. Consider, however, how closely impersonality is linked with rationality: "Rationality must be contrasted, not with feeling directly, but with irrationality, and feeling must be seen to encompass not only warmth and love, but coldness and hatred. Envy, jealously, rage, and resentment, after all, are also feelings" (49). Against reality, defined as "the world that is outside of ourselves" and "indifferent to us", feeling counts for little, if for anything at all; only calculation and force—in a word, rationality—counts. Reality is the realm where one can "make a mistake" (50) and where the consequences can be lethal.
Schwartz deduces from the foregoing analysis that the feminist and politically correct image of the "toxic man" or Patriarchal Tyrant springs forth "not from the father as such" but "from the fact that he represents whatever it is that interferes with the fantasy that a life can be lived in perfect fusion with the mother" (51). Schwartz says that the father’s real crime, in the view of the omnipotent mother, is that "he introduces the fact that the world does not exist to satisfy our desires", from which it follows that "the repudiation of the father is rooted in the repudiation of reality itself" (51 [emphasis added]). If the repudiation were to succeed, as it apparently has, "there would be nothing keeping the female identification with the primordial mother from becoming total" (57).
This "identification with the primordial mother" makes itself evident in unexpected ways that nevertheless strike us as consistent with the case once Schwartz calls them to our attention. The increasing emphasis on hedonism in Western society stems from the primordial mother’s guarantee to her children that "pleasure is all that is necessary and that to follow the desires will lead only to more pleasure" (78). "Follow your bliss," as Joseph Campbell insipidly but influentially put it. The touted (fully empirically verifiable) "dumbing-down" of the schools and society would be a sign of this. Very little research will quickly show that contemporary education theory attacks the rigors of the traditional curriculum, with its hard reality-based standards and scientific orientation, in favor of an egalitarian classroom that puts affect and creativity, the latter so-called, at the center of the diminishing paideia. Who needs algebra when we can all stick our fingers in the pot and paint?
Here I will perhaps be forgiven for making a personal observation. In the fall of 2001, I taught four sections of freshman composition divided between two colleges in New York State.9 I expect students to be recalcitrant and lazy – that is simply their human nature asserting itself. I know from research and experience how low the intellectual preparation of high-school graduates currently is for their confrontation with society, history, and life. Despite this, the semi-literacy of the majority of my students, their hostility toward learning and correction, and their fascination with what they call their opinions never cease to shock and dismay me. They live almost entirely under the reign of their own childish subjectivity; they feel and emote promiscuously, but they rarely cogitate. Although my report is impressionistic, I cannot forego remarking how immature the female students seem to me, not only in their attitude, but also in their morphology; there is a peculiar blandness about them, a kind of neutralized or half-achieved sexuality. Nor can I avoid commenting (it is again a mere impression) on the effeminateness of many of the male students. When I began to teach in the early 1980s, the eager male student who monopolized discussion was still a problem; nowadays the men (if that is the word) are as nonchalant and detached as the women.10 Throughout The Revolt, Schwartz documents the alarming decline in the numbers of men in the institutions of higher learning and attributes the drop to a programmatic hostility to males fostered by the insurgent feminist hierarchy in the academy. Maybe the masculine men are now shying from college. It would not be an entirely unhealthy or unwarranted decision. The prominence of homosexuals on the public scene is also due to the sway of the primordial mother in her revanchista mood. Schwartz believes that feminists have calculatedly created the charge of "homophobia" to further disturb and humiliate men.
Schwartz "draw[s] a link between feminism, which is arguably a fairly narrow intellectual current, and post-modernism, or post-structuralism, which is considerably broader" (83). His Chapter 4, The Sin of the Father, is one of the more fascinating sections of a riveting book. The self-denominating post-moderns, or post-structuralists, "may be thought of as holding that there is no objective external world" (83) to which individuals would need to assimilate themselves; thus "what a society believes is a function of who rules within the society" (83). Our own chapter of recent history in fact reruns the antique combat between the philosophers and the sophists. Heraclitus, the father of philosophers, argued that the Logos, which he defined as an inherent property of an orderly and quite indifferent cosmos, "ruled all." Protagoras, the father of sophists, contended that, "man is the measure." To its credit, Antiquity voted fairly consistently for the philosophers; on those occasions when, mistakenly, it sided with the sophists, it tended to reap the lesson of its own sowing. The Athenians’ sophistical ephebocracy, after the trial and execution of Socrates, was little more than an invitation to Philip of Macedon’s proto-praetorian dominion, which arrived in fairly short order. Plato followed a robust instinct in vacating Athens for Syracuse, despite his failure, while there, to influence Dionysus. The Romans understood the Reality Principle perfectly well, and their Imperium extended as far as 1453 A.D., if we were to include its Eastern half. The modern Western elites have fawned over the sophistical assertion that reality is a mental projection since the French (once thought of as the heirs of the Romans) reintroduced it after their ignominious defeat in May 1940. Schwartz suggests that the current rule is, mother is the measure, in which case the philosophers might as well cash in their pensions, for "the denigration of men lies [in] the subordination of the objective to the subjective" (83).
We can now see the two decades of post-modernism and post-structuralism in their completed form. The movement began with two male figures, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who, together and in different ways, launched an attack on what came to be called (in Derrida’s term) "phallogocentrism." The coinage refers to a deep-seated strand in the Western world-view that derives abstract, even metaphysical, values from the accidents of male morphology and enshrines them dogmatically. The set of "phallogocentric" values would include the rigor of linear thinking, as exemplified in Aristotle’s syllogisms; the arrangement of social relations on the model of the pyramid, with the ruling elite atop and the subalterns in their expanding layers beneath; the preference for cold and hard analysis over warm and untrammeled creativity. It is important to note, as Schwartz does, that what "phallogocentrism" designates really exists—and that the characteristic achievements of the West derive from it—but that the image connoted by the term is a partial representation only of male psychology in a Western context. "Phallogocentrism" was also constructed, as all cultural forms and procedures are. Yet it was not constructed ex vacuo, as its deconstruction by radical theory implies; it was constructed, rather, in response to reality. Precisely as a partial representation, however, "phallogocentrism" immediately became a useful concept for feminism, as did the whole original post-modern and post-structural enterprise. In the academy and elsewhere, feminism quickly absorbed its precursor-discourses with blob-like efficiency and completeness. By the end of the 1990s, a phalanx of female writers (with Toril Moy and Luce Irigaray in the vanguard) had replaced the Foucault-Derrida constellation as, so to speak, those most citable in scholarship.
In Schwartz’s detailed analysis, the triumph of feminism and all those who participate in its ideology of the "toxic man" and the "Madonna-and-child" represents what he calls the power of the daughter. In the ease of modern life after World War Two, some women became so cushioned against reality that they no longer grasped the sacrifice of the male in keeping reality at bay. The disaffected female interpreted the male character of the workplace, with its strict hierarchy, devotion to merit, and aversion to affect, as a conspiracy to keep her confined to the home. She divorced the husband, literally or figuratively, gained custody of the children, and thereby stunted the psychological development of the sons, who formed the alienated generations of the postwar years. But, as Schwartz observes, "the family not only had sons, but also daughters" (106). If the son, dissociated from the father, nevertheless could not fully identify with the primordial mother, the daughter faced no such limitation:
As Schwartz puts it, "the primordial mother is not a problem because she is a mother but because she is primordial" (111). The great figure of the primordial mother’s outrage against the individuated male, as I have earlier mentioned, stands in Ovid’s Metamorphoses XI. Orpheus, with his Apollonian lyre, has wandered into Thrace, the ancient preserve of the "mad Ciconian women" (Humphries’ translation, 259):
In the Latin, the key phrase, shouted by the affronted Maenad, is: "Hic est nostri contemptor!" Orpheus might himself seem a somewhat effeminate figure, but he bears the marks of the "phallogocentric" order. His music, with voice and lyre sounding together, is "harmonious", in the sense of the term going back to the Heraclitean usage of a force that holds opposites in static tension; indeed, by means of his music Orpheus commands nature and, within limits, neutralizes nature’s deadly aspect. (He possesses a limited ballistic missile defense system.) Orpheus has also been married, famously to Eurydice, whom he lost twice—once to a serpent’s sting and once to his failure to control his own sentiment. He nevertheless (or rather therefore) represents the individuated male who has taken the daughter from the mother and who is acutely aware that, when one makes a mistake, one pays a price. The Ciconian women, by contrast, comprise a classic undifferentiated mob, cohesive only in its hostility to the trespasser. Ovid appears to denominate them after a tribe of savages in Homer’s Odyssey. A female sodality, their music is cacophonous and without form, but in sheer volume it can overwhelm the poet’s singular, if potent, voice. Orpheus’ contemptibility lies nowhere else than in his representing a conspicuous instance of non-conformity to the rule of non-differentiation and non-individuation. The myth has it that he was the first to initiate men into the divine mysteries, breaching what had been the exclusively female preserve of cult and religion. So "they struck him down, / And through those lips to which the rocks had listened, / To which the hearts of the savage beasts responded, / His spirit found its way to winds and air" (260).
