As a postscript to last month's ruminating over a possible escape from the economic, cultural, moral, and spiritual hell which is our ghastly suburban sprawl, I offer a few thoughts about being a man. A man in hell--and a man descended from Europeans. I am Caucasian. My parents both earned college degrees at a time when such a thing was rare. They were what we would call nowadays upwardly mobile. Each had a job for most of my adolescence, though stay-at-home moms were the norm in their circle. The main reason they needed the extra cash was to send my siblings and me to a costly private school, where we were much the most impoverished specimens of the race any of our classmates had ever seen. I graduated from that school a year early: it was either that or shoot myself. I figured out that by excelling scholastically, I could catapult myself at maximum speed through any number of highly unpleasant social situations. I continued the practice in college. I had a bachelor's degree in hand before my twenty-first birthday--summa cum laude.
I volunteer this biographical sketch because almost everything I am about to say is personal speculation, and I wish to establish my credentials for speculating judiciously. I have always been an outsider looking in on the mainstream white establishment. Unlike my wealthy classmates, I had no father or uncle willing and able to give me a job on the newspaper or a management position in the company or a trusteeship in the foundation--or even a warm recommendation to the medical school's admission committee or the law offices of Schneid Schuyster and Shakedown. Grades notwithstanding, I had nothing going for me. My transcripts won me consideration for a series of entry-level, dead-end academic appointments in a discipline which was already drastically shrinking before I ever chose it as a major. The more degrees I earned, the more I realized that the essential ingredient in a humanities career is not mastery of its subject matter. For I had been taught as a student, in my haste and my diffidence, nothing whatever about how to play political games--and the doors of the professional corridors into which I had blundered opened only to a secret knock. I did not grasp that the chair's brainless idea must come before the good of the students, that the Dean's brainless idea must come before the integrity of the field: that, in short, power in all forms must be caressed. As a white-collar white man, I was a disaster.
I have put a racial tinge upon the issue because, in my fiftieth year, I am convinced that it belongs there. The materially successful white professionals I have known have all possessed at least one of two assets: a) an influential contact, or b) an ability to flatter the influential. It is understood among my tribe (except by oddballs like me) that gravity itself is a kind of influence, and that the universe would lapse into chaos if certain people could not give certain other people a nod or a nudge. The reigning system in academe itself--that self-proclaimed bastion of anti-bourgeois progressivism--is a monument to ingratiation and sycophancy. Nobody can secure a job without glowing endorsements (the dubious veracity of which has caused many small scandals in recent years); and nobody is released from probation before seven years of what is obviously an inquest into, not his learning or his teaching, but his long-range willingness to play ball.
On the other side of the racial divide, I have come in the past few years to know what seems (within my experience) a disproportionately large number of small business owners descended from Africans or lately emigrated from Africa. My own venture into self-employment was risible, as I had known it would be (a publisher, of all things--who reads books nowadays?); but I found the odor of independence irresistible. So, I believe, do many males of minority backgrounds or from truly oppressive cultures. They have been relatively unaffected by the white conviction that one must have or make contacts--probably because few around them were ever able to display the success of "being connected". They are free--in their hearts--to seek freedom. Their souls are not conditioned from the cradle to accept the passive aggression of red tape, fine print, and possible lawsuit. Males, in particular, often strike me as driven to brave the shoals of personal ownership in a way that even my father felt once in his life. (Dad's adventure in independence, like mine, was a great flop, thanks mostly to a spendthrift partner.) These men do not necessarily make good choices. Many, perhaps, end up like Raisin in the Sun's Walter, losing all their capital before the business's door ever opens. Yet they are driven to take the chance as an artist is driven to create.
I speak of this as a virile drive, even though most new small businesses have been started by women, because in my own life I have longed for the virility of such endeavor. I believe there is a nagging ache in the soul of many American males which comes of having constantly to fawn, to soft-pedal, to prevaricate, to plead--to be, in short, a spineless "yes" man. Women are less affected, because they are by nature more intricately woven into the social fabric (by their child-bearing potential, among other reasons). They are less likely to see a compromise as a setback, a rewording as a sordid subterfuge. I am convinced that "manly" men, however, can never fare well in a Mandarin world of florid circumlocution and complex hierarchy. They need risk, they need a void in which to create... and they demand blunt honesty, since they intuit that lies are always ultimately motivated by fear. I can think of no other reason why the white man's universities--those dress rehearsals for Working the System--should be indissolubly wedded to do-or-die sports like football. The beast will out. That the beast is increasingly a black kid recruited expressly to play ball (and here I mean play real ball, within non-negotiable boundaries) demonstrates how, even in college, young white males are learning to enjoy their freedom vicariously. In the matter of direct expression, most confine themselves to keg parties.
But what happens if you don't make it to college--or if you make it through college without ever learning to grease palms and cut deals? What happens if you're a male who thinks life should be lived like a ball game--a real ball game, with clear boundaries and clear rules? You don't do very well drafting copy for the Krispy Krunchy ad blitz. It's trivial, it's deceptive, and it's--yes, even awash as it is in silliness--susceptible to a rigid pecking order wherein merit plays no part. As the French would say, a virile man "vomits" a job like this: or as we would say, he takes it and shoves it. To do what afterward? To sell drugs or stolen cars, perhaps. I have long suspected that much of our criminal problem stems from the paucity of virile jobs--requiring courage and strict adherence to a code--available to contemporary unconnected males. A lot of young men think that they want money when they turn to crime: I suspect they really want a lay-it-on-the-line challenge. Some of the same men, with a little finessing, would join the police or the fire department. At the other extreme, many of them have swollen the ranks of Fascist-caliber movements (and all gangs are essentially fascist). The code doesn't have to be humane or uplifting: it just has to exact strict dedication.
Among other things, the revival of small businesses in our neighborhoods would renew our anemic society's virility. Once again, I understand perfectly well that women would play a large part--perhaps the greater part--in such businesses. A "male touch" of independence is good for women, just as a female touch of compromise is good for men. Yet the demographic group which would immediately profit in every way from being able to make and sell furniture out of the basement would be, I think, males without influential connections. If you're not a man (or if you're a degenerate man), you may have difficulty grasping how much joy we find in exhaling one fine day, "This is my orchard: I planted it"--or, "This is my statuary: I make the molds and mix the cement. Each piece is in my own style." If our men could take their risks indulging some such hunger for creative contribution (restoring old cars, designing ornate woodwork, running transit services) in or from their residences, I am convinced that the crime rate would drop, drug and alcohol abuse would diminish, the divorce rate would fall, and alarming educational trends would be stemmed. It's simply a matter of letting people have control of their lives.
It's a matter, in other words, of combatting white-collar servitude. Slavery never brings out the best in people; and the notion that you can't rely on talent and hard work--that you must, first and foremost, know somebody--is degrading and disgraceful in a society which styles itself free.
THE UTOPIAN VOTER, PART TWO:
VICTIMS OF RANDOM DISASTER SYNDROME
When I was writing A Body Without Breath in the year 2000, I came up with the following description of the neo-liberal Utopian in contemporary politics (I had already dealt with right-wing cultism):
The grander question is how it happens that carefully plotted avant-garde distortions have such a spontaneous, passionate look. We are certainly not in the presence here of crafty accountants cooking the books to hide larceny. Why do so many lies of the new liberalism so fastidiously avoid facts that they end up resembling mere outbursts of pique or transports of longing? Obviously, a lie always prospers better when it can steer around facts; but why are the intelligent, "principled" liars of ideology precisely those who end up having the greatest contempt for the deliberative process? In their irresistible attacks of whimsy is a kind of orgasmic stupor. They seem to have come full circle to the amorous adventurers who lie only after the event, when they are caught slipping out of milady’s bedroom.
Here, I believe, we confront the liberal utopian’s forward-looking attachment to his dream-world. The corpse of truth which bleeds beneath his eloquence was not savaged by a predator let out of the cage: it was crushed beneath the Good Ship Humanity as she hastened toward a green isle on a golden horizon. Lies? Why, lift up your gaze! Who cares whether that flotsam in our wake is itself true or false? When we make landfall, all scars will be made whole in the gilded light of the New Jerusalem! (p. 182)
I recycle these lines because I can scarcely better them now. They express what I believe to be the two primary characteristics of our electorate's utopian contingent--qualities which are too often discounted in discussions of how to assuage the Angst of such people:
1) An immovable commitment to a fantastical vision in its entirety. To tell the Utopian that you will accommodate one or two planks of his Babes-in-Toyland platform is like telling a five-year-old that only half the den's furniture can represent hills and mountains in a make-believe campout. It's all or nothing: a game cannot be played with only some of its rules accepted by the players. The Perfect World suffers no negotiation. Pledge your allegiance to every one of its tenets, or be damned.
2) A contempt of the truth paradoxically coupled to a high-pitched moral outrage. You must understand that the vision, fantastical though it patently is, represents for its faithful the only source of truth in the universe. Once we fulfill that vision, each of us punctiliously acting out his assigned part, we will achieve a perspective from which non- or counter-visionary conditions can be easily identified and ignored. For now, some of those conditions appear to be real-world facts. Only by a sustained and spirited effort of denial can we triumph over these loathsome "facts" to create a better world. Those who would force present reality on us are enemies of virtue, either stupid or depraved, and the cancellation of their liberty--and even of their lives--is fully justified when we consider that they threaten the florition of The Perfect World for all posterity.
In short, you have in the Utopian something between a very spoiled child and--should the child acquire certain powers--a very dangerous lunatic.
Last week I ruminated on how one especially energetic group of Utopians--single white professional females--may have come to wed itself to this pathology. I suggested that the absence of a father, or at least the father's greatly reduced role in rearing his children, may have produced a generation of waifs who sense that they can fill the paternal void only by rejecting a status quo responsible for chasing Dad out of the picture. I am not a Freudian; but for those who incline to that persuasion, a case very similar to mine is argued--and argued much more thoroughly--in Howard Schwartz's Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness. Schwartz is preoccupied with the female who arises from such dysfunctional families. In my last essay, so was I.
But what of utopian males, or of females from ostensibly stable families? What other factors could account for the proliferation of fantasy addicts among us? The phrase "fantasy addict" instantly brings to mind heavy consumers of electronic technology's highly sophisticated industry in escapism. "Virtual reality" may belong to Generation X, but the Sixties Generation was the first to grow up on, with, and through television. Personally, I am not disposed to point a finger at Star Trek or at specific programming of any kind. The relevant factor is simply that my TV-suckled peers did not play with other children as previous generations had done. They were inadequately and, perhaps, perversely socialized. They were passive observers or opinionated dreamers even when the kids next door could be pried from the tube. Automobile culture, too, has collaborated significantly in this conspiracy. "Next door" has grown increasingly far away as we have constructed our neighborhoods ever more precisely to the requirements of car-driving. The multi-car family also stays at home less often over weekends and pulls up stakes more often in pursuit of a "better" home. I had three or four very good friends in the neighborhood where I spent my first nine years of life. I acquired none--nor even any distant acquaintances--in the suburb to which I was relocated for my next nine years. At the same time, of course, I was enrolled in a new school. I passed from being a fairly popular child to being a nameless, despicable misfit. This scenario, I suggest--the physical alienation of moving palliated by ever-accessible electronic alternatives to bleak reality--has morbidly influenced millions and millions of young people, including those whose parents remained securely married.
Indeed, mobile/electronic culture induces effects not at all unlike those of the broken family. Your friends and familiar surroundings are suddenly wrested from you forever by an inscrutable decision of your parents. You see Dad less and less (now that he has a "better" job), and, endowed with your electronic escapes, you grow more and more leery of his occasional appearances in your world. The whole upheaval could happen all over again, as well, and just as suddenly, as arbitrarily. The only thing you can confidently hold on to is precisely your fantasy world. Your favorite shows will still air at the same hour, and your favorite music will still sit within arm's reach. Everything else is so much signage along an interstate's blurred, dim window upon other lives--lives gone as soon as glimpsed.
I recall Charlton Heston's response when asked why actors are overwhelmingly far-left in their politics. He thought it had to do with insecurity. An actor may make a small--or large--fortune in a given year; but he cannot confidently develop habits to suit his success, because the following year may bring him absolutely no work whatever. (I might proffer Judy Garland by way of example.) This insecurity, surely, lies somewhere at the heart of the Utopian's infatuation with a land, a regime, wholly beyond the reach of reality's unpleasant surprises. The child of a broken home is bound to feel the same yearning for a system of close-knit, infallible safety nets, as is the child of several social transplantations. Call this dread of rude shock Random Disaster Syndrome, if you like. The randomness, it seems to me, is as devastating as any particular disaster. Not only are your most meaningful bonds rent asunder: the sword always descends upon them quite without warning. Even in periods of happiness, you find yourself watching the clock and the door. How long can this last? What will ruin it next time?
I can assure everyone, finally, that academe--the other burgeoning nursery of utopianism--is very much a growth medium for RDS. My wife and I once figured out that we inhabited a total of twelve different residences within ten years. As a professor, you never know who is laying for you, or why: you only know that you are always about to walk into an ambush. At the very least, you must never express the slightest resistance to any of your numerous supervisors' proposals, plans, brainstorms, or pleasantries. Especially in the humanities, you must actively ingratiate yourself to powerful people if you hope to be tenured and distance yourself from all of their enemies (praying, of course, to whatever god you adore that these latter will not, in their turn, ascend to power). Your actual work as a professor does not demonstrably rake in more dollars for the institution or save the lives of students: hence your utter dependency upon patronage. Publications should not be regarded as a source of security. They invariably draw envy, and their absence is cited as a ground of dismissal only for politically inept naifs whose axing wants a respectable pretext. Every situation is a potential snare: every day could start you on the road to Siberia. Needless to say, a professed belief in utopian causes is mandatory within this toxic environment even if it does nothing to settle your intimate neuroses. When everyone else is saluting Malacoda's rump, you salute it, too.
What I have written this week does not make the end of utopian follies in our politics sound imminent. In fact, the insecurity feeding our general dread of reality--especially the moral reality of free will--must abide as out-of-wedlock births surge, divorces continue apace, homes turn into bunkers, children succumb to screens and headphones, and independent small businesses evaporate to leave Byzantine hierarchies and helot networks of temporary/part-time employees. Even the putatively realistic side of the aisle is often fortified artificially by whatever stability big bucks can purchase and by a dubious caricature of God All Good as a warm-hearted Aladdin's genii. Why is there no productive give-and-take on issues, no rational debate? Because we are all in perpetual, unpredictable motion, and we keep impaling ourselves on reality's sharp edges.
Well, most of us, anyway. If a survivor of the upwardly mobile family and the ivory killing fields can emerge a disciplined Arcadian, with utterly no use for castles in clouds, then so can you. Wear your shoes until a hole begins to show, plant a fig tree, take up the flute, and go biking with your kid. Want less, and want better. Kneel down and touch the good earth. We could all still get through this plague.
THE UTOPIAN VOTER, PART ONE:
THE DESERTED DAUGHTER IN SEARCH OF DAD
At the end of last week's remarks about the election, I employed the word "utopian", as in "having expectations which cannot be fulfilled within the limits of reality". It strikes me that this one word contains a wealth of unanalyzed matter about a large segment of the American electorate--matter which we would do well to begin analyzing, if we wish to short-circuit the escalating incidence of voter fraud, physical intimidation, and willful misrepresentation of news events. I know a great many bright, well-educated people who adopted as their slogan throughout the summer "ABB--anyone but Bush". Casting any political contest in such Manichaean polarities, I'm bound to say, is definitively unthinking. Anyone? George Junior was never my first choice for anything, but I could imagine him a viable second or third choice. In the same way, I would prefer Mr. Gephardt to Mr. Kerry, Kerry to Al Sharpton, Sharpton to... well, Michael Moore. One doesn't stop thinking just because the alternatives are unsavory.
But a Utopian, you see, does. A Utopian will have nothing less than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All compromises with reality are sordid betrayal. We are to dream, as our politicians keep telling us in their nauseabund pandering. Mr. Gore never tired of saying to audiences four years ago that anyone can be anything. Yet everyone eventually becomes this thing and not that thing. This ruthlessly cruel condition--called life--deprives Wendy of Peter Pan... and so we pretend that Wendy is still and forever a child. We get divorces until we find just the right mate--or we don't commit to marriage at all, moving from one trial ménage to another with one partner after another. If we do not routinely concoct our children from sperm banks which have recruited Nobel laureates, we increasingly screen the fetus with ultrasounds so that a one-handed mutant may be safely disposed of before it has a name. We expect to have painless lives and painless deaths paved smoothly by miracle drugs; and we expect the government to make such drugs universally available as an unalienable right--and not, in the process, to raise taxes. Did I mention candy without calories, or fixed cable rates with a V-chip to sift through programming?
This week and next week, I propose to take a closer look at what makes intelligent people reason like idiots. The group that most interests me is single white women with advanced degrees, because I know a great many such people and have often accounted them friends. Yet no group could be more utopian. Demographers have insisted on dissecting the married white women who went for Mr. Bush last week, as it they were the anomaly requiring explanation; but their counterparts are altogether more puzzling. I could name three friends, in particular. All three are fifty-something years of age (i.e., reached maturity in the sixties and seventies), have multiple college degrees from excellent schools, are successes by most financial or professional standards, and have never been married or had a child. Two were deserted by their fathers in adolescence, and the third (whom I have known the longest) has never breathed a word to me about her father. All three were passionately opposed to Bush. Two of them, in fact--though I continue to think of them as friends--have ignored my e-mails and letters for half a year because I dared to qualify one of their sweeping assertions about the forces of evil unleashed by this administration. It is possible that I have been airbrushed from their lives, which must indeed be burdened with very little sentimental baggage. One inevitably disappoints a Manichaean: there's no room for minor disagreement in the "with me or against me" drama.
What happened to these gifted people? My intuitive response was to think, "It's the absent father. They hate men, particularly men in authority [like Bush, whom all three of my friends labeled a bully], because their fathers deserted them or ignored them." But now I find this analysis simplistic. After all, Mr. Kerry is a man. So are Saddam and Arafat.. It isn't Daddy who draws the opprobrium, I've decided: it's Step-Daddy. Just think of it. Throughout one's formative years, one must hear Dad vilified as the cause of all that's gone wrong: bills not paid, duties not assumed, ruined holidays, sabotaged careers. "This is your father's doing!" The daughter finally has her fill of such enforced victimhood. Nobody likes to be a victim (not a real victim without any control over events, as opposed to the highly remunerated official victim and his steady stream of pay-offs). The daughter concludes that Daddy was right to walk off. Who could ever withstand such constant carping and griping? And he didn't walk off, in any case, because of her, but because of Moma: the mother is actually the villain who separated him from his daughter. If only Mom and other nagging plaintiffs of her stamp could be removed--if only the stodgy rule of law could be swept by the board--then daughter and father could be re-united in a love without threats and shackles.
Saddam, in this dim light, is a kind of deadbeat dad, socially ostracized because he wouldn't play by the rules, because he wouldn't let whining victim-poseurs manipulate him. So for other terrorists and outcasts: bad boys one and all, they would like to be re-united with the daughter, but the divorce decree keeps them away--just because they had the honesty to confess that they could no longer serve that dowdy, exploitative matron, The Law.
Enter the Step-Father. He's an anemic, effeminate fool (like most bullies, of course). He does the 8-to-5 thing and pays his taxes, goes to church and pays his tithes, endures Moma's nagging and steps to do her bidding. Nothing could be farther from a rock star or rebel without a cause. He is despicable: he is the death of love amid a hypocritical perfume of sanctimony. He implicitly makes Daddy look bad, look wrong: hence he is a collaborator in cowardly slanders. He lies. "You'll never be my daddy!"
It is now a well-documented tragedy that women like the Deserted Daughter give themselves to men who resemble the Absent Father--and are, naturally, deserted once more, time after time. I used to suppose that all but the most emotionally dysfunctional must eventually see the perversity of their judgment; that these anguished women, in other words, must at last discover the link between love and commitment. Again, I was applying my own intuition to cases where healthy intuition has been subverted. For my observations slowly disillusioned me: it wasn't the Deserted Daughter, usually, who was thrown over by her slimy beaux--it was the boyfriends who were dropped as soon as they uttered a word about commitment. Marriage spells bonds, and bondage strangles love. The Daughter aspires to a world of "honest" love, where she lives in perfect harmony with Daddy. Every relationship which the male seeks to stabilize and regularize betrays that vision. Hence the indefinite utopian regress, the uncompromising pursuit of the next horizon never enlightened by the mature thought that all horizons are illusions belonging to stasis... Dante could not have devised a more exquisite hell.
In academic circles, this dog-chasing-tail folly passes for--would you believe it?--reality, as unmasked by Deconstruction. That is to say, the Deserted Daughter, now a successful professional, understands that reality is illusion, and thus that insisting upon the illusion is the ultimate approach to reality. It is quite sobering enough to reflect that perhaps millions of talented women are--barring a thunderclap of grace--eternally confined in this lunatic labyrinth. To reflect further that they may significantly shape my son's future with their Never Never Land political ideology is downright depressing. At the very least, the demographics of this last election hint at the cost to us all of rolling-stone males who don't keep their damn vows.
THE RHINOCEROS COMES HOME TO ROOST,
AND OTHER TALES OF THE 2004 ELECTION
Commentary on November 2 and the crescendo of events leading up to it is unavoidable in a blog like this one... so here goes.
1) The election was NOT a referendum on the war. Look at the map. Red states again blanketed the heartland, while blue states clung to the northeast and western coasts and the Great Lakes. Perhaps the fighting in Iraq should have been our focus, but it wasn't. We have yet to achieve that focus in a national forum, by the way. Mr. Bush has done a poor job of emphasizing the global menace of terrorism--the near-ubiquity of fissionable material, hungry ex-Soviet biochemists, and other components of a hellish brew--while Mr. Kerry did an excellent job of belittling or misstating this threat as the exclusive brainchild of one Osama Bin Laden. I might note that my own humble column's red-flagging of the trucks which fled our invading force into Syria (3/25/04) anticipated the flap over pilfered explosives at Al Qaqaa--especially in the matter of how embarrassing such egress might have proved to the Administration's cause. Kerry, of course, misplayed the card, stressing the explosives which were spirited away in this specific case rather than the vials of chemicals and bacteria which could easily have slipped through the same net. (That gambit, to be sure, would have required him to admit the invasion's fundamental sound-mindedness.) The Bush team, for its part, has yet to trumpet that Charles Duelfer's report for the Iraq Survey Group, which famously declared the absence of functional WMD's in Saddam's arsenal, also concluded such weapons to be within months of perfection, in some cases. (See Mort Zuckerman, U.S. News and World Report [November 1, 2004], 80.)
No, the election turned out to be about how fed up most of us dull bourgeois types are with a) the slaughter of babies 80% of the way through the birth canal; b) the increasingly official insistence that marriage is about securing great sex, any way you like it, rather than about raising children; and--for all I know, the most significant factor--c) the unremitting and insufferable slander of unfavored candidates and ideas by the coastal elites. Which brings me to...
2) The hatchet-work done on George Bush by almost all the major news outlets. Bush's social and economic policies, frankly, are sometimes to the left of Al Gore's. Yet he was "covered" by the media as a dumping site is covered by refuse, in despicably ad hominem and childishly disingenuous fashion. PBS (to name but one offender, though perhaps the most hypocritical) aired a two-hour "parallel lives" of Bush and Kerry the night before the election. Peter Jennings (he who oft adorneth Barbara Streisand's arm) had performed a similar number just before the Bush/Gore election; and Jennings's piece (to damn with very faint praise) was the more even-handed. The PBS narrator often yielded right-of-way to various partisan interviewees as historic photos flashed on the screen. The face and "name plate" of Paul O'Neil, for instance, frequently evaporated to leave only the O'Neil voice (with its O'Neil version of truth) as snapshots of Bush in ambivalent postures filed by. Such partisans should not be granted the authority of the "voice over"--any journalism freshman knows that. This is particularly so when their credibility is highly dubious (as Secretary of Treasury, O'Neil could not conceivably have had eye-witness knowledge of strategic defense pow-wows convened within hours of 9/11) or when their remarks are blatantly argumentative. E.g., another Bush detractor opined, "You had to wonder who was the hunter and who was the hunted," as the President was pictured boarding Air Force One. I was really wondering by then, all right.
Movie stars, rock stars, talking heads, baseball-franchise owners... enough, already. Middle America--the dumb red red-white-and-blue bourgeoisie--has had its fill of ill-digested factoids and twice-told fantasies served up by glamour girls and "trusted" starched collars. This has gone on, I admit, at least throughout my own lifetime. I can recall a piece in Time Magazine about then-Vice President Agnew on a diplomatic junket to East Africa wherein he was said to sip martinis in some glassed-over, air-conditioned country club as he studied "copulating rhinos". Why do reporters feel licensed to deliver such copros rhinocerou as objective testimony? Just who the hell do they think they are? Now, at last, we have the answer: movie stars. Celebrities. Next thing you know, they'll want their simpering mugs on bubblegum cards.
3) Movie stars, as we all know, have cult followings: celebrities command the unquestioning devotion of throngs. The final remark I will venture in this context is a warning that such throngs are indeed beginning to swell within the electorate's demography. The election would not have been close without them. Blacks continue to vote largely as a block (though less so in 2004 than in 2000), Hispanics are readily manipulated--at least newly immigrated, non-Anglophone Hispanics--by appeals from their precinct bosses to support nuestra raza ("our race"), and the college students at flagship universities and elite private schools can be whipped into a frenzy far surpassing any football pep rally's. These voters do not view themselves as individuals called by their country to apply their personal experience and intellect to a consequential choice even as jurors are called to deliberate upon a defendant's fate. They goosestep to the group's drum. A few weeks ago, the Spanish-only Telemundo 39 (out of Dallas) interviewed several average citizens who were answering the feverish imperative to register as voters. One woman told the camera that she had never voted before, but that she felt obliged to support "Latino interests". Apparently, learning English (for instance) is not a Latino interest: it's their language, not ours. As such tribal thinking proliferates, the opportunities for shameless demagoguery multiply. The rule of the masses, the demos, is by no means the same as rule by representatives chosen from among free adult individuals. The commonwealth is in deep trouble.
We have been alerted that the most formidable tribe of all proved to be that which carried the day: the "Christian Conservatives". I contend that this is a sloppy label devised precisely by people who see all of us only as members of tribes. I myself feel extremely uncomfortable around cultists who want us to fight terrorism, not so that children may sit safely in their classrooms, but so that one more biblically encrypted step toward Armageddon may be completed. As a worshiper of God All Good, I do not consider such perverse gnostics to be fellow travelers; and as an adherent of the literate Western tradition valorizing creative thought and exercise of conscience, I do not consider them comrades in arms. Voters support a candidate for a lot of reasons--some of them very weak--when the system works as it should. When the system works as it mustn't, blocks of voters support one candidate for one irredeemable reason: that he is The Party's choice, or that he is The Anti-Incumbent (i.e., the Choice of the Utopian Party). Some of us are half a step from wearing arm bands to go with our bumper stickers. One colleague muttered "NB" to me in an academic corridor on Tuesday as if divulging which catacomb would witness our next rendezvous. The Italian for "arm band" is fascia. Mob mentality produces true dictators. If you think Bush is Caligula, hold your breath and hope that you don't live to see the real thing.
ON THE FAIRNESS OF CERTAIN DOUBLE STANDARDS
I have mentioned Jackie Robinson's classic anthology, Baseball Has Done It, in this space before. As Jackie himself takes pains to point out, the book isn't really about baseball. It's about men waging a determined struggle to overcome grossly unfair setbacks. I recently assigned a couple of narratives from the book (Bill Bruton's and Leon Wagner's) to my freshman composition class. Naturally, I pondered why I was doing so. The choice seemed fully defensible, and yet, I couldn't quite put my finger on its motivation. Then I realized that Jackie had told me: baseball has done it. Baseball... and this in a book not primarily about baseball. That's exactly the point. The game has allowed men to succeed even when others ferociously resisted them for the color of their skin. It allowed them to do so because they worked too hard to fail. They were too good at what they did to be denied. Grudgingly, then heartily and in droves, fans around the country embraced the new arrivals from the Negro Leagues. Winning is irresistible.
And is this not, after all, the essence of the American Dream? The general population of your community may despise you for being Jewish or Catholic or Irish or Polish or Chinese; but if you make the best doughnuts on the block or give the best haircut or lay the most durable carpet in town, the loathing recedes to a tasteless joke or two over the dinner table. Sound quality at a reasonable cost s irresistible. Like Robinson or Bruton or Wagner, conscientious laborers in our society have been able to overcome narrow-minded suspicions throughout the community simply by doing what they do best as well as they possibly can. It is a thrilling accomplishment. One wishes to survive, of course--but this goes far beyond survival. It is a ventilation of the soul--a declaration of one's special powers in a manner which benefits the community and earns, besides a wage, a debt of admiring gratitude from those who share one's streets.
This dream appears to me to be virtually defunct. Its reality is so, at any rate. What's the point of trying to open up a corner doughnut shop when the Kripsy Kreme franchise down the road can sink your little boat with one shot? As if local codes--building codes, fire codes, handicap-access codes, commercial property tax codes--and federal bone-crushers like the IRS and OSHA were not making enough waves already, the big franchise enjoys the power to swamp you at any time. As soon as you work so hard and so well that you actually begin to make a dent in the giant's clientele, he rouses himself long enough to cut prices below yours for a month or two. Because you barely manage to pay all your bills in a good month, your shop's sudden emptiness constitutes a catastrophe. The giant then either buys you out in a surge of magnanimity or, if spiteful, pulls his belt up a notch and watches you wither away to nothing. As sure as sunrise, once you have expired, the franchise raises its prices higher than ever--and none of the profits will find their way to anyone of your income level in the franchise's vast hierarchy, and all of the neighborhood consumers will discover that their dollar now buys a little bit less than l;st year. It wasn't supposed to work this way. It's as if Jackie, Billy, and Leon all got laid off, and then the fences were moved in 100 feet to accommodate Wee Willie Keelor.
