Slamburger From Four Sacred Cows 

07.1.2004 | David L. Steinhardt | Cultural Affairs | 5 Comments
What is it about taboo and prejudice? The Right claims the Left walls off their favorite topics against criticism, while the Left argues it’s mostly the Right that howls “class warfare” when a pointed question proves too embarrassing to answer.
 
Either way, limiting discussion reveals stupidity and hypocrisy regardless of ilk or banner.
 
As a conservatively liberal, secularly Jewish, democratic republican vegetarian libertine of catholic tastes, I have no problem mocking anyone’s sacred cows (except my own, of course — Mother, Bugs Bunny, and the Constitution chief among them).
 
Voici three Americans still with us, one not, who are seen too often through lenses too unfocused to reveal the obvious.
 

THE PRESIDENT, SENIOR
 
By all rights, George H. W. Bush should have owned the weekend of June 12, 2004. As a former president celebrating his 80th birthday while his son faces reelection, you’d think newspapers would create special sections reevaluating his extremely eventful presidency.
 
Instead, Ronald Reagan’s death pushed 41 to the special-interest pages (look, he’s skydiving again!). Reagan’s obits, typeset for a decade, somehow rendered news organizations incapable of reexamining a living political giant. You’d think totalitarianism in Europe had fallen on Reagan’s watch, not Bush’s.
 
Let’s remember that WWII pilot Bush knew better than to conquer Baghdad. He managed to create a world-respected coalition for his own Iraq war (even if it was to clean up a mess of his own making after his ambassador to Baghdad green-lighted the invasion of Kuwait to begin with). And — most telling of all — his son, the President of the United States, admits he received neither his father’s advice nor his support for the current, disastrous and criminal war.
 

THE WAR CRIMINAL
 
Did you ever notice how rare it is for someone to get taken down in the press unless the person is already well-hated by some constituency? Nobody seems to hate former senator Bob Kerrey, and that may be the problem. He’s now the president of New School University and currently doing honorable work on the 9/11 Commission. He’s also cute, he left a foot behind in Vietnam, and he looks terribly sad when he reminisces about the war. Reporters feel honored when they get to hear him tearfully sing “Waltzing Matilda.”
 
And yet, he just might have mowed down civilians back in Vietnam. He says others under his command committed the atrocities, while at least one of those soldiers claims Kerrey ordered and led the killing. Mr. Kerrey explicitly declines to dispute that soldier’s account.
 
Imagine if Bill Clinton or Rush Limbaugh had tacitly admitted to giving Lt. Calley a run for his money in the civilian-slaughter business. Would the press give either one a pass for feeling really bad about it?
 
This isn’t a Left or Right issue; it’s an issue of news judgment being guided by popularity. No one wants to be in the position of ending a nice guy’s career.
 
Yet this perspective is beyond perverse. If he did what he is alleged to have done, murdered civilians en masse, his crimes are far worse than the accusations faced by, say, Michael Jackson or Scott Peterson.
 
What’s the rationale here, that since Kerrey dated Debra Winger he’s suffered enough?
 

THE RAINMAKER
 
Sacred cows are hardly limited to the media. As nontraditional medicine becomes more popular, evidence mounts that much of what passes for accepted medical practice is in fact just old habit, no more justified or effective than what’s commonly referred to as old wives’ tales.
 
An example from the supposedly hard science of atmospherics is a favorite of mine, because a friendly acquaintance went to his grave without ever breaking through the wall of unquestioned tradition.
 
Bernard Vonnegut earned his place in history for discovering that silver iodide crystals can release precipitation from recalcitrant rainclouds. His younger brother Kurt insured he’d be in the popular memory, too, by making “Ice 9” the maguffin of his cult novel, Cat’s Cradle.
 
By the early 1950s, Dr. Vonnegut made another discovery: current theory about how lightning is created is not just wrong, it’s stupid.
 
As Prof. Vonnegut explained it to me at SUNY Albany soon before his death in 1997, prevailing theory insists lightning is formed from the static charges created when liquid water — rain — falls through water vapor in thunderclouds. This theory, he explained, is impervious to the fact that rain generally doesn’t precede lightning (it follows it!) and that rain falls mostly from, not through, such clouds.
 
His suggestion? That convection of water-vapor molecules within these clouds — rapid up-and-down currents — causes these molecules to rub up against one another sufficiently to generate lightning-strength voltage.
 
In 40 years of submissions, he was able to place three articles on the subject, all watered down to say “perhaps” convection “might” be a factor “worthy of study.” In his final paper, a 1994 article in a meteorological bulletin, he suggested several experiments to test the hypothesis.
 
If anyone has any evidence that even one of these straightforward experiments was ever carried out, I’d love to know.
 

THE MEMOIRIST
 
Literature too has its sacred cows. Witness the treatment of Joyce Maynard, a memoirist for over 30 years, when she dared to tell stories from her own life that involved the hermit and fiction writer J.D. Salinger.
 
The very young Ms. Maynard had just achieved some fame for writing “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life” for the New York Times Magazine when 53-year-old J. D. Salinger started seducing the anorexic Yale frosh by mail. In articles, a book, and a weekly column over the subsequent quarter century — all devoted to her own life — she never mentioned him. Then, in 1998, she published the latest installment of her life story, At Home in the World, and finally broke her silence about her agonizing, year-long romantic relationship with him. (She’s also a novelist, the author of the black comedy, To Die For, later made into a film with Nicole Kidman.)
 
Her portrait of Jerry Salinger, within a story undeniably centered on herself, was intimate and compassionate. She revealed that he’s a highly skilled student of homeopathy. She understood her seduction in terms of his own heartbreak: his great love, Oona O’Neill, fell for 53-year-old Charlie Chaplin when they were 18.
 
Yet many presumably reasonable people continue to revile this memoirist for telling her own life story. Even the bookseller who sold me the book said, “She could have waited till he was dead.” (By Ms. Maynard’s description, Mr. Salinger hopes his homeopathic studies will let him live 120 years, by which time Ms. Maynard would be his current age — 85!)
 
Tom Robbins, who makes a good living celebrating imaginary free-spirited women, attacks Joyce Maynard, though not by name, in a new anthology of writings on Salinger for “gaining [his] trust and betraying” him.
 
Robbins huffs that “bad karma” will befall her.
 
With even the most tortured reasoning, I can’t map a rational path to that conclusion. Are we to believe that the 18-year-old Yalie, who’d never read a word of Salinger’s work, should not have opened her own mail? Are we to consider her devious to have acceded to his pleadings to drop out of school and move in with him? Is it evidence of her own bad character not to overlook and omit the most dramatic year of her life in her own memoirs?
 
It is simply not idle gossip for a lifelong memoirist to tell the story of how, while on a family vacation (after living as Salinger’s common-law wife for nine months), she was ordered home ahead of the others to empty her possessions from his cabin and move out before their return. Her crime? A homeopath, whom Salinger had brought her to Florida to see, couldn’t open her vagina enough for the D-Day vet to finally take the teenager’s virginity.
 
It’s not just Tom Robbins who has slammed her. Maureen Dowd, no shrinking violet herself, devoted a column to bashing both Ms. Maynard and Monica Lewinsky. The list of others who piled on with criticism is too long to document, but wouldn’t be complete without Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, who published criticism of At Home in the World without even reading it, because, he wrote, he’d heard from friends it was “typical Joyce.” (He had already disapproved of her during the year they were both at Yale.)
 
The arguments seem to center on Mr. Salinger’s desire for privacy. If these critics are sincere, I suppose they’ve all gone on the record attacking those who mention in their memoirs such privacy hounds as Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo and Dick Cheney. I was particularly unnerved to learn that many of my fellows at Bennington Writing Seminars, where Joyce was Associate Faculty in June, joined in such criticism. Funny thing, though: when Joyce’s defender Erica Jong spoke of her at Bennington’s Tishman Auditorium during an open discussion a couple of years ago, not one word was spoken against her.
 
Do such people really believe that our heroes ought to live unexamined lives? I suspect the truth is sleazier: a simple lack of courage.
 
There is no constituency for using the elder George Bush to undermine the regime of the current president. There is no constituency to drag an attractive university president and principled politician into discussion of the still unpunished crimes of the Vietnam War. There is no constituency for overturning scientific orthodoxy unless glory or profits will result. And there is no constituency for defending a lesser writer’s right to tell her own story, when that collides with the complacent memories some literary types have of the great books of their youth.


The Salinger cult is depraved, especially for an author who no doubt will be forgotten shortly (a century from now at the outside), significant almost exclusively for documenting that moment when American culture became arrested in permissive adolescence. This pseudo-Peter Panism, hearkening back not to the splendors of childhood, but to the frustrations of the transitional years, clinging to uncertainty and frustration like some secular rock(?) of ages is an abomination. And who among Maynard's detractors bother to acknowledge how long she waited before writing of her adventure; her's was hardly a quick turnaround kiss-and-tell. But Salinger's life, these devotees tell us, is to be unspeakable, lest the idol be marred.
07.1.2004 | Down With Idols
A century? Hats will be eaten if Salinger is remembered by anyone but specialists in a century.
07.1.2004 | Tim Marchman
I happen to love Salinger's writing.

I return to "Zooey" (just that perfect novella, not so much "Franny") like scripture. It rewards me every time. As long as messed-up kids are looking to find a workable synthesis of disparate spiritual systems, I expect Salinger's writing will have fans.

07.1.2004 | David L Steinhardt
I have not read Joyce Maynard's work, but I can visualize the movie -- a writer (Robert Redford?) trying to relive the life of his most famous protagonist ends up romancing a brilliant teenager (Clare Danes), then abandons her. A better movie might be the one with Salinger (Elijah Wood), Oona O'Neill (Natalie Portman), Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr. again or more daringly, Steve Martin) and Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson again or, less daringly, Sam Waterston). Could that book (to be turned into a movie) be in Salinger's closet?
07.9.2004 | Richard LeComte

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