It should be noted that Ovid’s scenario has really happened—in the raucous expulsion of the contemptible "dead white male" authors from the curriculum on the grounds that their toxicity ("phallogocentrism") threatens the delicate feelings, hence the very being, of female and selected minority group students. "Hic est nostri contemptor!" Schwartz records an apposite personal experience. In 1987, after a sabbatical leave, the campus minister at Oakland University, where he teaches, invited him to give a talk at a newly formed institute. The talk
Recently the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, author of several moderate critiques of feminism, was treated to a similar bout of aggressive hysteria at a federally sponsored symposium on drug-abuse among girls; when Sommers questioned the probable efficacy of a heavily ideological (feminist) anti-drug use program, audience hostility, including that of the officials who had invited her in the first place, forced her to relinquish the lectern. A male academic shouted at Sommers, "Shut the fuck up, bitch." (A tape-recording captured the insult, despite the miscreant’s denial of having said it.) Significantly, Sommers had objected that empirical data did not support the premises of the program in question. It is another case of reality constituting an affront to some cherished image. Such incidents are commonplace, however; they betoken a new and pervasive, a frenziedly Ciconian, style on campus and elsewhere. "It has become acceptable," as Schwartz says, "to meet alternative ideas with rage and disdain" (115). Note how the Ciconian "rage and disdain" stand in hostile relation to the procedural style of the supposedly male superego, which tries to assess ideas on their merits. Schwartz argues that the superego, along with the female "ego idea," is required to form successful "bi-parental child-rearing" (117). Both are necessary. The rebellion of the primordial mother and her coterie of daughters "is not simply an attempt to overturn a paternal order, but an attempt to unravel the connection between paternal and maternal" (117).
It is here that Schwartz’s psychoanalytic analysis of political correctness converges with Gans’ anthropological analysis. The politically correct university, under the domination of the primordial mother, becomes affective and jealous in its basic structures; it replaces the individual (because he is individuated, hence a priori outside her realm and a threat to it) with the group. "If the person can substitute a group identity for an individual one, social organization becomes possible at the level of the group [and] an ideal of oneself as a member of a group can serve as one’s ego ideal" (121). The individual who rejects identification with a group now becomes the focus of the group-consciousness, of the collective narcissism, and indeed, by constituting such a cynosure, actually permits mediation among groups which might otherwise experience destructive friction. Each group depends on the primordial mother to keep at bay the individual renegade; at the same time, they look to the primordial mother for the sustenance of their collective ego-image. She answers the demand through "the idea of the child who needs love the most, the one who has been least loved in the past, the victim" (121 [emphasis added]). The "marginalized" minority is diversity’s unwanted child in the collective plural. Hence the incessant clamor by this or that demographic segment of the university’s enrollment for favors and privileges—and for punishments to be meted out to those who deviate from the one path:
The politically correct university is not only, as Schwartz notes, a "psychological regression" (159) into infantile narcissism, it is likewise a cultural atavism, a relapse into archaic, indeed sacrificial, forms of communal organization that belong more properly to the Stone or Bronze Age than to the twenty-first century of the Christian Era. I return here to the work of Gans, who argues in Signs of Paradox that the Holocaust represents a cultural turning point in the Western moral imagination, by verifying in a massively empirical way the essential Christian revelation that communal solidarity based on persecution and victimization is evil. "Our ideal moral certainties are re-grounded in the opposition between (Nazi) persecutor and (Jewish) victim" (188). But it is really a good deal more complicated than this, because:
Gans remarks how
Schwartz’s "Revolt of the Primitive" and Gans’ atavism of a minoritized "youth culture" are, I believe, aspects of the same epochal cultural transformation. The primordial mother is the ringleader and youth (always in a rainbow coalition of sexually ambiguous misfits) are her press gang. Schwartz interprets the phenomenon more pessimistically than does Gans, who notes, but does not particularly stress, the sacrificial character of the new, resentment-driven forms of collective identification. Yet Gans does admit that "what is new in our era is the promotion of non-integrative local theories…. as though they were the only theories conceivable and it were no longer possible for the human community to think of itself as a whole" (198). He also notes how "feminism and other minority approaches, which maintain their link with universal thought only through the unacknowledged mediation of the Christian centralization of the victim, are fast driving out other forms of cultural interpretation" (198). Gans’ "non-integrative local theories" are nevertheless deeply troubling, not least because their most recent prototype appears to lie exactly in the ferocious biological dualism of Hitlerian anti-Semitic policy, as "non-integrative" as you can get. Paradoxically, of course, the proliferating new Übermenschen find their superiority to all others in their own alleged victimization, which then becomes the pretext to victimize all who would deny the in-group’s special (mother-authorized) victim-status. The lèse, as it were, proves the majesté. Where the lèse does not exist, which means just about everywhere, it is necessary to invent it. There is much burning of the Reichstag. Schwartz catches the same paradox, noticing that the eidos of women in the regime that they now obviously control is a contradictory one, simultaneously a picture of "passive, hopeless victim" and "exemplars of the primordial mother" (158).
At the level of civic policy, the irreconcilable aspects of the weird coinage result in urgent demands for more and more laws and institutions to protect women from men while at the same time anguished complaints are issued about the unfairness of rules that ban women from combat in the armed forces. (If women are so strong, why are they so weak?) The "Tailhook" scandal of the mid-1990s, as Schwartz writes, exemplifies the contradiction. Feminists insist on the promotion of women into the high-testosterone world of fighter-jet jockeys; they are then shocked to discover that a pilot’s recreational activity runs to the randy and male. They demand, finally, that the institution be remade to conform to the sensibility of a quilting club and that men be punished for male behavior. The same duplicity also shows up, extended beyond the realm of women, in the pernicious hate-crime laws, so-called, that effectively place a higher value on certain individuals, because they belong to an allegedly victimized group, than on other individuals. In anthropological terms, such laws bestow a kind of sacred status on those whom they prefer. The result can be a grotesque of justice. Given two murderers and two victims, with circumstances in both cases equivalent, a white on black murderer (statistically rare) would likely receive a harsher punishment than a black on white murderer (statistically not quite so rare) or a black on black murderer (statistically commonplace)—provided only that the hate-crime laws are invoked and a prejudicial motivation attributed to the perpetrator. Yet if one perpetrator were more evil than another by virtue of the accidental status of his victim, then the lives of some victims would necessarily suffer a reduction in ascribed value. We cannot make A’s death more calamitous than B’s without making B’s life less valuable than A’s. Law ought to be integrative—before it, everyone ought to be equal. God preserve any man accused nowadays on campus of the amorphous trespass of sexual harassment. The "phallogocentric" protections of due process no longer exist. The accused may even be deprived of basic facts adhering to the charge, such as the identity of the accuser, and may be denied counsel at his own hearing.
Feminists never slacken in their harsh condemnation of the Patriarchy, as they put it, in which white males victimize all and sundry. What about the Matriarchy? There is evidence that, thousands of years ago, it existed. What was it like? The late Marija Gimbutas, a source for much feminist speculation, offers many rich descriptions. In religion, the Matriarchy was dominated by the imposing divinity of the Magna Mater, attended by her divine children:
I have placed the two paragraphs in reverse order to heighten the contradiction. "Dominated by the mother" and affirming the creative and active female are qualities that do not, in fact, add up to the male "complementing" the female. On the contrary, they imply his subordination to a female principle that does not admit male-female symmetry. Note how the "Indo-Europeans", those Neolithic "dead white males", are conveniently on hand to provide a polarizing contrast to the non-differentiating "Old Europeans". I take the concept of polarization to be a negative one in the context. Anyone who knows the mythic material, however, also knows what the reign of the Magna Mater required. The Chaldean shepherd Dumuzi, like his Syrian counterpart Adonis and his Egyptian counterpart Osiris, suffered being ripped apart by demons to appease her wrath and, as the story tells, to fecundate the fields as an offering to her vegetation cult. The same story appears all over the archaic world, as James G. Fraser showed in the multiple volumes of his Golden Bough. Nor is it mere myth. Gimbutas extols the Minoan civilization of Crete, as one of the final holdouts of the realm of the Earth Mother in her many guises, before the Indo-European onset. In Aegean Civilizations, Peter Warren cites an archeological find at Anemospelia, on the slope of Mount Jukta, near Knossos. In "a remarkable three-roomed shrine… there were four human skeletons, one of which, on a low table, appeared to be a human sacrifice being enacted when destruction [of the site] came, perhaps about 1600 B.C." (6). At Knossos itself, "remains of several children in the basement of the building also appear to be from sacrifices, made at the time of the great Minoan destruction about 1450 B.C." (6). These phenomena date from before the massive Greek (hence Indo-European) presence on the island. In the Near East as well as in Crete, images of the Great Mother in all her varieties are associated, in the iconography, with images of demons. She is either the obese, globular divinity from whom all things are born or the ecstatic virgin celebrating the Matriarchy; and they are the toothy, frightening Nachtpolizei of the realm. In the Greek world especially, a revulsion against human sacrifice appears only with the ascendancy of the upstart Olympian cult of Hesiod and his fellow religious reformers. Robert Graves gives a sense of what the return of the Magna Mater would entail in his amusing but frightening Let the North Wind Rise: the reduction of adulthood to perpetual adolescence; the abandonment of the technical infrastructure; the reintroduction of archaic religious forms. Far from being exclusively nurturing and protecting, then, the Goddess is also savage and voracious. She devours the blood of children. Tellingly, the word sacrifice does not occur in the index of Gimbutas’ Gods and Goddesses, nor can I find any discussion of it, however passing, in her text. No doubt it is kept at bay because its presence would taint the pristine character of the eidolon.
