There wasa wonderfully telling juxtaposition of articles on the New York Post "Opinion"page last Tuesday. At the top: an edited transcript of George W. Bush's June12 speech in which he announced his presidential candidacy. At the bottom: aThomas Sowell column in which the conservative commentator discusses the institutionalchanges that have recently occurred to "water down" the rigorous academicclimate at the University of Chicago-the core curriculum of which is often praisedby conservatives as a bastion of Great Tradition integrity against the leftist/poststructuralisthordes. (Chicago, by the way, is where Post editorial page editor John Podhoretzattended college.) The juxtaposition of the two articles reminds you that thesort of Great Books education that conservatives like Sowell glorify contributesto exactly the sort of intellectual and political meaninglessness embodied bypoliticians like Bush. To start,here's Bush, whose campaign-kickoff platitudes are familiar by now, but thatare worth repeating here:
"Myfirst goal is to usher in the responsibility era. An era that stands in starkcontrast to the last few decades, when the culture has clearly said: If it feelsgood, do it. If you've got a problem, blame someone else. Each of us must understandwe are responsible for the choices we make in life. We're responsible for thechildren we bring into the world. We're responsible to love our neighbor aswe want to be loved ourselves.
"Andwe must pass this message to our children-teach them there are right choicesin life and wrong choices in life."
Any four-year-oldin America might have already absorbed those sentiments from reading TheGiving Tree with Mommy at bedtime, or from watching almost any movie churnedout over the last 50 years by Walt Disney or some other culture company of thesort that Bush and Gore will inevitably use as a straw man in the coming campaign.
But Bushgoes on: "Some people think it's inappropriate to draw a moral line. Notme. For our children to have the lives we want for them, they must learn tosay yes to responsibility, yes to family, yes to honesty and work."
That's notwrong, of course. But it is mind-numbingly right. What human being, who's noteither incarcerated or a psychopath, is out there arguing that it's "inappropriateto draw a moral line"? What noncriminally insane parent preaches to theirchildren dishonesty and sloth?
Onward intoBush's river of platitudes: "We must say to our children, 'We love you,but discipline and love go hand in hand, and there will be bad consequencesfor bad behavior.' But changing our culture requires more than laws. Cultureschange one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time. Government can spend money,but it can't put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. Thisis done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the coldof life. A quiet river of goodness and kindness that cuts through stone."
Whoa, GeorgeW.'s speechwriters must have worked overtime combing through the Great Traditionof Western Thought and Literature to find such penetrating shards of wisdom.
On the otherhand, maybe they did, in a certain way. Which brings me to Sowell, for whom-justas for so many other conservative intellectuals-the "Western Tradition,"whatever that ultimately is, is too often useful only inasmuch as it preachesthe platitudes ("we are responsible for the choices we make in life")that undergird meaningless mainstream contemporary politics, whether of theBush or Clinton/Gore variety.
Thus Sowell'sdefense of the University of Chicago. "Students [at the University of Chicago]have been known to discuss Plato among themselves well into the night,"Sowell insists. "At many other colleges, Plato is just another 'dead whitemale,' to be brushed aside by those preoccupied with more politically correctstuff."
Yeah, sure,Plato's really been chucked in the trash at the nation's elite colleges andreplaced with Maya Angelou. And at Cornell or Princeton or Swarthmore, nobody'sever stayed up all night discussing Big Ideas. No, they're all buildingpro-Castro shanties out on the quad and playing Doom.
Sowell'sbasic thesis-that Great Books curricula are rigorous-gives those curricula toomuch credit. As many who've attended a Great Books-based college like Chicagoor Columbia will attest, core curricula are often a waste of time, necessitatinglong swaths of time spent in required survey seminars in which you skim througha dozen Classics in Translation per semester and discuss them with law-school-boundkids who are just marking time, disinterested athletes and other students whowon't willingly read another book after the university processes them out intothe workforce. Under such circumstances, the classics become exactly what bothconservatives and liberals want them to be: compendia of Golden Books-styletruisms that prevent critical thought.