The struggle here is often represented as one of labor against management, but it isn't really such at all. By the time one has been forced to lump oneself into the hugely impersonal mass of labor, one's independent identity is already gone. Labor's juggernaut would level everything: the same hours for everyone, the same working conditions, the same pay for equal experience. In return, it offers a mechanistic sameness of product--uniform expertise without creativity or initiative. The only difference with management is one of degree. Management wants to offer less pay and poorer conditions for more hours on the job. A dream cannot root in such arid soil.
To be sure, this dismal portrait of picket lines and lock-outs is largely a thing of the past. Now management has its way by farming out jobs overseas and by employing illegal immigrants at sub-minimum wage and without benefits. For their part, organized laborers would have been squeezed into a robotic existence even if our borders had been policed from both directions by an invincible laser screen. Technology has inexorably taken the saw and the hammer from workers' hands. Now fewer of them than ever are needed for increasingly menial tasks: replacing circuitry, driving trucks, sweeping out the corridors. For that matter, automaton vehicles and vacuum cleaners are past the drawing-board stage. The worker's doom is sealed. Even the dreary nightmare of unrelieved drudgery is yielding to the white coma of utter uselessness.
But the dream could be revived--and so easily! People will always need to be fed, clothed, housed, protected, and mildly amused or diverted. Many such services could be offered by our next-door neighbors, as I have been arguing in my last several columns, if only local codes would allow it. Here I propose a second "break" on the national scale which seems to me absolutely essential. Don't hold home businesses and Mom-and-Pop shops to the same standards as major employers: enforce such exemptions with whatever authority can be made to apply at the top levels of government. A small business shouldn't have to worry about providing wheelchair-accessible doorways. The handicapped can shop elsewhere. I walk into stores all the time which assault me with raucous cacophony raised to an excruciating pitch--but I don't demand that my delicate ears to indulged. A small business shouldn't have to pay minimum wage. People who need to take home a healthy paycheck may apply elsewhere. What sense does it make that I and those willing to work for my peanuts should be deprived of a meager--but, to us, pleasant--employment because a roofer with a family must pay his rent? The construction company can well afford to pay the roofer minimum wage: I cannot afford to pay the same to my bookshop's cashier. A small business shouldn't have to pay myriad licensing fees to (for instance) state and local health agencies. Let Moma Gina post a sign on her front door warning all who wish to partake of her homemade spaghetti that the state will not guarantee its wholesomeness--give her a Halloween-vintage death's head to post with it, if you must. But leave those who wish to enter at their own risk alone to enjoy their meal, and give Gina a chance to turn a profit.
Make businesses of over, say, ten employees, toe the line; give Mom and Pop a break. If tiny businesses were allowed such flexibility in adjusting their overhead, the intrepid doughnut-maker would stand a much better chance of surviving price wars waged by Krispy Kreme. To some extent, certain states and municipalities already favor the little guy in this manner. The favor needs to be extended unilaterally. Big Business will fight it from one direction, Big Government from the other: has the dream a chance in hell, realistically? Only if we get sufficiently fed up with our nightmarish impotence.
THE WRONG WAY TO LIVE, PART TWO:
WORKING, WALKING, AND WELL-BEING
How do we make our communities into places more compatible with the "family values" we espouse collectively? This is the question I left dangling in the air last week. It seems naive to suppose that we might ever return to a nineteen-fiftyish, proto-automobile style of living: sidewalks, picket fences, playgrounds, corner drug stores and bakeries, minimal traffic driving at responsible speeds.... We now seem so brick-and-mortared into our various suburban auto-accessible-only compartments--residential, commercial, recreational--that everything would have to be plowed under and reconstructed if we were actually to be able to walk somewhere.
Would that be a bad thing--plowing it all under, I mean? Think of all the new jobs! A complete suburban facelift would employ construction crews, architects, designers, plumbers, electricians, and a host of supporting services for decades. Naturally, the first remodeled communities would be experimental, and hence costly to buy into: only the well-off could afford to live in them. But prices would eventually fall as such neighborhoods became more common (an eventuality which could be accelerated by government through--for instance--tax breaks or low-interest loans). A certain amount of low-income housing could also be built into the community. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck portray this strategy as a desideratum in their book, Suburban Nation (North Point Press, 2000). Think of all the really charming communities you've ever seen. They're not block upon block of mansions, are they? (I said charm, not shock and awe.) Residences of all sizes are pleasantly intermingled. The smaller ones, far from undermining the market value of the larger ones, increase it, because they render the neighborhood as a whole a scene of clean, peaceful, harmonious diversity. That all homes should be well-maintained and built in styles not pledged to mortal enmity is, of course, the responsibility of residents and their architects.
The idea which I most wish to advance this week, though, concerns doing business in such neighborhoods. We cannot now sell paintings from our dens or milkshakes from our kitchens because oppressively over-protective laws will not let us. The culprit is not so much Big Brother, our federal government (although OSHA sabotages more than its fair share of tiny enterprises), but irritating local statutes which we have eagerly heaped upon ourselves. Why don't we break these shackles? Because too many cars might park in front of the artist's home? Then pass an ordinance imposing a limit of one car per house-front curb. Or because too many roaches might collect around the milkshake-maker's garbage? Then pass an ordinance forbidding the amassment of garbage beyond so many cans. Force the artist and the chef to make whatever adjustments the community's health and taste demand--but give them a chance to create fine art and good food without crossing their doorstep. The essential idea behind this vibrant community is that many people will walk to partake of such riches. You don't think that enough people would take enough steps? Why not--because they don't presently do so? But where has anyone presently to go, and how can he get there without risking life and limb at every intersection?
My critics have objected to me that such paltry businesses as might be run out of the house would not supply anyone with a significant source of income. How many paintings can a neighborhood Vermeer grind out in a month? Is the demand for milkshakes high enough to pay for the blender's electricity? Such criticism, I respond, misses the point. Without doubt, most households would still have to send forth one member in some fuel-hungry conveyance every day to serve dreary hours where the city's businesses are clustered. The halving of this tally, however, would in itself be extremely significant. Think first of the money not spent: day care for the children, fuel for a second auto's distant adventures, lower insurance premiums in a less car-crazy community, lower taxes to maintain less battered roads. Then think of the money saved on wholesome local diversions as opposed to costly on-the-town or hi--tech distractions: Gina's Italian Home Cooking across the street ($5 a plate) over La Cucina del Conte downtown ($20 a plate), evening walks over health club memberships, softball at the park over GameBoy and PlayStation. The neighborhood life is simply a more frugal life as well as a more satisfying one. If you then add to all this the five or six thousand bucks a year that your teenager might earn by renting time on the basement pool tables and serving refreshments... well, a few thousands made plus a few thousands saved begins to equal a respectable lower rung income. And as more people spend more time in the neighborhoods, these incomes would go up even as the staples and modest pleasures of life carried ever lower price tags. The biggest problem might well be that Gina wants to cook while John wants to paint; someone, for the time being, must still take the dreaded commute.
We can turn things in this direction: we can back away from the ghastly precipice of machine-dominated swarm and sprawl. We're not slaves, and we are not yet lobotomized drones abjectly pledged to serve those same machines. Our economy will not collapse if we reassert the life of the neighborhood: quite possibly, it will boom. But we have to think differently from the way we have been programmed to think all our lives. We have to show some originality , and some guts.
I shall continue next week with further remarks about the impediments to such cultural renewal and moral reaffirmation as I have sought to describe.
IF "W" IS FOR "WRONG", IT IS ALSO FOR "WE"
It was suggested to me after my last column that the Left would be infinitely more apt to address our chaos on the highways than would the Right, even if neither is doing much of anything at the moment. This I concede. In fact, I remarked a few weeks ago in this space that the Left finds itself (with doubtful joy) the custodian of whatever cultural conservatism can be advanced in the public forum. Preserving the natural environment, preserving Main Street for pedestrians, preserving historically valuable buildings from the new Wal-Mart... these are not causes dear to today's Right. The self-styled conservative will likely respond that he strives to conserve the institution of marriage, the financial viability of the family, the lives of the unborn--and his protest would be valid, in abstract. Such striving, however, finds very limited elbow room on the ballot. Divorce will continue to sabotage marriage whether or not homosexual unions receive a legal blessing, both parents will continue to work whether or not the IRS refunds them a few hundred bucks, and women who want abortions will continue to find them in Toronto if not in Buffalo (or in a pill if not under the knife). The Right would have us assume moral responsibility for the conception and nurture of new life at the expense of our personal freedom (the italics indicating where the Left falls off the wagon), an endeavor which I heartily endorse; but laws and codes cannot make people behave maturely in areas where the thrill of sexual amusement and the tedium of life among machines constantly inspire whimsical meanders. We are not ruled by the Taliban, and we don't want to be.
It would behoove the Right to notice, at least, that ugly concrete vistas and pullulating highways are connected to divorce and abortion. How? Let me count the ways:
A) Family stability is intricately related to the stability of neighborhoods. In communities where people have lived in the same house for years and where they can walk to the corner store for a half-gallon of milk, the pace of life is less stressful and the support system much broader. How many couples which end up in divorce court would patch it up if their partners took evening walks together, didn't spend two hours a day fighting traffic, and didn't have to earn several hundred dollars more a month to pay for the mobile life's fuel and high insurance premiums? How many teenaged girls who end up pregnant or teenaged boys who end up in gangs would have met a better fate if "nosy neighbors" had helped to keep track of them, or if they had been able to walk to local entertainments rather than being turned loose in a car? You can legally ban abortion or under-aged drinking, but you won't reduce unwanted pregnancies or drunk driving until you address the conditions of living. The contemporary suburb is an exquisitely designed crucible for thrusting teenagers away from the home on Friday night and onto Thunder Road or Blueberry Hill to find their thrills. As for adults, despite the Peyton Place myth of sex-starved housewives promulgated by the Kinsey Report (and we now know that Kinsey was an unprincipled propagandist), the suburbs have grown more ravaged by hanky-panky as they have grown less populated during the daytime hours. The office has undermined innumerably more wedding vows than the mailman.
B) The traffic-swept suburban landscape, where cookie-cutter houses crouch and feign comfort within circles of speeding commuters and roaring eighteen-wheelers, is a deeply depressing place. Its petrified nullity would drive a teetotaler to drink, a cheerleader to one-night stands, and a pilgrim to nihilism. Why should we marvel that kids do drugs and their parents booze--that teenagers plow into telephone poles while trying to achieve escape velocity, that girls run away to flirt with AIDS on the streets of LA and New York, that well-educated adults decline to be shackled in numerous family obligations--when this most torpid of ocean bottoms awaits Americans after eight hours of school or work? The very churches where many citizens claim to find relief are secular antidotes to our secular anesthesis. Ping-pong, bingo, volley ball, bowling--many church compounds have become permanent amusement parks. Wouldn't it make more sense (as well as be more reverent) if we allowed Citizen A to build a putt-putt course in his back yard and charge a modest admission, Citizen B to show classic films in his basement for a modest fee, Citizen C to serve shakes and sundaes from her extended kitchen at a modest price? We would amble to these venues along the sidewalks which we would re-introduce into our neighborhoods. Our children would be under the watchful eye of an acquaintance even when they stayed out late, and they would not be boozing or hot-rodding. Family incomes would be supplemented even as more families were indulging in more pastimes together.
But no. Our asphalt steppes marked regularly with absurd brick-veneer monuments to vain pretense stretch before us in an air of lethal destiny. We are doomed to stare from our bay windows upon these wastes. Local building codes categorically prohibit the kind of neighborhood activity which has existed in human communities since nomads discovered the tent. We could never live so sensibly. The lawsuits for inadequate fire escapes and wheelchair access would be endless. So we pour another Scotch over the rocks, and we stare at the young blonde hopping from her minivan down the street as a serial killer might contemplate his next victim.
C) The final observation I would offer, out of dozens left unmentioned, follows upon that sensible but sadly remote vision I sketched out above. The way we live is fragmented. Our outlook upon daily existence has been forced to substitute at least five or six rigidly compartmentalized visions for that single grand vista of a place where people work, play, sleep, grow old, and are buried. Living in such an incoherent environment as we do, we can scarcely even imagine the well-orchestrated life whose sheer intensity would keep vast numbers of morally challenged citizens from drowning in sex, booze, and drugs. Here I do not mean that a self-contained "village" community would be better policed by active neighbors (my first point) or more uplifting to look at and wander through (my second point). My intent is cognitive: I mean that we tend not to think of life as a whole. We think of our home life, our work life, our "professional organization" life, and so forth (each of these being yet further divisible: e.g., love life, vacation life, exercise life). This is not morally healthy. The person who never finds him- or herself in the position of having to confront an unwanted pregnancy or a dependency upon stimulants is a person who "has it all together"--who follows the same principles in all of life's particulars. Always tell the truth. Always assist the weak. Despise worldly pomp and status. Compete only for the honor of being goodness's best servant. Fidelity to these maxims would get you fired within a month, which would probably destroy your marriage and drive you to drink--or, come to think of it, would prevent you even from reaching your job if you had to fight rush-hour traffic. Survival in the appalling diversity of etiquettes which accompany our daily five or six shifts of scene requires that Dr. Jekyll become, not just Mr. Hyde, but three or four other men about town, as well.
It is a mistake for proponents of "family values" to think that they can comfortably espouse the "whatever makes money" ethic of a culturally nihilistic capitalism. We must create a world where being a good person does not stand in contradiction to being a successful wage-earner. I have one suggestion for how we may draw closer, which I shall volunteer next week. For now, I say only that we have a very long way to go and are moving in the wrong direction--and I mean both major political parties. "W" stands for "we".
TERGIVERSATION: THE BELIEF THAT
MASS SLAUGHTER DOESN'T EXIST IF YOU DON'T SEE IT
I've misplaced the magazine that featured a large photo of a rescue worker carrying in his arms a naked, blood-smeared boy from Beslan's carnage. The child looked to be of about my son's age. I started to cry every time I saw the picture, but I was going to clip it out and keep it. That's why I was going to keep it: because it made me cry. I never, never want to forget--not for a waking instant of any day--that children as precious as my own are cannon fodder in the terrorist's cowardly, insane, satanic campaign (pardon the confusion of adjectives: I realize that each should properly exclude the other two) to hold civilization hostage. Somehow I feel that my own soul would be in mortal jeopardy if I should let those mangled little bodies slip from my comfort-lined worldview.
It wouldn't do for me to be Commander in Chief. I would issue standing orders that all terrorists caught in flagrante delicto--running from an explosion or transporting a suitcase bomb--be shouldered up against the nearest wall and shot. I wouldn't incur the risk of their release's being negotiated by bribe or blackmail so that they might resume the holy work of separating women and children from arms and legs. I would give the bastards a far better exit than they deserve.
As disgusted as I am to hear ivory-tower secular evangelists intercede for child-killers and try to buy them a few years' compassionate therapy, I am yet more revolted by the rank-and-file equivalent of this indifference to Beslan: see-no-evil tergiversation. Nice word, that: it means "turning your back" (although I am tempted to denominate the typical American's soft dorsal by synecdochic reference to a region where more of his Big Macs end up). According to polls, about one in three of us has turned his or her well-padded Yankee posterior on the mass graves Saddam Hussein left all over Iraq's landscape. This third neighbor of ours is neither impressed that the slaughter has been forcibly stopped nor that it might begin again if we desert the weak, vulnerable people depending upon us. To hell with it all. Iraq is a drag--it's worse than Vietnam. It's chaos. And I suppose it is, in a way. Mass graves have a way of imposing silence and stillness, both below and above the ground. Now that the graves are being opened up so that their occupants may be decently laid to rest by mothers and fathers and children--now that the survivors are up in arms to ensure that no more such graves fertilize the desert--the silence has been severely disrupted, and the stillness hopelessly shattered. The new struggle is indeed horrendous, because the child-murderers are uninhibited by conscience and have been deprived of the lavish special privileges they once enjoyed under Saddam. They will fight to the bitter end: they have no reason to surrender. If they did so, they would most certainly be picked off one by one in a part of the world where retribution is often incumbent upon the victim's relatives. If one of them had killed my son, I'd cut his black heart out (God help me) or die trying.
So, yes... call this chaotic if you will. Life often resembles chaos when it bursts upon the peace of the tomb, and here we witness the resumption of life. On the other hand, if you want to see a deadly chaos of the first order, take a spin along your nearest major artery of traffic. From the parking lot of my son's school the other day, I heard a terrific smack in the distance--a very brief (too brief) screeching of tires followed by a crack as crisp as the fall of heavy lumber after the snap of a cable. The sound originated in the direction of the school's entrance: I wondered if there had been children in the vehicles. I never found out. I saw a fire truck racing past as I turned back out onto the highway, but nobody around the campus the next day seemed to have any details. Such incidents, after all, are commonplace. Over 43,000 Americans died on the road last year--a figure within striking distance of the 50,000 troops we lost during the entire Vietnam fiasco. A domestic Vietnam every year, its body bags filled not with trained soldiers, but with non-combatant adults, children, toddlers, and infants... why do these ghastly numbers not move us, while the two or three Americans perishing daily in Iraq so that children may be safe are a simply intolerable sacrifice?
Obviously, because we don't give a damn about Iraqi children--some of us. About one in three. And we're hardly racist, because we don't give much of a damn about our own children, either. Many of the very young among those 43,000 casualties in the Road War were never properly belted or strapped by their preoccupied parents. Too inconvenient, too time-consuming. Heaven forbid that we should raise a vast protest about how automobiles have defaced our planet, taken over our lives, and decimated our numbers: why, we love the things! They are our second-highest household expenditure (after the house itself). They liberate us from the tedium of being confined to a neighborhood. They make whatever neighbors we have jealous if only we can manage to convince the loan officer that our deep debt can go still deeper. Their bumpers display our most profound thoughts about the universe. They do not merely express our identity: they extend it. What are a few tens of thousands of lives in comparison to that?
But two soldiers a day in exchange for no more machine-gunned children... one out of every three Americans considers that a bad deal.
Let's get this straight. In Vietnam, the killing fields were sown after we ran away, and largely because we ran away. We should never have disembarked in the first place; but, having arrived, we should have done the job right. George Bush Senior committed the same deplorable gaff in the Gulf War: he didn't finish the job, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds paid the price. This time, we went in to cancel payment. We stopped the killing. The only people being killed in Iraq today are child-killers and those who would save children--who are saving children. I don't see Bush Junior launching any initiative to reduce the homicidal traffic on our roads; I don't see John Kerry doing so, either (though he would "have a plan" if the subject were raised, I've no doubt). I don't particularly like a lot of Bush's domestic policies, and I particularly disliked the slackness of the armed net which we cast across Saddam's tyranny a year and a half ago (its failure to tauten up being owed, in no small part, to Bush Senior's betrayal of the Kurds). But I do know that Iraq is not Vietnam--that we are saving hundreds of innocent lives every time one of ours is lost. And the only conclusion I can reach about people who call this effort a chaos to be fled forthwith is that, in a few specific cases, they're saying what they calculate will win political First Prize--or, in the vast majority of cases, they're more concerned with their joy-ride than with belting in the children.
My despicable third neighbor! Find that bloody child's photo, and tape it to your mirror where you can see yourself seeing it. I don't really need a copy. I can't seem to get the image out of my mind, no matter where I turn.
THE SOUL'S FAIR MARKET VALUE:
IS ABSOLUTE GOODNESS GOOD FOR ABSOLUTELY NOTHING?
A few days ago, I was teaching an excerpt from Frederick Douglass's account of his life as a slave. The subject was the blessing of literacy. It was often a dubious blessing for young Frederick. Though he ran the risk of severe reprimands and beatings, he had gradually acquired, with incredible persistence, the ability to read and write--only to find that his new power separated him from his fellows and heightened his awareness of miserable conditions over which he had no control. Literacy can be a curse, because to read and write is to spend time pondering the complex interplay of idealism, misery, and duty. It is to think; and thought, in this vale of tears, is often a curse.
No wonder that, as our fabulously wealthy society has grown more technologically sophisticated, we have increasingly shied away from reading and writing: we wish to be rid of the curse of thought. There are no good jobs any more, if there ever were, for writers of sincere and concentrated meditations--only for hacks who grind out copy to be mouthed fluidly by the snake-oil salesmen. There is no vast body of readers eager to purchase and wade through such meditations. Do not protest that Bible book stores, with their arsenals of commentary and testimony, contradict this assertion from coast to coast. Not at all: such "meditating" is my Exhibit A. The boom in large-print, cliché-ridden, poorly edited, capriciously researched "chicken soup for the soul" paperbacks displays little more than our talent for adjusting reality's frame until our favorite compromises sit legitimated at its center: that is, these glossy tomes belong to the "feel good" genre. Dense with bumper-sticker catch-phrases, such works often observe so deplorably shallow a level of scriptural awareness and moral analysis that only their alter-ego shelf companions, the "left behind" chronicles of all those who will be damned, can rival them in silliness. What remains of the publishing industry--from the Harlequin to the action-movie spin-off--is also cotton candy. Be happy--have some more sugar! Don't linger--flutter off to the next flower! You'll feel better if you just keep going, keep consuming; and besides, it's good for the economy. God bless free enterprise!
I had intended to browbeat my captive audience of students into admitting that the thoughtful life, for all its pains, is infinitely superior to the existence of the contented cow. As our discussion evolved, however, I found questions rearing up which I could not answer. Why do we teach Shakespeare in high school? I love the bard as much as anyone, but my experience of Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet at the ripe age of fourteen was not memorable. Why don't we give our young people the tools to survive financially first, then let them discover the great poets and novelists by themselves (or with the help of evening classes) when their own kids begin to leave the nest? Doesn't forcing Conrad and Dostoevsky down someone's throat who has very little experience of life simply ensure that one more person will grow up hating Conrad and Dostoevsky?
The clear response to these protests is that the "tools to survive" in a society where poets and philosophers are an afterthought related to midlife crisis are sure to consist mostly of hacksaws, sledgehammers, and crowbars. Nobody's left on the farm. We have no more gentleman planters and virtuous yeomen. We live today by what we can sell, and what sells is cotton candy: narcotics legal and illegal, speed on the open road, idiotically escapist entertainment (sometimes called "reality TV"), and lots and lots of hard porn. No market has ever existed for the finer things where no effort was put into refining the next generation. If Raphael and Titian tried to sell their canvases at the mall this Christmas, they wouldn't make enough to pay rent on their cart. Lorenzo de Medici didn't just come sauntering out of a video arcade.
As I see it, then, the core problem isn't which novelists we teach in school or at what grade we teach them. Our problem is that we can no longer survive (and here, as before, I mean pay the bills) without pimping and pandering to a tasteless public. It's too late to reform young consumers--potential customers still in grade school--with art appreciation classes: too late and too out-of-sync with everything else we do. For even if we could rush a new crop of Lorenzo de Medicis into the marketplace, where would they display a painting, and when would they have time to look at it? Nobody stays home any more, and nobody asks guests over. How many people do you know who cook their own supper five nights a week? How many families live in the same house, the same neighborhood, for more than ten years? My own fine things have been battered to smithereens--quite literally, in some cases--by twenty years of wandering like a gypsy in search of stable employment.
I suppose we could wait around for our barbarous impulses--our craving for instant gratification, our romance with silly new gadgetry, our fear of having to deal with live people--to execute a kind of suicide. Then, from the rubble, maybe a bunch of good, simple people would emerge, as in Karl Marx's daydreams. I don't know how they would be any more immune to bikinis, martinis, and Ferraris than the rest of us... but say that they were. Say that, in twenty or fifty or one hundred years, we could start over after our system had annihilated itself. We would still be starting over, from nothing. No Titian, no Tolstoy, no Shakespeare. Culture has to be preserved, like a delicate plant. These survivors of The Survivor would have to re-invent cave painting, and go from there--hardly a fond hope for any friend of culture.
Religious fundamentalism is often as utopian as Marxism. From this perspective, we are to build insular communities of the faithful which boycott Hollywood movies, buy only from vendors who display a fish in the corner of their sign or shingle, and pass city ordinances against booze and topless clubs. Actually, I have a lot of sympathy for some of the grassroots revivalist's objectives; but I've noticed over and over that our cultural heritage, too, is somewhere farther down on his hit-list. He has no use at all for poets and painters. Like the fundamentalists of Islam, he believes that worldly beauty distracts the faithful from the holy book and may even seduce some of them into pursuing worldly pleasure. He does not see the love of beauty as a divinely inspired magnetism drawing all humanity upward toward an ideal perfection. Humanity has no such magical charge. It is all dull sludge until his sectarian, specific, and arbitrary scheme of redemption culls out a happy few for heaven. There is no hope for the painter of sublime sunsets here. Though good citizens may no longer be blowing their paycheck on porn (or not without elaborate precautions), they won't be hanging their walls with landscapes, either.
What chance, then, has Shakespeare? Maybe none at all. But I cherish the hope of our often misguided piety's finding its way back to the notion that goodness doesn't come out of a book--or even out of The Book--but out of the heart. If we once accept that the human soul in its natural state is not squalid trash, then surely we would accept further that its longing for things which make sense, which fit together, which have an elegant pattern, is not some diabolical snare.
And as for education... well, maybe Lorenzo will come strolling out of a video arcade, after all. Maybe he'll get fed up and just leave. If we can't call him forth with high school classes in Shakespeare, then maybe we should opt for classes in creative writing. Maybe we should fan his divine spark first, and then worry about directing it. Maybe we should teach painting and music to our adolescents even before writing, or certainly with it. I can't read a note of music--no one ever taught me how; but sometimes I pick up a guitar or a tin whistle and just... fool around. It gives me great peace. So, too, for literature: people are going to keep fooling around with a pen or at the keyboard. They have to--it's part of what makes them people. They would write better if they read some great authors beforehand... but maybe we should just get them writing, and let the great authors speak for themselves. Will any of this forthcoming generation ever turn a buck grinding out stories in our dull, cynical world? No, not many. But those trends and impulses in our lives which keep trying to put an end to our unremunerative doodles and scribbles will eventually lose their customers. Lorenzo must eventually walk away into the night. That divine spark within him which quick, flashy, noisy amusements strive to smother must eventually find clean air.
WORSE OFF IN IRAQ THAN VIETNAM?
ONLY IF TRUTH IS WORSE THAN FALSEHOOD
Last week, my freshman composition class was discussing a thirty-year-old essay by Betty Rollin on behalf of women’s liberation. Rollin’s logic proceeded thus. People are not born liking spaghetti: the predilection is culturally acquired. Women are likewise not born with a drive to become mothers or an instinctive knowledge of how to be good mothers. Therefore, the desire observable in some women to have children is, like a love of certain foods, culturally acquired. In no woman is this desire innate. Now, a great deal of balderdash is uttered and written under a thin guise of lucid reasoning. In this case, Rollin has applied the principle of contradiction where it does not belong. Dominant feelings of attraction or commitment are not merely either instinctive or socially inculcated. We do not instinctively know that a sunset is beautiful or that a mathematical progression is elegant: a lot of experience (in the former case) and learning (in the latter case) must be expended in awakening from its deep slumber what we recognize-—n its waking form—as universal truth. Motherhood, to be sure, does not belong to this order of things—but love does. We are born with an emotional potential and an overpowering moral necessity to love, yet we must undergo an arduous apprenticeship in mastering selfishness and transcending the selfishness of others before we may begin to learn how to love. Some people (like all too many women of Betty Rollin’s impressionable generation) never make it. They are fatally snared in a false logic which belies their humanity.
I recently heard Richard Holbrook deliver himself of a similarly flawed observation about the state of affairs in Iraq. Things were far better in Vietnam, he said, because the streets of Saigon were safe, while those of Baghdad are not. The syllogism runs like this, apparently. The intensity of civil conflict may be measured by one’s degree of safety when ambling along a sidewalk. One could amble ad libitum in Saigon thirty-five years ago, but one ambles in Baghdad today only at grave peril. Therefore, the mess in Iraq is worse than the mess in Vietnam ever was.
It is daunting to hear a man of such native intelligence, vast experience, formidable education, and demonstrated judgment speak such patent folderol—on the air and, presumably, not without forethought. Vietnam was actually two political entities of radically different foundation; Iraq has just emerged from decades of monolithic dictatorship. Religion played no significant role in fertilizing Southeast Asia’s killing fields; Wahabi fanaticism is only the latest of several religious overlays in Near Eastern Islam which have turned neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. Vietnam had not been saturated by decades of sophisticated firearms imports; Iraqis have been stockpiling late-model American and Russian semi-automatic weapons for at least a generation now, with a relatively low population density making possible the creation of large caches even under Saddam’s watchful eye. The Viet Cong had virtually no international press to play to; Iraqi terrorists know that no mildly successful bombing will go unreported in London and New York. The Viet Cong had no reason to undertake high-risk missions within the very heart of enemy positions, since they were already scoring easy punches by slipping back and forth across the Cambodian border; Iraqi terrorist groups are being aggressively pursued into their lairs, and have nothing to lose from venturing the most desperate of counter-attacks.
