ERAL BENEFITS GOOD-BYE. I leaf through The Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases, compiled by a tribunal of purified journalists \(the 1989 Multicultural Management Program the words “man,” “woman,” “watermelon,” “barracuda,” “community,” “banana,” and “impotent.” Given a careless inflection or an ambiguous context, the words can be construed as deadly insults. The prompters of the public alarm sound their dismal horns from so many points on the political compass that I suspect that what they wish to say isn’t political. The would-be saviours in our midst worry about the moral incoherence of a society, distracted by its fears fear of apples, fear of Mexicans, fear of bankruptcy, fear of the rain and they seek to construct the citadel of the New Jerusalem with whatever materials come most easily or obviously to hand. Every few days the newspapers bear further witness to the jury-rigged orthodoxies meant to redeem the American moral enterprise and reclaim the American soul. The village of Chester, New York, passes a law to the effect that all the signs on all the stores of a new shopping mall must be painted blue. A merchant neglects to read the fine print on the lease and plans to put up the red sign under which he has been doing business for thirteen years. No good. Unacceptable. Either he paints the sign blue or he goes elsewhere. The village clerk, Elizabeth Kreher, overrules his objections with an air of sublime self-righteousness. “He shouldn’t be complaining; he should be thankful to have such a nice place to move his store into. Plus it’s a beautiful color I just love blue.” The chairman of General Public Utilities Corporation, a married man named Hoch, admits to a love affair with a woman employed by the company as vice president of communications. The news of their liaison arrived by anonymous letter. Hoch resigns, but the woman keeps her office and title. Various spokespersons explain that a public utility depends for its rate increases on the grace and favor of the federal government and therefore must align its manners with the prevailing political trends. The feminist lobby in Washington is as loud as it is judgmental. Good-bye, Hoch. A waiter and a waitress working in a restaurant south of Seattle refuse to serve a pregnant woman a rum daiquiri in order to lead her out of the paths of temptation. When the woman persists in her folly, the waiter and waitress \(both in their early twenties and very devout in their beliefs about read her the surgeon general’s warning about drinking and birth defects. A woman in California kisses her boyfriend good-night on the steps of her own house, and a committee of disapproving neighbors reprimands her for lowering the tone and character of the block. For precisely the same reason, a committee of neighbors in Illinois censures a man for parking a vulgar pickup truck in his own driveway. Joseph Epstein, the editor of The American Scholar and a writer well-known both for his wit and neoclassical political views, publishes an essay in a literary journal in which he refers to “the snarling humorlessness” of various feminist critics and professors. He makes the mistake of repeating the joke about the couple in Manhattan who cannot decide whether to get a revolver or a pit bull in order to protect themselves against burglars. They compromise by hiring a feminist. The joke incites so much rage within some of the nation’s more advanced universities that Epstein feels constrained to write a letter of explanation to the New York Times conceding that “one attempts humor at one’s peril.” Like Queen Victoria and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Puritan spirit is not easily amused. Over the last seven or eight years I’ve noticed that my own experiments with irony or satire in mixed or unknown company require some introductory remark \(comparable to a warning from the prove harmful to somebody’s self-esteem. A society in which everybody distrusts everybody else classifies humor as a dangerous substance and entertains itself with cautionary tales. The news media magnify the fear of death by constantly reciting the alphabet of doom \(abortion, AIDS, alcolic-service advertising extols the virtues of chastity and abstinence. The more urgent the causes of alarm, the more plausible the justifications for stricter controls. Stricter controls necessarily entail the devaluation of any and all systems of thought \(most of and beast, man and moth, man and blood specimen, and I’ve noticed that the puritanical enthusiasms of the last several years complement and sustain the attitude of mind that assigns to human beings a steadily lower and more disreputable place in the hierarchy of multicellular life forms. The rules and exhortations run to so many cross-purposes \(more freedom and more rights, but also more laws and more police; no to fornication, yes to free contraceptives in the schools; yes to the possession of automatic weapons, no to the possociety our saviours have in mind. Presumably it will be clean and orderly and safe, but who will be deemed worthy of inhabiting the spheres of blameless abstraction? Maybe only the bacteria. Human beings make too much of a mess with their emotions and their wars. They poison the rivers and litter the fields with Styrofoam cups, and very few of them can be trusted with kitchen matches or the works of Aristotle. I see so many citizens armed with the bright shields of intolerance that I wonder how they would agree on anything other than a need to do something repressive and authoritarian. I have no way of guessing how they will cleanse the world of its impurities, but if I were in the business of advising newly minted college graduates, I would encourage them to think along the lines of a career in law enforcement. Not simply the familiar and sometimes unpleasant forms of law enforcement not merely the club, the handcuffs, and the noose but law enforcement broadly and grandly conceived, law enforcement as a philosophy and way of life, as the presiding spirit that defines not only the duty of the prison guard and police spy but also the work of the food inspector, the newspaper columnist, the federal regulator and the museum director. The job opportunities seem to me as numberless as the microbes still at large \(and presumably up to \(This article first appeared in Harper’s Magazine. It is reprinted THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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