A Brief Interruption: Breaking into “The Future of Culture” to Silence “The Guns of August” (and Defend the Wisdom of 16-Year-Olds)

Two pieces in The New York Times for this morning (Thursday, August 7, 2014) caught my attention—and raised my ire.  Being the good American-born Baby Boomer that I am, I am interrupting my current series of posts under the title “Pulling Out of the Traffic:  The Future of Culture” to seek immediate gratification of my ire by posting this.  My next post will resume—and finish—the series this post interrupts (or such, at any rate, do I intend at the moment).

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The last of three officially sanctioned New York Times editorials in this morning’s paper is under the title “The Guns of August.”  One of the relatively rare so-sanctioned editorials attributed to any named author, this one is attributed to a Mr. Serge Schmemann.  It addresses the diversity of perspectives represented by remarks made that by various world politicians during the last few days, to mark the centenary of the start of World War I.  Specifically, Mr. Schmemann mentions France’s François Hollande and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and points to how illustrative the remarks of those two are of the diversity of interpretations of “the Great War,” as it is often still called.  After briefly discussing Hollande’s and Putin’s two takes on “the war to end all wars,” to use another name by which the war at issue went during its day, Mr. Schmemann draws this sub-conclusion:  “These diverse interpretations underscore the inherent hazard of drawing parallels from history or of assigning responsibility and guilt for war.”* Mr. Schmemann then goes on, by a nice rhetorical sleight-of-hand, disguising it under the cover of the warning he has just issue against “assigning responsibility and guilt for war,” to do just that—offer an interpretation of his own in which he assigns responsibility and guilt for war (assigning it to certain factors, if not to certain people or peoples).  Thus, in his final paragraph, under cover of the sub-conclusion just given, he first writes:

            That does not mean we should not study and learn from the great war.  [I leave it up to each reader to decide just which war, if not all of them, he means by that last expression, in which he uses neither caps nor quotes.]   The lessons may not be in parallels [to the present] like those made by Mr. Hollande or Mr. Putin, but rather in reflection on intolerance, political expedience, tribal passions, ambition and all other forces that combined to lead Europe sleepwalking to self-destruction.

Then, to polish everything off, he ends his closing paragraph by cutting off all possible disagreement with him, at least all disagreement that is not willing to seem ungrateful and disrespectful towards all the dead of the Great War (if not all war, great as all war may be, from Mr. Schmemann’s perspective, as he expresses it in his editorial).  Hence, he ends his paragraph and his whole editorial by writing:  “And if nothing else, we owe it to our grandparents and great-grandparents and the millions of others who suffered and died on the battlefields of Europe not to forget their awesome sacrifice.”**

Might we wonder why Mr. Schmemann never mentions such things as economic greed for markets, and all the colonialism and empire-building that accompanies it, as causes of war—especially but by no means only World War I?  Might we wonder why he seems completely to disregard all such “forces,” which not only then but still now—in different disguises than back then, perhaps, yet still the very same forces—“combine to lead” to great, ongoing war, even to the point that, today, the very difference between war and peace has been erased?  Might we wonder why he instead confines himself to mentioning such things as “intolerance, political expedience, tribal passions, [and] ambitions”—all things that any decent, right-thinking person would of course reject out of hand?  Or would that just be degenerating into playing the blame game?

How about mentioning that one can hardly think of a better way precisely to forget the “awesome sacrifice” of those who did so sacrifice themselves “on the battlefields of Europe” during World War I than by going through the motions of “memorializing” them on the anniversary of the start (or at least what serves to mark the start) of their still ongoing immolation?  Dare one even so much as hint that those whose sacrifice of themselves was so “awesome” (though some might question the use of such dated Valley-girl speech in such a context) made such sacrifice of themselves entirely in vain, for no good reason at all—at least if we are to heed such witnesses as Wilfred Owen, who both suffered and died as a British soldier on the battlefields of Europe during World War I, or his friend Siegfried Sassoon, who managed to suffer but not die on those same battlefields during that same war?

Or would all that just be in poor taste?

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Earlier in this morning’s Times, in a front-page article that ends on a later page, not far from the op-ed section from which “The Guns of August” comes, is the second piece that caught my eye and kindled my ire.  This one is presented as a news-piece, rather than an editorial, though the difference is often hard to tell, without the helpful clues provided by the paper’s section-labels.  It occurs under the byline of Sabrina Tavernise, a journalist no better known to me than Mr. Schmemann the editorialist, and addresses how a group of “public health experts,” as Ms. Tavernise identifies them, have taken exception to “a little-known cost-benefit calculation” that is “[b]uried deep in the federal governments new tobacco regulations.”  The deeply buried, little-known calculation is one “that public health experts see as potentially poisonous:  the happiness quotient,” which “assumes that the benefits from reducing smoking—fewer early deaths and diseases of lungs and heart—have to be discounted by 70 percent to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.”  For the public health experts at issue, who have collectively published a paper warning against such poisonous calculations, that idea itself does not have a very high happiness quotient of its own, apparently.  Various quotations and paraphrases from those experts follow.  Included is one attributed to “Kenneth E. Warner, one of the paper’s authors and a professor of public health [so:  a publicly certified public health expert] at the University of Michigan.”  Addressing the fact that most smokers begin smoking before they are 16 (or so we are told in the piece, at any rate—and who am I to contest it?), Professor Warner is quoted as saying:  “It would be ridiculous to admit that a 16-year-old kid who has no idea what addiction means and feels immortal is a rational decision-maker when it comes to smoking.”

