14-1 short story

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being. 

        P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

        14.1 (Winter 2014)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


The Steamrolled Kaleidoscope

Ivor Davies

Note to my loyal and deeply appreciated readers: The Muse has suffered from laryngitis lately.  I apologize for the following story’s being hardly more than a polemical essay placed within a tragi-comic setting.  This subject deserves a more imaginative treatment, and I hope to return to it soon.  For now, I find that I can do no more than let off steam.  To give today’s academic imbecilities voice in a cast of appropriately buffoonish characters would take a greater reservoir of patience than the past year has left me.

Slane had often been known to say, “The worst thing about being a professional intellectual is all the stupidity one is required to utter.”

Well, not really.  He was known by himself to say that and other classic quips; but the same iron fist as obliged him to utter fatuities also restrained him from uttering profound truths.  He needed his job.  With a kid in college and alimony… in four years, maybe, he could afford to get his ass fired.

What brilliant observations he unleashed upon the world, then, echoed only through the mineral world of his little clapboard cottage within walking distance of the campus.  Now that Vernon had gone off to his own nook of ivory towerdom (a state university rather better funded than this hole in the hinterlands), the house was always all his…  and he talked to himself more and more, as he had used to do in his bachelor days.  Not that Vernon had hung around much during high school.  Though a feminist judge had awarded Lydia custody, she had never wanted more than the “moral” victory, and the boy had spent far more than his every-other-weekend on this side of town—in the cottage’s attic garret, basically—than in his mom’s part of the settlement (a two-and-a-half story “I have arrived” palace in a gated community).  Yet Vernon’s music had kept him on the road once he had placed runner-up in state competition; and Slane, his greatest admirer, had seen him little enough those last two years.  Or not often enough, anyway.  Not often enough for the two best years of his life.  Freed from a woman who had probably married him only to escape Russia, he had enjoyed the indescribable pleasure of watching a teenaged boy learn more about classical music than he ever had and decide upon a lifelong commitment to it.

Culture—high culture.  What could be more indicative of a cultured mind than a finely orchestrated melody executed by several dozen talented people who had needed years to reach the necessary level of proficiency?  And his own son was one of those!  The pride he felt was one thing he never tried to voice alone.  Weeping in an empty house—a furnished, lived-in little house full of emptiness—was not conducive to productivity.

Culture.  He had once admired Lydia’s culture, her Old World polyglotism and sense of limitation.  But he had no doubt overplayed those virtues, or been led to overplay them by his desire for her.  There was every chance, too, that she had played them up in those days.  The language barrier had allowed her to escape into incomprehension at awkward moments, and the hard times she had left behind (behind yet dangling overhead, with only a Green Card keeping them at bay) had cast shadows just where she wanted uncertainty—just where she knew his tact would forbid him to go.  Of that he was certain now.  A crude peasant girl who had calculated his worth at far above its real value, speaking monetarily…

Yet she must have loved the boy, in her own way.  And his musical talent must have come from her, as well as his dark blue, unfathomable eyes.  What would become of him, that beautiful young man to whose generation music meant gutter talk droned to a heavy, monotonous beat?  What culture of the twenty-first century did he represent?  Where would he come to rest in a land, at a time, when those without a shred of taste or scruples stood the best chance of success?

Multiculturalism!  It had invaded the campus ten or fifteen years ago, bombarding everyone in a massive beachhead led by craft after craft full of bureaucrats with Business Law and Human Resources degrees (or whatever banner such parasites learned their blood-sucking habits underneath: he wasn’t really sure).  Somehow the celebration of cultural diversity was supposed to be a logical extension—or a sentimental extension, maybe—of that annual insult-fest, the Sexual Harassment Fall Workshop, and of racial quotas and Title IX (the wrecking ball which had driven lacrosse from the school).  As if women were a “culture”, or as if people were stuck for life in a “culture” because of their skin tone—or as if someone who liked having a Tootsie Roll work in and out of his anus represented a “culture”….  What music did these “cultures” have?  Did a black kid have to listen to and like Hip-Hop because he was black?  Wasn’t that stereotyping?  Wasn’t it racial profiling?  Did women really have their own literature and religion?  How did they pass it along to the next generation in the way that cultures were supposed to do—wouldn’t they need children to have a next generation?  How were they supposed to have children, or to have had children throughout this culture’s millennia of rich tradition, without men?

How about a culture for stupid people—for genuine, committed stupid idiots?  It would have its own religion, called Diversity… and its own music, called iTunes… and its own holidays, called Monday through Sunday (all customizable to suit personal taste)… and its own crappy drive-thru food, and its own designer-label rags, and plenty of weed, and textese and emoticons to communicate its deepest thoughts and finest sentiments….