Marx? He'sall about how the modern businessman should have a conscience and stuff-or else.Augustine's Confessions? That's the one about how everyone can changefor the better. Euripides' Medea? That's that play about how you haveto restrain your sexual passions in order to Play Better With Others in Society.Aristotle preaches moderation: Don't change things-institutions are good.
And so on.Core curricula-unless you stumble upon a great teacher, which is possible butrare-are all about eliminating the danger in famous books in order to use themas tools in building the sort of liberal-democratic consensus that's consistentwith the politics of both of our political parties. Any truly intellectuallycurious student rebels at the bland generalist education that core curriculumsurvey courses dispense, and desires to spend his time taking classes in whichhe can learn something meaningful about language and interpretation and thought,whether that means working through Virgil in Latin, following that evil bogeymanDerrida on one of his rigorous readings or, yes, reading Maya Angelou-but readingher seriously, not as an exercise in identity politics.
Core curriculaare for filling the heads of the average kid with enough chatter to get himtalking at mixers and to make him think that the investment bank for which he'llsomeday work is-just like Adam Smith said it was, didn't he, somewhere backthere during sophomore year?-carrying on some noble humanizing democratic mission.Sowell's is a vision of education as a tool toward the American Consensus. It'sno accident that the institution that's perhaps been most influenced by Columbiagraduates is The New York Times. George W. Bush went to Yale, but thephrase "compassionate conservatism" might have issued from a sophomore-yearContemporary Civilization seminar discussion about Edmund Burke at ColumbiaCollege.
Nor is itan accident that Sowell's piece is right under Bush's in the Post. Thetwo go together perfectly. To paraphrase Eliot, a society educates its youngtoward creating, or maintaining, a certain social and political structure. Andyes, I meant that Eliot: T.S. "Modernity is Hell" Eliot himself.
Peddling"the Soho experience." The debut issue of a magazine called SoHoStyle is now available, and it takes the New York City lifestyle magazinegenre to new levels of advertorial excess. SoHo Style makes Avenuelook smarter than Yale French Studies. Almost every article in the big,beautifully designed magazine amounts to an advertisement for one Soho businessor another, from Bliss to Balthazar to the high-end cobbler Stephane Kelian.There are fawning features on "SoHo-style" personalities like KateWinslet, fashion pages, a mini-feature about where to find a bench to sit onin the neighborhood, a bit about Soho's "best bank" of pay telephones-themagazine wrongly claims that those payphones at the intersection of Mercer andPrince are "best," not mentioning that they're actually those crappyGlobal phones that you find downtown-a "CelebFile" article about LaurenHutton (not a Soho resident, it turns out, but she sure is stylish),a sidebar about how to penetrate some of Soho's "most-booked" eateriesand a long feature about the phenomenon of "boutique bars."
There'sno pretense of downtown snobbery to the magazine, no stylish posturing. Pickup Avenue, and you'll be aware that you're reading, or more likely lookingat, a world in which you might not fit in. That's not the case with SoHoStyle. Anybody can do it! the colorful magazine cheerfully insists. Thepotentially humiliating act of trying to get a place at Balthazar if you're uncool is transmogrified into a fun game-go for a nice breakfast, instead!-evenout-of-towners can play. The self-conscious style politics, the class politics,that characterize haute-bourgeois "bohemian" neighborhoods like Sohoare ignored or denied. The magazine's a gorgeous, full-color brochure for thatquintessential American space, the shopping mall. SoHo Style rehabilitatesSoho for middle America. It's a quintessentially Giuliani-era publication. "Definingthe Downtown Experience" reads the mag's cover banner, but it might aswell read "Flush Times Make Even Upper-Class Bohemians Generous."
From the"Publisher's Note" by Jay Stein: "When someone first came tome with the idea of doing a magazine centered around SoHo, my first thoughtwas that he must be out of his mind. But I soon came to see the significanceof the dramatic changes that were taking place in the most exciting sectionof the most exciting city in the world, and realized that now is the time todevelop a publication that satisfies the public's need to know about what'sgoing on here. SoHo Style has been developed with a very special consumerin mind-the one who wants to be on top of the important trends emerging here,whether in fashion, food, entertainment, or art. The magazine approaches 'SoHostyle' as a state of mind rather than just a geographic location, our contentionbeing that this style exists throughout the world, whether it be London, Paris,Milan, or even L.A. As one prominent advertiser puts it, 'SoHo style existswherever people wear black.'"
