How I Learned to be the Adult – And Why I Often Forget – 1 –

This afternoon, while I was grading, I looked up, hearing in the background the great speech at the end of The Caine Mutiny, addressing the Fred McMurray character. He’s a writer – one of those articulate intellectuals Shannon describes. I wouldn’t argue that Shannon doesn’t have a point, but I think that speech points to what lies beneath the weakness of such men’s arguments. The writer is an observer, a voyeur, in the world of the Navy. He posits theories, in this case condescending toward the Humphrey Bogart character, clearly of a lower class and with limited education, but a man who has been willing to act in the Navy when few did. Applying the fount of so much theory of a half century ago (Freud) to him, McMurray found him inadequate. But the writer wasn’t even willing to take responsibility for those words. On the stand, he hemmed and hawed – and lied. Neither the men who mutinied nor the captain escaped because they made decisions – some wrong-headed. They were accountable. He was not: except in one brief, drunken speech by the defendant’s lawyer, a man who is ashamed to have made the ship’s commander come apart on the stand, but who realizes that is his responsibility to get his client acquitted.

Words were once commitments – our integrity rode on our ability to live up to those words. This is no longer true – that movie of a half century ago followed in the path of those like Prufrock, who see their lives as revised and revised again. We are not committed by our vows, by our loyalties, by our words.

And so, those who build castles of words do not (as McMurray’s character does not) hold themselves accountable. A commentor noted a true (if trite) generalization: “Adults learn to accept responsibility for their own actions and to solve problems by changing their own behavior, taking action themselves.” But his application is not. He then quotes Carter at length. Carter’s a man of many books but he hasn’t acknowledged how Iran went bad, he hasn’t acknowledged how Arafat lied. His arrogance – whether about the Nobel prize or in a speech at a funeral – is rude, but arises from a sense of entitlement. That entitlement would appear to be more from words – it was not he that suffered in Egypt. He is personal and petty: he didn’t get that second term and bears a grudge. What’s more to the point is that he didn’t seem to learn – his affection for Arafat clearly encouraged tensions in the Middle East, leading to more rather than fewer deaths. (He might have taken a hint from why Arafat was thrown out of Jordan.) He accepted words and didn’t hold men like Arafat to acts; he questioned neither words nor acts when it came to the Palestinians – he built a world of his words that had little to do with life in the West Bank. Nor has he apparently learned from the long series of demagogues like Chavez – we’ve heard that rhetoric before, we know the path on which he sets his people and we know what is going to happen to those people. And it isn’t pretty. Carter was president of a superpower; he has a broad responsibility. He should know history. I suspect most of us are proud that he encourages home ownership & the Habitat for Humanity charity. Most of us are glad that his center is working with Africans to reduce disease. But, he has a huge megaphone and he is only now being held accountable for his words – we should have measured them against acts long ago. His voice is partisan and petty on much where it should be far-seeing and productive, the consequences of his words are ignored.

Being a leftist is never having to be an adult. If someone else succeeds, it is not because they are better than we are at doing something nor even, well, an act of fate: rather the system is unfair. But the system, of course, is life. Chavez and Castro – all powerful in their little realms – need to borrow an adult like Bush. Then the problems lie not with them – nor their people – but with the adult they hold responsible for the disaster their own machinations produced. The white farmers in Zimbabwe, Bush in the U.S. become the powers that have achieved their success only by taking from others.

Part of the problem is many have not had to live with their choices. Duranty, long dead, retains his Pulitzer; J. Edgar Hoover has become a laugh line but few remember the extent of Hiss’ treason. Jane Fonda ignores questions about the fate of the Vietnamese and Cambodians following the demonstrations which she clearly views with nostalgia. At faculty parties people still voice their sympathy for the victims of McCarthy, while ignoring the lock-step ideology that is easy to see in lit crit of those years and the red red pencil to which those screenwriters subjected themselves. And clearly the current Democrats’ position (one that seems driven by polls and partisanship more than responsibility for constituents or deaths in other lands) is even acknowledged to be planned to take little open responsibility.