Every year now, more multicultural claptrap was backloaded into the curriculum.  Incoming freshmen were required to read some novel or other about an American Muslim’s struggles or a female Guatemalan’s struggles or an illegal immigrant’s struggles or a Rwandan refugee’s struggles or a Chinese female Americanized executive’s struggles (but never about a Cuban athlete’s struggles with the Castro dictatorship or a Sudanese Christian’s struggles with Muslim slavers or an Afghan woman’s struggles with the Taliban: the qualifications for a struggle always seemed to require a certain ideological underpinning).  And he, Landon Slane, an Associate Professor of English with a degree in Classics, was expected to read the same book and concoct writing assignments that would elicit unthoughtful thought.  He was to add to his quiver of professional titles that of Facilitator of Stupidity.

This year, with Vernon suddenly gone from his life (at least until Christmas), Slane rebelled.  It was a quiet rebellion—a subversion, even: an act of anonymous terrorism on behalf of the intellect.  During that first Sunday afternoon without Vernon (a time they had always spent together, at least partially—maybe taking a little walk or bike ride, maybe driving up the mountain to count eagles), he had feverishly, furiously written a detonation of multicultural diversity’s monochrome uni-brain.  Oh, he would dutifully teach the moronic chronicle of suffering and struggle—Hers by Nature or Harem Nation or whatever it was called (he hadn’t actually read more than a few pages); but at the end of the week and the conclusion of the discussion, he would pull the peg out of his own curricular grenade.  He attributed the essay to an unidentified acquaintance of his and took care to preface it in class with opinions neither pro nor contra.  He would see what they made of it.  It would give them a window of escape, a shaft admitting a bit of fresh air, and he would watch to see which of them were still capable of clinging to life.

And he would send a copy to Vernon, of course.  But first he wanted to see if any incipient Vernons were hiding among this fall’s crop of freshmen.

Slane knew from experience that the best way to stir discussion was to precede it with a little writing.  As his two dozen eighteen-year-olds scribbled away (he refused to accept emailed answers for in-class work), he proudly read over the piece that all had been forced to download onto their iPads.  His pulse accelerated.  He had to pace the front of the room with the i-Gadget in his hand once he got to the good part.

The following inanities (or insanities) of the multiculturalism/diversity craze leap to the eye;

1)     History offers no instance of a functionally multicultural society.  Two of the factors most central to culture are language and religion.  Simply imagining how a single political state composed of two groups speaking two different tongues and worshiping two distinct gods would hold together is a head-splitting exercise.  The suggestion is absurd.  What happens in the real world is either merger or domination: the two tongues and religions combine into one, or else the stronger of the two suppresses the weaker.  What was more diverse becomes less diverse, and eventually not diverse at all.  There is no third way.

2)     The reasons for this historical reality are embedded in mere logic.  If I say that you must eat fish today but they say that you must eat beef, or if I say that the flesh of pigs is unclean but they say the same of poultry, or if I insist that you do no work on Wednesday but they insist that Wednesday is market day, then our differences are irreconcilable.  One of us can’t call today Tuesday while the other recognizes it as Wednesday.  We can’t release our children to play merrily together at a picnic when one has a roast beef sandwich in his little bag and the other has been taught that cows are sacred.  Somebody has to yield in these circumstances.  Somebody has to skip lunch or just not go to market until tomorrow or divorce one wife of two or marry another to get up to three.  The only way of averting these collisions of quotidian practice would be to segregate rigorously: this group to the right of the wall, that group to the left.  Does cultural segregation qualify as multiculturalism?  Surely it does so no more than assimilation.

3)     People who truly believe in their culture’s values do not regard those values as correct conditionally or relatively, but absolutely.  If you believe that your god intended you to reserve a day of rest out of each week, then you don’t explain your belief as nonsensical and non-binding except for those of your tribe; or if so, then you don’t accept that those not of your tribe will reach your special heaven.  To admit this degree of relativism in your practice would be to renounce your culture except as a curious kind of garb you sometimes wear on weekends or when the morning is a little chilly.  People will indeed say when asked, “That’s just how I was raised.”  But they say so as a way of not aggressively making trouble, or else because they really can’t explain in words the devotion they feel to their ancestral ways.  Were they genuinely to believe that a religious fast on Friday was the equivalent of a family tradition that dictated decorating the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, then what would religion itself be to them other than so many childhood habits?  What would God be other than Santa Claus?

