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Jewish World ReviewOct. 12, 1999 /2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Governor Bush, are you now or have you ever been a card-carrying Blockbuster member? --
OH DEAR. I hoped it wouldn't come to this. But either Maureen Dowd is getting more and more peculiar, or I am.

Last week she sniggered through an entire column ("Cultural Drifter") at George W. Bush's lack of interest in culture. She described a man who was utterly ridiculous in every possible way (while at the same time missing a couple of his jokes entirely). Why? W. isn't fond of seeing movies at the Austin multiplex, would rather rent them. He hasn't recently found an actress more attractive than Julie Christie (sorry, Sandra Bullock!). He dislikes prime time television (alas, no "Friends"). He prefers reading history to Salman Rushdie. Dowd concludes in exasperation: "the Governor's perfect day would include running, fishing and watching sports on TV, followed by dinner with friends with Van Morrison playing in the background. Then, bed by 10. Is this a great country or what?"

I read her piece with mounting panic, because, with the glaring exception of Van Morrison, this seems to me like rather a pleasant and harmless way to spend a day.

Once upon a time, a cultivated person might call someone like W. a philistine because he doesn't (as he admits) like opera or frequent the ballet. But to Dowd, W. is philistine because he's not a philistine. He seems not to have a taste for trash. This deficiency makes him so far out that further comment is unnecessary-all she needs to do is list his pop-culture solecisms.

Ms. Dowd is tough, but I've faced her like before. The trouble is that it was so long before. In 1958, I was in the advanced group of math students in our 3rd grade class, doing the sixes multiplication table. Six times six?, Miss Pliss asked. A little hand shot up, and Stuart Meiklejohn (now partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, and in his spare time Chairman of the Legal Aid Society) barked in his incredibly rapid way: "six times six is thirty-six, and," looking right at me, "anyone who doesn't know that shouldn't be in Group 3 Arithmetic."


I didn't know about 36, really, and Meiklejohn knew I didn't know it. (Better to have him on your side. Hire him if you want to make an adversary squirm. His number is 212-558-4000.) In exactly the same way, Ms. Dowd caught George W. not really knowing how to pronounce John LeCarre's name. And in exactly the same way she rules him unfit for high office.

Dowd identifies herself with the counterculture, but she's really a 1950s-style enforcer of shared values. Only the values have changed. Now instead of "togetherness" or Americanism or maturity, the age demands a pointless familiarity with pop culture. If you don't know the little others know, if you don't conform to what Hollywood sends down the distribution pipelines, heaven help you. You'll be sniggered at like they snigger at W. and, I now find, at me.

Dowd sniffs that when George W. was "at Yale in the 60's, he did not share the musical tastes of the Counterculture." No, because when he was at Yale in the 1960s, the 1960s you admire hadn't happened. There was no counterculture-only a rigid code of conduct enforced by people I remember being remarkably unpleasant. I was a freshman in high school when W. was a freshman in college. Every day when I entered the building I had to pass a group of boys in the hallway who looked me over. "Hey Schulman-look down. One of your socks is inside out!" "Your belt is brown and buff and your sweater is blue!" "Those loafers aren't Bass Weejuns!" The real 1960s came later. Only by the time I was a senior in 1967 had the great transformation occurred. Fraternity boys then would humbly seek my advice: "I have a date with Marilyn Kutzen (prominent cheerleader). Quick, man-tell me what Kafka story should I tell her I'm reading?-Metamorphosis?" "Oh no, too obvious- try the Hunger Artist. And Barry! make sure you quote the title to her in German." "Thanks, man. Love the holes in your jeans."

Ms. Dowd imagines herself a creature of 1967, but really she is of 1963 and before. With her cultural Podsnappery, she'd have fit in beautifully. Her idea of what culture should express is as fixed and rigid as Podsnap's was. There a distinction between superior taste and human superiority.

Remember Auden's warning to those who fix on sentimental trivialities as a way of estimating others. Auden was talking of dog-lovers: liking dogs is a nice trait, but doesn't ensure that you are a good person. It applies just as well to us wierdos who prefer Julie Christie to Julia Roberts and who hate going to the local multiplex:

Some great men,
Goethe and Lear, for instance, have disliked [dogs],
which seems eccentric, but good people
if they keep one, have good dogs. (The reverse
is not so, for some very bad hats
handle [dogs] very well.)
--"Talking to Dogs"

The only good thing about the late '60s was that it ended, I thought for ever, the era of smug conformism in cultural matters which preceded it. Obviously it has never really left. You don't have to wear a poodle skirt to be a philistine.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman