Barack Obama had to be searching his bruised soul in Johannesburg last week at the memorial service for the late, great Nelson Mandela. Nestled between First Lady Michelle and eyecatching Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the embattled U.S. president must have watched the deification of the South African liberator with a twinge of bittersweet regret.
I wish they’d eulogize ME like that, I can imagine him thinking. While I’m still alive, preferably. Damn, even the WHITE South Africans love Mandela. I mean, come on… I can’t believe Americans are more racist than the Afrikaners. What more do I have to do to prove that I’m not a socialist Muslim black supremacist who was born in Kenya? I’m smart. Well educated. Not bad looking for a middle-aged guy. Keep in shape, shoot hoops, good family man, got Osama bin Laden, helped avert a catastrophic worldwide financial collapse, didn’t try to nationalize the health insurance companies. What do they want from me?
You couldn’t blame Obama if he ruefully compared and contrasted his own career with that of the beloved elder statesman. After all, Mandela had been his idol, his inspiration for launching an ambitious career in American politics. The young community organizer in Chicago envisioned a noble trajectory for himself, and his fellow Democrats reciprocated by grooming him for the presidency before he had even scored a seat in the Senate.
Obama inspired enough voters to win the ultimate prize. From the outset, he promised to be one of those transformational presidents who come along perhaps once every half century. He was ready to become the American Mandela, a conciliatory leader who would soothe our lingering racial resentments and smooth the path to a long-overdue postracial society. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting himself elected to the highest office in a country with a long history of racial discord. (Mandela had to work a little harder for his prize.)
In fact, the parallels between Obama and Mandela were striking.
Both men were tall, slender, dignified and black, but with hints of racial ambiguity. (Obama’s mother was white; Mandela displayed the tawny-brown skin and “Asiatic” eyes of the original Cape tribes.) Both men stood ramrod-straight but carried themselves with ease and grace. Both could command affection as well as respect, a too-rare trait among political leaders. Their personal charm, beguiling humor and engaging smiles only added to the aura of magnetism that made them glow as if lit from within.
Mandela came from an elite family; Obama attended elite universities. Mandela lost his father when he was a boy; Obama was abandoned by his. Both were equally comfortable in the company of whites and blacks. If either of them harbored any residual bitterness toward whites, they managed to conceal and even transcend it. And finally, with minimal experience in political office and against overwhelming historical odds, both men became the first black president of their respective republics.
Do the similarities end here? Not really. Both Mandela and Obama started out as doctrinaire leftists and wisely moved toward the center as they matured. Neither man promoted policies that would discriminate against whites. And, for better or worse, neither was a hands-on policy wonk in the tradition of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. After the hard work of winning public confidence and ascending to the presidency, both men largely delegated the nuts and bolts of governing to their trusted advisors. They were all about vision and symbolism.
It worked out beautifully for Mandela: here he was, lionized by legions of adoring whites and blacks in death as in life, revered as one of the great men of the twentieth century, even of all time. Obama? Not so much. His approval rating had recently dropped south of 40 percent, and his popularity was waning even among his formerly ardent supporters.
I still can’t believe how my presidency has imploded, I can imagine Obama musing as he listened to the endless tributes that day in Johannesburg. The Republicans were out to stop me from Day One. Damn birthers, they just couldn’t accept a black man as their president… did everything their little brains could to strip me of legitimacy. How did Madiba do it? How did he win the hearts of the white racists? Really, what did he have that I haven’t got? Was it because he was a nonthreatening, grandfatherly old man, while I was young and virile? Come on, I’m not some angry ghetto dude. I’m not Malcolm X. I’m not even Kanye West. There’s gotta be more to it.
There is. It probably didn’t help that most of us expected Obama to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or that he took office during the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. It also wasn’t his fault that he faced a screeching chorus of haters who would have opposed and undermined him even if he had single-handedly revived the economy like a man with jumper cables.
And yet the fault lies not only with the Obama-deranged Republicans but within himself. I’ve noticed that the president tends to say all the right things in his public addresses, but that his deeds rarely measure up to his words. He promised to close Gitmo, solve the illegal immigrant conundrum, even acknowledge the Turkish genocide against the Armenians after 90-plus years of systematic denial. No deal.
Worse yet, he famously pledged that “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan.” What was he thinking? Either the man was seriously misinformed about his own healthcare reform, or he was lying through his teeth. And if he was lying about his most important domestic achievement, we have to wonder what else he’s been hiding from us. Credibility is like a necklace: break it in one place and all the beads go scattering to the four corners of the room.
I think Obama likes the idea of being president more than he likes the actual duties that go with the job. He’s a dynamo on the campaign trail and at public rallies. When he speaks, he can be cool and witty or appropriately impassioned as the situation demands. But he seems to lack the vital leadership gene that converts thought into action and consensus. He has no taste for the visceral give-and-take of politics; he’s not a happy warrior like FDR or a skilled behind-the-scenes arm-twister like LBJ. Obama is essentially a cerebral introvert in an extrovert’s profession.
Here’s where Obama and Mandela part company. By all accounts, the late Madiba loved to mingle with his countrymen — black, white, and all shades in between. He was disarmingly humble and devoid of ego. He’d meet face-to-face with his adversaries and encourage an atmosphere of mutual respect. Reports of his warm and affectionate nature were almost universal — all the more extraordinary coming on the heels of a brutal 27-year incarceration. He entered prison an angry militant and miraculously emerged with a loving heart.
Mandela had been tested like no other national leader in memory, with the possible exception of the polio-ravaged FDR. Obama’s life was cushy by comparison; once he got his head straight in college, the world seemed to roll out the red carpet for him. The obstacles he suddenly faced as president must have shocked him to the core.
I’ve taken more than my fair share of abuse, Obama might have thought as he sat there in Johannesburg. I still don’t get it. Clinton was a compulsive womanizer, and everybody loves him. Bush 43 took a lot of heat, but he deserved it. Heck, even Nixon didn’t have it this bad until midway through Watergate. I could have been another Mandela, and look at my presidency now. Smoking ruins. Man, I could use a break.
So Helle Thorning-Schmidt nudged him and held up her smartphone.
A selfie with Helle and David Cameron? Sure, why not? What’s the worst that could happen?
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
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.
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.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
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.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.
“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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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 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.