Blog nam Booanna
(Blog na mBuanna):
The Blog of Virtues
A diving-bell view of post-literate society's adventure in dumbing down.
"A man and his habits are hard to separate."
The word "blog" scarcely makes my curmudgeonly literate heart leap for joy: yet another Web-engineered assault upon plain English, it conjures in me recollections of Gaelic monstrosities like the Blár Buidhe (a Highland ogre who once brought Fionn to the threshold of death, so the legend goes). But the time has come to make a virtue of necessity. I respect a great many "bloggers", I concede the appeal of their genre, and I believe that we at The Center for Literate Values have our share, too, to say about daily life in a post-literate republic (even if we must borrow the idiom of post-literacy for its rubric). Pardon me, then, a well-intentioned allusion to William Bennett and a high-comic--or low-epic--evocation of the old country. (Bua in Irish refers early on to a special skill which allows the hero to prevail over formidable adversaries: later it comes to mean a more internalized kind of strength, as is usual when cultures pass from speaking to writing.) Virtuous we shall try to be: no cheap shots, slanders, band-wagon jibes, ad hominem jests, or early-adolescent gambols. Lucidity shall be our guide as far as we may hold her hem: humility shall be our burden when lucid reason slips away behind doubt and ignorance. We believe in ultimate truth, but... but we also know better than to stare at the sun.
John Harris, editor and grudging blogger
life's glistering tinsel? Proceed beyond here with caution.
THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES AND THE LAST GASP OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS
This time of year seems appropriate for chancing a subject often regarded as off limits by experienced diplomats: religion. I ventured in that direction with my last column; and, in the two weeks since then, I have been composing an essay about the moral exigencies of the perfectly good god's perfect heaven for the next issue of Praesidium. I devote my blog to more humble, more manageable topics than the hereafter--and, in a sense, to more political ones. Yet religion has grown highly political during the past two decades, as we all know. My present anguish over where to send my son for his schooling most certainly has political ramifications, and also--it turns out--religious ones. The collapse of the public school system stems from numerous factors, such as the tyranny of teachers' unions, the legal disparagement of two-parent families, and the creation of permanent high-level bureaucracies to deal with local problems. All of this is political in the worst (i.e., least Aristotelian) way--but religion has also played a part. When the people usually called fundamentalists (or "conservative evangelicals" by scholar James Barr) decided that no form of evolution must be taught on their child's campus, they stoked the fire which would fuel an enormous private- and home-schooling movement. With the exodus of these concerned parents and their children from the public system, the student bodies of our tax-supported campuses quickly grew to contain a disproportionately large group of poor kids whose parents had no options (and who often, as they scrambled to make ends meet, didn't have the time even to follow what was happening at school). It seems to me, frankly, that this final factor was the decisive one in sealing public education's doom. Darwin did it.
Thus it comes about this year that Christmas and my personal anxiety over education intersect, since the matter of primary schooling forces us nowadays to weigh the matter of religion. I will say forthrightly, in celebration of the true Christ as well as because these columns must be brief, that the Darwinist issue has been miserably argued by both sides and should never have been permitted to cause an educational debacle. I'm not going to revisit evolution in detail as a scientific theory, since I am no scientist. I have read quite enough good science, however, to know that the Darwinist model has a great many holes, and that the proponents of evolution have stumbled badly in not explaining the spiritual "accommodations" of these holes. The major problem is that Darwin envisioned a gradual process of fine-tuning, whereas it is clear, instead, that significant changes in species can occur almost overnight, "catastrophically", sometimes by leaping several genetic barrels at once. This leaves the door open for the upward struggle of some kind of élan vital (to use Bergson's phrase--though I am no Bergsonian, either): it creates an exciting mystery in the material evidence which the believer in metaphysical realities is free to explore. I cannot imagine how a sublime drive toward consciousness and free will which consumes eons would be unworthy of God's majesty--far from it; and if the timing of Genesis seems to disallow these eons... well, does God's day have to be our day? Is the creation account to be confined within modern scientific terminology and purged of all metaphor--does any sane adult really believed that it was so intended by its recorders?
On the other hand, the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin advanced such an epic view of evolution, and he is today scourged just as vigorously as Darwin. So the scientists are no doubt to be excused for not seeking any middle ground, since the other side shoots them on sight. I've spent most of my adult life trying to understand why the magic-wand view of creation ("Zap! There's Earth! Zap! There's man!") is so rigidly non-negotiable to the charismatic; for I refuse to call this person a fundamentalist, God's all-goodness being His most fundamental characteristic and also that which is most abused in such rough hands. I had to sit through one of these "my Bible is always right (as I interpret it)" exegeses of the book of Esther a few months ago, and I thought I would surely tear my hair out before it ended. The text of Esther is a ghastly moral nightmare to any genuine Christian. It is a defense of massive tribal slaughter--ethnic cleansing, as we say nowadays. The fact that the Jews had carte blanche to murder their enemies is so thrilling to them that they anoint a new holiday (Purim) in God's holy name! I truly believe that the evolution debate had a lot to do with licensing these hipshot, morally topsy-turvy Sunday pep rallies for mowing down the bad guys (often followed by a Sunday football game). That is, when charismatics began to insist that the Genesis account of creation must be read as minutely accurate from a modern empirical standpoint, they bestowed a blessing upon such obtuse, blindly self-centered readings throughout the Bible. What is this... science anxiety? A transferred resentment of technology? Should good Christians stone their wayward children, then? That's what Deuteronomy 21.18-21 recommends.
Let's get something straight, not just as Christians but as functionally intelligent, legally responsible people. Science is a collection of metaphors. If Genesis speaks in poetry, science does so less only in that a very fine degree of inner coherence is exacted of its metaphors. Putting the earth at the center of the universe made scientific sense when our means of observation and our practical use of observed truth did not involve navigating vast distances. As our technology grew more refined and our cultural demands of knowledge grew more rigorous, science put the sun in the middle of things, then the galaxy's hub, then... and then we started observing quasars and black body radiation to decide if we could determine a center. As we contemplate trips beyond the solar system, our demands grow very severe; but the entire corpus of scientific knowledge remains a network of metaphors. That network is entirely incapable of handling extra-sensory perception, for instance, or certain "miraculous" recoveries. It often shrugs off such embarrassments without missing a step, because they are sufficiently few that our broad cultural undertakings shout down their contradictions. When and if we decide collectively to move in another direction, the scientific paradigm will move, too.
I don't care how low to the ground my distant ancestors' knuckles were, according to science. I care about teaching my son not to consign people to hell because they doubt that the Red Sea ever parted. I believe in teaching him moral virtue--humility, self-control, honesty, courage--and I believe that such virtues necessarily entail the service of unearthly ends. I do not believe that people who, in their zeal to smother Darwin, would have my son revere the closing passages of Esther can teach him anything about the true God who became flesh in order to wake us out of our self-absorbed torpor. May His birth be glorified... and where, oh where, is a good school to be found?
IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE... WHAT WE REALLY LOOK LIKE
As usual, the parson had to park his scratched and rattling antiquity of a car at the lot's far end, for he refused to designate any special space for himself. He trotted briskly toward the vestry, since the winter gusts had a sharp edge which cut easily through his threadbare jacket. In his haste, he forgot to run a comb through his hair after squirming into his robe. He contented himself with a self-conscious swipe of the palm as the choir assumed its place, heartily belting out the introit in almost perfect unison. His text that day was Christ's instruction to the disciples to take no change of clothes on their peregrinations about the countryside: God would provide. He explained in practical illustration that he was entirely satisfied with his $20,000 a year, since the parsonage represented rent-free boarding for him and his family and since other perks of the job were generous. He was more concerned that so many of his parishioners seemed to need so much--that a 3000-square-foot home was not enough, that the latest-model minivan and SUV were not enough, that monthly Gameboy and Play Station upgrades for the kids were not enough. There was an inviolable link, he insisted, between the Christian life and abstinence from this world's frivolities and extravagances. One could not live for things unseen when so deeply immersed in things seen. That certain of the congregation were even ashamed of his car and his jacket, he smiled demurely, was sad proof that the process of decay was beginning. He admitted that he cut a rather sorry figure--but he warned that he was also a mighty stumbling block, and that those who rejected him for his humble exterior risked being rejected by God for their worship of exteriors.
Sound like your church? No, nor mine, either. Don't worry: the forgoing scenes are completely fictitious. No such man of God as this is likely to turn up in our midst today and set us fidgeting over the coals we have kindled beneath ourselves. I have known a few of them, to be sure, but never as pastors of large congregations. They were associate ministers, at most, and they were often finessed even out of those humble roles with the passage of time. No "self-respecting" church of our day would be caught dead (or alive) employing such a figure in such a capacity. Churches are supposed to grow. They are supposed to amass money and project a formidable façade into the awed pagan community, which will then gasp as one, "Maybe we've missed out on something--look at how well those Christians are doing!" Money makes converts, and conversion is what evangelism is all about. Right?
As dour cultural commentators decant their annual bromides on the commercialization of Thanksgiving and Christmas, I venture to suggest that we have just the kind of holidays we deserve. We get in late November and December what we have asked for throughout the rest of the year. I'm never entirely sure, in any case, just what the censors of our crass culture have in mind as an alternative. When you own stock in Toys-R-Us or market computer software for a living, you like to see your stock rise or your paycheck swell. Such ends are accomplished when people are transformed into barracudas in an unsightly consumer feeding frenzy which begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs Yuletide red for a month. This is what you've been waiting for--what you've been praying for. You can't have it both ways. You can't have all your hi-tech, energy-ravening "conveniences" without living among a tribe which lusts and drools for the same conveniences. As a churchman, you can't have the new Family Life Center and the extended parking lot (not to mention a nearly six-figure income) without having parishioners who hunt the Greenback Whale with a delirious passion rivaling Ahab's--Captain Ahab's, I mean. It's no good sermonizing that the Christmas displays go up too early at the mall and that reindeer commercials pop up too early on TV. Face it: this coarseness is the price tag for the materially abundant life you lead--the life you say God has "blessed" you with because you did Him the favor of believing that you'd always have it this fat and rich, even after death, and without even having to work for it. Enjoy it, if you can.
