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‘Show Me a Hero and I Will Write You a Tragedy': Remembering JFK After 50 Years

November 22, 2013

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If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life . . . it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I had just taken my seat in our ninth-grade English class at Roosevelt Junior High School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Suddenly my friend Bill Schutter burst into the room, agitated and practically breathless. It was the afternoon of November 22, 1963, a day that had started out like any other.

“Kennedy’s been shot!,” Schutter shouted to his stunned classmates. Did we actually hear what we thought we heard?

After half an hour of fitful hope and fear, rumor and speculation (someone said he was shot in the head… no, it wasn’t that serious… why was he driving a car in Texas?), we finally heard our principal, Sherman A. “Spitball” Kelly, announce the grim news over the public address system: Kennedy was dead.

It didn’t seem possible: John F. Kennedy wasn’t the sort of person who could die.  He was too young and bold and full of mirth. Death couldn’t catch a man like JFK. Assassinations were a relic of the distant past, anyway. We were living in the Space Age.

But that weekend, as my family and I huddled around our 13″ black-and-white Admiral TV and watched the flag-draped coffin being carried up the Capitol steps so slowly and somberly, it was clear that the impossible had become real: our youthful president lay inside that box. He belonged to history now, like Lincoln and McKinley and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jacqueline Kennedy, a beautiful stoic in her grief, was a widow, and two young children had been robbed of their doting father. I can still hear the sound of the drumbeats, muffled but unrelenting, as the funeral procession headed toward that grassy hilltop in Arlington National Cemetery.

I have to confess that I didn’t like JFK at first. During his 1960 campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon, he struck me as cocky, shallow, flashy and flippant (although I didn’t use the word “flippant” back then). Finally his Inaugural Address won me over: as the East Coast lay deep in snow, Kennedy’s words scattered magic through the chilly air. Suddenly he seemed eloquent, presidential, even heroic. He had grown almost overnight.JFK_S_INAUGURATION_17501631

We had no shortage of heroes in those days: Eisenhower was still alive, along with Churchill, de Gaulle, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle. But Kennedy was different; to this day, I can’t remember anyone in public life who seemed so bright, graceful and disarmingly witty, so comfortable in his skin. His press conferences were first-rate entertainment. You could see that the man relished being president, and he glowed as if lit from within by dozens of incandescent bulbs. He was blessed with impish charm as well as statesmanlike gravitas. He was something to behold.

After Kennedy’s death, his widow cultivated the Camelot myth to enshrine his brief, shining presidency in our collective consciousness. It worked for a while, and we venerated his memory. But little by little, as the press lowered its protective shield, we discovered that our martyred president had been a flawed hero — more Gatsby than King Arthur.

Most of us know by now that JFK dallied recklessly with nubile nymphs ranging from receptionists and mafia molls to Marilyn Monroe. He had an almost pathological need to engage in high-risk behavior. He took steroids and amphetamines and lied to cover up his serious health issues. (Kennedy suffered from potentially fatal Addison’s disease, among a dozen other infirmities. Even if he had escaped the bullets that day in Dallas, he probably wouldn’t have survived middle age.) It turned out that his bestselling, Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage was ghostwritten for him. Nixon, who had cherished Kennedy’s friendship during their days in the House and Senate, reported being shocked by JFK’s rudeness toward waiters and servants. (And JFK had some choice words for Nixon.) Kennedy seemed to enjoy humiliating friends and associates, even cajoling a favorite White House intern to “service” his old buddy Dave Powers while he watched.

As journalist Richard Reeves put it, “He lived life as a race against boredom.” Maybe Kennedy sensed that his life wouldn’t be a long one. Or maybe it was the drugs.

Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, JFK was a mesmerizing mixture of warm idealism and sheer illusion. Both men radiated a “romantic readiness” and a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” They were boyish and playful and attracted glittering crowds to their orbits. Both were, in a sense, self-made men on a heroic scale: poor-boy Gatsby amassed fabulous wealth and staged spectacular parties on moonlit summer nights; rich-boy JFK miraculously fashioned an image of vibrant health and vitality from a sickly, pain-wracked body. Both were lofty idealists with messy and disreputable connections. Both transgressed moral boundaries, and both were shot dead by bitter young men.

