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Seriousness at Stanford

On the West coast, artifacts of the protest era wash ashore.

12:01 AM, Oct 16, 2001 • By J. BOTTUM
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THE MESSAGES CHALKED on the sidewalks and asphalt pathways across Stanford University are enough to make you cringe--in part, of course, for what they intend to say, but even more for how they say it. "War is bad for children and other small animals," the pastel scrawl near the library read. "You may say that I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one," the ramp by the student union unctuously added. Visiting the campus as a media fellow for the Hoover Institution, I spent the week at Stanford in constant fear of coming around a corner to find Buffy Sainte-Marie singing "Universal Soldier" or "Eve of Destruction" with a chorus of children gathered around her feet. This is where the schlock of the 1960s all washed up on shore--mistaken for a genuine cultural heritage.

It offended me so much I actually spent an afternoon offering advice to the undergraduates manning a peace-petition table. It wasn't that I agreed with the would-be peaceniks; by any reasonable standard, their position is morally feckless and intellectually vapid. But my aesthetic sense was outraged, and I hate to see anything poorly done.

So I began by suggesting they at least get better music: Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," for instance, or Phil Och's "I Ain't A-Marching Anymore." Then I sketched Gandhi's skill at repudiating violent rebellion in colonial India while simultaneously using its threat to force the British to deal with him. Then I explained to them about their incapacity to find a resonant moral language for making their point without calling upon the deep resources of classical Christian pacifism. I was only halfway through my lecture on Dorothy Day and the peace movement during World War II when they asked me to go away. They seemed to be getting a little agitated by that point, and I didn't want to make them break their pledges of non-violence, so I wandered back to my office across from the Hoover Tower, thinking about war, peace, and California.

On October 5, David Brooks wrote that there is, amidst all the grief and horror, something positive to be said about the attack of September 11. It's too high a price to be paid, of course, and yet, now that the price has been paid, we can see what changes in the nation have been purchased: "This whole event has been like a national Sabbath, stripping away the hurly-burly of normal life and reminding people of nation, faith, and ideals." Rene Girard, the French literary critic turned American theologian (and retired Stanford professor) said something similar to me when I visited him. He had often hoped, he said, for something to call us out of our national complacency and silliness, never realizing just how horribly unimaginable it would be when it came. But now that it has come, against our will and at enormous cost, we should nonetheless welcome the change it has wrought in us.

I too wrote something along this line, in an editorial the week after the attack, remembering William Butler Yeats's "Easter 1916" and suggesting that the fall of the World Trade Towers had called Americans out of themselves--compelling us to resign our part "in the casual comedy." But now I'm less confident. David Brooks, in fact, seems wrong: A people untrained in the ways of seriousness can be shocked out of their frivolity, but they cannot recreate in an hour the habits of moral and intellectual gravity. They may not be able to recreate them at all, if the links to serious-mindedness have been entirely broken.

In Washington, people get paid for having at least the affectation of sufficient gravity. In New York, people take even their hard-core frivolities seriously. One has to go elsewhere in the country--maybe especially to California--to find the opposite: matters of the utmost seriousness treated giddily. A San Francisco newspaper columnist tells the story of the woman who explained to her worried daughter that they were safe from attack because the Bay Area, unlike Washington and New York, is a tolerant, multicultural place. As I drove down to Stanford from the San Francisco airport, I listened to a local radio host fielding calls from listeners. One group of callers insisted that the United States had no right to respond to the assault on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center--because it wasn't an attack on America, it was merely an attack on the military-industrial complex and globalizing capitalism. Another group of callers demanded the immediate nuclear annihilation of most of the Middle East. And between them, in the middle ground of moral sanity, there was . . . well, no one that I could find.