Ahhh, the American moral cavalcade.
Our rutted procession has encompassed the breadth of a Cotton Mather and an Elvis Presley, and the alternation of those disparate foundations in the nation's psyche has provided us a steamy farrago of disputation, programmes and outright farcicality since our forebears hit the beach at Plymouth in 1620. It's the American Way, and just as our contemporary times have fashioned a Mayflower Madam, we're also favored with the rise of a new Puritan oligarchy within our esteemed councils of power.
It's always the mixture as before, to cite a Somerset Maugham line. When we've been most fortunate, we've had available a sane fusion of our traditional thesis/antithesis, the first historical prototype appearing in the personage of Ben Franklin, and one which has certainly been of an enduring and rather refreshing cast: Thinker and leader, libertine and realist. In a word, urbane.
John Dewey and FDR later arose out of that synthesis; Joe McCarthy's contrasting advent was a reversion to a Matherian persuasion of the world as serpentine, and was coterminous with the Moral Rearmament crowd, a revisionist pact which abides with Gingrich and Falwell and their cohorts' assent to the early New England vision of life as complete without need of much else than assigned chores and sermons.
And so, within that detrital tureen poor Clinton --- liar, muddler, coward, emblem of the generic national reverence toward Yankee ingenuity as bolstered by his own Northeast academic credentials and carefully distinguishable by an artfully appended and tolerated down-home rockabilly ardor --- attempts to ladle a span to the nation's fourth century: Not quite the whoremonger Franklin was, and nowhere near as ethical; as conniving and as successfully pragmatic as the latter, and possessing few of the same republican virtues, at least of the small r variety. Comparing the total stature of the two would, of course, be superfluous; the headlines furnish sufficient inference, as indeed they provide for us which of the vying templates of the country's consciousness it seems safest for the oligarchy to embrace.
And, yep, we got witches again; some corporeal and of both sexes, others less tangible and part of that amorphous American garden of fear (I'm sure there's something out there, Thelma!). To Clinton's Sammy Glick we add the overlay and preponderant influence of the Elmer Gantryism of the right, prelates unhappy with the chief administrative deacon they've co-opted, despite that fact that his free-trade hustler proselytizing has made believers of the corporate classes of all nations. Clinton's sin, you must understand, is one of appearances: Primarily, the vestiges of his attachment to the democratic sentiments of the lower orders (though, really, that is now all but cured by his devotion to the Lord of capital, a conversion which has included eliminating alms for the poor). But more pertinently in this theocratic weltanschauung, the control of the franchise --- and to whom else but the best and most pious men in this one nation under God should it be deeded --- necessitates that their chosen malleable satraps also be models of self-restraint in their personal lives. Which certainly brings us up to date. The hallowed rule of moderation and the "conviction of sin" are apparently missing in Clinton, as the Monica matter ostensibly indicates. One wonders if a Clinton performance equal to Jimmy Swaggart's puddling mea culpa would make any difference in his fortunes. The remedy for the Puritan belief in the "hereditary curse" of evil which made mankind's life a tearful vale, Ben Franklin found in science and statesmanship. Today, the pejorative-coiners among the dispensers of morality are dismissive of such exercises in enlightened rationality as mere "humanism," which is inherently at odds with the underlying spiritual covenant which has held the country in such great stead for more than 300 years.
It would be most rash, if not patently stupid, to minimize the extent to which the modern political state still harbors the residue of the social fabric of our first settlements. And the trail gets resurfaced more and more regularly. Social stratification, divinely ordained elites, the demand for obedience from the flock, the marginalization of the democratic impulse --- there's nothing there you won't find in reading Noam Chomsky, and nothing there that Franklin didn't hear from Diderot and the French salonists.
The diligence in worldly business that Puritanism admired, Clinton has mustered; it's in the "deadnesse to the world" and its pleasurable snares where he's failed, and the auto-da-fe he is experiencing as a consequence of his indulgence is a rather interesting commentary on the skewed inner dynamics of the religious right. The material fruits of the mercantile revolution which doomed their fundamentalist Bay Colony predecessors bothers present-day revivalism. The lurid quality of corporate capitalism, the free-for-all novelty and tastelessness of it, bespeaks a capacity for intemperance and self-direction among the populace that the Elect has traditionally feared. And while Clinton has avidly helped the religious and corporate espousals for regimentation by shaping the national agenda under the guise of protecting children (summon yuppie guilt about their children, have parents constantly screen and filter kids' access to the cultural ignobility derivative of our for-profit convictions, and you also delimit the political and cultural risks adults will take), the born-agains (and much of the left, it should be added) obviously resent Clinton's roué identification with the materialist good life and his hypocrisy in simultaneously inveighing against it.