Illusions are powerful: they can outlast mere earthly deeds and foibles. Those of us who remember JFK — who were alive and devastated on that awful day fifty years ago — tend to remember his presidency in Fitzgeraldian terms: as “an unbroken series of successful gestures,” more notable for style than substance. And yet, given his tragically abbreviated term in office, Kennedy left us with some substantial accomplishments: he was tough on communism and made the Soviets blink… laid the groundwork for much-needed domestic reforms… set us on course to reach the moon before the decade was out.

JFK was a moderate in liberal garb, a pragmatic idealist. If he had lived, his judicious instincts might have helped us avoid the disastrous excesses of LBJ’s “Great Society” programs and scale back our even more disastrous involvement in Vietnam. Without a wasteful war in Vietnam, America might never have been torn apart by radicalism and rebellion in the late ’60s — a rift that has endured to this day, much to our national detriment.

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” the ill-starred Fitzgerald penned in one of his notebooks. John F. Kennedy was just possibly the twentieth century’s greatest tragic hero. Transcending his pain and illness and his own moral flaws, he inspired a nation — and the world — with his swashbuckling style and heady optimism. Even with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, the Kennedy years were among the happiest in modern American memory.

Then, still at the top of his game, riding through the sunny streets of Dallas, Kennedy had his head blown open. For those of us who were young and sheltered, that ghastly moment shattered forever our illusion of a benevolent universe, a place where everything worked out for the best. A vibrant life suddenly stopped, and even the Soviets mourned his loss. We’ll never know how our world would have been different if Kennedy had lived, and that might be the greatest tragedy of all.

JFK_with_Caroline_on_the_Honey_Fitz,_1963

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

150 Years Later, Can We Still Hear Lincoln’s Voice?

November 19, 2013

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Most of us used to imagine the voice of Abraham Lincoln, who spoke at Gettysburg seven score and ten years ago today, as something deep, rugged and resonant. If we had to cast an actor to read his words, we might think of Gregory Peck or Charlton Heston.

But Lincoln’s voice emerged from a strangely elongated and narrow-chested body, and its sound reflected its earthly confines. Said Honest Abe’s longtime law partner, William Herndon: “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.”  (It grew more melodious as he warmed up.) Nearly everyone who commented on Lincoln’s voice agreed it had a penetrating quality that could carry effortlessly over wide-open spaces — like the battlefield at Gettysburg on that overcast November day in 1863.

Other than those sketchy descriptions, the sound of Lincoln’s voice at Gettysburg has been lost forever. Edison, still in his teens, wouldn’t develop his first recording device until 1877, a dozen years after Lincoln’s death. Of course, we still have Lincoln’s 272 deathless words — memorably somber, gaunt, understated, almost minimalist, filled with bony unpoetic Latinisms like “dedicated,” “consecrated,” “conceived” and “proposition” — a far cry from Churchill’s sinewy Anglo-Saxon “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

So why do we still venerate a two-minute, 150-year-old speech delivered at the dedication of a military cemetery?

1. Because we still venerate Lincoln, and we haven’t had many leaders in our lifetime who deserve our veneration.

2. Because (let’s face it) the address was short and relatively easy to memorize for school assignments. By now it’s part of our mental furniture. Until he entered the White House, Lincoln was better known for rambling, passionate speeches that would hold his listeners spellbound for two or three hours at a stretch.

3. Because its bald declarative sentences, devoid of fussy ornament, paid tribute to “these honored dead” more movingly than florid poetics and Classical references could have done. (Just ask Edward Everett, the featured speaker of the day.) The Gettysburg Address marked a sharp departure from the public oratory of its time.

4. Because (perhaps most important of all) it contained a concise, visionary mission statement for the American experiment in democracy: a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” based on the Jeffersonian assumption that “all men are created equal.” For this mission thousands of Union soldiers had sacrificed life and limb, and it was “rather for us” to carry on the work of fighting for the survival of that government.

Today Lincoln’s vision is under assault, and we’re battling for the soul of our nation. Government of the people, by the people, for the people? Last time I looked, it was government of the well-connected, by the well-connected, for the well-connected. Our elected representatives scurry shamelessly to represent the deep-pocketed special interests that fund their re-election campaigns. They reward those special interests with subsidies, tax breaks and favorable legislation. And of course, they reward themselves with generous health insurance plans and lifelong pensions.

Do they reward the American middle class? Not so much. Although we still like to profess that all men are created equal, apparently some of us are, as Orwell noted, “more equal than others.”

Worse yet, the deep-pocketed ones have cleverly recruited legions of ordinary, hardworking, put-upon Americans to their ranks.  They’ve pitted race against race, middle class against the poor, gun owners against gun alarmists, believers against non-believers. Through their media outlets, they’ve instilled a burning hatred of democratic government in the souls of the very people who stand to benefit from it.

Lincoln’s voice, clear and penetrating in his time, seems to be fading away in ours. He would be profoundly saddened to see his country split into two mutually loathing, seemingly irreconcilable factions — 150 years after we fought a terrible war to reunite us.

We need to catch our breath for a moment and see how we’ve been edging toward the precipice of another civil war — if not a war fought with cannons and shells, then one fought with accusations and misunderstandings and the billowing rhetoric of contempt. We need to stop labeling ourselves and each other as conservative or progressive, black or white, Anglo or Latino, rich or poor, gay or straight, Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist.

If we make our homes in the United States, we’re Americans. Period. As Americans, we owe it to ourselves, our dead veterans, and the memory of Abraham Lincoln to fight for government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” That means us. It means working together as Americans. It means restoring, preferably by constitutional means, a government that genuinely represents the will of the electorate (i.e., us).

Such a noble struggle requires dedication, consecration and all those other bony Latin-derived words that rang so true at Gettysburg 150 years ago. Lincoln’s ideal government is ours to win or lose together. God help us if we allow it to perish from the earth.

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Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

Shutdown at Independence Hall: a Political Ghost Story

October 10, 2013

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“You there!,” a muffled voice called out from behind the bushes. “Come hither, sir, will you?”

Let me set the scene for you: an October afternoon in stately old Philadelphia, chilly and prematurely darkening, with heavy gray clouds hanging over the spire of Independence Hall.

Like the rest of the National Park system, the building that birthed the United States stood closed and vacant — a casualty of the ongoing government shutdown. Where throngs of eager tourists once lined up to gawk at the ancient woodwork, desks, chairs and inkwells, only a few uniformed guards now patrolled the grounds inside the barricades.

I had approached the barricades for a closer look at the forlorn scene, snapped a few photos and retreated along the shaded walkway that leads to Walnut Street. That’s when I heard the muffled voice through the bushes.

“Please heed me, sir, I implore you.”

I left the walkway, sidestepped the bushes and spied a large old man, apparently homeless, slumped upon a bench. He wore a tattered tricorner hat and lay half-concealed under a thin wool blanket that he pulled up around his broad chest. But the face was unmistakable: in life, it belonged to George Washington.

“Be not alarmed, sir,” the homeless man assured me. “I am what you might call an apparition, as you have doubtless surmised, though I am altogether harmless. I believe you recognized my features.”

“There’s no mistaking you for anyone else,” I told him. “And I’m honored to meet you. But why have you called me? Do you need my help?”

“I do, sir; I do indeed. I should like you to inform me why the government of these United States has ceased to function. ‘Tis a matter that vexes my mind most grievously, and I fear that I am at a loss to comprehend it.”

He fixed his pale blue-gray eyes directly upon mine and waited for a response.

“Partisanship — extreme, uncompromising partisanship,” I answered. “That’s the shortest and best explanation. The members of our two political parties have come to view each other as mortal enemies. Sometimes it seems that they’d rather sink the country than let the other side gain even a minor victory. The president’s party blames the opposition party for the shutdown, and the opposition party is going out of its way to make it impossible for the government to function.”

Washington’s face reddened, his mouth tightened, and his famous temper wrestled free of its owner’s control.

Damn them, the treacherous blackguards!” he fumed. “I should have expected as much. Our Constitution never espoused the establishment of these contentious factions. Upon my soul, the document itself was founded squarely upon the principles of balance and compromise, for which we are indebted to the ingenuity of little Jemmy Madison. He, not I, was truly the indispensable man at the Constitutional Convention. ‘Twas the bickering of two brilliant, impetuous, stiff-necked members of my Cabinet which engendered this abominable rift.”

