Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Generational Thought

ABRAHAM BLOEMAERT: Allegory of Youth and Age

 “Youth is a wonderful thing.  What a pity to waste it on the young.”  Google as you will—through Mark Twain, Wilde, Shaw and Alfred E. Neumann—you’ll never find a reliable attribution of any of the numerous variants of this “quotation,” which after all expresses a commonplace that, perhaps in less witty form, must have occurred to every sentient person above the age of forty.  Chaucer puts the matter more succinctly, and more brutally: “…for youthe and elde [old age] is often at debaat.
            I haven’t been back in America long enough to figure out what happened in my absence; so I must be reduced to talk about what I discovered on the way over.  At the end of the Open Skies gangway at Orly airport, just at the spot where a flight attendant usually stands ready to tell you that the bag you are pretending is a carry-on isn’t and must after all be checked, there was instead a table laden with assorted newspapers and journals.  These are “free” in the sense that they are among the petty perquisites, such as a little plastic pouch of such accessories as earplugs, an unusable toothbrush, and the world’s smallest tube of Colgate toothpaste, designed to help you rationalize spending an extra eight hundred dollars on Business Class. 
It was going to be a long flight.  One can never count on airline movies, even the large menu offered by the high-tech individual viewers, and the prospect of eight uninterrupted hours of Henry James intimidated even me.  Joan snagged the International Herald Tribune.  In a final gesture of Parisian pretension, I grabbed Le Monde.  Our choices eventually led to a commodious congruence of thought, though an unsettling one.
The Trib republished David Brooks’s recent column entitled "The Modesty Manifesto".  In the weekend magazine of Le Monde was a spirited interview with Raymond Aubrac, now ninety-six years old.   I’ll deal with Brooks first, but before touching upon his essay’s content I have to say that of the many popular columnists whose work I regularly read, Brooks seems to me consistently to muster more genuine ideas per square column inch than any other.  I shall avoid the obvious invidious comparisons, except to say that there is a difference between an idea and a predictable opinion, however artfully repackaged.
The main idea in “The Modesty Manifesto” grows out of the observation that Americans tend to be rather full of themselves—and perhaps on the basis of insufficient data.  Hence it might be a good idea to cultivate a little humility.  Brooks suggests that this is particularly true of young people.  “American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests,” he writes.  “But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.”  You have probably seen some of the abundant and embarrassing data behind this observation, which any college professor could corroborate with telling anecdote.
Since Brooks is a “political” commentator, he naturally has a political point, and one worth thinking about--in my opinion.  He suggests that an habitual “enlargement of the self” may be related to Americans’ extraordinary contempt for the historical compact of the generations.  “Every generation has an incentive to push costs of current spending onto future generations.  But no generation has done it as freely as this one.”  There are few things more shocking than our national fiscal situation; but one them surely is that there is not a currently seated elected official of any stripe prepared to talk about it in a serious way.
Lucie and Raymond Aubrac: youthe

Brooks is an allegedly “conservative” thinker.  Raymond Aubrac, a life-long leftist and long-time Communist, is one of the official heroes of the French Resistance.  Yet at thirty thousand feet above the Atlantic I found in them a certain meeting of minds. Together with his recently deceased wife Lucie he was active in the Vichy zone, where he ran afoul of the notorious Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo “Butcher of Lyon”.  Probably all popular national histories lapse at certain cardinal moments into mythology; our own certainly does.  But as I learned while conducting research for The Anti-Communist Manifestos, few historical topics have been more thoroughly and intentionally obfuscated and mythologized than the French RĂ©sistance.  In the immediate post-War period in France there was not a closet in the land sufficiently capacious to hold the surfeit of skeletons.
               The history of clandestine operations is necessarily murky; and clandestine operations in which international Communism played a significant role are the murkiest of all.  Unsurprising the heroism of the Aubracs has not escaped the suspicion of revisionist history, but that is largely irrelevant to what I found striking in this interview: a certain generational theme.  Aubrac begins by saying “When you get to be seventy-five, your opinions concerning the present and the future no longer interest anybody.  By way of compensation, people start asking you about the past.”  

Lucie and Raymond Aubrac: elde

Aubrac seems to resent that reality, and given the fact that I am now seventy-four and ten months I cannot say that I blame him.  For though I have made a profession of studying the past, I do have fugitive thoughts about the present and the future myself.  Furthermore I am not convinced that they are necessarily inferior to the one implicitly advanced by many of my juniors seated in the halls of Congress: “What, me worry?”  There’s no doubt about the attribution of that quotation.  It really is Alfred E. Neumann.

What, me worry?”