Clinton's recent bemoaning of the passing of Roy Rogers and the wholesomeness attendant to simpler times (when, exactly, did those years occur?) was a rare gem of encapsulation of the Bubba crucible: Obviously an awkward reactive sop dangled to our would-be moral majoritarians, it was also a manifestation of perennial star-struck adolescence, evidence of the neo-Camelot horseman who ranges far and wide and who commands untempered entitlement to both earthly delights and the good word of his fellow man simply through strategic and willful affability.
So what remains of Ben Franklin's illustrious Enlightenment-era
ratiocination? The common sense of working people and their street-level
perspective, to be sure. And were they to choose a representative voice,
might it be someone like, say, Judge Judy, from the cultural wasteland of
television ? What if she were empaneled on Ken Starr's grand jury? One can
imagine a scenario: "Hey, enough of dis, arready! Mr. Presidint, ya
embarrassed the hell out of yaw wife. Ya been doing it for years. And with
Monicah ya did a stoopid thing and ya got scared because ya want everybody
to like ya, ya wanna be remembered as a great man. I think that's yuh problem,
and it's damn sad, please pardin my Yiddish. Ya coulda said, 'We did it,
and I told her it'd probably be better if she dint say anything. I acted
cowardly about something that was only the business of my own family, period.'
Ya coulda asked us to do with ya as we wanted and said yuh'd be willing
to suffah the consequences, and it probly woulda worked. I gotta tellya,
sir, ya make me sick. If this was my courtroom I'd run ya out of heah with
a lifetime sentence of pity. Yuh've wasted too much of the public's time
and money. Yaw case is closed, we got more important things to worry about."
In the process of weighing in on the deaths of the two Capitol policemen, a couple of our habitually clearheaded columnists yesterday shed some timely light on what is surely the most significant --- and least sufficiently broached --- internecine squabble of our age: the one among baby boomers. For careful observers of the distinctions and nuances of the boomer era, these simultaneous takes wove a nicely topical filigree of heroes, sinners, fact and perception upon a subject languishing for full airing.
The Examiner's Stephanie Salter, anomalous within the mainstream press as its only (to my knowledge) self-described socialist columnist, fumed that the Rotunda tribute to officers John Gibson and Jacob Chestnut "was inappropriate excess that nearly cheapened the deaths of both men." She chided the public and politicians for confusing sentimentality with profound emotion, pointing out that the fallen policemen, like the other 81 cops who've been killed this year, went down in the line of duty --- as skilled workers, pledged to serve and protect. The Times' usually reliable Maureen Dowd echoed the sentiments of the pols and the talk-show callers, describing the courage of the men in confronting a paranoid schizophrenic as fully martial in character, "something large and brave and important, defending freedom."
Dowd is the daughter of a D.C. cop who disarmed a Puerto Rican nationalist during an assassination attempt on House members in 1954, and admits that as a result of last week's slayings she has only now come to respect the authoritarian aspect of her father's job. She was, she says, chary of mentioning his occupation to others while a teenager in the 1960s, and her piece yesterday remonstrated against her prior aversion to cops, uniforms, flag waving and the military. She extrapolates from the daring of her father and the mortal responses of Gibson and Chestnut to the adversarial anti-police excesses of others of her generation, and promptly lumps together all Vietnam activists, intimating that the sine qua non of their resistance to the war was hatred of cops.
We understand now, Dowd writes, that it was the politicians who sent out the Chicago cops in 1968, and let loose the National Guard at Kent State; politicians who sent the boys off to die when they knew the war had long before become unwinnable. Cops and soldiers, the newly-discovered Sipowitzes and Private Ryans presently glorified on TV and in film, are earning long-overdue respect. We boomers, Dowd concludes, had been demonizing the wrong people all along.
Who "We" be, Mo?
