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"The Low Road is Bumper to Bumper"

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I am on one of Russ Feingold's distribution lists and get his periodic announcements about politics. He recently used the words in the title of this essay as an on-ramp to his region's current political loutishness. The words echoed in my brain this morning as I read James Carroll's "Jeremiads of spring" in Monday's Boston Globe.

Carroll takes the somewhat less traveled roads, definitely more scenic and less prosaic. His pondering of the up-coming graduation speeches and the tradition of American self-analysis, (to some "self-flagelation,") struck me as apt and perhaps a little self-indulgent. If Walt Whitman is, as Carroll states, one of the critics of American civilization and culture and Tony Judt is another, then what are the benefits of their analyses? Do people actually read them for advice on how to be an American, or do commencement speeches and social criticism actually fall on deaf ears?

I think that down where it really counts we are fundamentally deaf. Millions of people have never read Walt Whitman and know virtually nothing about him. Same for Tony Judt. Although the literate know both, are the literate actually swayed by them? I am not. I read Judt in the New York Review of Books recently. I did a term paper on Whitman back in high school. I am impressed with the fact that they saw what I saw and see, that Americans are a roiling mass of hungry homo sapiens, probably more roiling than the French or the Danes are these days, but clearly weighing self-interest against duties to the commonwealth and coming out for self almost every time.

There is a sense of this "smallness" in society, a feeling that come what may, the real things are the close things, that vast movements and aggregations are not as real, and in any case, intractable. Avarice is nothing new. The will to power is as old and human as all of history. The notion of commonwealth, on the other hand, is tentative and exploratory, and ultimately beyond that sure sense of trust that we do not have in our fellow man.

As college presidents and hired speakers come to campuses all across the land and put their best shine on the status quo. The graduating classes offer up their hopes to fit in and make the best of what we have bequeathed to them. Valedictories accept the challenge of an imperfect world, salutatories accept the differences among us and hope for courage and intelligence among our leaders, college presidents hope for more donations and less campus violence, and social critics, full of the distemper of failed expectations, acknowledge imperfection with a metric that says it does not have to be as bad as it is.

It is bad, but we thrive, we procreate, we invent marvelous things from thin air, we have our families, and we trust that families will deal with their members who "crash." But we know they don't.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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