“You mean Jefferson and Hamilton?” I asked.

“Indeed, sir, you understand me. Mr. Hamilton favored the mercantile interests, supported in their endeavors by a strong and cooperative central government. Mr. Jefferson, though of elevated parentage, championed the rights of the common man and the individual states. There was no reconciling them, and I expect that their mutual acrimony has borne bitter fruit in your time.”

“It wasn’t always this bitter,” I told him. “Yes, the country went through some periods of pretty intense partisan strife, but nothing like this in my lifetime. I can remember when members of the two parties actually reached across the aisle and cooperated with each other on important legislation. Not any more. They’re afraid that compromise would make them look weak in the eyes of the extremists within their party.”

“But what care they about the opinions of the wretched extremists?” Washington answered. “Are they not an insignificant minority?”

“You’re absolutely right,” I agreed. “But the extremist minorities have the power to marginalize the moderates, even using their moneyed connections to make it difficult for them to win re-election. Our politicians today — especially the more sensible members of the opposition party — live in constant fear of being exposed as moderates.”

Moderates regarded as turncoats, sir? ‘Tis almost ludicrous. It confounds common sense. And yet, the seeds were doubtless planted in my own time. I feel responsible, sir, that I did not exercise my authority as president to extirpate the partisan rivalries.”

“You did your best, and your best was better than just about anyone else’s best. I’ve come to believe that factionalism is an unfortunate and inevitable part of human nature.”

“Indeed, sir, but It must be controlled and conformed to the common good, like the steeds on a runaway coach, or it shall destroy our sacred Union.”

At Washington’s last remark, a second voice emerged — this one from behind the bench.

“We must all be hanged together, or assuredly we… confound it, I can never remember my own witticisms these days.”

It was old Ben Franklin. Apparently he was homeless now, too.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.

Why I Won’t Boycott Barilla

September 28, 2013

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As far as I’m concerned, pasta is pasta. No matter what the shape, size, brand or color, it all tastes like pretty much like spaghetti to me. I’ve never seen the point of making it fresh, so I always procure it from the pasta shelf of the local supermarket. And more often than not, I find myself buying Barilla.

I’ve never seen Barilla advertised on TV — or anywhere else, for that matter. The brand quietly insinuated its way into my consciousness because it was among the first to offer whole-grain pasta, which (at least according to our medical sages) is more beneficial to our bellies and our arteries than the refined stuff we used to gobble so recklessly in our youth.

In fact, it surprised me that Barilla is the world’s leading brand of pasta, with a gargantuan share of the market both in its native Italy and here on these shores. I first learned about Barilla’s 135-year-old pasta empire just a couple of days ago, when the social media started swirling with accusations that the company’s chieftain, one Guido Barilla, made some detestable homophobic remarks during an Italian radio interview. As a result, right-thinking progressives everywhere were calling for a boycott of Barilla products.barilla boycott

Homophobia is a nasty business, of course. For untold centuries, gay men and women had to endure the scorn (and worse) of the more conventional folks with whom they shared the planet. Many if not most of them lived in a perpetual state of fear. The recent strides made on behalf of gay rights are, on the whole, a good and long-overdue sign of social justice, and you can quote me on that.

But let’s look a little more deeply into Signor Barilla’s scandalous remarks. He was quoted as saying that he would never feature a gay family in his company’s advertising. Homophobic? I’m not so sure. Did Barilla issue his comment freely, as a slap in the face of the gay rights movement? No, his radio interviewer asked him point-blank if he would ever depict a gay household as the centerpiece of an ad for Barilla.

He gave a blunt and honest answer. He’s a businessman, not a civil rights activist. According to the U.S. Census of 2010, same-sex couples account for approximately one-half of one percent of all households. The figure is probably even smaller in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy. It would be sheer marketing madness for a pasta mogul to tailor his advertising to that demographic.

Earlier this year, Cheerios ran a commercial featuring a cute, pudgy-faced little girl with a white mother and a black father. In its aftermath, you could hear the howls of protest from below the Mason Dixon Line — along with the more refined howls emanating from American liberals in response to the howls from Dixieland. If, half a century after the Civil Rights movement, so many Americans still resist the concept of interracial households, imagine the potential uproar over a televised gay couple passing the pasta bowl around to the kids. To my knowledge, no major American advertiser has stepped forward to produce such a provocative scenario. So why pick on Barilla?

Why? Because, under pressure from the interviewer, the pasta king held fast to his unfashionable definition of a family — a definition that has reigned supreme in human society for, oh, about the last ten thousand years, give or take a few thousand. That he refused to champion the more contemporary and all-embracing definition was plainly unacceptable to right-thinking progressives everywhere.

Here’s the nub of the problem I have with so many progressive thinkers. Yes, it’s fine and even laudable to support broader rights for people our society has marginalized in the past. What’s not so fine and laudable is to excoriate and excommunicate everyone who doesn’t automatically get with the program.

Like the Good Lord in his Old Testament wrath, the more impassioned progressives seem intent on damning the heretics, breaking them and banishing them to outer darkness, where there will be eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth. If they don’t like an idea, or a renegade loudmouth, or an unenlightened company, they don’t simply criticize it — they marshal their collective energies in an attempt to destroy it.

I have to confess that their lockstep liberalism frightens me. It puts me in mind of Cromwell, Robespierre, the Bolsheviks, Chairman Mao (that grandfatherly mass-murderer), and other forward-looking individuals with zero tolerance for retrograde ideas.

Conservatives, for all their recent peccadilloes, seem to be a little more tolerant of dissent. You get the feeling that despite all the righteous opposition to their often venal schemes, most of them still believe in the free marketplace of ideas.  (They almost expect to be disliked.) On the other hand, I get the impression that progressives feel impelled to stamp out dissent as if it were a colony of ants invading the sanctity of the kitchen. 

Granted, Guido Barilla could have been a little more sensitive. Nobody forced him to voice his opposition to gay couples adopting children. But look at it this way: here was a traditionalist… a man who grew up in the era when “family” meant a husband and wife surrounded by copious offspring… a middle-aged Italian whose company image is built around the cozy slogan “Where there’s Barilla, there’s home”… and he actually came out in favor of gay marriage during his infamous interview. (Gay marriage is still illegal in Italy, by the way.) How many corporate potentates would have been so liberal just a few years ago? And now the forward-thinking world wants to see him and his company twist slowly in the wind.

When asked how his refusal to feature a gay family in his advertising might affect his business, Barilla answered with businesslike equanimity: if gays “like our pasta and our advertising, they’ll eat our pasta, if they don’t like it then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand,” Simple as that. He’s not dismissing his gay customers; he’s conceding that they’re entitled to make a free choice. As is he.

Barilla apologyWhen the public outrage hit the fan, Barilla suddenly backpedaled and, like any corporate chieftain with a good P.R. staff and a healthy respect for the bottom line, attempted to restore his name with a dose of timely damage control. I always shake my head at these cringeworthy exercises in self-abasement. If you have convictions, have the guts to stand by them — or don’t express them in the first place.

The bearded, shaggy-haired Barilla pleaded with his customers to forgive him as he came to understand “the evolution of the family.” He was planning to meet with representatives of the community he offended. It wasn’t that he’s anti-gay, he insisted. He was simply trying to say “that the woman plays a central role in a family.” (Of course, he neglected to comment on households headed by two women.)

Barilla’s apology struck me as tackier and more embarrassing than his original comments. I don’t believe anyone should be forced to renounce deeply held beliefs through bullying or boycotts. Our minds are the last vestige of privacy in a notoriously invasive world.

Yes, we need to support fairness for the formerly marginalized. That’s their birthright. But we also have a right — and yes, even a responsibility — to question fashionable ideas that grate against our instincts. Some of us will naturally take longer than others to embrace the notion of a man referring to his husband or a woman to her wife. If our progressive friends are truly friends, we shouldn’t have to worry that they’ll send us into exile.

Until further notice, I’ll continue to buy Barilla whole-grain pasta regardless of Guido’s shaky opinions on what constitutes a family. I’m not especially interested in his opinions, anyway; I’m more interested in his pasta.

Extremists Beware: The New Moderate Is Back!

September 6, 2013

You may have noticed that I’ve been unusually quiet this year. In fact, you’re reading my first new post since the Newtown massacre last December. I’m fine, really. I didn’t suffer a debilitating stroke or a nine-month writer’s block. I simply needed a break. A long break.

