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The Calliope Crashed to the Ground

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I  want to apologize up front today for my typing.  I’m never very good at it, but today I’m sick with something or the other.  I thought it was strep, since we’ve got strep in the house, but my strep test came back negative–the little initial one–so unless the back up test says something different I’m just being achy and feverish.  Of course,  I also haven’t had a flu shot, because I  never get a flu shot this early in the season, so maybe it’s that.  Whatever it is, I am not fully functional.

Mique posts that the reaction of “ordinary people” to the Ivy League has less to do with class or a dislike of intelligence of knowledge than it does with “a rejection of the arrogant bossiness and condescension of that part of the elite who fill the op-ed pages of the media with their contempt for such ordinary people and their values.”

And that may be true of some people, but it can hardly be true of my students, whose contact with the media–unless I assign them to go look at it–tends to be restricted to  MTV and various blockbuster movies and who have often never met anyone who has gone to an Ivy League school or who is going to go.

Nor can it explain the utter dearth of interest in what used to be called, in the fifties, “self improvement.”  There was a time in this country when publishers (the Modern Library,  the Loeb  Classical Editions) made a fairly decent income putting out cheap editions of classic works, because there was a fair hunk of “ordinary people” interested in readin them. 

And there’s probably a fair hunk now, it’s just a smaller hunk, and it’s drowned out by the furious anger and rejection of all things “intellectual” by the culture at large. 

Today’s the day  I give Mr. Shenkman’s comments to my students.  Let’s see what they have to say.

But beyond that, let’s consider a phenomenon, the tourist at the revolution we talked about before.  I got an e-mail musing about why, with the same kind of education, the writer had not turned into “liberals” like these and was a conservative instead.

But tourists at the revolution are not liberals.  Their parents may be, but our TATR tend to be either extremely far left or extremely far right.   These days, most of them are left, because there isn’t an international movement on the right of the kind that would attract them.   Back in the Thirties, on the other hand, both Hitler and Mussolini had his groupies.

The present day tourist at the revolution is somebody like John Walker Lindh, or Lori Berenson.   John Walker Lindh was the “American Taliban.”  He was picked up in  Afghanistan after 9/11, fighting on the Taliban side, only to be dusted off and washed down and shipped back to  California, where his parents tearfully demanded that he be given at most a very light sentence, because he hadn’t done anything really wrong.  He wasn’t a criminal.  He was just searching for the truth and himself.

Lori Berenson’s story has some similarities, except that she didn’t have the good luck to be picked up by American forces.  Instead, she was apprehended and arrested by Peruvian authorities and charged with aiding and abetting a terroist organization, meaning something called the MRTA, which is an umbrella organization for a number of left-wing activist and rebel groups in Latin America.

The Berenson case is a lot more complicated than the John Walker Lindh incident, but any perus of the FAQ at the web site dedicated to getting her released make the emotional and intellectual similarities clear.  You can find the FAQ here:


Although I do caution you that if you actually want to know something about the case you should check with some sources that aren’t dogmantically convinced of her “innocence.”

I put the “innocence” in quotes, because I’m not too sure what innocence would mean in this case.  Did Lori Berenson have contacts with MRTA and its affiliates?  Yes.  Was this against the law in  Peru?  Yes.  Did she later refuse to denounce these groups as terrorists and say that she thought they were “revolutionaries” instead?  Yes.  Was all this against the law in  Peru?  Also yes.

The difficulty, of course, is that most of us do not approve of making speech, or even mere association, punishable by twenty years in prison, but for the moment I want to ignor that and look at what I think of as the oddest aspect of cases like this.

For  Lori Berenson’s parents and friends, for the parents and friends of people like John Walker Lindh and even of the various Weather Underground members who have surfaced over the last decade or so, the fundamental complaint seems to be that these people didn’t do anything wrong. 