Another fact about the Eon of the Goddess was that it was tremendously long and, compared with later periods, depressingly static; it lasted for ten thousand years. What Gimbutas claims about her "Old Europeans" of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic eras—that they fostered an ethical symmetry of the sexes—is really only true of the much later Near Eastern and Hellenic and Hebrew cultures and their offspring. It takes Gilgamesh’s spurning of Isis (be my son and lover, she demands) to launch civilization on its (no doubt linear, unsentimental, and "phallogocentric") trajectory and to begin the long endeavor of creating social conditions that allow the maximum of people, men and women, to become optimally individuated and happy. (I suspect that it happened, somewhere in the Midwest, probably in Missouri, around 1930 or 40.) Zeus establishes his renowned dike or "justice" after vanquishing the Titans, a psychically undifferentiated mob of giants and monsters born of Mother Earth. Zeus is male and royal, it is true, but the Olympian Pantheon is refreshingly both male and female, in a remarkably symmetrical way quite unthinkable in the Utopian Matriarchy of Ms. Gaia. Zeus assumes the mantle of Imperium, but often it is Hera or Aphrodite who moves and shakes. The gods and goddesses marvelously balance one another, as in the dialectic of Athena and Zeus in Homer’s Odyssey. Greek women might have had it rough (who knows), but the images of the gods and goddesses on Olympus that the Greeks bequeathed us comport remarkably with the behavior of the modern middle classes, at least until very recently: their bond is of equals and neither can one-sidedly bully the other. They conduct a kind of ultra-civilized Southern Californian cocktail party ("More nectar, Poseidon?"), complete with gossip and flirtation. Euripides understood it quite well, as he demonstrates in The Bacchae: the price of a cthonic, mother-oriented religious revival is nothing less than civilization itself.
I am, as usual, hyperbolic. Readers might also think that I have strayed far from the topic of political correctness and its roots. It is not really so. It only appears so due to the fact that the roots of political correctness run deep psychically, anthropologically, and historically. The parallelism of the primitive, matriarchal societies with modern intolerance and contemporary hysteria, remains. I take Schwartz’s contention that the primordial mother plays the central role in the latter as proven. I wish, indeed, to give Schwartz the last word. In his discussion of "the daughter", Schwartz admits that he finds her not only repulsively absorbed by her own "narcissism", but "self-righteous" and "obnoxious" on top of it: "She claims standing as a victim of oppression, but she is part of the most privileged large group of human beings the world has ever known.… She is a fantasy to herself and she connects only to her fantasy" (111). Yet Schwartz finds himself plagued by the moral question of, "how can I find sympathy for her?" Despite the fact that "her grandiosity condemns all mortals and their works," she is nevertheless, Schwartz says, "a human being who can be engaged" (111). One must imagine her devastating loneliness and her corrosive unhappiness:
1 As usual, the logic of the Left is bizarre. The ACLU assiduously polices America’s public schools to keep them free from any trace of religion, particularly Christianity. Within days of the attack, however, it became necessary, apparently, to exempt Muslims from the zealous rule. The only thing about America’s attackers that seemed to trouble the politically correct was that their sponsors, Afghanistan’s Taliban, were notoriously misogynistic, keeping women illiterate and in the burka. The feminists exhibited particular confusion as they found themselves condoning the military reprisal against the Taliban, a gesture that put them in the same crowd with people, like President Bush, whom they normally abhor.
2 The site of this encounter is now rubble, or less than rubble, a mere smoking hole in the ground. In the memory of it, my complainant’s woes seem even paltrier than they did at the time. Standing in the midst of the Twin Towers, which had already been attacked once, in 1993, she worried about the possibility that someone might identify her as a "conservative"—because an organization to which she belonged had advertised its conference in Commentary. The "son", I am convinced, was a rhetorical construction, so that the woman did not have to speak in the first person, which indicates some residual embarrassment over the content of her discourse. The little scene, quite emblematic, retains for me its significance as a token of our deep moral confusion.
3 I use the traditional locution ("chairman"), but the person in question was female. She was (as she remains) the author of a useful book attacking the "Afrocentrist" theory that the Greeks "stole" their distinctive intellectual achievements from the Egyptians. On a number of occasions, she herself had been treated badly by "Afrocentrists" and their politically correct defenders. This made her treatment of an invited guest of the association all the more ironic and painful to witness.
4 The logic of her complaint is quite peculiar and revealing: the plaintiff starts with the given that she is a member, voluntarily, of the organization, which exists prior to her joining it; she then complains that the organization has made an appeal in a "conservative" journal and that this implicates her in "conservatism" which, for her, is unspeakable. Notice, however, that it is not conservatives whom she fears, but her fellow right-thinkers, who, if they thought her a "conservative", would presumably do her some type of harm. It is a remarkably faithless faith.
5 "I went to graduate school first at the University of Pittsburgh and then at [the University of California at] San Diego, where, a few months after my arrival, Herbert Marcuse showed up with a group of graduate students. That became my milieu. During this time the war in Vietnam was heating up and the movement against it was developing along with it. This formed the focus of our political activities, but we always thought of the war as being an element of class struggle, and that was the framework for everything we did." (From a communication to the author.—T.F.B.)
6 In a talk to a group of psychoanalytically oriented scholars, Schwartz once made the self-deprecatory claim that "I’m not a researcher." "A researcher," he said, "goes into the world and finds things out. I don’t find things out. I make things up. I’m an artist." He continued: "Having said that, and mindful of the fact that I ought to say something now that my mouth is open, I would like to tell you how I do what I do, whatever that is. Unfortunately, I cannot do even that, for most of what I do is done while I am asleep. I go to bed with a problem, and I wake up with a solution. Or, to put the matter perhaps more precisely, I go to bed with a confusion, a chaos, and I wake up with a clarity, a view. Ordinarily I do not realize that I have this clarity until I am in the shower, when it comes to me that I am seeing things that I did not see before. Then, by writing, I work this through, and go back to sleep. So for any of you who want to do what I do, whatever that is, I offer these bits of wisdom: First, get plenty of sleep. Second, spend a lot of time in the shower." (From a communication to the author.—T.F.B.)
7 In the present essay, I deal only with Chapters 1-4 of Schwartz’s book; his remaining chapters, 5-7, which apply the theory developed 1-4, are equally fascinating, however, and will be appreciated by all those who read The Revolt. I might add that my summary elides many rich details of Schwartz’s analysis in what is a remarkably fine book.
8 It is perfectly certain that the father cannot bear the children; it is profoundly uncertain that he has the talent, innate or otherwise, to raise children in their infancy. Biology is never constructed. It is created and therefore is a given from which we start.
9 At the State University of New York College at Oswego, in the town were I now live, and at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, forty miles south of Oswego.
10 As I am fully inured against political correctness, I shall simply say what I think: like most male teachers, I have been aware that the classroom can be a stage for considerable erotic tension; this is inevitable when the coeds are physically mature young women. It might be middle age, or excessive loyalty to my marriage, but I can only report that I have felt hardly a twinge of erotic pique in my most recent teaching assignments. My primitive male response to most of the coeds is that of a father to his daughters or of a skeptical uncle to his nieces, still chubby with their baby fat, rather than the response of an erstwhile bachelor to a bevy of nubile half-virgins. I doubt that I would have been attracted to such girls when I myself was a freshman. (I hailed from the beach at Malibu and had a fairly hardy notion of female beauty.) As to the men—the more macho they try to appear, with their scrubby beads and backwards-turned baseball caps, the less masculine they seem. They too run to pudgy and exhibit an irritating little-girl petulance when faced with the rigors and demands of so simple a thing as competent prose.
Paradoxically, when feminists rule, as Schwartz alleges convincingly, the belief that there is no objective, external reality becomes a shibboleth. But reality always has the last word; it persists and ultimately kills us whether we condescend to believe in it or not.
Etymologically, mother is indeed the measure, as the Greek term for "mother," meter, clearly shows.
I will refrain from commenting at length on the link between feminism and the supposed "right" of women to abortion-on-demand. For the record, I am deeply disturbed by casual abortion, but opposed, in a qualified way, to placing legal strictures in the way of the procedure. I will nevertheless hazard that feminism has a foundational and sacrificial relation to the destruction of the unborn. The myth of Callisto is perhaps relevant, as she becomes abhorrent to the exclusively female sodality of Artemis only when she becomes pregnant.
Gimbutas’ speculation is thus utopian. Recall how, when Gans mentioned sacrifice in connection with tragedy, as I have reported, he got into trouble with what I would describe as the feminizing, but by no means feminist, chair of his session at the scholarly conference. The similarity of the two cases is close.
Emile Durkheim (translated by Carol Cosman). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford University Press: New York, 2001.
Eric Gans. Signs of Paradox: Irony, Resentment, and other Mimetic Structures. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Marija Gimbutas. The Goddesses and God of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Ovid (translated by Rolfe Humphries). Metamorphoses. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Howard Schwartz. The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2001.
Peter Warren. The Aegean Civilizations. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1989.
Three by R.S. Carlson
Ralph Carlson has been a steady contributor to Praesidium since… well, since the time when it was still Arcturus. His poetry, as you can see from this sampling, has clear moral coordinates without being remotely didactic. Indeed, the imperative mood often crouches like a clever hunter in flourishes of irony that bring an outright smile as we recognize the artifice in how we lead our affluent lives—or how others around us lead such lives; surely we are not among them!
Professor Carlson teaches writing of all varieties and at many levels at Azusa Pacific University in California.
the winner of a "Survivor" show
ferried to an Indonesian island
or the Australian desert gets a cool million
Lord’n’TV execs only know
what other millions go for the 125 support crew
for the pseudo-tough staging,
the transport of everything from
catsup and counseling psychologist to back-up cameras,
and from Perrier sparkling water to first-aid kits.
But let’s pretend the "Survivor" winner
gets generous with companion survivors
who escape almost all the rough footage
and maybe all the footage boiled down for US air time,
folks, for example, such as
survivors of the Salvador quake circa 01/01
(Let alone the Mongolian blizzard folks, the old-news
Bangla-Desh-Orissa State, India Monsoon group,
the Gujarat quake crew, et cetera, et cetera).
Aid agencies estimate 10,000 homes destroyed this time
(just two years after Hurricane Mitch
smashed even more of these towns and villages)
and note, hopefully, that only $56 US
buys the 8 sheets of corrugated iron
used for a typical village home rebuild.
Playing with a calculator,
any survivor of the First World’s routines
can show that to re-roof the rebuilds
in El Salvador’s whole quake zone
would take $560,000, and leave $440,000 for the winner.
Or, if $300,000 had to go to the IRS,
there is still $140,000 left to play with—
and that’s not counting
what a half-mill-plus charitable deduction
could do for a lucky person’s tax bill,
even after paying the accountant.
the next Survivor game will saturate prime time
and all the news hours and talk shows
their PR office can wangle, and we might
see those disaster/famine-compassion-fatigue ads
with dying babies in skeletal arms
slotted for a Tuesday or Thursday AM
somewhere between 1:30 and 3:00—
if nothing else pays better
to fill the time.
Search and Research
Church Kitchen Gossip About Matilda
The trouble, of course, is that Messiah complex,
blended with bitterness at growing up
(physically, at least) in an at-your-service home
open at all hours to the battered wife,
the panhandling wanderer, the strong-
willed church elder who always knew
what the council should have done, knew
what they and pastor by none-too-complex
theology better do next, to the strong
hints about being able to pick up
a paycheck the next month, or to find the wife
and kids a more-to-their-liking home…
…And behind the prayers and smiles, the home
table fruited powdered milk, and knew
the blessings of potatoes mashed because a wife
could whip in more air and B-complex
vitamin enriched flour to fluff them up
for serving under table graces strong
on the lips of pastoral image. So, from the strong
protocols of deferring common home
interests—food, time, or dime-for-a Seven-Up-
at-the-soda-fountain—for someone else who knew
the sob story and torn jeans worked complex
predictable magic, or for the churchman’s wife
short on potluck casseroles, or the wife
of the chairman denying her breast cancer with strong
eau de cologne—from all this, her complex.
The cordial lady makes a man feel at home,
warm, accepted, open more than he knew
to help, to service—only Godliness up
her sleeve—till love and trust ease up
the walls like ivy. Then Mrs. Hyde, fishwife,
cuts in. Every fault he ever knew
he had—and scores he didn’t have, strong
as dirt and sin—suddenly crash home:
Beast! To make Christian Love so complex
to suffer! Who could hold up through such strong
insults, such betrayals? What wife could make a home
for such filth once she knew his vile complex?
Counsellor Dan and Biddy
Postscript to Tacitus
Ms. Maskell originally appeared in these pages when we published the first chapter of her novel, Seasonal Migrations (Arcturus Press, 1999). She continues to harbor a love, as she puts it, for "statistically improbable people in the midst of daily life’s squalor." Vive l’eccentrique!
Halfway, now, between the locker room and the chapel. The last five minutes had swept him through the same shoal waters as had been spitting him back out to sea for five years, like Odysseus having a nightmare of making the beach on Scheria. (He clung to the remote literary image… but as soon as his mind chanced upon Nausicäa, he was back in the cold midstream of his terror.) If he had been a little older and gotten shipped off to Nam (his big brother had been culled right out of college in the last year of the draft), he imagined that his first experience of walking through a mine field would have been about like this. He wasn’t supposed to make it across this no-man’s-land, this Charybdis that swallowed sailors. Passage here was categorically forbidden. Yet he was almost through to the other side. There she was now. He could see her hair: even in the shadows where she sat, he could make out its rich gold.
And then would come the execution. Crossing a mine field to get executed… but that didn’t matter. As long as he delivered the message, it didn’t matter how stupid his first words ever spoken to her might sound. What mattered was her safety.
Had he not really been going to speak this time, he would not have thought consciously, "I’m almost there." And before that, he would not have veered from the parking lot toward the chapel. His body was amassing evidence at an alarming rate that he was really going to do it. It had far outstripped his thinking mind, for he still had no idea what he was going to say. Now his thoughts were beginning to catch up ("Listen, stupid body, I can see her hair clasp! We’re getting too close!")—but his body refused to wilt. How many times since seventh grade had the Judas within him turned his hands cold and slimy, stifled his breathing until he could not have croaked a simple "hello", and made his heart or stomach (he couldn’t tell which one) twinge with the acute pain of an attack or ulcer (he assumed those pains were like these)? Mr. Bentley had once read their advanced Latin class a poem where the lover felt just the same way as he sat near his lady at a banquet (obviously, she didn’t know about him, either). And Mr. Bentley had said in his manicured British accent, "Someday you, too, will know the sentiment." He had looked up sheepishly at the old man, wanting to respond in protest, Someday?
Him speak to her? A sweat-smelling, gibbering idiot like him? Even if he had been fit to speak to her on rare occasions, as when he was awarded academic honors or wore his letter-jacket to school, the awareness that he was actually in her presence would have reduced him instantly to a contemptible heap of ordure.
So he was proud of his body now—strangely proud, as if the part of him which was neither body nor Judas, the very part which most keenly sensed the moral urgency of his mission, were serenely detached from it all, looking on from a tree limb and swinging its feet. "Go, body! Go, man!" Not serene, but exhilarated. The inner Judas was losing, was going to lose, for he could not not speak to her now, knowing what he had just found out. Yet it wouldn’t do him any good, would it, that he was bearing bad news. Didn’t bearers of bad tidings usually get shot? Never mind. She needed to hear… and one long look from her would kill him, anyway.
There she was now, perched atop the stone wall, her legs tucked into a hidden bench built into the wall’s far side, waiting for her sister to finish Glee Club. He knew all of her daily routine backward: he knew probably more about her, he figured, than one person had ever known about another he’d never even spoken to. By the end of first period every morning, he usually knew which uniform of the three options she was wearing, even though he saw her in none of his classes and was, indeed a full year behind her. It was helpful at this instant to know that she had worn a red jumper today, for her back was toward him, and the arcade’s shadow prevented her golden hair from giving her away absolutely. (What crapola! That was Judas’s voice whispering doubts—as if he wouldn’t know her hair, even in a shadow, from every other hue of gold in the school, in the universe.) So the jumper reassured him and condemned him. It was the last nail in the coffin prepared for the execution. (As if the shoulders beneath the sun-swept white blouse protruding from the shadows hadn’t been enough, even back near the gym: though slightly slumped toward the invisible bench, they preserved that perfect T-shape whose agile grace was a thing not touched, not approached, by any other girl he had ever seen.)
She was alone, too. Entirely alone. There was usually someone waiting to give or receive a ride loitering under the covered walkway at this hour of mid-afternoon (and usually some guy hanging around her at any hour while the sun shone on the campus); but as he climbed from the lawn onto the sidewalk, he noticed that no other figure loomed anywhere from end to end of the interminable promenade. What a stroke of luck, that best part (or some good part) of him cheered frailly… and then whispered to itself, or heard some bad part within its goodness whisper, "Oh, hell!" The inner Judas, who heard all, overheard; and he began to slide his slimy hand once more about the body’s shoulders, his wry lips curling in a kind of kiss: "You can’t really talk to her. Don’t you know that yet? Too bad, old boy, old sport, old pal. You’re not the only clammy invertebrate in the world. You’ll learn to live with it."
But the body had stopped before the concrete bench which had materialized, sure enough, from the stones where he held his gaze. Sweaty armpits, no voice, and all, it stopped. Damn! He was really impressed with this body today! Now what? Now what?
Tell her that they intend to rape her. You have no choice, it’s your mortal obligation.
He couldn’t lift his chin, so he forced his eyes to rise, feeling his brow wrinkle with the effort. Her beautiful blue stare had never been fixed upon him before—in five years, all his relentless espionage had done nothing to prepare him for how blue it was. He already lacked the breath to speak, his pulse pounding in his ears; now the sight of those eyes, looking straight into his own (his black-as-night eyes, forever brooding, as everyone always reminded him)—that sight alone would have robbed him of any last gasp he might have managed to put behind a word. He could only gape.
Her lips parted as if to relieve him of his agony by offering the next word (her full but subtle lips that knew a hundred smiles, as he had learned even from his safe distances). She did not speak, after all, however. Perhaps the gesture was sympathetic, an effort to prompt him or a falling into pace with him (for she was following his lead, he realized: his mouth was already open). Finally she coaxed, "Yeeesss?" Her upper lip quivered with amusement, and her golden hair rippled against her gloriously right-angled shoulders in a kind of shrug.
God you’re beautiful I love you so much I’ve loved you for years—
She giggled without blinking an eye.
"You don’t know me—"
"Oh yes I do," she parried easily. "You’re Yanto Gwynn—what a neat name! You write poetry for the literary magazine, you won the Latin award last year, and you’re on the soccer team."
"It’s Welsh," someone said—someone who had borrowed his tongue and decided to rattle it around. "Everyone always thinks ‘Yanto’ is Hispanic or Italian, but… it’s Welsh. My grandfather… he came from Wales. The Welsh are mostly small dark people, like me."
Why had he said that? Did she know that a girl in his class had dubbed him "Santo Yanto" because he was too stand-offish to attend dances?
"You’re not so dark. Your hair’s light enough to be auburn, almost." Maybe she didn’t know. Was she ever going to blink?
"Leah," May I call you Leah, Goddess? "I have… something to… to tell you."
Yes, now she blinked, and her gentle smile faded. His tongue was his own again, but he had little joy of his recovered powers. To think that he should have been here at last, after all these years, and living and talking after the first wave of swoons—and yet have nothing to say of all those priceless secrets from all those years. To think that such a moment could have become so burdensome….
"I was coming out of the locker room just now," he babbled, "and when I walked through the restroom, I—" (He shouldn’t have given her the layout in such detail, and his tongue re-froze briefly: this was the girl who would "never let it down and show it", as he had heard guys whisper for years.) "Well, I guess they didn’t hear me. The door had been propped open after practice. They never heard me. They just went on talking. They couldn’t see me, and I never saw them. But I recognized their voices. I was about to pass on, when one word they said stopped me dead in my tracks."
