Innocents at Home

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Here’s an ad that runs on the radio. A child’s voice says:

Hey there, we need to talk. We have more food than we know what to do with in this country, but there are 17 million kids who are struggling with hunger.

The idea is that the audience should give money to an organization that will deal with those kids.

This ad has been running for quite a while on Rush Limbaugh’s show, which is a very expensive ad venue. If it can drag money out of the cobwebbed wallets of Rush’s audience, it must work — a disturbing thought for people who want to believe in the good judgment of the American people.

It’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages.

Who is a “kid”? Suppose we go all out and define “kid” as anybody under 18. That means there are something like 70 million “kids” in this country. The ad asserts that one out of four of these kids is struggling with hunger. If this is so, we might expect to find some evidence in our daily life. We might expect to hear that two or three kids on our block don’t get enough to eat. But we don’t.

We can’t all live in Beverly Hills; but even if we did, while driving through a poorer neighborhood in some adjacent city we might expect to see a lot of kids just sitting idly by, too weak to play. Walking along a city street, we might expect to encounter many young people who were thin and wasted, struggling with hunger. I’ll speak for myself: when I walk down the street, there’s barely enough room on the sidewalk; the space is filled by enormous fat people, many of them enormous fat kids. At the 7-11, the club for poor people in my neighborhood, it’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages. And I think you know what it’s like to shop at Walmart. I’m pretty sure that Chelsea Clinton never does that, but on June 20 she tweeted, “Our globe has an obesity crisis.” Being Chelsea Clinton, she must be right.

About 46 million people get food stamps from the government — about the same number as those considered to be “beneath the poverty line” — and $70 billion are spent on food stamps, enough to give $4,000 a year to every kid allegedly struggling with hunger, or $1,000 a year to every kid, period.

 Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Clearly, obviously, patently, transparently, there is something wiggly about that ad. Somebody is defining the operative terms in a way that does not appear to be the product of childlike innocence.

But consider the ad’s first sentence. It’s an authentic reproduction of the way in which some children talk, the way in which some children are brought up to talk. It’s the voice of a cute little smart-alecky kid who’s repeating Joan Rivers’ old routine (“Can we talk?”), without knowing who Joan Rivers was or even what a routine may be, but ready and willing, nonetheless, to tell the grownups a thing or two. It’s the kind of voice that’s supposed to put us to shame with its innocent candor, while impressing us with its tuned-in sophistication. Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Maybe not. In real life, that kind of voice makes you want to take a swat at the parents, and at every sentimentalist who regards children as oracles and “it’s for the children” as a conclusive argument. Oscar Wilde was right in thinking that “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. . . . A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without having to pay for it” (De Profundis). The first payment that the sentimentalist refuses is the effort required for a moment’s thought.

Anyone can do the math on these for the children campaigns. Anyone who’s tempted to vote more money for education can easily go online and find out how much more money has been given to public education every year and how small the results have been. Similarly, anyone can investigate why UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got? One would think that people who cared about the cause would invest a little of their time in seeing whether their funds will be spent productively or counterproductively. But of course they don’t. They just cynically write a check. They care a little bit about money, much more about restoring their sense of innocence, and nothing in particular about the children.

Last month’s Word Watch considered the childlike (or childish) innocence (or guile) of such entities as James Comey, Donald Trump, and the New York Times. But that column was premature. New evidence of sentimental “innocence” keeps rolling in.

UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got?

A good little child may say, “I’ll bet my granddad is a thousand years old,” or “My bike can go faster’n an airplane,” or “My teacher’s the best teacher in school. She’s the best in town. She’s the best in the whole world.” A significantly older, but not necessarily more adult President Trump habitually practices the same rhetoric. Here he is, giving appropriate, then sort of appropriate, then ridiculously inappropriate sympathy to Congressman Steve Scalise, the hospitalized victim of an attempted assassination:

Steve, I want you to know, you have the prayers not only of the entire city but of an entire nation and, frankly, the entire world.

Frankly, the entire world.

Trump is ordinarily characterized as a tough talking man of action, a swamp drainer, or (by other accounts) gutter dweller. He is no such thing. While enemies denounce him as a traitor, demand his impeachment, and enact his prospective murder, Trump kisses babies, communes with wunnerful, wunnerful fokes, walks on the sunny side, brightens the corner where he is. He fears no evil, even from such a transparent enemy (not to mention hypocrite, Pharisee, and double dealer) as former FBI Director Comey. No normal adult would invite a person like Comey into his office for a little private chat, just the two of them. If a normal adult wanted to ask Comey the obvious question, “Since you’ve already told me I’m not under investigation, why don’t you go ahead and say that in public?”, he would call in lots of other people and ask the question in front of them, thus embarrassing his foe into telling the truth. Whether or not Trump said what Comey claims he did in their private conversation, only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

As for Comey himself, here is an FBI director who uses “Lordy!” as his edgiest oath and who in his recent appearance before Senate investigators amazed the nation by depicting himself as a Babe in Toyland confronting the evil Mr. Barnaby. His testimony might be approved reading for any kindergarten, so loaded is it with moral conflicts that Anyone Can Understand. On one side, there’s the wicked monarch, enticing the boy-hero into his magic oval office, there to be killed and eaten if he fails to solve the tyrant’s riddles; on the other side, there’s the hero himself, little Jim Comey, all frail and scared and sick at his tummy (“queasy” is the word he likes), just as he was when that mean ol’ witch, Loretta Lynch, tried to make him do somethin’ wrong. (Which, by the way, he proceeded to do.) Of his discussion with Trump, Comey said, “Maybe if I were stronger. . . . I was so stunned by the conversation. . . . Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” Well! Jimmy sure learnt somethin’ that day, didunt he?

