Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In Re: The United States versus My Grandchildren

After a long hiatus in grandchild production, a blessed industry in which our daughter held a family monopoly for nearly two decades, her two brothers began in the second half of the last calendar year to redeem the time.  For the roughly five months since jolly John Henry arrived in lower Manhattan followed roughly six weeks later by radiant Ruby in Red Hook, Brooklyn, their pixilated paternal grandparents have been spending as much time as possible adoring them, an activity that has had a particular appropriateness as the season of Epiphany ran its course.  Should any friendly pagan need an explanation of my allusion, it refers to the liturgical memory of the legendary visitation of the three magi kings (Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior) to the newly born infant Jesus.

            Unlike the magi our mode of travel is not stellar.  We travel at the sufferance of the New Jersey Transit Corporation, and we must open our coffers to their hungry ticket machines.  For your bloguiste there is one other slight inconvenience.  Should visiting day fall on Tuesday, that is to say yesterday, with a New York overnight, he is unlikely to start thinking about his Wednesday post, let alone writing it, until he’s well south of the tunnel on the return trip.

            Such is the present circumstance, though “current events” practically dictate the subject.  For what we have just witnessed as the New Year began—the orgy of fecklessness, incompetence, and poltroonery summarized under the general rubric of “the fiscal cliff”—relates to my newest grandchildren in a very poignant way.  It means that little John Henry and even littler Ruby will spend the first years of their American citizenship in a land where the rising public debt is already greater than the annual gross domestic product.  Along with their birth certificates each one picked up a congressional Visa bill of about sixty grand.  Head start?  No child left behind?

            The disgrace of our federally elected officials is fairly ecumenical, but I have to say that the spineless Republicans take the cake.  Can a political party that preaches fiscal responsibility and then proposes Mitt Romney for the presidency and actually re-elects John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives have any claim on serious men and women? 

            Some of you will be old enough to remember Spiro Agnew, one of our most disgraceful and disgraced of Veeps.  Long before he was exposed as a crook he had been widely recognized as a dolt.  But when publicly taxed for his “mediocrity,” he in no wise contested the charge.  On the contrary, his view was that the large numbers of mediocre people in the country deserved to have their representative too.  He must have alluded to that large majority of our fellow citizens who have come to the consensus that every American has a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—and, oh yeah, a free lunch.  Lest I seem to speak obscurely, I mean an unfunded welfare state.  Perhaps Agnew had a point.  Such people do need representation.   But do we need four hundred of them in the House alone?

            Sadly, we probably have the Congress we deserve.  We have an electoral system that does an excellent job of pre-screening out intelligence, moderation, imagination, and any traditional sense of public service.  Once elected, most Congressmen soon reveal by their actions their one unfailingly constant motive: getting elected again.  As we voters seem happy enough to collude with this system, we perhaps have merited our loathsome reward.  But surely the children of our nation deserve something better.

            My own grandchildren will, I devoutly hope, survive the malfeasance of their government, for they enjoy some powerful advantages.  They all live in stable homes with two loving parents who are committed in marriage to their well being, their education, and their moral training.  They will do some family travelling.  They will have books in the house.  At the family table where they will regularly take their evening meal, they will join in intelligent conversation sometimes characterized by complete sentences and disyllabic words.  They thus will find themselves endowed with a certain amount of what is called “social capital”.  That fact alone may make them members of a generational minority, but it should help them to seize such opportunities as appear on the constricting horizons of our national life, as in happier and more generous times their meritocratic forebears of earlier generations once did.

            It is the fantasy of a large swath of one of our political parties that “government programs” can do nothing to replenish the sadly depleted social capital of millions of our children, and the fantasy of a large swath of the other that they can do everything.  Perhaps one early locus of the compromise which will be imperative for any real progress might be an agreement that at the very least we will not bury the newborn under a mountain of prenatal debt.



  1. An alumnus friend of many years' standing, the erudite art historian Steve Orso, has written as follows:

    Because I don't have any of the Web registrations required for commenting directly on "Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche," I send this by e-mail instead.

    Although you are correct in assigning the "mediocrity deserves representation" argument to the Nixon era, I believe the context was different.

    It was Sen. Roman Hruska (R, Nebraska) who said of G. Harrold Carswell, a Nixon nominee to the Supreme Court, "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos."

  2. Apropos of your comments on Congress, I call your attention to this news item:

    "When asked if they have a higher opinion of either Congress or a series of unpleasant or disliked things, voters said they had a higher opinion of root canals (32 for Congress and 56 for the dental procedure), NFL replacement refs (29-56), head lice (19-67), the rock band Nickelback (32-39), colonoscopies (31-58), Washington DC political pundits (34-37), carnies (31-39), traffic jams (34-56), cockroaches (43-45), Donald Trump (42-44), France (37-46), Genghis Khan (37-41), used-car salesmen (32-57), and Brussels sprouts (23-69) than Congress."

  3. Poltroon is such an excellent and underused word. I will certainly be teaching it to my daughter, whether or not it will enhance her social capital. Her name is Ruby, however, not Rubin. Perhaps you have her confused with Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury?