by Leanne Ogasawara
One of my favorite 3QD associates recently wrote a wonderful blog post, Old Man Bush: The Last Motherfucker. Reminiscing about the good ol' days, he asks the inevitable question, what happened to today's youth?
It's true, George HW Bush was old school. Despite being accepted at Yale, he postpones college to fight in the war, becoming a young aviator and then war hero… and not just that, says Akim, but the badass is still jumping out of helicopters at 90 years old today. Akim is impressed and wonders how it is that we all became so soft?
Honestly. How else do you explain seedless watermelons? Nope, we can’t be bothered to spit black watermelon seeds anymore, much less just eat the white ones. Cause we’re soft.
I mean, good luck finding regular grapefruit juice. No siree Bob, it’s gotta be ruby red on every grocery store shelf, cause the plain old yellow grapefruits are a little bitter. Can’t be expected to put up with that.
Or reading a map. Or cooking dinner from scratch. Or getting up to change the channel. Or waving a hand fan. Or walking anywhere. Nope. Middle class America is too soft for any of that. Just gimme a smart phone, a remote, some takeout, a shit ton of air conditioning, and a good parking spot.
You know things are bad when you start looking back at old HW's presidency with nostalgia, right? What is really scary, though, is I had just been thinking the exact same thing!
This came about after my astronomer and I watched El Cid–an old film depicting the fabulously dashing Spanish hero who had protected Valencia from the Moors. Respected by his allies and enemies alike, it reminded me a lot of why I so love to read about ancient battles. For in those days:
“the very immortals can be moved; their virtue and honor and strength are greater than ours are, / and yet with sacrifices and offerings for endearment, / with libations and with savor men turn back even the immortals / in supplication, when any man does wrong and transgresses” (Iliad, IX 497-501)
You have to admit it stands to reason that the gods would indeed be moved in this ancient version of battle — so guided by the human prayers and curses that forever bound together enemy and hero. And knowing that their prayers had wings, the ancients also knew that to be truly great one must be able to defeat a great enemy– so the Greeks praised Troy's strengths to high heaven– as did Polybius, the Carthaginians'. This is not to argue that war itself was somehow more noble in ancient times, but rather that there is a possibility that how you understand your enemies in the end matters. That is to say that there are more or less noble ways of both going to war but also more or less noble ways of creating and “spinning” battle narratives– and that these differences matter.
For we know that those who seek to promote war often ignore history.
And how much easier to do so in a world where you can go about life forgetting your country is even at war in the first place. To me, this is connected to having a very different kind of concept of destiny; a concept which does not seem to include the Homeric notion of Providence. We still go to war but that idea of going up against a respected opponent is missing completely as the other side is dehumanized. Indeed, the entire playing field has become assymetrical so luck too no longer is something at play. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of this kind of modern “prayerless” battles are the unmanned, robotic bombings that are remotely carried out by staff in an office building somewhere outside of Las Vegas and Langley. This is a policy that not only does Obama embrace but is something with which he will perhaps be forever after associated with.
It is a far cry from the days of Troy, when the Kings themselves, along with the elite, often times also went into battle.
Along these lines the ever-cranky classicist Mary Beard remarked that,
The bigger problem here is how we understand Virtue and Evil. It suits the cheaper side of political debate and media hype to imagine that somehow all the virtues (or vices) come together, as a package: a good person will be good across the board, a bad one similarly bad. It's a view with a long pedigree (and Aristotle has got a lot to answer for), but it crudifies political culture, is almost always a gross oversimplification and it undermines our capacity to deal with racism, terrorism, discrimination or whatever.
The enemy comes to feel more like a “product” than anything real. Back to Akim's post, though. One of our mutual 3QD friends and great benefactor took the opportunity to tease Akim for “sounding like a 90 year old motherfucker and for swallowing the Great Generation Myth whole.” It's true since, after all, it's one of the great time-honored pursuits of “the elderly” to complain about “the worthless younger generation,” right?
But is it really an issue of the younger generation? I think what is really the interesting question is how it came to be that someone who was at one time capable of a degree of self-sacrifice and bravery as HW (with caveats, I know) could raise what can only be described as a draft-dodging, mentally soft kid as Bush Junior. Akim says it like this:
Indeed. Bush the Younger, lest we forget, essentially dodged the Vietnam War. Not that it ever should have been fought to begin with, but the contrast is stark. I wonder if you could correlate it to a declining sense of nobless oblige and a rising streak of libertarian individualism?
Concerning nobless oblige, I am really enjoying (and highly recommend) William Deresiewicz's new book, Excellent Sheep, in which the author looks at the current situation of elite education in the US. Since returning with my son to the US, four years ago, I have on several occasions wondered how it came to be that parents have come to focus so much on short term performance (over say, the cultivation of character and virtue–or for that matter any semblance of autonomy?). It is something that has repeatedly struck me– so I have started really noticing Deresiewicz, who was a professor at Yale before he left to devote himself to writing.
Describing the elite children of today here as
From drones to corporate risk management to policy, we have a situation whereby the ruling elite class no longer has skin in the game –not in public policy, foreign policy or corporate policy. Murphy had a number in his book, which I don't have handy but it was something like, in the late 1950s almost 50% of Princeton graduates went into the military– to serve. Even in Vietnam, known as a working man's war, the children of the elite were known to go too. Now, the disconnect between the educated elite and the military or the corporate elite and those in the community is complete. And Taleb is exactly right that this points to the fact that something is rotten in Denmark; for as he rightly (and significantly) states, an immoral act can be characterized by a willingness when we open others to the great risk, which we are ourselves reaping the benefits from.
“Only a god can still save us”
That the excesses of capitalism are undermining the health of this nation seems to be a fact. But there is an ontological component to this as well. And, as Turkish journalist Ibrahim Kalin aptly put it:
The point is that we as human beings are increasingly becoming part of a system that defines our humanity and morality according to instrumental value and nothing else. But reality offers more possibilities than use-value and will to power.
Perhaps as Heidegger prophesized, there really no escape from “man the eternal consumer.”
Recommended: William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep
Also: Christine Gross-Loh's Parenting Without Borders, Alain Badiou's In Praise of Love, Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit, Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome and Breakdown in Communication: Elia Suleiman Talks about Divine Intervention
And Elia Suleiman's magnificent Divine Intervention