Big Mike, No Message

I have been paying attention to the graduates of Ivy League universities. Every one I see the past few weeks is beautiful. They are tall and handsome and gay-spirited; they are strong and laughing and bright. I ask them what they are going to do now. I am repeatedly told things like, “I want to go into TV.” And “I’m going to drama school.” And “I’m going to journalism school.” It occurs to me that all young people who graduate from elite American universities now want to go into communications. It’s a whole generation that wants to communicate.

But what do they want to communicate? They don’t seem to have a clue. For this is a question that involves the area of Deeply Held Beliefs, and as far as I can see it the deeply held beliefs of these particular graduates is a uniform leftism whose tenets involve reciting clichés. They believe racial and sexual diversity is good, peace is better than war, religious fanaticism is bad. But they don’t want to spout clichés—that’s not why they went to Cornell. And they know their work will not draw attention if it is marked by tired and essentially noncontroversial ideas. No one thinks war is sweet, there’s no market for racial segregation or male chauvinism.

I see no sign they are going to start thinking anything truly unusual for their time and generation—that religious conversion can be a wholly beneficial and life changing event, for instance, or that breaking with liberal orthodoxy might be the beginning of wisdom.

It must leave them finding it a challenge to speak of their beliefs in an interesting way. They often seem to fall back on attitude—wit, irony, poking fun at the thick-witted—in place of sustained thought, or meaning. And still they want to communicate for a living. I think of this problem as “big mike, no message.” They are trained in the finest points of communication, but when they turn on the microphone, they have nothing serious to say.

To be fair, young people often have nothing serious to say. You earn seriousness and learn seriousness. I am wondering if these beautiful young people will earn and learn. Maybe Ivy League graduates have always seemed a little removed from life, a little rote in their thinking. Maybe these eager young people will turn out to have interesting thoughts.

But they do remind me of something that occurred to me one day about 30 years ago. I was watching on TV one of the great movies of the British new wave of the 1960s. I think it was “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” I thought to myself: British acting is simply the best in the world, England is drenched in great acting now. Then I realized it had been for generations—Gielgud, Redgrave, et al. Then I thought: Hmmmm. The rise of England’s acting class the past century seems to coincide perfectly with the fall of its power as a wealthy and powerful nation that made a difference in the world—an exploring nation, a conquering one.

I wondered if the loss of a kind of national manliness, or force, tends to coincide in modern nations with a rise in expertise in the delicate arts. Then I thought: I wonder if in general one can say of Western nations that the loss of one tends to be accompanied by a rise in the other. In the case of England I think that is so. I have wondered for 30 years if I would come to think it of America. I have not. But the rise of the young graduates who all want to communicate but have no idea what they want to communicate has me thinking about it again.

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European bureaucrats continue to resist references to God or Christianity in the new constitution they are drafting for the European Union. This is a fascinating battle and revealing of our age. They are in the final drafting stages. Tuesday’s New York Times reported, “The issue of whether the most ambitious document in European Union history should include a reference to the Continent’s Christian heritage is . . . an emotional, theological wrangle over the meaning of culture, history and faith. The paper quoted France’s foreign minister, Michel Barnier, as saying his country would not bow to pressure to inject religion into the document, noting the final draft should be “secular.” The constitution is expected to be finalized in two weeks in Brussels.

It seems to me the question is not, “Will the architects of the new Europe bow to the reality of God and include him in the central founding document of their vast new union?” The question is, “Will a group of atheist and agnostic European bureaucrats be forced to mention a deity in whom they do not believe in order to appease lesser and ignorant people who unfortunately have a lot of votes?” Europe is a post-Christian society on a continent devoted to the material except when it is considering astrology, witchcraft and worshiping rocks.

A year ago Pope John Paul II weighed into the argument—actually by speaking of it publicly he started the argument—when he criticized the drafters of the proposed constitution for leaving out all reference to Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage. He suggested the bureaucrats were unhistorical and frankly ungrateful. They are indeed, and rather soulless too, but that is precisely what the modern ruling classes that run Europe are. And that is who the bureaucrats represent.

Is it better if the drafters bow to pressure and, like hypocrites, add a few soulful sentences in which they do not believe so as to fool the dumb people who do? Maybe not. Maybe they should be what they are. It’s less confusing that way. And the nonelites of Europe will perhaps more readily see what they are, and understand what they’re getting into when they join the EU.