I call it daunting that a person of Mr. Holbrook’s credentials should overlook so many relevant distinctions (I have listed only a few) in his facile declaration because… well, the condition deeply depresses me. Multiplied a thousand-fold during election years, it almost drives me to despair. I believe in reason. I believe that thoughtful people should be able to discover truth through collaboration—or discover, at least, the genuine ground of disagreement in their axioms or values. In the case of the intelligentsia’s rabid loathing of Mr. Bush (which dates well before the World Trade Center was annihilated) I think I understand the source of friction. Mr. Bush is a Philistine. He speaks poorly, he chooses the wrong words and then proceeds to mispronounce them, he eats steak, he drives a pick-up about his ranch, he never reads a novel or visits a museum or listens to Bach… take him from his Washington pedestal and his boardroom stronghold, and you have a red neck in a blue collar. It vexes my liberal friends no end that the unwashed masses they long to champion actually embrace Mr. Bush sometimes for his sharing so many of their homespun tastes; and, of course, the irony that rank-and-file tastes truly repel the elite champions of the proletariat is not casual or minor. The Left finds itself in the embarrassing position, more and more, of being culturally conservative (conserving wetlands, wildlife, old architecture, historical sites, etc.) over issues meaningless or nugatory to construction workers and sales clerks. At the same time, the leaders of the opposition grow ever more indifferent to life’s finer things, and hence more like Joe Schmoe, Man on the Streets. If Bush were not a powerful figure, the cultural elite would feel a certain pity for him—would want to re-educate him in one of its own freshman composition programs (and it pretty much monopolizes that forum). Give a West Texas roughneck a ticket to the Whitehouse, however, and you incarnate the bugbear of the Left’s worst nightmare.
I am myself not much pleased with Mr. Bush's cultural nullity (though I often suspect that this quality belongs more to the bright young staffers around him, fresh from the Ivy League: anybody who appreciates Condoleeza Rice can't be a complete dunce). Dismay over someone's level of refinement, however, is no cause to deny that person a fair hearing or a candid response. We must always seek out the truth with meticulous care and argue our values with the eloquence of profound (not superficial) lucidity. Attempting to discredit Bush by floating absurd rumors about his motives in Iraq, suppressing significant shades of qualification between this conflict and others, or grossly inflating accusations as has been done repeatedly over the "WMD" miscalculation is a disgrace to the spirit of the truth. For anyone who professes an allegiance to rational discourse, it is an act of apostasy. I would infinitely prefer trying to persuade the barbarian that beauty, nobility, and sacrifice are supreme values to hoping that the jaundiced sophist will re-elevate them to that position. The barbarian, who is an overgrown child, often doesn't need much persuading--he only needs to be shown what he already knows, just as the child needs only a few basic lessons in how to love. But the sophist, who may once have loved when he possessed ideals, has now forgotten how to love as he courts powerful supporters. The Democratic Party has again unveiled a weary, flaccid face, eaten away by years of posing in various roles, as our best hope for the finer things. No thanks.
HOW WOULD MOZART FARE AMONG US NOW?
On more than one occasion, as I recall, I have referred to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's concluding passage in Terre des Hommes when writing this column--a section called "Mozart assassinated" by those who have cited it for reasons rendered clear after a cursory reading. Lewis Galantière translated this and other of Saint-Ex's works into English. The title Galantière conferred upon the present collection of anecdotes (which received prizes in the novel genre, although it was not such, strictly speaking) was Wind, Sand, and Stars. The volume is still widely available. I wanted to translate the famous section myself, however, for a class of composition students, because Galantière was frequently not given quite the same text to work with as what was published in French. Since this labor urgently needed doing, anyway, I decided to post its results here in the blog.
One could do worse, besides, than to reflect upon these words written about seventy years ago in the light (or, I should say, the penumbra) of presidential conventions and prattle about not leaving children behind. The sentiment of making major sacrifice to secure our children's education is a noble one; yet I must wonder, is Mozart not still being left behind as we prep our kids to be accountants, registered nurses, and computer systems analysts? Has the life of the soul fared any better among us than it did among the brutified Polish laborers of Saint-Exupéry's meditation? Mort Zuckerman opined in this week's U.S. News that our schools waste too much time teaching kids "ancient history and English literature" rather than preparing them for the real world. I suppose the real world for Mr. Zuckerman would be something like the mine where the Polish drudges work, and preparation would be training in how to do the mine's account books instead of its hard labor. It is probably too late to send the editors of our major news magazines back to school that they may discover further dimensions to reality... or are they simply conceding the hard fact that you can't find work with an English degree unless Daddy owns or operates a publishing company?
For shame, you sad, successful men! Let's face it: none of our movers and shakers would consider a performer of "café concerts" to be in the least disappointing if his wages surpassed the national median.
"A few years ago, in the course of a long journey by train [to Russia: Saint-Exupéry was going to cover the maiden flight of the ill-starred Alexander Nevsky], I wanted to look around the lumbering world-on-wheels where I was shut up for three days--three days a prisoner within this noise of sea-bottom gravel shifting in the tides.. I roused myself at about one o'clock in the morning and traversed the train's entire length. The sleeping carts were empty. The first -class cars were empty.
"But the third-class cars housed hundreds of Polish laborers released from their temporary employment in France and making their way back to Poland. I proceeded along the corridors by straddling one body after another. At one point, I stopped to look around. Standing under the night lights, I could make out in this great car without divisions, which resembled a vast hall and smelled like a barracks or a police station, a whole society in miniature being rolled about by the motion of the express. A whole populace plunged into troubled dreams as it returned to misery. Large, close-shaven heads rocked back and forth on the wooden benches. Men, women, children--all turned themselves from right to left to right, as if under attack from all the noises and the jolts which menaced them in their oblivion. They hadn't even met with the hospitality of a good night's sleep.
"And at that moment, I was overcome with a feeling that they had half-lost their human quality, swept about from one end of Europe to the other by economic currents, uprooted from a small cottage in the north with its tiny garden and the pot of geraniums which I had noticed before in the windows of Polish miners. They hadn't bundled anything together beyond a few cooking utensils, blankets, and curtains in their loosely bound, dented, gouged parcels. But everything that they had caressed or won over, everything that they had managed to tame during a four or five years' sojourn in France--a cat, a dog, a geranium--had necessarily been sacrificed. They couldn't carry anything away with them but a few kitchen pans.
"An infant was nursing as his mother sat so limp that she seemed asleep. Life continued to be passed along in this voyage's disorder and absurdity. I studied the father. A head as heavy and bare as a stone.. a body doubled over in uncomfortable sleep, imprisoned in laborer's clothes, a mass of humps and hollows. He was like a great lump of clay, this man. In similar fashion, debris which has lost its form blows around a deserted marketplace at night.
"And I thought to myself: the problem doesn't really reside in this misery, this filth, this ugliness. After all, there was a day when this man and this woman first saw each other. He probably smiled at her. He probably brought her some flowers after work. Maybe he was trembling at the thought of being rejected--a timid, awkward figure. And maybe the woman, with a kind of natural coquetry, confident in her feminine charm, amused herself by making him uneasy. Then this man, who today is no more than a machine for shoveling or pounding, felt in his heart a delicious anguish. The mystery is how they managed to become these lumps of clay. Through what terrible mold have they passed, marked as if by an automatic press? An aging animal preserves its grace. How has this handsome human clay come to be so chewed up?
"I continued my voyage among this human mass whose sleep was troubled like an undesirable haunt. There drifted throughout the car a vague noise of raucous snores, of muffled groans, of joints cracking when some of the sleepers, having worn out one side, tried the other. And always, muted, the incessant background accompaniment of sea-floor pebbles turned by the tide....
"I sat down across from one couple. Between the man and the woman, a small child had made a hollow space as well as he could, and was sleeping. But he turned over as he dozed just then, and I saw his face under the night light. What an angelic sight! A sort of golden fruit had grown from this unlikely pair; from this pile of heavy rags had been born a triumph of grace and charm. I leaned over the smooth forehead, the soft pout of the lips, and I said to myself, 'Here is a grand promise of life to come--a little Mozart! They boy princes of legends were scarcely any different from this child. Who knows what he might become if he were protected, nourished, and coddled? When a new rose chances by mutation to spring up in a garden, all the gardeners bustle about it. They isolate it, cultivate it, favor it over the others. But there is no gardener for people. Little Mozart will be marked by the automatic press, like all the others. Mozart will take his greatest pleasure in the cheap tunes that he bangs out in café concerts. Mozart is condemned.'
"I returned to my own car. I was thinking to myself, 'These people hardly even suffer from their fate. So it isn't the spirit of charity that torments me. It's not a matter of being struck with pity before a wound which constantly reopens, for those who bear this wound do not feel it. What we see here is something like the human race, not an individual, being wounded--and dealing out wounds. I have no use for easy pity. What torments me isn't the prospect of a misery into which, after all, people settle as readily as into laziness. Generations of people in the Far East have been living in filth, and they seem satisfied where they are. What torments me isn't something that popular bromides will ease: it's not these ragged holes, these hunched backs, this ugliness. It is, rather, the Mozart who is assassinated--a little bit--in every one of these human beings.'"
THE PROSPEROUS SUBURBAN CHURCH:
SEEK YE THE KINGDOM ELSEWHERE
Periodically, I find myself driven to write upon the subject of religion, even though we have all been warned--and quite judiciously--that this and the subject of politics should be avoided at all costs in the interest of keeping the peace. My own "outbursts" over the years have certainly drawn upon me several rebukes of the most venomous sort. Yet peace isn't everything. It is, perhaps, worse than nothing when founded upon falsehood. The truth will out, sooner or later. Once a corrupt peace finally caves in, the ogre's lair which sustained it is revealed to be littered with the bones of innocent victims, like the mythical Cacus's hideaway.
How many well-meaning ingenus would believe in God rather than fritter their lives away in a silly, dead-end "free thinking" if Christianity, as it is widely perceived and practiced in our ailing culture, were not so obnoxiously hypocritical? No doubt, to remark that all varieties of violent and perverted crime have risen even as attendance in the more charismatic denominations has mushroomed would be grossly unfair, if not inaccurate. Let us observe, rather, that these same congregations reflect a disproportionately large amount of expenditure on wide-screen TVs, computer games, vans and SUVs, trips to the mall, vacations to Disneyworld and Vegas, sessions at the beauty parlor, and elective cosmetic surgeries like breast enhancement in a society which is ever more conspicuously and dangerously crude, shallow, polluted, egocentric, meretricious, and dumbed-down. The streets aren't safe, not because Christians are out there assaulting children on the playground, but because they're too busy courting a new client or running the day care-McDonalds-soccer practice circuit to notice the local playground.
And the substitutes for a modest, neighborly existence--the hunt for big commissions and the retreat to exclusive soccer leagues--are not in themselves neutral. If a significant correlation exists between regular church attendance in the numerically flourishing denominations and lavish outlay on gaudy triviality, then we are surely justified in asking why this paradoxical overlap exists. We should tread warily, to be sure. There are good people even among the most unpromising groups. (Heinrich Böll, like so many young men of his generation, wore a Nazi uniform for a few years; Ignazio Silone was a communist zealot before he visited Stalin's Soviet Union.) When the group explicitly advertises itself, however, as a sure means to deeper spirituality, I believe we may draw general conclusions from the tree's fruit. In fact, the groups in question do not mince words when telling seldom-attending church members that they are betraying God and flirting with perdition. Such an incendiary proposition calls for a response.
Attending church ought to be a good thing--no doubt about it. One ought to find among the faithful commiseration and encouragement as one wages lonely personal battles against the world: against chicanery, outright dishonesty, vengefulness, sanguinary envy, shameless self-aggrandizement, oblivious self-absorption, and the coarsest kind of two-faced treachery. The words of Jesus Christ condemn all these things, as do those of several apostles who have left an epistolary record. Jesus particularly and uniquely exhorts us to live the opposing way: to humble ourselves and sacrifice ourselves, to renounce position and disdain lucre, to purify our heart, to turn our back on destructive forces in the conviction that they must at last be their own victim. It would be good to hear such words in the company of others who revere them. It would be good to hear other responses to those words, to know how others have crossed our many contemporary deserts and death traps.
Behold, instead, today's thriving congregation. A parking lot that looks like a luxury-car dealership... a phalanx of gregarious social butterflies down every corridor, none clothed for less than a month's grocery money (though heaven knows what they spend on dining out)... a meeting room for every taste--especially for sexually conditioned circumstances, with classes here for young singles, there for divorced singles, there for senior singles, classes here for newly-weds, there for young parents, there for parents whose kids have left home.... What, I ask, do these people understand of willful renunciation and service to immutable verities? What do they know of the poverty incurred in being a full-time parent, or of the ostensible poverty (e.g., the decade-old vehicle) embraced to keep the family's vision directed above the general culture's high-consumption enslavement to pricey trash? What do they know, for that matter, of the simple dress and simple grooming enjoined b those very Pauline epistles they claim to obey literally and never tire of citing? Or of the restrained dining habits and quiet diversions recommended in the same scriptures? None of their ministers (and all such churches have several) would even consider a salary of under $40,000--notably higher than what the typical teacher is paid; and none of their aldermen would countenance a modest vacation to the nearest beach or the wedding of a daughter with less than a $20,000 ticket attached.
Read the Beatitudes, and then tell me what such a congregation might be expected to say to the meek, the poor, the suffering, the persecuted. Tell me how it would slake the thirst of someone who craves righteousness.
To call America a Christian nation in any profound sense is a canard. The truth needs to be said: one of the greatest obstacles which a young Christian must face today is the structure and conduct of the self-styled Christian church. Take it from me (and I am no spring chicken): a Sunday spent in the company of such a congregation as I have just described is a journey into the darkest despondency. Three friends meeting under a tree to assess the coming week's trials would be infinitely more holy.
Yet at the same time as our churches are stopping their ears to the appeals of goodness (Socrates and Zeno were more alert to this call than are some ministers), they hanmer away at their intransigent literalism. Though they grab up every material dainty the world has to offer with both hands, they have never been more insistent about following a doctrinal hard line in defiance of worldly science and history. Why is that, I have often wondered? I now believe that literalism is not a somewhat misguided attempt to reaffirm basic morality (though it may well be so among the rank and file), but a calculated attempt--at least within the ministry--to make the practice of the faith more conditional, more mysterious, more cliquish. More gnostic, as Eric Voegelin would have said. Raising your family or giving old clothes to the poor is smiled upon--but the main thing is to be there on Sunday, to go through the weekly ritual which sets your clique apart from others. Church attendance is the sine qua non of the literalist creed, an occasion whose few earnest moments are devoted to reiterating Scripture as an arbitrary creed rather than as an expression of moral duties to the All-Good One. Indeed, is not the boisterous socializing--the flabby handshakes and vast smiles and updated gossip--the group's deepest function, the cathartic release of those whom Cerberus has let past the gate? Is this not a weekly club for members of a socially fragmented and drifting nation? Is it not the club, its membership elevated to a holy obligation so that workaholic yuppies must for once spend their valuable time on R&R? The literalism is the club's initiation rite, its title to being The Club. Instead of requiring a drive-by shooting, as would a gang, or a running of some obscene gauntlet, as would a college fraternity, the large suburban congregation hands you a list of tenets which defy every assumption of the scientific-technological culture responsible for your job and every maxim of the playboy-glutton culture responsible for your leisure... and it says, "Repeat this in front of us."
The phrase, "suborning perjury", springs to mind. And so it should: cultic initiations often involve some moral outrage which bonds members together in the shared secret of their villainy, their anemia-of-conscience. But alas, the bond in this case, brothers and sisters, is supposed to have come from a resuscitated, reborn conscience!
IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES--AND WARPED ARTICLES OF FAITH
PRODUCE WARPED RELIGIOUS PRACTICE
In the dismally remote community where I now whittle away my time on earth--a big Texas pretzel of traffic arteries flanked by car dealerships, churches and fast-food vendors--I have been sending my résumé around for years. Sometimes I get nibbles. Last month, a private school with a religious affiliation which I shall not divulge (but it was none of the obvious) invited me for an interview concerning a Latin position. I had very pleasant conversations with two people in authoirity--among the most pleasant I can remember in my now-seven years of Siberia. My interlocutors enjoyed the exchange, too. I could tell. The three of us actually liked each other.
That memory is now somewhat painful to me. Our mutual disenchantment began and ended in a form--a ten-item laundry list of absolutely indispensable religious tenets. Signing this list was required of all applicants for any and all positions. I signed, therefore--but with footnoted provisos: in other words, I did what any honest person must do rather than commit what I knew would be a supremely easy and practically undetectable fraud in securing a "sure thing" job offer. I refused to endorse the bald statement that the earth and all forms of life which have ever existed upon it were created in six literal days (noting, by the way, that incurious "faith" in a proposition pertaining to natural history is an odd approach to worshiping the author of all goodness). I also took exception to the wording of a tenet which declared that divine forgiveness was necessitated by the precise acts of disobedience biblically portrayed in the Garden of Eden. I noted here that sinfulness is an innate flaw in the human judgment, and that to attribute it to a primordial faux pas in some idyll rather than to the essential structure of every human heart is to undermine the moral quality of our flaw and of God's mercy.
Here is the puzzler which struck me head-on the other day as I discovered that my new back-street route to my own child's school would take me right past this campus. What if I should chance upon one of these men again? I should be civil, of course. I liked them both, and I'm convinced that they liked me. But would I be cordial--what was it in me which painted that encounter in less than cordial colors? We would shake hands, but not warmly... not on my part, anyway. Was that wrong of me? What, after all, had they done which justified coolness? It wasn't their fault... a wrinkle in the paperwork, a silly form which, according to the protocol, must be signed without flinch or smile....
And then I reflected that, as ideas have consequences, so--a fortiori--faith must have consequences. To insist that any true Christina must accept every declarative statement in Genesis (Standard Revised Version, I suppose) as hard empirical fact is, quite frankly, a slap in the face of Christianity. Not to register the slap would be as dishonest ion me as affixing my signature cleanly to the form would have been. Christianity is not a rival scientific method: its purpose is not to explain quasars, dinosaur fossils, and the Moon's craters through a radically shrunken timeline. Those who say otherwise don't get it. It is not The Book. It is the irrepressible call to live above selfish interests--and communal ones, too--for the perfect good: the call which sends a stranger into a burning house to rescue a child or into a ditch to collect a crumpled wreck whom all passers-by are content to see bleeding to death.
Before The Book was, the spirit is. Self-styled biblical literalists will denounce me for saying such things, even though they thereby deprive Christianity of any claim to being a worship of goodness. A text-based conformity can only be arbitrary: a true longing to conform to the law can only spring from an inherent reverence for the law's righteousness... but these hard-liners have often seared me verbally, their vehemence no doubt owed to their contempt for reasonable argument. They point peremptorily to scriptural passages which "clearly" show that the Holy Spirit was bestowed only after Christ's coming, such as the gospelist John's declaration in 7.39. (Viz.: "The Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been raised to glory"--John's way of foisting a Judaic historical progression upon Jesus's words!) They have a plan, the literalists, which will tie all the loose ends of history together quite nicely (even as their favorite gospel aspires to do) and leave no avenue of admittance, they believe, to pernicious interpretation! All we need to do is fall in line, march to the drum, and blinker our eyes from the worldly seduction of historical inquiry, scientific method, textual criticism, moral philosophy... and the human will's freedom, and Christ's challenging parables, and the unmistakably moral content of Christ's rebukes and exhortations.
Even John, that most charismatic of gospelists, does not abstain a few verses later from turning scriptural tradition upside-down (though some textual critics have "bracketed" the passage": the literalist often wants to rethink sending all of this crowd to hell at such moments). I refer to John 8.1-11, where the Pharisees come to Jesus with an adulteress to be stoned. Stoning, after all, is what Scripture literally enjoins in such cases. But Jesus will have none of it. Sin isn't just what Adam and Eve did, or the residue of their misdeed saddled upon posterity. It is an intimate perversion constantly bubbling away like a toxic bacterium in every human soul. The Pharisees are sinning at that very moment like Adam and Eve in the Garden. They are presuming to bring God's will down to their level of understanding--they would execute a capital sentence upon another human being for defiling the little utopia-in-becoming which they have in mind. Their sin is, indeed, far worse--yet they are doing what Scripture commands! Is Christ, then, not a Christian? Were the Taliban zealots who beheaded women routinely in soccer stadiums closer to true Christianity? They certainly took their book seriously.
I take the Bible seriously, too. But it is impossible to take the Gospels seriously and to receive the Old Testament without question or qualification. Deuteronomy 21 recommends (among other things) that a man force a woman captured in wartime to marry him if he fancies her, that he send her back home if she should displease him, that he take two wives if he feel so moved, and that he stone his son to death if the child should prove rebellious. The last of these recommendations was recently taken as literally as possible by a "pious" woman in this part of Texas. Is she, then, assured of heaven?
She is certainly not denied heaven as a sincere and abject penitent, and I for one hope that she can ascend that slope. But those who are deeply concerned about how many days the kangaroo rat was created after the pleisiosaur will not, it seems to me, have much to tell such a suffering sinner. If they follow the direct consequences of their faith, they will instead be seeking discreetly to ascertain if the mailman or the meter reader might have overheard God issuing the children's death warrant. (All three victims were sons, of course: all biblically quite proper.) A person who believes that the voice of God would ever incite such atrocities can send me to hell whenever he likes. I wouldn't be sharing a direction with him for... for heaven, as he understands it. He'd better stay away from my child, though. I'd be worrying about just when his faith, as he calls it, might blossom into the logical extension of its tenets.
THE SELF-SACRIFICING FEMALE BOSS:
AN ALL-TOO-FREQUENT CONTEMPORARY OXYMORON
I recommend in the strongest terms the recent book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by A. Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk, and J. Speck (North Point Press, 2000). I shall no doubt be writing directly about this opus later, for it brilliantly handles many themes at which I have been pounding for years. A footnote on p. 67 caught my eye, however, and contracted it in a wince. I don't know if the passage was intended humorously... but the authors opine that the forced construction of vast suburban streets to accommodate massive hook-and-ladder trucks may abate with "the advent of woman-led fire departments". Woman-led? Is rationality, then, a gender-specific category? The last I heard, academic feminists were charging that it was indeed so--and that demonic male forces like Descartes and Newton were responsible for visiting it upon Western culture.
Allow me a few words about the female boss, whether she be a fire chief or the department chair of my more immediate experience. Nothing in what I am about to say should be read to imply that some women would not make or have not made superlative leaders. On the contrary, I find that the most fair-minded, good-humored, and warm-hearted people I have known in academe during my thirty years as a student and teacher have often been been women... but few of these ever held positions of high leadership for more than a standard tour of duty, because few wanted such burdens. They were teachers and scholars rather than career-minded bureaucrats. Most of them, frankly, were older than I. Within my own approximate age group, on the other hand, the white-collar work force possesses a large volume of women who grew up believing that they could validate their existence only outside the confines of marriage and family, and even of dedicated vocation. The majority, in my experience, craves formal external recognition as an addict craves a fix--and to live around, work for, or seek enlightened reform from such a character type is neither pleasant nor blessed with a high rate of success.
A few years ago, as a college professor, I had a female department chair. It was one of the more stressful periods of a very taxing career. Every day, on the drive to work, I would sigh deeply and say to myself, "What's it going to be today? What surprise meetings at four o'clock, with what idiotic agenda?" For my boss loved impromptu meetings. They allowed her a) to remind the rest of us that she was in absolute control, and b) to show our common masters--the Dean, the Vice President, the President--that she was a busy little bee. I suspect that the latter motive was, indeed, the more powerful. My boss lived to get ahead in her chosen profession. Her husband would tell anyone and everyone (with a naiveté entirely characteristic of him) that she had always wanted to be an English professor. Not a teacher, but a professor; and not a writer (the typical aspiration of English majors), but a tenured authority on writers.
The meetings, then, were supposed to reflect that she was Johnny-on-the-job whenever the administration elbowed some query or issue her way. Matters which could readily have been handled by administrative fiat, or via a straw poll taken around the coffee machine, generated reams of minutes under her regime--and were often not handled, even then, but relegated to a series of future meetings. By contrast, I have never toiled under any male who enjoyed meetings, though I can most certainly count a couple of pompous male asses among the detritus of my colorful professional history. Men enjoy power, all right--but they don't play the game by making you consume tea and crumpets with their teddies.
Which actually puts men at a disadvantage in highly bureaucratized situations: they grow impatient with the small print, the points of order. They use mind-numbing paperwork largely to cover coups and assassinations: they do not worship it lovingly on its own pedestal. The female boss of whom I write was a genius at snaring her prey in paper, as opposed to concealing the snare under paper. She took a particular dislike to me early on, since I was one of those "scribble-philiac" English majors, grinding out one article after another while she read a meager conference paper, perhaps, every eighteen months. In her best "let me take your yoke upon me" manner, she exhorted the department to funnel all blurbs about individual achievement through her office rather than "bothering" with those tedious public-relations people... whereafter she always took great care to winnow my announcements from the stack and permanently mislay them. I was a full year in figuring out the ploy. I needed even longer to divine her role in the university's recurrent failure to acknowledge my Ph.D. in campus publications. By the first and last time I formally applied for tenure, I should have been primed for the "mislaying" of that document, too. I was pretty dumb, by her standards--a fish in the proverbial barrel.
But I was thinking about my teaching--about my poor dumbed-down students, and about what had happened to ancient epic in the rude hands of the modern novel. She was thinking about visibility. A constant flurry of minutes and memoranda misting over the Vice President's desk, a constant fog of obfuscation keeping everyone else from view... "See me, here I am!" And she dressed the part: she must have spent two-thirds of her salary on bright clothes. Then there was the matter of babies. When mine arrived and she saw what sympathetic attention I drew, this monomaniacal career woman who had never expressed anything but distaste for children in my presence turned up pregnant within a year. She continued warbling about her "mommy" duties (everyone on campus knew the details of her breast-feeding) and circulating baby photos throughout the infant's first year of life. After that, the photos inexplicably stopped coming.
If I might hearken to my most memorable pompous-ass male boss by way of contrast, I would remark that his discouragement of my uncomfortably (for him) frequent publications was very direct. He would warn me that my scholarly activity was alienating me from the department--that I was thereby behaving in an uncollegial manner. This is rather like telling a rescue worker that he's not a team player because he alone in the squad keeps brushing up on CPR. The whole line of argument is shamelessly disingenuous, of course--but one knows what forces one is up against, in all their smug hypocrisy and vicious laziness.
Well, maybe women prefer being snared in bureaucratic cul-de-sacs to being muscled by "old boy" networks; or maybe, I should say, they are better able to defend themselves from such snares. I myself found the numerous protracted deceptions launched upon me by my female boss to be far more exhausting spiritually than the blunt bullying of my quondam male boss. (The latter always offered me a carrot with his other hand, by the way: "Come, now, I'm really a decent fellow, you know--let's go have a beer." The male ego values praise from its circle of cronies, the female ego almost exclusively from its superiors. A female fire chief really would boast less about her shiny new engines before her peers at a convention, I suppose--but she would be more gung-ho about buying them if she thought that local industrialists would back her future bid for mayor.)
So maybe I was just a bad fit with the woman in question. What irritated me about her almost as much as her studied, ruthless duplicity was her pretension to being a lady: the fine clothes (already mentioned), the moments of feigned weakness (played to the hilt during early motherhood), the showers of tears before groups she wished to manipulate, the genteel drawl and can't-lift-a-finger souplesse. I am unclear about whether feminism would condone such displays. Early feminism, no: Bella Abzug didn't give a damn about how she looked, and she would have bitten Mike Tyson's ear clean off in a brawl. But subsequent feminists have often hinted that any card a woman plays to get ahead in a man's world is within their rules of the game: flashing a little leg, posing as the damsel in distress... the whole melodramatic repertoire. If you choose Iago's role (which is also Judas's), at least have the decency to deliver a lip-curling soliloquy or to go hang yourself at the end. Don't set your sights on the summit in a righteous lather of indignation over your sex's enslavement, then trot out a dozen stereotypes of enslaved women to ease your passage up the ladder.
And here I leave the discussion: i.e., with a challenge to all neo-feminists. Understand that your doctrine has been plundered for decades now by unscrupulous women whose sole mission in life is to acquire self-aggrandizing power. They will disavow you in mixed company. The woman I have just profiled worked in an environment where religious-fundamentalist views were smiled upon: she began all her meetings with a prayer, and would never unequivocally have described her own sympathies as feminist. Take care, standard-bearers of the Woman's Movement, that you do not offer shelter to people who will stop at nothing to achieve the most selfish ends. Before Women's Rights must come What Is Right. Don't be so naive about your cause's justice.
BATTERED WOMEN ARE NO JUSTIFICATION
FOR TORTURED METHODOLOGY
Last Friday (July 30), the CBS news magazine 48 Hours aired a special--repeated from earlier this year--in which actress and screenwriter Angela Shelton went about the country tracking down women named Angela Shelton. A wealthy film star's whimsical lark? Not exactly. Ms. Shelton, it turns out was abused for several years as a child by her father. Having recourse to her own name was intended to create a random sampling of the American female population. Of course, Ms. Shelton dragged along a camera crew in her camper and fashioned a documentary out of her encounters. She claims to have uncovered a stunning number of Angela Sheltons who have been sexually abused or assaulted in one way or another--by a parent, a boyfriend, a stranger--during her rambles, and several told their story to the camera. The conclusion we are to draw (and which CBS obligingly drew without a tremor of reservation) is that a vast percentage of women in our culture consists of those who have survived abuse by men.
Now, this is not at all a new allegation. We have been hearing from the campus community for over a decade that men are all rapists--potentially, if not literally--and that the figures for women who have suffered rape may range as high as fifty percent. Ms. Shelton's claims seem modest, by comparison, and she has certainly produced more substantial evidence than the kind of ivory-tower questionnaire which includes having sex at the male's suggestion as rape. I will say up front that the latter sort of shenanigan fills me with indignation and contempt. I regard any man who cannot abstain from rapacious behavior as a despicable vermin--and I regard the neo-feminist effort to portray ALL men in such tones as the unpardonable trivializing of an horrific social malaise. If all men are rapists, then they must be so by nature, and the only possible solution to the problem is for women to fertilize themselves from an indefinite supply of frozen sperm while aborting or otherwise killing off any apparent male of the species. If, on the other hand, we are witnessing sociopathic behavior on the part of a few (or more than a few) individual males, then we should sequester these men and pressure them in a most severe manner to amend their ways.
