Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Leave It To America
Let's watch a little movie together. We'll set ourselves just behind the camera and give it complete freedom to pan and trolley wherever it might.
We open with a slow pan from high above an average American town - somewhere in the indistinct middle of our great nation. It's Every-Town, and the year is Recent-Past. The camera brings us down through wisps of clouds, as the town below us grows closer and more full of detail. It's evening, but not late. Cars travel the streets, turning from busy thoroughfares into snug neighborhoods shaded by ancient trees, and lit only by street-lanterns, and what light falls from porch-lights and through window-glass. Our long downward pan brings us though the rough leaf and limb of a spreading elm, where we level out and come finally to rest outside the upstairs bedroom of a modest two-story wood-frame house, as cozy as it is unremarkable.
Through the mullioned glass, and through the sheer window-drapes, we see an attractive woman in golden lamp-light. She sits on the edge of a double bed. Her head is bowed, her hands clasped at her belly. We see, throughout the room, all the artifacts of married life. Two nightstands, each with book opened spine-up. A clothes tree hung both with a man's trench-coat and a woman's wool coat with fur collar. Through the open bathroom-door, a pair of sinks lined with toiletries male and female. It's an American bedroom, sanctuary and nest for two average people. But only one of them is here, and something is wrong with her. The camera takes us through the window's barrier and the sounds of the neighborhood - cricket-song, distant traffic and a merry call to dinner somewhere close-by - are replaced by the hush of this room, and the sharp ragged inhalation of a woman. We describe a slow arc which brings us close to the front of her. Her left hand is clenched on a wad of dampened tissue and held tightly by her right. And we see that these hands jump with the small, tight convulsions that wrack her body. The picture fades to black and we are left with a single wet sob.
Our picture returns and we find that we are sailing along Pine Street, the row of neat homes ticking rapidly past our eyes. We turn a corner and another and we are on Main Street, or slightly above it. Cars move just below us, as we pass a grocer, and a hardware store, and a shoe-repair. A man is walking briskly. We fall in behind him on the sidewalk. He is a tall, wiry man and walks with a petulant swagger. We follow him as he pushes through the padded door of a neighborhood saloon and strides past a row of men hunched over amber drinks and glasses of beer. His eyes - and therefore ours - focus on a well-dressed man, alone at the end of the bar. "There he is!" we hear a voice say, "What's wrong, Ward? June toss you out of the house?"
We move to a spot back behind the bar amid the rows of bottles and watch as the man we came in with slides onto the stool next to his target. "Hey Haskell", the well-dressed man - Ward - says wearily without looking up from his glass. He is not excited to see his neighbor, but is a polite man by habit. "We're having a few ups and downs ... that's all. Everybody argues."
"No shit, Sherlock." says George Haskell, as he waves for a beer. "The question is, who wins? You let the old ball-and-chain go one-up on you, and next thing you know she's calling the shots and you're wearing an apron wondering where your balls got off to."
"It's not like that", Ward says. "Women are complicated. I don't understand why she gets so emotional about everything. It's as if she is personally offended that the world is not a perfect place. She has to change everything ... improve everything ... improve ME, for God's sake. I tell you, George ... I'm at my wit's end."
"Your mistake is to even listen to her, Ward, old buddy. I get home tonight, and Agnes starts yapping about some teacher at school who's pissed off at Eddie. She wants me to spend time with the kid, listen to his troubles. I told her that the kid doesn't have any troubles other than the over-sensitive hens that all men put up with twenty-four-seven. I told her to tell the teacher where to stick it, and that I'd be down at the bar where a man can get a little peace." George takes a long pull on his beer and looks around, satisfied that he's given his friend the only advice he'll ever need.
Now George sees two young women coming through the front door. "Man-up, Cleaver. Tell her it's your way or the highway." He spins off the stool and heads for the new arrivals. "Hello ladies," we hear him say. "Is there a fashion-model convention nearby?"
