Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday, August 27, 2011
Two events may have escaped notice in June when Wisconsin weather became so hot few noticed anything but the heat index.
One was the 67th anniversary of D-Day. The other was the 50th anniversary of the publication in Vogue of Joan Didion’s essay, “On Self Respect.” How I could possibly equate the two? It’s a matter of focus. Of the two Didion’s essay tops the beaches at Normandy with its enduring focus.
D-Day was a milestone, but milestones are there to be noted and, once noted, serve as a place to reassess and from which to move on. Instead, after D-Day and the subsequent victories in Europe and the Pacific we gave our returning GI’s and ourselves a victory party we couldn’t afford and one for which the bills keep arriving.
The tragedy embedded in those triumphs of the 1940s is that they caused us to look back and obsess, for what by now seems forever, on those successes. Had we looked ahead we might have anticipated the mess we’re in today. But we’d endured the hard years of the great depression and the deprivations of a wartime economy and we wanted no part of the lessons we should have learned from them.
Korea, Vietnam and the first Bush war came next and we decided we could have both guns and butter.
Instead of facing the realities of those wastes, especially that of Vietnam, we found comfort reading Studs Terkel’s “The Good War.” We wrapped the hollowness of the first Bush war with bright ribbons then swallowed Tom Brokaw’s sugar pill, “The Greatest Generation,” without hesitation. We were fools and now we have our fool’s reward, magnified daily by two more, ongoing Bush wars.
Didion’s “On Self Respect” appeared early in the 1960s, just as the Vietnam era turmoil was gaining momentum. It was gathered, along with 19 more of her essays including “On Morality,” into the 1968 collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published. The collection comes as close as anyone is going to come in explaining the turmoil of the 1960s of which Vietnam was the catalyst, a turmoil symptomatic of our post WWII partying. What makes it unique is that it comes as close as anyone is going to come to explain the turmoil that engulfs us now.
Self respect, Didion asserts, arises from “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.” Contrast that with the prevalent, countrywide whine for lower taxes, smaller government and the constant feeding of the narcissistic universe of me. It doesn’t occur to the tea partiers and the current rush of fashionable candidates, fashionable madmen Didion would call them in “On Morality,” that it isn’t taxes that are too high or government that’s too big but is instead those expectations, born of the victory party of the 1940s now grown into an adult so obese that the slightest suggestion of a diet causes it to throw a tantrum of denial and blame. It simply cannot be the no-money-down McMansion, the mutiple SUVs, the 40-foot RV sucking obscene amounts of fuel while pulling the Grand Cherokee, the twin jet skis and snowmobiles or that little place on a lake in northern Wisconsin that make us poor. No it’s those pesky taxes demanded by evil big government. We want our country and our state back but refuse to pay for them.
It’s never us, always them. The us remains constant while the them shifts constantly to whatever or whomever we believe victimizes us. It doesn’t help that Republican aspirants, typified nationally by the Doyenne of Dumb, Michele Bachmann, and here in Wisconsin by Corporate Toady Scott Walker, blithely tell us what we want to hear instead of what we should have been hearing all along, that we already have much of what we need, but can’t have all of what we want, that the problem doesn’t stem from the economy but from a profound lack of self-respect and that it is time to pay for the party.
Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal: