Author's Notes

When it comes time to write a history of the present age – if anyone bothers to do it – the job will best be given to a statistician, rather than a historian. I recommend Bill James, who does the Baseball Abstract. He is an expert on deriving new meaning from old numbers, and in our meaning-starved society that is a valuable skill indeed.

We are obsessed these days with questions of how much – by how many billions will expenditures exceed income; by how many pounds is the average American overweight; how many unwed teenagers will become parents and how many unwed teenage girls will get abortions – at the expense of the questions shall we and why. This is, I think, because America has a consensus answer to the latter two questions, and it is this: we shall, and why not. Bobby Kennedy, paraphrasing Shaw, used to proclaim, “some men ask why; I ask why not”. Now we say “why not” to every indulgence that comes our way. I do not believe it is what Bobby had in mind.

We were not always this way. We are, after all, a nation founded by men of enormous political and personal courage. Thomas Jefferson did not hesitate to leave Washington’s Cabinet – at the possible cost of his entire political career – when he believed honor required his resignation. John Quincy Adams, fallen from the Presidency to a seat in the House of Representatives, badgered Congress daily to face its responsibilities on the slavery issue, even though in his lifetime it won him only ridicule. Or – this is my favorite, because it was so unexpected – Martin Van Buren, a lifetime trimmer and political slick who served as our eighth President, turned away the Democratic nomination in 1844 (and an almost certain return to office) because it would have required him to embrace a pro-slavery platform.

Or: we need not turn to the nineteenth century to get a picture of political courage. A generation ago, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Fulbright, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen, and Martin Luther King fought over the great issues of the day with enough passion to make them take risks. Even men like Senators John McClellan and Bill Russell, mistaken though they were, undertook high-stakes battles on a daily basis for principals they wrongfully believed were right. These were deeply flawed men who were not above dishonor. But the things they wanted, they wanted for better reasons than money or power.

For those of us who lived through the time, it may be surprising to think that Hubert Humphrey would be remembered as a giant, but is there anyone today who could match him? Humphrey crusaded for civil rights, the war in Viet Nam, and full employment. What are John Edwards’ signature issues? Joe Lieberman’s? For that matter, George Bush’s?

The fact is that at least since the mid-1980s there have been no important political disagreements on any issue among serious politicians. By 1988, it was impossible for a national politician to even belong to an organization which sometimes took unpopular stands, as poor Michael Dukakis found out. And in 2000, we reached our nadir: a contest between two middle-aged white Ivy Leaguers, both sons of powerful politicians, where the most profound disagreement was over how much Social Security money would be allowed to go into the stock market. Is it any wonder that they had nearly identical vote totals? Is it any wonder that the “issues” were personality traits: Gore’s supposed woodenness and arrogance; Bush’s alleged lack of smarts? Thirty-two years previously George Wallace wrongly accused his major-party opponents, Nixon and Humphrey, of being indistinguishable, but the label would have stuck in 2000: Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

But our leaders are all Tweedledum now, handing out the same pabulum of focus-group-tested shibboleths, each of them intricately hand-calibrating expressions slightly different than the person next to him. On the big issues we are all as one: civil rights (obvious), war (o.k. if less than 60 days), taxes (lower!), deficit spending (o.k., as long as it gets paid back after we’re all dead), and the rest.

This is all a product of our shift from a manufacturing to a retail culture. As manufacturers, we were concerned with the quality and usefulness of our products, whether they were tires or mathematicians. As retailers, we are concerned with whether people are happy.

The retail culture is everywhere. Did your kid’s high school graduating class feature a valedictorian? If so, I believe it was in the minority. Valedictorians and salutatorians are everywhere being replaced by well-liked kids who agree in advance to utter only remarks previously approved by the school administration. You know these guys from your own high school days: easy-going, back-slapping jocks; witty, high-fashion class officers with great shoes and interesting moms. They own used-car lots now, and run the local Kiwanis or Junior League.

Or even earlier: education is a relentless process of socialization. Go to any classroom: how are teachers disciplining their charges? By telling their kids that they’re making the teacher unhappy. And when the teacher is unhappy, general unhappiness ensues. So from the first day of school, kids are socialized to make authority figures happy.

Is it any wonder, then, that in Federal agencies no action is ever undertaken until every conceivable source of authority has signed off – which is to say, no action is ever undertaken unless its need is blindingly obvious? Or that the same standard seems to govern the ethos of most large corporations? And is it any wonder that today’s politicians are incapable of challenging the ultimate authority figure – the American public – with hard truths?

Here’s a hard truth for you: the immense baby boom generation is coming to the end of its useful life. In a dozen years from the date of this rant (2003), millions of boomers will be leaving the work force and entering an extended lifetime in retirement: taking from the Social Security which took from them all their working lives, and from Medicaid, and from all the multitude of social programs designed to help the elderly. How will we – with a national debt which already exceeds the worldwide money supply – be able to deal with the onslaught against our resources? I don’t know, but based on our previous preparation and experience, I’m guessing not well.

Eventually, we will be forced to make choices so dire, so hard, that the only possible escape from moral courage would be a course of action so foul, so bankrupt of human values, as to wholly redefine human perfidy. That’s what The Secret Notebooks of Braulio Jules is all about. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not betting on moral courage.

 


last updated July 1, 2003.
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