Our religious leaders are quite right when they warn that the crisis of the West is a spiritual one. What most of them are either not telling us or don't realize (the latter is more disturbing than the former, and more probable) is that what has come to pass for mainstream Christianity is itself the crisis. We are urged everywhere to pray for very specific, very material things (for what could be specified in this existence except the material?). Yet what we want is not what we want. We do not know how to pray, and we do not know what to pray for. With organized religion egging us on to view the material comforts and sentimental blandishments of our earthly sojourn as a free gift (or even a rightful due) from God, we fall into the trap of believing health, longevity, stable families, and secure jobs to be a peculiarly Christian harvest. We read the Old Testament, but not the New--or else we read St. Paul's advice on handling womenfolk or ogle Revelations for its Hollywood-caliber special effects, but ignore the example of Jesus. We fancy ourselves God-fearing patriarchs surrounded by abundant holdings and adoring children. Christ on the Cross... that image is the rubber stamp that sealed the deal, not the promise of what awaits us if we resist, as we are called to do, the forces ruling an egotistical, carnal world.
We have remade Christianity to suit our sensual, self-indulgent picture of the good life, and now we denounce irreligion because we are hemmed in by self-indulgent sensualists. I don't find the denunciation terribly compelling. But come on now, you say--wouldn't the abstemious kind of Christian whose tiresome, Puritanical sketch I dangle be bad for our economy? If no one bought all the trinkets and baubles, then who would have dressing to go with the turkey? Doesn't this notion that you have to suffer to practice Christianity smack of the heresy that salvation is earned? Loosen up and let God's people reap God's abundance!
Personally, I never liked dressing very much, or even turkey. I'd rather have a grilled cheese sandwich and a good book. I've never liked the Puritans very much, either--largely because they never liked good books. Just the Good Book, to which they forcibly and perversely confined all the high imperatives implanted by God's love (so Jesus says throughout the Gospels) in our hearts as an antidote to our lower desires. Why would there be no market for good books, no jobs for good writers, if we chose to cultivate the spirit within us rather than build our paradise in the world around us? Why would musicians and artists and growers of apricots--men and women of honor--not have some fraction of the exorbitant income raked in by our racket-merchants and porn queens and grease-and-sugar hucksters?
It's not that good works earn salvation: it's that salvation makes work good. A person whose heart has been claimed by the higher things does those higher things for his sustenance and his pleasure. He tells the truth and creates beauty; and when the beauty he creates does not accord with present reality, he indicts the present for distorting the truth. He prays. His whole life is a prayer--for of what sincerity are a few words exhaled toward heaven when every subsequent step eagerly chases after the world?
If we could fashion a society which respected quiet and honored those who stirred us to reflect, then, maybe, we could sing, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas."
E-DUCATION: SHAKY NEW HOVEL ON THE IVORY TOWER'S RUBBLE
When the October 20, 2003, issue of US News and World Report featured a story on college classes offered over the Internet ("Working on What Works Best," Ulrich Boser, 58-62), my hackles immediately rose. I am no great friend of what is now called (with that indifference to noun-adjective distinctions so typical of educationese) "distance learning". There is an abundance of reasons why the public should be suspicious of the university's adventures in cyberspace. For one thing, colleges will do darn near anything to make a buck. Why else would they house gladiatorial training camps known as football programs? When a college administrator goes chasing after a craze like the Internet, you can see the dollar signs in his eyes a mile off, even though he is drooling platitudes about progress, democracy, and love of learning in his own jargon (prepare yourself for phrases like "one-on-one learner-centered interactivity"). For another thing, every college president dreams of having a tenure-less faculty on the plantation whose hat is held servilely in its collective hand as he passes. Online classes have always extended the possibility of an indefinite "farming out" of courses, rendering the conventionally arrogant, immovably ensconced Professor of English Literature obsolete. "We simply don't need you any more, Horace. Your salary will pay ten eager young grad students to teach courses online--and they don't even get benefits." As for the likelihood of an unwholesome connection between certain administrators and certain Internet Service Providers or hardware companies, no one but me seems ever to raise the matter. I guess my mind has become twisted--probably through years of contact with colleges.
Mr. Boser's article, however, is in fact rather inoffensive. I would say that he has correctly added up the figures on several issues. There's certainly no reason, for instance, why math and the more objective disciplines cannot be taught online, just as they have long been taught successfully in correspondence courses. It is also true that the so-called non-traditional student (i.e., the blue-collar dad or soccer mom rather than the brat teenager), who often finds both the expense and the scheduling of college prohibitive, is well served by the Internet option. These older students are invariably more motivated. Whatever the drawbacks of online education, a motivated person at a keyboard will learn more than a hung-over frat rat in the lecture hall of the nation's ritziest institution.
What I find most distressful in the piece, actually, is not any explicit claim about the Internet's prowess, but the many implicit denunciations of the contemporary classroom's inanity. The non-traditional students whom Boser interviews complain about having to listen to irrelevant or irreverent drivel from the kids around them when attending college at a physical facility. I know just what they mean. We've raised a generation of disrespectful and insufferable twits who come to class unprepared (when they come at all), smirk and yawn their way through the whole proceeding, and insist that whatever "opinion" they may finally decide to vent be honored equally with all others. College professors themselves are somewhat responsible for this situation. They don't set and maintain standards (too busy with their own "research" or their sycophantic "service to the institution"), and they prefer being "cool" to holding the bar high (naturally--for they were told throughout graduate school that no such thing as truth exists). Administrators, though, must bear at least as much blame. In that unending quest of the dollar, they inflict student-evaluation forms upon their faculty which are little more than beauty-contest ballots: the professors who tell the fewest jokes, assign the most work, and give the lowest grades inevitably fare the poorest. A mature, inquisitive student released into this meretricious courtship of idiot customers is bound to come away disillusioned.
A spokesperson (hell, why not just say "spokeswoman"?) for the contra--an English professor who has written a book against online learning, no less--objects to Boser, "It's the difference between making friends by going to a pub versus making friends by talking to strangers on the phone." (Warning to non-academics: the word "bar", as a locus otiosus, is not PC.) So colleges are social clubs, then--is that the best a Ph.D. can do who has authored a tome on the subject? Yes, indeed. If you haven't checked lately, colleges are primarily considered by those who rule their classrooms to be incubators of social engineering. Professors, at least in those subjective disciplines less conducive to digitalization, are busy modeling the perfect little society in the absence of anything more useful to do in class (such as creating a sense of history, working toward moral consensus, or cultivating an aesthetic disinterestedness). These "distance-learners" will ruin everything! How can one get in their minds and put all the pieces where they should be if one cannot observe their overt behavior and "reinforce" the desired gestures?
I have to admit, I almost wish my own son would do his college work online someday. If the alternative is for him to be encouraged by people in authority to reject all authority, for him to be waved along with A's because his debauched classmates would otherwise make C's, for his every utterance to be revered by duplicitous careerists who only want a high evaluation out of him, for his every idle moment to be wooed by huckster administrators who fully endorse our cultural horror of meditative silence... why, then, he would be better off in front of a monitor. We could go bike-riding between sessions, and he could meet girls at church instead of at keg parties.
THE BATTLE OVER PATROCLUS SLAIN:
ABC MUCKS AROUND JENNIFER LYNCH
A hypocrite should at least know that he is a hypocrite. To be sure, his knowledge may well seal his damnation: the ignorant fool always enjoys a certain latitude for pardon that the premeditating scoundrel does not. My evaluation, then, is not religious or moral, or at least not in the usual way. On the other hand, there is something redemptive, surely, about an honest scoundrel. The other kind exists in wearisome super-abundance, and always after the fashion of the loose cannon--not attached anywhere, ready to spray lies in every direction since it is incapable of aim. The Claude Rains character in Lawrence of Arabia said it best: "A person who tells lies only conceals the truth, but a person who tells half-truths has forgotten where he put it."
I'm afraid I do not rate ABC and its Keystone Cop bevy of reporters at a sufficient degree of competence or sentience to be guilty of hypocrisy. I doubt that the garrulous gang at that Gordian knot of information perceived the airing of Diane Sawyers' interview with Jessica Lynch on Veteran's Day as sordid opportunism, even though NBC's movie on the same reluctant celebrity had appeared just two nights earlier. It was just good marketing--and why shouldn't news be marketed like anything else? In contrast, when the US Army executed a daring raid to pluck Jessica from an Iraqi hospital, the political exploitation of events was dead-on-arrival obvious. Obviously, the Bush Administration had rigged the whole show to massage public opinion. Why, there were no Fedayin guards around the hospital by that time, and the higher-ups knew it. They could have walked in armed with olive branches and had Jessica for the asking. That the "rescue" was hatched with consummate cynicism is reflected (so Diane's narrative implies) by the ubiquity of a camera throughout the whole operation. The army, on orders from the Whitehouse, was making its own home movie to show the American voter.
This is the kind of reporting which has grown immensely tiresome to most of us. I myself had never heard of any "controversy" surrounding the operation, nor has anyone to whom I have spoken on the matter. Granted, I do not move in the cocktail-lubricated circles of DC news hounds and Madison Avenue publishers. It was there, no doubt, that the raised brow was primarily in evidence. The rest of us, in a faraway land of real dirt and drudgery variously styled the Beltway, the Boondocks, and Outer Darkness by the Information Elite, know that police and military operations routinely send cameras in on dangerous raids where the reconnaissance is dubious. The reason: so that experts and chief decision-makers at HQ can make split-second determinations in a crisis. ABC had you believing that some fatigue-clad twit with camera on shoulder was dogging every step of the rescuers. In an age when cameras are mounted on catcher's gear and football helmets, the military certainly needed no recruit from the Propaganda Ministry to tag along: the infrared filming equipment was standard. That Jessica expressed surprise and dismay when Diane "revealed" the film-making gambit to her is about what one would expect of a nineteen-year-old from the West Virginia mountains who had seen her first shopping mall a couple of years earlier... but, despite the prevailing opinion at ABC, the rest of the Hinterland is not quite as hinter as Palestine, WV (pop. 350).