There was no trace of a smile on her slackened lips now, and her elegantly squared shoulders were for once rounded. With mild astonishment, he realized that he held her in the palm of his hand—that he had a kind of power over her. The thought filled him with a compassion which he would never have believed one so low could feel for one so exalted. And it would get worse for her—right now.
"Leah, they said your name."
"My name?" she exhaled voicelessly: her blue gaze pierced him through and through now, yet he could meet it. Perhaps that was what alarmed her.
"Leah, they’re going to…."
And then he had to look away. Yet he drew half a step closer to her bench as he did so, and sighed a long, steady sigh. "Look, when you go out tonight, don’t drink anything that’s been out of your sight for even an instant. Just don’t. Not even a glass of water. Do you understand what I’m saying? They have these pills, some of the guys, that dissolve and have no taste. They make you… they make girls pass out, kind of, but not so they can’t be led away somewhere private."
"He… you can’t be saying… you’re not talking about—"
"It wasn’t Brian—I mean, it wasn’t just Brian, okay?" he stumbled in, unable to listen further to the anguish at his elbow (he could sense her head bowing, her voice drawing closer to him). "He’s keeping some bad company these days. Brian himself might never… well, I don’t exactly know him" (your class’s Man About Campus—why would he buddy around with me?) "but I know the other better than I want to, which is little enough. It’s not like… like they’re both going to… Brian is getting the stuff as a favor, you see. I gather that the other will get… something else later. Quid pro quo."
The Latin came out very dryly, playing ironically in the memory of her praise for his famous skill at weird languages. Hard to believe that he could be standing here so poised, so bitterly sad and bitterly cynical, within a finger’s reach of the girl who could have killed him with a kiss. He turned back to her suddenly. Her head was indeed bowed.
"Don’t go," he pleaded. "Just don’t go."
When she looked up, he could have kissed her just by leaning forward (if he had known how: but upon her lips he would have needed no lessons). The sweet scent of her hair which bathed his mind might have been her breath. "No. I have to go. This is just not like him… and I don’t really know—no offense, but I don’t really know you. I have to give him a fair chance."
Her zenith-deep eyes peered from beneath raised brows (fine, dark brows that faintly contradicted her golden hair, that chased thoughtful furrows into her forehead—rather as his own had arched, he imagined, upon first peeking up at her, yet infinitely beautiful in their puzzlement, not gloomy and threatening). She was waiting for him to answer. And he… what could he do to pretend that he had followed her words?
"I’m sorry," she pursued, taking his rapture for something else. "It’s just… I mean, I appreciate your warning me, and it’s not that I don’t believe you. But try to see it through my eyes."
"Your eyes?’ he droned.
"Yes. I mean, how can I just say, ‘Brian, get lost, and don’t come back’? Because I never want to see him again if this is true, but… but I have to know that it’s true before I say it." She looked deeply into his stare. "Don’t you see? Don’t you?"
"I… yes, I see." Yes, I see. I’ll be seeing this moment for the rest of my life.
"Are you sure you didn’t… I mean, maybe it was just a voice that sounded like Brian’s."
He emerged partially from his trance. "Um… well, how many other guys are you going out with this evening?" Oh, God, what a way to phrase it! "There’s only one Leah, isn’t there? It’s not like we’re a big campus. He said your name."
"Yes. That’s… that’s not good."
She pulled away then and (again unconsciously mimicking his motions of a moment earlier) heaved an enormous sigh and turned her torso to gaze down the sidewalk. The sudden distance between them brought him fully back to the surface. He realized, even, that she was fixing on the point where Brian would cross the walk to reach the parking lot. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets and righted himself. The words came slowly to him now, but only because he was weighing them very deliberately.
"Listen, I… you really don’t know me, you know. Just what they say about me, which tells you nothing—less than nothing, a lot of slanderous…. Well, under the circumstances… you really have to find out for yourself. As you say."
"I’m glad you see it," she murmured with wonderful gentleness, not quite meeting his eyes but dipping her golden head slightly into one elegant, sculpted shoulder.
"But you know," he continued, absolutely amazed at yet another being within him—neither poet nor babbler nor Judas, but something like a man, "I don’t see how… I can stay at home tonight. I can’t just stay at home, hoping everything turns out okay."
"Were you going to stay at home? On Friday night?"
"Sure. Where else would I go?" he mumbled with false simplicity: the man had made a brief retreat into the hurt child needing sympathy. "But now… well, I guess I’ll just drive around. I don’t know where you’re going… I don’t know where he’ll take you… and it’s none of my business to be asking. But maybe I’ll go somewhere to eat, and I’ll see you. Or maybe I’ll go to a movie, and you’ll be there. At least there’s always a chance."
"We’ll be at Cindy Rollins’s party," she betrayed to him generously, almost laughingly, as her frame slowly turned upon him again. "You’re really not going? I thought everyone was going!"
"I… I wasn’t invited—"
This was precisely what he had wanted, what he had needed. Why was the man in him skulking away just at the critical moment? But he couldn’t suppress a sheepish pout. "So… so do I just show up and walk in? Will I look odd, being alone?"
"Nnnnooo," she said slowly, her smile growing as the word trailed from her lips, "but you’ll look odd being alone and staring at me all night."
Santo Yanto, he brooded. And then he almost said, far more thoughtfully, I’ve been alone staring at you for five years and no one has noticed. Yes, why not say it? But he didn’t. His mouth opened, but his mind ran away into the eternity of undisclosed secrets.
"I’m sorry," she hastened in, again misreading his mood. "I’m not making fun of you. Only just a little. Look, what if I fix you up with a friend of mine?"
"A… a girl?"
"I actually like the thought of her being there, just in case anything really does happen." She had nobly fought back a giggle at his stupid interjection, though her gaze had to fly up to the rafters of the walkway’s roof. "She’s extremely down-to-earth."
"Not anyone from my class! You don’t know how they all hate me—"
"No, no, she goes to public school. She’s got twice the brains I do, but they couldn’t afford St. Francis."
As he shifted and sulked a little, he saw Brian’s tall figure clambering up the lawn—and that jackal Tipton walking in his shadow. His fists clenched in his pockets. Brian was a foot taller than he (and one of the few seniors, besides, who had ever spoken to him civilly); but he suddenly had the idea of talking it all out—and more, if it came to that—right in front of her.
"I’ll call you after I’ve cleared it with her. Give me about an hour. You’re in the directory, right? Oh my God, there he is! And Leonard is with him. I should have known that’s who you meant—"
"Listen, Leah," he muttered resolutely, his eyes riveted upon the two shapes now striding up the sidewalk, "let me challenge him with it to your face. See if he has the nerve to deny it!"
"You can’t be serious." The calmness in her tone so shocked him that his furious absorption in Brian (forged as much by Brian’s success with her, he grasped in sudden shame, as by tonight’s evil scheme) was snapped. She had his full attention again. She continued:
"He won’t admit anything, especially with Leonard here to back him up. And then I’ll always wonder… about both of you."
How could she be so cool? How could she still go out with the guy—want to go out with him—when there was even a possibility that he was up to no good? How could she be so even-tempered, so fair-minded, so…
"How can you be so brave?" He said that, and with the look that he had not been able to bestow upon saying his five-year secrets.
"Go on now." Her lids dropped, she blushed like a fairy caught red-handed mending toys, and she gave him an infinitesimal box with her fingertip—on whose electric charge he could have flown home above the swallows. "I’ll call you in an hour."
Yanto had been fully honest, if a shade pathetic, about his lackluster Friday nights, and he might have added all other evenings to the list. Fortunately, this friend Rae, as she was called, lived close by. (Short for Rachel? He had asked Leah to spell it over the phone, and had almost found the nerve to banter, "Are you sure this is a girl?") Leah also inhabited his humble suburb. They were all three alien to the country-club set, but Leah’s looks and personality had opened the doors which always remained closed to him, and apparently to her friend.
So he found the trusty Rae’s residence with minimal wrong-turning. He then had the further good fortune of discovering that, against all likelihood, she knew the Ridgecrest area inside-out. "I do a lot of baby-sitting over there," she explained. "The Rollinses live by the golf course."
"And where, pray, is the golf course?" he had drawled sourly.
Since the days were growing longer, he was able to observe this foreign and hostile land rather closely. The sight of such extravagant wealth (he had mistaken one driveway for the main road, despite his navigator’s expert directions) left him mute and sullen. Had he not been receiving instructions, they would have made the entire journey in silence. He spotted a mass of cars ahead, lining both the curbs of the boulevard which meandered beside the golf course’s luxurious veers and bends. "That must be it," he mumbled.
"No, no. Keep going."
"Hmph. Wrong party." He fidgeted, very nearly stealing a glance at his equally taciturn partner. "Do you know them, too?"
"No," she droned.
The Rollins mansion was no less populous with revelers than the other castle, yet it appeared less infested because of a lot-like expanse at the back of its drive. Rae was out before he could open the door for her (and, frankly, he had briefly forgotten to make the attempt as he gaped in awe). They followed three or four other couples in through a side entrance—French double doors within whose gap he could have parallel-parked his parents’ Chevy. The sheer enormity of the place, the fashionable dimness of the lights, the champagne-fueled restlessness (as he reckoned it, not without suspecting his own naiveté) of the throng, and the even dispersion of tittering laughter covered their infiltration like an ocean closing over a pebble.
Yanto immediately despaired of ever finding Leah. He had a hunch that Rae could have sniffed her out in thirty seconds flat—but he checked himself as he turned toward her. It occurred to him that she might not be "filled in". Would a girl tell another girl that a guy was going to try to drug her at a party and spirit her off to his back seat? Would she tell her best friend? Would a "good girl" like Leah view the confession as humiliating? He couldn’t make girls out at all, good, bad, or indifferent. So he merely drew a heavy sigh and dug a finger in behind his necktie (which, he suddenly realized, was about the only one on the premises, caterers excluded).