John Walker Lindh was fighting for an enemy power with whom we were at war and shot at American soldiers?  He wasn’t doing anything wrong, because he was doing what he was doing out of solidarity with oppressed people, and a deep seated commitment to his ideals.  Lori Berenson collaborated with an organization known to have caused the deaths and torture of dozens of their fellow Peruvians?  But she was just protesting against  Peru’s corrupt dictator ship and standing up for the things she believed in!

The problem here, I think, is that both the TATR themselves and their friends and families suffer from what I think of as  Disneyfication syndrome.  There is something about the death and destruction caused by these people that just doesn’t seem real to them, or to their supporters.   It’s all a matter of attitudes, not realities.  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it for the right reasons.  “Speaking truth to power” is real.  A thirty year old father of four dead on the ground because you set off a bomb–or helped people who did–has no more substance than light fog.

I’m doing badly here, and I know it.  Part of the reason is that I have a hard time getting a grip on the mental function here.  

Adolescents often rebel precisely because they assume, underneath, that their parents are invincible.  Certain kinds of anti-Americanism, but domestic and European, are like this.

But adolescents faced with the fact that their parents are mortal usually pull back and regroup.  It’s something most of us have to do at some point in our lives.  Oh, wait, go this far and there are real consequences.  Better back up a little here.

These people, however, seem to be stunned by the realization that there are real consequences out there, that there are plenty of other countries–or even places in this one–where they will not be indulged for their good intentions.   And instead of stepping back, regrouping, and examining their assumptions of invulnerability, they go into some kind of infinite loop. 

But the law in Peru doesn’t allow for due process protections!  But treason is a just a word bad people use–you can’t really execute somebody for that!  You can’t put me in jail for trying to blow up that building, I was acting on my ideals and trying to make America a better place!

It’s the shock, and the inability to comprehend–well, the inability to comprehend, period, that hits me.  It’s as if these people have somehow imbibed the notion that nothing really bad can happen to us, or maybe that nothing we do could really be criminal. 

I don’t know.  Like I said, I’m doing this badly.  I just can’t shake the idea that, for these people, “revolution” is a game, a sort of role playing exercise where nothing really happens, and “change” is something they’re proud to be for mostly because they see advocating it as a free ride.

And if I understood this better, I’d be Henry James.

I’m going to go take some more aspirin.

Written by janeh

November 11th, 2008 at 6:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'The Calliope Crashed to the Ground'

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  1. I really must try to read some Henry James someday…

    The flu shot might not have made a difference – my GP always warned me that it doesn’t do a thing for the common cold. And it’s technically the common cold that I get every winter, and that makes me very sick. I don’t suppose this is very comforting!

    I am familiar with the type of reaction you describe, so perhaps you are more alert than you feel and aren’t describing it so badly!

    I don’t think I’ve generally put tourists at the revolution down to people seeing revolution as a game. I’ve always taken it more as either a result of, or an unhealthy admiration for, the adolescent.

    I’m not generally a fan of the way adolescence as a socially-defined stage of life is getting longer and longer, although I do admit it’s probably partly a result of our need to keep some of our physically adult young people as, socially apeaking, children into their twenties. I’m all in favour of giving young people gradually increasing autonomy and think our current approach infantalizes them beyond what is sensible.

    Anyway, even the most mature and non-infantile adolescents often tend to be idealistic and to see things in black and white. This can lead them to espouse various revolutionary movements and to condemn anyone who tries to restrain their enthusiasm or point out the nuances in a situation as corrupt or indifferent. But of course, they can’t usually manage to get to Chile or Afghanistan or the seal hunt. They don’t actually have the money or the skills to earn enough.

    But some of them can get resources due to the unhealthy admiration some parents have for an adolescent response to the world. These parents blindly encourage their child’s interest in radical politics, rather than discuss the child’s ideas with them like they would the claims and beliefs of an adult. These parents encourage their children in their politics in exactly the same uncritical way they encouraged their art projects in pre-school, only with plane tickets instead of crayons. It’s a child-centered system of child-rearing gone to extremes.