Speaking of dubious reconnaissance, ABC's own "filler" during the interview established that the Iraqi tipster who planted the raid's seed was unreliable. Since the NBC movie had been based largely on his account, the rival station couldn't resist exploding his credibility, apparently. (See what kind of investigating you can do when you put your heart into it?) How, then, would the army have known that the hospital was secure ground, with this tipster (among others) insisting to the contrary? Were not friendly-seeming civilians constantly trying to lure our guys into ambushes around An Nasiriyah? Was there not a mass grave of American soldiers just in back of the hospital? ABC's report established both of these points, as well--yet Diane Sawyer neglected to add up all her figures, preferring to leave the atmosphere dense with suspicion about the rescue's motives. Of one thing you may be sure: if Army Rangers had come dressed for tea and crumpets and been mowed down, the same gaggle of suspicious reporters would have hissed and howled about the high command's fatal disregard for caution.
The same imbecilic double-standard was applied to the apocryphal accounts of Jennifer's going down in a blaze of bullets and glory "like Rambo". Network reporters originally rushed this scoop to press, exulting (one must suppose) that they had uncovered a bonafide female Audie Murphy. Then the egg began to dry and harden on their faces. Why hadn't the high command given them a heads-up--why had it allowed them to print and broadcast balderdash without protest? Another sinister plot! (Gee... I wonder if plot-addicts like these even go to their own local hospital without a bullet-proof vest!) Stop for a moment and try to imagine what military intervention into such headline-hysteria would have looked like. The old-boy chain of command is at it again (we would have heard), trying to steal the laurels away from a woman who did the job of three men. What press liaison in his right mind would have dared to come between these salivating reporters and the story they had dreamed of writing? Storming into a dark building behind enemy lines is one thing... but this would have been certain suicide.
One might note in passing (except that the moment almost passed too fast to note) that Private Lynch at one point confessed to an occurrence most embarrassing for those who want to see girls in tanks: she volunteered that the two men in back of the Hummer with her did everything they could to protect her. Opponents to a front-line female presence have long objected that males would do precisely this rather than watch out for their own skin. (Lynch was uninjured at the time: her gun had jammed and she was hunkering down and saying her prayers.)
I repeat that I myself can see not much of any plot on ABC's part. There is insufficient evidence of intelligent planning to justify such suspicions. I just see really bad reporting, marred by sloppy, unresearched generality, evidence not passed under summative review, and a dismally mistaken belief that one's comrades in the Press Corps constitute a significant cross-section of public opinion.
PRINT THE WORD, SUPPRESS THE IMAGE
One of the liabilities of dashing off comments in a weekly (or quasi-weekly) column is that you necessarily leave things half-said. I am aware that I brought down the curtain upon last week's discussion of obscenity and censorship a little too quickly. I first advanced my proposal that obscenities are not expressive at all, but hostile to thinking, and hence unworthy of protection as expressions of thought or taste; I then declined to endorse the suppressing of written obscenities even on these grounds, since the activity of reading is both private and intellectually engaged, and hence fully amenable to the self-censoring of free adult individuals; and finally, I argued that such grotesque crudity as we find in television commercials should enjoy a special category of messages which may indeed feel the strictures of the law, since the medium does not invite reflection, its content in this case is not chosen by the individual (programming, yes--but not commercials), and its audience very likely includes a high percentage of young children at any given moment.
I recant none of this... but I also realize that it is not a brief for censoring certain words or phrases. This discussion opened two weeks ago, when the matter of a pop-singer's using the "f" word while receiving an award over primetime TV was raised. Actually, I'm not at all interested in slapping anyone with any penalty for such an incident. Viewers who tune in to watch this sort of person babble at a rostrum are probably well accustomed to hearing all kinds of socially proscribed words in his and other mouths of their acquaintance. If a mother is concerned lest her teenager use the unmentionable word, then why is she letting him watch the !@#%* show to begin with, let alone listen to the !@#%* music? It's too easy to pass the buck to the TV station: it's like suing the city over your kid's dysentery instead of teaching him not to drink out of dirty puddles. And in any event, such censures are counter-productive, especially with teenagers. I have long said that the best way to ensure abundant patronage of cigarettes among the young would be to put a big skull and crossbones on every pack.
It is quite true, then, that I did not build a case for legally prosecuting the use of certain words, but rather ended up focusing on... well, ambiance. On the whole seductive mystique which beer producers (for instance) use to sell their six-packs. But isn't this the thin end of a wedge which could introduce all the most horrid kinds of censorship? Wouldn't it be far better, in fact, to ban a certain words or words rather than to make actionable some ill-defined, perhaps indefinable setting or mood?
Not at all. In the first place, the censorship I propose would attach entirely to commercials, and nothing else. A marketer who sticks to the straightforward truth would have nothing to fear. In the second place, even the ingenious vignettes which compose most commercial advertising nowadays (and I admit, they're often far more entertaining than the show they finance) would be quite safe from penalty as long as they abstained from blunt sexual innuendo, overt cruelty or inhumanity, graphic representations of shooting and car-crashing, and so forth. That's not really a very tall order. If it is, it shouldn't be. If it implies a major clean-up, then we must simply recognize that we have allowed our "noosphere"--the environment of our collective mind--to become more trashed than a big city's land fill.
Our children desperately need protection from television--and, increasingly, the Internet. This isn't about having the right to say you piece openly and accurately: it's about not having the right to hawk your shady merchandise by springing exotic images without warning upon gullible minors. My eight-year-old should be able to watch a ball game without having some dance of boobs and buns thrust before his nose like a lightning bolt, all so that a romance with beer may be generated in his young head through incorrigibly confused associations. I have plenty of things to tell him about love and sex when the time comes. I prefer not to have Miller and Budweiser casting such issues in inane, vulgarian, and ultimately fantastical terms for me. It's bad enough that he associates a cool draft brewed from fistfuls of golden grain with something as refreshing as manna or ambrosia, thanks to various robust mountain settings. At a time when the Number One cause of adolescent fatalities is the automobile, why do I have to fight off this intricate marriage of booze and bathing beauties and balmy beaches?
It all makes me pretty damn mad. When are we going to do something about it?
THE BUBBLING TROUGH, PART TWO:
WHERE DIRTY MOUTH MEETS SOAPY SPONGE
When my eight-year-old asked me the other day why, as I drive him to school, I grumble angry things at cars, I instantly thought of the last essay I posted on this site. Not that I indulge myself in four-letter words--not before my son, at any rate; but I have indeed noticed that I have grown more prone to outbursts of sterile abuse as the traffic in our small city has multiplied exponentially and as the computer has usurped more of my life. I've decided that our culture has a greater "cussing" problem nowadays than, say, in my father's day because we have surrendered so much of our existence to machines. When a hunk of hardware crosses you, there's no point to remonstrating with it. Stupid thing--it can't answer, and it doesn't understand! It just keeps doing the same #!*%! thing, ignoring your intent, destroying your work, and ruining your day! Cars have drivers, naturally... but the drivers are entirely inaccessible to your protestations, so you might as well let them have it, too, as though they were sheets of aluminum.
In all such eruptions of pique, we degrade ourselves somewhat as rational beings, and we also habituate ourselves--each time a little more--to a contempt for our fellow beings. Half the people I see in the grocery store are already walking around talking to thin air as they press a tiny box to one ear. Much more of this and the brotherhood of man--already more of an abstraction than it has been for two millennia--will become a cumbersome illusion.
Our mean-nothing, in-your-face trash-talk is a sure sign that our pool of thoughtful things to say is running dry and our oasis of thoughtful people to address turning into a Sahara. No, nobody's very offended any more by foul language. As people grow incapable of depth, language grows incapable of content. Any word could be a fighting word (I think of the hapless, absurdly maligned "niggardly" again)--and any word, by the same token, could just be Joe's way of exhaling with his vocal cords in motion. Your dog's feelings toward you--assuming that it has any--don't alter because you bestow a few four-letter names upon it. Why should a person's?
It is precisely in resistance to this progressive bestialization, as I argued last time, that we should insist upon clean public discourse. That is, we should exile certain words from the public forum, not because they express something obscene, but because they really express nothing relevant at all and are hostile to rational exchange. The question next arises: how should we exile them? The notion of a legal ban, enforceable by fines or even imprisonment, must make anyone squirm who values life in a free society. Would the word "sex" be banned from biology textbooks? What about the word "anus"? I grind my teeth every time I hear a version of the Christmas carole, The Little Drummer Boy, which has substituted another animal for the fourth word of "the ox and ass kept time". An ass is a donkey, from the Latin asinus. It is also used to describe people who think like donkeys, such as those who banish words from books without having recourse to a dictionary.
Most reasonable people (of the few who remain--thou and I, at any rate) agree that such banning is best left to parents and to social circles. Is there, then, no instance in which the weight of the law should be brought to bear upon offenders? I would resolutely have answered "no" a few years ago, before I was a parent and before jabbering screens had become ubiquitous among us. Now I've changed my mind. Our hands-off veneration for free speech is a literate attitude, born and raised in the days when "offensive" passages were accessible only to those who had the training and the wits to read them. By definition, reading is reflection. The words do not ignite upon the page and assume shape: the reader must laboriously, creatively give them life. Our culture has generally assumed that an audience thus engaged would be able to pass judgment for itself upon words and descriptions, since the intellect is running on all cylinders at these moments.
All of that began to change with radio and television; and, now that most TVs have access to dozens of channels, it has changed beyond identification with literate values. Words and behaviors appear instantly, full-fleshed and offered from the most provocative angles, quite without warning. Let a parent be ever so assiduous in previewing the schedule or blocking certain channels--he will still fail to spare his children the kind of eye-popping mayhem and salivating ribaldry which peppers commercial breaks. On several occasions during the baseball play-offs this month, I sat somnolently beside my son only to be blitzed, as a pitcher was pulled or a side retired, by FOX's lurid teases for its array of tasteless programming. Yet the fifteen seconds that left me the most ticked off were not specific to that station. Have you seen the beer ad celebrating the man's ten-inch weenie?