Only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

After escaping, somehow, from what might have been a fatal interview, the solitary, haunted child waked in the middle of the night to ask himself, “What more can I do for the cause of truth, justice, and the American way?” The answer came, quick as lightning: “I’ll take one of those memos I wrote to myself in case I wanted to tattle to somebody, and I’ll pass it along to the newspapers,through the able hands of my trusty friend, a noble professor of law. I’ll be just like the Little Dutch Boy, except that I’ll take my finger out of the dike!”

Comey’s own description of the episode is still more innocent:

It — to me, its major impact was — as I said, occurred to me in the middle of the night — holy cow, there might be tapes. And if there tapes, it’s not just my word against his on — on the direction to get rid of the Flynn investigation. . . .

I asked — the president tweeted on Friday, after I got fired, that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape.

And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square. And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.

Holy cow! How childish would Comey have to be, to think that made sense, or to think that other people would think it made sense? If there were tapes, he wouldn’t have to worry about corroboration of what he said; whatever he said could be checked. But kids do the darnedest things. Comey took the possibility of tapes as a signal to provide his own kind of corroboration, the kind that was secret and anonymous, so the evidence could not be checked. Only the undeveloped logic of a child could come up with that. I reject the possibility that Comey was clever enough to think he could get a fallacious narrative on record and then be able to claim that any taped evidence must have been doctored after the fact. No one who actually thinks by means of such expressions as the public square is bright enough to concoct such a scheme.

But it occurs to me that what we’re considering may be more than a children’s story. It may be something even more naïve. It may be the type of story you expect a modern existentialist to write, a story in which the protagonist (dare I say the hero?) transcends the socially imposed solipsism of writing merely to himself and for himself, and breaks free, makes contact, finds a wider world — the world of newspapers and congressional testimony. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, in a childishly vengeful novel. “There might be a tape,” said James Comey, in a childishly vengeful testimony. Both became heroes of themselves, and of a childish New York Times.

The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

Childish? How can something so old and gray be childish? Well, it can be. The Times is a venue that lectures its readers continually about the dangers of an armed society, while sponsoring a production of Julius Caesar in which the president is stabbed to death. Even Bank of America withdrew its sponsorship, but the Times sees no evil — in the assassins, at any rate. After all, these guys are using knives, not guns. Children often make such meaningless distinctions. And perhaps that helps to explain the Times’ reaction to Salman Abedi, the Muslim fanatic who killed 22 people in Manchester, England, by using a bomb. For as long as possible (according to a quotation provided by a faithful reader in Northern California), the paper insisted that “no one yet knows what motivated him to commit such a horrific deed.” Do newspapers, as well as people, experience a deaf, blind, cranky, crazy second childhood?

I was not surprised when the Times announced, on May 31, that it was reducing its editorial staff, including “Public Editor” Liz Spayd, whose position was reduced to nothing. Spayd is best known for reprimanding the paper about its hubristic ignorance of Americans who live more than 50 miles from an ocean (and of many Americans who don’t). The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

That won’t make much difference; the Times has never looked as if anybody was exercising those functions. But one thing is alarming about the Times’ new policy: the paper is allegedly going to use the money it saves by firing editors to hire more reporters — or as management put it, “more on-the-ground journalists developing original work.” Strange . . . I thought the Times’ reporting was already original enough.




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Comments

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

Just like this article's beginning using children to invoke sympathy and guilt trip you into action, I feel sympathy for you not receiving any comments. The article is a good review of the strategies used to con people. I also like that the Public Editor of the New York Times being named Liz Spayd. Her last name embodies the state of journalism proofreading. It is spayed and produces no future generation to inherit its craft.

Keeping It Childish,
Scott

Stephen Cox

Dear Scott,

I got a kick out of your comment--thank you! Since I always like receiving your comments, I should not admit the following, but honesty impels me:

The most common complaint of authors is that they hear nothing from readers. They should ask themselves how many times they take the trouble to comment on some piece of writing that THEY enjoyed. Even today, when it doesn't take forever to find out how to write to a novelist or historian to say that you liked his or her work, it's one in a thousand who receives significant mail. And people who are published online can be thankful if no one writes in to tell them how bad they are--because generally, only those who fervently disagree are sufficiently motivated to write.

These are simply the conditions on which people address the public: you will ordinarily hear from your foes before you hear from your friends. The good thing is that this allows you to believe that if you don't hear from anybody, then everybody in the world is reading you and thinking you're great.

With repeated thanks,
Stephen

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