Sunday, April 15, 2007


It occurs to me that one way We can get beyond the miasm of quotidian ‘reality’ and see what has actually happened in the country is to go back to the film “Judgment at Nuremberg”. I had seen it on PBS recently (for the umpteenth time in my life) and I’ve been trying to come to grips with “what it is” about the film that tugs insistently.

Yes, the phenomenon of Fascism offers much food for thought – and not simply (any longer) as an historical exercise. Yes, the psychology of crowds and mobs and ‘masses’ offers much food for thought – and not simply (any longer) as an historical exercise. Yes, the awefullness that humans are capable of inflicting upon each other offers much food for thought – and not simply (any longer) as an historical exercise. Back then in 1961 it seemed as if the world, and most surely this country, had emerged from the blood-dark tunnel of such primitivism, and that – Soviet rocketry notwithstanding – the world and We had entered some palpable sunlit upland of species-maturity.

But what is most painful today, watching that film, is to realize that the America and the Americans portrayed in it no longer exist. It’s not only that - as they say in LaLaLand – you can’t make a movie like that anymore. It’s that We haven’t got a country like that anymore, and We may not even be able to en-office the types of public adults portrayed by Tracy and Widmark … and what does that say about Us?

It’s the seriousness with which they execute their duties, and – consequently – with which they conduct their lives and the seriousness which seems a constituent part of their very selves. That seriousness is gone now, certainly in public life but increasingly – I think – among the citizenry itself. That ‘gravitas’ I’d like to say, except that I’m afraid it would be too easily co-opted by somebody who’s figured out – with the help of PR consultants – how to ‘do’ gravitas for the cameras and the sound-bites.

Does it take a World War and a Holocaust to muster that seriousness? Isn’t the daily task of conducting one’s adult life enough to muster that seriousness? Isn’t the daily task of confronting the pains and powers of this world enough to muster that seriousness?

How did We get here? How did We come to this? The Boomers have to take some of the blame: they were only youths when the film came out, and somehow its message was effectively eclipsed by the Kennedy Camelot: you could be ‘serious’ and yet ‘young’ (Kennedy’s ploy to neutralize the glaring discrepancy between his own age and inexperience compared to Nixon and the outgoing Eisenhower). To be ‘young’ – and to imagine the mid-40s as ‘young’! – enchanted, intoxicated everyone from 15 to 50. That youth is not an age renowned for its ‘seriousness’, that youth as an age might not be able to really ‘platform’ seriousness … that possibility was eclipsed in the enthusiasm. By the time it became a possibility that required consideration Political Correctness had set in and such consideration would be labeled ‘ageist’.

Within a few years after that, Kennedy’s version of ‘youth’ – which still drew heat and light from the accomplished adulthood of Eisenhower – had slipped from public consciousness. The ‘youth’ of the Summer of Love (1967) was ‘groovy’ and ‘authentic’ when not making hay in the summer grasses in a pleasant pot-induced haze. The ‘youth’ of the Spring of ’68 were rioting not only against the war but against ‘authority’ and ‘the Man’, taking over university campuses for great causes, for small causes, and finally for laughs.

‘Seriousness’ got in the way of everything. So maybe it had to be an excuse too – an excuse to ruin a good time, to obstruct a Good Cause, to get in the way of all the Fun and the Good Work. It was a bummer; it was a downer. Never trust anybody over 30 – they ‘lose it’ and start to get in the way. And then those who were dragged beyond that magic boundary of ‘30’ made every effort to neutralize any possible effects; university faculty, ministers, even (since 18 year-olds could now vote) politicians.

By the time the Revolutions of the Identities got rolling in the early ‘70s, the erosion of ‘seriousness’ as a desirable characteristic and skill among the citizenry had already been set in motion. The reactivity and passionateness of youth was far more useful to a ‘revolutionary’ agenda than any ‘seriousness’; when ‘seriousness’ was on the field inconvenient questions might be asked. The revolutions needed doers, not thinkers – and certainly did not need questioners and tire-kickers. After all, it was in the ‘old’ days – when people were ‘serious’ – that the outrages of ‘oppression’ by whites, by the ‘patriarchy’, by ‘straights’, by (fill in the blank) had been held rigidly in place. And since any Southern preacher or politician or ‘grown up’ could give you half-a-dozen ‘reasons’ why segregation was good, well then ‘reason’ had to be a bad thing, right?

