"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Politics, Character, And The Ruination Of Good Times

Bobby Newton was at Yale on the cusp of the Sixties social revolution – on the soft side of the curve – so during his time at New Haven there were no drugs, blacks, civil unrest, women or politics. There was nothing to upset the applecart of good breeding, and a good future on Wall Street.  The social activism of later years was not even a scarce thought.  

Yale was still very much English and summers on Nantucket; and most of Bobby’s classmates wanted little more than football, camaraderie, and a Gentleman’s ‘C’.  Affirmative action was a thing of the future, a good family was the criterion for acceptance, and the campus was quiet, untroubled, and conservative.

Yes, there were rumors that Timothy Dwight, one of the university’s residential colleges, was gay or at least leaning in that direction, but the college was too far from the Berkeley and Davenport big boys in size and campus weight to matter much, and few students even knew where it was.  

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Bobby was a public school kid, and while not as low on the social totem pole as bursary boys – those at Yale on scholarship who had to work it off in the kitchen or waiting on tables – he was still an outsider.  While he claimed a family history the equal of boys from St. Paul’s and Groton (an ancestor of his had been a burgher in colonial Virginia), his was nothing compared to those whose families dated back to the Mayflower, John Smith, or King Carter.  His shabby pedigree was not enough to get him in to Fence Club, nor did it get him invitations to the right dances.  

Perhaps because of this marginalization and years of his social entreaties falling on deaf ears, Bobby drifted apart and away from the campus mainstream.   He cut classes, dated dark, Italian girls from Wooster Square, was off-campus more than on, and received a warning from the dean about his disappointing academic performance.  After all, the dean said, he was to have been one of Yale’s poster boys for the coming wave of public school admissions; and yet he was doing as poorly as the worst student admitted during the last gasp of Old Blue legacy.

Then he met the Chaplain of the University, a man who had given his life to radical secular causes.  He was one of the growing number of American clergy who felt that the Word of God had relevance only in the streets of Harlem, on the Pettis Bridge, and in the lettuce fields of Sacramento.  His sermons, unlike those that Bobby had heard when he was growing up in Springfield – very devoutly Methodist and Biblical – were pertinent to ‘today’.  The Reverend Phillips was, although Bobby did not know it at the time, the voice of the new, radical ‘spiritual activism’.  

Listening to Phillips, however, one would have been hard-pressed to hear the spiritual side of his message, for the preacher was all about the poor, the disadvantaged, and the downtrodden and very little about Jesus.

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Perhaps because of his own sense of alienation and discrimination at the hands of the St. Grottlesex crowd or because of his innate but frustrated sociability, Bobby was easily seduced by the persuasive progressive oratory of Reverend Harvey Tucker Phillips.  He had finally found his place at Yale, in society, and before God.  He would join the community of right thinkers and leave the indifferent, self-satisfied world of Yale behind.

Like any convert, Bobby was an evangelist for his new faith.  He was no longer content to watch the Vineyard swells dawdle and flirt, and felt a need to address their diffidence and upper class arrogance.  Needless to say, those students from Beacon Hill, Rittenhouse Square, Shawnee Mission, and Park Avenue were not pleased, but to them Bobby was no more than a bothersome gnat, too minor and too insignificant to bother with, an attitude which further infuriated Bobby and drove him more and more to political activism.

Fundamentalists in America have been criticized by the Left for putting religion first and for selfishly thinking of their own salvation before the needs of others.  American fundamentalists, however, are in good company.  Millions of Hindus believe absolutely in the idea of individual salvation.  One’s enlightenment or spiritual evolution has nothing to do with investment in the ephemeral, illusory ‘real’ world; but only in perfecting one’s standing before God.  Social activism for Hindus is an irrelevant, time-consuming affair, a fancy.  

The Reverend Phillips put this seeming paradox to rest with his muscular Christianity.  Jesus was not just an oracle, but an activist.  His miracles are metaphors for the good that one can do.  His lessons about inclusion, compassion, and love must be heeded.

Of course Reverend Phillips neglected to speak of Jesus’ lesson of forgiveness.  The racist, misogynist, homophobic reactionaries in America cannot and will not be forgiven or included in any righteous society.  They must be treated with sedition, treachery, lies, and unholy acts because their sins are so great and must be undone at any cost.  Their sins, in fact are intractable, and unforgiveable. Even Christ’s dying on the cross to forgive the sins of the world was not enough. 

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So by the time Bobby had left Yale, he was case-hardened, unforgiving, and inflexibly righteous.  Only with this attitude, now the stuff of secular hymns sung by a growing progressive choir, could the world become a better place. 

All well and good, one might well say.  Passionate obsession is very American.  Yet such obsession has consequences.   Social reform activism, no matter how well-intentioned, is necessarily exclusive – those who believe and those who do not; those who give body and soul to the movement and those who do not.

Bobby Newton had many friends at Yale during his politically absent years - friendships based on humor, irony, intelligence, interests, insights, consideration, ebullience, temper; or any number of unpredictable notions which have always been at the heart of friendship. Notions and characteristics which are unique and inseparable from their owners.

Yet after his epiphanic seduction by the Reverend Phillips and his commitment to social action and progressivism, Bobby left these friends on the curb one by one, until all traces of his unevolved life were gone.  He had become the perfect acolyte on the altar of secular progressivism.  He felt as holy and anointed as the spiritually chosen.  He felt renewed and charged with optimism and purpose.  

Acquaintances were passed through a political filter before they could be accepted as friends.  Bobby’s new coterie was an exclusive, uniform group of politically like-minded men and women.  Friendship was to be subjected to the same rigorous criteria of membership as the movement itself.

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To his critics, this insularity was the problem with the social justice movement – it had no historical perspective, no tolerance for events judged only according to the more evolved principles of the New Enlightenment.  There was  no room in the big tent for dissenters, skeptics, or deniers.  Criticism was tantamount to apostasy.  Political philosophy is life’s philosophy, Bobby said. Conservatives are not merely a political opposition, but spiritual adversaries to be thrown out of progressive heaven as summarily as Satan was from God’s. 

The older Bobby became, the more he was set in his political and personal ways and more obdurately opposed to any breach in the wall.  Old friends from Yale tried to reconnect with him; but after being vetted by Bobby for political conformity and having failed the test, they were given a proactive pink slip.  New friends were chosen as rigorously.  

As he entered his seventies, Bobby lived in a politically correct, uniform redoubt – with a humorless, tired, dispirited lot who sadly realized after so many decades of purpose that they had lost out on fun, sex, carelessness, and absurdity.

Worst of all, given the nature of politics, their aged progressivism had been long surpassed by a younger, more radical, more frenetic obsession which they could not understand.  Martin Luther King, the Pettis Bridge, sit-ins, and multi-racial marches were things of the past.  Violence, racial hatred, and intolerance had replaced everything that King had ever envisioned.  

The gender activism of an earlier day was replaced by sexual radicalism. The idea of gender equality was being replaced by Baroque notions of sexual curiosity. Bobby and his friends paid lip service to this new radicalism, but squeamishly avoided thoughts of what people were doing with each other in bed.  

Their time was over and done with, Florida was their only retreat; and when they sat on chaise lounges at sunset on the beach and found they had nothing to say to each other, an unusual note of despair set in.  ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’, said the old Jews in Bobby’s condo.

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