I'm on the verge of using some four-letter words right now. My fists are clenched: if the twits who designed that acephalic ad were within striking distance, I wouldn't even bother with words. I have a right to watch a #!*%! ball game without the hucksters of alcohol trailing their weenie-and-bikini culture under my child's nose before I can reach the stick. At least, I think I have that right... I think I should have that right. I could always unplug the TV and throw it away. But then, you know, my son will still be mingling at school with other kids who will be all a-giggle over the "weenie ad"--so I'm better off seeing it and trying to explain to him (without four-letter words) that body parts are not a fit subject for jokes in civilized company. Why, on the balance's other side, do I find counterpoising my anger and anguish the "right" of a gargantuan brewery to pander beer by blurring it into a gassed vision of erotic joys on golden beaches? Make the #!*%!s pay a fine--a nice stiff fine, a million for every inch on the weenie. I can live quite comfortably with that kind of censorship. I'm not sure our children will have much of a life without it.
THE BUBBLING TROUGH: PUBLIC DISCOURSE
REACHES THE BOTTOM OF A VERY SHALLOW SEA
Syndicated columnist Mona Charen recently lamented that some Irish pop-singer (the genre and its names are quite unknown to me) used the "f" word on TV while receiving an award--and, further, that the FCC refused to censure the lapse of taste. I understand her frustration well. Granted, the word in question--especially its present participle, as here--is a favorite low-brow expletive in Ireland. Tipsy louts, pimpled punks, and and twitty artistes manqués employ it much as the Anglo-Saxon world says "damn" and "blast". What's in a word, after all? A prurient mind (smirk the intellectual camp-followers of our pop-Vandals) can see something dirty even in a pencil or a bar of soap. I for one am fully prepared to believe that the post-cultural crowd uses all forms of the "f" word without picturing much of anything along with it. Call it a labial-aspirant duh.
But that's not the point. The point is that civilization requires repression, and that a civilized community has necessarily agreed upon the specific objects of repression. (Otherwise it would not be a community, but a high density of warm bodies.) People must be raised in the conviction that they must not do certain things, or even say certain things. Give us all a free rein, and one of us will curse out everyone lined up before him at the coffee machine, another will shoot his neighbor's dog, another will rape his neighbor's daughter, another will strangle his neighbor. I'm not saying that people are inherently depraved: I'm saying just the opposite, really. I'm saying that people are inherently drawn to create civilized circumstances where they may repress those impulses in themselves and others whose first inspirations horrify them. As a general proposition, repression must always be a fact of human life, both in the healthy individual and in the healthy society.
Hence those who denounce all repression in theory should instantly be dismissed as hell-raising anarchists or irredeemable idiots. In fact, the same crowd that would applaud one of its all-hanging-out standard-bearers for a bout of verbal diarrhea in front of a mike would also happily see the word "niggardly" drummed out of the English language for an unfortunate, purely incidental resemblance to another word. That's called hypocrisy when it occurs among people of at least average intelligence. Among this lot, I suppose we should call it following the curves of the holding pen.
But then, as long as some set of words and behaviors is taboo, doesn't that satisfy the civilized requirement for repression? Did I not say that the specific sacrilege may vary? Yes--but only within a rather narrow range. Civilized societies allow their members various ways of expressing anger; but in none is the allowance completely open-ended, and in none is violence against a defenseless person countenanced. (We may quibble about whether dueling between grown males of similar skill was civilized: sometimes I wish we'd bring it back.) The trading of insults can be tolerated to a stunning degree if it occurs according to formula. The old English term for such a peppery exchange was "flyting", and Theocritus's shepherds made a poetic game of abuse which was alive and well in rural Ireland (far away from the Dublin spiked-hair scene) just a few years ago. No decent society, however, tolerates unrestrained public tongue-lashings administered by foul-mouthed hotheads to innocent bystanders. In our own society, such an outburst may constitute legal assault. The degree of culpability may depend largely on the words chosen--on whether the assailant is reciting to a room of bureaucrats, for instance, a long list of put-offs or, rather, is sending forth the "f" word and its cousins.
But don't we enjoy freedom of expression in our society? Here lies the heart of the matter. Our category of publicly proscribed words has a common theme. These words are not expressive. The defense of the pop-singer's oral excrementa to the FCC--which the FCC obtusely accepted--was precisely that the word at issue did not appear in any graphic context and hence did not mean... well, what it's supposed to mean. So for all such words. The very private behavior which is their original reference never has any great relevance to the circumstances. They are chosen for no other reason than that they pull the rug out from under thoughtful discussion and insist that the counter-discutant's dominant qualities are all determined by the guts in his lower abdomen. You might as well call legitimate expression an angry howl released on the subway or in the grocery store. At least in that instance, the only humanity disparaged would be the howler's.
We don't exercise intolerance toward certain kinds of language in America because we are bumptious little bourgeois Puritans whose naughty-naughtying finger is quick on the draw. We are intolerant, rather, because a civilized adult must manifest some degree of self-control, and because emptying people's toilets out in their faces does not constitute a self-controlled utterance offering comprehensible criticism. When one reaches the lamentable point that f's and s's come dribbling from one's mouth like drops of ooze from sewer-catch, then what remains to be said? More f's and s's? These words are a renunciation of thoughtful exchange which stops just short of bared claws and fangs. They signify stupor: their patron is being vulgar because he is being stupid. They are deplorable not because they address a forbidden subject, but because they address nothing. Indeed, it would be infinitely more dignified to clench one's fists silently and invite attack with a nod than "to fall a-cursing like a very drab," in Hamlet's apt phrase.
So just what kind of utterance ought to be legally and socially protected? That's a subject for another day... maybe for next time.
SUMMER'S BOYS AND A WINTER OF DISCONTENT WITH RACISM
I have long been wanting to read Jackie Robinson's Baseball Has Done It. Having pulled the book distractedly from a library shelf one day years ago, I discovered therein the names of several players--Vada Pinson, Vic Power, Bill Bruton--who captivated my interest when I was about seven or eight years old. I never quite got around to reading the book until this summer, but I'm glad I remembered to track it down in earnest. I should explain that my first exposure to provocative reading matter and to meaningful mathematics was the baseball card. Post cereals used to carry five or six of these on the back panel during the months of baseball season. (The same outfit has since discovered a much more cynical and exploitative way of distributing cards to kids: a subject for another column, perhaps.) I would munch away utterly absorbed in batting averages, hometowns, and career highlights.
And also in photographs. Back then, photos tended to capture more of the player's face than they do now. Some mugs were smiling for the camera man, some glowering at an imaginary fastball or line drive... but all were clean-cut and manly. They wore an intelligent, confident intensity which I wanted to be mine one day. As God is my witness, I did not admire the dark faces any less than the light ones. Sometimes I would decide that certain faces looked a lot like people I knew (Harmon Killebrew reminded me of our minister), and occasionally I drew comparisons between black players and white teachers or playmates. Some of the black players were so fair-skinned, at least in those cereal-box photos, that I remained wholly unconscious of any "race factor" (e.g., Bruton and Maury Wills--and Leon Wagner, my special hero, was always being asked if he was oriental). There was more than one white player, too, whom I supposed to be black on the basis of a 2-by-1.5" portrait: a fellow by the name of Jackie Brandt springs to mind.
The point to which I am leading is not entirely that children are innocent. They are that, to be sure. Jackie Robinson's book revealed to me that many of those winsome smiles veiled anguishing experiences. No smile could be broader than Vic Power's was in my card collection, nor any skin darker. It turns out that Power, a Puerto Rican, was constantly harassed in the fifties and sixties by police who saw him driving about with his fair-skinned wife. But Vic took it in stride. He bounced into the police department one fine day and made a formal complaint. Thereafter, the harassment ceased, at least in Kansas City. Henry Aaron was another matter. Born and raised in abject poverty around Mobile, he seemed prone to nurse his bruises silently rather than to trade blow for blow. But then, Billy Bruton was also born in Alabama, and Jackie himself was born in Florida. These latter two, along with a great many others represented in the "symposium", found their way out of the Deep South relatively early in life--often to cities up north (cf. Leon Wagner and Elston Howard), but also, frequently, to California (Jackie and--no relation--Frank Robinson, who played high school ball with Vada Pinson and Willie Kirkland). So was that the reason why their outlook was more confident and assertive than Aaron's: i.e., because they got out of the South before it brainwashed them?
But Frank Robinson has always been notorious for carrying a chip on his shoulder (not a smoldering Aaronesque chip, but an aggressive streak which used to erupt into fisticuffs). For that matter, Jim Gilliam was from Tennessee and Ernie Banks from the Dallas area... and two more mild-mannered, gentle-spirited human beings you would never meet. Leon Wagner certainly did not escape racism when his family moved north from Chattanooga: he describes being herded away from the windows with his siblings by their mother during the Detroit riots. Yet "Daddy Wags" was such a flamboyant individualist that he ended up curtailing an impressive Major League career to act in several Hollywood films. I remember him for the outrageous three-inch gap between his hands when he gripped the bat--a technique which I have taught my son (in somewhat modified proportions) with happy results. Come to think of it, why should a man who has always known racism and has learned to navigate through it most of the time be more sullen than a child of privilege--a Bill White or an Elston Howard, say--who grew up an only son, knew affluence, went to college, and then had his nose rubbed in the prejudice of the Carolina League?
Out of the mouths of babes and fools... could it be that, at seven or eight, I had divined a truth which profound, experienced adults like Jackie Robinson had come to underrate or forget? When, as a child, I looked at those faces plastered over the cardboard, I saw first and foremost personality. Whatever shared ordeals their race had forced upon them, these men were also unique individuals. Though Jackie's symposium aims at bringing their diverse struggles into a convergence upon "the prize", I wonder if a sad man like Aaron (I can't honestly say that I've ever seen him smiling in any photo) could ever fully wave away the clouds in any circumstances. I wonder if a fulminous character like Frank Robinson's is capable of knowing tranquillity, if a blithe spirit like Ernie Banks can ever be reduced to despair, if a keen mind like Billy Bruton's ever faces an affront which it cannot parse coolly, or if a charismatic figure like Leon Wagner ever meets a lout whom he cannot benignly "trash-talk" into submission?
By the same token, I wonder why I--an educated white man--have never been able to brazen it out against backbiters, liars, egomaniacs, and other barbarians who know no shame? Why do I always seem to come away dragging my tail as if ashamed on their behalf? This misery which I know so well is obviously known to others. I can understand what they feel--the sense of being pushed around, pushed aside, pushed to the back--even though I am not supposed to be able to feel in this way, because my race and socio-economic status are all wrong. Isn't the truth that some people are more sensitive than the average, some less--some more honest or conscientious or probing than the average, some less? Does our race really shed more light on the anguish which we encounter in life than does our personality? How many of us really believe that the pushing to the back will stop just because it has been outlawed on buses--and how many really believe that the only reason for the pushing is skin color?