* * *
My guess is that Dowd is from a boomer echelon which probably wasn't quite old enough 30 years ago to be concerned about receiving a draft notice or speaking into wiretapped telephones or bearing the impact of a Stokley Carmichael announcing that "The position of women in the movement is prone." Her column is reminiscent of an article Christopher Buckley wrote a few years ago, where he complained that his generation was too young to serve in Vietnam and missed out on "its war." Dowd's lament, though hardly neocon, is of a similar bent, a boomer-keening realization that "we are going to die without experiencing the nobility that illuminated the lives of our parents and grandparents. They lived through wars and depressions. Our unifying event was 'Seinfeld.'" These are plainly the words of someone who wasn't much of a participant in the 1960s. This sort hung around at parties, but you always knew that when the kicks subsided and matriculation ended, they'd be off to take over the family business.
Salter's piece thus shines, however obliquely, with the illumination that just a few years' difference in age casts on those times, and what those continuing lessons augur for a future politics. I'll speak to only what I know of her as representative of a boomer bloc born earlier, and as yet unsullied by SUVs, Sharper Image consuming and Clintonian expediency. The schism among boomers isn't only one of age, of course, but of varied attitudinal changes, which for the prominent would-be "revolutionaries" of 30 years ago in particular, have since included second-thoughts idiocy which supplanted the rocks once hurled at working people in blue uniforms with weaponry for Latin American torturers.
College newspaper editors, as Salter was then, were cautious about doctrinaire cant, though fast and proficient at polemics; they espoused demonstrations, but urged non-violence, and did so vigorously; administrators and the police were functionaries and had jobs to do, and it was expected that you would honor their roles. Make them sweat carting you off to jail, but persuade them civilly to the cause on the way, and it wouldn't hurt to inquire about their lives and families, while you're at it. Salter has written in the past of her connections to the moderate wing of SDS; even then, its founding Port Huron proclamation was little more than a variant of Scandinavian social democracy.
Such tame radicalism, today, has its remorseful apostates. They can typically be found talking about "the end of big government." They call themselves liberals now without recoiling, because they've become prefixally "neo" and the balm soothes beautifully, they say. Al Gore espies a future for them, with none of "Stairway to Heaven" as theme music, and besides, he's said he's forgotten the words, it was so long ago. He will work hard at convincing a Maureen Dowd to trumpet that, all in all, he's the most responsible choice available.
* * *
The boomer schism has buried the best of that generation under the avalanche of high-profile quislingism and lesser recantations, or lost them in more mundane ways: voices like Savio's eclipsed by premature death, others silenced by the quietude brought on by fatigue and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, still others lying dormant from the rigors of childrearing and the stresses of two-income necessity. What they once brought to the mix, if resuscitated, would be that incomparable memory of working-class lineage which most had and never denied, and the ability to translate that perspective with a thoughtfulness and charity I've not seen equaled since.
The example distilled in those homes was permanent. One of the toughest, most garrulous and reactionary men I've ever known, Detective Terry Rogers, NYPD, my uncle, unaccountably provided me as complete an instruction in solicitousness as I could imagine. He did it in the telling and retelling of the story of that morning in the late 1940s when he arose and knew that the tip-off he had gotten the day before meant that he would probably have to kill a man in the line of duty. The man was known to be deranged and had twice before held up the same airline ticket office. During the stakeout the man entered the office and pulled his weapon. Terry called out to him, the man spun to shoot, and Terry blew him to bits. For years afterward, he questioned his own actions --- could he have avoided firing, taken him down another way? What must it have been like, Terry wondered aloud, to have lived that man's bewildered life? Repeatedly relating to me and my cousin the consoling advice the priest gave him in the confessional seemed to aid my uncle's search for expiation, above-and-beyond the parochial Irish Catholic minimum daily requirement.
Were he alive, I suspect Terry might have offered to see me off to prison
in 1968 had I finally been indicted for draft resistance. It's likely he
would have treated me to my last free meal, kibitzing about it all, that
American flag pin proudly decorating his lapel. Perhaps he might even have
considered that what I was doing was, in an odd way, ultimately of benefit
to the country.
So, Sipowitz I was already familiar with, Maureen. It was once also said that I was hasty in declaring that none of the Private Ryans I was contemporaneous with should have been taken out of civvies in the first place. If you inquired of most of those who chose to dissent three decades ago, they'd recount similar feelings, and you'd still hear in them the old deliberateness that conditions conviction. In the truest of tellings, that always shows.
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