We are a superpower. That makes us the adults; we have responsibilities. But those on the left demonstrate that they aren’t serious. They want authority and no responsibility. Every third world dictator and every academic theorizer wants the same thing – hell, I’d like to have authority and no responsibility. But it would make me nervous – I’d be building on sand. And I suspect it makes both academics and third world dictators a little defensive, too. That’s why they assert their authority so grandly – and defensively. Sure, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it – but in this country, history has lost its vitality. It is at the service of ideology.


You all won’t be surprised that my take is more parochial and personal. When I first opened my little business, I was a pretty consistent leftist. After all, I confess to being more of a chameleon than I would like. (Edith Wharton thought most women were, more or less; she didn’t approve nor do I, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take on the coloring of those around me.) And only a couple of months before, I’d defended my dissertation in an English department – even in Texas, it is easier to find someone who voted for Nader than voted for Bush in the Ivory Tower. Of course, people from small towns in Nebraska aren’t ever all that far left. This is a culture that values self-reliance, is used to seeing a year’s work wiped out with a hailstorm that is hard to blame on anything but fate. The uncontrollable nature of nature is a given.

As my business grew, I became obsessive about it and my only conduit to the broader world was NPR in the background & an occasional read of The New Yorker & NYRB, which we subscribed to and I read when I wasn’t working (or raising children). An old (and brilliant and witty and charming) employee e-mailed a couple of weeks ago, thanking me in part for keeping the public radio on all the time and introducing him to the entertaining Molly Ivins. He’d gone on to write for People Magazine. He’s gay and I have a suspicion he, like several of my closest friends, have bought into the “Republicans want to persecute me” argument. People like General Pace don’t help much. I don’t agree with Pace and am constantly surprised by the lack of proportionality of those who are sure it is immoral but have no problem not following other dictates. But, I figure that as someone whose deepest affection outside my family tended to be for a series of gay guys in my life, part of the reason for my turn in the 1990’s was the way I thought people like Clinton were using minorities (women, Blacks, gays) politically. This became an even firmer commitment to the Iraq war when I thought what Sharia law would do to my daughters and those wonderful men. So, I need to answer my old friend. Sometimes I have this terrible feeling that I’ve got a lot to answer for – I was blind so long, so willfully.

However, some minimal thinking was going on beneath my chaotic surface. For instance, when I was working eighty hour weeks and scared to death we’d go bankrupt, I’d comfort myself – at least my life was better than that of the boat people. Despite my irony, I understood that “losing” Viet Nam hurt Viet Nam a hell of a lot more than us. The people who got hurt were not those demonstrating in college corridors, those leading peace rallies. Those who were hurt were those in the countries we exited so quickly and easily. I, too, thought of myself as against the war, though not very vocally. I was too narcissistic, too troubled, too passive. Still, the dilemma remained with me and prepared me to look at Iraq in a different way.

Alphabet City observes:

“One thing Sheikh Sattar keeps saying is he wants al-Anbar to be like Germany and Japan and South Korea were after their respective wars, with a long-term American presence helping … put them back together,” MacFarland said. “The negative example he cites is Vietnam. He says, yeah, so, Vietnam beat the Americans, and what did it get them? You know, 30 years later, they’re still living in poverty.”

So, I would argue that intellectuals are leftists because they don’t trust themselves. And they know the policies they advocate have proved disastrous – but remain willfully blind. They aren’t stupid and they aren’t evil; they are willful. They want comfort; they want to think they are superior to those who can stand on their own. They are defensive, for, although they think they deserve power, they fear they are incapable; they haven’t exercised the muscles of adulthood and so they’ve atrophied. Still, they think themselves highly gifted – for instance, they believe if they ran a command economy it would work. This is a blind arrogance beyond my comprehension – but the kind of insecurity combined with hubris one expects from teenagers. And it is maintained by ignoring comments such as those of Sheikh Shattar’s.

My freshman English teacher, to whom I confessed that I thought I’d like a grad degree in English, cautioned me – it means putting off being a grown up, others thinking of you as a grown up, you thinking of yourself as one. He was at his first teaching job. And, he was right, the academic life puts off adulthood, perhaps so long that we pass the Piaget stage where we can actually become ones.

The Democrats in Congress and academics don’t engage, but pontificate. Instead of discussing the war when Petraeus stands before them, questioning the real plan that is really being implemented, they pass his nomination unanimously and then declare that they will vote against its implementation and, indeed, repeatedly argue there is no plan. To call this showboating is an understatement. We might say these are the acts of politicians; we might say they are the acts of people who feel they can trim their sails to catch the breeze of the latest poll. But these are also the exercises of extremely unserious people.

The left would rather complain about what someone else has; they would maneuver within a relatively secure setting to build turf. These are not people who want to think, build, create, grow. They want to gossip, kvetch, and offer a pundit’s observations. (I have my suspicions that Armitage is a hell of a lot like academics I know; I suspect that says that State is not unlike a lot of State U’s.) Leftists (generally more forcefully, angrily in academia, but with more nuance in politics) rationalize rather unattractively – soldiers take risks because they are stupid, those who succeed in business are selfish or dishonest, statesman from other countries side with us because they have been bought or coerced. Of course, generally speaking, none of this is true, or at least the whole truth. But thinking so makes those wrapped in such cocoons comfortable – the self-righteousness of the average academic is infinitely greater than the most sanctimonious of Victorian preachers. They know they haven’t (and aren’t likely to) take the risks and achieve the transcendence of the honorable & brave soldier; they are not likely to build a business that employs hundreds of people and makes those peoples’ lives more secure. Their sarcasm – as sarcasm so often is – is defensive.

Running jokes are symptomatic: the absentminded professor, the woolyminded idealist, the faculty that can’t meet a budget, the scholar who loses his way. Well, I understand that. I’m pretty woolyheaded. After all, I didn’t learn to drive until I was about 40, have no sense of direction, lose keys & purses and credit cards with a remarkable regularity. But I’m not scared any more. And that makes me prize capitalism. My little shop & thirteen years of running it didn’t make me rich – I was, indeed, too woolyheaded to be the best of businesswomen. But it did make me strong and, in the end, free. It made me feel that I could create something from nothing, that I could take responsibility, that I could take the blows of being the decider; indeed, I found I could be the adult.

And I remember the early days. Another faculty spouse (a guy) watched me type out forms for some customer who was applying to med school. We chatted about not wanting to start over – he clearly saw what I was doing as pretty degrading. But I didn’t. It was my business and I was doing something myself. A few days later, at a party, I remember trying to explain to him. He tended to condescend (I will go to my grave appearing a hick), but then I’d already published an article on the subject of his dissertation, so I clearly was not beyond the pale. I should be more charitable; he wasn’t a bad guy – we spouses weren’t getting a great deal; we were all in it together. And so, I told him that it made me feel stronger. He was puzzled. The words came out and I knew they were true, but I wasn’t sure why. I did, indeed, feel strong: when I signed contracts for machines worth more than our house or wrote out checks for skids of paper that we’d better use (I can’t imagine the fear that must lie at the bottom of restaurant owner’s stomachs – paper doesn’t spoil, or at least not fast). It was the knowledge that I was living by my wits, by the bargains I struck as I gave bids for jobs, by the nature of the employees I handled (and sometimes, of course, mishandled). This was a strength that long years in academic surroundings had made flaccid.

