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GP 14 October 2009: Nattering Nabobs and Happy Hustlers

Nattering Nabobs. On Friday night’s Jim Lehrer Show, its two kibitzers on the big story of the day, David Brooks and Ruth Marcus, scorned in unison the Nobel Peace Prize award to President Obama. Brooks, now the conservative houseboy for The New York Times, called it a ‘joke’ and a ‘travesty.’ Ms. Marcus, a Beltway liberal columnist for the Washington Post, muttered, “I don’t understand this prize.” Their comments diminished both of them.

Both wear those blinders that permit much of what happens about the globe to elude the Fourth Estate. Neither grasps how completely the world has flip-flopped about the United States since the current Administration came into power. We Americans are seen as having once again having entered the League of Nations—believers in comity rather than a people run amuck. That sets the table for advances on a number of fronts. Diplomacy has come alive.

These scribblers would have shown themselves to be decorously respectful of the Norwegians and of the office of the presidency if they had simply offered their congratulations to him and the nation and put aside their peevishness. William Safire, the just deceased publicist and opinion journalist, might have advised them that they both were “nattering nabobs of negativity,” an expression he ginned up for Spiro Agnew and applied to the press and others when he was a flack in the Nixon White House. This phrase will be the thing that most sticks in our mind about Safire. Brains aside, one loses touch with reality if imprisoned by a knee-jerk, putdown cynicism that colors every utterance. It’s possible to be quite smart and very dumb at the same time.

Happy Hustlers of Hyperbole. But stereotypical pseudo-sophisticated negativity is no worse a barrier to truth than hyperactive, chamber-of-commerce, all-is-right-with-the-world cheerfulness. Panglossism is just as endemic in our society. For a look at this phenomenon, we would recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, summed up in “Not Always Sunny, but Pleasantly Skeptical,” New York Times, October 10, 2009, p. C3. She encountered bunches of the cheery, joy-infused hustlers as a breast cancer patient. She was told “that you had to be cheerful and accepting and that you would never recover unless you were” and that you should “consider your cancer a gift.” She has since encountered the same positivity smarminess in job agencies, in the Ivy League where positive psychology is all the rant, in all the pew-filling churches, etc. “We’ve been weeding out anybody capable of rational thinking, of realism,” she thinks. Now she’s even a member of a group called the Negatives, perhaps a therapeutic answer to all the self help positive hooey going around.

The World As It Is. Ever since the German metaphysician Immanuel Kant came along, we have had to wonder whether we know anything at all about the world as it is (i.e., the noumenon), or whether the senses and the pathways of human consciousness recklessly distort what’s going on out there. Kant made it pretty clear that our mental apparatus is structured into all our knowledge, such that we have no knowledge that does not incorporate the brain’s filters. Ideally our perceptions are some sort of useful compromise between external reality and what our mind does to it. With at least the smell of rationality.

As importantly, it should be equally clear to us that we can entirely block out the world, so that none of it seeps into our thinking, if, through force of habit, we are inclined to paint it pink or black. That’s why we must be on guard against those whose self interest is wedded to skewed thinking, whether reporters or promoters. There’s something called level headedness, balance, commonsense, fair-mindedness that can keep us out of the loony bin. Reasonableness does not make good theater, but it is the climate in which accomplishment flourishes, since its purveyors tend to have a grip on reality. It is a rare commodity in a society where the mind is captured by faction, or greed, or psychosis. As it happens, the most unlikely people at any time and place turn out to be grounded enough in reality to leave the world better for being in it. They slip the traces that bind most people to the narrow views inhabiting the patch of earth where they live.

Rubens the Diplomat. A new book, Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens, paints a picture of Rubens that’s eluded most of us. Best known as the creator of ample, luscious lovelies, Rubens turned out to be a man of reasonable appetites, tact, and discretion, who was as artful in matters of state as he was with a paintbrush. In time he was very involved in negotiations that produced peace in the 17th century between England and Spain. Both his art and his diplomatic skills excited such admiration in Charles I, King of England, that Rubens in time, though Dutch, was knighted by the English.

Is it that he was a man of culture that made him so effective in diplomacy? Or, as we would suspect, did his artful trade help him think clearly? That is, it may not be enough to have a good head on your shoulders. If your only stock in trade is words, it’s possible that you never can get beyond mere cleverness. But if you do tangible things—like painting—your feel for the world may be less ephemeral, more concrete. One must do and think at the same time to be the complete man. The imposing Rubens, shown here, could get things done with rulers of state.

Fat Fighter. This is the same sense we get of British Chef Jamie Oliver, who has worked in British schools effectively to get kids off fast-food diets, and is now using similar wiles in Huntington, West Virginia. West Virginia, an impoverished state, has a massive obesity problem: Oliver will try to get the locals to cook healthy, economical, and oh-yes, tasty food. This campaign is chronicled in “The Minister of Food,” The New York Times Magazine, October 11, 2009, pp.50-55. Oliver is no intellectual but a fast thinker and a multi-tasker who’s gotten past his dyslexia. Terribly well grounded in his chosen field of cooking, now heading a company of 2000-plus people with reported revenues over $65 million, he, too, has used his manual trade background to expand to a much bigger canvas. And he’s a commonsense sort of guy, even about food: “Oliver cooks and eats all kinds of meat and feels free to use butter, cream and cheese, in sane amounts. He is not a diet cop; he’s about scratch cooking, which to him means avoiding processed and fast food, learning pride of ownership, encouraging sparks of creativity and finding a reason to gather family and friends in one place.” While there are professions that turn our brains to stone and lock out reality, there are trades that give us intimations of what the world is all about. That’s why America has often been distrustful of bystanders, no matter how clever. It has long realized that incisive people are always moving, always thinking, never desk bound.