    I can’t help think that this kind of parent must be empty inside if their child has to go to the other end of the world to find some ideal to grapple with. If the parents have some well-developed moral code – of any kind, religious or non-religious – the children might accept or reject it, but they know there are ways of living and thinking that compete with those of radical Islam or Marxism. If they have a nice home, a nice school, but little guidance, no exposure to much outside their personal lives, and everything they do or think admired uncritically, they need something else, something really different to attach their idealism to. Maybe there’s a tinge of wanting to be a hero or martyr here, too – to be admired by others in the same unquestioning way they are admired by their parents. It’s all a search for meaning and place; with the traditional adolescent naivete and idealism gone wrong for lack of challenge at home.

    Part of being a naive adolescent is expecting the world to be fair. It’s not. That doesn’t stop adolescents from expecting the world to be not only fair, but ‘fair’ as defined by their own subsection of their own country and culture. I don’t know what the parents’ excuse is.


    11 Nov 08 at 9:55 am

  2. My sympathies to Jane and her infections. I’m not sure I’ll be coherent because I’m suffering from insomnia.

    Jane has a very precise usage of words. I think I understand the distinction she makes between left wing and liberal. But I long ago decided that left wing, right wing, liberal and conservative should be treated as noise words with no useful meaning.

    Perhaps part of the problem of “tourists at the revolution” is that so many people believe in what I call magic and superstition.

    An example. During Hurricane Katrina I saw a post in a newsgroup complaining about slow evacuation of hospitals. I suggested there might be a limited number of helicopters available. The reply was “Get more helicopters!”

    I found myself thinking: ‘Does she believe the Great God Bush can raise his hand and say “let there be helicopters”, and lo, there were helicopters?’

    Bush and Obama are human beings. Giving them badges reading PRESIDENT does not make them superhuman.

    Take a group of human beings and label them BANKERS. Take another group of human beings and label them REGULATORS. There is no reason to think that the regulators will do a better job then the bankers.

    Now consider a country with economic and social problems. Its government may be following policies which do nothing to address the problems or may even make them worse. But will the magic word REVOLUTION solve the problems?


    11 Nov 08 at 4:06 pm

  3. “Take a group of human beings and label them BANKERS. Take another group of human beings and label them REGULATORS. There is no reason to think that the regulators will do a better job then the bankers.”

    Surely that depends on how one defines the jobs of bankers and regulators, and motivates them? If you tell one group to make a lot of money for the shareholders and the other to make sure that the system keeps ticking along according to certain criteria, you only need both groups to do a reasonably good job. If you give both jobs – which would appear to have incompatible goals – to one group, you’re going to have problems.

    I think you have a point about people showing magical thinking by insisting that there should be enough helicopters or open roads or operational airstrips to get any amount of aid in on a moment’s notice – usually, of course, without having paid taxes previously into setting up an emergency response system. Or perhaps, setting one up that doesn’t work well.

    There is a pervading assumption that ‘revolution’ is one of those magic words. The idea of a revolution to sweep away all evils goes back centuries of course, but the current incarnation owes a lot to the 60s. I expect we all know the rhetoric – the current social structures are so corrupt or so constricting or so compromised that they need to be wiped off the face of the earth to make way for a Brave New World. And we also know how few revolutions actually improve the lot of the target population, even long term. Short term, of course, people die.

    It’s partly sentiment – some people are rightly shocked by the human suffering – followed by a conviction that there’s something not merely justifiable but heroic about killing others in response.

    As Voltaire (I think) said in another context, it’s setting a high value on your opinions to burn others because of them. More or less – I don’t like quoting because I always get it a bit wrong.


    11 Nov 08 at 5:00 pm

  4. Cheryk wrote

    “I think you have a point about people showing magical thinking by insisting that there should be enough helicopters or open roads or operational airstrips to get any amount of aid in on a moment’s notice – usually, of course, without having paid taxes previously into setting up an emergency response system. Or perhaps, setting one up that doesn’t work well.”