Burned out on politics and exhausted from reasoning with disciples of Ayn Rand, I decided that life had more to offer than endless debates over how a republic should or shouldn’t be governed. After all, I’m in the September of my years. The days grow short — why should I fill them with pointless wrangling over airy, abstract, wretched ideas when there’s music and ice cream to be enjoyed?

I never announced that The New Moderate was going on hiatus, because I had no idea whether it would be temporary or permanent. Until now.

Like the Roman satirist Juvenal, I’ve concluded that it’s harder not to comment on the current scene — even with the infinitesimal prospect of fame or riches as a reward for my labors. As lefties and righties traded insults during the George Zimmerman trial, I was beginning to feel like a muzzled hound on a fox hunt.

So here I am, back at the helm, ready once again to fight for fairness and scour the seas in hot pursuit of wanton extremists. I probably won’t be writing as regularly as in the past, and I definitely won’t be jumping into the ensuing “Comments” free-for-all with my accustomed fervor. But I’ll be here, and I’ll be spouting my “radical moderate” opinions whenever I feel moved to spout them.

More than ever, America needs to hear from its opinionated moderates. If, like me, you feel passionately about the need for righteous balance and common sense in politics and culture, I hope you’ll join me.

The Burial of Innocence: A Newtown Postscript

December 19, 2012

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The burials have already begun, up there in Connecticut. Cheeky young football fan Jack Pinto and rambunctious, bright-eyed Noah Pozner both went to their graves under a leaden December sky, a week before Christmas Eve, that most magical of nights. They were six years old, both of them — absurdly, maddeningly young to be laid out in caskets like their ancestors and lowered permanently into the ground. Their eighteen schoolmates, also dead, would be following soon, along with the six brave women who tried to protect them. Twenty-six homes in this leafy corner of New England would be desolate beyond consolation this Christmas.

Make that a hundred million homes, because an entire nation has been numbed and traumatized by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We won’t know a fraction of the anguish those Newtown parents are feeling now as they bury those innocent sprites and confront those silent bedrooms, but we’re anguished all the same.

Innocence lost. It’s one of the eternal themes threading its way through world literature, and we Americans have spoken about it before. Pundits lamented our loss of innocence after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. In fact, we had already been losing it for decades.

Let me count the ways: Rock. Rap. Blood-spattered movies. Trash TV. Escalating public profanity. Deliberately repellent art. The damnable cult of “cool.” Eviction of religion (and with it, the teaching of morality) from our public schools. The rise of religious fanaticism. Relentless irony in comedy and conversation (why are we afraid to be sincere?). Mockery of simple, good-hearted squareness. Veneration of antiheroes. The rise of divorce and the fracturing of families.

The list goes on… The loss of mutual loyalty between employers and employees. The decline of community spirit. (“Communities” are now made up of people who look like us, vote like us, worship like us, have sex like us.) The ongoing decay of our cities. The ownership of elected representatives by powerful moneyed interests. The slow and sinister transmutation of heartfelt patriotism into belligerent “exceptionalism.” The ruthless pursuit of unlimited wealth at the top of society — coupled with the abandonment of personal responsibility at the bottom. The brutal ugliness of so many toys and video games marketed to American boys. Mass shootings of innocent people. In short, we’re a mess.

Innocence lost. When I was a boy, back in the faded golden light of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, we were brought up to emulate people of worth and character: Washington, Lincoln, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Lou Gehrig, George Washington Carver. These were our models, not the pop star du jour. Our favorite TV hosts promoted solid values along with the fun. I remember them fondly: Buffalo Bob Smith, Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis and a galaxy of kindly, unsung local personalities who influenced us more than they ever supposed.

We knew our neighbors, walked to school without fear, swapped baseball cards, played freely and joyously with our friends (no pre-arranged, parent-supervised play dates for us!). The nerdier boys among us (and nerds were probably a majority in those days) found quiet joy in stamp-collecting, model-building, Monopoly, or peering at the moon through rickety telescopes.

Such innocent pursuits seem almost comical now, but they nourished and satisfied us. By contrast, too many of today’s socially marginalized boys seem to require body piercings, “goth” garb, homicidal video games and semi-automatic weapons. The dark side calls to them, and they’ve become too deadened and morally feckless to resist its charms. Eventually, as some of them slowly lose their sanity and their attachment to the human community, the bloody slaughter of innocents begins to gain a weird, wild appeal.