Hidden Persuaders. Since the 1950s at least, we’ve had a worry that advertising men and PR flacks were pushing untruths at us and using marketing techniques to manipulate our thoughts and our behavior. Vance Packard authored a then-famous book called The Hidden Persuaders. It exposed some of these tricky fellows. It was these very marketing tactics that began to fractionalize us as a nation, as advertisers began to segment and divide the national audience. We know where that has led us.

The worry in the present age is probably a bit different. Now it’s not so much that the middlemen in marketing shine up products and services. It’s that persiflage and all the marketing devices have become a substitute for product, trying to make us believe in phantasy, to imagine that things exist that simply are not there. Words are the ersatz we get, instead of substance and action.

On a recent visit to three hotels in the South, we found chattering clerks and expensive websites that would make us believe we were staying at Taj Mahals. But each stop was more like Motel 7. The check-in for a simple night’s stay was complicated and lengthy: one hostess at one hostel went on for 15 minutes before she took a breath. But, of course, there was no turndown service at any of the three. Cheap soaps and tea, dressed up in wrappers to look English, were a substitute for the real thing. Towels and linens had been through too many wars. And so on. Chatter was cheap and plentiful, but service was in short supply. Yet a surfeit of monies had been spent on brochures, tacky decoration, and useless, garish appointments. There was lots of packaging, but little substance. These hotels are minor symbols of a marketing culture gone astray that has exchanged words for substance. As Dave Thomas, of Wendy’s fame, used to say, “Where’s the beef?” Visual luxury is used to disguise anorectic reality.

There are costs to us all when talkers, with an axe to grind, or peddlers, who want us to pay more for less, distort reality and inflict their vision—or lack of it—upon us. Middlemen of whatever stripe are, in economic terms, nothing but friction costs that have a 1,000 ways of lessening our productivity and shredding our values.

P.S. Hans Christian Andersen anticipated America’s tenuous hold on reality in his “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which should be required annual reading for all of us. A couple of swindlers trick the emperor into thinking they have made him new garments, but really deck him out in nothing. All the people sing the praises of the emperor’s garments, except for an honest child along the parade route who notices that the emperor is really naked and shouts that the emperor has no clothes. We, too, are often being tricked into thinking we are getting something for our money, when we are getting nothing

P.P.S. Busybodies—sometimes realtors, sometimes community associations, often meddlesome town councils—have enacted ordinances and laws across the country barring housewives from drying their laundry in the sun outside on clotheslines. Now lawmakers in some states are putting forward sunshine legislation to restore old-fashioned drying, as it has been done for thousands of years. Developers and the like find that the clotheslines are unsightly and detract from property value. Since drying in the sun cuts energy use, commonsense people think it’s a pretty good idea. There are all sorts of such harebrained schemes afoot at any one moment to obliterate our connection to the sun, to nature, and to the world. Project Laundry List hopes to make laundry lines and even cold water washing respectable. Mischievous sorts try to make us believe white is black, and black is white. They also cut down trees in front yards and turn up the air conditioning.

P.P.P.S. In picking a target in West Virginia, Oliver has lighted on one of the unhealthiest, most obese areas in the nation. We are reminded in this regard of Pekka Puska who started his health reforms in North Karelia, then one of Finland’s most blighted regions. Ultimately he extended his campaign to the whole of Finland, which has seen vast improvements in health. Should you wish to change the world, begin your crusade in places where things are most dire, because you will see dramatic results if you have embraced the right solutions. And the naysayers won’t mess about with you as much.

P.P.P.P.S. The arts and popular culture often can go places that ministers of state can never reach. One dramatic example was last year’s visit of the New York Philharmonic to the paranoid kingdom of North Korea. Blue jeans got to Russia before U.S. diplomacy. So the doings of Rubens and Oliver with paintings and food in other countries demonstrate how the world really changes. In this regard, it is regrettable that the Obama Administration has strayed away from the music and other popular devices that fueled the President’s election campaign and built his presence around the world.

P.P.P.P.P.S. All the usual pundits echoed the Brooks-Marcus point of view. It’s worrisome, but our national press definitely has a herd mentality. Needless to say, none of them inspires us the way William Buckley did at Yale, when people could not wait to get their copies of the Yale Daily News. It’s an oddity: there are not many good conservative columnists or journalists, but the best are very good. In the present day, Christopher Hitchens comes to mind.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Futurists, by and large, drink a lot of kool aid and are charter members of the chipper cherry crowd. In general, the protocols in that industry call for them to tell us that steak, ale, and manna will be descending from heaven in the days ahead.

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