But are we talking about a few men, or more than a few? The question is scarcely knit-picking. A skeptical scrutiny of methodology--the sort of analysis called "sexist" by some particularly etiolated academic feminists--is clearly required. Ms. Shelton's criteria for abuse were pretty substantial: child molestation under the bed sheets, sex acts committed at gunpoint, and so forth. But let's step back a moment. How sound, to begin with, is the approach of searching the Internet for people bearing one's own name? "Shelton" is of Anglo-Saxon origin--it's not even distinctly Germanic in its present form. The survey in this case, therefore, would exclude right off the bat almost all of the millions and millions of Scandinavians and ethnic Germans, Scotch-Irish, Italians, Hispanics, Slavs, and Asians who have settled in this country. These groups are among the most family-centered, traditionally moral components of our society. Many bearers of the name "Shelton", as was evident in the documentary, are of African extraction and have inherited the surname as they have such Anglo-Saxon commonplaces as "Smith" and "Brown". Why is this relevant? Because the African-American community is presently suffering through an epidemic of households without men, or at least without the birth-father's participation. Cases of child molestation very frequently involve live-in boyfriends or stepfathers. Furthermore, girls raised without competent fathers do not share the stable sense of self-worth known to girls with loving fathers, and are hence less apt to walk away in dating experiences when a man begins to take too many liberties.
I also wonder about the name "Angela". Would a child-molester perhaps have a predilection for the name? "I'm going to call her Angela--daddy's little angel!" It is no great secret that perverted minds enjoy sating their appetites in sacred surroundings or in some steeped-in-holiness manner which magnifies (or, to them, mitigates) their sin. The confused sex-toy princess who keeps all the knights at each other's throats in Ariosto's darkly humorous Orlando Furioso is named Angelica. I do not propose that you choose another name for your daughter: I personally find this one beautiful. What I suggest is that if there is even the remotest correlation between abusing one's daughter and naming her "Angel" or "Virginia" or "Eve", then a purportedly random sampling of the population based upon such a name is vitiated.
Of course, a far more significant compromise of validity is created by Ms. Shelton's having had to beg an interview of her name-sharers. Some agreed, some flatly refused, and some backed out at the last moment. It may well be that the person with some dreadful secret ravening her bowels cannot resist a session with an interviewer, precisely because she would never be able to expose her festering wounds to daylight all on her own: the proverbial phenomenon of returning to the crime's scene. If this were so, then Ms. Shelton's group of willing respondents might well be heavily skewed in the direction of anguished victims in need of a confessor. Pollsters call this self-selection. One might suppose that the non-responsive would be hiding the most frightful skeletons... but how many times have you been phoned by someone wishing to administer a survey as you attempted to trudge through your daily routine, and you simply answered, "Sorry--not today"? Most of us are hiding nothing more lurid when we hang up than a couple of choice epithets inspired by the interruption. These searches for bogeymen can soon turn into trick-or-treating, with the investigator seeing a goblin in every shadow and a ghost in every streetlight.
How many of the nation's Angela Sheltons are even registered on Worldpages.com or elsewhere as "Angela Shelton"? How many have allowed their identity to be subsumed under a spouse's or a parent's, or how many go by "A. Shelton"? The former may strike the feminist as hopelessly unassertive wallflowers, and hence more likely than ever to be abused; but this army of traditional homebodies could just as easily be "trapped" in a healthy marriage devoid of violent criminal activity. Of the latter, creeping about phone directories behind a nondescript initial, many might be terrified victims who have put three deadbolts on all their doors after the latest rape; but they could just as easily be ordinary single females taking ordinary precautions to avoid harassing phone calls (such as, alas, they might style Ms. Shelton's).
And why, by the way, does Ms. Shelton's documentary lump date rape and violent sexual assault by a stranger together--and why does it stir into the brew child molestation, both by a parent and by a stranger? From a criminological point of view, there are few meaningful overlaps here. Abusive fathers do not graduate to stalking the vast lots of shopping malls after sunset. They rarely even entice neighborhood kids with ice cream cones, because they are jealous of their decorous image in the community. It may be that an ordinary young man who comes of age in an atmosphere of rampant promiscuity--e.g., the typical university campus--is more prone later in life to fondle his wife's comely daughter by her first marriage: Woody Allen Syndrome, if you will. This relationship does not suggest that men are salivating beasts, however, so much as that our culture has fatally jumped the track.
Women have it rough these days--in some ways, far rougher than in the "happy home-maker" days so deplored by Betty Friedan and company. Sexual liberation has at once advertised to men that women have carnal appetite and also repudiated the traditional social (and even legal) sanctions involved in the male's not recognizing obligations attendant upon consensual intimacy. The atmosphere thus created has brought the vermin out of the woodwork. College kids, for instance, who would have kissed their date goodnight outside her dorm fifty years ago now find themselves lying beside her more drunk than sober in a dorm room belonging to neither of them. This shouldn't be happening. Our nation's professional educators shouldn't be passing out handbooks which explain that sex awarded after a few drinks is not consensual: they should be enforcing curfew and policing the dorms like prison wardens. Angela Shelton, may God give her peace, is one of my generation's innumerable female victims. There is no way of discerning from the story she presents, however, or from that presented by CBS whether her tormentors are ancient demons whom Western society has historically refused to chain or, on the contrary, fledgling demons set loose by forty years of "liberation".
BASEBALL, RACISM, MEDIOCRITY, AND COLLEGES:
AN OPEN LETTER TO JOE MORGAN
Here follow excerpts from a letter posted to ESPN baseball analyst and Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan.
Dear Mr. Morgan,
"I really wanted to write you after finishing your book, Long Balls, No Strikes: What Baseball Must Do to Keep the Good Times Rolling (Crown, 2000). I know it’s been out for a while now, but I always tend to 'excavate' my reading matter: I refuse even to look at a best-seller list.. If the past was indisputably better in literature, I think it was likewise so in baseball to some degree—an ever-increasing degree, I fear. That’s why I wanted to write you. Baseball was getting better when my half a century of living began… but now, for about the last decade, it’s been getting distinctly worse....
"I’ve always romanticized baseball as the paradigm of a pursuit where no one could keep you down unfairly. Your success would speak for itself. How does anyone argue with a .325 batting average or a 2.25 ERA? At least, this was my fantasy.... Then I read Bob Gibson’s book, and yours—and I also started having encounters with my little boy’s coaches which left me deeply dismayed. I understand most of what you and Bob say about racism—but the unfairness in the game is not just racism or strictly racism. Let me use a specific example: leaving a space between the hands when batting. I taught my son to do this because, frankly, it works. It worked well for me (well enough that I think I might have gone on if I hadn’t attended three campuses in as many years while Vietnam loomed over my shoulder). Boy, did it work well for the late Leon Wagner, one of my all-time favorites! It worked for Bill Madlock. Billy Williams 'spaced out' with two strikes, and I think I’ve caught Andre Dawson and Ron Gant doing it on tapes during big at-bats. Of course, guys like Home Run Baker and Joe Jackson and Lefty O’Doul and Arky Vaughn left a little space all the time… but that was when bats weighed a ton. They also didn’t break when you got jammed: so why not go back to a slightly thicker bat and spread the hands a quarter-inch?
"Oh, no (I’m told), you’ll lose all your power. But Gavvy Cravath and Ralph Kiner, I begin… And besides, say the coaches, pitchers throw harder today. Oh, really? (I say)—Then aren’t you more likely to get jammed than ever? And besides, they say, there will be a hump in your swing if you leave a space. Not if your top hand instantly slides down (I say), as you can see Leon Wagner’s did on one of my baseball cards—and anyway, there’s no hump unless you align your middle knuckles with each other and don’t let your fist rotate. Bill Madlock certainly didn’t hold or swing a bat like that… No, no, you gotta align those knuckles, they say, just got to…. And on and on.
"I am convinced that there’s something profoundly cultural about this clone-like thinking. I see it everywhere, in every aspect of our lives. We all must build our cities around cars, we all must embrace the computer and the Internet, we all must accept this 'literal' reading of the Gospels, etc., etc. People have no interest in how things used to be done or might be done. If something appears to work or to draw a crowd, they want to 'max it out' at once. I expect this would mean, in baseball terms, that my son’s kinky batting habits will land him on the bench. It won’t matter how well he produces: it didn’t matter that I produced as a teacher. What matters is to ride the current trend, whether it’s teaching all your courses on the Net or pumping weights and popping homeruns or--in my son's case--chopping down on the ball with an axe-handle grip. How is this supposed to put down-spin on the ball, anyway--do you hit the side facing the pitcher?)
"I don’t know if this ramble sheds any light on the racial angle or not. It surely appears that all of the few players who still space their hands slightly did not grow up in middle-class white suburbia: Chone Figgins, Dave Roberts, José Vizcaino… ah, Jason Kendall! But for the most part, all the boys who come from college programs might indeed have fallen from a cookie-cutter. And there they do what Coach says, or they don’t play… and if they don’t play, they have no chance to demonstrate their productivity. I know that this 'my way or no way' mentality on the part of coaches contradicts the ostensible trend in superstars telling their managers where to get off… but the superstars are mavericks, and I often wonder if their high salaries are the only reason they get shuffled around. (How many of the mega-stars came from college programs, by the way?) But for them, most teams now look completely interchangeable. They have no individual personality. The rare player with flare—Tony Bautista and his bizarre stance, Ichiro and his antiquated slap-and-dash style—come to us from a different culture. They haven’t been forced through the funnel.
"What I’m about to say will seem pretty far-out, and it’s probably as feasible as ballgames on the Moon… but I think much of the problem lies with college programs, and I think the best solution would be to get colleges out of the crypto-professional sports racket. College coaches seem to me largely dominated by a rigid, uncreative mentality. Unlike Major League managers, they expect to be obeyed in everything and enjoy the autocracy needed to bump a free spirit off the team. They couldn’t care less about the big baseball picture: they just want to win now, in their conference. They are absolute monarchs in their tiny kingdoms. Why are colleges even in this business? Having taught college myself for almost twenty years, I can say that athletes are usually well-motivated students, but never students who succeed in getting all they might have out of their courses. If they want to study engineering or German, then they should do so between seasons: they should be playing ball for the municipal team to make their daily bread, and they should hit their books in the winter. The same goes for football and basketball: let the local economy profit from local sports rivalries, let the boys who are doing a yeomanly task be paid a man’s wage, and force college campuses to return to what they should have been doing all along.
"My grandfather played baseball for a municipal team as a young man (for Austin, I think). Such leagues used to be all over the place, and in an economy like ours—a leisure economy—there’s not a reason in the world why we shouldn’t revert to that system. Colleges will offer pretexts to resist, of course. They make big bucks off of sports, they have local legislators in their pockets, and their top-heavy administrations certainly can’t fund whopping salaries and perks from the enrollment revenues of history classes. Too bad. We should fire the scoundrels and replace them with committed educators. The local college is supposed to provide things like art galleries and theaters. Its students are supposed to elevate the community by staging exhibitions and performances. That we Americans are a bunch of barbarians is owed in no insignificant measure to the disgraceful failure of colleges to supply such services. Let the little guy who needs to make a living sell caps or hot dogs at the ball park, and let the retired pros who want to coach prepare young people for the field in a situation not dependent upon the campus’s Byzantine politics. Let recruits be brought in from the entire community, regardless of their scores on the SAT. Let the fan base be drawn from the entire area rather than frat rats and a well-oiled Booster Club. If the alumni will no longer write checks because they have no more occasion to wave little pennants around after they’ve downed a few martinis… well, maybe our colleges need to work toward turning out a better caliber of alumnus.
"And as far as minorities go, wouldn’t it be great if a black kid from the inner cities could get a scholarship, not because of his slam-dunks, but because he plays the trumpet like Wynton Marsalis or can do math faster than a calculator? Colleges are actually promulgating racial stereotypes and setting minorities up to fail by recruiting young people for the wrong reasons. In any case, a multi-millionaire basketball star isn’t going to go back to the old neighborhood and make a difference—but a brilliant architect or gifted journalist might. What makes me fume about colleges and universities—what made me so sick of the places that I finally had to chuck a career that was never any too pleasant—is the paternalistic, do-nothing liberalism in which they are soaked. Here the campus is, actually robbing the community of good jobs and turning its back on underprivileged kids with the brains to excel… and we are supposed to believe, thanks to Affirmative Action and 'diversity' double-talk, that its mouthpieces care about championing the underdog’s cause!
"Put universities back in the business of education, and take them out of sports. Then you’ll see kids recruited from all over the place, from all walks of life, just because they can help Austin beat San Antonio or Mudville beat Moundview. Those were the leagues where guys like Joe Jackson came from: the factory teams of the northeast, the mill teams of the south, the neighborhood teams in Negro League Pittsburgh.
"It was instructive this past June to go back to my wife’s hometown of Rome, Georgia, and watch the single-A Braves play the Savannah Sand Gnats. The franchise is a major employer in the area, and most of the games are very nearly sold out. The Rome team is made up of weight-lifting college grads for the most part (the team photo shows exactly one non-Hispanic black), and they tend to dominate the division; but the Sand Gnats, for my money, had the really interesting players, the guys who adjust and do the unexpected. I was especially impressed by a kid from Venezuela named Salomon Manriquez. He had the compact catcher’s build that won Ivan Rodriguez the sobriquet of Pudge. When he came up with the bases loaded, Salomon went with an outside pitch and drove a grand slam over the right field fence. Yet the know-it-all fan sitting below us had constantly taunted every player who went the other way and punched a single through the hole. He didn’t sound this refrain on the grand slam, but on other occasions he kept jeering, 'Way to wait for a good pitch!' We gathered from various stray comments that he was a local high school coach.
"Is there any chance that we can do something right in this ailing society for a change—something not dictated by the special interests which run both of our major political parties? In one swoop, we could revive local economies, recruit fine talent, create wholesome diversion, improve racial harmony, and re-direct colleges to their educational mission… but there’s a tremendous wall of 'old boys' to be climbed before this swoop can be made. My wife says it’s impossible. She’s always right about these things. Maybe in heaven… I don’t think many college presidents and politicians are going to be invited to that game."
THE ALL-AMERICAN GAME: IT'S ALWAYS ALL ABOUT YOU
For the next couple of weeks, I intend to ramble on about baseball a bit because--yes--it is the only sport I care for, being fraught with morally instructive lessons about life as sane, healthy people must eventually lead it... but also because the degeneration of baseball, much accelerated over the last decade, is a small-scale replica of our cultural degeneration. You simply don't like baseball? Don't feel lonely: neither do the people who arranged the 2004 Major League All Star Game.
Whether or not most human beings are capable of any intelligent thought in any circumstances, our cultural idolatry of pleasure and ease is most assuredly a recipe for half-baked, unleavened mush. We don't make good judgments even about matters which directly affect the primary ends of our existence, such as choice of a career or a spouse or a school for our children: we become infatuated with surfaces, rather, and sedated by the course of least resistance. How much less likely, then, are we to deliberate competently over some trivial matter whose details are immersed in statistics! The average baseball fan hasn't the remotest claim to being an able elector of All Stars. If the fools among us lack the wits to grapple with an Earned Run Average, the bright are preoccupied with their own daily toil. What responsible adult has time to comb the Internet for updated stats or to scan the heavens with his satellite dish for the Royals/Tigers match-up (a wavelength which must be teased from M82's scratchy transmission, "Is anybody else out there, or do we have to talk to Carl Sagan?"). In the old days, baseball professionals--sportswriters, players, and coaches--were variously involved in the All Star Game's exclusive electorate. That made sense. None of us objected to the inherent elitism of the system. On the contrary, we got to see great players whom, thanks to television's sycophantic courtship of the vast New York market, we would otherwise have known only through vague rumor. We were grateful for that one chance a year to watch Lou Brock or Ron Santo in action.
Baseball changed all that a few years ago when the first string of All Stars began to be determined by the collective thumbs-up of the masses. When I say "baseball", of course, I mean "baseball owners". The players themselves have never much cared for the mid-season classic. In a circuit of almost daily four-hour stints under the summer sun, during which new sprains and bruises pile upon old ones never allowed to heal, the typical player positively covets his three days off in July. Selection as an All Star is an honor, to be sure--but honors don't buy you a home-cooked meal and a good night's sleep. No, the motive force behind turning the American versus National contest into a beauty pageant was ownership; and, naturally, the motive force behind ownership is always the dollar. The owners reasoned (in their usual condescending and plodding manner) that more fans would watch the exhibition game if it featured their favorite "heroes". The object, then, shifted from fielding the season's best ballplayers to trotting out those millionaires who enjoyed the highest name recognition and the best p.r.
I believe most fans honestly try to base their choices on merit, though it is difficult to override the strident insistence of a nine-year-old. (MLB's Web site requires that voters should have reached mid-adolescence: but there is no means of validating the registrant's age, and many of us, besides, log on only because our kid keeps bugging us to do so. For that matter, if you can vote as many as twenty-five times for the same players, why pretend that the operation is a plebiscite rather than a publicity gimmick?) What fascinates me most about our collective failure, as fans, to choose the most worthy team is how well it exemplifies the media-fed phenomenon of the revolving judgment. Such adjudication is a species of the infamous self-fulfilling prophecy. The media (primarily the medium of TV) pump up a player on ESPN Sports Center, pizza and underwear commercials, late-night blather-and-babble orgies, etc., etc. People who don't watch one ball game all year find their heads echoing with A-Rod and Sammy. Then the baseball owners turn around and ask our mercilessly bombarded ranks to confirm which names they have been unable to exclude from their lives. Then we are all treated to the dubious spectacle of watching eighteen prima donnas try to steal the show from each other (as opposed to playing like a team). Then the super-names acquire more recognition than ever, rendering them more valuable celebrities to the owners and also--perversely--ratcheting up their market value at contract negotiations. It's hard to tell here, as in presidential elections, if the tail's wagging the dog. Do we like these guys because they're good, or are they "good" by definition because no other players receive the attention of the talking heads? Is the information glut so indignantly decried in our time not--just maybe--an information deficit created by the media's exclusive focus on charismatic figures?
The dependency of these figures upon regional interests has been all but severed. Mike Piazza's votes don't vastly outnumber Jason Kendall's just because more people live in New York than in Pittsburgh. Kids in Pittsburgh also vote for Mike. He makes great commercials, and lots of them--quite enough to obliterate the disqualification that he doesn't catch much any more and was never a superior defensive catcher. Celebrity knows no urban or geographical boundaries now. Why John Kerry thinks that John Edwards will deliver Southern voters to him in the twenty-first century is an enigma to me. Kerry would have done far better to approach Michael Jordan (who, of course, would have turned him down flat). That the American League starting infield was composed entirely of New York Yankees past and present is, then, a testimony to the value of media exposure. CBS-Fox has been giving us the Yankees every Saturday for the past few years, all across the country, about as reliably as NBC's Game of the Week did in the late sixties. (Don't say that all the Yankees earned their berth: Jason Giambi has sat out much of the season on the disabled list.)
Is playing for New York, then, the secret to All-Stardom, just as screen time for any reason--film career, sports career, high-profile family member--seems to be the winning résumé in national politics? Not quite. The specific surefire vehicle to baseball celebrity (whose gilded road will probably be lured through the Big Apple, granted) is the home run. There are two reasons why baseball is dominated today, to the point of impending ruin, by the homer. One is that people, in their van/cellphone/drive-thru pursuit of the "full life's" instant gratification, do not have the patience to understand baseball's intricacies. The home run is quick, decisive, and comprehensible to brains whose absorption rate is exceeded by the hit-and-run play. The other reason is the quasi-narcissistic egotism which has infected our society far and wide. We don't admire the self-effacing team player: we admire the breast-beating berserker who tears the hide off the ball and then strolls down the first-base line (like Bonds) or circles the bases scratching his crotch (as Griffey Junior once did in a thoroughly ill-advised moment)-- coarse displays which as much as shout to the world, as we say in Irish, "Póg mo thón!"
I am convinced that the owners, well knowing what the casual fan (i.e., the untutored, in-a-hurry fan, the silly child, and the braying idiot) want out of a ballgame, have nourished the home run by fair means and foul since the disastrous 1994 strike. Umpires, in particular (who long to be loved beneath their gruff exteriors almost as much as do Supreme Court justices), simply will not call the strike zone on Great Casey; and if an enterprising pitcher seeks to persuade Casey not to usurp quite so much of the plate by whistling one under his chin, the ump behind the plate deals him a furious and histrionic warning: "Do that again and you're out of the game!" At all costs, the masses must have their Spartacus.
Now, some of these homering heroes are genuinely pleasant fellows. Sosa has a delightful personality, and this year's leading vote-getter, Alfonso Soriano, has volunteered nothing particularly obnoxious in public through his broken English. A-Rod actually answers little kids' letters, bless his heart. Yet the former two do not play their positions with much fluidity and seem, indeed, impervious to learning. Sosa badly overthrew his cut-off man in the Big Game's first inning, and Soriano often entertains denizens of north Texas with his futile wind-sprints after ground balls playable only by those fielders whose path he obstructs. Alex is a distinct asset in the field; yet even he, like the other two, is given to killing rallies by chasing outside sliders. Two strike-outs, a double play, and a solo homerun: a typical day for one of our superstars. If only there were a stat for probable number of runs not driven in after poor at-bats...
But contemporary baseball analysts are so far from emphasizing such fine points of the game that they give the Heroes a free pass--the home-run hitters, I mean. They reserve their incessant carping for the No Name, or for the pitcher. During a special mid-game service arranged by the hometown folks to honor Roger Clemens, Fox mouthpiece Joe Buck left his booth to emcee. Barbara Bush would have been a much happier choice. With Roger miked-up, on camera, and center-staged before stadium and world, Buck proceeded to remark that the honorary moment had been sadly marred by Clemens's having surrendered two first-inning home runs. Now here's an all-American snapshot: a twit whose one qualification for his job is that his daddy preceded him there humiliating a figure whose achievement he, above all others, is supposed to be able to recognize, all to garner himself the appearance of being "tell-it-like-it-is" tough. No manners, no knowledge, no sense of propriety or decency... just another heavy hitter having his moment with his little bit of power.
It was the low point of a sub-sea-level game--a game, really, which appended a mere postscript to July 12's home run derby (that now-sacred institution of the All Star festival). Both batting orders were packed with long-ball contestants from top to bottom (with the single exception of Ichiro, that delightful throwback to real baseball... but does anyone doubt that his celebrity is owed to multi-cultural zeal rather than to understanding of the game?). A weary Clemens threw two hanging sliders, which were converted into two home runs. End of story, end of game. Neither manager had a line-up adept at beating out bunts and advancing runners: both could only sit back and shiver before the gale-force winds coming from home plate.
I was bored half to death. So was my son, though he wouldn't admit it. Charmed with the prospect of being allowed to stay up late, he was at last no longer able to beguile me as his GI Joes fought their way into another room. Off to Bed! I promised him that I would record the final few innings, which I did... but he hasn't expressed the slightest interest in seeing them. Smart lad!
A COMPUTER AT EVERY DESK: GOLDEN FLEECE OR PHARAOH'S CURSE?
Once upon a time in Never Never Land, a great many people were making a great deal of money by importing a strange new fabric from a far-off land. The material was light and sheer, it caressed the skin, it lent itself to the variable plaits and folds of fashion. Importers profited from it, tailors and seamstresses profited from it, haberdashers profited from it, second-hand retailers profited from it... shipbuilders profited from the rise in imports, carpenters and woodcutters profited from the shipbuilding boom, schools of navigation saw a robust increase in enrollment.... The entire Arcadian economy of Never Never Land seemed, indeed, to be revived by this Golden Fleece--and hence to become, with alarming rapidity, dependent upon it in innumerable ways. No one, therefore, cared to listen to the plaints of a tedious little man who warned that the Fleece posed a long-term health risk. He had evidence, he claimed, that a rash developed in some who wore the fabric under certain conditions or for certain periods, and that the rash was, in turn, the first phase of a debilitating listlessness which eventually rendered the sufferer terminally bedridden. Happily, this man himself pined away in the ensuing years and was heard from no more (for much of his evidence had been gathered through painfully direct experience of the Fleece). Only much later, when Never Never Land had shifted its industrial focus to churning out energy from bird droppings, did a university professor discover that the once-popular fabric was intimately connected to a progressive neurological pathology responsible for several thousand lost lives. His name was bestowed upon the new disease, he won the Nobel Prize, he was awarded tenure (whereupon he promptly accepted an offer from a more prestigious university), and the attorneys of Never Never Land founded yet another new industry upon suing importers, tailors, haberdashers, and retailers. Many of those who remained healthy and did not work manually to survive decided that life was good.
Some day, someone will get around to noticing the adverse long-term effects of daily exposure to computers. Not so very long ago, the American public was panicked over the rumor that high-voltage power lines running through residential neighborhoods were a significant cause of cancer. Those of us with any sense dismissed the scare out of hand: the potency of electromagnetic radiation decreases exponentially with distance, and the most massive of humming lines could pose only a negligible danger from a hundred feet away. This sort of "hidden menace" theory is characteristic of the superstitions which afflict a society far more deeply immersed in scientific technology than in science.
On the other hand, computers share our lives at very close quarters. Sometimes they nestle in our laps. It has already been established that sitting within a yard of a monitor for several hours a day can create male fertility problems. My own complaints about the computer, however, have not been publicly voiced by others, as far as I know. Today I make them known hoping--against hope--that some few eyes may one day read them and apply a more medically enlightened scrutiny to the matter than I am capable of.
Intestinal discomfort is such a delicate subject in America that public discourse is considerably less tolerant of it than of, say, sexual organs and their function. In my four trips to Europe, I observed repeatedly that "the toilet" was spoken of quite candidly, and that passers-by in rural Ireland or Wales handled with equanimity the discovery that one had just emerged from behind the hedge after having relieved oneself. Americans are sincerely shocked by such behavior, yet they will devote no end of advertising money to discussing E.D. and The Patch over the air waves at prime time.
May my countrymen pardon my indelicacy, then, if I reveal that I suffered for years from a lower intestinal bloating, and sometimes diarrhea, after long stints on the computer. I am now in a position to declare that the computer was directly and exclusively related to my problem. I offer the following evidence. 1) The condition worsened when I purchased a new computer which used more energy. 2) When I sat four and five hours a day before the screen while feverishly composing a long novel, the condition grew more uncomfortable still. 3) When I would be wholly absent from all computers over vacations, I returned almost immediately to normal. 4) When my new computer was in the shop recently and I was forced to revert to the old one, my discomfort was of a distinctly more moderate sort. 5) When I walled my computer behind several dense obstacles upon its return from the shop, I found that the noted condition very nearly vanished. Today I have only the slightest discomfort, and I can predict its level with precision based upon how much time I have recently spent near a computer (and upon what what kind of computer I was near).
A second series of experiments has been less conclusive, but remains convincing to me. I have had heavy eyebrows all my life... until about a year or two ago. In fact, it was just when I completed my novel that I began to notice how very sparse my once-bushy brows had become, especially around the edges. My older brother, who resembles me in physique, has registered no such abatement of facial hair, and nothing else suggests that the tendency is congenital--on the contrary. Since I was suspicious of the computer at this time in connection with my intestinal discomfort, I wondered further if its waves of electricity might have "singed" my face somehow. Over the past six months, I have taken to wearing a baseball cap pulled low over my eyes when typing for long periods. This and my blocking off the computer's main unit as I described above should surely have encouraged my brows to grow out again if radiation was indeed damaging them before. I do observe them to have thickened slightly, without doubt. The question remains whether I might have been engaged in some other activity (such as Little League coaching, which keeps me under the sun at certain times of year) capable of accounting for the effect. Eyebrows do not grow quickly, at any rate, and it is impossible for me to state the sort of intimate connection here which I remarked in my other problem. Yet I have been an active outdoorsman most of my life, and no variable except the computer strikes me as very consequential.
I would not be writing these words--and you would not be reading them--without the assistance of the computer. Over and over again, we find that the culprit in these horror stories of subtle wasting sickness, long denied and suppressed by self-serving technocrats and marketers, is not technology itself but the unpondered proliferation of technology. We use computers far too much, just as we use cars far too much. Even as we could easily devise a happier, healthier existence in which cars would play a diminished role, so most of us could imagine without much strain a pleasant life where kids play outside instead of ogling a screen and where adults engage in normal social exchanges instead of spending all-nighters trying to haze Mr. Right out of a school of e-sharks. When one considers that the cost of such overindulgence can be measured in terms of routine bodily functions as well as in emotional trauma, one must admit that our virtual realities are collectively a flight into dangerous fantasy.
Who knows what other medical complaints connected with the computer have not yet been recognized? Eye strain, spinal strain, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, insomnia, and obesity are all well known to have either a direct or an indirect relation to our whirlwind romance with mouses (mice?) and monitors. I have often suspected that my body has rather more electricity than the norm: the two conditions I have described may be unique to people of a peculiar composition or metabolism. Is that any cause for indifference, however? Are we content to submit ourselves to a process of "unnatural selection" imposed by our technology, whereby all individuals who do not quite suit the reigning machine die out? Does this not strike anyone but me as insanely perverse?
