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Sunday, May 02, 2021

people are good


Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner begins with these definitive two lines:

“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the state

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.”


All of the Cold War’s children were not tail gunners or on bombing crews, but we all experienced the belly of the state. My corner of the belly was Clarkston, Georgia, where we moved when I was ten. Clarkston was a minor real estate speculation built around a sleepy Southern ville, experiencing the Atlanta Metro boom of the 1960s, as Northerners moved South and Southern natives moved into the metro area, or the metro area overtook them. In 1973, I was in  9th grade English, and was absorbing, with all my classmates, a Cold war curriculum that was heavy on novels like Lord of the Flies and short stories like “the Lottery”. A student from pre-World War II days might have been a bit surprised by this reading list. Why these seemingly dark tales?

One factor, I think, was the center-right worry about social democracy and communism. Beginning in the fifties, in the U.S., Buckley’s conservatives fronted a debunking of what they called Pelagianism. I believe it was Eric Voeglin who boosted this obscure doctrine from its place in the 3rd century encyclopedia of heresies and installed it as the key to modernity. Pelagianism combined disbelief in original sin and belief in human perfectibility. Although Cold-war liberals were investeed in schemes to improve the human lot, they, too, drew the line at utopia – particularly of the Communist variety. This was called “tough-mindedness” around the New Frontier set. The lesson of Stalin was this: in seeking utopia, the communists ran rough-shod over human nature, and in continuing stubbornly to seek perfection, they plunged into an eliminationist ideology that produced horror. The hippie communes of the sixties, which confronted this ‘tough-minded’ mindset, were spotlighted in the news as a sideshow, places of flawed thinking. Charles Manson was the inevitable Q.E.D.

Out of this combination of ideological elements came a preference for books that premised the selfish and authoritarian tendencies of all human beings, down to the kids. Original sin was saved! This became a powerful subtheme in popular culture as well, providing a nice dramatic arc for hundreds of movies and tv shows. It could be seen, at once, as an indictment of the bland suburban lifestyle and the idea that human beings were good.  The latter truth, conveniently enough, could be redeemed through capitalism, where vice (except the vice of envying the rich – this vice was bluebeard’s locked room, don’t go in there!) could become virtue. Sex appeal, which in the Christian context could be cause for casting out your own eye, could be sublimated into a car or a cigarette brand, employing thousands.

We children  of the Cold war are old, and cold, and our fur is ratty and nearly shed. We still live in the belly of the state, but the state wants us to take “risks” and is addicted to the financial sector. Etc. However, the old poisons still remain with us. I have a hard time sweating out the Cold War ideology. People will always take advantage, and you have to go around armed – this is the most popular narrative line of our time. Original sin, dressed up in urban locals, is hipster irony now. Eric Voeglin, whereever he is in the afterlife, must smile about that. Although, granted, he was never much a smiler in life.


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