"Now"sure is the time to start a magazine about Soho. Such a publication will beof less use when the boom economy finally tanks and Stephane Kelian, or whoever,decides to close his Soho store. The magazine costs $5, and will be useful totourists as a guidebook in this era in which money, that solvent, dissolvesthe differences between those people and us.
To killa mockingbird. Anne Roiphe's biweekly column in The New York Observeris the most interesting column in the country right now, considered as psychodrama-considered,indeed, as a contemporary political version of a medieval narrative in whicha female religious teeters on the brink of lost faith, but ultimately savesherself.
Here's Roiphein her latest installment, describing her recent appearance, with Jimmy Breslin,on Chris Lydon's NPR radio show. You need to know that at this point Roiphe-who'scalling into the show from outside the studio-doesn't yet have any idea thather fellow guest "Jimmy" is Breslin:
"[Breslin's]disembodied voice begins. It has a fierce Brooklyn accent. The voice is loudand full, sucking in the air space, angry and pushing, pulsing through my skull.We are no longer at the Plaza having tea. Where the hell are we?
"[Breslin]begins by calling Hillary Clinton a sleaze like her husband. He says that NewYork doesn't need their kind of moral slime. He blusters and blasts and rails.I interrupt. 'Wait a minute,' I say, 'she could be our Eleanor Roosevelt.' Jimmy,last name still unknown to me, howls, 'Don't interrupt me.' I wait a politebeat or two. He says the Clintons have started this insane war. They are bombingand killing. He screams... He says some impolite things about the Clinton's[sic] warmaking. I object. Jimmy the disembodied voice says, 'Who are you anywayto attack me? You're a nothing, an absolute nothing.' 'Well,' I say, 'who areyou, some right-wing Republican?'
"'Youdon't know who I am?' he yells, wounded to the bone. 'You nothing you. I'venever heard of you. I won't be attacked by a nothing,' he yells again. 'I'ma lifelong Democrat,' he shouts."
Roiphe hasa point. Breslin should have laid off. Still, the passage generates our lessonfor the day: The Clinton years have created a surreal topsy-turvy politicalcontext in which left means right, white means black, good means bad and JimmyBreslin's a right-winger. Take away the emotion and bombast, and the above passagereally boils down to the following conversation. Breslin says: It's bad whenthe U.S. military bombs and kills innocent foreign civilians. Roiphe responds:If you think that way, you must be a right-winger.
When didit become possible for that dialogue to occur in America? (At some pointsince Clinton took the White House?) Roiphe seems to inhabit a realm of politicalschizophrenia-by which I mean a place in which words, ideas, signifiers, haveabsolutely no connection to reality. Consider what happens next in her essay:
"...Iam still confused. Why is a lifelong Democrat attacking the Clintons, as ifhe were William Bennett or Tom DeLay? 'Bill Clinton has no relation to EleanorRoosevelt,' says Jimmy. 'He cut Aid to Dependent Children.' Yes, I say (thelast word isn't in on the pros and cons of that, I think to myself), 'but hewas pushed by budgets, he had to compromise. The Republican push to welfarereform was-' I try. Jimmy blasts again, 'His bombs are killing innocent children.'"
There'sa wounded, decent religious faith undergirding the above passage that's poignant.The phrase vibrates on the brink of disenchantment, of a Saint Anthony-likedespair. That's to Roiphe's credit. She's not at all setting out to be dishonest.She's an innocent, a real believer. And that's why Roiphe's so eager to reiteratewhat's true, just like an old Catholic might recite with greater vigorthe Apostle's Creed when confronted with an aggressive skeptic. She's holdingon tight to the last available life ropes, because below howls epistemologicaldarkness. Empirical fact has to be twisted into the threatened believer's schema:
"Whyis the right and left in such agreement? Jimmy despises the Clintons just asif he were Henry Hyde. Jimmy has brought out all his Vietnam War slogans, givepeace a chance and so on, and he has dumped them in Republican hands. The worldhas turned truly upside down. Jimmy, whose heart was bleeding for blacks inthe South, for naked Vietnamese kids, suddenly is unmoved by the strained facesof the Kosovars pouring through the mountain passes." Faith, after all,is always most strident when the serpent of apostasy slithers nearest.