So infatuated were the adults of the day, so eager to ‘get with it’, so – how American! – ignorant of the prior experiences of other countries, that nobody considered the effect of gunning the societal engine on the hot fuels of enthusiasm, idealism, unthinking and unhesitating action, while simultaneously reducing the ‘control elements’ of reflection, critical and skeptical thought, and substantive deliberation. Racing along far too fast to penetrate deeply, the ‘youthful’ spirit was incapable of serious ‘farming’, of the arduous and methodical and slow process of plowing deep, orderly furrows and planting the seeds. That the Nazis themselves had had more youthful Party members than older, that many of the Nazi leaders – Himmler himself, for one – had come to the Party still in their 20s or hardly beyond them, were facts that in the 1970s did not find purchase in the temper of the times.

The ‘seriousness’ of the characters in “Judgment At Nuremberg” cannot be found today. Even in Our present circumstances – where We not only face formidable economic and societal and international challenges but are now saddled with a pre-emptive war that is failing to accomplish anything except bloodshed and the incitement of wide hostility against Us – even so, no comfort can be drawn from the realization that at least ‘serious’ adults are in leadership positions. That ‘gravitas’ is gone – from out schools, from our churches, from our politics, and from our government. And perhaps from our culture.

Contrary to the current thrust of American society and culture, I’d propose a variation of Mark Twain’s comments about his religious affiliations once he’d arrived in Dodge City: it was no place for a child … and I did not remain one very long.

Nor do I for a moment suggest that ‘growing up’ in my proposed scenario means coming to a Rambo-like ‘conversion’ moment of decision and go grab a mess of hi-tech weapons and ammo, find a really cool ride, and go blow the crap out of something big. Nor do I propose the appearance of seriousness such as Eastwood gave us in the character of Will Munny, as much of an improvement as that excellent characterization was. Lone gunmen and revolutionaries – dressed in the trends of this or that decade – have done enough these past fifty years, and it’s going to take Us a hell of a long time to recover. If We have that kind of time.

Our youth-obsession, given such a boost in the later 1950s and 1960s, swept away the respect for – and eventually the capacity for – the type of ‘gravitas’ that shaped all of the great civilizations and societies and cultures. And having played first as tragedy, it plays now as farce in a society where parents with more resources than medieval barons had at their disposal spend their time and treasure trying to cram Einstein into their infants, while treacherous and blood-soaked public guardians claim they must not be held accountable for their crimes because they are ‘doing it for the children’.

Can it do a child any good to have a nodding acquaintance with Einsteinian thought if there is no effective model of genuine adulthood to which s/he can aspire? Upon which s/he can trellis a Self?

Was it Bakunin who gloried in the revolutionary first phase, ‘creative destruction’? Yet that is the easiest phase, that destruction-in-hopes-of-creation. But either one assumes that by destroying what is ‘there’, then an already-existing, previously hidden, fully formed ‘creation’ is freed to come forward or else one assumes that once the work of destruction is completed then somebody is going to have to do a heck of lot of ‘creation’, and quickly. And in fact, if you haven’t already got a clear plan of ‘creation’ ready for deployment before you begin the destruction, then you’re probably not going to get a chance to put creation together in the chaos that will follow the destruction.

It would be childish to ‘destroy’ with no working and workable plan to ‘create’. We see that now in the bleeding ferocious monstrosity that Iraq has become. But what We are seeing, and what is now ‘old’ enough to turn toward us with furious rage, is itself a reflection and a product of Our own childishness, a childishness that has – ala Orwell – been taken for ‘maturity’ and for ‘seriousness’ these several decades past.

It is time to put away the things of a child. It is time to walk steadily and maturely, as in the day. And if there is any armor to be put on, let us recall that it must be the armor of Light, of a maturity formed by thought and by reason, and informed by spirit (and – what the hey? – Spirit).

Too many – and many of them stained with blood and deceit – are now saying that they never thought it would come to this. But Tracy’s final judgment rings like a church-bell: it came to ‘this’ the first time We abandoned genuine maturity. That bell now tolls for many who have died because of Our immaturity. And it tolls for Us. Hear it.

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