There was a 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 June 12 speech in which he announced his presidential candidacy. At the bottom: a Thomas Sowell column in which the conservative commentator discusses the institutional changes that have recently occurred to “water down” the rigorous academic climate at the University of Chicago—the core curriculum of which is often praised by conservatives as a bastion of Great Tradition integrity against the leftist/poststructuralist hordes. (Chicago, by the way, is where Post editorial page editor John Podhoretz attended college.) The juxtaposition of the two articles reminds you that the sort of Great Books education that conservatives like Sowell glorify contributes to 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 that are worth repeating here:
“My first goal is to usher in the responsibility era. An era that stands in stark contrast to the last few decades, when the culture has clearly said: If it feels good, do it. If you’ve got a problem, blame someone else. Each of us must understand we are responsible for the choices we make in life. We’re responsible for the children we bring into the world. We’re responsible to love our neighbor as we want to be loved ourselves.
“And we must pass this message to our children—teach them there are right choices in life and wrong choices in life.”
Any four-year-old in America might have already absorbed those sentiments from reading The Giving Tree with Mommy at bedtime, or from watching almost any movie churned out over the last 50 years by Walt Disney or some other culture company of the sort that Bush and Gore will inevitably use as a straw man in the coming campaign.
But Bush goes on: “Some people think it’s inappropriate to draw a moral line. Not me. For our children to have the lives we want for them, they must learn to say yes to responsibility, yes to family, yes to honesty and work.”
That’s not wrong, of course. But it is mind-numbingly right. What human being, who’s not either incarcerated or a psychopath, is out there arguing that it’s “inappropriate to draw a moral line”? What noncriminally insane parent preaches to their children dishonesty and sloth?
Onward into Bush’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 consequences for bad behavior.’ But changing our culture requires more than laws. Cultures change 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. This is done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the cold of life. A quiet river of goodness and kindness that cuts through stone.”
Whoa, George W.’s speechwriters must have worked overtime combing through the Great Tradition of Western Thought and Literature to find such penetrating shards of wisdom.
On the other hand, maybe they did, in a certain way. Which brings me to Sowell, for whom—just as for so many other conservative intellectuals—the “Western Tradition,” whatever that ultimately is, is too often useful only inasmuch as it preaches the platitudes (“we are responsible for the choices we make in life”) that undergird meaningless mainstream contemporary politics, whether of the Bush or Clinton/Gore variety.
Thus Sowell’s defense 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 white male,’ to be brushed aside by those preoccupied with more politically correct stuff.”
Yeah, sure, Plato’s really been chucked in the trash at the nation’s elite colleges and replaced with Maya Angelou. And at Cornell or Princeton or Swarthmore, nobody’s ever stayed up all night discussing Big Ideas. No, they’re all building pro-Castro shanties out on the quad and playing Doom.
Sowell’s basic thesis—that Great Books curricula are rigorous—gives those curricula too much credit. As many who’ve attended a Great Books-based college like Chicago or Columbia will attest, core curricula are often a waste of time, necessitating long swaths of time spent in required survey seminars in which you skim through a dozen Classics in Translation per semester and discuss them with law-school-bound kids who are just marking time, disinterested athletes and other students who won’t willingly read another book after the university processes them out into the workforce. Under such circumstances, the classics become exactly what both conservatives and liberals want them to be: compendia of Golden Books-style truisms that prevent critical thought.
Marx? He’s all about how the modern businessman should have a conscience and stuff—or else. Augustine’s Confessions? That’s the one about how everyone can change for the better. Euripides’ Medea? That’s that play about how you have to 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 but rare—are all about eliminating the danger in famous books in order to use them as tools in building the sort of liberal-democratic consensus that’s consistent with the politics of both of our political parties. Any truly intellectually curious student rebels at the bland generalist education that core curriculum survey courses dispense, and desires to spend his time taking classes in which he can learn something meaningful about language and interpretation and thought, whether that means working through Virgil in Latin, following that evil bogeyman Derrida on one of his rigorous readings or, yes, reading Maya Angelou—but reading her seriously, not as an exercise in identity politics.
Core curricula are for filling the heads of the average kid with enough chatter to get him talking at mixers and to make him think that the investment bank for which he’ll someday work is—just like Adam Smith said it was, didn’t he, somewhere back there 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’s no accident that the institution that’s perhaps been most influenced by Columbia graduates is The New York Times. George W. Bush went to Yale, but the phrase “compassionate conservatism” might have issued from a sophomore-year Contemporary Civilization seminar discussion about Edmund Burke at Columbia College.
