[Warning. Rant ahead.]
Brooding about Jonathan’s post reminded me of something. I had a friend in law school who was younger than me, a GenX type. Very smart and funny in an ironic way. In the run-up to the ’92 election I was registering to vote, and I asked him if he had registered, and he said to me, in an almost contemptuous drawl “dude, you vote? Why?” My head almost exploded. I poked him in the chest with my finger and I got right in his face “Why? Why? Because better men than you and me bled and died so we could vote, that’s why!” He remained cool, “dude, OK, chill, chill.” But I think I got through a little.
And I brooded some more on this comment from Jonathan: “because on the margin our system can live or die depending on how carefully the voters vote, and they are more likely to take voting seriously if intellectuals don’t denigrate it as an activity.” The thing I take away from his description of all these supposedly smart people is that they live in an academic or intellectual cocoon. They have lost touch with the basic values of living in a country like this. They don’t understand that democracy is a gift they have neither earned nor deserve. They live in a world of safety and abstraction. They have lost touch with the fact that our system of democracy can live on or die because of what we do or don’t do. And the smart guys all too often despise the ordinary motives of ordinary people, ordinary citizens whose conduct and sacrifices they disdain, but which makes their cozy little nest-world possible.
I have a lot more respect for the Repubican lawyers I know who are volunteering to be poll watchers, who are going into Democratic areas where fraud is suspected to happen, into possibly hostile situations. (I can’t do it this year.) They are willing to “dirty their hands” to preserve the integrity of the process, to keep this country from turning into a banana republic, one voting precinct at a time.
And this simmering line of thought made me remember an event from way back which epitomized the utter stupidity, both intellectual and moral, of the supposedly smart people. It must have been in the Winter of 1985. I was a resident assistant at a dorm. I was talking to somebody, and it being me, I was talking about a war. And I mentioned the episode at the Battle of the Somme, which I vaguely recalled reading about, where a British officer kicked a soccer ball toward the German trench line to get his men out of the trenches.
And as I told this story in my accustomed loud, obnoxious and animated fashion which has made me countless friends and enemies over the years, this guy turns around over the back of a couch, and lays on us his unsolicited two cents worth. In the most absolutely perfect University of Chicago world-weary drawl, he said something I will never, ever forget because it is the epitome of everything I hate about the academic and intellectual world. This superannuated grad student and university administrator says to me “invariably … when we examine these …stories … we find them to be apocryphal.” I was left sputtering. And because I could not come up with a cite for the story offhand, he turned around with that sort of half-nauseated, half-disdainful look that is usual facial composition of such people when they have scored a point. He had won a Hyde Park style cocktail party victory, bravo to him. I remember also very clearly he had a very nice and pretty wife with red hair and pale skin and some freckles, and she smiled at me with an apologetic look. And I remember feeling humiliated, which is the ultimate purpose of far too many comments spoken at the University of Chicago, to humiliate someone, especially in public.
But I got my spirit back in a few minutes. I thought along these lines: “You poor, stupid, soulless bastard. You don’t believe that BRAVERY is even possible? BRAVERY is ‘always apocryphal’? It never even happens? What in the fuck kind of world do you think this is? What do you think people, human beings, even are for God’s sake? How do you think anything decent or good or worth having has ever been built or preserved or defended in this world?” (I also uncharitably thought a little later at that party, hey, a guy with such an arid and lifeless worldview might just get his wife stolen from him, she seems a little bored and she might like a guy who had more spit and vinegar, and I think I’m maybe getting a little bit of a responsive vibe here, and anyway it would serve him right … . To the long term good of my immortal soul, I didn’t pursue that evil line of thought.)
In the world depicted in Jonathan’s post, these kind of people predominate, people with academic credentials who live in a bubble and have lost touch with life as it is really lived and the stakes for which the game of life is played. They may be book-smart, and they can be pretty darn smug about it, but people who are primarily intellectuals, especially academic intellectuals, are not usually suited to be the leaders of a free society. And they should not be treated like they are.
The epilogue? Some years later I read Martin Middlebrook’s brilliant book, First Day on the Somme. It confirmed the story, setting forth in detail the episode of the soccer balls.
This site contains much of the story. One excerpt:
Another company commander was Capt. W. P. Nevill of the 8th East Surreys. Nevill was a young officer who liked to stand on the fire-step each evening and shout insults at the Germans. His men were to be in the first wave of the assault near Montauban and he was concerned as to how they would behave, for they have never taken part in an attack before.
While he was on leave, Nevill bought four footballs, one for each of his platoons. Back in the trenches, he offered a prize to the first platoon to kick its football up to the German trenches on the day of the attack. One platoon painted the following inscription on its ball:
The Great European Cup
East Surreys v Bavarians
Kick Off at Zero
In the 8th East Surreys, Capt. Nevill’s four platoons, each with a football, competed for their company commander’s prize. Nevill himself kicked off. ‘As the gun-fire died away I saw an infantryman climb onto the parapet into No Man’s Land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football; a good kick, the ball rose and traveled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.’ (Pte L.S. Price, 8th Royal Sussex)
Ordinary people put in an absolutely novel and terrifying situation, civilians put in uniform. Told that their country needed them, the East Surreys tried to do what they were ordered to do. As it happened, they’d been ordered to do the impossible. The only model of leadership that young officer had was the sports he’d played as a student. So, he treated fighting the Germans as a soccer match.
A good kick. The ball rose and traveled well towards the German line.
Captain Neville was killed in the attack.
Courage is real. Sometimes unwise or misguided or cynically abused by those in authority. Sometimes in the service of a good cause, sometimes of a bad one. But courage is a reality and a factor in history, sometimes the motive force of history, sometimes the decisve factor at the moment of decisions when the fate of nations is decided.
Other virtues are real too. Civic spirit. Voting because it is a civic duty, even a “civic sacrament”, out of patriotism and belief in democracy because democracy is good. Civic spirit, patriotism, is another basic factor in the world. It is an unsophisticated thing. And it is the bedrock of legitimacy and stability and endurance of America or any free society.
Democracy was bought with the blood of patriots and preserved by countless sacrifices we will never see or hear about.
It is easy to disdain amidst the little plastic cups of white wine and Ritz crackers.
I’ll save my disdain for other things.
That site also mentions this: “One of the footballs is in the National Army Museum and another in the Queen’s Regiment Museum, Howe Barracks, Canterbury.”
Some day I’ll make a pilgrimage to see one of those footballs.
God rest the sould of Capt. Neville and the East Surreys who never came home.
God bless America.