By all means, pass the appropriate laws... but do not suppose that you will thereby banish inequity, offense, and loneliness from life. Just look at the kids on any playground. At some point, we have to learn not to put all our eggs in an earthly basket.
LIMBO ROCK, PART TWO: CULTURAL SKINNY-DIPPING
In my last column, I proposed that true culture is a communally endorsed program of conditioning which prepares young individuals to be full-fledged human beings. Though what we often notice about such programs is their pageant of idiosyncrasies, I stand by the notion that all culture worthy of the name exhorts people to adopt values of universal validity. For instance, in one society we may find women marrying men twenty years their senior--old enough to be their father, as we would say. In another society (or perhaps the same one), a man may marry several wives. Does this mean that heterosexual monogamy is an acquired taste, like one's preference in pickles? Ivory Tower figures like Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead have built careers on arguing the relativism of sexual mores. (Both have been discredited lately: the former by his own hoaxes, the latter by those practiced upon her.) To anyone possessed of common sense, however, it merely means that the society in question has a rather primitive agrarian economy where families cannot be supported by young men and where large numbers of offspring are needed to work the land. In nowise does it bolster the perverse idea that the ancient cult of Ishtar (to take another example), wherein men engaged in public sex with temple prostitutes, was also a culture.
Grotesque as some marriage customs may seem to us, they can still confirm in those who observe them the subordination of carnal impulse to socially constructive endeavor and of selfish amusement to long-lasting accomplishment. Culture prepares people to live for higher things--for things created from nature's chaos and tailored to endure. The cult unleashes impulses which would not normally be tolerated in any civilized setting and claims an immunity for them as service to an exotic god. Sometimes cultic self-indulgence is even represented as self-mortification--and, in a way, it is just that. Nothing could be more humiliating for a cultured man than to conduct himself like an animal. Think of the apparently sane, intelligent people who surrendered their daughters to David Koresh. What pressures of climate and topography justified that welt on the face of our social history?
Now, to multiculturalism. The very word implies a non-sequitur. You don't grow a plant in a mixture of clay and sand and humus: you grow it in the medium which best nourishes the kind of root system it has developed. If polygamy might make sense in societies whose survival depends upon large families, stirring it into a culture like ours would only ratchet up the libido of a confused male population which already has trouble understanding its duties to a single wife. Or if skill in spearing fleet quadrupeds is vital on some desert island, it is unlikely to endear any inhabitant of American suburbia to his neighbors. Of course, the multicultural priests and priestesses of Never-Never Land don't have any such profound miscegenation as this in mind. They are content to have their students (for we are usually talking about teachers and professors) bring spicy covered dishes to class and listen to weird notes extorted from musty reeds. In other words, their classes and agendas have nothing to do with culture at all: by definition, their indoctrination passes through one orifice and out another adjacent cloaca (hopefully with no excessive flux). The upshot of all this cultural skinny-dipping is supposed to be plenty of multicolored hand-shaking and partying, and a complete end to nasty graffiti. Why not just pass a rule that kids who write on walls will pick up trash for a week?
The one meaningful dimension which multicultural study might have explored is the one which it has undermined. Human beings have created a lot of thrilling artifacts in their tenure on earth; and while virtually all of it--painting, architecture, sculpture, poetry--reflects the peculiarities of the mother culture, a surprising amount of it also transcends culture. Why should I not enjoy an Andean pipist playing a traditional air as well as a flautist playing Vivaldi? Why should a minaret be less beautiful than a cathedral's dome? The appreciation of beauty has often been encumbered with political baggage, but the sheer gripping insistence of the beautiful argues that this is a grave error. Must I believe in cutting the thief's hand off just because I admire an Islamic arabesque? The moral and the beautiful have many similarities, yes. Yet the experience of a beautiful object remains confined to the imagination, while an encounter with a moral imperative sends vigorous ripples throughout society. That's good--one should act vigorously when conscience speaks... if only the voice is really conscience's, and not passion's wrapped in a winsome design. Aesthetic cultivation teaches us to see the veiled side of things, in our own hearts as well as in others'. It forces our moral judgment to mature by parading before us situations in abstract--so abstract, sometimes, as to be fantastical. The speculative realm of beauty is one where we may safely paddle past each other's cultural canoes in a limpid truce, and even share our favorite caves and cataracts.
No arch-Calvinist was ever less tolerant of gargoyles than the campus multiculturalist is of the aesthetic view I have just outlined. There is categorically no transcending Happy Hunting Ground of the human imagination: taste in art is as rigidly conditioned by culture as is taste in condiments. Hence there is no future on campus for belles lettres. World Literature surveys have become a soap box for indicting Western colonialism or--yet more irritating--a kind of religious bazaar where non-Christian alternatives are attractively hawked in neat dozen-page packages. Beauty is not only not a criterion of selection: it does not exist--it is a fraud of the Western patriarchy intended to elevate self-serving propaganda to canonical status.
So we're back to chili peppers and curry powder... except that we have lost a plot of inestimably valuable ground, for multiculturalism has so discredited offerings in the humanities with its transparent silliness that our children may well read no literature at all when they reach college. In place of a convergence upon indefinable perfection, their aesthetic tastes describe an unascending orbit around the weird and wild. Multiculturalism has done more than its fair share to kill what little remains of culture among us.
LIMBO ROCK, OR HOW TO DANCE ON CULTURE'S GRAVE
In a motley pedagogical career, I have taught Latin and French as well as English. Now I find myself, for some reason--and with a little regret--teaching Spanish. That I mourn the passing of interest in the classical languages and French and German (there was never much in Italian or Russian) will cause me, no doubt, to be stereotyped by the Enemies of Stereotypes as a white fascist pig. Actually, I've read a great deal of Spanish literature which deeply impresses me. I just finished a short-story collection by Mexican author Juan Rulfo which occasionally left me in awe, and I have considered Antonio Azorin one of the most elegant prose stylists of the twentieth century since I first picked up Doña Inez.
Okay, so maybe I'm not the standard "speak my English or you starve" kind of fascist pig--but I remain an elitist, which is quite possibly worse. After all, the porcine bourgeoisie may always be wooed into saying buenos días and por favor if a cash carrot is dangled before its collective nose. Such is precisely the origin of the current widespread interest in having kids learn Spanish: they will be able to sell more cars, write more contracts, and treat more patients if only they can tap the steady flow of Spanish-speaking consumers from the south. I, on the other hand, want to teach literate Spanish as a tool to read Spanish classics. I gnash my teeth when our undocumented and analphabetic construction workers pose before the Spanish station's camera and say más mejor ("more better") or shout vengan acá (properly, "May ye come, an it please ye") to their kids in the grocery store. The children of such culturally deprived people need to be in school studying Spanish just as much as our kids do--perhaps more so, since their kids will decide whether Spanish is preserved in a form which allows its speakers to read Cervantes or is degraded, instead, into a bunch of flash cards cribbed from TV soap operas and talk shows.
The key word here is "culture". My position is that the illiterate migrant whose life has been devoted to keeping body and soul together does not have a culture. By definition, culture requires cultivation, and cultivation requires a certain amount of affluence and leisure (which is not to say, of course, that the affluent and leisurely are cultivated: the proposition is not reversible). The ignorant migrant should arouse our compassion. He has suffered greatly, often through a history of gross injustices, and we should recognize a solemn obligation to bring him and his children within the pale of culture. In the modern world, and especially in the Western hemisphere, we should be able to place the cup of culture within the reach of everyone, even though many (including the affluent and leisured) will choose not to drink. No one should be left entirely unequipped to think about the meaning of life--its necessary confinement to about four score years, the apparent vanity of all material endeavor, and the irrepressible human urge to hope and to find truth and goodness. No one who has the native genius to footnote Einstein or to capture the age's spirit in sculpture or architecture should have to spend all of his or her few days picking oranges. As the French novelist Saint-Exupéry once mused when confronted with a train-car full of Polish migrant laborers, the infant Mozart who will never be taught a note of music is an inestimable loss to all of civilization.
But tacos? But mariachi bands? But street paintings in gaudy colors and parade floats with lots of straw and confetti--Christmas logs containing presents and old men dancing on All Saints Day? This is culture? Pardon me: but no, it is not. This is the merest dross of culture, the circumstantial debris of a certain snowball rolling down one side of the hill rather than the other. Culture is what prepares men and women to live a life rather than just to live, to be humans rather than complex primates. True culture, paradoxically, transcends the peculiar toward the universal. Beyond this language and that skin color, it seeks the Human Being. To reduce the teaching of culture to picante sauce and curry powder is to offer solid proof that one's own acculturation has been a disastrous flop.
It must be said that there are not a lot of cultures outside the West where widespread literacy has allowed ordinary people to leave behind extraordinary artifacts of human genius and inspiration. Hence we tend to teach Western culture when we seek to awaken our students to the universally human within them. But the West is now in a shameless, even despicable mess from any cultural point of view. It is to Western intellectuals, especially, that we may trace the provenance of college-level courses where students bring spicy food to Spanish class and learn the tango. The analphabetic migrant worker at least has an excuse--he has the best excuse in the world. What's our excuse, those of us with a little affluence and leisure, for teaching our kids to jabber about piñatas rather than to read poetry? The intellectuals among us want to bring down the bourgeoisie and have daily fiestas in the streets--while their unlikely collaborators in this monumental absurdity, the WASP bourgeois parents of school kids, like the idea of being able to sell some life insurance at a fiesta booth. What a conspiracy--what a tasteless, witless conspiracy!
More about this next time.
CLICK HERE FOR LOBOTOMY: THE HOMOGENIZING ICON
I've been away from this column for a while. The reason: I resolved to apply for several Web site awards in a bid to "generate traffic" (i.e., draw online readers), and I soon realized from reading "criteria of application" that I needed more pictures. The actual word used, of course, is graphics. I'm not entirely sure what a graphic is. It seems to include, not just photograph and original artwork which have been scanned and formatted for the Net, but also all kinds of happy-face buttons, stick figures, and squiggly arrows. You will observe that nothing of the latter genre is to be found anywhere on The Center's site. That's because I drew a line, as a matter of principle. I don't in the least mind displaying a few relevant photos or painstaking manual artwork, but our cultural lapse into reasoning by "icon" deeply disturbs me and runs (in my view) contrary to what we call literate values around here.
What is the icon, after all--the smiling sun, the figure with fedora and briefcase, the leaping cheerleader in short skirt--but a straight, blunt patching of one thought cluster into another? I do not share the PC aversion to all stereotyping as such, simply because thinking is quite impossible without generalization at some level (a fact illustrated both by PC's trenchant generalizations and by its constant failure to generalize effectively). I resent, however, the pressures exerted upon me by Internet culture to be forever marketing my ideas, and those of my worthy contributors, with some bland yellow sticker showing which aisle they stock at the grocery store. We don't do cheerleading here, our labors do not stop when we put away the briefcase, and our sun is the real variety that shines on births and funerals alike. There are not and will not be any banners and bumper stickers at literatevalues.com.
Marshall McLuhan wrote more than four decades ago that Western civilization was making an epochal shift from the ear to the eye. In many ways, of course, this is a thoroughly wrong-headed notion. Walter Ong has since observed that pre-literate societies are entirely dependent upon orally published information to pass along their culture, whereas literate societies stop their ears and open their eyes to the printed word. Being a Catholic priest, Ong perhaps had access to a richer quality of silence--the kind which fosters book-induced meditation--than most of us typically encounter. The truth is that an oral-traditional hunter-gatherer is keener than we are in each of his senses. As he tracks a wild boar, he hears brush rustle, he sees a hoof print, he smells the boar's scat, he tastes water in the soil, and he feels the heat in a spot where the boar recently lay resting. None of us could accomplish any of these tasks. All of our senses are atrophying, and electronic technology has not really reversed the process by titillating the eye with gaudy flashes (as McLuhan thought: the flashiness made the screen "hot", in his terms, while the printed page remained "cold"). One might more convincingly argue that the volume is being turned up on all contemporary transmissions precisely because all of our senses are growing more thickly callused. Music is louder, pictures are more garish, artificial scents are more strident, food is more sugared and peppered, and touches are less caressing and more brutal.
There would be much compensation in this decline if the soul's registers were somehow climbing upward as the body's spiraled downward. Indeed, a certain school of mystic thought has always held that surfeit of the senses is one road to liberation from them. This view is neither Judaeo-Christian nor Muslim, however--nor, for my money, is it even a little bit plausible. The soul's health lies in its recognition of and fidelity to moral goodness, and a body beaten too obtuse by its environment to perceive fine shades of reality cannot present reliable information about scenes of moral crisis. How can a girl contemplating an abortion or a boy contemplating a hitchhike-escape to L.A. reach a sound conclusion as three-decibel racket blares away and triple-deluxe pizza circulates?
The day may well come when we flash signs to communicate. The fascists had their black armbands, and the communists had their red bandanas. Now our kids have a drawer-full of tee-shirts to channel the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and their immovable convictions are eternized as tattoos. What can you do with such communications media, except sort vast herds into whites and browns, into yearlings and steers, into beef and milk? Where is the thinking behind all the graphic-flashing? Are instant, facile associations, rather, not the very quintessence of imbecility?
The good news is that I'm probably not going to win any awards with the site's new artwork. All of my efforts notwithstanding, I'm sure most reviewers will quickly see us for what we are: print-heavy and boring!
THE SICK FANTASY OF "REALITY" TV
I couldn't tell you how long "reality" shows have been on TV, being an enthusiastic consumer neither of the former nor of the latter. In fact, I have never watched so much as three minutes of a "reality" show--and I don't believe I set a new personal record the other night when, while trimming my nails and looking vainly for something the least bit informative or entertaining, I lingered over two such offerings. I found both to be purely insufferable: quite honestly, I could not sit through them. To my surprise, they did not seem primarily focused on voyeuristic sex. I don't know how scenes such as that of the two youths necking heavily in the pool would average out over an hour, but I feel confident--even after three minutes of exposure to surfeit--that their thrust is not to titillate, but to provide grist for the "discussion" mill.
The discussion, frankly, would drive any decent person through the window or send any sane one aloft like the legendary Sweeny into the Glen of the Daft. Some sort of interviewer poses questions about who is to be more trusted or less trusted--whereupon these spectacularly healthy, insuperably blunt-witted youths whom we breed in such abundance say things like, "I told her my life story," and, "I think he's the one I'd trust in a crisis." Life story? Crisis? How, pray, would the life story of a frat rat in a time warp run? Skateboarding on a tow-line behind the Lexus, mastering every video game on the market, cheating through high school algebra, sampling a few recreational drugs and mildly flirting with alcoholism, supporting the condom industry through senior year and freshman year... what could this body-toned monument to wasted youth possibly have to say about life? And the princess who judges him and is judged by him--would a crisis for her, perhaps, be Mom and Dad coming home early from Bermuda while her roommate and their dates are all piled into the water bed along with half the liquor cabinet? This is called... reality? Can anyone in our most recently graduated generation place Pearl Harbor in the right hemisphere, let alone imagine what it was like to be eighteen in 1941?
But perhaps the real lesson in my sprint through these crashing architraves of civilization lay in the recurrence--the sickening, baffling recurrence--of the word "trust". I could have ranted about degeneracy as I do above quite without the stimulus of a "reality show". I was wholly unprepared, however, to discover that trust is actually the key to the entire phenomenon. Within three minutes on two different stations, I know that the word was dropped at least five or six times. Trust seemed to be the whole point of rushing sexual intimacy like a burger off McDonald's grill. Trust was the reason why Dirk was ordered to leave the ever-dwindling crew at Hell House, or why Mom and Dad doubted Blain's fitness for Madison. Of course, I should be writing lack of trust. Mistrust. Suspicions of infidelity, mendacity, duplicity, and opportunism. The "real" situation seems tailored to elicit various forms of deception and falsehood: the emergence of these under a little squalid duress seems, indeed, to be what qualifies the situation as "real". Not the sex, but the cheating. Not the passage of steel through the fire, but the melting of façades under a slight touch upon the thermostat. This is what "reality shows" really are.
I offer the following observations. 1) Dante places those who deliberately distort and pervert the truth in the pit of Inferno: there is indeed something honest about a wrath-crazed murderer which one seeks in vain among these over-groomed, Nautilus-honed refugees from Spring Break. 2) The staged "crises" of trust in such shows do not aim at stressing the pathos of betrayed affection or the nobility of promises kept: they are an amphitheater, rather, wherein gladiators all hack at various parts of the truth with various weapons. 3) People earn trust by adhering to a moral ideal when doing so is distinctly contrary to their self-interest: they do not earn trust by sleeping together, swapping stories about their parents, or comparing criteria for the opposite sex's Perfect Ten. 4) Finally, and in consequence of 1-3... we're in deep, deep doodoo if such televised fare is as popular as its proliferation indicates. Start digging that cellar.
SEX AND THE LAND OF THE FREE:
SHAME TAKES EARLY RETIREMENT
What used to be called "sex scandals" have been hitting the fan fast and furious over the last month or so. Nowadays we are so inured to sexual escapades of all kinds (or so besotted, perhaps, when it comes to seeing them for what they are) that many among us prefer to designate such crises as "lifestyle issues". As for scandal, the hottest topic in every news item seems to be, not the behavior of individuals, but the presumption of the system. Scandals just aren't what they used to be. If you find anything scandalous at all... why, shame on you!
I'm not enough of a jurist to enumerate the Supreme Court's viable options to upholding or striking down the Texas sodomy law under which two homosexuals caught in flagrante delicto were prosecuted. Few of us, I suspect, are very comfortable with the notion that we may be fined or imprisoned for what transpires in a bedroom. It seems to me, however, that the real issue lies elsewhere, now that the Final Nine have reversed the Texas ruling in such a way that all sodomy laws everywhere dangle in limbo. Is sodomy a species of conduct which we will henceforth officially and publicly tolerate? The same question is begged by the ordination of an Episcopal minister who lives openly with his male partner--though the matter is whetted, of course, by the central figure's claim to be God's hallowed agent on earth. Is it wrong of the public, or a significant portion thereof, to want these ménages grecques kept tightly under wraps? Many of us who agreed with President Clinton about nothing else were reasonably at ease with his "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. It is a hypocritical stance, to be sure: any civilized society is obliged to practice hypocrisy so that free men and women can find their own way to the bottom, if that's what they need to bounce back up. But the Supreme Court has now created an environment (thanks to over-zealous Texas prosecutors) where kinky behavior will be constantly in our faces--and, more to the point, in our children's faces. The leadership of the Episcopal church, of course, has long been lobbying for such an environment.
Let's be plain. Sex is a powerful drive, and we cannot raise our children to be healthy, responsible adults unless we teach them to control that drive. We certainly legislate against the extravagant indulgence of other drives. Many people seem to crave chemical intoxication: it releases all kinds of crushing pressure. Yet we recognize that behavior under the influence of stimulants can be ruinous to oneself and others. Anger is another irrepressible passion in us. Who hasn't craved a free shot with a blunt instrument at some arrogant idiot on the road or in the office? We don't therefore condone murder, do we? "I just hated him" is not considered a mitigating circumstance in court. Occasionally, even the passion of cowardly terror is punished by the law. If a person should desert a baby in a perambulator because someone cried, "There's a bomb in that building!" he would be guilty of criminal negligence--and heaven help him if he tries to appeal to the jury's sympathy!
Homosexual union is built around a drive of this order. Since conceiving a child is impossible in these cases, they can really have no other end than that of satisfying an appetite. Of course, some heterosexual unions are also barren, either by choice or through biological malfunction. I will go so far as to say that these unions, too, are seldom of the sort which we hold up to our children. A strong friendship which becomes sexual without any chance whatever of producing offspring this side of a fairy tale--a conjuncture using the wrong anatomical orifice, for example, or a liaison between two septuagenarians--has never been blessed by people with a "sense of shame". Hamlet is outrightly disgusted with his mother because, in proper cases "at your age/The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble,/ And waits upon the judgment." To organize formal, legal union around what is patently carnal appetite risks sending the message to young onlookers that sex for its own sake is of high value: that the body's imperious needs rule us, and that by-the-way encumbrances like children are best avoided as we slave and scrape before those needs. That homosexual sex does not have a heterosexual capacity to elevate friendships into holy unions is surely suggested by the irrefragable fact that gays never remain celibate until after pronouncing lifelong vows: "straights" seldom enough these days, but gays not once in a purple moon.