Well, I certainly neither can nor want to claim any special expertise pertaining to 16-year-olds as such.  However, I was one once myself.  I turned 17 in the middle of what was for me my one and only banner year during the days of my enforced K-12 schooling.  It was my senior year in high school.  (The school system that walled me in for all of my K-12 years skipped me over the 5th grade for some reason, so that I graduated from high school at 17, the youngest in my class).  The spring before, at the end of my junior year when I was only a few months into my 16th year, I had been elected student-body president of my high school—to my own utter surprise.  (I was never a member of any of the regularly “popular” segments of the student population.  However, I’m proud to say that I was a bit of a rabble-rouser when it came to saying yes and amen to such self-claimed “authorities” as my high school administration.  Such “speaking truth to power,” to use an anachronistic phrase, was what got me elected.)  In the fall of my senior year, thanks to my new-found popularity (or at least my election) I began to run with a better class of friends, thanks to which I gratefully began regular heavy alcohol use and, a bit later, at least as regular and as heavy cigarette-smoking.  Shortly after beginning to smoke, I’d worked myself up—actually, it took no real work on my part—to a three-pack-a-day habit, which I enthusiastically maintained for the next 24 years.

So though, as I said already, I neither can nor want to claim any special expertise on 16-year-olds, I can at least speak of my own experience as a 16 year old, and as someone who began smoking heavily at that same young age.  I can attest that in my own case it was not at all my ignorance of “what addiction means,” nor any feeling that I was “immortal,” that hooked me on nicotine.

I will certainly accept the judgment that at 16 I was not yet a “rational decision-maker.”  What is more, I hope that I am not one yet, and pray I never become one.  By all the experts on “rational decision-making” with whom I have any familiarity, such decision-making as they call “rational” is precisely and only making a decision based on a “cost-benefit calculation.”  Neither my smoking nor my drinking was based in the slightest on any such calculation.  For any decision-making based on such cost-benefit analysis I had at 16, and hope I still have now, nothing but contempt.  It was precisely to say “goodbye to all that” (to borrow a line from Robert Graves, another British soldier who, like his friend Sassoon but unlike their mutual friend Owen, suffered but did not die on the battlefields of Europe during World War I) that I so gladly and enthusiastically devoted myself to alcohol and nicotine.

It was because booze and cigarettes had nothing whatever to do with such tripe that they had such tremendous appeal for me.  In what the “post-war” America into which I was born offered me as a “world,” what alcohol and nicotine offered me was the closest I ever found myself coming to any genuine life.

For that matter, the offer they made me was, in one crucially important sense, one on which they fully made good!  They did so, however, in altogether surprising, utterly unexpected way, as is true for the fulfillment of all such promises, in fact.  They kept their promise only by finally, after a quarter of a century (but who’s counting the cost, except all the despicable “rational decision-makers” out there), bringing me to my “bottoming-out,” as the saying has it, and thereby at last bringing me to a point of decision, where I finally was given a real choice, the choice between saying yes to my own life as a whole, or turning my back on it.

That remark about “points of decision” brings me back, however, to what I was saying in the series of posts that this one interrupts.  So I will now end the interruption.

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I must say—that felt good!  I do so like immediate gratification!  However, in my next post I intend to resume, and finish, my series of posts under the title “Pulling Out of the Traffic:  The Future of Culture.”

* I admire how adroitly Mr. Schmemann—suddenly and without acknowledgement, let alone any attempt at justification—moves here from talk of a supposedly specific single war, “World War I,” to talk simply of “war” as such, as a universal.  What a wonderfully useful multi-purpose tool that gives him!  Now he can, if he chooses, use it to warn us against any attempt to “assign responsibility and guilt” for such much more recent wars as the still on-going one in Afghanistan, or the one set off after September 11, 2001, in Iraq, or the current war in Gaza.  Who knows?  He might even want to use it to go against the current grain of making World War II, the one that won’t get to celebrate the centenary of its start till September of 2039, an attributable war, for which those to whom it is typically attributed still pay monetary reparations to those, or at least the heirs of those, who were made to pay the heaviest price for that subsequent, 2nd World War—heaviest, at least, as measured by what has recently been called “the happiness quotient” (on which see some of my own later remarks in this very blog post).
** I don’t know if Mr. Schmemann thereby means to exclude those who suffered and died elsewhere, away from the battlefields, and even altogether away from Europe, in World War I.  Or perhaps he is using the term battlefield in a broad, metaphorical sense, to include anywhere that the war at issue—whatever war that may be (and, perhaps, in whatever sense of war)— brought suffering and death.  And perhaps, for that matter, he is using of Europe to mean something more/other than “within the geographical confines of the continent of Europe.”

Published in: on August 7, 2014 at 10:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I laughed, I cried, I wanted a drink for the Resistance! As always, Frank, thank you for your writing.


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