Ward Cleaver's face is a mask of shifting emotions. Frustration, tenderness, anger, and hopefulness all vie for control as a thousand memories run though his mind. He brings the highball glass to his lips as his brows knit into a tight and bitter resolve. And the camera blurs to gauzy indistinction.
We return to focus back in the house on Pine Street. June Cleaver holds a phone tightly to her ear. She has stopped crying. She is pacing in the butter-yellow kitchen averting her gaze from the unwashed dishes which she has allowed to accumulate in hopes that Ward might see fit to lift a finger for once. "He's so set in his ways, Agnes," she says. "He comes home, eats dinner, smokes his pipe, and disappears into his study. When I tell him what I'm upset about, he gives me some old-fashioned advice, like I'm a child. He has a solution for everything. As if all the world's problems can be solved by two or three tried-and-true methods."
"Men are pigs." The voice from the phone is tinny and small, but the contempt it carries is unmistakable. "I gave up on George years ago, Juney, and that son of his is not much better. You ask me, every problem we have comes either from men, or from women who listen to men. Who mops up after they ruin everything with their cave-man nonsense? Women like us, that's who. They're pigs. And that is unfair to actual pigs."
"Ward means well. He's always been a good father and provider, but Wally and the Beaver are older now, and the world is a more complicated place. It's not enough to ground the boys when they mess up and make sure they do their chores and schoolwork. He just doesn't see how much different things are than when he was a boy. I sometimes think I could run this family better without him, Agnes. Is it wrong to think that?"
"Only if it's wrong to come to your senses! I'm gonna tell you a little secret, June." The disembodied voice pauses for effect. "Mr. George Haskell is just about to find himself living in a rooming-house wondering what hit him, and how he's going to keep ahead of all the child-support payments."
"You can't be serious, Agnes!"
"Serious as a heart-attack, Honey. And you ought to think about it too. We need men like we need holes in our heads. Tell him it's your way or the highway. That oughta get his attention."
June Cleaver sets the phone back into its cradle on the kitchen wall, and stands looking at it for a long moment. Then our camera's lens follows her eyes to the uncharacteristically cluttered table, and the telephone directory resting open there. Its yellow pages are open to Attorneys, and one ad in particular is circled in red ink. Tooth, Nail, and Claw ... Divorce and Family Lawyers.
I'll fade us to black here. I could take this metaphor through the Cleavers' divorce. Through all the blame and recrimination ahead of them. I could show how - once divided - they turn their once-peaceful lives into a series of skirmishes unfit for civilized war. And we could eavesdrop further as the Haskells and others encourage both to unbending positions, convincing them that compromise is for wimps and sell-outs.
And I could take you into the interiors of each, as each struggles with the challenges of life, and as each watches his and her life fall consistently short of what it had once been.
But instead, I will leave the camera behind, and tell you why I have taken your time in an imagining of Ward and June's foundering marriage. It is my belief that we Americans have split up a perfectly good family, condemning ourselves as we did so, to never-ending divorce proceedings. For no good reason.
As you may have guessed, Ward Cleaver has been drafted into service as the representative of all Conservatives everywhere. And June has been conjured to embody all Liberals. His is the solid if unimaginative provider. Hers is the nurturing mother who identifies with her boys and their bafflement at the changing society they face. He hews closely to the time-tested, assuming that what has worked will continue to work as long as people are as people have been. She feels that - as the territory changes - not only new maps, but new notions of travel, are needed. He errs on the side of discipline, she on the side of sympathy.
Both, of course are right. And both are wrong in thinking that they alone are right.
The two dominant ideologies of modern American life - Conservatism and Liberalism - are essentially Male and Female energies, respectively. Now, I know that any attempt on my part to imply that there is such a thing as either male or female nature will cause some to bridle. I doubt that many of those will read past this point. Of course I know that there is a lot of cross-over between the typical thoughts of men and the typical thoughts of women. But, as demonstrated by thousands of products and their advertising ... some things are Guy things, and some things are Girl things. Still with me? Good.