Is it so reprehensible that some of us want our children protected from images of lives enslaved to lust, just as we want them protected from furious maniacs armed with clubs?
Unfortunately, this has become especially difficult if you have a son who enjoys sports and likes to watch TV highlights and wrap-ups. Along with long homeruns and long three-pointers comes word of yet another rape case. As an American citizen, I will admit to being concerned at the ease with which young studs can be bundled off to prison on the mere plaint of a foolish girl who should never have agreed to see their etchings. Yet the dangerous legal precedent worries me less than the sheer stupidity of it all amazes me. If feminist-reborn womanhood wants the respect of men, then why are young women titillating young men with busts and belly-buttons as never before, and why are they demanding such manifestations of bull-like stamina from their "dates" that a pill designed for prostate patients has become the best selling drug in the world? How can you play the trollop all the way to the fellow's couch and then suddenly turn into Gidgit?
The insanity of sex... two thousand years ago, Catullus wrote of it, procul a mea tuus sit furor omnis, era, domo--"Goddess, may thy madness remain far from my home!"
SWEET DREAMS AND ABC'S:
CULTURAL COMA SEEPS INTO THE SCHOOL HOUSE
Perhaps because my son has just started back to school, the "dream thing" is starting to nag at me again. I refer to our culture’s ongoing celebration of fantasy as a suitable guide to planning the future. In the corridor through which I enter the school with my son each morning, I’ve noticed three posters prominently taped up. They form a set. The first reads "Dream", the second "Dare", the third "Do". I don’t recall exactly what the pictures on the first two posters show, but the third portrays a young man apparently winning some sort of Olympic track event. The message is clearly—one might say graphically—that if you dream of being an Olympic sprinter, you can indeed be an Olympic sprinter with lots of hard work.
Now, I strongly endorse my son’s school in most of its endeavors: no school is perfect, and my own expectations are probably flawed in some cases. But that’s just my point. This is an imperfect world, and a necessarily and invincibly imperfect world. Human life is hemmed in by certain limits which cannot be negotiated. To be sure, posing oneself high objectives is admirable. We should not be content with slovenly, half-hearted work, especially when it is our own; and if our job is so contemptible that we can’t muster the energy to do it better, then we should find another one. That’s precisely where shooting for perfection has meaning: in the realm of true values--of goodness and beauty and truth. A writer should have more pride, for instance, than to half-research a summation of real-life events, for he might end up circulating lies; and if excelling at his "mission" requires that he tell lies—if his "dream" is founded upon easing falsehoods down his readers’ throats—then he needs to wake up and start over, because he’s having a nightmare. A dream of the proper sort must rise toward heaven, not roll around in the gutter.
I don’t know if our children perceive the distinction very clearly. What I do know is that not much effort is put into explaining it to them. An Olympic sprinter? Well, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that… or maybe not. But in the first place, sprinters are essentially born and not bred. The poster’s designer should have chosen a sport like baseball, where people of mediocre physical endowment can become superstars through long, hard labor (viz. Wade Boggs or Paul Molitor). It is useless, and indeed reprehensible, to dream about something which you simply can never do: it is an invitation to severe despair, on the one hand, or to idle fantasizing, on the other. Then there’s the question of exactly why a naturally gifted sprinter might want to make the Olympics. The proper motive would be a desire to push himself—to find out just where his limits are, and to come away content with that discovery. What shall we say, however, if he craves applause, or if his father is eyeing lucrative contracts with Adidas and Nike? Then sprinting becomes an instrumental objective to obtaining popularity or money, which is the terminal objective (to use Immanuel Kant’s terminology); and if a man will sprint to get money, will he not spike a faster sprinter's drink to win the jackpot? After his sprinting days, will he not do a great many other things which belong to the world of nightmares?
In my son’s school, I haven’t heard anyone remark upon these posters. I should imagine that some poor drudge was told to decorate the corridors and pulled these posters out of a box along with a lot of others. The lesson here might simply be that nobody reads billboards, and that I should stop congesting traffic with my pauses.
But that’s not good enough for me—I dream higher, if you will. The posters in question are visible throughout the lunch room, and I should imagine that some significant minority of young minds just learning to read will pass a curious eye along the walls at some point in the year. We need to explain to our children in open terms just what a healthy aspiration is, and wherein life has insurmountable limits. The painfully evident truth is that we no longer know ourselves. We have listened to all this "dream" rubbish for so long that we have fallen comatose. Our education system is purveying "dream" gobbledygook far and wide through schools both public and private, through communities both urban and rural, thanks to the concentration of textbook and materiel selection in the hands of an elite few. Now the work of the elite is bearing fruit. One of the presidential candidates in the last election assured a large campus audience that anyone can do anything (and he was just a hair shy of adding that everyone has a right to do anything). With fruit like this, who needs famine?
BUSINESS AS USUAL AND THE HIGH ROAD TO HELL
I am painfully aware that the world is a dishonest place. I had two appointments during my brief career as a college professor when I was lied to in the original interview about the job's expectations (this in response to my direct questions). I was once cheated out of several thousand dollars by a scheme that harvested me along with untold numbers of other naifs in the early days of the "work at home from your computer" craze. I have been fleeced of lesser amounts over the Internet perhaps a dozen times in attempting to reach people through mailing lists or advertisements or to have my site assured a top ranking in sixty thousand search engines. I recently made the mistake of selecting a "free" Web host, only to find out later that the service was often "down" and that, after a year, my site had mysteriously vanished into a cloud of pop-up ads. The Internet, by the way, is surely the most concentrated locus of mendacity, con-artistry, and stupid bombast in human history. Misty-eyed prophets of progress will have to babble far into the night to convince me that we are better off now than when the only thing in your phone jack was Mickey Mouse.
Speaking of Mickey... what I really wish to protest here is not the "progress" of deliberate, venal dishonesty along routine corridors, but its outbreak and proliferation in sales gimmicry aimed at children. The combination of my son's becoming old enough to read and to play baseball has proved a heavy blow for our domestic economy on trips to the grocery store--but I initially resigned myself to a pantry stuffed with boxes of kid's cereal. After all, even the least nutritious purchases (basically crumbled up cookies) would make a breakfast high in calcium and protein once milk was added; and as for the baseball cards and bobblehead dolls, they might turn into collector's items. For that matter, I think I probably learned to read myself by studying the cards on the back of Post cereals. To this day, I can remember minutiae like the stats of Curt Schilling's daddy Chuck or of Tommy Davis's one great season. But the cards in my son's cereal were a different matter. They were IN the cereal, inside the box, and he and I finally figured out (after about fifty boxes) that we were never going to collect more than half of the advertised set of thirty. This year's bobblehead doll promotion caught us less off-guard. We actually kept score for a school math project. Apparently, it is indeed possible to amass most of the set of ten (we're missing only one now); but our sampling carried us across six grocery stores, eight varieties of cereal, two states, and three months. Only the last two factors proved very relevant. If you go to a different part of the country or wait out the promotion all summer, you actually arrive at a certain diversity. The implication is that Post gives the youngsters just enough incentive to keep buying cereal without putting their product through a remotely fair shuffle at the factory (which might well result in a complete set of bobbleheads within a month). Clever, eh?
I prefer the phrase "cynically slick", which most certainly applies to Keebler's promotion of a "free" Nemo the Shark life preserver. The packages of cookies announce that you need only clip two UPC coupons and enclose receipts for two gallons of milk... oh, and then there's the fine print. You also need an official order form. This is not enclosed, but you are directed to the Keebler Web site. Sure enough, the order form is easy to locate and prints out in a single page... but read the fine print on THIS. "No mechanical reproduction of official order form will be accepted." When I contacted Keebler to ask if my downloaded order form--the only kind I could possibly have sent in with the other material--was a "mechanical reproduction", I received the following evasive communiqué: "We apologize for any inconvenience you have experienced with the Disney Pixar Finding Nemo Bruce the Shark Inflatable Promotion. [That has to be a new record for nouns used as adjectives!] Because of the nature of your inquiry, we would like you to discuss this matter with a Consumer Specialist." The nature of my inquiry? I want to know which ding-dong order form you people intend for me to use--is that really an upper-echelon question?
I didn't order the blinkin' shark, and I shall not be buying any Keebler products in the foreseeable future. What really bothers me, though, is this. What if my child had been looking forward to an inflatable toy beyond Keebler's deflatable promises? The baseball promotions had already driven him to tears of frustration. "Why don't they put the cards on the outside," he asks, "like when you were a boy?" Good question. And Post could offer me only the ba-ba-blather of the well-paid flunkey. "We apologize for any confusion...our production volume is several millions... we do our very best to ensure that...." Excuse me: the question was, why don't you let the kids just clip the cards off the back panel, where they can review them in advance of purchase?
It's a storm in a teapot, I know... but is it, when our children sit by learning a lesson from it? What lesson? That no adult can be trusted? That the way to succeed is to mislead? Immanuel Kant once wrote an essay, much derided by the worldly wise, wherein he proposed that lying is always wrong because every lie chips a pebble away from the edifice of general trust. Eventually, nothing remains: nobody believes anybody. The people who are chipping the foundation of integrity out from under my child and yours need to know that there is no god in the universe who will forgive a willful, persistent lifetime of such sabotage.
AIDS, AFRICA, AND HOLLYWOOD: OR
HOW TO LOSE THE BATTLE FOR THE THIRD WORLD
Optimism appears the more absurd in that so few ordinary citizens have the remotest notion of how the disease is contracted and spread. Subjects interviewed for the documentary variously believed that frequent baths, abstinence from certain foods, or avoidance of foreign women would keep them healthy. In defense of such naiveté, it should be noted that U.S.-sponsored medical advisors scarcely do more than pass out condoms and lecture on their use--the same prophylaxis offered to our children in public schools. How our leaders imagine that, faced with such ignorance, they may simply advertise a thin rubber shield and expect the masses not to continue high-risk behavior--not to escalate that behavior, indeed, in a false sense of security--always leaves me baffled. With advice like this, who needs sabotage?