    Yes but even an emergency response system isn’t magical. I’ve seen advise on preparing for hurricanes and earthquakes. The standard advise is to plan on not getting help for 3 days. Its no good expecting help in 4 hours – no one can do it!


    11 Nov 08 at 8:41 pm

  5. Note the Tourists are all American–you might raise a few out of western Europe–and all later than about 1964. They have no history. They don’t really grasp current events. And nothing bad ever happens to their sort of people.

    It manifests two ways. In the real world, if you make trouble for the local powers that be, your property is destroyed or you’re beaten up depending on local custom, and if you persist, at some stage you disappear. If you act like an enemy agent in wartime–blocking troop movements, encouraging mutiny and desertion, or enlisting in the other side’s army–you’re treated as an enemy agent in wartime–imprisoned or killed. The Tourists are perfectly understanding of such things when the powers are anti-American, but absolutely shocked when the rules apply to them.

    The other manifestation is a sort of hypersensitivity. To them “censorship” is not being funded by the NEA, not uniformed thugs checking your bookshelves. “Fascism” is speech they don’t like, not a political system. Denial of tenure is a horror beyond words.

    I don’t think the fully-grown ones–they aren’t adults–can be cured. But a good education in current events and history backed up appropriate jail terms for riot and vandalism–and never ever accepting correct political thinking as a mitigation–might prevent another generation.


    11 Nov 08 at 10:36 pm

  6. Hmmm. I was still buying those Modern Library books in the 1970’s, but the diminished interest in self-improvement may also be a GOOD sign. Though the GI Bill helped, 1950’s America had a ton of alert minds which, largely through family circumstances, never made it to college. My uncles include a medium-size real estate magnate and the head of engineering for a serious multi-national. Neither had any education past high school. In fact, of 14 adults of roughly “Greatest Generation” only two got as far as a four-year degree. It was a very different thing for their Boomer children. My wife’s family was a more extreme case–a MINIMUM four-year jump in education from one generation to the next. That sort of thing can make a difference in how much you feel you need to supplement your education later.


    11 Nov 08 at 11:00 pm

  7. Robert, we need to be careful this doesn’t turn into a political flame war. I agree with you about the tourists. But the rot began in the 60s when university faculties forced out ROTC and insisted that training army officers to protect the freedom of their country was not a proper function of universitits.


    12 Nov 08 at 4:45 am

  8. The sixties were also the period in which revolutionary sentiments were widespread, and movements from the IRA to the Palestinians decided to cooperate in terrorism.

    The new revolutionaries of that period weren’t exclusively American. Maybe the Tourists were – maybe the European, Middle Eastern, South American etc variety were a ‘purer’ form of revolutionary – that is, they were smart enough to realize that once they were caught by the powers-that-be, they could be martyrs or repent, but were unlikely to scream ‘This isn’t fair’.

    I looked up Lori Berenson on several sites, as suggested, and she doesn’t sound as much like a Tourist as like a genuine revolutionary – following in a family tradition, yet! I notice her most recent adherence was to a group that is non-violent when compared to Sendero Luminoso! That’s not saying much for their level of non-violence, even *before* you read about what they’ve actually done!

    I think revolution is far more appealing to certain personality types than working through the system is, but the essential Tourist doesn’t really commit as far as a Lori Berenson, who was working in the area all her adult life. A Tourist not only is more attracted to revolution than evolution, he or she doesn’t even see or admit the dark side of revolution until the arrest and trial (or possibly being blown up by a bomb or something).

    It’s ironic that so many of them have arisen in a country founded in an act of revolution, and which has as a recognized part of society people and groups who say that their constitutionally-guaranteed right to bear arms is necessary, not to protect against invasion, but to protect themselves against their own government!


    12 Nov 08 at 9:19 am

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