The Apostate:"The Catholic Church shelters ordained pedophiles."
The Well-MeaningCatholic: "The last word isn't in on the pros and cons of that."
"DidJimmy Breslin never make a moral error?" asks Roiphe toward the end ofthe piece. "Is his life so saintly and blameless that he really can callthe Clintons, Hillary too, a sleaze?"
The Apostate:"The Catholic hierarchy gave its blessing to Native American genocide."
The Well-MeaningCatholic: "Did you never make a moral error? Is your life so saintly andblameless that you can really call the Catholic hierarchy, the Archbishop too,a sleaze?"
But here'swhy Roiphe's psychodrama is significant: To her credit, she's the only old-lineliberal who seems to be experiencing one in the first place. The purity of herfaith-her lack of cynicism-as she clings to her hymnal in the tempest findsno analogue in other traditional liberals who persist in defending the Clintons.Adduce the names of other liberal pro-Clinton figures in the media, and you'vegot a roster of smirking disingenuousness. Roiphe's name isn't on that list.She's no Arthur Schlesinger Jr. She's the media's St. Catherine, persistingin her piety as Clinton breaks her on the wheel and Breslin jeers her from thecrowd. Her perturbation is honest. Breslin should be more of a gentleman thanto yell at her, and I can't wait until her next column comes out.
The AANbeat. I'd thought that the supposed persistence of heroin usage among youngpeople in cities like Portland and Seattle entered into pop-cultural lore around,say, 1994. Which is why it's surprising that Portland's Willamette Week,a good, if granola-loving, weekly newspaper, seems to have just discovered the"heroin problem." The paper's May 26 issue includes a long featureabout a promising young middle-class white woman and Portland resident namedMarcia Hood-Brown who became a heroin addict and, as a heroin addict can, diedfrom the stuff. It's the sort of article that New York runs every coupleof years: HEROIN IS BACK! or COCAINE IS A PROBLEM! or WHITE PEOPLE ARE TAKINGDRUGS!
Here's howWillamette Week's article, by Chris Lydgate, sounds: "Without question,Marcia's death is an extraordinary tragedy. Sadly, it is by no means unique.Across the nation, heroin overdoses are increasing at an alarming rate."
The articlecontinues: "Researchers, treatment providers and law-enforcement agentssay that cheaper, more potent heroin is seducing a whole new generation of users,many of whom get hooked by smoking or snorting the drug. In addition, they say, heroin addiction is increasingly reaching into the ranks of the affluent andthe well-educated."
You'd havethought that Portland's media would have gotten that sort of material out ofthe way by 1996 at the latest.
Red herring.America's Youth is probably aware of this already, but it's news to thisaging Gen-Xer: the Atlanta-based record label GMM is distributing the funnest,coolest, ugliest, sleaziest punk rock in America right now. Here at the officewe're arguing over at least two recent GMM discs that have rolled into the reviewbin: a record called Nobody Laughs Anymore by Boston's the Trouble, notone of the members of which appear in the booklet photos to have reached majorityage, and who sound a lot like Minor Threat (I'm dating myself), except harder,louder and tighter. Sample lyric: "Only 16 but you're nobody's fool/Youget beat up by jocks on your way home from school/But you've got something theycan't understand/You've got the fucking world in the palm of your hand!"
I just kick-slammedmy way through the Classifieds department.
Then there'sthe GMM compilation Skins 'n' Pins, the band list of which is suburbanpoetry: the Pinkerton Thugs; the Murder City Wrecks; the Lower Class Brats;the Working Stiffs; U.S. Chaos; Condemned 84; the Bodies; Adolph and the PissArtists; Last Year's Youth; Disorderly Conduct; and so on.
I just senta flying forearm into the throat of...
Anyway,look up the label's website at www.GMMrecords.com.