AIDS is spread through bodily fluids of all sorts, which may be exchanged through many varieties of close contact with people of both genders and all ages. A safe lifestyle must be a comparatively repressed lifestyle--one where rowdy bloodletting, drunken vomiting, and casual sneezing are minimized as well as sexual activity addressed to multiple orifices and partners. Temperance, continence, and manners are safe: moral decorum is safe.
The parts of Africa where such decorum is stringently insisted upon are predominantly Muslim; and of these, the most resistant to AIDS are the most fundamentalist--communities where women go veiled and adulterers are menaced with stoning. Like it or not, the AIDS epidemic will leave Islamic fundamentalism in control of the entire continent. Nations which would vigorously reject a Taliban-style government today will be in no position to keep such influences at bay along their borders. Their people will be dead or dying. The few who remain healthy will already have embraced the rigid, abstemious way.
Now, if the West is the avowed enemy of hard-line Islamic movements like Wahabism, and if their spread is a threat to the security of the United States, particularly, then we are already fighting a lost battle in Africa against a viral weapon which nobody made in a lab. As AIDS delivers Africa to extremists by default, we persist in bundling condoms off on goodwill missions. No matter how many "safe sex" warnings we encode on our satellite-beamed TV melodramas, the Islamic world will continue to perceive us as the planet's primary purveyor of an irresponsible "leisure" culture. Our talk shows and soap operas have already traduced our Latino neighbors (whose literacy level is even lower than Mississippi's) into alarming rates of hepatitis and venereal disease. And what about our own citizens? Countless young criminals declare almost to a man (or a boy) that the glorification of gunplay, reckless driving, and rapacious courtship on TV, at the movies, and in rap lyrics significantly shaped their anti-social habits. Hundreds of thousands of teenaged mothers and girls on the street admit to the same influences. Our "popular culture" is the excrementum of a sick society. We tune in by the million to watch people eat roaches or copulate in hot tubs. We allow our eighteen-year-olds to submit themselves to a yearly slaughter concocted of booze and cars which has become a rite of passage at Prom time. We look the other way as early adolescents arrange coed slumber parties, and we sit woodenly as celebrated athletes hawk Viagra to our grade-schoolers between innings or quarters of "wholesome" afternoon entertainment.
Is this, then, what freedom has wrought? Is this what we intended to share with the world when we deposed Saddam Hussein? Apparently, such is the message we are sending, whether we mean to or not. "Democracy, whiskey, and sexy!" proclaimed one jubilant Iraqi when asked what American-style liberation meant to him.
If our respect for freedom of expression inhibits us within our borders from banning tasteless commercials and suing cable companies, then might not our national interest mandate us to filter the cultural effluvia which we dump on the rest of the world? If we may not publicly assert basic moral principles, then may we plead for a national defense strategy? The Left wants tobacco companies and fast-food restaurants to pay for seducing us: why are its luminaries surprised when Islamic leaders blame Hollywood for fomenting AIDS by glamorizing promiscuous sex and drunkenness? We can do better than mesmerize impoverished millions with our irresponsible claptrap. We must do better.
THOSE TESTS AGAIN: IS ANYONE AT HOME IN GRANT'S TOMB?
Last week, for the first time this season, I saw a syndicated columnist lamenting the miserable performance of our children on standardized tests. There is indeed something seasonal in this ritual of cultural conservatives. I assume the scores on the Stanford Achievement Test are being released to a broader public about now, since my eight-year-old's results also reached me last week. Ferreting out the questions behind the "content clusters" spreadsheet turned out to be insuperably difficult by fair means. Curious about a couple of categories where my son struggled, I "went to the top"... and, for my troubles, I was assured that I might expect some "brochures" from Harcourt Brace in the near future. By more devious means, I managed just yesterday to sneak a peak at a test booklet. Those few moments were most enlightening. If the public could only see how highly paid professionals play mind-games with our youngsters! I observed methodology which taunted eager mathematicians to forge ahead and ignore tedious oral instructions for every item. Elsewhere I foresaw reflective spellers being flummoxed by having to choose among several orthographic anomalies (only one of each set is wrong--or maybe none!) rather than being asked straight up if "straight" is correct. My favorite was the science section which sampled knowledge by offering pictographic options: the child was supposed to determine (for instance) which rustic scene was about to have rain by viewing three very poorly outlined and shaded cloudscapes.
The muddle-headed methods of these testing moguls are an even better concealed story, perhaps, than the politically correct fervor of the textbook industry's elite. Nevertheless, none of us seriously doubts that our children do not know enough about the past and do not reason lucidly enough about abstract issues to offer our republic a rosy future. I call it the Grant's Tomb Syndrome, with thanks to Groucho (who would sometimes stump respondents on his ancient show by asking them, "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?"). Our kids are in such bad shape that, even when the question carries its own answer, some of them are baffled! (Another such question: How long was the Thirty Years War?) I recall a college senior who couldn't place the Civil War in the correct century--but that was many years ago. A more recent entry for the dunce cap would be the college freshman who informed me in an essay that Jackie Robinson had a tough time breaking into the Major Leagues because he had just been freed from slavery. Dearest in memory, perhaps, is the sweet sophomore girl who once wrote (in an otherwise very astute essay) that Columbus's crew brought syphilis back from the New World after close contact with rats.
All teachers can tell you such stories--and I fully agree with other cultural conservatives that, once the laughter subsides, one is left feeling deeply dismayed. I wish formally to protest, however, the assumption that inadequate knowledge of raw facts is the central problem. Our rather silly standardized tests always favor questions about names and dates, because they have to produce incontestably right or wrong answers whose little black boxes a machine can count. Ideally, I should be very happy for every college graduate to be able to identify phrases from the Gettysburg Address or the American Constitution. Yet what alarms me infinitely more about our college students is that they don't think of human beings as voluntary agents endowed universally with moral reason. How could they? Their professors aggressively punish the very concept of universal human endowment or of moral reason whenever it is evoked. The cultural Left is seeking to undermine that common humanity which animates the classical liberalism of our republic's great documents, and all the cultural Right can do is clamor for rote memorization of the presidents and of state capitals.
The two sides, you see, are really fighting over the same dead carcass. The Left is "circumstantialist", insisting that all values are an accident of conditioning and hence, when involved in competition, equally valid (and equally invalid). The Right counters with an "arbitrarian" insistence that we have inherited this book or this code or this past and not another, so that we face self-annihilation unless we fix therein our immovable reference point. Personally, I would rather see my young fellow citizens studying Plato and Aristotle in school (and Dante and Shakespeare and Aquinas and Kant) than Madison and Lincoln, if their time must be strictly budgeted. And you know what? I think Madison and Lincoln would agree with me.
WHERE ARE THE WEAPONS? HOLD YOUR BREATH
I wonder sometimes just what the man in the streets thinks a weapon of mass destruction (excuse me: a WMD) looks like. Saddam was undertaking a "supergun" when interrupted by the Gulf War. No big top could have soared high enough to allow a circus acrobat in tights to slip into its reared muzzle. Is that the image in the mind of citizens whose disgruntlement is lighting up the polls? (These are the same citizens, we must suppose, who can't put the Gobi Desert in the proper hemisphere or the American Civil War in the proper century.) Are we upset because there are no missile silos along the Tigris? Did we expect to find a bullet the size of Big Bertha hiding in a hospital? Did we think the sands between Basra and Baghdad might be shifting over a particle accelerator?
Personally, I have no idea how many such comic-book megalomorphs were encouraged by the Bush Administration, or how responsibly or carelessly. Those of us who remember life without computers are undoubtedly still held imaginative hostage by the Cold War, or at least by the ailing concrete titans at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It's probably true, for that matter, that we consented to war with Saddam Hussein in order to keep Armageddon's mushrooms from rotting our planet away.
As any magician knows, however, a gesture toward something huge creates an opportunity to work on something minute with the other hand. While some of us are preoccupied with finding nuclear warheads nestled in some arid wadi like so many stranded whales, no one seems to doubt that there were once in Iraq colonies of micro-life capable of decimating a nation--or that these doomsday dishes and vials have now been bundled off to Syria, or perhaps to Riyadh or Marseilles or Buenos Aires. Saddam both possessed and employed chemical weapons more than a decade ago. His stocks of botulism, e-coli, anthrax, and smallpox remain somewhat more speculative, yet the proof of an aggressive program in bio-terrorism is overwhelming. Instruments of mass-murder which could be concealed in a pocket or a thermos have slipped through our net, and we continue to scour the landscape with binoculars rather than magnifying glasses.
In a way, of course, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because snaring every needle in this nightmarish haystack--disguised as a fountain pen, perhaps, or a tube of toothpaste--is a virtual impossibility. The moving about of such articles on a grand scale could be impeded, given maximum preparation, with about the rate of success posted by our efforts to intercept illegal drugs. These micro-killers will become an ever more prominent part of our lives, and they will most certainly start showing up on American soil within a few years. Perhaps they will even be concocted in a high school lab with a recipe pulled off the Internet: perhaps the school shootings of the nineties will be replaced by school gas attacks in the twenty-teens. Nut cases don't have to subscribe to any particular fanatical branch of any particular religion, nor do they have to be grown abroad.
The sad lesson of our post-9/11 world--a lesson which many of us have not yet fully absorbed, I think--is that there can be no end to terrorism. It is an enduring fact of technological life: even the terror of accident looms ever larger. What the war in Iraq demonstrated to the patrons of and connivers at deliberate terrorism is that they will be held materially responsible for acts of murder. A new era of Massive Retaliation is beginning--as if any moment of tranquility in human history would have been possible without the shadow of a big stick! "We can't stop you from killing us--but make it good, because your first shot will be your last." Far more than in nuclear circumstances, these must be the conditions of existence in a world where a million lives are balanced in a shaving kit's contents. We are not going to preempt inhuman slaughter. Having taken what precautions we can, we must also clearly announce that those who penetrate our armor will be denied a victory celebration. That we have done, for the time being, even if some of our leaders think we have done much more, besides.