By most standards, the business was pretty small potatoes. Certainly, the people in the English department must have thought so – I remember the shock one of them let show at the gross of the business or the salary I was taking home – I’m not sure how she thought I paid my staff, what she thought I was doing those long hours. Still and all, it wasn’t all that big. Still if she pisses me off, she also makes me thankful. She never tires of blaming the department chair, the dean. . . whatever. I feel free of that. I know that the administrators are going to do some things I like, some things I don’t – and they have to live with it. They know more than I do about the options they face and, most of the time, I can safely assume their reasons are sensible. I don’t figure they are brilliant and maybe something else would work better, but I know I for one don’t want the hassle of the responsibility that comes with the authority. My husband’s colleague remarked about another woman, a single professor: her problem was she didn’t have a man to run defense for her. That professor is lucky enough to have a husband who is not only protective but paternalistic. This may be one of her complaints about him, but, then, that is what she expects. And if I complain that my husband is not one to run interference, he looks at me, mildly, and asks if that is what I really want. Well, my business helped me accept the tradeoff. No, that isn’t what I want.

In one of the messy administrative dust-ups, my husband, who at that time had a more administrative position, was visited by a colleague. (The guy knows & even enjoys being controversial. I fear he spends too much time reading Little Green Footballs – which is an admirable site but likely to induce some paranoia in a conservative, especially one who stops driving at dusk every Friday. But paranoia may be the appropriate response: he is in an English department. There was talk that he was a danger to the secretaries when he pulled a picture of Said off the wall and asked why they were honoring a terrorist. Not a bad question, I thought. But it didn’t go over well.)

Anyway, he told my husband that he understood the choices he made and they did not appear to be on the grounds of friendship but rather from pragmatism – assessing the skills each faculty member brought, irrespective of their relation to him. He concluded, you choose as a businessman would. My husband took that – and I think it was meant – as a compliment. (And, for that, that colleague has permanently endeared himself to me.) But colleges don’t prize business decisions, they work in a relatively tribal way – that’s what turf building is about. What many of us might consider true productivity (that is, teaching students well) has little bearing on which faculty members are prized and which are rewarded. Important research weighs heavily, as it should at a research school. However, anyone looking at the various scandals of the last few years might suspect that the standards of such research are arbitrary; they aren’t, not always nor completely. But anyone looking at the Bellesilles controversy may suspect that sailing (for a career) through the sea of academia requires navigation by dead reckoning.

Ag theories are tested in the real world – humanities ones are not. And which group sees themselves as conservative? (Only in Ag departments are there actually more Republicans than Democrats, all others, including engineering, are weighted toward the left.) Those academics & bureaucrats don’t learn the self discipline that comes automatically to an engineer or a businessman, but especially to a farmer. Those professions realize every day that any theory or practice they develop is likely to be affected by (and affect) factors far beyond human ability to comprehend. But, on the other hand, leftists don’t develop the pleasure, muscles, and responses of those who find out when they succeed and when they fail. Instead, liberals feel that the variables can be accounted for – they can in their castles built in the air – and the government should take care of us. Shannon is not wrong to see these people as good at words and not things, but I think it isn’t that, or at least only that. People might be held accountable for words – but some aren’t. How often are a pundit’s words held up against what he is saying now? Not nearly as often as Bush’s or Pelosi’s, not as often as a plant manager’s by the CEO.

Leftists don’t develop the humility that comes from dealing with the elements (Victor Davis Hanson is a conservative academic not just because his specialty is war but also because he is a farmer.) Duty is sometimes difficult; it often limits our lives. But most conservatives understand there are trade-offs in this world; for instance, love and connection require responsibility. We have duties to our children, our mates, our friends, our parents. Leftists seem able to believe that they can will a life, a world, a future. They ignore the biological and the moral at the same time – a pretty deadly combination. Their stands – pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-assertive sex, anti-religion, anti-tradition, anti-nationalism, anti-military, anti-family – are all ways in which we are freed from acting out our commitments to others, whether on the personal or the national scale. Even environmentalism – besides encouraging the most bizarre kinds of hypocrisy – is used to enhance self-righteousness while feeling no responsibility for the third world nations whose only chance to enter the twenty-first century (with longer life spans & better health, more choices & more productivity) is by using the energy that these zealots either want to deny them or pretend won’t burden the atmosphere.