4)     But to the exponents of multiculturalism, all gods are indeed Santa Claus or Peter Pan.  These elite minds in fact consist of post-culturalists who do not understand the nature of belief systems.  This is why they can conceive of and tout their insane notion, to begin with.  They believe, that is, that every believer is an adult-stuck-in-childhood clinging to the Easter Bunny. They believe that any wisdom available in or from the past had a shelf-life that lapsed as soon as science learned to explain weather and illness.  They like different eating and dressing habits because they’re cute and fun, in the same way that wearing a costume on Halloween is fun; but they can’t believe that special practices of this kind would have anything more to them than a game.

The architects of diversity, in short, are condescending snobs.  They have less respect for culture than any of the reactionary groups they like to vilify.   If you worshiped the Sun God and held the Summer Solstice to be the most sacred day of the year, which person would you find more offensive?  Would it be your opponent who says, “The Sun God doesn’t exist, and the teachings of this false religion are blasphemy.  We will treat June 21 the same as any other day around here.”  Or would it be the diversity guru who sidles up to you and croons, “Your religion interests me!  Can you explain more about it?  I’d like to wear that special hat you all put on in June—oh, not for the whole month!  But I promise to have it with me on the Twenty-First.”  The former would be your avowed enemy, to be sure, and you would prefer the latter politically as much less likely to impede your initiatives.  But which would you respect more: your enemy or your patronizing, self-appointed mediator?

5)     The final inanity of multiculturalism might be written in notation as “diversity divided by forced participation times condescension squared equals liquefaction”.  The mingling of cultures blunts the distinctive points even of those dominant cultures not instantly melted in the stew.  Languages borrow words from each other without safeguarding their own stock of rarer vocabulary, and anything in their grammar that bestows finesse is lost in the crush.  Religions may cross-pollinate usefully if their original traditions were similar; but if their sources truly share no cultural DNA, then the general haggling over what to eat, when to eat it, how many to marry, and how to bury exhales over the entire society a thick fog of cynicism.  Nobody knows quite where the dividing lines of manners and customs are any longer.  Nothing is permitted and all is permitted.  The most innocuous utterance outrages someone as sacrilegious, while the most obscene public behavior passes unrebuked as free expression.  At the end of the day, even the mainstream into which all cultures have been assimilated cannot be called a culture, any more than a bone pile can be called a skeleton.

Yet from this muddy, unsavory stew—this La Brea Tar Pit of once-great traditions—eventually crawls new segregation.  It is slimy and invertebrate, for no test of time has formed it into a more upright posture; but it nevertheless bleeds forth with an insistence that cannot be stanched.  Individual groups may be crushed like worms by the diversity police, but others writhe away even as the multiculturalist’s paternalistic foot is busy exterminating this or that one.  They are silly cliques and murderous gangs, racist bands and elitist cabals.  The human being cannot resist the appeal of congregation.  Where no higher, more venerable set of principles exists under whose aegis he may define his special interests, he will select peers simply on the basis of skin color or shared grudge or common alienation.  Indeed, by emphasizing race and dress habits on Diversity Day, the multiculturalist has already signaled to youngsters in high schools around the country what outward tokens they should look for in forming their survivalist squadrons.

The diversity guru may think that he is promoting a positive self-image in his young charges by making them thus obsessed with their superficial differences; or he may realize, in more sinister and scheming fashion, that he is melting down any residual cultural glue that makes social blocs less amenable to his political projects.  In either case, it is very difficult to see his undertaking as intellectually respectable.  Well-intended but arrogant and dim-witted, most likely; subversive and authoritarian, just maybe.

When he began to collect the papers, Slane’s fingers trembled with electricity.  He peeked under his brows to detect if any of the unwrinkled faces around him betrayed satisfaction in the work of the past ten minutes.  A boy in glasses sat back as if from a good meal.  A freckled, red-haired girl with faintly purple lips had a serious, intelligent look.  What would that plump Latina with the deep, dark eyes have written?

Slane thumbed through the full stack now, looking for a name randomly.

“Umm… Jason.  Where’s Jason?  So what did you think of the reading assignment, Jason?”

“I’m Jason, too.”

“Oh!  Well, then, I’ll ask both of you.  What did you think?”

“Me?  Well… I didn’t really understand it too well.  The words were a little big for me.”

“But you must have written something.  I saw you writing.”

“Sure.  Well, I just said that… you know, that people should try to live together.  The guy who wrote the paper… I think that’s what he was saying.  I agree.”