"Have some of these," said Rae, "they’re good."
"Oh shoot, Rae—I’m sorry," he blurted in her ear (a nearby gaggle of debutantes had just burst out laughing, and somehow doubled themselves over without molesting the circulating waiter). "I should have taken you to supper. I thought…." What had he thought? Of food, he had thought nothing, and of his "date" even less.
"S’okay. This is more supper than I would have eaten. Come on, have some."
And she managed to supply him with plate, fork, and hors d’oeuvres without even setting down her own dish, while he stood by like a house-trained Tarzan and gaped at her maneuvers. Feeling both faintly humiliated and distinctly uncouth, he wondered at the morsel on the end of his fork for a full minute. He had just about advanced it to his mouth when worse came to worst, in the person of Kristin Hogarth.
"Oh, Yantie! I can’t believe you’re here! Oh, wow! Robin—Robin! Guess who’s here? Oh, she can’t hear me, I’ve got to go tell her! God, this is just so… funny!" Kristin’s naturally squinty eyes disappeared amid an alarming, raucous exhalation that forced her fat cheeks even higher. "Robin!" she roared into the crowd, plunging through a furrow of shoulders where she alone, finally, managed to topple over a waiter. There were screams and laughter, a tingle of glass, and a richly bellowed, "My God!"
"Do you know that person?" queried Rae, leaning close to him (her hair had a nice smell, too—not like Leah’s, but… nice).
"She calls me Santo Yanto," he explained. "She’s always hated my guts." The braying jackass.
"Well," concluded Rae, "that’s not what she called you just then."
Without exchanging a word further, as if through some telepathic agreement, they began to "mingle", cradling their plates adroitly, in a direction and at a speed which soon carried them out of the huge room. They could actually hear their shoes kissing cleanly across the hardwood of the corridor they entered. He had hardly to speak above a whisper when he asked her if she wanted any champagne.
"I’ve already nabbed some," she returned in the same intimate tone. "I got you some, too. In your other hand."
He shot a glance up the staircase which was dropping down beside their progress to see if anyone might have overheard the burlesque exchange (or perhaps just to avoid looking at her—at Rae. Where as she, anyway, and where was the tall, elegant Brian Bodell?)
"Have you ever had champagne?" pursued Rae, almost at his back. At least her voice was discreetly purged of any mockery.
His first impulse was to lie, but instead he just scowled. "No, I haven’t."
"Do you want me to find you something else?"
The question, though posed seriously (even solicitously), continued to irritate him. He ground his jaws, mulling over various responses from "no" to "double bourbon" to… when suddenly they walked right into Cindy Rollins, the lady of the hour, where their corridor intersected a larger hallway. He walked into her, at any rate. The back of his hand literally slid up her bare forearm to her shoulder, and he saw that a few drops of champagne had pooled on his wrist at the base of his thumb.
"I’m sorry!" effused Cindy with entirely convincing chagrin, touching his own forearm (the shirt that flared with courtly dash from his best sweater-vest) as if to soothe a pain. Cindy was a beauty—not quite Leah (no one was quite Leah), but a veritable marble statue. Like a statue, or perhaps a goddess, all of her features seemed slightly larger than life, the better to be worshipped from afar. Her eyes were huge, their whites flashed broadly, her wide lips shined like a polished mineral and opened upon perfect marble teeth… even her arm, so smooth and white that it might indeed have been Parian stone, was rounded as if for voluptuous embraces or for bouncing babies. In her late adolescence, she already exuded a mature, almost quintessential femininity, an aura of Woman; and in his own diffident and untried adolescence, Yanto found her warm, soft, throbbing proximity tinged with a power to terrify.
"Yanto!" Cindy beamed, like a sun upon an outer planet. "Wow! You’ve never been here before, have you? Did you come to our Christmas… no, I remember now, that was Trisha’s cousin from Canada. He looks just like you! Can I get you anything?"
A voiceless "ah" escaped through her tirelessly beatific smile as she saw Rae.
"Hi, I’m Cindy Rollins."
And she shook hands with Rae amid her aura of moist, fertile beams and the sacred tinkle of her bracelet. As her torso bent in the gesture like a magnificent cypress bowing beneath a breeze, her face passed directly before his eyes, closer even than Leah’s had been for an instant that afternoon. A scent of something otherworldly again befuddled him; but he thought less of kissing the broadly sculpted cheek passionately than of falling on his knees and shielding his eyes from godhead. He marveled at the slightly greater-than-mortal size of the profile, and at the patently non-mortal exactitude of all its proportions.
"I thought you said you baby-sat for the Rollinses," he mumbled, testing his unthawed tongue cautiously, as Cindy drifted off surrounded by a number and species of lesser beings to whom he paid no attention. The party, thronged and nearly chaotic though it was, seemed truly to resolve itself into circles of faces looking up for warmth and light as she advanced through their midst.
"I baby-sit for the Rollinses. You asked me if I… never mind."
He shook himself, as if a violent physical effort were necessary to deflect his gaze from the goddess of the fertile earth. "Sorry, yes. I just thought… I mean, it looked like she’d never met you."
"Oh." He hunched slightly and drank the pool of champagne off his wrist in a flicker of grace—of true graceful genius—which far surpassed any possessed by Brian Bodell (and which came and went completely undetected by his own psychic sensors). The way he concealed the hunch in a sidestep, the way his lips continued to the glass after cleaning his wrist so cavalierly, the way he stole yet another glance at Cindy as his head tilted into the champagne… it was all one motion, and the whole was at least the equivalent of swishing a plumed hat to the floor before Cardinal Richelieu’s august presence.
"She certainly seems to know you," said Rae quietly.
"Yes, that’s… that’s odd, isn’t it?," he sported, surprised at the merriment in his voice. It could hardly have been the champagne—not already! "I’ve never said a word to her in my life. Or she to me."
"She really likes you, in case you didn’t notice."
He stiffened abruptly, the flash of risqué elegance now utterly withdrawn from his frame. He studied Rae speechlessly. His initial shock was followed by a flush of delight, of humored vanity—which was just as quickly succeeded by shame. When he finally did speak, he sounded almost indignant with his partner; but the shame (as he sensed vaguely) was really aimed at his own instant of thrill.
"You… you must be kidding. Why… why would you say a thing like that?"
"It was obvious, that’s why." She had a way, this Rae, of standing her ground immovably and staring straight through you.
"She was… just being a hostess. Turning on the charm."
"It wasn’t what she said. It was the way she said it."
To sustain this fight on two fronts—Rae on one side, his inner man on the other (which inner man this time?)—was impossible. While his decorous persona wanted to continue scoffing, that ghost of D’Artagnan which had pirouetted through his soul just beyond his conscious mind’s notice was whistling a song in the shadows now. Its words went something like, "If Cindy can fall for me, then why not Leah?" He couldn’t shake the mad lyrics out of his ears, so he took the offensive against Rae, instead.
"Okay, so say… say she likes me."
"Say she does."
"Well, what does that prove? She doesn’t like me for my politics or my big plans or my poetic visions or… or my good heart or… or anything to do with what’s inside me, because we’ve never had a conversation. She doesn’t like me for being the campus he-man, because I’m not. What does that leave? She doesn’t know anything about me. Neither does anyone else at St. Francis, because I don’t come from their world. And that’s exactly what she sees in me—the mystery. It has to be. The Roman historian Tacitus said we always build everything we don’t know into something wonderful."
"I’m disappointed," murmured Rae without so much as blinking. "I thought you’d say it in Latin."
He sighed and made as if to sip more champagne; but instead, he muttered into the glass, "Omne ignotum pro magnifico est."
"There, you see?" she countered, now with a trace of animation. "I knew you were a Latin whiz. I’d never even seen you before tonight. But Leah told me all about you."
"Leah," he winced. D’Artagnan had traipsed off back into his century. The sally of cold pessimism against Rae, oddly enough, had silenced the inward voice of joy without winning the outward contest. "Leah knows me even less than Cindy."
"But they know about you… your scholastic stuff, the soccer team. St. Francis isn’t like my school, where you never get to know the names even of the people in your own class. It’s a small world, and they really value gifted people. Leah told me about something you’d written in the literary magazine."
He stared deep into the crystal glass as sweat started to bead his upper lip. Leah had read that? His poem about death at dawn, filled with images of youth without hope… if only she had known that she was the cause of its minutely depicted anguish!
"And even if somebody does like you because you’re mysterious… well, they could hate you for the same thing, couldn’t they? Look at what’s-her-name—Foghorn Hogarth… though I didn’t read all that as antagonism, but say it was. If you’re going to wilt because someone like that thinks you’re weird, why not accept the admiration of others who value you for being different?"
"Because I’m not different," he protested, setting his plate on the edge of the staircase and mopping his face with the freed hand’s cuff. "That’s just it. They expect… what? Some kind of moody rebel without a cause? Some boy genius? Some wild biker with a loose screw? What they don’t know is that I’m just ordinary. Horribly ordinary."
"If that’s what you believe, then maybe a few of us know you better than you do. Even I can tell you’re not ordinary. How many guys at this party do you think have quoted Tastus since staggering in here? How many are having this conversation right now? Look around. They’ve got exactly two things on their mind. Getting stoned and… the other thing."
The other thing. He thought of Leah yet again, but far more urgently now. He felt as though he had betrayed her. Here he was having a forty-fathom discussion with an amateur psychoanalyst, feeling out the tender places in his bruised and beaten ego, and Leah… surely Bodell wouldn’t have made his move yet. Far too early… surely.
"There’s Leah," remarked Rae casually, right on cue.