An understanding of the free market is one of the reasons (other than a kind of Nebraska tribalism that Hagel has managed to stifle) that I have long admired Bob Kerrey. He remarked when he wasn’t getting votes that that was that; in his restaurant he’d work up a dish that he thought was great, but if the customers didn’t buy it, well, they didn’t buy it. This may sound like fatalism; it seems to me realism. There is much to be learned from the free market of ideas, but there is something to be learned from the free market. In the end Bush didn’t kick the can down the road – he accepted his responsibility & was polite when called in for a dui, he quit drinking, he went into Iraq. Kerrey (and I would argue Bush) learned from business; they understood the value of restraining our tempers, of accepting other’s authority as well as the responsibilities of our own. Actually, leftists have always seemed to me to want the authority without the responsibility. To this day, I don’t like to take responsibility and do like authority – but my business slowly hammered home to me that things just don’t work that way. It is not a lesson easily learned and one I often forget, but it is immensely useful in life. It makes us believe we can act and, believing that, we are free in a way those on the left can not be. We’ve accepted the lessons of tradition and we have accepted the unpredictability of life. We may believe in the hidden hand but we don’t believe in the controlling one; we may believe in independence but we realize that there are trade-offs. That’s what grown ups know.

13 thoughts on “How I Learned to be the Adult – And Why I Often Forget – 1 –”

  1. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath
  2. To truely understand what drives the Left I think I finally found someone who has a valid theory. Trying to figure out why the Left is the way it is can drive someone crazy, so it’s a good thing he’s a comedian. Watch his speach:

    To see how the Left operates as a mob and is anti-individual read Tammy Bruce’s “The New Thought Police: Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds ”

    And then finally, see the Left in action today in the face of our profound Islamic enemies.. see how no principal is too good for them to betray when it comes to hating thier own countries read

    “What’s Left” by Nick Cohen (A UK Leftist)

    Armed with this information, you can see them for the bankrupt shock troops that they are.

  3. As I recall both the novel and the film, Fred M is a sort of academic, wordsmith, who, finally, is cowardly’ the captain, by contrast, is a man of action but a crazy guy!

    Now the Left and Carter may be all you say–and I do not Carter–but to say that being adult we are acco0untable for our actions etc is just fine: now apply it to the guy in the White House, surely one of the worst presidents this nation has yet seen. And he is no “lefty.”

  4. Nate:According to every liberal I know, Bush was the worst President in history before he even got into office. There was absolutely no way that they would have ever accepted him nor acknowedgle anything he has done as being good.

    There’s absolutely no objectivity. And the fact that Leftists say how horrible Bush is with such glee goes to thier mentality. When conservatives complained about Clinton, they didn’t do so with job, but with amount of regret because he was our president and we dont like it when the President is flawed as the country gets damaged.

    If Leftists loved thier country then they wouldn’t go out of their way to gloat about how bad Bush is.

    But considering how they lied about Bush since the very beginning, we’re suppposed to take anythiung they say about the guy at face value? They want everyone to think he’s the devil that they wont shut up about it. For people who think a mistake is a lie, I wonder how they would view real lies? Well when the liars are the Clintons it doesn’t matter a bit. Yet Bush’s non-lies are enough for them to want him assisinated.

    It’s so outgragious how disingenious a lot of Leftists are. I wonder if it will ever end, or are we to endure this the rest of our lives when them getting more and more irrational.

  5. Nate Zuckerman:
    He is being and will be held accountable. I very much doubt that you see a parallel – that you see Bush as a wordsmith. Indeed, I’m not sure what your point is.

    Your allusion to Bush indicates that you want to say he is a terrible president and will use any segue to say that. You come to this blog often enough that you might realize this isn’t considered all that adequate an argument here. Even those who don’t like Bush are likely to see it as off putting. And the writer of this post – the person with whom you are theoretically beginning this dialogue – is clearly someone who doesn’t accept as a given that Bush is one of the worst presidents this nation has seen. (And of course, it goes without saying, he has made mistakes, the people of the right often make mistakes. They, too, are human. We are flawed creatures with flawed judgments.)