The funny thing is, most of the millionaire programmers and "systems designers" whose paths my humble track has briefly crossed do not amuse themselves with electronic toys outside the office. They want others to bite on the digital hook. The children of impoverished inner-cities families and of Hispanic immigrants are exhorted to take technical training at community colleges, and the children of America's vanilla middle class are incessantly titillated with video games and Websites. It appears to me, in other words, that the technocratic elite may actually be withdrawing, slowly but steadily, from immersion in e-culture even as it lures the rank and file to dive in. Who cares about my stomach pains, your back ache, our children's Attention Deficit Disorder? The money continues to flow. Why kill the ram that grows the Golden Fleece?
THE HOTTER THE FIRECRACKERS, THE COLDER THE SPIRIT
It was suggested to me that my comments last week about the Fourth of July were obnoxiously bitter, especially in a time when... let me see if I can get this right... "our young people are over there in Iraq defending our freedom." I will not use this week's entry as an occasion to analyze our recent Iraq policy and its relationship to our national well-being. Three thousand years of social history (going back farther than Priam's Troy) and the clear Koranic entitlement of rigidly hierarchical systems gravitate against our supposing that we will plant a bustling republic in this part of the world... but who knows? Maybe Coke and a Big Mac can do what elementary decency has failed to accomplish for millennia: why shoot dissidents when they might be customers? And let it pass unchallenged that desperate characters are less rather than more likely to resent the United States if stayed from beheading assertive women and blowing up school buses. What remains of European society resembles what remains of ours, and the Europeans hate our guts... but let it pass. Sacrificing oneself so that innocent people of any race or creed may live is noble. In my opinion, such sacrifice overrides the national interest.
It is precisely that nobility which concerns me: it is precisely those young people of ours who must risk their lives halfway around the world in order to recover some dignity of being. For what awaits them back home? New jobs in the economic rebound we keep hearing about? What kinds of jobs? Waiting tables, flipping burgers, driving trucks, racking clothes at Penny's, pouring concrete, nailing shingles... what else is on the list? Oh, yes: for those with a college degree, lots and lots of public-sector administrative positions. Unskilled labor and government bureaucracy. If I were a young man, I think I'd join the army, too--or law enforcement, or the fire department: three of the favorite choices right now among young men. For a boy wants to think that he's brave, that he's fighting the good cause, and that he isn't serving a squalid master for squalid lucre. He wants to think well of himself. Believe me, it's hard for an idealist of that order to find outlets for his energy in contemporary American "culture". And such hardship does not put one in a mood to set off fireworks.
Fireworks. My nine-year-old was deeply disappointed that he didn't get to witness any "live" explosions. I should like to have taken him... but cars were being admitted to the site as early as 4 p.m., and the importation of any food and drink was forbidden. Yankee ingenuity: make them come in the afternoon heat to beat the crowd, prohibit liquids not purchased in situ at an extortionate rate, and busy the local police--paid with everybody's tax dollars--with hustling along those marginal freeloaders who try to see the show from a curb outside the gate. Yeah, God bless America.
We stayed home, instead, and watched a bit of the Macy's pyrotechnical extravaganza in the Big Apple. It had to be Macy's production: the name prominently illumined the screen every other minute from some blazing barge on the Hudson. After about ten minutes, I couldn't stand any more: each conflagration began to resemble every possible conflagration. The talking heads which kept popping up at the side, however, to tell me why God had their "okay" to bless America were yet more noisome (if only they, too, might have exploded on cue). A fatuous journalist insisted that, growing up in his Middle American town, all he ever wanted to be was a journalist. ("Hey, Billy, let's go play 'investigative reporter'! You get the camera and I'll carry the step ladder.") Then Donald Trump, that all-American story of all-American greed and megalomania--the man who wanted to be president and had to settle for firing everyone around him on a "reality" show. Just the combination of rogues and weirdos I need to light my fuse. Perhaps the prize, though, should go to the twit commentator who declared that the "founding fathers" viewed themselves as "rebels". What an agonizing anachronism! Until about half a century ago, the word "rebel" was distinctly pejorative in the English-speaking world. Washington and Jefferson would have turned livid at hearing themselves so styled. Rebellion is contumacy: a rebel is a trouble-making upstart, an anti-social emissary of chaos whose quintessence to the eighteenth-century mind would have been Milton's Satan. Now we admire that sort of conduct: raising hell, walking around with your pants around your knees, driving around with your amplifiers hurling decibels into the gentle night at flight-deck levels... but not Washington and Jefferson, please. They were serious men. In our parlance, they would most certainly have been boring.
I did manage (waiting for the distant thunder of pricey salutes to die away--you could just hear them from the other side of town) to buy my son a 1960-vintage Nellie Fox baseball card on e-Bay. Nelson Fox, the little second-baseman who went 98 games without striking out and led the league in singles for eight straight years... I won the bid at a dime. Of course, I fully expected to be outbid at mere seconds before the last legitimate firecracker. That's how we do things in the Land of the Free: some glassy-eyed geek stays up half the night looking for auctions about to expire and bids up the price one penny. Nobody else wanted Nellie, however. I should have guessed. Even though he's in the Hall of Fame, he didn't hit homeruns--and we are now a society of heavy-hitters. Rugged individualists, we call ourselves--rebels, without or without a cause--and to hell with the rest of the team. Come to think of it, that's our cause: ourselves. Self-aggrandizement. I'll take a strike-out with the bases loaded if I can get a solo homerun later (the Sosa approach: he loses games but fills the bleachers)... and if I can't be president, why, I'll create my own show where I throw the switch on one guy after another. It's all about me. I'm worth it (as the ads of some cosmetic company emphasize). I can do what I want, say what I want. That's what being an American is all about.
You see, where people have no tradition, no sense of striving after a transcendent purpose--no well-founded devotion to goodness, truth, and beauty--no culture--they have only a constant "American idol" competition, each sounding off like a firecracker, each trying to be different, to be outrageous, in some way that will distinguish him from the throng.
Such a person, in words which Shakespeare gave to Hamlet, is "passion's slave". And slavery isn't worth a celebration.
IMMIGRATION ENCORE: A PIÑATA FILLED WITH FIREWORKS
In recent years, I have repeatedly found myself struggling with an emotion which sends my blood pressure high aloft and is, I suspect, at least two emotions in lethal combination. One of them is the indignation I always feel before bald-faced liars--and what liar's face could be more bald than his who tells a patent absurdity rather than surrender a tottering argument? The other emotion (or another) is the extreme vexation I feel for stupidity when it has been "empowered" (as we all say now) to shape my future and my child's. Lying and stupidity. They really set me off, and together they are igniting my fireworks this Fourth of July.
Is this loathsome pair not making the rounds when we are asked to decry a civil rights violation if a cop should demand your name of you? In almost every practical instance, the Gestapo-like tactic of requiring identity (gasp!) is employed when police have pulled over a moving vehicle. (I was briefly detained once in the fair city of Dallas for walking recreationally without my wallet: irritating to a twenty-two-year old-lad, but hardly unreasonable.) Therefore, the vehicle's occupant has very likely already a) exhibited unlawful or suspicious driving behavior, and b) is in violation of the law if he or she does not have handy a valid driver's license. The freedom-fighters who argued the "merits" of this new right to wield a deadly weapon anonymously (and what else is a car?--it gives us a Vietnam's worth of corpses every year) pleaded to the Supreme Court that the government was really just trying to weed out illegal aliens. (N.B.: in the Southwest, the glass of many vehicles is so heavily tinted that you wouldn't know if a yellow rhinoceros were behind the wheel.) I was under the impression that people driving without licenses were hauled off to the lock-up forthwith. Isn't the real power play here an attempt to protect criminals caught in flagrante delicto from prosecution for further criminal activity?
Not since the police were precluded from frisking burly types with mysterious bulges in their breast pockets have we seen a time so hostile to the rule of law. The Supreme Court supported the prerogative to demand identity only by the slimmest or margins. Significantly, of the four "ordinary citizens" interviewed by Telemundo 39's Spanish broadcast immediately after the decision, every one commended its common sense. "No tengo nada a esconder," shrugged one man: "I have nothing to hide." Only a well-dressed attorney insisted that racism was rearing its ugly head. The guy on the street recognizes that the concern here isn't his ethnicity, but his safety.
Attorneys, of course, are not stupid--but the people who swallow their pompous utopian algorrobas must indeed be perfect idiots. What else to make of the priest in Arizona who denounced the federal border patrol for making life hard on illegal immigrants? This story also aired on Telemundo 39: I believe the number of immigrant deaths attributed to heat and thirst for last year was about 2400. A tragedy, to be sure--this figure looms in the vicinity of the number of lives lost on September 11. Yet every one of these unhappy people was engaged in an illegal act. If we were to fund a series of federal relief stations where stragglers could find food and water prior to being escorted back to Mexico, what imbecile imagines that such oases would not be given a wide berth by all but those who felt death's heavy hand upon their shoulder? It is not water that we withhold from this dauntless horde: it is wealth. We have it and they want it--and when they die trying to seize it, we are complicit in their murder for being so greedy!
Yes, greed is a particularly sordid sin. Our ailing culture veritably reeks of venality--and an enormous transfusion of dollar-hungry day-laborers is not going to help us cleanse the putrefaction. I have written these observations before, but I shall repeat them: our air is increasingly unbreathable due to exhaust fumes, our electronic entertainments are increasingly pornographic, our educational system is increasingly an assembly line for human robots destined to serve more efficient robots, our criminal activity is increasingly depraved and insoluble, our neighborhoods are increasingly fragmentary and unsafe--and every single one of these items is fed exponentially by uncontrolled immigration from the south. I do not suggest (heaven spare me so obtuse a reader!) that latinos are dumb, decadent, and lawless. I remark, rather, that the vast majority of immigrating Mexicans cowers at the bottom of the social pyramid and has none of the skills needed to resist pimps, snake-oil salesmen, con artists, quacks, loan sharks, black-marketeers, ruthless landlords, shady employers, shyster lawyers, strong-arm extortionists--the whole rogue's gallery of American capitalism at its very worst. These immigrants are cannon fodder for the legally, ethically marginal elements of our system. As they file in and await their turn to be exploited, all the rest of us--all of us, that is, who are not among the pirates--must watch the last vestiges of our culture dissolve in a froth of tawdry trash.
I am aware that I wrote two months ago, when first broaching these issues, of the Italian mezzadro and, in general, the unprincipled wiles of the letterless peasant. Paradoxical, isn't it? People living on the edge learn to trust no one, to cheat everyone, to play both ends against the middle: it is that or perish. Give them a great wad of cash, however, and these very people fall easy prey to a kind of finessing they have never dreamed of. Someone is forever pulling their sleeve and whispering how they may quadruple their money. Before, they never had any money to quadruple! One of my grandmothers was reared in a destitute section of urban Ohio where more German than English was spoken by the old folks. She grew up to be perhaps the most miserly skinflint I have ever known--but she was also easy prey for a certain kind of trickster who could convince her that he, too, trusted no one and had a great angle to work. Why do you suppose the Texas lottery has the biggest jackpots in the nation and yet pays out less money per ticket than most of these disgraceful public-sector rackets? Because the new arrivals from south of the border cannot resist all those zeros after the dollar sign.
So, as July 4, 2004 approaches, the liars spin their tales as never before, and the fools shed their fatuous tears for "poor people" who'll do anything for a buck. I find that I honestly don't give a damn about Tom Paine or John Hancock or Norman Rockwell or watermelon or English-first billboards. I dream simply of living to see the flood tide of noxious tinsel all about us reach its amplified-supercharged-extrabutter-neon crest, and begin to recede.
ONLY IN A THICK FOG CAN EVERYONE TOUCH THE SKY
I am eager to relate some of my own experiments with the computer and the casual user's physical health: they are significant and disturbing to anyone with half an ounce of sense. For the nonce, however, I find that my thoughts are again monopolized by a kind of malfunction deserving to be called, in my opinion, business as usual in digital America. The specific frustrations of the case are instructive enough to be offered into evidence of a general malaise.
I wrote a novel about a year ago entitled Footprints in the Snow of the Moon. I was and am extremely proud of the work. Among other things, I also produced the art on the front cover--an oil painting of the main character which I photographed and then scanned into my computer. The project was an exciting one, especially, since it brought me into contact with print-on-demand technology. In my own abortive attempt to become a small publisher, I encountered no more expensive and frightening a time on the business calendar than producing a new book in a run modest enough not to break me yet generous enough to profit from a successful advertising campaign. With new technology, the fear of guessing is removed. After a very slight original investment, one is able to have one's book printed literally volume by volume as orders trickle in: no heavily laden boxes stashed in the closet, no enormous bulls to pay printers and binders before the first sale is ever recorded.
I shall make every effort to keep all parties anonymous, for my purpose is to indict the broadly downward tendencies of our culture and not a few individuals I know who merely illustrate the degeneration. I have never doubted, at any rate, that my publisher was an honest person with a keen desire to help others and a stunning indifference to huge profits. Nonetheless, she was often hampered by her lack of substantive knowledge. She seemed to me forever over-reaching herself, wading waist-deep into the quagmire before realizing that she had left the highway. There were some costly misfires early on as we tried to get the cover just right, sending e-mails back and forth between ourselves and a third party doing the layout. (The final result remained imperfect, and God in heaven knows whose gaffe was at the root of the matter.) At last the book appeared to be stocked by Amazon in an almost-perfect form, all miscues notwithstanding, and to be selling slowly but steadily.
At some point this spring, the system broke down. My first inkling of trouble was when I was told that I could no longer order books at cost from the printer because I was not doing so in sufficient bulk. Much later, I began to hear from friends that Amazon was not posting their orders in a timely manner. At this very instant, I remain unclear about whether such orders can and will in fact be met with whatever volumes Amazon has in stock. My publisher could or would only tell me that the printer had proved grossly unreliable--that the outfit, having worked its way up from servicing small operations like hers, was now interested only in really big accounts. We needed, she said, to find a new printer.
The problem grew complicated because the specially formatted files with my book's text and cover were not returned by the unreliable printer upon request. I had incurred some small expense in having these files processed, since my own computer and software are pretty rudimentary (looking more so all the time). Now I was going to have to do it all over again. Well, I sighed philosophically, here was a chance to improve the cover and the layout. I have spent most of this week (or so it seems) shuttling to and from Kinko's in an attempt to find files which the staff there can handle and to straighten out miscommunications. My publisher had sent me a certain amount of material which simply wouldn't open on any program that any of us here possesses. As for my own request of the able, apron-clad Kinks, it was simple enough: take the portrait in this file (imagine me extending a 3.5" disk across the counter) and substitute it for the portrait which appears on the book's front cover. I don't know why such an assignment should create consternation--the personnel at Kinko's seems neither dull nor recalcitrant; but they are all young, all "into" computers up to their ears, and a purely verbal command without a Powerpoint demonstration, perhaps, just can't make the transit from my mind to theirs.
Now, as the week winds down, I sit back and wonder. I wonder for the umpteenth time if our miraculous world of micro-circuitry is really a better one--is really, indeed, as good a one as we once had. Little guys are able to go into business for themselves in fields which had always been reserved for deep pockets only--such as the publishing industry. Yet there are a great many things which shoestring operations like my publisher's (and my own failed venture before hers) simply don't understand. We are dedicated, honest, earnest dilettantes, and our clients suffer from our elementary gaffes. In the event that a few of us do make it big, they invariably seem to respond as did the despicable printer in this case. That is, they elbow all their small clients off the table, sneering, "Go ahead and hire a lawyer--make my day!", as every energy is applied to courting wealthy customers. They do not return articles of private property, e-mails, or phone calls. Caught in the middle, the patrons of these snubbed-and-cheated clients are left scratching their heads. They were willing to take a chance on a tiny organization (consisting often of one person, in reality)... but the product, alas, has not been delivered. All the good will in the world cannot obviate that bare fact. And so they come away a little less generously endowed with good will, a little less willing to take another chance.
The technology revolution, take it from me, has plundered to their sox many of those small enterprises which it created in a great surge of optimism. It has bred a class of blackguardly exploiters more numerous and more evasive than any since the heyday of the Barbary pirates. It has left the consumer on the bottom rung--the curious individual who only wanted a book, a bike, a can-opener (the can-opener, perhaps, that Ronald Reagan famously hypothetized when running for a second term)--jaundiced and cynical, virtually unreachable by even the most forthright and spirited appeals. It has polluted the soul of our culture the way our suicidal infatuation with the automobile has polluted our air.
Time was when I could have walked down Main Street, my hand in my grandmother's, and observed her to study a new book in a sidewalk casement. If she bought it, perhaps she would enjoy it, perhaps not--but it would have not a single grammatical error nor a single description of genitalia or evisceration. True, it was very hard to get published in those days. Most people can't write--and, in those days, bad writers were given no free pass just because they were celebrities or had mastered the low art of titillating prurient minds. Now anyone can publish anything; and this means, o innocent reader, that no good author has much of a chance. The trust accumulated between loyal audiences and certain publishing houses has vanished. The reading audience itself "reads" the way it consumes TV and movies, scanning the page for clichés, unwilling to stop and ponder a psychological conundrum. Our culture is a shallow pit of stinking bones.
No, I have to say that things have NOT gotten better. A world where anyone can write and publish anything is a world where the very, very little worth reading lies undiscoverable beneath a thick slime of mimicry and exhibitionism.
REQUIESCAT IN PACE RONALD REAGAN--
BUT NO THANKS FOR THE COSTLY OPTIMISM
Print and network editorialists have vied with each other over the past week to eulogize Ronald Reagan in terms which render him legendary. He was a dreamer, he taught America to dream, he salvaged the American Dream from meltdown... he believed in people, he was a man of the people, he always understood the ordinary person... he revitalized American conservatism, he made conservatism a winning platform, he was Mr. Conservative... he ended the Cold War, he won the Cold War, he led free enterprise to victory over communism... he devoutly believed that God had chosen him to lead, he devoutly believed that American was God's country, he devoutly believed that God had chosen him to save America.... One local cartoonist even sketched (in sincere solemnity) a great Gipper in the sky giving the thumbs-up.
I shall say, first of all, that Ronald Reagan was the first and only president I have ever voted for in my lifetime. In all other elections, I have voted against the alternative (a trend which I don't see changing any time soon).. My original vote for Reagan, in the fall if 1980, was an absentee ballot posted from Wexford, Ireland. My landlady and dear friend was appalled. "Sure, don't you know he's going to blow the world up?" she gasped. That was perhaps my first close exposure to European paranoia. We Americans can scarcely appreciate what it means to have fought two cataclysmic wars within three decades along the streets and meadows where we played as children. Despite the profoundly traditional habits of many such Europeans (and especially of the Irish), Reagan was no hero to them, no conserver of the old ways. He was a bogeyman.
But what about here? Did the Reagan groundswell really conserve traditional America? Let me pose the question graphically by delineating my own American Dream. It was a simple one, a common one (or so I mistakenly supposed in my youth). By the ripe old age of fourteen, I already found that my ambitions extended no farther than wanting to settle down with a "good woman" (defined as "someone capable of caring about others more than herself") and raise three or four kids in modest circumstances. I fancied myself going to some disheveled office and writing beautiful prose for pennies, or perhaps (later in my salad days) creating a little cottage industry where I would mold original garden sculptures--a nymph, a Saint Francis, a rampant lion--out of concrete. We would scrape by: our humble household wouldn't have much in the material line, but I could see myself marching the kids to the park with ball and bat in hand on a lazy summer afternoon. We would be rich where it counted.
The utter collapse of such Arcadian dreams is not just a measure of my personal naiveté, and not just the failure of America to honor that big Gipper in the sky. From where I stand, it is also Reagan's own failure--the failure of his "vision" to be visionary, the failure of his dream to distinguish itself adequately from a nightmare. It wasn't all his fault, of course; but it wasn't very much of mine, I may say from distant retrospect. I did try--I gave it all a hell of a try. How was I to know that no one would pay a plug nickel for beautiful prose, or for instruction in the classics of "dead" languages? How was I to know that the women of my generation wouldn't want to get married, wouldn't want children when they did marry, or--if the "marrying kind"--would want a doctor's or lawyer's nice fat bank account to indemnify them for the sacrifice of their waistline and brilliant career? My wife, naturally, could make observations of a complementary charity about the men of our generation. The two of us, I must add at the risk of indiscretion, were so biologically "wound down" when we finally found each other among all the barracuda that the birth of a single child required years and cleaned out our savings. I gave the Mom-and-Pop shop a run for its money, too, though my store front was a Web page. I found that I could not begin to compete in the neck-high tide of local taxes and federal regulations for the microscopic group of consumers who still valued life's finer things. The Internet, that great white charger of "neo-conservatives" (I wonder how the Gipper would sit such a steed?), not only didn't generate clientele for me--it cost me thousands of dollars of "sure-fire" advertising, and the new generation's affinity for flickering screens spelled death for my small adventure in bookselling, in any case. As for the ball park, my son and I have had some good times there, to be sure. But they have been shockingly compromised by disgusting adults who (take a deep breath) want to showcase their own boys so that the boys make the All Star team so that they play before some big-league scout's tentacle so that they land a contract so that they become millionaires before the age of twenty-three....
And this, I propose, is the true American Dream in all its warts and cancers: big bucks. Extravagant, fairy-tale wealth. Squalid, damnable materialism trammeling down the life of the spirit from every angle. To be fair, I should at once qualify my definition and say that materialism is (as Aquinas knew) essentially a disease of an infected soul, not a post mortem riot of bright fungi over in the expired soul's cadaver. Materialists still yearn, still dream and lyricize: that's why we mistake their dreams--our dreams--for uplifting visions. It is not money per se at the metaphor's heart, but the admiration which spectacularly unnecessary possessions beget in our vast ruin of a culture--that is the dream (in proof whereof, consider how many of us live lavishly in deep debt). Egotism. One could perceive the primacy of the ego, for instance in the feminist revolution. Women craved careers first and foremost. (How many women--be honest--flinched when I wrote above of the "good woman" that she cares about others more than herself?) Marriage became a "drag", offering sex with no more than one man--who could turn into a slimy sponge at any moment--and trailing all kinds of legal entanglements. Then, in the permutation which has brought us married gay couples, it extended the refuge of "safe sex" to those who could confine themselves to "serial monogamy". Children were factored out of this equation, be it noted, before gays ever became one of its major variables.
For that matter, what does a "man's man" do in this dream world where wealth or celebrity or some sick combination thereof is the climax? What opportunities do such vile ambitions offer to be brave, reticent, noble, and self-sacrificing? (For a real man, too, puts others before himself--how else to explain the current adulation of cops and soldiers among young males?) Reagan didn't ask for recruits to die along the Road to Mars, or to risk their lives building cities under the sea. Now there would have been a vision! What we were all invited to do, instead, was amass wealth and enjoy luxury, feeling jolly good about it the whole time because God wanted "His people" to prosper.
Let's get that part straight. Yes, God has a plan for every life--the same plan. Do good, tell the truth, and value righteous suffering over the world's ease. Bear the Cross. Where in all that is the injunction to go forth and make one's pile?
I will emphasize in closing that Reagan did not enunciate the dream in all its degraded materialist reality. He saw the good but not the bad. He wanted little enterprises like my publishing company to be free of Big Brother's harassment (his presidency overlapped the ominous Orwellian year of 1984), and for that I honored him. Yet he really didn't care that his countrymen were too busy being "free" to read. He wanted us all to assume responsibility for our lives; but he did not coherently recognize (as neo-conservatism has never recognized) the latent contradiction between freedom and responsibility. We began to live our own lives, all right--and also not to give a damn about anyone else's life, or about our own as pledged to God rather than to our pleasure.
I very much doubt that Ronald Reagan, with all his charm and persuasiveness, could significantly have restrained America from its gradual slide into a cultural muck. By reassuring us that we were all A-okay, however, the Gipper did us a disservice. Optimism which refuses to see the dark side of human nature (the side so familiar to Hobbesean/Swiftean conservatives) is no blessing to those it illuminates. Such was Reagan's benign vision--a happy fantasy whimsically construed from massing thunderheads in a rising wind. May the man rest in peace.
CLAUSTROPHOBIA AND THE DIGITAL COFFIN:
TO THOSE WHO DON’T WANT TO CLIMB IN
I don’t know where I’ll end up writing the last word of this piece; but at the moment, I sit beneath a broad live oak tree with conventional pen and pad. The medium is not unpleasant, but neither is it altogether leisurely—or to be just to the medium, my mood, I suppose, is not what one associates with courting the Muse around a tree trunk. I’m worried. Most of the cares weighing upon me during this vacation, I find, involve electronic technology. The car which brought us these 700-and-something miles may or may not get us back home: the computerized fuel injection is not behaving, according to a little light (the root of which problem, I suspect, may be the greed of certain oil producers trying to make each barrel stretch farther as prices reach record highs… but that’s another story). The computer through which I will publish this essay on the Net, furthermore, languishes at the shop back home, where I deposited it in disgust before our departure. Windows ’98 is apparently so overpowered by my virus shield’s updates that it will now no longer even load. I did manage to check my backlog of e-mail through my sister-in-law’s computer. Turns out that I urgently need to renew my Web host’s services, that a contributor to my journal wants to have an immediate verdict on his latest submissions, that someone I haven’t seen in twenty years is trying to contact me… all these crises and queries in just a few short days, when I had received little but junk mail over the previous weeks.
The standard response to my technical frustrations would be, "You need more technology. Update Windows. Consider buying a new system [i.e., computer]. Rejoice that you can check e-mail from a remote location. Invest in a laptop. And as for your car… would you rather be driving a gas-guzzling clunker?"
I shall not hazard further remarks about the automobile. I confess that my ignorance of the internal combustion engine is such that I couldn’t do much good with a wrench even if my car’s engine were not computerized. But you know, there is a similarity between a car whose workings are too hermetic to reward a little amateur tinkering and a "communication system" which is so busy being state-of-the-art that it routinely locks itself up. And in both cases. I (who am not wealthy except in ideas) must somehow find the money to pay technicians for cleaning up the mess. At least I can understand how a car, of either old or new vintage, would gradually wear out as it laps the miles. There is no perpetual motion: all energy comes at a cost. The computer, however, irks me as a system forever sabotaging itself to no very productive end. Viruses are not miles of interstate traversed: they are the obnoxious subversion of nihilistic twits and helter-skelter terrorists. Don’t turn your computer on for weeks, and you shall still have to contend with the menace at your next boot-up—more than ever. Unless your virus shield is updated before you collect your reams of e-litter, you may well end up ruining everything on your hard disk. Yet a few months’ worth of such updates suffices to lock the damn thing up, anyway. With shields like that, who needs viruses? It’s like walking into your garage to take Nellie Belle for a spin, cranking her up, and then watching her fenders fall off and transmission fall out simply from having sat for a month.
It goes on forever, per saecula saeculorum. Buy new computer with operating system, buy virus shield, upgrade shield, upgrade operating system to avert lock-ups, buy new computer to handle more complex software, upgrade shield, upgrade operating system, buy new computer… the answer is always technological. We are never supposed to notice that the problem, too, is quintessentially technological. You could have used an old-fashioned Edison typewriter for fifty years. I could use pen and paper till the day I die. The life cycle of the hi-tech gear awaiting my return, in contrast, seems to be about four or five years, and less all the time. And more expensive all the time. You could once have bought a less expensive, less contemporary typewriter or jalopy and still have accomplished all your ends. What on earth could you do with a twenty-year-old computer that employs the old 5.5-inch floppy disks (when disks really were floppy)? Even my 3-inch disks are almost obsolete. My sister-in-law’s A-Drive wouldn’t accept them, so I couldn’t send an important paper’s first draft to a colleague.
What good does it do to post communications which the whole world might theoretically read within instants when the very conditions of this technology ensure that the whole world is constantly saturated in communiqués, such that nobody pays any attention to anything except the gaudy? With more information than ever more easily available than ever, the reading public is more blasé than ever and, frankly, dumber than ever.
What good does it do to have all of our "best work" on the Net if the Net is a great burial ground, not only because of rising indifference to truly good work, but also because a prankster or terrorist can bring the whole thing toppling down? We will see major "crashes" of the Net in the future: they will be profoundly crippling, especially in that economic sense which alone can penetrate most of our skulls. This isn’t a problem in the number or malignity of our day’s crackpots. It’s a problem in how we have chosen to live. Incidents are already occurring steadily where specific sites are hamstrung by commercial competitors. We are sealing ourselves into a great deep freeze of misinformation dysinformation, and severed human contacts… and the only remedies we hear about are various plans to ensure the door’s remaining a bit ajar in the worst-case scenario. Life outside the freezer has already become unimaginable for us.
What good is ease of purchase when we have only trash to sell? What good is speed of response when we have nothing to say worth hearing? What good is "universal access" when all are shanghaied into an infinite spiral of costly "upgrades"? What definition of "productivity" would you propose for a society whose economic survival is ever more minutely indexed to the smoke-and-mirrors of instant low-level gratification?
It turns out that I write this entry’s final words on the ancient computer (purchased in 1993, I believe) which I keep around to run the Adobe programs perpetually disabled by my virus shield on the other unit. The car got us home, all right: the ominous light appears to mean little or nothing. On the other hand, the house’s air conditioning is now defunct; and my Web host’s site, which has no "renewal" option on its menu, refused to accept my subscription since I was already in the data base! I wrote a thoroughly peeved message before I signed off on the public library’s computer: maybe I’ll have a response by the time I get my own unit back. The shop still doesn’t have the old tin can ready. Seems that just about everyone took off the week of Memorial Day. Business must be booming for computer repairmen… I wonder why?
NAILING THE DIGITAL COFFIN SHUT, OR
HOW TO RUIN YOUR HEALTH WITH A KEYBOARD
In pursuance of my subject for the last two entries, allow me now to share a few encounters and personal observations which substantiate in some measure my misgivings about opening the immigration floodgate.