Nor is it an accident that Sowell’s piece is right under Bush’s in the Post. The two go together perfectly. To paraphrase Eliot, a society educates its young toward creating, or maintaining, a certain social and political structure. And yes, I meant that Eliot: T.S. “Modernity is Hell” Eliot himself.
Peddling “the Soho experience.” The debut issue of a magazine called SoHo Style is now available, and it takes the New York City lifestyle magazine genre to new levels of advertorial excess. SoHo Style makes Avenue look smarter than Yale French Studies. Almost every article in the big, beautifully designed magazine amounts to an advertisement for one Soho business or another, from Bliss to Balthazar to the high-end cobbler Stephane Kelian. There are fawning features on “SoHo-style” personalities like Kate Winslet, fashion pages, a mini-feature about where to find a bench to sit on in the neighborhood, a bit about Soho’s “best bank” of pay telephones—the magazine wrongly claims that those payphones at the intersection of Mercer and Prince are “best,” not mentioning that they’re actually those crappy Global phones that you find downtown—a “CelebFile” article about Lauren Hutton (not a Soho resident, it turns out, but she sure is stylish), a sidebar about how to penetrate some of Soho’s “most-booked” eateries and a long feature about the phenomenon of “boutique bars.”
There’s no pretense of downtown snobbery to the magazine, no stylish posturing. Pick up Avenue, and you’ll be aware that you’re reading, or more likely looking at, a world in which you might not fit in. That’s not the case with SoHo Style. Anybody can do it! the colorful magazine cheerfully insists. The potentially 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!—even out-of-towners can play. The self-conscious style politics, the class politics, that characterize haute-bourgeois “bohemian” neighborhoods like Soho are ignored or denied. The magazine’s a gorgeous, full-color brochure for that quintessential American space, the shopping mall. SoHo Style rehabilitates Soho for middle America. It’s a quintessentially Giuliani-era publication. “Defining the Downtown Experience” reads the mag’s cover banner, but it might as well read “Flush Times Make Even Upper-Class Bohemians Generous.”
From the “Publisher’s Note” by Jay Stein: “When someone first came to me with the idea of doing a magazine centered around SoHo, my first thought was that he must be out of his mind. But I soon came to see the significance of the dramatic changes that were taking place in the most exciting section of the most exciting city in the world, and realized that now is the time to develop a publication that satisfies the public’s need to know about what’s going on here. SoHo Style has been developed with a very special consumer in 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 ‘SoHo style’ as a state of mind rather than just a geographic location, our contention being 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 exists wherever people wear black.’”
“Now” sure is the time to start a magazine about Soho. Such a publication will be of 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 to tourists as a guidebook in this era in which money, that solvent, dissolves the differences between those people and us.
To kill a mockingbird. Anne Roiphe’s biweekly column in The New York Observer is the most interesting column in the country right now, considered as psychodrama—considered, indeed, as a contemporary political version of a medieval narrative in which a female religious teeters on the brink of lost faith, but ultimately saves herself.
Here’s Roiphe in 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’s calling into the show from outside the studio—doesn’t yet have any idea that her fellow guest “Jimmy” is Breslin:
“[Breslin's] disembodied voice begins. It has a fierce Brooklyn accent. The voice is loud and 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 New York 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 polite beat or two. He says the Clintons have started this insane war. They are bombing and killing. He screams… He says some impolite things about the Clinton’s [sic] warmaking. I object. Jimmy the disembodied voice says, ‘Who are you anyway to attack me? You’re a nothing, an absolute nothing.’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘who are you, some right-wing Republican?’
“‘You don’t know who I am?’ he yells, wounded to the bone. ‘You nothing you. I’ve never heard of you. I won’t be attacked by a nothing,’ he yells again. ‘I’m a lifelong Democrat,’ he shouts.”
Roiphe has a point. Breslin should have laid off. Still, the passage generates our lesson for the day: The Clinton years have created a surreal topsy-turvy political context in which left means right, white means black, good means bad and Jimmy Breslin’s a right-winger. Take away the emotion and bombast, and the above passage really boils down to the following conversation. Breslin says: It’s bad when the U.S. military bombs and kills innocent foreign civilians. Roiphe responds: If you think that way, you must be a right-winger.