Slane shut a hatch tight on his irritation, and sealed it hermetically.  “And you, Jason—other Jason?  What did you think?”

“Me?  I… I pretty much said the same thing.  You know, I pretty much just said that… the same thing.”

“Um-hmm.”  He buried his eyes in more papers.  “What about Angel Marquez?”  Would that be a male or a female?

There was a general sniggering around one corner of the class for no reason that he could understand.  Then a jet-haired, lithe young man flashed a pearly smile.

“I think the guy’s on to something.”

“You do?  What’s he on to?”

“Well, you know how everybody is always after you to get along with everybody else.  But the lunch room in my high school… man, there were no whites sitting with no blacks or Latinos, except for the football team.  But usually, you know, people like to be with other people like them.  That’s just how it is, you know.”

“They don’t make you feel wanted,” mumbled the plump girl that he had easily identified as Hispanic.

“What?” questioned Slane gently.  “Who doesn’t make you feel wanted?”

The girl smirked at her desk in embarrassment.  “I mean, they tell you your culture is good and that you should keep it.  But then you’re taking these bilingual classes, and everybody sees that you’re in them, and your whole schedule is different from everybody else’s because of the bilingual stuff, and then you just become… you know, you’re this special group.  And you don’t belong.  I mean, I don’t think anybody’s doing anything on purpose to be mean.  But…”

“That’s just the way it is,” reiterated Angel.

Slane ran toward the daylight.  He had thought before in images of his offering them a skylight, a breathing hole, an exit shaft—but it was he who now lunged gratefully, desperately.

“But what way is that?  Are we saying that cultures can’t live together peacefully?  Or are we saying that they can live together, but only if they give up some of the things that make them distinctive cultures?”

There were no volunteers this time.  He couldn’t resist making a bid for a brilliant insight from the boy in glasses.

“And what’s your name?”

“Me?  Tad.”

“Tad?  Well, Tad, what do you think?”

“What do I think, or what does the guy who wrote the article think?”

“No.  What do you think?  I’d like to have your opinion.”

“Mmm… could you repeat the question?”

Slane ignored the giggles and repressed a sigh.  This hunt of his was not for the faint-hearted.

“Do you think this multicultural idea of everybody living together in harmony is for real?  Or do you think that some cultures will have to bend their ways, or else there’ll be trouble?”

“There’s always going to be trouble.  But I think the woman who wrote the book we read wants us to try harder.  I don’t see why we can’t do that.”

“And the… the article?”

“I thought you didn’t care about the article.”

“No, but….”  Sweet Jesus.  “But how does your opinion jibe with that expressed in the article?  We’re trying to compare different views.”

“I think the guy who wrote the article is pretty bitter.  I don’t think he even wants to try.”

Slane felt an open hand smack his face, but he hid his eyes again in the stack of papers.  That was always the risk of exposing students to an anonymous piece: they might just tell you, accidentally, what they truly thought of your most devoutly held convictions.  Of course, Young Einstein wasn’t really thinking of anything—just reacting to a stray word here and there.  Regroup.  Try the red-haired girl.

“And you… are you…”

“I’m Rachel.”

“Ah! My favorite name!  And what did you think, Rachel?”

Though Rachel was not a fair-skinned red-head, her freckles were not sufficient to hide a blush.

“I… I agree with him.”

“With… with Tad?”

“No, with Jason.  I… I really couldn’t understand the words.  But I agree with that guy, too.  I do think we should try harder to get along.  That’s what multiculturalism is all about.”

Slane released them all shortly thereafter.  They were fifteen minutes early, but the semester was also still scarcely a week old.  Maybe he would find some jewels in the stack of papers.  It would be very odd if one or two weren’t secreted somewhere.

And bombs don’t always go off, especially of the intellectual sort.  And when they do, their explosion sometimes spreads at the rate of a glacier’s descent.

Those were two more of his famous quips that nobody would ever hear.  From this classroom’s window, he could almost see the roof of his cottage, in the block of little houses just beyond the sycamores of Campus Drive.  He could almost see the attic apartment where Vernon had left many of his things, and where a bed would be awaiting him at Christmas time.  For some reason, Smetana’s Moldau kept playing and replaying in Slane’s head, building like a mighty river to a powerful surge, then settling down again and beginning its flow in moody weaving, back and forth.  Culture, multiculture, collision, destruction… new currents.  That’s just the way it was.

Ivor Davies has contributed satires of the Ivory Tower to these pages for years.  As he confesses in introducing the present story, the absurdities of contemporary academe are sometimes so mind-numbing that the humorist finds himself fiercely challenged.

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