Exhibit A) My wife and I have both been approached by latino males who want to buy our fifteen-year-old Chevy S 10 with a wad of cash. In my encounter, a boy of about ten knocked on the front door one Saturday afternoon and proceeded to interpret for his dad. They had seen our old jalopy in the garage since the door had been left raised, and the man was quite insistent that I should accept $1500 ready cash (which I deferred to do). I passed through the house, nevertheless, to meet the two in the garage for further discussion—whereupon I found the child already immersed in my son’s toys. He was a winsome lad, but such liberties are a little too su casa, mi casa for my taste. The pair drove off in a spanking-new large model Dodge truck which would have cost me a year’s salary from my last full-time gig in academe. The man had his boy write down a phone number where he could be reached if I changed my mind. We have kept the garage door constantly lowered since then.
Query: Where does all this ready cash come from? Is it legal, or is it being laundered? Even if legally earned, is it fully reported to the IRS as the law demands? Is it reported at all?
Observation: I am told that a great many latinos who supply various lawn and gardening services in this area accept only cash. Say that they earn about $100 a yard and average a mere two yards a day for eight months out of the year. This is an annual income of $48,000—which sounds like a hell of a lot to a teacher. Consider further that the families of the same people are being provided with schooling and medical care at the taxpayer’s expense, for the most part, while they slap down treasury notes to buy the latest model of truck and poor-mouth to Uncle Sam on their Form 1040. Come, now… who is the more financially comfortable in this picture, and who the more prone to financial worries? Who is playing fair, and who’s dealing off the bottom of the deck? Those are not queries, but rhetorical questions. I am trying to suggest the indignation that an under-employed American citizen feels when chided for want of compassion if he does not embrace the onslaught of indocumentados.
Exhibit B) My wife works in a doctor’s office. If I may repeat her comments as hearsay, there is a steady stream of latino patients whose treatment is funded by various government programs. If the rationale for their being among us is precisely that they can find work in the U.S., then it is difficult to understand why an ophthalmic technician and her tutor/writer/part-time teacher husband are expected to pay both substantial taxes and whopping insurance premiums (mine really took off when I turned fifty last fall) while undocumented laborers contribute not one centavo to the pot. The latter typically complain, furthermore, about the dearth of translators at my wife’s office. They seem to feel that their rights as illegal or marginally or provisionally legal inhabitants of a nation into whose tax base they pay scant little of their earnings have been violated if that nation’s businesses and services have not invested in bilingual intermediaries.
Observation: In fact, both my wife and I strongly suspect that most of her patients do speak adequate English. (How much do you have to understand to say "left", "right", "better", and "worse" in an eye exam? For that matter, my wife knows those words in Spanish.) There is a perverse streak in human nature which causes us to enjoy the power inherent in a situation where the other party is not comprehensible to us and must court and woo us to achieve his end. Someday soon I’m going to break out in Irish when a pair of coves in a public place uncorks a lively discussion in Spanish. The Irish miners who labored alongside the Poles in the Northwest used to do that to stem the tide of Polish jabber. It worked every time.
Exhibit C) This is a series of exhibits, really, and I admit that they can get pretty subjective and rather mean-spirited. I make these comments with a certain distaste… but I have seen the evidence often enough to know that a good many latino households are not made uncomfortable by matters of dress, speech, and conduct which I would never tolerate in my child. For some reason which I cannot fathom, the latina girls of high school age I see out and about are often clad as if their jeans had been spray-painted over their hips and as if what few threads they carry above the navel had been applied like shrink-wrap. A decent woman ought to leave something to the imagination. I am also rather vexed with the ethos of foul language, bullying, spitting at people, tripping them from behind, etc., which has been imported to my son’s sporting activities by some of his lately arrived brethren from the south. Again, I concede that a lot of kids from all walks of life push my buttons in this regard, and several sweet, well-behaved latino children (including some whose papers may not be in order) have also crossed our path. Quite generally speaking, however, I should say that the community of recent immigrants does not value the same principles of common decency as I do. Maybe I should move elsewhere… but, you see, I was already settled here.
Observation: I was particularly annoyed when my child was one day reprimanded in class for using the word caca. You’d have to know my son: he invents words all the time, probably because he hears me using so many foreign words around the house. Now, I’m aware that in Mexico, the term in question is a scatology: but the standard Spanish expression begins with an m, and indeed, I cannot even find this word in any of my mainstream Spanish dictionaries. The offending two syllables are also the ancient Greek term for "evils" or "misfortunes" (as in the Homeric kaka phroneôn, "thinking bad things"). It’s a fine kettle of fish when your child is rebuked for putting together a couple of syllables which form some coprologism in gutter Spanish! Is this, then, an example of how our culture is being enriched? (Again, query rhetorical.) Why don't I raise a stink every time someone says "babe" or "baby", since bab means the same thing in Gaelic as caca? Whence this racist privileging of obscenities? (Again... well, you understand.)
Exhibit D) Here I may subsume all of my concerns about the news I see broadcast nightly on Telemundo. My Spanish is sufficient that I comprehend about 90% of what I hear (newsroom-speak being highly formulaic). I noticed recently that the stories about the renewed attack in Fallujah and the beheading of the hapless Mr. Berg received all of fifteen seconds in the ten o’clock broadcast’s "around the world" segment. Actually, I especially like this sixty-second summary (except for its being so brief), because I usually find out about events in Central and South America which never appear on an English newsroom’s radar. But a community of people who aspire to be American citizens and vote in American elections really should be somewhat better informed about crucial events in Iraq. I am also concerned about repeated references to nuestra raza ("our race") and a new segment which is, indeed, devoted to tracing nuestra raza in Texas history. Obviously, assimilation is not an objective of these broadcasts. Rather, the Hispanic community is to be made ever more aware of its distinctive identity—ever more isolated among other Americans—so that it may be the better exploited politically. Yet there is quite time enough left over, after an international war has been awarded a few seconds, a mud slide in Colombia a few more seconds, a nostalgic look at nuestra raza three or four minutes, and the weather and sports another four minutes apiece—to devote several closing minutes to singers and movie stars. To be fair, the worship of "entertainers" is far more evident on Telemundo’s five-thirty national news, where it has even less reason for being yet represents a nightly feature. What a finely prepared citizenry: suppression of major incidents, shameless catering to "our" special interest (as if an Hispanic person might not believe, as a human being, that events in Iraq ere important beyond the number of Hispanic volunteers slain)… and to round it all off, an "in depth" look at what scantly clad rock-video diva is getting divorced from what sleazy soap star.
Query: What effect upon our political social, and cultural life would a television station have which caters to the Gaels as a race, stirring in jingoistic bumper-stickers like ár leithéid arís ("like ourselves again") and suggesting that all true Gaels vote a straight ticket? A rhetorical question? I wish. And to think that certain self-anointed Hispanic political leaders are shocked that their efforts sometimes meet with racist responses!
The way I add up this column of figures, our culture is looking at a considerable net loss.
LO DEL AGUA AL AGUA: PART TWO
Last week I opined rather generally that the influx of Spanish-speaking people through our porous southern borders is an unhappy event for whatever remains of culture in the United States. Though such a view is sure to be branded ethnocentric or even racist by "compassionate" types on either side of the aisle (i.e., those whose analysis of any verbal cluster is limited to squeezing out a "positive" syrup or a "negative" gell), I insist that I have done no more than draw an irresistible conclusion from a few unequivocal observations. Culture must be nourished. Cultured people have lived under a certain amount of compulsion for a certain amount of time to acquire a finely tuned awareness of how things have been done in the history of civilization and (a grossly neglected part of the equation today) why they have been done so. Most of our recently arrived neighbors used to live hand-to-mouth back home, and have never been able to nourish more than their bodies, if even that much. Their minds are untrained, their talents unexplored. They read scarcely or not at all in any language. Their Spanish is heavily dialectic and would leave the great books of their own heritage a mystery to them if these tomes were read aloud by some missionary poet. Their music consists of squawking bands as remote from an orchestra as the Symphóny at old Ebbets Field. Their theater is limited to serialized soap operas on Telemundo featuring tonsorially negligent men and mujeres apasionadas in an indefinite sequence of rapacious liaisons. ("Women Enflamed by Passion", to translate my phrase, is actually the title of one such interminable narrative.) Their art is such as one might find adorning any large wall in an urban neighborhood where ordinances about graffiti go ignored. (Visit the new museum of Latino Art in Dallas and judge for yourself.) Their religion is a hodge-podge of Native American superstitions stirred into superficially selected shreds of a colorful Catholic calendar, the result supplying such wholesome spectacles as people crawling along busy urban sidewalks on their knees to the cathedral before the feasts of special saints.
I had intended to add substance to my comments by detailing several specific encounters I and my family have had with emissaries of this "rich culture" lately. I am so disturbed by the potential suggestion that my view may be uncharitable, however, that I shall save my list for one more week. Con permiso, I will instead attempt to explain why throwing the floodgates open to a "culture of the uncultured" is itself not cruelly devoid of charity only because it is obtusely so. (That is, those who hold the "Come one, come all!" position do not deserve to be called wicked saboteurs only because they are blockheaded fools.) It isn’t a matter of protecting our wealth while our neighbors starve. If we pity the plight of the Mexican peasant—and it is indeed pitiable—then we should lend a helping hand to the Mexican government in every reasonable and affordable way. Our relief organizations should truck tons of canned goods down to the areas hit hardest, and our doctors should volunteer their time on missions of mercy (as so many of them already do). In short, we should act as we usually act when a populace not mired in civil war or sealed up by a dictator is struck by disaster anywhere in the world.
What neither compassion nor common sense requires of us is to admit these same poor by the million into our own nation to occupy jobs which American citizens do not to want. If we ourselves refuse construction jobs and hash-slinging jobs and nanny jobs, then why do we refuse them? Is not this infusion of cheap, exploitable labor merely allowing us to turn our collective head (and turn it temporarily—for the problem will come boomeranging back upon us with multiplied force) away from volatile conditions in our system? The minimum wage is a bad idea, and excessive unionization of certain workplaces is suicidal: I agree with conservative commentators on these points. It is equally true, however, that life in a fast-food kitchen is hell for anyone with half a brain after just a few months. We ought to be asking why there are suddenly so many unsavory, almost bestializing jobs in an economy touted to be so progressive. Why are we developing an ever-broader tier of low-paid drudges? The crux of the matter lies not in the pay, but in the drudgery. Our misplacement of emphasis says much about why the problem got so very out of hand.
People will embrace relative poverty if a meaningful toil accompanies it. A man who finds spiritual rewards in making original garden sculptures, though they barely pay his bills, is a civilized success story… but such men have grown extinct. What ever happened to the mom-and-pop shops along Main Street—the diners and the hobby stores and the aromatic tooled-leather shops? Between local tax codes, the minimum wage, federal laws mandating full access for the disabled, and OSHA, this idyllic scene has been shot to hell. Its demise is NOT primarily the work of the Internet, but rather of our own malfunctioning, overheating political system.
Thanks to the invasion from the south, the critical issues of this calamity have not been forced before the general public. In fact, the invaders have caused the "noble trade" to disappear from the American workplace at an accelerated rate. The demands which this new class of urban poor puts upon our public services explain to some extent the rising rents and taxes along Main Street, while the temptation which such unskilled (and often undocumented) labor represents to businesses in the red has elicited ever more intrusive workplace legislation. (By that I do NOT mean that the workplace is safer--far from it: I mean precisely that abuses now run rampant, causing the blindered bureaucratic intelligence to fling more strictures at the problem and hence further pressure law-abiding businesses.) Only the python-like coils of impersonally run and cheaply merchandising chains can slither through the fine mesh of legal and fiscal restrictions—and the chains, of course, apply their own kind of squeeze to the independent small business.
The result everywhere has been fatal for what we fuzzily call the "quality of life". One day Ma’s Diner is simply gone, replaced by Jack-in-the-Pancake’s Drive-Thru. The labor for a hundred such malodorous eyesores is now available at a snap, and so is the clientele. The new workers don’t care about Ma’s century-old recipes, and their families don’t care that Ma herself used to come out from the kitchen and chat. They just want their paychecks and their taquitos.
For clientele, ultimately, defines quality. The foreign "culture" which is now being lumped heavily into the remains of our own sets a premium on fried foods with lots of sugar and cholesterol. Its collective palate shows all the finesse of a kindergartner in a candy store. People who have survived on tortillas, gritty goat meat, and maybe a few insects for years are of course thrilled to make the acquaintance of the ice cream cone. In Ireland of a hundred years ago, children often received apples and oranges for Christmas—and were charmed by their sweetness. Imagine if, at that historical instant, an invading force of Baby Ruth machines had disembarked in Bantry Bay and followed the path of the Vikings! As we are surrounded and, slowly but surely, immersed in the taste of a deprived people which cannot recover from its first heavenly debauch upon sugar, tinsel, and gimmickry, we shall ourselves have no more than glittering, glutinous trash to choose from. For in its masses, this people shall control our market: their buying power will determine what’s on the shelves of our local stores just as their work force will encourage the proliferation of a new kind of assembly line where human hands are cheaper than machines. Our tastes of every sort will be defined downward. There’s not a thing on earth we can do to stop it as long as our communities swell with populations that have "had nothing" before now. As the Mexican proverb goes, Lo del agua al agua: "what comes from the water goes back to the water"—meaning that you can’t rear a Shakespeare or Michelangelo from a horde whose objective every day is lure a new beau’s kisses or find a V-8 pick-up at a bargain or bring home a six-pack. Don’t expect sugar-addicts to order the fruit salad.
For what "have-nothings" want when they finally get to have something is precisely the nauseous materialistic nothingness of dross and candy-coating. The nightly news on Telemundo routinely carries stories about wretched people caught crossing the border who are spurred on by esperanza—the hope of a new life. But for what, exactly, do they hope? For a political regime which does not send dissidents to mass graves and gulags? No. For a society which does not bully and murder its minorities? No. This hope looks ahead toward what we ourselves, in our folly and depravity, have taken to thinking of as "the American way of life": SUVs, TVs, VCRs, fast food, movies, air-conditioning, sophisticated medical care—the last of these, all too often, pledged to addressing the excesses inspired at least indirectly by the others. Is this really a hope that we should honor in another people, any more than we should honor its consummation in the flabby, etiolated images which eye us from the mirror? Send the canned goods and the doctors down, by all means—but don’t bring up more hoards of cannon fodder for our stupifying malls and motorways!
If there is something like a genuine Mexican culture (and I believe there is), then let cultured men like Vicente Fox figure out how to reintegrate these footloose droves whom their culture has left behind. It is uncharitable in the extreme—it is murderous to all the higher striving of the human spirit—to suffocate under the mass’s beloved bread and circuses our culture’s few remaining embers of art, literature, music, philosophy, and religion itself (especially the Christian religion, which is about saved souls and not saved societies, about the individual’s most intimate places and not about a well-fed mass’s comfort zones). Some of us were just getting around to chucking our idiot box out by the curb. We were just getting around to funding a community symphony. We were just getting around to preserving some of our old streets from automobile traffic, and to constructing viable mass-transit systems. Now this. Now we might as well keep the TV, because the library doesn’t invest in classic novels—it’s too busy buying Spanish translations of Agatha Christy (not buying, be it noted, the complete works of Unamuno or Ortega y Gasset in Spanish). Now we might as well purchase our favorite symphonies on CD while we can, because there’s no money even in recording them any longer. Now we might as well either turn Main Street into a quasi-historical tourist trap, or wave in the bulldozers… because all of its shops have gone out of business. The liberal "Greenie" who aspires to eat organic food, keep carbon monoxide out of the air, and spare the neighborhood a Wal-Mart Supercenter would do well to notice that these causes are all casualties of the new "charity". And as for the conservative… I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out just what our most vocally self-styled conservatives picture themselves as conserving; but if you think Big Business isn’t salivating over the chance to sell more cars, more burgers, more videos, more movie tickets, more real estate, more beer—more American Dream—then dream on.
This isn’t a war between races, or between cultures, or even between political parties. It is a war between culture and vulgarity, with our fellow Americans selling out whatever little bit of the former we still possess to an enormous third party that hasn’t a clue.
LO DEL AGUA AL AGUA: PART ONE
A couple of weeks ago, I read an Italian short story titled "La Dote di Clementina" ("Clementina's Dowry") by Giovanni Guareschi. Some who may not recognize the author's name will surely remember his most famous character, the irrepressible village priest Don Camillo. In this particular story, however, Don Camillo has a negligible role. The plot involves a young landowner's attempt to collect the yearly rent from his tenant, or mezzadra. As in most of Guareschi's stories, the confrontation pits demagogic rhetoric against practical reality. The mezzadra has bought into the Marxist notion--lock, stock, and barrel--that because he works the land, he should have to pay no rent for it. Armed with righteous indignation, he cheats shamelessly on the accounts whose charges are passed along to the landowner. He has further undertaken all sorts of changes on the property without informing the owner, since he, as the laborer whose hands touch the soil, knows best what will enhance productivity; yet he insists in the same breath that the year has not been a fertile one, entirely missing the irony which this claims generates beside his argument for the late "improvements". The landowner, then (who turns out to be an urban clerical worker with hard-won savings invested in a single piece of property), finds himself having no say about what trees are plowed under, virtually no rent money to deposit, and a stack of inflated bills to pay. For good measure, the mezzadra's son unchains the guard dog while the landowner's little daughter Clementina is picking flowers. She is rescued, fortunately, with only minor wounds. The property was to be Clementina's dowry when she married: her father had imagined himself to be providing for her future.
Guareschi is usually an optimist. This is quite the darkest story of his that I have ever read. What rendered it twice as haunting to me was its resonance with certain elements of our own cultural crisis in contemporary America, half a century away from Guareschi's post-war Italy. Few of us in this nation understand what Shakespeare called "country matters". The life of working the land is a hard one--and it seldom brings out the better side of human nature, unlike the pretty picture which Thomas Jefferson and other well-to-do planters offered of it. The work is brutal, and it turns men to brutes. The energy expended upon manual labor leaves none for thought (and thinking does burn calories--a surprising number of them). The merciless repetition of chores is further mind-numbing. If you fancy a fruit-picker or ditch-digger adumbrating a new theorem or composing a new symphony as he drudges, just try it. Try it for one hour.
The mezzadra has tried it for centuries--or gave up trying centuries ago, I should say, so that the embrace of a brutal stupor became his patrimony. Especially when he does not actually own the land over which he toils, he exercises his wits only in inventing new ways to steal and cheat when on the job and to maximize his debauches when off the job. We can certainly view his dehumanization with sympathy: we certainly should so view it. In fact, we Americans have largely purged this kind of existence from our midst. Even the remotest little farm in Appalachia or the Ozarks is no longer a scene of squalid tenantry and dirt-floor hovels.
Because we have been spared this view of reality's unsightly underbelly, we don't quite know what to make of our neighbors from the south who have grown up--for generations--in just such conditions. We feel sorry for them: we want to extend a helping hand. But our hand may come back to us stripped of ring and wristwatch, because our needy neighbor is none too fastidious about cutting a few corners to make a few extra bucks.
We need to begin looking soberly at just what kind of bargain we are striking with "latino culture". Frankly, the indocumentados pouring across our borders have partaken very little of Mexican or Guatemalan culture. They have occupied their culture's very bottom rung since the cradle, for the most part. The Spanish they speak is street slang, of Spanish literature they have no inkling, and with Old World Catholicism they have grotesquely twined a hodge-podge of florid and often lurid superstitions. Tquitos, fudbol, and Mariachi bands do not a culture make. They bring to us from the south, rather, virtually nothing which is not skin-deep, because the campesino, like the mezzadra, has never lived life deeper than the skin. That he has never enjoyed the chance of doing so is a human tragedy: I think of Saint-Exupéry's famous essay on "Mozart assassiné" ("Mozart assassinated": the working-class child whose genius will never be developed) at the end of Terre des Hommes. In our grief over this tragedy, however, should we give our own culture a heavy infusion of culture-less, analphabetic peasantry? Is this some noble act of contrition on our part... or is it, rather, a cowardly and obtuse sacrifice of our children's future designed to make us feel momentarily better about our comforts--and even, in some cases, to net us a quick profit?
For our own cultural mentality is no longer very high above the blunt brutality of the mezzadra. What hot sun and hard toil did to him, ease and convenience have done to us. We can read, still--just barely--but how many of us do so in any intellectually profitable manner? We can spend our leisure chasing paint across a canvas or melody across a keyboard--but would one in a thousand of us do so rather than watch a football game?
The last thing we need right now, as hi-tech cancers gobble up our ailing culture, is a vast influx of people whop will never miss what we're losing, and who are ready customers for our junk food, junk TV, deafening cars, and deadening intoxicants.
MORE ABOUT BOORS: THE PEPSI GENERATION CONTINUES TO SPEW
The state of being engulfed in the culture of boorishness is downright depressing for those of us who do not regard "aggressive" and "in-your-face" as uplifting qualifiers. Since we have grown to be such a tiny minority, perhaps it is we who should adjust--by lobotomy, maybe, or with the help of some social lubricant such as Scotch on the rocks. But I've known a good many people (of the few I've known to be possessed of any manners) who were no less polite when in their cups; and as far as having part of one's brain disconnected, coarseness is not directly linked to intelligence. Bright people can be very rude, and people of scarcely average endowment can be charmingly polite.
If, then, I may continue a speculation from last week whose dreary prospect somewhat intimidated me at that time, I would observe that there are several objective reasons why we may suppose our age to have become especially vulgar. I shall not offer further specific examples here, but general causes: that is, when I say "reasons", I mean that we may deductively arrive at our sad cultural destination as well as inductively divine it under a heap of malodorous encounters. How could we not begin with television? The relationship of TV to vulgarity dates far earlier than the virtual abandonment of formal censorship with the advent of cable's free-for-all. Television's destiny is to shock. The TV audience is passive (as compared, say, to a reading audience or the audience at a live performance: the TV-viewer's brain waves have been clinically proved to approximate deep sleep). That audience (with apologies to Marshall McLuhan) must therefore be constantly roused from narcosis. Furthermore, since TV-viewers are a physically immobile bunch, they do not mingle with others of their species remotely as often as their forefathers did. Hence, when they must at last emerge from their lairs for a gallon of milk or a tank of gas, they do not quite know how to respond to an erect biped whose un-choreographed behavior seems to elicit acknowledgment. They gape, grunt, and move on.
More abstractly, since television can tell stories only through visual images, it covers a whole storybook at the speed of light--no time "wasted" on psychological sketches or moralizing Tolstoyan overviews. Even before cable, television serials (westerns, private-eye shows, war dramas, etc.) were greatly strained after a few seasons to come up with new matter. The temptation to supply the deficit at least partially with style rather than with content--with more graphic violence, more explicit sex, and more daring verbal abuse--was irresistible for the industry. And since TV audiences are not practiced in the art of psychological analysis as are literary ones, the person reared on the screen is less aware that people indeed have inner lives, and that such invisible realities must be respected and cultivated.
As we proceed through this rogue's gallery of infamous causes, we naturally find the Internet posed rakishly beside its sire, the Television. We hear ad nauseam that the Net is more "interactive" than TV. Yes... but of what quality is this interaction? The Internet correspondent is faceless, voiceless, and anonymous (or, if he prefers, pseudonymous). He may feel free to claim any outlandish attribute, plot any fiendish crime, or lay any devilish trap without great fear of detection--and certainly none of immediate detection. He's a kid turned loose among an old theater's chests of props, flailing about in disguises of every possible sort. Much fine training we find here for responsible conduct in mature society!
And who could deny the automobile its place among the scoundrels? Cars have probably done more to shorten the fuse of the average temper than any technological wonder ever devised. When people buckle up and turn on the ignition, they often seem to be transformed from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. I have no idea how many outright murders and assaults occur yearly because of car-driving--Road Rage, we are pleased to call it. Even if one factors out those hundreds of victims whose exploits on wheels have caused them to meet with a fist or a bullet, however, one is left with an incalculable number of people who extract themselves from their oh-so-convenient death traps after a narrow escape and proceed to spread the love about their place of employ or their home. At least the Red Baron saluted you as your plane sputtered and nosed downward. The distinct absence of chivalry from the knights of the NASCAR circuit is a fair indication of how much gentillesse we may expect of the amateur patron of freeways.
But all of the causes recited above are, in some measure, clichés, even if their full and true effect upon us is little discussed. Frankly, I am struck that the incidents of rudeness I described in my previous entry revolved, in each case, around a person of approximately my age. In other words, the people whose boorishness has most astonished me lately are not young twits who spend most of their day on the Net, nor even somewhat older twits who were raised by Mr. Rogers and Clifford. As for driving, none of the incidents was in any temporal proximity to a vehicular transit, even though one of them had a bright new truck as its pretext. Taking all the clichés together, there is still something missing, and a statistically critical something. I honestly don't think all three of the causes above would suffice to account for one human being's addressing another as I was addressed on the occasions in question. Take a computer Geek, more familiar with "Dexter" (of cartoon fame) than with his kid brother, who has just narrowly averted a head-on with a tractor trailer... and you have a young man breathing a deep sigh. When Saint-Exupéry's pilots in Vol de Nuit got their feet on the ground after weathering some terrific cyclone or snowstorm, they were not voluble conversational partners, but neither were they interlocutory barracudas. A gape and a grunt may be curt, but they are not bloodthirsty.
I am forced to the conclusion that some infection within my own generation has been germinating these many years, and is now, as we collectively turn over the half-century mark, envenoming our exchanges. We were the "me" generation. We weren't going to take any crap off of anyone. In college, we dressed the way we wanted (or the way everyone else dressed, which we thought was the same thing) and demanded that our courses be "relevant". In our private lives, we demanded that all our "needs"--social, sexual, aesthetic, recreational--be met, and we left behind us a train of abandoned children and spouses as we pursued our "duty" to be what we really were. In our ever-so-important careers, we found the ultimate fulfillment of that duty: for in a family, one is always sacrificed to others, but a brilliant career is YOU making good--and thanks to NO ONE! Trouble is, careers turn out to be as dependent upon human networks as families, and the connections are infinitely more tawdry. We who had insisted that there was no abiding beauty or goodness in the world, that all hierarchies were mere constructs of propaganda and power--we proved our own case with a vengeance. At the ripe age of fifty, we find ourselves mired in the politics of bald spoils and patronage. We find our trophies heavily beholden to having finessed the right party at the right time, and we find our laurels woven of old-fashioned cash and of titles advertising such transparent pomposity that we choke on them. It is our curse that even the most depraved soul suffers flashes of honesty. Honesty, indeed, is the engine of Hell. Though we carefully conceal our searing disappointment at the heap of ash which "self-actualization" has proved to be, it begins to leak out more and more whenever we open our mouths under pressure. We are the testy, surly, disillusioned wrecks of devoted egotism.
Despite everything, I think our children may turn out better--TV, the Internet, Road Rage, and all. There seems to be no empirical reason to suppose that they will learn elegant manners; but the poison of self-obsession, let us hope, is transmitted neither by gene nor by photon.
AMERICA THE GUTTURAL: A CRUDE CULTURE
ON ITS WAY DOWN THE DRAIN
It's been a tough year for me so far I have had ostensibly professional educators refuse explanations to me about very peculiar happenings at my son's school to the point that, finally, the principal and the owner of this once-classy operation would not grant my wife or me an interview. (We had to move our son elsewhere as a result, at a cost of thousands of dollars to us.) I was quite ready for baseball season in the wake of such misery. Some open air, a chance to hit the kids some flies... but the volunteer coach chewed me out this week for trying to get a few of the boys together over the weekend without his permission. I was given to understand in very blunt terms and in an extremely rude tone that only he calls practices, even if I just invite one kid to join my son and me (which is how our Saturday b.p. ended up). The suggestion of pedophilia was floated. Holding down my temper, I observed that I had been checked and rechecked by the league over years of volunteering myself, and that my papers had gone in this spring, as well; whereupon he thrust his mug at me and growled, "I don't have any paperwork on you!"
There was a modicum of justice in his objection, so I backed off and apologized. Yet I grew more and more offended in afterthought. The invitation I had extended, after all, was to parent and son--I had made no pretense of wanting to lead any practice on my own (and I should perhaps note for baseball aficionados that the team had practiced once in two weeks). More to the point, there is a way of lodging this kind of complaint which does not involve growls, commands, or ugly insinuations. It can be done easily and pleasantly. "You know, old chum, I'm a bit concerned that all this legal rigamarole may hold me responsible if someone were to get hurt on my watch....." Inasmuch as the parent's presence would constitute obvious parental consent to the risky behavior of practicing without Il Duce in attendance, I can't really imagine my particular troll's outburst as anything more than precisely a desire to play the mighty autocrat of the anthill. (Such motives are not unknown in the annals of Little League volunteerism.) But conceding an error for the sake of argument, I remain almost spellbound by the sheer boorishness of the response. Children, springtime, a game... and this is the tone which the man chooses to adopt as he presides over it all.
Wedged somewhere between these two incidents is the appalling character who accused me of scratching the door of his highly expensive new truck in a grocery-store parking lot. I had already noticed him quibbling over some point at the check-out stand which required that the manager be summoned. Now here he came prancing along behind me and shouting (at a distance of thirty feet and without having even brought my vehicle's opened door into full view), "Thanks for scratching my truck!" Since his bright new chariot was indeed almost too wide to fit into the parking space, I had needed to open my passenger door very carefully to ensure no contact. I at first thought that the fellow was hatching some kind of joke, or perhaps speaking to someone beyond me. When I realized that he was in earnest and had me in mind, I was almost overcome with indignation. I announced that I had taken great pains not to scratch his pox-ridden fender, and I invited him to come take a look for himself. Something in my delivery must have dissuaded him from accepting my offer; but, as I withdrew to return the shopping buggy, he again shouted after me, "You'll be hearing from my lawyer!" Of course, I never heard from anyone of that distinguished profession.