When did it become possible for that dialogue to occur in America? (At some point since Clinton took the White House?) Roiphe seems to inhabit a realm of political schizophrenia—by which I mean a place in which words, ideas, signifiers, have absolutely no connection to reality. Consider what happens next in her essay:
“…I am still confused. Why is a lifelong Democrat attacking the Clintons, as if he were William Bennett or Tom DeLay? ‘Bill Clinton has no relation to Eleanor Roosevelt,’ says Jimmy. ‘He cut Aid to Dependent Children.’ Yes, I say (the last word isn’t in on the pros and cons of that, I think to myself), ‘but he was pushed by budgets, he had to compromise. The Republican push to welfare reform was—’ I try. Jimmy blasts again, ‘His bombs are killing innocent children.’”
There’s a wounded, decent religious faith undergirding the above passage that’s poignant. The phrase vibrates on the brink of disenchantment, of a Saint Anthony-like despair. 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 reiterate what’s true, just like an old Catholic might recite with greater vigor the Apostle’s Creed when confronted with an aggressive skeptic. She’s holding on tight to the last available life ropes, because below howls epistemological darkness. Empirical fact has to be twisted into the threatened believer’s schema:
“Why is the right and left in such agreement? Jimmy despises the Clintons just as if he were Henry Hyde. Jimmy has brought out all his Vietnam War slogans, give peace a chance and so on, and he has dumped them in Republican hands. The world has turned truly upside down. Jimmy, whose heart was bleeding for blacks in the South, for naked Vietnamese kids, suddenly is unmoved by the strained faces of 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-Meaning Catholic: “The last word isn’t in on the pros and cons of that.”
“Did Jimmy Breslin never make a moral error?” asks Roiphe toward the end of the piece. “Is his life so saintly and blameless that he really can call the Clintons, Hillary too, a sleaze?”
The Apostate: “The Catholic hierarchy gave its blessing to Native American genocide.”
The Well-Meaning Catholic: “Did you never make a moral error? Is your life so saintly and blameless that you can really call the Catholic hierarchy, the Archbishop too, a sleaze?”
But here’s why Roiphe’s psychodrama is significant: To her credit, she’s the only old-line liberal who seems to be experiencing one in the first place. The purity of her faith—her lack of cynicism—as she clings to her hymnal in the tempest finds no 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’ve got 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, persisting in her piety as Clinton breaks her on the wheel and Breslin jeers her from the crowd. Her perturbation is honest. Breslin should be more of a gentleman than to yell at her, and I can’t wait until her next column comes out.
The AAN beat. I’d thought that the supposed persistence of heroin usage among young people 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 feature about a promising young middle-class white woman and Portland resident named Marcia Hood-Brown who became a heroin addict and, as a heroin addict can, died from the stuff. It’s the sort of article that New York runs every couple of years: HEROIN IS BACK! or COCAINE IS A PROBLEM! or WHITE PEOPLE ARE TAKING DRUGS!
Here’s how Willamette 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 article continues: “Researchers, treatment providers and law-enforcement agents say 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 and the well-educated.”
You’d have thought that Portland’s media would have gotten that sort of material out of the way by 1996 at the latest.
Red herring. America’s Youth is probably aware of this already, but it’s news to this aging Gen-Xer: the Atlanta-based record label GMM is distributing the funnest, coolest, ugliest, sleaziest punk rock in America right now. Here at the office we’re arguing over at least two recent GMM discs that have rolled into the review bin: a record called Nobody Laughs Anymore by Boston’s the Trouble, not one of the members of which appear in the booklet photos to have reached majority age, 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/You get beat up by jocks on your way home from school/But you’ve got something they can’t understand/You’ve got the fucking world in the palm of your hand!”
I just kick-slammed my way through the Classifieds department.
Then there’s the GMM compilation Skins ‘n’ Pins, the band list of which is suburban poetry: the Pinkerton Thugs; the Murder City Wrecks; the Lower Class Brats; the Working Stiffs; U.S. Chaos; Condemned 84; the Bodies; Adolph and the Piss Artists; Last Year’s Youth; Disorderly Conduct; and so on.
I just sent a flying forearm into the throat of…
Anyway, look up the label’s website at www.GMMrecords.com.