You’ll want to read this first, if you can stand it.
God knows I’ve tried, Daddy. Every day I wake up and I say to myself, “Today is the day I will stop putting my thumb in the eye of authority. Today is the day I will state my objections with good manners and consideration.” I put sticky notes on my mirror that say “Civility” “Respect” and “Politeness.” And I mean it. I want to eat at the adults’ table, to partake of their wine and conversation, their wealth and taste, and their establishment organs instead of the tripe and Coca-Cola they serve to us cackling kids.
But gosh darn it, Daddy. Sometimes it’s just so flipping hard. I mean, some days the excrement just hits the fan so hard. (And please note the restraint, resisting blasphemy, an f-bomb and bathroom allusion in three consecutive sentences, a regular hat trick of civility.) Like today. I went to bed last night, I’ll admit it, with immature and unkind thoughts in my head about religion, thoughts that failed to distinguish adequately between fundamentalists and the truly religious, you know, the ones capable of multiple viewpoints, who can, for instance, have a son in the Israeli military and yet remain dispassionate about the Palestinian situation. I was thinking about all the stupidity that religious belief gives birth to–and not just religion but godless faith as well. I was thinking about Charlie Hebdo of course, but I was also thinking about the Christian kid I met with yesterday who discovered that his pastor had been sleeping with a parishioner for many years, even fathered a kid or two with her, about how crestfallen the poor kid was, and how unaccountable the pastor. I was dwelling on piety, in other words, on the way that people armed with the right combination of certainty and weaponry can wreak holy havoc, and even as I drifted to sleep I was filled with the wish to grind my thumb into the eyeball of the nearest zealot–or, more accurately, to make some hostile jokes about the pious, because everyone knows that what satirists and provocateurs and other outlandish figures share, in addition to their puerility, is their cowardice. They don’t have the courage of good manners, which is why society, in its unerring judgment, rightly denies them complete respectability or an invitation to the grownup table. .
So I woke up today resolved to be brave. I kissed my wife good morning–a peck on the cheek, no tongue. I did not grope or leer at her or sneak up on her in the closet when I knew she would be naked like some kind of adolescent. I made coffee in my tasteful stainless steel coffeepot and drank it black, none of that kiddie cream-and-sugar stuff. I listened to NPR and not The Daily Show while I washed my breakfast dishes. I did not mock its droning; I did not allow myself to be offended by its inoffensiveness. I switched on the New York Times, and did not engage in the usual hermeneutics of being fit to print. I let the paper horrify me with details about Paris, and then, on the op-ed page, reassure me that Islam was not to blame. I was heartened by Ezekiel Emanuel’s recommendation that I skip my yearly physical, relieved not to have to endure the prostate exam one more time, and I did not indulge the thought that maybe I shouldn’t take medical advice from a guy who wants to check out when he’s seventy-five. I nodded along as Paul Krugman once again tilted at the right wing windmills, did not entertain my fantasy in which some Eurocrat says, “You know what, Paul? You’re absolutely right. We’re a bunch of paranoid, ignorant, power-hungry sycophants. No wonder you won the Nobel. We’re changing our ways now–not because you are right, but because we realize this is the only way to make you stop.” I did not groan or gnash my teeth or bore my wife with my outrage. I just sat at the table and read and nodded. I even pretended I was reading the Times on actual newsprint, that I was licking my thumb and adjusting my reading glasses and, between sips of my perfectly brewed coffee, quietly turning the pages.
I was, in short, the picture of the man with a complicated view of reality and a forgiving view of others. But then I clicked to David Brooks. Oh, how I tried, Daddy! How I tried! I got past the “I am Not Charlie Hebdo” headline without thinking too much about Lloyd Bentsen. When he compared the slaughter in Paris to “campus micro-aggressions,” I did not bellow in outrage but rather recalled my days on a college faculty and how professors could be like beavers who had run out of trees and had to gnaw on each other. I accepted his offer to turn this into a teachable moment, reminded myself that Brooks teaches at Yale, so why not be taught by the best? You can’t get more complicated and forgiving than that, can you?
Honest, I think I would have made it. I think I would have gone all the way with Brooks. I would have cruised past his condescension and his arrogance and his self-puffery. I would have read his “Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud,” his “most of us” and his “rest of us” and his “we” who “maintain standards of civility” without saying back, “Who’s this ‘we,’ white man?” maybe even without wanting to say it. I’d have bypassed his making an equivalence between Ann Coulter, who, let’s face it, is mean and creepy and idiotic, and Bill Maher, who is actually funny and very smart even if sometimes abrasive, chalked it up to Brooks’s compulsion to show how both sides are always wrong, which of course leaves him as the one-man Isle of Right, but which nonetheless seems involuntary, the pundit version of Tourette’s syndrome. I’d have let go the whole thing about manners and standards and respect, and nodded in vigorous, well-mannered agreement with his conclusion that we shouldn’t outlaw offensive voices, even as we ostracize those to whom they belong, as if this sin-not-the-sinner argument weren’t bathetic beyond belief, as if college campuses were legislative bodies, and as if “social discrimination,” at least when practiced by the mighty, wasn’t more powerful than any legislation could be. And then I’d have licked my thumb, turned the page, and waited for my evite to the adults’ table.
But Daddy, how could I? How could I look past that crack about “their unguided missile manners?” Could a man so smart, a man who makes his living with words, be so unaware of language, of the fact that he’s saying that in the end those poor bastards at Charlie Hebdo deserved what they got? Who’s firing the missiles here? I wanted to say. (And did, out loud, even though my wife had already left.) Who’s got their hands on the trigger? It’s the people who have the guns. The fanatics, of course–who were not, for fuck’s sake (sorry, Daddy!), firing back at unguided non-metaphoric missiles, but firing first, and shooting real bullets into unarmed people–but also the calm and civilized and sedate grownups, the ones who do their level best, day in and day out, to quiet and pacify and reassure and, when that doesn’t work, to suppress and discredit the dissenters, to damn the “holy fools” with faint praise, to level their AirSoft Uzis at them, to paint them with the tar of extremism, to do whatever it takes–equate Coulter to Maher, dismiss them and their kind as puerile and irresponsible, even grudgingly accept them (while claiming this as a virtuous act)–to keep the guns in their own hands.
So I guess I can’t join you with the crystal and the china and the sterling and the foie gras and the fine burgundy and your glittering conversation and your good manners. I’m sorry, Daddy. I really am. But maybe when you stop acting so outrageously, I’ll finally be able to grow up.