It is one of the great travesties of our time that the notion of men and women being more-or-less interchangeable has gotten any traction whatsoever. But such a thing has happened. That evolution - or God - would go to the trouble of creating a species that can only replicate itself with the participation of both a female and a male, so physically distinct from each other, but would imbue them with identical psyches ... is among the most ridiculous ideas ever hatched by the human mind. Nobody ought to spend one second of his or her life being misled by that patently dopey claim, no matter how well-educated the claimant. It's nonsense, and will be for as long as it is repeated.
Men Are Different From Women. Women are different from men. And because this is true, the philosophies which most readily attract each are bound to be different. Women, equipped as they are to bear children, naturally tend toward the nurturing ... the sentimental, the empathetic. And when these emotional leanings are not being applied to children, they are aimed outward toward society at large. Of course, the party which posits itself as the compassionate one generally finds greater purchase in the minds of women.
A man, on the other hand, lacks the ability to bear children. He won't be asked as often to care for the helpless child. And so nature has wisely given him other talents. He is quicker to aggress, more interested in property, less likely to give what is not earned. He is not charged with delighting in the tiny bits of progress a toddler makes, but is responsible to monitor unseen forces which might cost that toddler - and its doting mother - their safety. In simple terms, Mommy makes the nest cozy, and Daddy watches the perimeter for danger.
Conservatives embody MALE thinking. And Liberals embody FEMALE thinking. Does this mean that I think all males are conservative and all females liberal? Of course not. But I do think that women who are strongly conservative are expressing the male side of their nature, while those men who identify as strongly liberal are firmly in touch with their feminine sides. I doubt that either would disagree, or find this insulting.
I could go on at some length explaining why many women grow up to be conservatives, while many men grow up to be liberals, and I will on another occasion. But I can't spend the digital ink here. Suffice it to say that in each case, they are battling their natures because they have been convinced that they ought to.
In the case of the conservative woman, she has learned through living, that life requires discipline and toughness. She has realized that saying no to a child is often a greater kindness - long term - than saying yes. And that this truth has wider implications. She has come to understand that an emotional response is not always the path to wisdom. It's no accident that - among women - those voting Republican are overwhelmingly married with children.
In the case of the liberal man, he has learned - usually in college - of the damage that unchecked male energy has wreaked upon this world throughout history. Slavery, war, colonialism, predatory capitalism ... all are the legacies of aggressive 'maleness' running off the leash. Additionally, the educated male suffers social sanction whenever he is caught being 'macho', as that is considered unenlightened. He soon learns to wear the cloak of the empath, and to keep his dial turned to the 'equality' setting.
Fill out each side with the large number who simply adopt the politics of their parents or peers and never give it much thought. These then are the armies amassed at each end of the battlefield.
The country is split, roughly, into these two camps. Interestingly, the percentage of Americans in each major party favors the Democrats by about six points. Women outnumber men by about three percent. Gradually, because liberals now control the arts and media, as well as the schools, Democrats have gained the upper hand. But it is still close to an even split. And this is a good thing. Because - in spite of the unbending determination of each side's most fervent members to vanquish the other - neither philosophy is fit to lead this country into a safe and sustainable future.
Am I saying that both philosophies ought to be abandoned in favor of something foreign to both? No. I am saying that each side is better when balanced by the other. It's not either. It's not neither. It's both.
What I am saying is that Ward and June ought to call off the divorce, tell the Haskells where they can stuff it, and learn to appreciate one another. At one time the Cleavers knew - as did Americans - that the mission of our country is well-served by the fact of our two-party system and a governmental structure which allows them to balance one another out. It's only when we forget that the balance is what we want, and fight for a lopsided scale ... that we get into real trouble.