His head swiveled like a weathervane in a fresh wind. Unable to find her, he spun back toward Rae and then followed her gaze. He saw Bodell’s tall, lean torso first. A flame of golden hair blazed steadily well below one of the hated shoulders. He noticed that the lank arm was bending at the elbow, reaching toward where her body stood hidden from him—groping for her waist, or perhaps for the bare flesh beneath a sleeve.
"No trouble, okay?" murmured Rae very softly, almost pleadingly, at his side.
Did she know, then? He glanced at her (she came scarcely higher next to him than Leah did to Brian: she was no Cindy). The intensity of her imploring gaze so surprised him that he looked down again; and he realized from those steady gray eyes—as if they had been a mirror—that his own face had tipped her off. Whatever she had or hadn’t known before, she had just read his mind.
The next two hours took on a new character. Now that he had located Leah, Yanto found himself idling a lot around objets d’art and potted plants rather than drifting nervously from room to room. He never allowed himself to be close enough or alone enough in an open space for Leah’s eyes to happen upon him. Brian’s height was a further advantage: she might as well have had a balloon tied around her neck. He bitterly noticed, nonetheless, that she never even shot a stray glance into the crowd. Not that Brian absorbed all her attention: she seemed always to be pursued by at least one other guy—an ongoing succession of other guys—who often pretended to play hail-fellow-well-met with Brian but whose true objective (as he could well observe from his hunting blinds) was to woo the fair lady with the ivory smile and fashion-model shoulders. And he reflected more and more gloomily, as he followed these countless overtures to the courtship dance, that if Brian were to be soon unmasked as Jack the Ripper, it would advance his own cause with Leah not one punch of her little finger.
Of course, he became miserable company for Rae. He was fully aware of his sudden unsociability without being able to resist it. To her credit, she didn’t press the issue. She didn’t ever try to resume their philosophical dispute—not at any level. She idled beside him and helped him blend into the woodwork for a while. Then, when one of his soccer buddies stumbled upon him (quite literally) and broached some rip-roaring recap of the week’s scores in slurred speech, she discreetly faded away. When the friend flung himself shouting after his misplaced date, Yanto cringed at first, fearing that the uproar might draw eyes his way. But there were similar uproars everywhere, although the better lit rooms (that is, the rooms with dimmed chandeliers) were quickly emptying. He barely caught sight of Leah retreating through the wide-open French doors to the back yard. (It was Leah, not Brian, whose motion he had detected: merely the way she walked, the way she tossed back her head, had flagged him long before Brian’s height. After all, he had dreamed of nothing but that motion for five years.)
He followed feverishly, ignoring now the sedated groups sprawled all over sofas and settees. Outside, he blundered over the body of someone who had passed out, apparently, and he slid through the close ranks of a conspiratorial bunch visible only from their orange cigarette butts. (His sense of smell, chasing his intellect from a mile behind, paused in the sweet wreaths of something not tobacco.) He was briefly near to panic—what on earth could Leah be thinking of, marching off under her own power into the night with that amphibious Bodell, leaving her world of light for those shadows where his basic nature was more comfortable? He was almost furious with her, briefly.
But then he heard the amplified throbs of emerging chords and a performer’s prefatory gibberish. In the next instant, he noticed strobe lights flickering through tree limbs and spurting across the lawn like so many squad cars on alert. He even saw Leah’s silhouette as he rounded a brick wall. He was within twenty feet of her—he had almost chased the couple down. And he froze in his steps: in fact, he withdrew a few steps until he felt the bricks press between his shoulders. They were going where he could not follow. Leah loved to dance (he had often heard guys say so in their tight-lipped way, as if they were watching her undress while they spoke), and he… he had never danced a step in his life.
Farther along the wall, by the light of some Japanese lanterns, he found a goldfish pond. A couple was seated on a bench at its far end, their heads so close together that he could not decide if they were whispering or if the breeze was stirring through the leaves. He plopped down on the corresponding bench at his end as though bowing his head compliantly before an executioner. The creature he loved most in the world was perhaps being seduced at this very instant; and not only could he not grab the scoundrel by the lapels—he was too clumsy and inept even to mingle with the crowd. He might as well have been a bird sleeping in the tree overhead. Even Cindy would be out there (even Cindy? Was she now, thanks to Rae’s suggestion, a second prize after Leah?). What would Cindy think if she could see him now? Didn’t they all really want to be seduced, after all—hadn’t they been before? Wasn’t that why they had these parties? Wasn’t it to create a wonderland full of shadows—of the unknown, the ignotum? And he couldn’t even hold up his easy, airy end of the shadow-magic. That was what he’d been trying to tell Rae. He wasn’t ordinary, no: he was extraordinarily resistant to mystery.
All kinds of imperatives flashed through his mind like the forsaken strobe lights, and just as quickly vanished. He should at least lurk at the edge of the dancing… he should at least stake out the parking lot… he should… he should… walk through the middle of the crowd up to Brian and sock him in the nose, starting a horrendous brawl, dealing punches left and right to all comers—that was his favorite inspiration. But he did nothing. He merely stared past his dangling hands onto the paving stones, which looked clean enough to eat off of in the soft light. Everything was so polished, so idyllic: and all of it said, "What are you doing here?" Santo Yanto.
His peripheral vision picked up movement just in front of him before he detected a sound. He subconsciously expected to see a cat (that most feminine of creatures whose motion was yet so unlike Leah’s queenly gait). When he looked up, he found Rae.
"Rae…" he said flatly. His mind was instantly flooded with self-reproach for his neglected duty to her. In his trough, he gathered these recognitions of further failure upon his head as if he would bury himself. He didn’t even try to stage a defense. He didn’t even manufacture some charitable lie about looking all over for her—which, of course, brought him even lower in his own esteem.
"I left you," he confessed bluntly, looking straight at her. "I didn’t even think about you. I just walked out on you… like a complete jerk."
But to his surprise, her steady gaze only glowed brighter, moister, and deeper. It was a remarkable gaze which he had seen several times tonight; and her features, which were not carved ivory or chiseled marble but fine, soft, and unexaggerated, also glowed when she focused herself this way. Even in the yellow shimmer of the lanterns, he observed her cheeks to flush like two freckled apples. She was… yes, she was kind of cute. Pretty, almost. He had not noticed before.
And then she did the most incredible thing. She reached out and stroked his hair. Lightly. Just once.
"You’re really suffering, aren’t you?" she said.
He was grateful—so grateful—for her touch, her words, yet he could only sigh and stare at his feet again. "I… I don’t know what to do."
"How long have you loved her?"
He was able to look up again now. For the first time, someone else knew. Not the only person who really counted, of course—but at least someone knew. At least, after all this time, he was no longer all alone with his agony, wondering insanely if it might not be happening—if the strongest, most enduring emotion in his heart might not really exist—since it never made a dent on objective reality. It had just made a dent.
"The first time I ever saw her, I was in seventh grade and she was in eighth. I was just a kid then, I know. But I was never the same again after that. It made me grow up real fast. I learned things about loneliness that some people never learn in a lifetime."
"But it’s also kept you young."
He looked deeply into her eyes, and saw the star of a laugh. "Young? How?"
And then she did laugh (a brief, breathless laugh), spinning away from him and extending an arm. "Just look around! How many of them can feel what you feel? Probably every girl here has broken at least three or four hearts out of all the guys here, and had hers broken as many times, and now it’s gotten to be a way of life. They break, and they mend, and their words carry a little less weight each time, and they ask for a little less each time. But you—that’s why you’re a mystery to them. You take things so hard!"
"And that makes me young?"
"Well, yeah. Haven’t you seen how hard little kids take things? We baby-sitters know all about it!"
"Is Leah, Rae—is she young like that?"
Just then they heard a groan from the shrubs. It came from the direction of the couple on the other bench, who had evaporated into thin air at some point. Its hoarse complaint had a female tone about it and was repeated now at regular intervals. He immediately shifted to his "damsel in distress" state of readiness, rising slowly to his feet.
"No, don’t go over there. Come away," insisted Rae. Her shortness contrasted so sharply with all he had ever seen of her manner that he raised only a mild protest.
"How can you be sure?"
And she grabbed him by the hand and led him out of the garden, up along the brick wall, and into darkness. Her small fingers gripped him tightly. They had a feverish warmth.
No sooner had the two of them reentered the carnival lunacy of the strobe lights than they heard Leah’s voice and, almost as quickly, located her swinging figure unstably etched against the electric fireworks. Even in the wild fidgets of illumination, he could sense something hasty in that fashion-runway swing—or else her raised voice had tipped him off; for though he missed the words, he detected a razor edge in them.
"Rae, is that you? Thank God!"
The hot little hand slipped away from him. Amid all the other confusion, he managed to perceive somewhere in his heart a pang of regret that it was gone.
"Listen, baby, you’re blowing this all out of proportion." Brian’s sapling-like silhouette came rolling along behind.
"Am I? Out of proportion? Then you admit it’s spiked—you just think I’m taking it too seriously—is that it? Rae, will you guys take me home?"
He would never have guessed that Leah’s voice was capable of such swift, clipped speech, or that its rich tones had so broad a register. One can learn only so much from a distance, even in five years.
"No, look, it’s… it’s not spiked! Jesus, how do you spike booze?"
"Drugged, then! Whatever that was in your palm!"
"It’s not! Drugged with what? What in hell—"
"Oh, no? Then you drink it!"
Leah’s magnificent figure drew up right before him now and spun around perfectly on a heel to face the flickering lights. He noticed Brian halting as if before a snake, noticed the champagne glass which she held up to his slack face, its crystal turning the festive shafts into prismatic rainbows; but most of all he noticed the smooth, cool sparkle over her drawn lips, so enticing even in their grimace, so resplendent even in the Armageddon of frenzied explosion and skewed starlight.
"What? Me? What do you…." Brian’s head of lightning-beaten curls lolled back in a silly, semi-intoxicated, fully embarrassed giggle.
