Just Above Sunset Archives

August 17, 2003 Guest Commentary

Home | Odds and Ends | Music Notes | Book Notes | Sidebars | Culture Wars Lost | Culture Wars Won | Gay Marriage | Jesus Flogged Repeatedly | Photography | Quotes | Links and Recommendations | Archives | Daily Commentary (weblog)

Bill Nichols is one of the Just Above Sunset reader community - from Granville, Ohio, where he and I and some other of the readers were in college long ago.  Denison University is there, on the hill above the town.  Bill is back there now and writing for the local newspaper, the Granville Sentinel
Bill sent me these two recent columns because they tie to other items that have appeared on this site.  The column on the left has to do with the hard sell from cars to the war.  I seem to remember posters from long ago, those college days and the years just after.  There was one of Richard Nixon with the question, "Would you buy a used car from this man?"  The question returns here with a different twist.
The column on the right continues a discussion from several weeks ago - June 29, 2003 Mail - and Bill reacts to comments he received from readers, and comments made here.
I assume Bill will let us know when his writing moves to another format.  A book is in the works.
I will forward any of your comments to him.  So drop him a line via Contact "Just Above Sunset"

Rambling Around Granville
Grappling with the Growing Greed
Nancy and I recently bought a new car. We've had good luck with pre-owned machines in recent decades so I'm not sure why we did this.
Maybe we've been watching too much television.
I told the salesperson at a Newark car dealership that we were willing to pay a little extra to buy locally, and he named a price that seemed reasonable until members of the younger generation arrived for a visit over the Fourth. They insisted that we check the Internet for the "real" price of the auto, and we found we were paying quite a lot extra to buy locally. Time to pick up the phone, our younger friends and relatives said. Let that salesperson know you're not as innocent as the day you walked into the showroom.  I couldn't bring myself to do it.
So Ed Kraus, son of our next-door neighbor, got on the phone with our salesman, and after a short time, the price came down. I was feeling sheepish but good on the day we went over to pick up the car, and our salesman seemed as friendly as though we'd paid the higher price.
He sat us down at a table and showed us a map of the U.S. that reveals just how badly Ohio is afflicted with acid rain. This was a surprise to me. I thought we exported most of it to New England. For just under $900, he said, we could protect our new car from the rain and buy some very spiffy cleaners for the interior too. I nervously pointed out that Oregon, where I grew up, has chemically gentle rain, lots of it, so I'm unaccustomed to needing such protection. The salesperson then took us to the cashier, who was unable to accept our money without first revealing at considerable length why we needed to invest in an extra warranty for an additional $1000.
A few days later I needed the address of a Granville acquaintance who recently moved to a new house within the township, and I searched for the address on an Internet site that offered free addresses. After I typed in his name and zip code it didn't take long to get enough information to convince me they knew the person I was seeking. Then they told me I could get the address for $19.95, all money to be refunded if they had the wrong guy. Since then I've received several emails from the site with invitations to buy the address. For a little extra, they remind me, I can get a credit report. I tried Yahoo, and they had a cut rate for addresses: $9.95 apiece with no credit report.  
How are we to make sense of so much unapologetic hard selling? It appears to be an affliction of our culture from the top on down, and apparently it's spread to the British. Our President and Tony Blair tried for months to sell a war on Iraq to people around the world, and when they wouldn't buy it, in spite of some exaggerated talking points, our leaders gave it to the world for free. But those of us here at home will be picking up the tab for years, and young people who couldn't afford to stay out of the military will be paying with more than money.
Our military giveaway programs are part of the profiteering.  Companies with ties to the White House will make millions as we privatize the rebuilding of Iraq. Our government distributes bombs and bullets for free, hires friends to restore what we've destroyed, cuts back on government services to fund the war, and increases the national deficit with tax breaks for wealthy folks who have taken a beating on the stock market.
It's enough to make you think those folks who made greed one of the Seven Deadly Sins had it right. In our time at least it might be the deadliest sin of all.

Rambling Around Granville
Thinking Again About Machismo

How do you solve a problem like machismo? Even though I sound like the singing nuns in The Sound of Music, I asked this question very seriously in a column a few weeks ago, and I was genuinely puzzled. With the help of readers, I've begun to find the beginning of an answer.
The rise of the new machismo in our culture probably grows from desperation, a correspondent suggests. We've run into so many reasons to be afraid since September 11th that we long for solutions like the ones John Wayne gave us in the movies. We want decisiveness, certitude, and victory over evil. If our nation's new assertiveness doesn't solve our problems, if it often creates more, we are still comforted by an approach to international complexity that offers the clarity of big belt buckles and swaggering tough talk.
What we need as an antidote, perhaps, is a glimpse of authentic heroism, real courage. As an undergraduate, I read John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, a book that seems even more hopeful today than it did not long after World War II, when the influence of men like Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eisenhower was still alive. Kennedy's book appealed to me in those years, although I appreciated Kennedy himself more for his wit and idealism than for his emphasis on courage.
Political courage has always been rare, but today it seems to be an endangered species. Politicians still take risks, frolicking with interns and hurling themselves unnecessarily onto aircraft carrier decks, but their pollsters don't encourage moral valor. Historians will probably see ex-Governor George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican, as a lonely figure. He appears to have been genuinely moved by evidence that capital punishment was not being applied justly in Illinois, and he acted courageously on his conviction.
Part of what draws us to John Wayne impersonations in the White House, another correspondent suggests, may be our national sense that, historically, Somebody Up There is on our side. We began by beating back the British rascals. Then we fought among ourselves over slavery, and the good guys won. World War I exposed the insanity of war for all to see, but we could still commend ourselves for toppling Hitler in the next one. Somehow we came away from Hiroshima, Korea, and Vietnam with our sense of our nation's unique virtue intact although there was a period of national humility and caution after Vietnam.
When the horror of September 11th hit us, our leaders had been scoffing at nation building, the idea that we should help other countries deal with environmental devastation, overpopulation, and political instability. They were withdrawing the U.S. from acts of international cooperation like the environmental agreement made in Kyoto. But suddenly, it was time to restore international order, and within a few months our administration had developed a new foreign policy that says the U.S. is in charge of the world. We will sometimes use the United Nations for public relations, but when push comes to shove, the citizens of the world should recognize that we have more dazzling military technology than anyone else.
But of course no nation can really be in charge of the world, and Jared Diamond reminds us in the June Harper's Magazine that the kind of arrogance our leaders now embody is what makes civilizations collapse.
If we are going to act like the Romans, we need to remember what happened to Rome. It will probably take a hero to convince us of this truth. Humility is at the heart of authentic heroism, and heroes know we're mortal. They don't expect to win every battle.
I've been looking around for a heroic moderate Republican who might help us recover our national equilibrium. It must take great courage and humility to suggest moderation in this time of extremist triumphalism. Maybe Olympia Snow or Ohio's George Voinovich?
The Democrats who seem most willing to call attention to our national arrogance are Howard Dean of Vermont and Ohio's own Dennis Kucinich. But I wonder if we need someone who unmistakably embodies genuine courage, someone whose background and demeanor would expose the hollowness in our leaders' strutting bravado. That might be John Kerry of Massachusetts, a war hero who understands the cost of sending men and women into combat. Maybe we're ready for another JFK. I'd be interested to hear what others think.

Published with the permission of Bill Nichols.  The Granville, Ohio Sentinel has granted him use of this text in his book.  He in turn allowed me to reprint these.