Young idealism and old reality

(The Charleston Gazette, Sept. 21, 1999)

By James A. Haught

An earnest young college student from Calhoun County is jolting America's intelligentsia.
Jedediah Purdy from Chloe, only 24, has achieved something that most scholars never attain by old age: His new book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today, is shaking up the thinking set and drawing enormous attention. The New York Times, Harper's and now Time have devoted major coverage.
Purdy's parents came to the hills in the 1970s as back-to-the-land hippies. The son grew up in a home with gaslights and an outdoor privy. He learned to love nature with intense passion. Then he was home-schooled by his mom and took to books with equal fervor.
He catapulted to Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard and Yale Law School - while publishing American Prospect articles dissecting the national psyche. With the release of his book, most critics are awed by his intellect and insights.
Purdy's message is pure young idealism: He thinks America is sadly saturated with "irony and its simpler sister, cynicism." Jaded people are quick to scoff, slow to dedicate themselves to improving the human condition. The wisecrack is the national norm.
He's right, of course. There's too much irony, too little trust. But there's another side to consider. I'm old enough to be Purdy's grandfather, and I'd like to coach him on the realities he will encounter as he matures.
In my view, cynicism is a natural reaction to all the frauds, stupidities, venalities, cruelties and absurdities in life. Perceptive people can be forgiven if they conclude that humanity hasn't evolved far enough out of the swamp. Some random examples:


-- Americans spend $300 million a year on calls to psychic hot-lines.
-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., tried to destroy President Clinton for having a sexual fling -- while Gingrich secretly was having one himself.
-- Multitudes of legislators equate higher education with football.
-- Evangelist Pat Robertson says that his prayers can deflect hurricanes, and that a dreaded secret Jewish "Illuminati" foments wars. Yet Robertson isn't rebuked as a moron; he reaps hundreds of millions of dollars and is a powerful shaper of the Republican Party.
-- For two centuries, white Americans owned black people as slaves - then held them in segregation for another century - and still don't give them a truly equal chance.
-- After every American gun massacre, conservative politicians say guns had nothing to do with it.
-- World population has tripled in my lifetime, and human overcrowding is wreaking pollution, hunger, erosion, joblessness and ethnic war. Yet the Vatican says birth control is a sin.
-- In some parts of the world, champions of "morality" require that girls be genitally mutilated to deaden their sexual feelings and keep them "pure" for husbands.
-- In country after country, when totalitarianism is removed, ethnic warfare breaks out between religious groups.
-- The Kansas School Board wants to reopen the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.


The world has much to be cynical about. Ambrose Bierce defined a cynic as "a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be."
Still, even as I sneer at these idiocies, I know that young Purdy is correct. Detached scoffing won't wipe out ignorance, greed and lunacy. Only relentless work for reform offers hope.
A crusading group has this motto: "We aren't alone in the universe - we have each other." The cynic in me replies: Yes, blacks have the Ku Klux Klan, Ulster's Protestants have the Catholics, etc. But the idealist in me flip-flops and says: Regardless of all the conflicts, people have enough innate intelligence and decency to clean up their own messes and improve life.
One of my heroes is Lucy Stone, an early feminist who struggled against male-supremacy laws. On her deathbed, she told her daughter: "Make the world better."
I think that's what young Purdy wants. But as he ages, he will come to realize that, to achieve it, he must overcome an awful lot of human crapola.