"I said… drink it!"
And the champagne showered merrily through the color storm, bathing its liquid beads in shades of paradise, before sizzling over the handsome, bacchicly writhing face.
Starting the next week, Leah began to greet him cheerfully in the halls, calling out to him by name if she happened to see him first. Yanto expected (with a giddy mixture of terror and delight) that his classmate-detractors would surely notice the treatment, fall agape, and turn to stone. He expected, too, that all the campus rakes would start to elbow one another when he came around, as if working up the courage to ask him for his secret formula. To his relief (and his disappointment), no such side-effects were detectable. They may have been occurring, nevertheless; but he was so busy lowering his eyes and smothering his beatitude after she had passed on her way that he couldn’t have heard or seen an approaching locomotive.
There were longer conversations, too: a couple that first week, and then one about every other day (or daily? no, not daily) when she figured out that they had the same free period after lunch and that he passed it in the same place. They seldom talked for the whole hour. Maybe half of it. She wasn’t taking Latin or trig, so he saw no chance of exploiting the possibility of studying together. (What little she revealed about her courses, in fact, struck him as scandalously light-weight: so seniors really did get to goof off!) But the sincere interest and special intimacy—especially the intimacy—in her tone when she chirped, "Watcha doing?" were manna from heaven. After five years of famine, he felt that he might die of joy any second.
Except that the joy—even this supreme, unimaginable joy—had a somber lining. He was indeed bitterly disillusioned at certain rare moments (always at home, usually over weekends) when he reflected that even so glorious a victory as this should fall so far short of true, sustained happiness. And he descended to ponder (at his very lowest ebb) whether he were not worse off than before, since now he would be hurled from heaven forever after having enjoyed a taste of its nectar. She was a senior: after another month, he might never see her again. She was still extremely popular: it was unlikely that she was spending Friday and Saturday night at home like him just because Brian had let his tongue hang out too far. He remembered that steady stream of debonair backslappers around Brian at the party, all of them stealing pickpocket glances at his date. And Yanto remembered how he had realized then that nudging Brian aside would do little to advance his own cause.
But there was Rae to be considered. Rae was Leah’s best friend—and Rae was his friend, too (at least, she had seemed to like him), and she knew how he felt about Leah. Would one girl say that kind of thing to another who was her best friend? Would Rae tell Leah, "He loves you so very much—you’re so lucky!" the way she had told him, "She likes you," about Cindy?
The days passed, and he began to grow anxious. If Rae had told her, what would she do? Would she come to him with beaming eyes and a blush—would that be his cue? But what if the news had not been well received? Well, she wasn’t showing any coolness toward him… but would she? After all, Leah was an angel. She had given Brian a last opportunity to redeem himself, much to her own peril: would she simply snub the guy who had warned her, had saved her, just because he loved her more than his soul? No, she would… be nice to him. Exactly what she was doing now. So which was it? Was she saying yes, or saying no, or saying nothing at all?
Then one Wednesday afternoon, the climax reared up in the middle of a rambling conversation about colleges. It was destiny at last: the big question had come to seek him out in his oubliette of self-doubt. Time to be freed or be hanged.
With no transition whatever, Leah asked whimsically, "What did you think of Rae?"
Rae had told her—he knew she would! What a friend! And now she was sidling awkwardly into the matter by asking him what he thought of Rae. The next question was going to be, "Do you know what Rae told me?" She wouldn’t be about to ask that question if her answer to him wasn’t going to be "yes"!
All my life… all my life in this moment.
"Rae?" he said.
She fidgeted, brushing her full-bodied hair off her forehead in a manner which had haunted his dreams since seventh grade.
"Rae’s my best friend, Yanto. I’ve know her for… forever. She’s a really, really neat person."
Then she bent toward him and tapped him with her finger, just as she had done on that fateful afternoon last month. Her lashes, her teeth, her lips had never been so close to him as they were now. His mind flew away. He became an empty vessel, a stone basking in golden sunlight.
"I know you haven’t asked her out since the party, because I’ve asked her. I… gosh, it’s not that… look, I… you should ask her, Yanto! She’s so perfect for you! And you’re perfect for her, too. Gosh, you’re the two most… most perfect-for-each-other people I’ve ever met! Do you know how hard that is to happen? I’ve dated a lot, and I can tell you, it just doesn’t happen. Once in a blue moon. She’s… you won’t tell her this, I know. She’d kill me. But she really, really likes you. I’ve never heard her talk about anybody like she does you!"
The stone gyrated madly in a kind of spontaneous combustion, a kind of post-supernova collapse which leaves a piece of slag heavier than a solar system. Yet the sun goddess continued to caress it with her halo, safely beyond the reach of its invisible heat and suffocating gravity alike, pausing on her diurnal journey not even an instant, carrying light to other quarters of the universe. He stared at her as if he had awakened from a five-year dream. The last five years had never happened. His deepest, most immovable emotion—the one which best identified his uniqueness, his being, his soul—had been a game of make-believe. Her golden light had annihilated him like a thunderbolt, had popped his swollen heart like a silent balloon.
"I wish you’d say something. Just to show me you’re not upset."
Upset, he thought to himself, fixing her blue, blue eyes now as if seeking the signs of blindness—some dense film, some coating of scales. She couldn’t tell that he was upset? You can’t tell that I’m upset? You just drove a stake through my heart, and you can’t tell that I’m upset? Why should I be upset—it was just a little stake! A little stake for a little heart—a tiny, shriveled-up heart that maybe doesn’t even exist, that never existed. Why should you see me—I’m nothing! Why should you see nothing? Only Rae would have seen, in your place. She would have seen way back in seventh grade. And I’m going to tell you so, too. I’m damn well going to say something this time. I can feel it coming.
"How can I call her when I don’t know her number?" he said.
De omnibus pauca, de nullo omnia.
I don’t recall the exact year when the word "chauvinist" first bullied its way into common parlance, but I’m pretty sure it was in the seventies. (The phrase "male chauvinist pig" was the blunt wedge which introduced this single word into our living rooms.) I know that there was some French ruffian of the late nineteenth century named Chauvin (or Calvin—I shall abstain from denominational jokes) at the root of our popular usage, but history is not the focus of my question, or observation. For I really wish only to observe that this word means nothing. What is a chauvinist? Someone whose disagreement with you is loud and intransigent? Has being uncouth, then, become an –ism? I was surprised how suddenly and thoroughly the use of this idiotically vapid word destroyed an otherwise scholarly book that I was reading. Why do bright academics allow their prose to be sabotaged by such stale histrionics?
Dear Hirsute Purist,
I view words like "chauvinism" as a kind of verbal color-coding—rather what mood is to verbs. As you say, the word means almost nothing in itself: it conveys that a writer incapable of objectifying his animosity yet unwilling to let his subject pass untarred considers said subject incapable of objectifying his animosity yet unwilling to let his subjects pass untarred. It codes the subject as someone whom we can detest without wasting time on justification (for the vicious crime of unjustified detestation)). Hypocrisy aside, the moral problem with a "modal noun", of course, is that it dispenses with verbs. The desired operation on the thing has already been done when the thing is named: no scope remains for intelligent action. A hortatory verb alerts us that it is pleading a case, not coldly stating a fact. A hortatory noun, on the contrary, tries to switch off our awareness and feed us pre-processed matter as raw data. Most of these hortatives are "hated-coded": "chauvinist", certainly, is a "hate word". If I call you a chauvinist, I alert my audience (which I presume to consist of the "thinking class", where a push is on to spare everyone needless thinking) that you may be hated without a tedious review of the evidence. Small wonder that these same people have given us the "hate crime", which, pondered from the roots up, is not a matter of simply hating but rather of hating the wrong people. One must "hate haters"; and one is so eagerly to accept the validity of such modal signifiers that one considers a mere thought as an act already done, judged, and condemned. These short-cuts to the noose are much prized among revolutionaries concerned about staying on schedule. Indeed, herein—and only here—do they differ from the poor chauvinist, who is merely close-minded. They have big plans which call for a full-scale lobotomy: he has only turned the key on a couple of doors.
I strongly recommend Mark Bauerlein’s Literary Criticism: An Autopsy to your readers. Professor Bauerlein discusses every slick academic euphemism from "interdisciplinary" to the use of the gerund form (-ing) in titles. Readers of this column, especially, will be delighted to see the verbose pomposity and insipid jargon of PC stripped away to reveal the same airy weave—and the same servile objectives—that went into the proverbial emperor’s new clothes.
Not Selling Anything
We do, in fact, sell this book (and a great many others) on the Arcturus Press Website under our recommended reading. To be exact, Amazon sells it and we collect a referral fee. Perhaps you may wish to dedicate an essay to it: for while Praesidium has no review section as a regular feature, it certainly looks favorably on papers which take a particular work either as a jumping-off or a landing point.
About Bauerlein’s fine book, I will say in criticism only that its astuteness left me wishing for more directness (a complaint which I frequently have of even the best academic writing). I know that one must tread warily, though he be shod in snowshoes of tenure, upon PC’s sensitive skin. This isn’t the first age in which intellectuals have resorted to rare diction and complex hypotaxis so as to smuggle heresies past the censor. (I am assured that the intimidating character of both Vico’s and Kant’s writing has such a source.) Without denying urbane irony its due, however, I find that I should have liked one—just one—straightforward statement of condemnation from Mr. Bauerlein about what he sees going on. We must content ourselves, instead, with being told that current academic discourse is "a lexical roadmap of anti-methodological pragmatics" (xv). If there is a spade hidden somewhere under this proliferation of Greek adjectival suffixes, I should like to see it called a spade. What is (are) pragmatics? The science, perhaps, of how to do things which achieve specific, immediate, objective, and materially self-serving ends? Sounds like old-fashioned bloody-mindedness to me.