    Also, Jose Ferrer’s position is not that Bogart hasn’t gone crazy, that he wasn’t a flawed and even a limited man before this series of crises. But Ferrer – and not McMurray – sees life and men as complicated and causes as various. He would argue that McMurray’s notions about life, men, courage, the service are not just wrong but destructive in their speculative (and cynical) nature. The application of abstract generalities to real life is harmful to everyone involved (except McMurray) because of the rigid simplicity of theory. However, they are especially dangerous when accompanied by a lack of human kindness and absence of sympathy with human nature. However, that lack is not so apparent to those who live their life in words and not in acts, in judgments of others rather than in interaction with them.

  6. hmmmm, simplifiying, if I understand Ginny, perhaps Bush may be fit to be pityed but his rabid detractors are disgusting.

  7. “the captain, by contrast, is a man of action but a crazy guy!”…I’m not sure you could call Captain Queeg a “man of action.” He is terrified of making a mistake; indeed, early in the book an experienced captain advises him to stop worrying so much about being perfect and just focus on doing the most “sensible and useful” thing that comes to mind.

    Queeg’s behavior in combat cannot be considered courageous: he drops the yellow dye stain because he is so eager to turn the ship around and get out of there.

    The point Wouk makes (through the lawyer) is that while Queeg is a man with many deficiencies, he does deserve some credit for choosing to serve at a time when few did so…and that his officers contributed to his final collapse through their hostile attitude, instigated by the intellectual. Based on Queeg’s behavior from the earliest days, though, I think it’s ambiguous whether he would have been up to handling the typhoon even if his wardroom had been 100% supportive.

    For those who have only seen the movie, the book adds considerable depth, and continues after the court-martial is over.

  8. Thanks, David.

    I’ll admit I was on pretty thin ground: I haven’t even ever seen the whole movie.  The speech seemed to say precisely what Shannon had been describing and the difference between the skillful manipulator of ideas & words – and the lawyer struck me. And Queeg – well, in my childhood the crazy clicking that accompanied his raving was a standard allusion on television shows. I have seen that speech and would not, of course, like to board a boat headed into about any kind of weather with him as captain.

    I do think Ferrer’s argument is one that intellectual abstractions are simplistic & not very wise ways to deal with human complexity.  And certainly he is talking about responsibility. But, of course, he knew what he could draw out of Bogart on the stand and did.

    An aside to David: We were talking at lunch today and though we remember our parents as all reading Wouk in our youths – the fifties & early sixties – but only the much younger guy in our group had read this book – or, as we remember, any of them.  I remember them around the house. I came home & asked my husband – yes, he’d read it in high school. They both read a lot, but then, so did we. It could be because we women (girls then) tended to see them as guy books. There seemed a lot more guy books then.

  9. I read mostly ‘guy’ books way back then, because they were so much more interesting than the ‘girl’ books… all about interesting adventures and events, and I remember very clearly reading the “Caine Mutiny” (A friend of my parents had been in a ship which was caught in a similiar typhoon, at the end of the war). I’ve always remembered the speech about how Captain Queeg at least served, when it was not the ‘done thing’ to do, as I was in the military at a time like that. But buried in the middle of the book somewhere is another line which explained the whole military mind-set to me with marvelous clarity. One of the junior officers is explaining to another, why the Navy worked the way it did, why there were so many rules and regulations and customs. IIRC, the line went something like “You always must remember that the Navy is an enormous, compliciated, sophisticated machine, designed by geniuses… but run by idiots!”
    Of course, I didn’t realize that Wouk was absolutely right, until I had been in the military myself for a couple of years.

  10. [T]he academic life puts off adulthood, perhaps so long that we pass the Piaget stage where we can actually become ones.

    Become ones in the course of nature, that is. It’s still possible, but it requires a metanoia, a conversion of some sort. Which may explain why so many boomers who have managed to become grown-ups despite ourselves are either religious or in recovery.

    And a democratic republic, too, can be designed by geniuses and run by idiots.

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