ON BEING OURSELVES

Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true. — Robert Browning.

Really? Robert Browning, whom I admire, would likely have rued the day he helped spawn the current age of the Imperial Self.

Leaving aside the poet for the moment, I stand at this hour on the conjoined shoulders of two delightful contemporary writers, Heather Wilhelm and Derek Thompson, neither of whom are particularly well-known. Heather, in this case, was writing recently in The National Review, Derek in The Atlantic. Each in their turn set out to skewer the “Be Yourself” culture being propagated on coffee mugs, t-shirts and bumper stickers.

Let me, at the outset, ask this question: would any of us have encouraged Jeffrey Epstein to “be himself”? It appears, in the end, even Jeffrey was glad to take leave of himself.  Or, touching lightly on theology here, it seems Jeffrey, alone in his jail cell, feared the consequences of actions committed by the “Jeffrey” he had become which, I submit, was very different from the Jeffrey God intended him to be. And my Baltimore Catechism tells me there’s ultimately no escaping the consequence of bad deeds freely done by ourselves, be it our good self or our bad self. Of course, divine mercy may work differently than the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in the sweet by-and-by, I suspect no lawyer can help the perversely “selfish.”

You might be a determinist or some rigid iteration of Calvinist and believe we are doomed by a capricious deity to be either wretched or blessed “selves”. I can see the Army drill sergeant standing over the recalcitrant trustee he – or she — is about to send to the stockade for conduct unbecoming a soldier. “Our slogan, trainee, is ‘be all that you can be”, whereupon the trainee answers, “this is all I can be, sergeant, take it or leave it.”

Heather Wilhelm was moved to her meditation on the culture of “self” (that’s the name of a magazine, too, right?) by the “dictum-spouting screen” at her New Age dentist’s office, “relentlessly instructing me to be myself, no matter what.” Why? Well, as best Heather can figure out, because “everyone else is doing it, too.” Who’d have thought Emerson’s 19th Century celebration of self-reliance would devolve into the modern plague of Groupthink?

Derek Thompson, meanwhile, writing on The Atlantic’s website, was examining the cultural implications of online dating in which “anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude.” (I’d be tempted to begin my online dating appeal by quoting that Emily Dickenson poem: “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?”)

“Gone are the days,” writes Thompson, “when young generations inherited religions and occupations and life paths from their parents as if they were unalterable strands of DNA.”

Well, I hope they’re not gone, even though, in our relativistic culture, we are apparently all free to invent our own “truths”  and our own “selves.” Herein, of course, lies the big problem. Was Jeff Epstein following his own truth? Just being himself? DNA: Do Not Ask.

Ms. Wilhelm, meanwhile, has helpfully catalogued some “be yourself” exhortations from the lips, blogs and tweets of our pop culture favorites. Lady Gaga, for instance, tells us, “don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.”  Or Taylor Swift: “If they don’t like you being yourself, be yourself even more.” (As they used to say of the mechanical rabbit at the Wonderland dog track, “there goes Swiftie…”)

Oscar Wilde’s dictum is Heather’s favorite. Mine, too: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” She also likes the t-shirt that says, “Always be yourself. Unless you’re a jerk. Then, be someone else.”

I’ll buy that.

 

A TALE OF NORTH AND SOUTH

I was actually disappointed a few years back when the rabidly, if artfully, politically correct city of Cambridge, Mass. decided to stop dressing up its parking citations with  a flowing sequence of Yoga positions, suggesting that proper parking practices assured greater urban harmony. Don’t know why they stopped that practice. Printing costs, maybe? It was worth it if at least one harried parking scofflaw, finding that dreaded flapper under his wiper, was borne from indignation toward niruddha or nirvana or wherever happy Yogis go to find tranquility. (I concede that a mere warning, a happy face and a piece of chocolate would be my ticket to serenity.)

I thought of this – though  it’s an imperfect parallel – when I read that a Ford dealer in Chatom, Alabama had decided to offer a free shotgun, Bible and American flag with every purchase of a vehicle, first requiring that, in order to redeem the promotion, buyers pass all requirements for firearm ownership as well as for vehicle ownership.

