The Real “Snowdens of Yesteryear”

The people who exasperate us the most are those we fear we’re most like. Like most teachers, I often feel I’m ‘all hat and no cattle,’ that I’m playing a part but without the substance—though that’s true for all of us at one point or another, generally more often than we like to admit.

Me, I tend to notice phrases pointing this out. “Baby, you’re crawlin’ way past your speed” sang the Clovers; the Kingston Trio end their version of “The Streets of Laredo” with “So get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy, too.” There’s plenty more, and not just from popular music.

I have long tried to keep in mind these lines from the last page of Thomas Pynchon’s V.:

“The experience, the experience. Haven’t you learned?”

Profane didn’t have to think long. “No,” he said, “offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing.”

That, beyond anything, is the truth I live by, behind all the bluster.

That’s why, I suspect, that the New York Times columnist David Brooks annoys me so well. He’s a central-casting intellectual, someone who looks the part but lacks the heft, a Ted Baxter character. What’s frustrating is how clearly he believes in himself. He thinks he is the public intellectual for our age—his only frustration seems to be that too few others agree. (Perhaps he’s right; perhaps we, culturally, get what we deserve, and we deserve only self-flattering pap… but that’s another story.)

In a column today built on low rent “ubi sunt,” Brooks asks where have all the “lofty authority figures to help them answer these questions” gone? Obviously, he wants us to answer, “Don’t fret, Sweetums, you’ve replaced them for us.”

But let’s not be snide.

Brooks certainly knows that it’s the nature of the public sphere that has changed, not the nature of contributors. He tries to argue that “Intellectual prestige has drifted away from theologians, poets and philosophers and toward neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts.” The entire column is just this sort of lament.

Brooks ignores the fact that we live in a time when access to public debate has expanded exponentially faster than has education. People never cared much for theologians, poets or philosophers any more than they care for neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists and big data analysts today. It’s just that, now, there are a lot more people who obviously don’t care. In the past, these people weren’t even considered people by the elite of European-based cultures, the inhabitants of the milieu of Brooks’ nostalgic yearnings.

What really made me slap my forehead today was this:

I thought I’d do my part by asking readers to send me their answers to the following questions: Do you think you have found the purpose to your life, professional or otherwise? If so, how did you find it? Was there a person, experience or book or sermon that decisively helped you get there?

Yes, David, I have, but I don’t think you’ll like my answer so, instead of sending it to you, I’ll answer here:

In 1977, I was working in the parts department of a car dealership by day, selling cars at night and on weekends. And drinking. That was my life. I’d been drifting since graduating from college, no purpose and no meaning to anything I’d been doing.

What little free time I had, I spent with books and booze, science fiction and long necks.

My yearning for a little bit more first manifested itself in dissatisfaction with the books I was reading. So, one day when relatively sober, I wandered to a used-book store where I picked up William Faulkner’s The Hamlet.

That book changed my life. The story of Ike Snopes and the cow floored me. I’d never read anything like it yet I knew these characters. I wanted to read more, more Faulkner and more anything that could affect me the way The Hamlet had. Furthermore, I wanted to know how this book had come about—not specifically, but what had led up to it, generally.

I started grad school as a “special” student in a non-degree program a little over a year later. I had no idea what to take, and didn’t really care (I had not been an English major, undergraduate). All I wanted to do was read in some sort of organized manner and learn something about the history of what I was reading. That desire, many years later, led me down the “cultural studies” path I am still following.

So, Mr. Brooks, it was a tale written by a fellow drunk about a white-trash imbecile’s passion for a cow that changed my life.

As I said, I won’t share this on your website. I don’t think it’s the kind of story you are looking for.

 

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