The gun control debate is coming to a head now, accompanied by puffy clouds of hot verbiage. And yet the solution is simpler than the talking heads would lead us to think. Here it is: we need to preserve our right to bear arms, and we need to ban semi-automatic weapons. And yes, that goes for those evil ammo clips, too. Especially the ammo clips, because we can’t do anything about the millions of assault weapons already in circulation. End of story. No compromise. No exceptions.

I’ve never been a hunter — and I feel for the hunter’s inoffensive victims — but I can understand the excitement of the chase. I can even understand the need to keep an ordinary gun handy for self-defense. What I will never understand is the need for any sane person to collect weapons expressly designed to mow down dozens of human beings with minimal effort.

Who in their right mind would embrace semi-automatic weapons? Only gun dealers, the NRA and its paid shills (including our Congressmen), rigid Second Amendment fundamentalists and the half-demented survivalists who look forward to the day when they can blast the government troops who invade their homesteads. But it’s enough.

Cars kill thousands more people each year, the pro-gun pundits are fond of reminding us. Should we ban them? They miss the point: cars have multiple uses and benefits aside from smashing into hapless drivers and pedestrians. By contrast, the only purpose of a semi-automatic weapon is to kill multiple people with alarming efficiency. You don’t need an assault rifle to gun down an intruder in your home or business. You don’t even need one to stop a lunatic armed with assault weapons. A single well-aimed bullet would do the trick. Better yet, don’t give the lunatic access to assault weapons. Give him proper psychiatric care instead.

We need to reclaim our innocence, and we need to reclaim it now. An impossible task, you say? Too late, you insist? Nonsense. It won’t be easy to stuff all those evils back into the bag. In fact, it will take a heroic effort — but that’s precisely why it appeals to me.

How do we recover our cultural sanity without winding back the clock to the 1950s? Start with the children.

Back when my son was in kindergarten and first grade, I’d volunteer one morning each week to help the teachers and assist the little folks with their reading skills. I fell in love with those kids. I was looking at the human animal in its purest and most charming state: mirthful and mischievous, joyously uninhibited, sweet and trusting and full of wonder… old enough to make amazingly astute observations, but still too young to have been corrupted by the deadly influences of our culture.

A six-year-old child today is a timeless representative of our species, still as perfect and unsullied as the children of ancient Athens or Victorian England. If we can rescue a single generation of children from shabby values… if we can nurture them and guide them and still let them be their endearingly anarchic selves… maybe we can start to reverse the cultural rot that’s eating away at us today.

The bright and heartbreakingly lovable faces of the twenty juvenile Newtown victims, broadcast endlessly over the media in recent days, filled me with sadness but also with hope. I’m sure many of us feel as if we’ve come to know those children, and we’ll never forget them. The spark of life in their young eyes will remain with us, will never be extinguished, and will help us understand how human nature at its purest and best can ultimately conquer all manner of evil.

victims_734063a

Two Nations, Indivisible

November 28, 2012

Maybe it is 1860 all over again. Within days after President Obama’s re-election, disgruntled red-state Republicans (and even some terminally alienated blue-state GOP diehards) were petitioning their states to secede from the Union.

Granted, these latter-day rebels were scanty in number and could easily be dismissed as cranks. Secession has been a touchy issue on these shores since the previous Civil War, and our federal government doesn’t exactly help grease the wheels of state secessionist movements.

What made the secession threat intriguing was the accommodating response from so many denizens of the left and near-left: Let them go, and good riddance!

I’d read these mini-diatribes against Red America — that primitive and alien land of old-time religion, gun worship, antipathy toward gays and blacks and foreigners, anti-science obstinacy, substandard grammar and misplaced apostrophes, environmental brutality, cheerleaders with big hair, and on and on. We’re two separate and irreconcilable cultures, proclaimed the blue-state hipsters with their radio dials perpetually tuned to NPR’s squeaky-voiced Ira Glass and whatever obscure music combo happened to be looking edgy at the moment. And it wasn’t just the hipsters: several of my more mature, tax-paying, solid-citizen liberal friends were feeling the same urge to jettison the hicks and get on with life.