In Alabama, it’s probably safe to say that many, if not most prospective buyers already have perfectly good shotguns, Bibles and flags at home, so the other dealers on ‘Bama’s auto mile probably aren’t being outsold on the strength of this campaign alone. And for many obvious reasons, Ford quickly ordered the dealer to omit the gun from the deal.

I stumbled on this serendipitous tidbit far from current troubling headline. Forgive me if I found some comfort in it – especially in the fact that we remain a diverse nation where law abiding people can follow divergent highways to satisfaction…and harmony. It’s enough to get me into the lotus position.

And the waggish author of this little item must be a Harvard grad or perhaps a frequent flier to the Bay State, because he or she is obviously familiar with life north and south of the great cultural divide. I say this because they suggested that car dealers in Cambridge consider offering a rainbow flag, a yoga mat, and a copy of Rules for Radicals with the purchase of each new Tesla.

REFLECTIONS ON 8/6/45

HiroshimaGembakuDome6747
Gembaku Dome, Hiroshima. Photo Credit: File:HiroshimaGembakuDome6747.jpg

 

It happened — according to internet calculations — 74 years, sixteen hours, four minutes and seventeen seconds ago. The seconds and minutes will mount as I write this.

But time seemed to stop when it happened. The world hasn’t been the same since.

There is a park and memorial museum at the heart of Hiroshima, Japan. I visited it in September, 1970 during a break from Army duty in Korea. Somewhere in the archives I assume they’ve saved the generations of guest books left out for museum visitors to leave their comments. My comment, prosaic and probably identical to thousands of others, reads, simply, NEVER AGAIN.

Did we have to drop that thing? The debate never ends.

It seems almost coldly inappropriate to factor out, retrospectively, the pre-Hiroshima and Nagasaki options facing allied military planners who found themselves at the end of a long, bloody and calamitous world war with no endgame in sight. One is almost tempted to say – there was no “magic bullet”. Alas, it seems there was, and we discovered it and fired it, twice.

Among the many exhibits in glass cases at the Hiroshima Peace Museum – and you have to embrace that name — are objects gleaned from the city’s radioactive ruins after August 6, 1945. Most disturbingly memorable to me were the manikins depicting adults and children survivors as they appeared after the fiery detonation. The manikins display the victim’s terrible burns and their burned and tattered clothing. It’s almost like looking into a macabre department store front window in the course of a terrible nightmare. You see the dark uniforms of female school children; you see how their white blouses repelled the nuclear flash while their dark jumpers absorbed it with terrible consequences for the wearer. Also memorable in a ghastly way, among the scattering of smaller preserved objects, is a jagged metallic lump the shape of large chunk of coal. This had been some male victim’s pocket change – all melted together.

So what was the alternative to this horror, coming at the end of five years of horrors, including fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, Germany, grinding island-to-island Pacific warfare and deaths and casualties mounting into the millions?

It was called Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was a two-pronged assault: Operation Olympic was scheduled for November, 1945, aimed at Kyushu, followed by Operation Coronet in March, 1946, which called for landing troops on Hokkaido, targeting Tokyo and the Emperor. The Eleventh Air Force, including our B-25s, would move to Okinawa and would have abundant targets. The Japanese were fierce defensive fighters (ask any of the few surviving American veterans of the Pacific theater). They would surely defend their home islands savagely, foot by blood-soaked foot.

The Pentagon estimated the invasion would result in half a million American casualties, a million and a half Japanese. Those estimates may have been low. Many of us Americans would not be here: our fathers would have died in the prolonged fighting.

An estimated 125,000 died in minutes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   Knowledge that we had the bomb probably kept the Soviets at bay until their empire could collapse generations later. But of course, they built their own bombs. Then you have Pakistan, North Korea – and the wobbly balance of terror lingering into the 21st Century.

Everybody should visit that Peace Museum. And that, sad to say, is the only “bottom line” I can come up with here.