Tuesday, August 9, 2016

An Overwhelming Question

     First, a little Eliot:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

     Thomas Stearns Eliot, for my money the greatest of the Modernist poets, was in many ways a child out of his time. From the evidence, he detested the era into which he matured; he condemned its belligerence, its advancing secularism, its focus on wealth and position, and what he regarded as ephemera of diversion and sensation that reduced men to infants. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land, Eliot’s best known poems, are filled with denigrations, both simple and subtle, of his era. We may disagree with his evaluations, but not with the power of his verse, which continues to stun fresh readers even as the decades remove all our memories of the environment – early Twentieth Century England – against which he railed.

     But note: A child out of his time is nevertheless firmly embedded in the milieu that produced him. He cannot escape it. He faces a stark choice: to adapt to it, or to close himself off to it. There are no other possibilities.

     We have a number of persons among us who detest the present day and its ways quite as deeply as Eliot detested his era. Some argue for pruning away those of its features they disapprove. Others seek to tear it down entirely and replace it with some impossible vision of an ideological Utopia. And some merely wish to be left alone to live as they prefer.

     But among these are scattered members of a group independent of other alignments: they who seek to prescribe “correct” attitudes: what must be said, what may, and what must not. Their influence over actual events is dubious; their influence over our conversations is of greater interest.

     Call these the Promulgators of Acceptable Nostrums, or Poans for brevity.

     At this time, the Poans are straining to correct us about certain departures from their preferred orthodoxies. For example, Poans of the Left are displeased that the supposed national consensus about abortion on demand, which was supposed to be universally accepted as “a woman’s right to choose,” is coming into question. Poans on the Right are exercised that there should be any dispute about the absolute goodness of “free trade agreements.” Both Left and Right Poans are deeply disturbed by the rise of political figures with national followings who dare to defy “their” parties’ managers and power-brokers.

     As usual, the Poans’ major tactic is talk; they have little else to offer. But they’re relentless in dictating what others must, may, and must not say.

     In a sense, the Poans’ focus is correct: if you can control what the people are talking about – especially the specific terms they use and the ways they use them – you have an excellent chance of controlling the people. However, it’s become effectively impossible to control the people’s talk. Though it be monitored, recorded, and played back a thousand times, talk is going on along channels no one can supervise, censor, nor shut down. Some of it occurs on talk radio, some on the Internet, and some in ordinary living rooms from coast to coast.

     Talk the Poans disapprove is subversive. It threatens the order of things. It portends changes the Poans dislike...including, quite possibly, the diminution and dismissal of the Poans themselves.

     Which leads us to an overwhelming question:

Who gave the Poans authority?

     Not I. I’m certain you didn’t do so either, Gentle Reader. So who gave them their crowns and scepters?

     First observation: The Poans, like T. S. Eliot, are children out of their time. Their intellectual predecessors commanded greater influence than they do, which causes them a bilious and consuming envy. But the Poans of today don’t react by closing themselves off from the world. Rather, they strive to re-establish a state of affairs wherein they could wield the influence they believe is theirs by right.

     However, he whose only weapon is disapproval has no sway over one who merely shrugs, dismisses him, and continues on.

     Second observation: Before the emergence of talk radio and the Internet, talk among us groundlings wasn’t controllable, but the promulgation of received wisdom – what is so often mistakenly called “common sense” – was centralized and closely managed. Then, the Poans had real sway, something akin to actual power. We read the newspaper: typically, a powerful regional daily. We watched three channels of television, which were strangely in agreement on virtually everything. There were no alternatives other than talk at the garage or over the back fence.

     The Poans of today would dearly love to have been of that era rather than our own. Sadly – for them – there’s no going back. In consequence, today’s Poans are disheveled, wild-eyed creatures, forever sporting looks of alarm. They rail at us for our unacceptable attitudes and assertions. They condemn our departures from their prescriptions. They often do so at elevated voices, and in the tones of anger and fear. And it avails them little.

     But it leads us, or should, to another overwhelming question:

What are the Poans afraid of?

     They have public stature, if only for their positions in the media. The great majority of them are materially comfortable and in no appreciable danger. Few of us aspire to replace them or sit alongside them. So what’s the big deal?

     Perhaps it’s all about pique. No one likes the idea that he’s being ignored. If he raises his voice but is ignored with equal firmness, it can make him peevish. He might start to say intemperate things about those who ignore him. That would diminish his relevance still further. This explanation is quite plausible. But there’s another possibility I find more persuasive.

     There’s long been a channel that connects the world of the Talking Heads, where most of our well known Poans can be found – especially on Sunday mornings – and the corridors of power. For a long time, persons moved fluidly between those two environments. Some political careers were born that way; others “went to pasture” in that fashion. However, advancement from Poan to a seat of power has become more difficult as the Poans’ perceptible influence over our talk has declined...and strange to say, few of them want to remain as they are to the end of their careers. They want a turn at governing. Indeed, they feel they deserve it.

     Deny a man what he believes he deserves and you earn his wrath.

     Much of the hullaballoo over the Trump and Sanders candidacies is from Poans desperate to retain their dwindling chances of becoming real power brokers. You don’t need to admire either of those men to appreciate the destabilizing effects they’ve had on the American political order. In a word, it’s no longer orderly. The gray eminences of the major parties are losing control; they can feel it slipping from their hands. And their response has been, in part at least, to whip their allies among the Poans to greater efforts at chastising us who dare to depart from their prescriptions.

     Will the wardens of the order succeed in putting down those who’ve dared to defy them and it? We shall see. For my part, I take more than a little amusement at the rising frustration audible and visible among our Poans. As they shout, gesticulate, and grow ever redder of face, increasing numbers of Us the People shrug, dismiss them, and continue on.


Jack Imel said...

"...shrug, dismiss them, and continue on." So perfectly stated, Fran. Perhaps the one response the Poans can't 'dismiss' themselves, including the Lib MSMs, our major opponent for 6 decades that I know of. Hope your health is providing you the comfort due your good nature.

Dystopic said...

Why be a Poan? I've long wondered why these people desire power of this sort. Oh, I understand the desire to be wealthy, and to hold authority. But why through the intellectually exhausting method of micromanaging popular opinion?

I couldn't imagine caring so deeply about most of what people say, or think.

I suppose Poans are a variant of Bradbury's autumn people, perpetual busybodies who, like the man addicted to the crack that is killing him, cannot let go of their desire for control, even if it sucks the joy out of everything.

Put in simple terms, have you ever seen a truly happy and satisfied Poan? I haven't...

Linda Fox said...

Interesting idea - that the POANs are most upset because they yearn to have their rightful place in government (and, by extension, history).

This ambitious power-grab behavior is increasing. Might it, partly, be due to the secularists' realization that they will soon be ashes? I generally don't see this behavior from believers (of whom there are too few in the media).