The Diogenes Club
The late Jigs Gardner was an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner wrote from the Adirondacks. These early essays, some of which were written decades ago, are of timeless quality. This essay was written in 2005, during the second presidential administration of George W. Bush.
Back in the summer of 2003 I still had occasional contacts with the yuppies. Mark asked if I’d heard about the meeting set for later in the month when plans for “a sort of political group, the Diogenes Club,” would be concerted. “There’ll be music and maybe poetry readings, drinks, just an informal affair.” I asked about the name. “Well, we’re looking for an honest man to back for the election, one who hasn’t already sold out.” That last remark sold me; I had to go.
Mark, however, drew back. “Oh, but you’re a conservative.” I smiled. “So what? I’m still interested. . . . But why don’t you work with the Democratic Committee in town?” He waved his hand in dismissal. “Oh, they’ll be following the party line and we want to make an independent choice.” We talked about the various Democratic contenders, and then the conversation drifted to other things, but when we parted I reminded him to let me know when the meeting would be.
I heard no more, and I forgot about it until a couple of months afterward, when I noticed, in a poster advertising a pro-Palestinian speaker at a local library, these words: “Sponsored by the Diogenes Club.” Later, there were the same words on an announcement of an antiwar rally. Recalling the conversation, turning it over in my mind, I saw much that illuminated yuppie thinking. Readers will have noted already the hypocrisy of the club’s name: If you’re seeking truth you don’t confine your search to only one political persuasion; being conservative does not preclude knowledge of the truth. But there is more than hypocritical partisanship here, more that bears on the question, for example, of liberal media bias. That charge, whose validity was so obvious in the recent presidential campaign, is always denied, with varying degrees of sincerity, by the culprits because, I think, the charge is poorly stated and quite misses the real enormity of what’s going on. I had a discussion with a lefty minister a couple of years ago that is pertinent. He had been trying for some time to convince me that modern agriculture was a Bad Thing, and on this occasion produced an article from The New York Times, but I stopped him, saying that the paper’s point of view compromised anything it would publish on farming. “In fact,” I said, “I could easily write the article without even seeing it.” He was taken aback, speechless for some moments, until he blurted out that The Times “didn’t publish lies.” I explained that that wasn’t the issue, that The Times, like every other publication, had a point of view which influenced the way it perceived and reported things, and that no point of view had a lock on truth. He could not take it in. Everyone he knew read the paper, everyone relied on it to publish the Truth (I heard the capital in his voice), so who was I to challenge it? It took some time to get him to admit that publications, like people, have differing points of view, but that was as far as he would go. The argument, however, was revealing (to me at least). Media types laugh off the liberal bias charge because they genuinely believe they’re publishing truth; anything to the contrary must be fabricated by villains who, deep down, know the truth (how could anyone not know it since it’s so obvious?) but for partisan reasons won’t admit it.
Mark’s statement that they were looking for a man “who hasn’t already sold out” was ignorant, because it showed a complete lack of understanding of politics, and self-righteous, because the words imply superiority to the political process. Politics (to state the obvious) in a democracy is the way different points of view are represented and reconciled, and no one can be a player unless he has “sold out” in the sense that a politician always represents a point of view, often more than one when different issues are considered. If he did not already appear to be sympathetic to certain points of view he would not be nominated or even considered for nomination. To Mark, “selling out” means representing points of view Mark doesn’t like. To think like that and to be so blind, is childish.
Whence this infantilism? These men were mesmerized by the ’60s (roughly the decade 1965-75) when they were in their teens, and they like to think, as they utter the old clichés and pantomime the creaky routines, they are reenacting these stirring times. But as Karl Marx pointed out, when history repeats itself it does so as comedy, as farce. To understand why these successful, affluent men in their 50s are so childish, we must examine the ’60s. It has always seemed to me that analyses of the period have been weak because they have not sufficiently considered its origins. I think it can be traced ultimately to the Romantic revolt of the late 18th century against Enlightenment rationalism, but for our purposes we need not go back that far; it will do to glance at the period just before World War I, when so many young artists and writers were bewitched by radical attitudes (not systematic ideas), which were reflected in their work on into the ’20s and ’30s. When I was in college in the early ’50s much of the modern literature taught then was marked by cynicism about middle-class values and about America in general. No professor (in the English Department at any rate) disagreed with the indictment; in fact, I think they took some pleasure in jolting the “bourgeois” certitudes of their students. Understand me: these were not the radical professors of a later time; thoroughly bourgeois themselves, their classroom poses were little more than a way of asserting their superiority to their students and to boobs outside the privileged academic groves. But the poses had consequences, not so much for the students, not then, but for themselves and the institutions in which they worked. When, a decade or so later, radicalism erupted among students and there were sit-ins and takeovers and whatnot, the faculties and administrators were, almost without exception, unable to cope. Not only had the students thrown in their faces the lessons they themselves (half seriously) taught, but their belief in their institutions and in America itself had been so hollowed out by decades of cynicism that they were incapable of mounting the sort of defense the moment required, a defense that would have been convincing only from men who were intellectually and morally sure of the bona fides of their institutions and their country. The result, as we all know, was the capitulation of the academy and its subsequent corruption and decline, at least so far as the Humanities are concerned. I am interested, however, in another aspect of the situation: the disappearance of adults.
A friend, recalling his college years in the ’50s, said that although he didn’t like some of his professors and thought a few incompetent, he respected them as adults. When he read critical comments on his papers, he was ashamed and took the lessons to heart. But in the ’60s adults in that sense were in short supply or wholly absent. We can see this phenomenon at large if we recall the general response at the time, reflected in the media. How many times were we exhorted to listen to “the kids” who were “trying to tell us something.” How many times were we told this was the brightest generation of students ever. So there was no one around, no one who would command respect to tell the ’60s people they were ignorant and childish. They and their acolytes have gone on, have grown up (without maturing) into middle-aged men still thinking as they did when they were adolescents. Not all of them, of course; experience has wised up many, but I think it fair to say that much of a generation of a certain class of men were permanently infantilized by the failure of an earlier generation to be adults in a time of testing.
Although we still live in a world created by the ’60s, the rise of conservatism and the shrinkage of liberal hegemony shook the confidence of yuppies even before 9/11 — hence the extreme conformity, something that astonished me when I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2001 after living 30 years in Canada. Not only did they share a unanimous opinion on every imaginable issue, but they shunned anyone suspected of different views. Shortly after a yuppie noticed a picture of President Bush on our kitchen wall, one of her friends, a regular buyer of our farm products, stopped in to buy some bacon, and while I sliced it, making small talk, I saw she was very nervous. After she had hurried out the door, my wife wondered why the woman was so scared. Well, it might have been anything, but since she never came here again, I’m pretty sure it was a case of that feeling liberals claim when they say they’re “frightened” of President Bush, or of the “religious right.” If you do not subscribe wholly to their point of view, you are not just someone with whom they disagree, you are a beast, a troglodyte poised to do some hideous but unspecified crime. This conformity, clinging ever more closely to like-minded comrades while nervously shunning perceived opponents, has intensified since 9/11, and the recent election shows the workings of the Diogenes Club and its thinking. The same arrogant assumption of the monopoly of truth and its corollary that anyone with a different point of view had to be a villain or a benighted fool was a major factor in the defeat of the Democrats, not only because it got people’s backs up, but because it prevented Democrats from taking the President and his supporters seriously, prevented them from seeing that his point of view was substantive and that it was shared to a significant degree by a majority of Americans. If you think your opponent is a liar and a fool, there’s no need to engage his ideas. Politics then becomes nothing more than a Michael Moore orgy of vilification, shadow boxing in the dark while your opponent walks off with the prize. Belief systems in decline always face this problem: quiet self-confidence gives way to bluster; opponents amiably dismissed become hated and feared bogeymen; insufficiently warm comrades are seen as traitors (so the media was accused of conservative bias); and, finally, circulating lies in the cause of truth, as Dan Rather did, becomes a righteous duty.
As if this were not enough, a significant portion of the Democratic Party, like the denizens of the Diogenes Club, were fatally afflicted by the ’60s, rendered forever childish in their public judgments, so the prospects for renewal and revival, which are dependent on relentlessly honest self-criticism, itself a function of maturity, look bleak. *
“It is hostile to a democratic system to involve the judiciary in the politics of the people.” — Felix Frankfurter