Jewish World Review Jan 7, 2014/ 6 Shevat, 5774
The way we were --- and are
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | There are certain passages in much loved and much read and re-read books that have the power to show us how much we have changed while they've remained the same.
It's a bit like paying a visit to the town you're from for the first time in years. All is familiar and nothing is.
What has changed stands out -- as if somebody had put it under a magnifying glass. In place of some nondescript stretch of street you once hardly noticed, a hospital or university has arisen. Or a familiar old landmark has become a vacant lot.
Those features of the landscape that haven't changed bring out all that has changed around them. It's like looking at the fashions of a long-past era and realizing: My, how we've changed! Or like coming across a telling passage from
"Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upsidedown: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive."
And so ol' Binx will sit down at one of those big, commodious tables in a library reading room and go through one separate but equally partisan magazine after another, nodding in agreement as each scores its rhetorical points. ("Damn right, old son, I say, jerking my chair in approval. Pour it on them.") Then he selects a journal of the opposite persuasion and is just as approving. ("Oh, ho, say I, and hold fast to the chair arm: that one did it: eviscerated! And then out and away into the sunlight, my neck prickling with satisfaction.")
It's not the opinions that delight Binx so much as their conviction -- their energy, sincerity, force and absurd certainty ... their life. They rise like lush islands in the sea of conformity Binx feels all around him.
Those were the days, at the tag end of the great Eisenhowerean consensus, when haters seemed rare enough to be invigorating and civility was so common it was just boring.
Back then you had to go looking for ideologues left or right -- just to make sure the country's political reflexes were still in working order. The way Binx had to check out the magazines at the library. The Nation was still being published in some dingy office somewhere, and
All was right with the world. Nice if boring. Children were taught not to discuss politics, religion or other unfit subjects. Or so it all appears in retrospect now that
Americans by and large felt we could safely tolerate our crazies, for stability reigned.
What FDR began, Ike finished. His wide grin and invisible hand papered over a multitude of ideological differences. There is no solvent for old ideologies like new prosperity, which reduces them to only intellectual abstractions. They become entertainment for the delectation of the Binx Bollings strolling down the American midway like a gawker from a different world.
The largely self-satisfied and self-absorbed world of 1960 was different, at least in hindsight. The political climate was the reverse of today's. Today it is the temperate and civil who stand out as exceptional, and the ideologues who seem everywhere, usually throwing verbal darts at each other. Which can get boring. Or as a letter writer with mental problems once wrote the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial when I wrote its editorials, "It gets boring not having peace of mind all the time."
What happened? Nothing new, really. The country just reverted to its revolutionary self after the brief and unnatural consensus that appeared in the 1950s and was mistaken for normalcy.
Today the kind of free-for-all envisioned by those who wrote the First Amendment is the norm once again. The old triopoly of the television networks is a thing of the past in this Age of the Internet, when anything goes and usually does. Ol' Binx might still be bored today, but it would be by today's wild profusion of ideas, not their rarity.
The moral of this story, if it has one: Beware of what you wish for. It just might come to pass. Do you find peace and tranquility boring, which was Binx's complaint? Very well then, they can be dispensed with easily enough. Just reach for your iPhone, iPad, iPod or iTune and your 24-7 distraction app, your portable little manufactory of News and Entertainment that is neither. You can walk down the street with it and never have to look up at God's sky or a human face. Till all is a partisan jumble and nobody needs to think -- only react -- in the great wave of nothingness that washes over us, leaving the impression that This Is Important.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.