Why are these things happening nowadays with such virulence and such frequency? I've been slandered before, stabbed in the back before--I was an academic for about twenty years, and my dorsal ribs show the effects. But the only verbal abuse I ever received in all that time was actually written, most of it came from one or two people, and it was snide rather than brutally aggressive. Now the very word "aggressive" beams with positive connotations, along with disturbing words like "passionate" and "attitude" (when used weakly as a synonym for "arrogance", as in "have an attitude"). Our ever-elevating TV fare has been treating us for three or four years now (I suppose--I haven't really tracked it closely) to live demonstrations of callous or insulting behavior, to which "reality" is oddly appended as an adjective. We have become a crude people. We are quite possibly the most vulgar rabble on the face of the earth. If you have actually traveled beyond the bounds of the United States, you won't need convincing. Even a terrorist who holds you at gunpoint for the greater glory of the PLO or FARC is unlikely to spit such personal contempt all over you as your neighbor, who probably has an American flag posted prominently in his pricey SUV. (And what, by the way, is the primum mobile of the SUV? To be higher up than one's fellow drivers, to be able to intimidate them with one's height, and in fact to stand a better chance of survival--and a better chance of slaughtering the other party--in a collision.)
Having laid out this most sickening quality of contemporary life, I don't know if I have the moral stamina left over to analyze it. I moved my child from the school whose operators refused to speak to me. I have taken steps to ensure that my path crosses no more with the silly old boor who considers himself a baseball wizard. My strangely timid antagonist at the grocery store never had any intention of closing for battle. We must try to avoid these things, I am convinced. When they do occur, we must wipe their authors from our acquaintance like dung off a shoe. I am a snob that way. I don't keep company with insulting people: I don't converse with them, I don't give them the satisfaction of a flyting, I don't acknowledge their presence. To hell with them.
But I find my world--my son's world--rapidly growing very, very sparse as I winnow out the chaff. Who will be left, in the end? My son tells me that his schoolmates routinely use the "f--t" word for flatulence in front of their teachers without any correction. Going downhill is easier than going uphill, and what is America about, if not ease?
I shall leave it at that: I may or may not return to analyze the matter further. For now, I simply pose all of the very few who will ever read these remarks the question, What is America about? Precisely what are we fighting to protect--precisely what do we hold dear behind those ubiquitous flags on our bumpers? The right to say any damn thing to any damn person at any damn time we please? Is this our moral claim before the world to a higher state of civilization?
THE MISSED MESSAGE OF 9/11: TECHNOLOGY
I concluded my previous entry with a paragraph in which the following observation figured prominently: "In the coming century, every bright kid with a chemistry set will have the potential of holding a city for ransom, so we might as well get used to sitting on cellars full of botulism and phosgene gas." It had not occurred to me at the time that I had authored anything remotely controversial, but apparently I must tender further explanation. Make no mistake. The present international crisis is not primarily about Christianity vs. Islam, or freedom vs. tyranny, or West vs. East, or oil companies vs. an unsuspecting public. It is about technology. The human race has always included in its sad ranks a certain number of conscience-impaired mass-murderers. What would Dionysius of Syracuse have done with a nuclear bomb, or Caligula, or Genghis Khan? What separates our bad guys from the bad guys of yesteryear is not a widening chasm within the soul, but the sheer material existence of means to spread exponentially greater carnage. Contention between religious faiths and ethnic groups and tribes of varying customs has always existed. What makes such chronic wrangles a threat to the very survival of most complex life-forms on the planet is not the insurgency of this or that fanatical sect or the unhappy placement of this or that national boundary: it is the sheer material existence of technology which can split an atom or culture a deadly virus.
To speak of a "war on terror", therefore, as if we aspired to squelch a bunch of wild men from the hills with poisonous spears is absolutely absurd. The "terror" is the fact of our living in a world where murder by the million has become entirely feasible. And as the new century advances, acts of vast carnage will become more and more feasible. Their means and modus operandi will become relatively cheap and accessible. Twisted adolescents who once smuggled shotguns into school will, instead, plant toxins in the drinking water or spores in the ventilation system. Weirdos who once scaled towers with sniper rifles will leave "dirty bomb" suitcases in malls. Lunatic patres familiae who have decided upon blessing their children with a no-survivors murder-suicide will broaden the embrace of their diseased love in Oklahoma City fashion, driving the crew in a chemical-laden van to McDonald's at rush hour and placing their order by detonator. These people won't share the same religion, the same ethnicity, or the same frustration. Most will probably not even have a "cause" in any political sense. The single common denominator will be psychological derangement. In a world where anyone can find out how to build a nuclear bomb on the Internet, everyone is a potential terrorist.
Existing terrorist cells are in the vanguard of this harrowing phenomenon only because they represent a kind of support group of similarly deranged minds which also, in many cases, enjoys substantial outside funding. In the case of the 9/11 attacks, the technology used to kill thousands within minutes was, indeed, neither engineered by the terrorists themselves nor ever intended by its engineers to be destructive. The same may be said of last month's slaughter on Spanish commuter trains: the key ingredient of the destruction was not home-made bombs, but a means of mass transportation which forces hundreds of people into very confined spaces and moves them all along at hundreds of kilometers per hour. In our cultural quest of speed and ease, we have created "conveniences" whose slightest malfunction can produce a lengthy butcher's bill, quite without the malevolence of a single perverted mind. (Consider a ten-car pile-up caused by a cell phone.) Inasmuch as perverted minds have never been in particularly short supply throughout history, our future "comforts" are bound to carry an ever higher price tag in human blood.
There will be no end to this war. The genie is already out of the bottle. One of the worst things we could do would be to pretend that he is our private genie--an American genie, not a malign spirit whose range is the wide world--and to launch ourselves into an orgy of low-tech or anti-tech alternatives. On a neighborhood scale, to be sure, life without congested superhighways and robotically orchestrated high-rises might be a very pleasant, refreshingly human objective toward which to strive. We shall never be able to afford the luxury, however, of forsaking a "research" interest in technology. To do so would be to put ourselves, as a nation, at the mercy of the next Genghis Khan who surrounds himself with bright, highly paid, morally bankrupt whiz kids. If we had engaged in no arms race in the fifties, how would we have kept Kruschev from turning New York into a workers' anthill, Nevada into a gulag, and California into a Black Sea resort for the Party elite? Would we all have lain down on the train tracks like Gandhi's followers? The train, of course, would be largely metaphorical, even in the fifties. Trains leave mangled bodies behind them. Nuclear missiles are comparatively clean to the dull conscience, if not the lungs, since they vaporize potentially troubling images.
I am astonished, frankly, that so few people have thought through our present predicament. The big question facing our civilization is not how to contain Wahabi fanaticism: it is how to stay on the technological cutting edge while keeping our daily lives from being poisoned by a steady, uncritical infusion of newness. A certain amount of "suppression" is clearly called for--and, in a free society, such a cure may be worse than the complaint. After all, if an internal elite knows how to zap people with omega-rays, why need we be looking over our shoulder for Genghis Khan? There will be quite enough in the mysterious building downtown to give us nightmares.
At present, our response is actually not so very ineffectual. If people who use high-tech to exterminate hundreds or thousands of lives at once know that we will inexorably kick the hell out of them for so doing, they will surely show some restraint. Massive retaliation, as it was called in the fifties. And it worked. But what about the lunatic who doesn't mind having the hell kicked out of him--who intends, indeed, to blow himself to hell along with his victims? There are no easy answers to this conundrum--and perhaps no permanent answers at all. (When were there ever, in human affairs?) But to refuse to ask the necessary questions--to hear and see no evil, instead--is criminally negligent. It is time that we soberly apply our minds to the reality before us.
DON'T TOUCH THAT VIAL, or
HOW TO AVOID PLACING YOUR GUMSHOE ON A STORY
I'd like to get this off my chest. I shall declare openly, first of all, that I do not follow "late-breaking news" with any zeal, comb the Net for intelligence reports consigned to obscurity, consult a ring of contacts delicately placed in the Pentagon, or otherwise tap rare sources of information. I rely pretty much on the same broadcasts and magazines for my news as everyone else; and, lately, I have been partaking rather less of these than my usual little, for the shallow assessments which echo through them all begin to tire me and, in some way which I feel obligated to combat, to nudge me toward profound cynicism.
What I do possess of the not-so-ordinary, I think, is a knowledge of human nature. I can read people fairly well--perhaps far better than is healthy for me. My two decades of plugging away at teaching jobs, from elementary classes to graduate seminars, while the administrators who ruled me and my students from Cloudy Olympus made one bone-headed, arrogant decision after another have inculcated in me a talent for finding hidden motives. I don't like to see people tarred too thickly, on the one hand, because those applying the stick invariably have reasons of their own for their theatrical outrage. Virtue's temple is not kept clean by pouring pitch upon the surrounding landscape. On the other hand, sometimes both adversaries will be altogether too forthcoming about their mixed motives... and then you may be sure that they are conspiring to hide a truth which does neither of them much credit.
In illustration of this latter phenomenon, I will say that I am not at all satisfied with the "faulty intelligence" verdict espoused by both sides of the aisle concerning Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (a phrase which will not be abbreviated hereafter as WMD: I reserve such shorthand for baseball, where it is a fully appropriate means of discouraging idle passers-by). There were tractor-trailers observed by aerial reconnaissance in hasty flight from from Iraq into Syrian during the invasion. This much was revealed to the public some months ago, though the many pregnant follow-up stories trailing red "report me" banners were universally ignored by our "news hounds". A recent "on the ground" investigation (the sort of thing we used to call in situ) of suspicious Iraqi facilities concluded that these large trucks could not have transported very much at all in the way of massive weaponry. Yes, but a weapon with massively destructive capabilities does not itself have to be massive. Indeed, that assumption, in our time, strikes me as romantic to the point of obtundity. Given the clear evidence of protective suits found all over Iraq by our soldiers, and given Saddam's predilection for using poisonous gas against the Iranians and the Kurds, the obvious inference would be that the vehicles were transporting stashes of lethal chemicals, of biological toxins, and of the lab equipment necessary to create more such horrors.
So the next question becomes, Why didn't spokesmen for the Bush Administration tender this explanation? That Democrats were quite content with the oversight inspires little wonder. Now the President can be portrayed all the way to November as a trigger-happy fool who risked thousands of lives--and sacrificed some of them--on the basis of flimsy intelligence. Why, though, would the Whitehouse choose to respond to these indignant accusations with the anemic observation that everybody else who received confidential briefings--Democratic chairs of committees, heads of foreign governments, the lot--was equally fooled? Why bow, however stiff-necked and in ever so august company, beneath the yoke of having been a patsy?
It has been my strong suspicion for several months that the Bush entourage had no stomach for carrying the war into Syria, and was no doubt convinced, in any case, that the Syrians would yield to diplomatic pressure with a slick pliancy unknown to Saddam. The nerve gas and anthrax are in some concrete vault entered through some desert cave... and there they may reasonably be supposed to stay, as long as the U.S. continues to squeeze its fist around Israel's rein. The high command does not want the expense and bad press of a general war with Islam, and Syria's terrorism-friendly regime has just enough sense to know (unlike Saddam) that it must loose big in any direct confrontation with American forces. So the cave remains sealed.
If this sort of thing were to be leaked to the public, charges would rain down upon the President that he had allowed the objective of the invasion to slip through his fingers--and they would indeed be very telling charges, however reliable Syria's sly calculations of self-interest may be in comparison to Saddam's lunatic bluster. We should have intercepted or destroyed these trucks, and we didn't. We failed: the invasion failed. Given that alternative, I can well imagine that President Bush is just as happy to take some of the slaps dealt in the general direction of the intelligence community--whose problems, yes, date well back to the days of President Clinton.
If there were no doomsday vials and canisters in those trucks, then what, pray, was in them? Blue Bunny ice cream? Gear for the Iraqi national soccer team? Some of Saddam's pricier porn? Or was Iraq's formidable teamsters' union trying to save its livelihood? Why would anyone in his right mind flee strafing airplanes in a target which is both highly visible and wholly incapable of evasive maneuvers? How can anyone who ponders these facts for thirty seconds not conclude that we allowed something very precious to the enemy to slip through our net when we did no more at the Syrian border than frown darkly?
As far as it goes, Syrian self-interest probably is reliable. To the extent that Saddam has no more vials in his hip pocket, the war was indeed a qualified success. In the coming century, every bright kid with a chemistry set will have the potential of holding a city for ransom, so we might as well get used to sitting on cellars full of botulism and phosgene gas. What I should like to know most particularly in this case is why our journalists seem incapable of pursuing large trucks along empty highways. What good does it do any citizen of the republic to tune into any broadcast or pick up any magazine when all of our hundreds of news outlets merely reverberate with the same kiss-and-tell gossip? Is a pathological aversion to curiosity a prerequisite for being awarded a byline?
THE FEARFUL VOID OF EASY, INSTANT COMMUNICATION
A brief rumination this time, for Spring bringeth many chores. I have been wanting for some while to log certain experiments I have performed--with myself as Guinea pig--concerning the electronic screen's effects upon a human body hunched over a keyboard two feet away. I will anticipate my findings by saying that we would be darn well advised to look more closely at such matters before surrendering our children's future to the latest technology. I doubt that we will look more closely. We Americans not only like new toys--we also depend upon them for our livelihood. If citizens up and down the block were suddenly to start consulting sound reason, good taste, physical health, and true need in their purchasing habits, the economy would take a nose-dive. The new diseases and neuroses attendant upon our present "change is always good" mentality, on the other hand, will surely create markets for new kinds of chemists, therapists, analysts, gurus, soothsayers, investigative reporters, and lawyers. It's the stupid economy, stupid.
All of that for next time. The reflection which oppresses me this week is of a much more intimate nature. I have had occasion recently to write several people short notes--I mean write, as in 'guide an ink pen manually across a page". Of course, I was at first struck by how laborious this once-familiar, now-forgotten endeavor really is; but my initial discouragement was soon compensated by the further recognition that, in some way, I was writing much better than I do when I hammer out a memo on the keyboard. I think it was the image of a face actually pulling the page from an envelope, opening it, and studying it which gripped my fantasy. I was doing something very surprising, very unorthodox, in scribbling out each word, and my effort would be sure to call attention to itself. It would create a small drama. I thought repeatedly of Vermeer's expectant young mother bent over a letter beside a curtained window. Picture it. The product of a living hand rests in your hands. With a little application, you can find tell-tale signs of haste or discomfort or loving flourish or contemplative pause. Handwriting experts claim to be able to reconstruct a person's state of mind and essential character traits from such testimony. And this fingerprint of the soul is yours to keep in some secret drawer for the rest of your days, if you so choose. You can reread it a dozen times in a day, and you can draw it out of its hiding place after it has lain unnoticed for a dozen years.
Meditating on these dramas, I say, made my writing better somehow. I felt that my expressions were more pointed, my metaphors more apt and rare. I do not contend that electronic "word processing" (gad, what a phrase--sounds like something in a re-sealable plastic bag!) does not also improve writing. Manuscript is virtually irretractible: make a mistake, and you just have to start over, or else forge ahead. A scratch-out or two can be tolerated... but what about a mistake in logic or in register? Sometimes "forging ahead" consists of trying to reconcile a poorly chosen expression to the rest of a sentiment, and in the process of brokering a compromise you end up saying what you never meant to say, what you never really felt. The word-processing program has made my formal writing infinitely more exact and respectable. It has made my writing, in a way, more honest.
But I'm talking about informal notes, not literary essays or scholarly arguments. In the past five years, I have several times uncovered a long-lost friend (usually by means of an Internet search) and enjoyed a renewal of acquaintance through e-mail. In every single case, however, the pattern was this: a flurry of epistolary activity for a week or two, then exchanges punctuated by ever-widening lacunae of weeks or months, and at last... utter radio silence. The "convenience" of electronic communication allowed us to babble back and forth about all we had done, about all we hoped to do still... and suddenly there was nothing more to say. A kind of disillusionment set in which left me more bitter, I think, than if I had never re-discovered these people at all. My life, their lives--life--suddenly seemed a mere clutter of claptrap that could be squeezed into a few clichés. The exchange had happened much too fast: we had not had sufficient time to digest all that the other person was saying, was writing. Saying, yes--it was too much like verbal chatter, yet without the reassurance of visual contact. No actual smiles, winces, laughs, winks, shudders, light touches of finger on elbow. We had become "icons": we had turned ourselves into "virtual friends".
I miss that feeling of being able to curl up with a letter late at night, after everyone else has turned in, and re-read it minutely, mulling over possible responses which, of course, would also be put into writing. It's one of the things you don't really know you miss until a ghost creeps out of a closet--but I suggest that there are a great many such ghosts in our closets. Are our lives better now because we're "in closer contact"? But what kind of contact... and who are we?
In all questions about values, the answer is always lurking in the criteria. If more and quicker contact is our desideratum, then yes, our lives are better. But is more and quicker also better? How do we measure quality? Yesterday, as I sat in an overflowing parking lot and awaited my son's release from his new, "college preparatory" private school, I looked up from my letter-writing and realized that not one of the soccer moms surrounding me was reading any sort of printed matter. Not one. They were chattering on cell phones, chattering through ground-down windows, gazing into empty space as radios chattered... but nothing was being deeply processed inside. These parents who were so zealous for their kids to hit the books were, by all the evidence of their leisure, a bookless people.
If we make ourselves so shallow that we no longer miss the bygone experience of depth, will we then be happy... and if so, will our happiness deserve to be called human?
AMBITUS EDAX RERUM: HOW SELF-PROMOTION
HAS POISONED OUR LIVES
I have once again been forced away from the screen for some short while, and not ungratefully. (On another occasion, I will devote a piece to the measures which I now take routinely to keep the monitor from affecting my health: we're not supposed to have these problems with our new toys, but eventually some of us will be heard.) The specific cause of my absence this time is Spring Break. I have a young son (just turned nine) who needs looking after, and the assignment can be full-time when he's not in school. I lay awake last night wondering when I would ever snatch a few moments to mow the prolific, obstinate weeds which are Spring's harbinger in this corner of the world. I have to do my own yard work, because I am not gainfully employed and cannot afford a yard man. Though I have three degrees, a long list of publications, and years of teaching experience (with a couple of awards thrown in along the way), east Texas is not the sort of place where professors of Latin, French, or World Literature are much in demand. I also trim my own hair to cut domestic spending, and I do the grocery shopping and take several turns in the galley to spare my wife those duties after she drags in from a long day at the office. (She, being far less educated than I, has a much easier time finding employment in a predominantly service economy, though her work as a medical technician is certainly not unskilled. In fact, she earns as much as I ever made teaching college with a Ph.D.)
I derive great satisfaction from directing The Center for Literate Values and, especially, from publishing its quarterly journal Praesidium. The remuneration for those labors is zero in dollars and cents, however; and now that my son is home around the clock, I can scarcely even proofread a book review. Before I retired last night, I spent a few moments marveling at what a royally foul conclusion I had composed for an essay while he and his friend were whooping it up Sunday afternoon.
But in my better moments, I pull myself up short. He takes a lot of my time, sure... let me count the ways. Drafting division problems so that he won't forget all he's learned in advanced-placement math over the break, squeezing in brief Latin lessons which no school in town will offer, teaching him how to strain key ideas from a book about which he has to make an oral report... helping him design a switching yard on his train board, showing him how to use angles and scenes when filming with the cassette camera, taking him around town to find something he calls "paint markers"... fixing the brakes that jammed on his bike, hitting him fly balls, teaching him to bunt.... Not exactly unskilled labor, all that, either. Certain moms used to gripe endlessly about such impingements upon their personhood back in the days of Betty Friedan--and the duties are, to be sure, onerous. In most cases, though, they are also far more interesting than toadying up to some egomaniacal lord of all that he surveys in the boardroom or taking depositions from... well, from the umpteenth unfulfilled wife.
I have already been interrupted no fewer than three times, so I'd better make this fast. Several reflections recommend themselves. First and foremost, I am continually astonished at the amount of psychic energy I have to expend convincing myself that my "new life" is worthwhile. Though I have never been a camp-follower, there are days when I can't quite rid myself of the notion that I have failed because I bring home no paycheck to match my wife's--just a few bucks from tutoring here and there. Though the work I do in rearing my child is perhaps the most important that any person can ever do, something in me would feel less humiliated if I were doing it for strangers' kids and getting handsomely rewarded. What a miserable delusion.
Then, too, I am struck that I really would not be paid very much at all if I performed the vital functions of surrogate parenting for people who were busy selling real estate or preparing tax returns. (I did my own taxes this year, too, at a savings of $100.) When you think about it, I really shouldn't have to be teaching my own son math and Latin--his instruction in those subjects should be fully adequate at school. Yet it appears to be sketchy in the former and non-existent in the latter, largely because no school system or private school has the money to "waste" on such endeavor. As for baseball, recess has been entirely banned in some school districts to create more time for Social Studies and Health--and to discourage little boys, in particular, from letting off steam. To me, playing baseball is as crucial as studying another language at this tender age. A boy has to learn to confront his fears sooner or later--and better sooner than later. One good at-bat of not shying away from close pitches is worth a thousand "I AM somebody" pep-talks at the spirit rally.
Actually, I suspect that all this wretchedness comes down to the "I AM somebody" generation: the bunch of narcissists among whom I grew up--who could find no fulfillment in serving others and being true to principle. Life was all about THEM: all of it was always all about them. They WERE somebody, not just somebody's wife or mom. I have shifted to the feminine because feminism, quite frankly, was the source of the greatest confusion in these matters when I was young. Women caught fire. They craved career and recognition as the conquistadores craved gold. I'm not saying that the men of my day were not also narcissistic. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore were the poster children of SOMEBODY-hood. The former came from a broken family and very humble circumstances, and the latter has devoted his life to satisfying the impossible expectations of an overbearing father.
Yet I persist in believing that male ambition in our time is very much the flip side of female ambition. The men of the eighties and nineties became ruthless at least partly because a new species of career woman was taking no prisoners at the office. Especially in white-collar jobs, success was increasingly defined by the ability to promote oneself, to do whatever the boss wanted, and to jump ship at the right moment. The family came second (many professional women did not feel that their career would accommodate a family, since the non-negotiable biology of pregnancy handicapped them), and ethical behavior came lagging home a distant last. Ambition was the order of the day. Climb to the top--do whatever it takes. Chivalry had discredited this attitude in my grandfather's day, and even somewhat in my father's day. No one wanted to do business with a bounder. Once chivalry itself was thoroughly discredited by the Women's Movement, however, gentlemen turned into nasty little boys fighting nasty little girls for the same spot at the head of the line.
As such lessons percolated throughout the professional world, home life naturally began dissolving. Women thirsted for freedom upon freedom, and men forgot how to hold their tongues and mind their manners. Couples divorced almost routinely once feminism lifted the stigma of separation and, indeed, facilitated the paperwork by disastrously championing no-fault annulments. (Mr. Clinton's "amorous aggression" toward women very probably expresses the fierce resentment of a mother who allowed herself to be victimized.) Even those families which remained together did not always emerge unscathed. The tensions of work in a now murderously competitive marketplace virtually blew out suburban America's green-shuttered windows. Men who can't find work (as I can testify) are apt to grow very sullen. Does anyone, I wonder, remember a single case a man's killing his wife and kids, then executing himself, before about 1975 or 1980? Every year since then has brought a dozen of them.
Today we find ourselves so deeply mired in the squalor of "ambition culture" that even those of us who want to resist it are occasionally infected. Why did it infuriate me that the mother of my son's next-door friend would not allow the boys to play together after their "move up" lest my shabby truck be seen in her ritzy new neighborhood? Why does it annoy me that certain people (including a minister or two) won't speak to my family at church, but fall all over those whose names are enrolled at the country club? Why am I irritated when I get "vanned" in the parking lot of my child's school--i.e., wedged between two lofty blocks of steel and tinted windows whose vast impenetrability renders backing out a dangerous adventure? If I myself were properly enlightened, I would laugh at such folly until tears flowed. Instead, I grind my teeth. Even though I've missed out on nothing by not becoming one of these mannequins, these slaves of show--even though I have profited greatly from my escape--I envy them the sunlight which unveils their disgrace. And that envy, too, is a kind of ambitious folly.
So hug your child, if you have one, and thank God that the disease of ambition has not cut you loose from life's warmest contacts. If you are alone under your roof, then take comfort in making the world a little less diseased for the children growing up around you. That counts as a hug, too.
MESSAGE TO ABC: SEX IS ABOUT HUMAN WILL, NOT NEURONS
My recent hiatus from the blogging desk is owed largely to my struggles (detailed in two previous entries) to retrieve a young boy from an abusive educational institution--a struggle which involved, among much else, completing my 2003 income tax return. (There were financial chasms to be bridged: I won't elaborate.) In the early going, when I had a great many blanks to fill in with names, addresses, and social security numbers, I found myself sitting before the idiot box again. The ceaseless babble of voices uttering low-level, bumper-sticker insights on life's great questions distracted me from my task's tedium just enough to forestall a coma. Leave it to ABC to deliver the most provocative commentary--and yet, finally, the shallowest. Though I have sung the praises of John Stossel in these humble pages, I must say that his employers have lately displayed a positive fixation with the least intellectual of subjects: sex. It wasn't enough that the news magazine 20/20 did a spread on some happy madam in Burleson, Texas, a few weeks ago who has adapted the Tupperware Party format to sex counseling (Dr. Ruth, meet Mary Kaye). Exactly a week ago today (i.e., on February 20), the entirety of the show was devoted to "what women want" out of sex. The situation in Iraq is turning immensely complex, no news reporter has yet pried into those large transport trucks which fled across the Syrian border during the invasion, Haiti and Colombia are teetering on the brink of anarchy... and ABC decides that it's time for another peek inside the panties.
Honestly, I thought maybe we'd left this sort of thing behind in the noisome neon of the seventies and the eighties. I stand corrected. When I brought up 20/20's Web page in an attempt to sharpen up some of my references for this essay, I couldn't even find last week's show amid the stupra sordesque of similar productions. I at first thought I had unearthed the grand' dame of Burleson in a story about one Moma Gena--but closer inspection revealed that Gena's turf is nearer to the Big Apple than Big D. Same story, new protagonist.
Of course, one doesn't have to watch. I indeed did not watch nearly enough of the "special" (as in "hot scoop"?) last Friday to comment upon its particulars. About the time frizzy, peppy Gena or Beulah or whatever her name was announced to an engrossed reporter that she has her soccer-mom clients paint their vulva's portrait, hang their magnum opus in the bedroom, and walk around town with the image fixed in their minds, I hit the button and retreated to Schedule B. Enough is enough... too damn depressing. Why, I've known people all my life who thought of nothing but their genitals. The epic canvas which emerged from this collaborative effort was a scene from Hell--from shallow Hell, Hell's upper reaches (where shallow spirits and airheads burn forever, for those of you who remember Dante). Pathological Genital Fixation (if I may be so bold) brought us the casual hook-up in quest of the perfect orgasm--the valuation of the partner's "performance" over his or her moral character, the easy excuse for infidelity when one spouse was stressed out or physically disabled, the continued devaluation of parenting as one of marriage's purposes. It ushered in the Age of Narcissism. Narcissus, you will recall, was forever spellbound by the sight of his own winsome reflection in a still pond. I can't think of any more literal transposition of the myth than a woman swaying down Main Street in tremulous abstraction before the image of her vulva. A human being curled tightly around his or her omphalos, admitting other people to the idyll only insofar as they kneel and stroke the god, the goddess. Naturally, ABC's source recommended frequent and "creative" self-arousal, as well: I would have inferred as much even if the priestess had remained mum about this part of the oracle. I have long maintained that the inevitable offspring of our digital technology's marriage to our sybaritic lifestyle is the sex-toy robot, programmed with the face and physique of your choice. To every man his harem, to every woman her burly slaves... what a red-letter day that will be for the cause of spiritual maturity!
The truth is thus. If we are purely carnal beings, then we might as well eliminate the weak and exploit the vulnerable. There is no materialist ethic which could candidly and consistently persuade us to do otherwise. But if we believe in a goodness which must be honored in our conduct, then its ends must be extra-sensory, and we must possess a free will which permits us to serve those ends rather than be chained to our animal appetites. To be sure, we are part animal: that's why the subjugation of our carnal nature to our moral will is a matter of supreme importance for our spiritual health. Draw pictures of your genitalia so that you can mull over their glories at the water cooler, and you will eventually be incapable of keeping your hand off the secretary's bust or of rubbing up against the cute new accountant. Your marriage will develop a million hair-line fractures which will run and deepen. Your children will one day understand that they had to grow up in a broken home so that you could feed the hidden god below your waist. Think not? Well, what happens when you give yourself over to anger, or to vengefulness? Does it not consume your energies and divert your attention from needful endeavors? When you fall in love with the safe haven which alcohol or a certain drug puts within your reach, does that "peace" not enslave you and rule your life within a few years? What about fear? What about ambition? Have you known of a single instance where people imaginatively carry about a sketch of such things--be it idyllic or infernal in style--without the eventual ruin of their lives?
ABC announced early on, as a kind of trump card upon all such pragmatic concerns as I have just expressed, that lots of "good sex" actually prolongs life: fewer cancers, fewer heart attacks, fewer strokes. Apparently, we have learned nothing--or want to learn nothing--from the Alfred Kinsey hoax. Are we to envision surveys where people rate their sex life between "one" and "five"? How do we know that all respondents expect the same level of delight from sex? We certainly do know (in the wake of Margaret Mead) that respondents are notoriously dishonest about such things! How do we know that an ordinary cross-section of citizens would even consent to answer such a survey--and how do we know that the surveyors attempted to find such a cross-section? (Many of Kinsey's "ordinary people" turned out to be prison inmates convicted of sex crimes.) Would it not be reasonable to suppose, furthermore, that people who can devote great attention to satisfying their sexual urges probably are not living hand-to-mouth, and hence are less susceptible to cancer and heart disease simply by virtue of living in a less stressful environment?
