Jewish World Review July 26, 2005 / 19 Tammuz
Freighted with insignificance
It happened in the grocery store line. A lady told me she thought my columns about morality were great but those about politics were something else.
"What, after all, does one have to do with the other? " I said, under the impression that it was a rhetorical question, even one that displayed my world-weary savoir-faire.
"Thank G-d," the lady replied, "in America, we separate morality and politics."
Think about it if it doesn't make you too dizzy: "Thank G-d, in America we separate politics and morality."
There's a heckuva lot of separatin' goin' on in that derailed train of thought: not just politics from morality (how French!) but maybe G-d from both.
After a confused moment, I didn't want to think about it any more. It was like staring too long at a picture by M.C. Escher, or trying to decode Yogi Berra's prose. After a while, you get a dizzy sensation.
Do you think the lady's prayer of thanksgiving was just part of the ordinary, unthinking detritus of American conversation? Or was it pure Zen? And is there a difference?
Hey, what a country!
Or as the great poet and uneven pitcher, Joaquin Andujar, once said in a moment of pure inspiration: "There is one word in America that says it all: 'You never know.'"
I won't ever know what the lady meant, but I can't get her comment out of my head. It goes 'round and 'round up there like the lyrics to a bad song. Like the indecipherable but enduring as the words to "Louie, Louie," the rhythm-and-blues standard.
Certain high-minded critics, you may remember, claimed the Kingsmen's version of "Louie, Louie "was obscene when played at slow speed, and even made a federal case out of it. After a thorough investigation, the G-men reached their solemn conclusion:
"We found the record to be unintelligible at any speed we played it."
Much like "Thank G-d, in America we separate morality and politics."
Such language leaves behind it a blank uneasiness. But it can be revealing in its own way. Maybe more revealing than the speaker intended. Even if true, it was morally empty. Much like George Stephanopoulos' classic summation of then President Bill Clinton's fidelity to his campaign promises: "The president has kept the promises he meant to keep." Who could an argue with that?
All such language brings to mind the lady who once proudly explained that her late husband, while not a lawyer, "had a legalized mind."
There is actually something to be said for confusing an issue so thoroughly that nobody could possibly fight over it. It's a way of preserving the peace. Dwight Eisenhower was a master of that tactic; he did it at every press conference.
No problem. Ike took his press secretary aside and assured him, "Don't worry, Jim, I'll go out there and confuse 'em." Which he did. Like the pro he was. The man was inarticulate like a fox.
As for the lady's comment about separating morality from politics, it sticks in the mind like a marble going 'round and 'round in a clothes dryer. It's definitely a quote worth keeping in my collection of the unconsciously metaphysical.
Still, that comment may not rank up there with my favorite conundrum an observation that appeared in a letter from a mental patient to the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial some years ago: "It gets boring not having peace of mind all the time."
That's the same effect produced by paying too much attention to the news 24/7/365. I know.
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