As I compared the beefy, godfearing, trailer-dwelling Bubbas with the ironic, compulsively slim, chef-worshipping bicoastal urbanites, I began to wonder if Lincoln made a mistake by attempting to lasso the Confederate states back into the Union. All those hundreds of thousands of  gallant young warriors cut down in their prime — for what?

In 2012 the United States seems to consist of two peoples inhabiting opposite sides of a deep gorge. The bridges are down, and

These finches evolved into separate species because they became isolated on separate islands. Is this the future of America?

the two cultures are evolving  away from each other. Eventually, like Darwin’s finches on their isolated islands, they could emerge as separate species. Maybe we needed to go our separate ways after all.

Then I came to my senses. First we had to consider the thorny logistics of dismantling the republic. What if a hipster magnet like Austin wanted to secede from Texas? What if the hillbilly stronghold of central Pennsylvania decided to go rogue and cut the cord from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? We’d make the pre-Bismarck patchwork of petty German kingdoms and duchies look like a unified empire by comparison. 

More important by far, we needed to think about the shared qualities that brought us together in the first place — aside from our boiling resentment of the taxes imposed by good old King George III. Surely a people that collectively loves pizza, movies and beer can join forces once again for the common good.

But even there, chances are that the blue-staters would prefer white pizza with artisanal goat-cheese topping, small independent films and microbrew beer, preferably from Belgium. The red-staters would gladly take pepperoni, blockbusters and Budweiser. Is there any hope?

What made us — all of us — a unique people known to the world as Americans? Was it our willingness to abandon ancestral roots for the chance to start a fresh life? Our bold spirit of pioneering, discovery and enterprise? Our national preoccupation with success? Our ability to welcome and assimilate newcomers from a hundred nations? Our admirable balance between rugged individualism and community spirit? Our willingness to help our neighbors — even if they lived halfway around the world? Our good-natured, down-to-earth irreverence in the face of airy pretentiousness (a trait embodied by native American philosophers like Mark Twain and Will Rogers)?

I’d vote an emphatic “Yes!” to all of the above. So what happened?

First, the ’60s happened. Traditional values came under assault by scruffy young radicals, and the traditionalists rebounded by digging in and rebelling against the rebels. Soon enough it turned into a shouting contest: Rush Limbaugh bellowing against the mushy entitlement state… liberals heaping infamy on the banksters… Bush Derangement Syndrome followed swiftly by Obama Derangement Syndrome… Republicans refusing to cooperate with Democrats… red-staters and blue-staters morphing into grotesque self-caricatures… Twitter mavens tweeting to their own amen corners… contentious opinions swirling in cyberspace, growing more and more distorted and snarky and intolerant of dissent… age-old friendships ending abruptly with a flurry of political and cultural fisticuffs.

It doesn’t look promising at the moment. A grueling, open-ended recession (no apparent light visible yet at the end of this tunnel) has frayed our national nerves, fueled hostility and exacerbated our differences. The haves are pulling blithely away from the have-nots, and (most alarmingly) the middle class is joining the underclass in an unhappy and unexpected alliance of the downtrodden. Upward mobility is virtually dead unless you’re already up (with a little effort, members of the elite can grow still eliter).

We begin to look more and more like a Latin American republic, even without considering the vast numbers of unassimilated Spanish speakers in our midst: a small, self-entitled upper crust and a vast peasantry, separate and unequal.

But this is the United States of America, you insist. We have our pride. Our history and our legacy are at stake. What can we do to rouse ourselves, reunite ourselves, restore a sense of common purpose?

I have an answer (not the answer, because nothing is that simple these days. But any answer is better than none). And my answer is simply this: stop thinking in terms of “us” and “them.” See individuals. Individuals who are just as proud, ornery, flawed, confused, scared and magnificent as we are. Like all living organisms, they simply want to survive, thrive and pass the baton to the next generation.

If we want a baton to pass along, we’ll have to stop hunkering down in our ideological bunkers. We need to step outside, breathe some fresh air and wave to our neighbors on the other side of the chasm. Then we need to repair the bridges that broke down over the past few decades. We don’t want to evolve into two separate and incompatible species, do we? After all, we’re not finches… we’re Americans.

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