But let it stand, for the sake of argument, that sexually lively and "fulfilled" people live longer. At what unseen cost, I ask? If they die at ninety instead of seventy-five, are we to conclude that they have led a "good" life? When you choose to make "good sex" a primary value in your life, your choice is self-annihilating from a moral point of view. That is, since you have chosen to go in quest of a certain delightful tingling of neurons, you have excluded as a final objective any modification of the world around you. You have banished yourself from the community of men and women as moral ends in themselves--as creatures made in God's image. With that other image in your mind's forefront, you slowly (or perhaps quickly) lose the ability to do without sex, or do with "bad sex", in deference to a promise solemnly undertaken before someone who has entrusted you with his or her soul's secrets. Sexual pleasure travels up and down the graph, like every other function of our frail mortal envelope. A promise must stand though the body face death for it. Our pledge of fidelity is willed struggle to make a space in life for the spirit's reality. We should walk about with our promises gleaming before our mind's eye--not Mr. Johnson's portrait or that of his colorfully painted lady.
I'm sorry to hear that so many millions of women have never really enjoyed making love to their husbands. Maybe their willingness to discuss intimate details before a satellite-supported camera which they dare not mention on the pillow has something to do with their true problem.
My previous reflections upon the vilification of our sons by certain of their female teachers have drawn a mixed response. Some of my audience fit though few interpret the foregoing exposé of an eight-year-old boy's constant bullying by one teacher as the testy invective of a close relative. They write me that, in my understandable anxiety, I have wrongly applied my cross-hairs to innocent divorcees, feminists, and (most uncharitably of all) teachers in general. Well... it appears to me that I might be looking down the bore of that same weapon. Divorcees, feminists, and teachers, who are understandably anxious about elements of their condition, have perhaps in some cases been too quick to read my remarks as a sweeping detraction. All I have alleged is that academe's airy theories of vast victimhood can provide--and have provided, and are providing--a great many people (in this case women, and specifically teachers) who need to think through personal crises with excellent reasons NOT to think through much of anything. Come on, now! The syllogism isn't that hard to follow, and no one has yet identified any essential flaw in it to me: if women are victims of men, and if the man grows from the boy, then boys must be changed. Hence we have the current campaign in schools to make boys view their conventional conduct as reprehensible.
Let me come at this issue from another angle--from the boy's rather than the female teacher's who has personal problems with men (or with a man whom she misidentifies as men). I'm a writer, a reader, and a thinker. I enjoy these things, though I don't always write well or read deeply or think effectively. They enrich my life. Indeed, I can't imagine how life would be livable without them. It therefore greatly distresses me to see my own son and his playmates embarked upon a veritable cult of "dumbness". They laugh endlessly at "stupid" behaviors like walking into walls. Their favorite cartoons feature characters of exemplary brainlessness, like the obnoxious Ed, Edd, and Eddie--even that irrepressible computer-nerd Dexter has little moral acuity and no common sense. In the writing club which I sponsor at Owen's school, the boys sit around composing and reading stories about Stu and Pid, say, falling into holes or eating the can with the corn. The ever-responsible children's book industry, be it noted, has not abstained from cashing in on the cult. The adventures of the Dumb Bunnies now fill dozens of volumes. The attitude of most librarians I talk to (especially the females) seems to be, "Well, if it gets them to read... what harm?"
What harm? How could any responsible adult of middling intelligence doubt that the celebration of inanity is bound to harm children? My question for this essay, however, is why today's boys thus worship the idiotic. I'm sure my answer will be at least as controversial as last week's comments; but to me, hunkered down here at ground zero with a bunch of elementary-schoolers, nothing could be plainer. Boys act stupid because it is a way of fulfilling to excess the unpleasant images of themselves impressed upon them. The excess is crucial: once the images are filled to the point of overflow, they lose validity. It's a very common defense mechanism, especially among willful people who are powerless to fight back openly. Treat a proud person like a dog long enough, and he will curl up and sleep on the floor just to spite you. In retrospect, I recognize that I did something similar when I was a boy. A great deal of pressure was put upon me to "let it all hang out" back in the days of the sensitivity group, when classes of kids were circled up on the carpet and browbeaten into spilling their guts until they wept. I was very much an outcast in my class, and I had absolutely no intention of exposing any part of my soul for general scrutiny. The verdict was that I was a cold, indifferent clod--and I invested years in acting just that part to the hilt. It brought me peace--other kids didn't bother me any more, except for a very occasional utterance of contempt flung in my direction. I was an insensitive clod--I wouldn't feel it. But because I wouldn't feel the projectiles, anyway, they eventually became very rare.
Boys are acting ultra-stupid and boorish ad modum because they anguish under constantly being styled stupid and boorish. The strains are not simply those manufactured by militant feminism, though in some parts of the country certain theory-based policies amount to overt discrimination. The much-denounced (at long last) trend toward eliminating recess from the school day has been justified in many more conservative districts as a budget-cutting, content-enhancing measure--but the truth is that this initiative owed its origin to the Ivory Tower assumption that excluding opportunities for running and romping would breed the odious boyishness out of boys. What the promotion of the sedentary has done, instead (and this is so even where its motives have been entirely budgetary), is to bottle up in boys that special energy which they possess, so that they misbehave more than ever in class and become branded more than ever as little apes in clothing. The Yuppie solution to the problem is to dose them heavily with Ritalin. Especially in households where young boys cannot even romp around after school (which might require tiresome supervision) and are perched, alternatively, in front of video games, the volume of suppressed gyres and gambols can translate into an ungovernable case of the jitters.
When boys are able to contain their physical exuberance on campus, what outlets of expression lie open to their minds? It is a plain fact that most elementary, and even secondary, teachers are women, and that most women are more verbal than quantitative. All too often, therefore, math and science are taught by people who have deficient aptitude in those subjects or affection for them. I am NOT saying that women can't teach math and science. I am saying that the women who excel in these disciplines tend overwhelmingly to seek more lucrative, less stressful careers elsewhere, leaving the abacus and the Bunsen burner to be "manned" by personnel who are far more comfortable with a poem or a map. Situations result precisely like that which I detailed in my previous piece: i.e., a teacher presents mathematics as a series of tables to be memorized without apparent purpose rather than as a strategy for describing, manipulating, and predicting objective reality. The academic doors through which boys might have been expected to pass eagerly and with flourish are sealed against them, and the image of the hairy ape is confirmed one more time.
In my experience, boys often love art and music at least as much as girls, and are not nearly so reluctant to express themselves in these media as in, say, writing a poem or short story. Furthermore, the female population which continues to be over-represented (statistically) in the teaching profession's lower ranks often gives us excellent instructors in these areas. When the budgetary pen wields its blade, however, art and music programs are apt to be decapitated right after recess periods. Not much hope of salvation there.
Now add to this toxic brew the qualities and achievements--ranging from the ridiculous to the outrageous--for which boys are typically celebrated in school: football, basketball, and "being wild". The lionization of sports figures is explicitly, aggressively encouraged on campuses (pep rallies, Homecoming, etc.). Before Kip Kinkel killed his parents and then turned his rifle on fellow students in Springfield, Oregon, his high school's principle had addressed concerns about the boy's maverick mood by recommending that he try out for football! (Kip failed to make the cut: he was much too small.) With guidance like this, who needs terrorism? The expectations which girls load upon boys have no such official endorsement--are indeed enough to make any feminist shriek; yet who can doubt that they are a major influence? When judging boys, a lot of girls associate "wildness" or "craziness" with "coolness" and "fun". The boy who keeps his nose clean is boring. He may be the one the cheerleader marries six or eight years later, when he emerges from college with a degree in Computer Science (Dexter after puberty, aglow with earning potential); but in early adolescence, a great many girls want to "experiment", to be taken for a ride on the dark side. What does a hairy ape look like under his clothes?
Let feminists, especially, take note of this last condition. When we debase our boys, we also debase our girls (just as, in racial matters, showering a minority with contempt renders the majority contemptible). Why do our girls not admire quick-minded, self-controlled young men who are sensitive to others' feelings? Or if such young men are now almost nowhere to be found, how could it be otherwise when their virtues occupy the lowest rungs of female esteem? The War Against Boys is ultimately a war against humanity. If we do not stop treating our sons as though they belong in the zoo, we shall all end up inhabiting a jungle.
THE WAR AGAINST BOYS AT GROUND ZERO: PART ONE
Christina Sommers has written extensively about what she calls the War on Boys. I enjoyed her book of that name and applaud her doughty efforts on behalf of fairness and common sense. As is often the case with think-tank analysts and nationally syndicated columnists, however, Ms. Sommers fights her wars with the computer-assisted guidance systems of the East Coast, Ivy League happy few. Her targets are the radical feminists of academe who have a grossly disproportionate say in such matters as how your local school district's textbooks are written and selected. The rest of us are not so sophisticated. We're still back in the days of trench and bayonet. It gets muddy and bloody down here, and for reasons that people who live in Arlington or New Haven probably cannot imagine.
At the moment--and for a great many present moments, going all the way back to last September--some people very close to me are engaged in a tactical effort of resistance against a clawed and fanged harridan who will stop at nothing, it appears, to bring their eight-year-old son down. This person (an cailleach ruadh, we call her in my clan, lest we use some other expletive which children might disastrously repeat) is the boy's home-room teacher. It became apparent early last fall that the child positively hated math. He was bringing home low grades sometimes, as well as sheet after sheet of the same simple multiplication tables recycled ad nauseam. Now, his math SAT scores from the previous spring were all well into the ninetieth percentile, and many of us had also witnessed him running circles around his bright playmates on matters mathematical. (During the summer, we figured up batting averages together--something his teacher insisted he couldn't possibly have done). The parents decided to flex all the muscle they could muster and have the boy advanced to fourth-grade math. Within two weeks, he was making B's and A's exclusively. The mind-numbing routine of pointless (as he perceived them) drills had killed his interest before, but as soon as the multiplication tables were enlisted into purposeful endeavor, he mastered them easily.
The teacher never forgave him. From the start, she regarded his "promotion" in defiance of her dire prophecies as a personal slap in the face--as if his education were a matter of negligible importance to his parents beside the status of the teacher's ego. His advancement's having proved a great success only threw gas on the fire. At present, this would-be Cassandra will not assign the child low grades for the term lest her vengeful project be flushed out into the open; but on a daily basis, she deals out 40s and 50s to him on complex assignments where all personal assistance is reserved for others. She listens in on his private conversations with his buddies, seizes upon some remark he makes, pulls it out of context or willfully misinterprets it, and rakes him over the coals. She recently sent home an F paper for an exercise which she otherwise completely suppressed until she could give all the kids a re-test. She allows other children to slam the boy into the playground--though tackling is strictly forbidden--without uttering a peep, yet she chews him out if he jumps up and cries foul at the aggressor.
This young man has started wetting his bed and having nightmares. The parents are heating up like a slow oven. Blood pressures are getting far too high: I've had the thought more than once that this war could leave very real casualties in the cemetery. The light at the end of the tunnel is an unexpected opening at another school. (Yes, these are all private schools: I'm sorry, but some of us refuse to toss our children a lion's den where, only last week, a boy was knifed to death. The struggle to afford a private school and still make house payments has all the Angst around here of hand-to-hand combat.) Maybe there will be good news very soon.
Now, egomaniacs and tinpot dictators have always existed. I have no doubt digressed in venting my frustration here, but not as much as it may seem. After much observation, I have concluded that the neurosis of this unhappy woman, while having little or nothing to do with gender, has much in her mind to do with it. She is recently divorced, and clearly feels quite abused and manipulated by the procedure. She cherishes straitjacket routines and ironclad discipline wherefrom she imagines herself to have more control over life. (She has probably always done so: perhaps her husband could no longer walk the tightrope.) Now she has espoused rigidity with a vengeance: control has grown more important to her than ever. Since boys by nature do not respond well to rote memorization, all the boys in her class are somewhat handicapped. The freeing of one child for one period a day from her regimentation infuriated her first because it simply bumped her rows of boxes, but secondly because the boy's father--a man--accomplished it. If there's one thing this termagant Fury is not going to put up with any longer, it's having her will overridden by a man.
To a lesser degree, other boys under her sway have suffered from the same kind of persecution. For instance, she insists that the boys treat the girls with punctilious courtesy, a crusade climaxed by a brief episode when the little squires were required to hold the girls' chairs out at lunch. (The mothers put a stop to this regime, as a matter of fact: some were quite incensed, I understand.) I assume that the experiment was launched after that period of two months or so when the boys were actually banished from the girls' end of the lunch room "for being gross". The boys who bought their lunch in the cafeteria, furthermore, were consistently being punished for mixing foods--say, the gravy with the green peas. The one boy who seems to have penetrated an cailleach ruadh's defenses is by far the slickest of the bunch, a calculating and unwholesome lad whose duplicity she does not begin to suspect. Tyrants always believe their sycophants.
The lesson for today is just this. I do NOT propose that divorces turn women into tyrants. I suggest, rather, that ill-tempered people with axes to grind will often seize upon a bit of ideology here and there to justify their vendetta against the world (e.g., European anti-Semitism). With apologies to Ms. Sommers, the major threat which the hare-brained theories of academic Laputans pose to our boys is not theory per se. It is the degree to which real abuses of power may be cloaked in high feminist balderdash (or other kinds of balderdash--choose your craze or cult). Like all hatchet-jobs, chip-on-the-shoulder philosophy can be quite eclectic. The soccer-mom grade-school teachers of conservative Middle America, for instance, may be seen to salute empowerment of women with one hand, Scarlet O'Hara with the other. They may cry, "I'm in charge here!" out of the mouth's right side, "Please hold my chair" out of its left. The reason Ivory Tower lunacy poses a problem for us, in short, is not that its pernicious logic has suborned our rationality, but that our sisters and brothers and next-door neighbors have torn away strips of it to patch their wounds.
So the bleeding continues... in bystanders. In our children. Collateral damage. A new generation of boys will grow up resenting their dominance by girls, and a new generation of girls will grow up nursing an utter contempt for boys. Our society is haunted by plenty of people whose personal demons need to be corked back up in the bottle rather than lodged in the resonating chamber of theoretical double-talk.
DEAR JOHN STOSSEL... HOW MUCH MORE "IMPROVEMENT"
CAN WE SURVIVE?
I really like John Stossel. That's quite a concession from someone who execrates nationally exposed reporters as I do. Pampered little twits with degrees from Ivy League colleges and connections in DC or on Madison Avenue, their "scoops" imbibed from the same trough of shared e-mails and cocktail gossip, their "calling" something like an actor's whose memory has been supplanted by cue cards and whose gallery is occupied by multiple screened images of himself, they largely control what we see of the world--a world which dense layers of egotism have rendered almost impenetrable to their own eye. The first World Trade Tower collapses, and Peter Jennings stammers, "What's happening there?" A celebrant in Baghdad cleverly improvises to elevate the noose around Saddam's statue, and Diane Sawyer babbles, "What's he doing with that pole?" One wonders if these "analysts" know which end of the hammer drives the nail. They clearly cannot figure out that evil people sometimes lie and conceal, for they have never pondered the nature of human evil. In their world, problems are generated by lack of information: provide more "knowledge", and all will be resolved (the same outlook which gave us the Internet's "information highway", that happy hunting ground of porn and rip-off). How could they think otherwise? They bring you the news--and of what use would the latest be if the old ways, the pre-existing circumstances, were not fully amenable to change?
Stossel, somehow, has fallen from a different mold. He sees folly, vanity, and preposterous absurdity at a glance, and sees them through and through. His special which aired last Friday night (January 23) on ABC's news magazine 20/20 exposed ten preeminent examples of "lies, myths, and downright stupidity". Political partisanship does not dictate the choice of crumbly edifices sapped by Stossel's spade. The liberal demonization of DDT is ridiculed with the same gimlet precision as more conservative causes célèbres, such as the canard that Republican administrations oppose big government. You've got to like someone who hangs a fool out to dry regardless of age, gender, skin color, income level, apparel, or sexual preference.
Yet I must confess that I profoundly disagree with Stossel about the point which he climactically reserved for the last: his challenge of the common lament that things are getting worse. It is true, I freely grant, that we are naive when young--that we do not know the world, and hence that we are doomed to grow more sober as we begin to see things for how they always were. (Most of us witness this phenomenon up close in the transformation which a parent or favorite relative suffers before our maturing eyes.) Optimus post malum principem est dies primus, writes Tacitus: "The best day after a bad leader is the first"! Intimate acquaintance seems haunted by disillusion. It is true, as well, that the past is often made an imaginative repository of the gilded and the sacred, a misty vale where we can safely project all those things for which we presently long. This respect for bygone times can become an idolatry. The Nazis exploited it shamelessly and expertly, creating a noble Arian mythology virtually ex nihilo for a generation with nothing much to look forward to.
Stossel's challenge to the Golden Age, however, comes from the other direction. His is the positivist's common-sense gesture toward higher wages, better medicines, more luxuries, etc.--the sort of confidence which abundantly fueled Victorian England's progressivism. The weakness of this theory, it seems to me, may be found as near as Stossel's own debunking, half an hour earlier, of the coarse faith that money buys happiness. Money does not buy happiness--nor do improved medicines, nor do miraculous conveniences. To be sure, one cannot be very happy without having achieved a certain level of physical well-being... but physical well-being, on the other hand, can be inimical to happiness. I recall living in Ireland for several months in my twenties during a postal strike which effectively deprived me of cashier's checks from home. I came fairly close to starving. I lost a third of my body weight and contracted such a miserable case of flu that I would wake up at night to find my blankets literally shivered off onto the floor. And I was... miserable, yes. But not unhappy. I believed at the time that I might die soon (a great many people did die of the flu that winter, at least in Ireland). Yet I felt a kind of peace at the thought of dying where I could see trawlers come in off the bay, where I could hear corncrakes squawking in a ruined abbey--the same kind of crow whose calls are said in the old sagas to have foreshadowed Cú Chulainn's death. Life made sense here: death made sense as part of life. It had all been going on a very long time, life and death and life, and I felt it happening to me pretty much as it must have happened to people a thousand years ago.
I do not chide medical technology for cheating us of a poetic death--not at all. I say, rather, that comfort and convenience, far from being reliable measures of happiness, are at some point measures of misery. The ancient Stoics and Aristotelians parted company on this very issue. The Stoics insisted that a man can be happy though a tyrant be stretching his limbs on the rack. If his conscience is clean and he keeps faith with his principles, then the river which all living things must cross is just as well crossed--is happily crossed--while resisting the forces of delusion. The Aristotelians did not deny the reality of moral obligation in some such cases (as when, say, the tyrant is trying to extort names of co-conspirators from you)... but happiness on the rack? Come, now. Life's possibilities are not quite that bleak, are they?
What Aristotle misses, I believe--and what Stossel misses--is that fear of the rack can indeed become a ruling passion. In our time, it has entirely become so. No, we no longer work sixteen-hour shifts at the factory, thank God. We work six or seven hours a day, instead, and we gripe endlessly around the water cooler about our annual review or our puny Christmas bonus. Our work is in itself not ennobling. Instead of welding the Brooklyn Bridge together at great risk to life and limb, we sell Viagra and Prozac over the Net. We are soft--and in our softness, we are unhappy. How could we not be so? When was the last time we had to entertain ourselves with a book, let alone prepare a meal over the campfire? It's bad enough if the TV goes on the blink: heaven forbid that the power should go out! An athlete trains to be tough so that the demands of his sport will find him fully ready. In our daily life, however, we rehearse new kinds of softness, market them to our neighbors, and spend our free time standing in the same queue. We train, as it were, to be ever more dependent upon our environment--especially upon our electronic toys--and ever less endowed with inner resources.
A Stoic would groan and turn away. Aristotle himself would regard our state as one of definitive excess. Can a human being live happily just because he has extraordinary assurances of life? Is a steady diet of candy a dream, or a nightmare?
WHY I ABSOLUTELY CANNOT STAND CONTEMPORARY LIBERALISM
Let's get one thing straight from the start. There really IS no such thing as conservatism on the contemporary political scene. The conservative conserves. He is not an atavist: that is, he does not blindly revere the past in its capacity of having been accomplished when no one now living was around to watch the stones lowered into place. People who reflexively romanticize what they cannot see as the hand of God are, at best, overgrown children with Santa-Separation Anxiety. (At worst, they are would-be autocrats who wish to have their own prerogatives pass unexamined within a sublime mist.) Omne ignotum pro magnifico est, wrote Tacitus: "Everything unknown assumes an air of grandeur." Such dull rapture, I insist, is not conservation at all. To conserve is to nurse along with keen awareness, as when one husbands a delicate plant in a hostile environment. A conservator, far from shrouding his subject in gilded clouds, must study it unremittently to lend appropriate assistance. In what sense have those among us conserved the dignity of the individual who favor the proliferation of electronic culture and its leveling, stupifying influence upon entire cultures? In what sense have those among us conserved the Christian faith who elevate the Old Testament over the New and blare in contradiction of the Gospels that the Book is a blueprint for the perfect earthly society? In what sense have those among us even conserved our air and water who auction off the staples of life for toxic neon playgrounds in the southwest? This vulgarian onslaught has sired a generation of know-nothing adolescents who swagger through college on their way to a lucrative job selling Viagra and Prozac online without the slightest interest in Plato or Dante or moral duty or the American Civil War. If these are conservatives, who needs nihilists?
Liberalism's sacred duty is to chastise conservatism when it errs in either of two directions. The conservative can sometimes be so consumed with his sense of human nature's fixity--his awareness of Original Sin--that he surrenders his belief in the human capacity for spiritual renewal. On the other side, the conservative can sometimes be so infatuated with the economic dynamism of the immemorial dog-eat-dog model of competition that he regards basic standards of decency and fairness, no matter how ancient, as squeamish whining. In both cases, you might say, he needs to recall that the spirit is real--that there is no tragic destiny brooding over human affairs, and also that certain high imperatives demand to be heard above the din of human affairs. The conservative should be neither a fatalist nor a cynic. The liberal tenor of that tradition which he holds dear (and liber means "free", as in "endowed with free will, morally responsible") will not suffer him to lapse into such error. In short, a liberal optimism and a liberal sense of vast obligation belong to that which we are charged with conserving in the West.
Now take an honest look at Howard Dean and his giddy hordes. We are required to accept by such people that Bush the Younger sought the presidency rather like a Marshal Kane (from High Noon) run amuck. Luke Plummer had already been packed off to state prison by the Marshall's dad--but that just waren't good enough, nope. Young George hopped a train so's to be waiting when Luke got his release at high noon. Gonna send him straight to Boot Hill this time. Got him a warrant saying Luke has stashed dynamite and Gatling guns down in them old abandoned mines. Then he got him a whole heap of deputies, and together they did what should have been done ten years ago.
It doesn't surprise me that such manifest claptrap is floated hither and yon: no remark has ever yet been larded with such stupidity that some pair of lungs could not be found to heat its balloon.. What surprises me--and, frankly, disgusts me--is the number of people who believe this algarade implicitly. Why can college professors and Ivy League humanities majors, federal bureaucrats and incompetence-friendly teachers' unions, sharp-elbowed "Race First" advocates and and mega-millionaires busily pricing the sainthood market--in short, why can't the base of our national left wing simply be satisfied with hating Bush because he impedes its utopian agenda? For that matter, Bush Junior is far and away the most utopian, most socially progressive Republican president of my lifetime, a fact which makes a great many on the Right extremely uncomfortable with him. It is highly doubtful that Al Gore could have negotiated the passage of such big-ticket government projects as Bush has repeatedly shepherded through Congress.
What I hate so much about the liberalism of our time is precisely this tireless ascription of the worst possible motives and the dullest possible scheming to anyone who eclipses its sunlight. I employed the sorely overworked word "stupid" above, and I employed it of the Left. Just so. When you caricature everyone who disagrees with you or pinches your space as a stumpaire amadán (as we say in Irish), you reveal that you yourself are quite dense. You are apparently incapable of assessing another's motives in any sensitive manner, and also--in consequence--incapable of negotiating the kinds of compromise which life requires of grown-up people. The Left of our time does not care about allowing for other perspectives and seeking consensus in a civilized manner. It chafes against all the basic facts of life, kicks, screams, and tears down whatever it can reach, a brat child who would cheerfully use the tactics of a thug if it could only develop the necessary muscle. This, I may say, is nothing new under the sun. It's been going on throughout my lifetime. I belong to the first great crop of brat children who had to have their way and would do anything for attention.
The miserable pity of it all is that, with the liberal torch in the hands of such blathering exhibitionist twits, there is no one to correct the excesses of what passes for conservatism today, which are truly quite alarming.
THE PORN OF MAYHEM: "VIRTUAL" GAMES ARE A REAL DISEASE
This is a test. It consists of three identification questions, which may be answered with short paragraphs. Ready? Identify the following: 1) Max Payne 2; 2) Call of Duty; 3) Man Hunt. If you failed to pinpoint any of these items as discrete, italicized creations rather than as (in the last two cases) common parlance, then consider yourself a friend of civilization. You have passed The Test of Culture with flying colors! On the other hand, as a connoisseur of finer things, you should perhaps be aware that such "leisurely" atrocities as these three mind-numbers exist, for they represent the phalanx that may well eventually drive our civilization into the abyss.
All three items are titles of video games released just before Christmas and publicized relentlessly. I myself came to know of them as a result of doing my evening exercise before the Court TV channel. The advertisements abounded in semi-automatic weaponry and sanguinary firefights. Call of Duty's ad attempted to veil the game's bloodlusting orgasm as some kind of patriotic reprise of World War II--but its producers tipped their unsavory hand from two directions at once. They made no distinction between English and American troops shooting their way through Nazi lines and the Russians' brutal sack of Berlin, for one thing; and for another, the whole ad was represented against the backdrop of modern suburbia. In other words, you can picture yourself a hero fighting Hitler even as your tank rolls over your neighbor's chain-link fence. That's just what we need to put in the minds of our budding high-school snipers: the notion that the French teacher is really Eva Braun or that Mr. Slattery is really Heinrich Himmler.
Forget that this blitz of Play Station 2 diversions was unscrupulously timed to coincide with the season of peace and hope. At any time of year, the widespread advertisement of such sociopathic amusement should make every decent person hit the ceiling. It has been clinically established that computer simulations render real-life soldiers more lethal. A large percentage of casualties in World Wars I and II was found by those military analysts who took an interest in such things to consist of soldiers with unfired weapons. That is, the unfortunate young men had never been able to bring themselves to squeeze off a round at another human being. The figures have greatly declined in our age of simulation. Soldiers shoot faster and straighter when they have practiced shooting fast and straight before a screen. Now keep the hardware and the software, but take the soldier out of his uniform--make him a punk kid who takes orders from no one, serves no cause, and has no mission. What you're left with is a potential killing machine, a robot conditioned to press buttons for the joy of watching objects hop and fall.
It's no good saying our mayhem-programming toys are just games in an imaginary landscape, for the whole point is that impressionable, untrained minds may be induced to regard reality itself as imaginary. Review the testimony of any high-school shooting incident, and you will find traumatized bystanders confessing that "it was all like a movie," or even that "I thought maybe they were filming some kind of movie." Our children--even those who have been exposed only to TV shows and Hollywood films--do not clearly grasp the dividing line between reality and daydream. They need no convincing that the games they play on screens are fantasy: they need convincing, on the contrary, that what exists beyond the screen isn't fantasy. After all, you don't feel a bullet penetrating another human being. If you watch enough human-like images flopping over in bright red blood splatter, the man who is shot before your eyes becomes just another image.
This needs to stop. With apologies to libertarians everywhere (for whose cause I have much initial sympathy), desensitizing children to the reality of other human creatures is patently, irredeemably immoral, and should also be strictly illegal. We don't allow pornographers to persuade our children that women are primarily sex objects, do we? Why should we allow this porn of mayhem to persuade them that men and women alike are primarily visual images without depth or inherent value? If obscenity laws are defensible, then laws against the amusements of the "virtual" slaughterhouse should be so a fortiori. As for the minimum age required to purchase these tutorials in carnage, does anyone doubt that adults are passing them along to minors on a vast scale? Frankly, I am dubious that an age limit of sixteen or eighteen (whichever it may be) is sufficiently high--and what thirty-year-old of average intelligence would want to waste his day playing Bloodbath 5 when he might, for instance, shoot a round of golf or a game of pool?
Those of us who call ourselves conservatives need to rediscover just what it is which merits conserving in our culture. If "preserving our way of life" means rendering the status of all things financially negotiable, including our children's moral health, then we are conserving nothing but the high road to Hell. For that matter, those of us who call ourselves religious need to rediscover just what goes into genuine prayer--not airy words, but earnest actions. If being religious means explaining our no-holds-barred material prosperity as God's gift, then we worship rot, decay, and vanity, and our thriving churches are whited sepulchers.
In this new year, as we continue our fight against the forces of hatred, envy, megalomania, and fanaticism, why not spare a little time to look in the mirror? What good will it do us to vanquish the barbarian at our gate if the city within sinks into a swamp?
Click here for a full list of 2003's entries.
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Blog nam Booanna
(Blog na mBuanna):
The Blog of Virtues
A diving-bell view of post-literate society's adventure in dumbing down.
Review This Site
"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 woe unto him who would stare at the sun!
John Harris, editor and grudging blogger
Do you really want to tear the wrapper of contemporary
life's glistering tinsel? Proceed beyond here with caution.
THE WRONG WAY TO LIVE, PART THE LAST:
RACE, GENDER, AND WHITE-COLLAR SERVITUDE