The Progressive Era and the Counter-Culture

I’ve been trying to do a little catch-up reading on the Progressive era and I think that the death of Norman Mailer is an opportune time for contrast. I have a fairly wide personal conservative streak and the romanticism, irrationalism, experimentalism, bar-brawling, violence and lawlessness of Mailer and his ilk has always provoked a violent rejection in me. Reading Norman Podhoretz’s indictments of this crowd in Ex-Friends, all due salt accounted for, made me pretty embarrassed to be partly in a position as a leftist to have to defend or at least account for the really inexcusable and discrediting behavior of these people.

But when I read about the reformism in the service of essentially conservative ends that constituted the early Twentieth Century Progressive movement, I realize how much more genial the anti-moralism of 1950s and 1960s is to me than early Progressivism. Do-gooders and small-minded busy-body conformists are intolerable. Mailer-esque lawlessness makes me embarrassed; the moralism of the early progressives makes me taste a little vomit in the back of my throat. Carrie Nation can suck my low-hanger. Gloria Steinem is another story. The benefits of real freedom — the freedom of the mind and the spirit — are worth the collective running a little risk of chaos. This doesn’t mean that I am against broad, collectivist systematization. The post-war experiment — both governing systems and mass movements such as feminism — seems to be ample demonstration that large liberal social programs are completely compatible with a radically individualist morality. In fact, it may be one of its prerequisites. Unless I am mistaken, I believe that is conservatism’s very critique of the project.

As much as Jean-Paul Sartre strikes me as a poser and essentially derivative in his philosophy, I find myself thinking that existentialist self-determination and radical difference are the proper minimalist configuration of society. A sort of sincerely and deeply felt mass Sartian existentialism seems to me the major division between pre-War Progressivism and post-War cultural liberalism. Our decadence and essential self-involvement — perhaps problematic in the face if the monolithic and variably fascist societies — is the End of History. But as Fukuyama has pointed out, progress is not smooth and consistent. It may be one step back, two steps forward. We shouldn’t fret too much about that; we should just be mindful of just how big some of those steps might be.

Not to accord Sartre too much credit, really there should be a Marxist account of Sartre as merely an instance of ideology catching up with material circumstances in so far as modern industrialism and prosperity are the true source of individualist hedonism and self-determination. In this sense perhaps it is Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism more than anything of Sartre’s that is the really important work here. Sartre just gave expression to the growing ethos of the age.

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The Vietnam War Memorial, 25 Years

10 November 2007, The Vietnam War Memorial, 25th Anniversary, the reading of the names

This Memorial Day is the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial so there are a lot of events going on at the west end of the mall this weekend. Most significantly, volunteers have spent the week leading up to Memorial Day reading the names of all 58,209 people listed on the wall. In the picture above the readers took a break at noon for a Marine bugler to play taps.

When the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans first came to my consciousness, Vietnam vets were all pretty much people in their late thirties or forties, but it’s been forty years since the peak of the Vietnam War. Vietnam vets are old grey-hairs now. The number of people walking the wall with their wheeled walker or sitting on a bench to catch their breath was surprising. They look now more like my imagining of Second World War veterans than those of the Vietnam War. We tend to think of the Vietnam War as another generation’s war, but at this point more time has elapsed since the Vietnam War and the present day than between the Second World War and the Vietnam War.

Owing to their proximity, a larger number of people than usual were also visiting the Lincoln Memorial. I wonder how many realize that it is the memorial in Washington, D.C. of the Civil War, a war that is more commemorated on the various battlefields of the states where it was fought than in the capitol. S. and I biked past the First World War Memorial. It is a crumbling ruin in an untended and unvisited corner of the Mall. Time marches on.

As we were leaving, a rather large contingent of Native American veterans wearing their military uniforms under more traditional clothing was processing off the field. They paraded under the U.S. flag as well as the black POW/MIA flag, only their POW/MIA flag had a silhouette of a Native American. They stood in a semicircle off one of the paths greeting other passing vets. It’s weird to see someone in full Native American garb greet another Marine with “Semper Fi.”

The Vietnam War Memorial is one of the most well done monuments in Washington, D.C. To walk its length is to experience the War as a symbolic journey. The names are listed in the order they were killed. The first few panels list only a small number of names, a reminder that the war started gradually and covertly under Eisenhower and Kennedy. The panels are like a bar chart of that creeping war, until you reach the imposing nadir of the monument and start the ascent up the north wall. The last few panels, just a few inches high and with but a few names are the most tragic, each always reminding me of the young John Kerry’s words: “How do you ask a man to be the last one to die for a lost cause?”

As you ascend the north wall, it forms an arrow pointing east to the Obelisk. Further in the background you can see the dome of the Capitol. The Capitol building has always been hard to see for itself past the symbolry of its image. It’s always invoked the same thoughts as those oil paintings and illustrations of the great debates of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster or John Calhoun. It is the assembly place of the great debating society of democracy. After eight years of Republican rule the Capitol has acquired an insidiousness for me more like that of the Deathstar. It is the looming crown jewel in an empire of evil. It is an association that I don’t think will ever leave me and can almost certainly not be shorn by a few years of Democratic capers in governance.

Ascending from of the black pit of the Vietnam War to be greeted by the shining white of the Obelisk and the Capitol only serves as an indictment of the hypocrisy behind all the intended awe inspiration of the rest of the monuments of D.C. It is a reminder that those names aren’t just on the wall for a mysterious reason. The right arm of the monument points accusingly to the reason all those names are there. The Vietnam War Memorial is the only monument in Washington, D.C. that is not architecture cum propaganda.

Friday Cat Blogging: Mogley Gets an Elizabethan Collar

Mogley Gets an Elizabethan Collar, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 31 October 2007

S. is very protective of Mogley. When we’ve gone away for any length, she has put together a package of information about his medical history and the location of the emergency veterinarian and whatnot. She sends an e-mail to the cat-sitter about precautions to observe while watching him that is so detailed and imaginative that one friend commented that is seems like we are on suicide watch with the cat.

So it figures that when S. went to Ontario for a client visit last week, Mogley had been left in my exclusive care for all of one day when he went and injured himself. He was fine when I got home, but while I was ignoring him to his wild chagrin, he put on his usual show of running up and down the hall like a maniac. When next I looked at him, he was missing a pencil eraser-sized patch of fur on his face and had grown a red knot where the fur was missing. I presumed this was some sort of blunt-force injury from an uncontrolled turnabout at one end of the hall.

After a few days in which the spot wasn’t healing, but seemed to be getting worse, it was off to the vet for Mogley. I joked that he was going to get one of those lampshades around his neck to prevent animals from chewing and low and behold, here he is with what I learned is called an Elizabethan collar. His is more like a martini glass. I am tempted to throw a few skewered olives in with his head.

And 3M sure manufacturers an eclectic range of products. Who knew Elizabethan collars were among them?

It was funny at first, but the vet had warned S. that it was going to be difficult to keep the collar on him. They didn’t say why. It turns out that he has sunk into a serious deep blue funk. In addition to preventing him from rubbing his wound, the collar prevents him from taking a cat bath so he is despondent and has taken to licking the inside of the collar as a substitute. His fur has started to get shabby and he has acquired a distinct odor. He slinks around like a decrepit elderly cat and whenever he tries to do something athletic like his usual sprightly self, the collar invariably catches on something making his stunt go awry.

He has no idea of the world of human intentions and designs, hence no idea that this is temporary and for his own good. He thinks this is his life now and it’s like one of the rings of hell (OCD ass lickers dawn an Elizabethan collar for all of eternity).

As much as I like a pet that looks like a cocktail, I can’t wait to take it off him.