So ... in the scenario I am pitching, where June plays the Democrats and Ward the Republicans, who am I positing as the kibitzing Haskells? Why the Haskells are, of course, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, Ed Schultz, MoveOn.org, Breitbart.com, Mother Jones, National Review, and any other media outlet or personality which or who filters the news to be sure their audience receives a version slanted to confirm a bias.
Those of us who remember Leave it to Beaver, will remember how 'The Beav' was always trying to get away with something. Usually, in his immaturity, he acted impulsively, whether making a face for the school picture or sneaking a friend into the movie theater. He wasn't a bad kid, but he usually acted first according to his own agenda, and learned his lessons the hard way. Beaver is the American public. June tries to understand, and to correct his behavior with kind advice. But now and then, she is simply unequipped to deal with her son's endless high jinks. At these moments, she is very grateful that soon, her partner - a more ready authority figure - will be coming up the walk in his pressed suit and polished shoes. When her sons are more than she can handle, she simply says, "Wait till your father gets home!"
Our family is in trouble. We have spoiled the children, and charge-carded ourselves into perilous debt. But we have also allowed the powerful to call the shots and been too quick to send armies off to do the undo-able. A lot of bad decisions have been made. And mostly it is because those with one or another natural bent have been unwilling to ask for or accept the leavening influence of those with opposite leanings. We have forgotten - just as Ward and June have - that the best relationships are not made from two identical personalities, but from two complimentary personalities. The impulses of the one ought to be balanced by those of the other.
Is it too late? Have we become so addicted to the adrenalin-rush of political combat that we will never learn to moderate our anger and listen to the other side? Have we allowed party-identification to become so key to our self images that we would rather see it all go down in flames than to credit the opposition with a good idea? Is winning so important to us that we are willing to trash the joint, and let our children pay for the damages? Can we turn it around?
I think that we can. But we must do as the marriage counselors suggest. Let me offer a five-point plan as a starting place.
If we are to work together we all must speak honestly and listen without preconceptions. Rather than assuming that your political opponent is stupid or evil, read his side's clearest thinkers. You may not be persuaded, but at least you will know that there is thought and good intentions behind ideas that don't attract you.
2. Spend Time Together:
Just as a couple will grow distant without shared adventures and pleasures, so will the two sides of the political aisle. Don't select your friends only for agreement. Invite people to the barbecue whose bumper-stickers read differently than your own. It's hard to vilify somebody with whom you have just shared a meal or had a pleasant conversation.
3. Give Credit Where It's Due:
You wouldn't deny your spouse or a good friend credit for a job well done or a great idea. Why would we deny that to those who vote differently? Will withholding praise make them more or less willing to give something back? Would it kill us to say, "Hey, good job pushing for cleaner air." ... or "I guess you were right about Communism."?
4. Embrace Compromise:
Remember that we are all in this together. That we share a country and that ultimately we succeed or fail together. We're a team ... even when we deny the contributions of our team-mates. We will never, ever get everything we want. Neither will our opponents. It's SUPPOSED to be that way. Let us only engage in debate with the knowledge that we are on the way to a compromise. The victory is not in making the other side feel defeated, but in making both sides feel served.
5. Be Grateful:
We Americans live in a great country. The United States has been a tremendous force for good in the world. To be an American is the fondest hope of millions of people all over the world. Let's not take that for granted. And let's not allow ourselves to believe that it is only people who think like us who have made it so. That's not even possible. What we are, at our best, is a blend of the best impulses of us all. And I believe that much of what we've done wrong could have been done better if we'd been less willing to find fault with each other. Let us never forget the debt we owe to our fellow Americans.
Is this a perfect marriage? Not even close. Was it ever a perfect marriage? Not by a long-shot. But there have been moments when we put our squabbles aside and our shoulders together and behaved like the adults we are supposed to be. Let's not let the Beaver down. Let's tear up the divorce papers and give it another shot.
Dave Morrison ... January 2, 2013