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NBC reported Monday night that there is a new movement in California to ban smoking on public beaches. This is much more serious than the fact that if the law passes young people on beach blankets will no longer be able to break the ice by asking, “Got a light?” The NBC report came on right before I watched Tom Selleck chain-smoke through “Ike.” It looked like such a liberated thing to do, smoking without care or guilt.

There is a great lie out there that they didn’t know smoking was dangerous in Ike’s day, but of course they knew. They knew because they coughed, they knew because their lungs ached, they knew because when they smoked it produced phlegm, they knew because doctors told them smoking aggravates tuberculosis, they knew because they have brains, and they knew because smokers were addicted and there is some rough knowledge within the human soul that when you’re addicted to something it’s probably not good for you. They knew it was dangerous. Hitler was dangerous too. The world was dangerous. They were planning the biggest amphibious invasion in all of human history. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

I have come to hate the banners. No, I don’t smoke. I just believe in the right of people to be human, to be imperfect and messy and flawed. I don’t dislike the banners because they’re prissy bullies, though that is reason enough. I dislike them because their work forces us to look at the shift in values in our country in our time. As I watched the NBC report, I actually thought to myself: I want to make sure I understand. If you smoke a cigarette on a beach in modern America you are harming the innocent. If you have a baby scraped from your womb, you are protecting your freedom. If you sell a pack of cigarettes to a 12-year-old boy you can be jailed, fined and sent to Guantanamo Bay with the other killers. If you sell a pack of contraceptives to a 12 year old boy in modern America you are socially responsible citizen.

For reasons that call for an essay of their own, and as we all know, the banners of cigarettes are on and of the left, and the resisters of the banners are on the right. Once the banners of liquor were of the right and its legalizers of the left. The banners of drugs were on the right and the legalizers on the left.

Why did the left change its stance on what it calls personal freedom regarding cigarettes and cigars? What was the logic? And please, if you are on the left, would you answer this question for me? How come the only organ the left insists be chaste is the lung? What is this pulmocentrism? Why are lungs so special? Why can’t you endanger your own lungs? Why don’t you care as much about livers? Don’t the Democrats have a liver lobby?

I think that it is true that there is no individual human on earth that I hate. But when I think of the banners I think of what the old news producer told the bureaucrat who fired him in a cost-cutting campaign in “Broadcast News.” At the end of their meeting the bureaucrat asked in unctuous tones if there was anything he could do to help. The producer thought. “Well, I certainly hope you die soon,” he said. A great cinematic moment. I wish the banners would go away and stop bothering our country.

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The presidential election began to take shape this week, almost in spite of itself. Did you notice? In a series of interviews and speeches President Bush made it clear he is running on three things: Iraq, and its profound promise for a better world in spite of the struggle; faith-based social reform, which is to say the allowance of the reality of God in certain publicly financed organizations aimed at helping the young and the stressed; and the legitimacy of his tax cuts, both their practical benefits and their inherent justice.
This seems to me pretty smart as a way to go, and clear.

John Kerry, meanwhile, emerged with a new approach: future terrorism on U.S. soil is the great issue of our time, and Mr. Bush has not done enough to make America safer. It is smart of Mr. Kerry to get to Mr. Bush’s right on this, and it will make the administration sharper. Mr. Kerry’s is also an unanswerable challenge: There will of course be terror events down the road, and deadly ones, and it will always turn out that the government could have done more, for it always could have.

Mr. Kerry is also applying a kind of argumentative prophylactic: If al Qaeda hits before the election, he warned you. He is planting seeds so that your first thought, on the day of an event, is not I will support my president in this time of crisis but Bush didn’t keep us safe, fire him!

But Mr. Kerry continues to have a major internal structural problem. It is that he can always tell you his position, or his latest position, but he can somehow never quite explain to you the thinking behind it. He continues to seem unable to explain the philosophy and logic. It leaves one assuming his problem is that his thinking relies on an old and cliché-riddled leftism that is not so much thought through as declared and imposed.

It is a paradox. Mr. Kerry is more naturally articulate than Mr. Bush. He is facile with words and speaks in structured sentences and paragraphs. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, speaks in bursts, in little gusts of words. And yet Mr. Bush manages to communicate why he is thinking what he is thinking, what logic is guiding him, what philosophy is guiding him. When he speaks of the practical and moral benefits of faith-based approach to federal spending, you understand why he stands where he stands. He explains it. His words are plain but serviceable. They do the job.

Mr. Kerry doesn’t give you the feeling of comfort you get when you understand someone. He’s going to have to become a candidate who can explain why he stands where he stands if he wants to go beyond the impression he currently gives, which is that he’s a haircut with a person attached.