Take a deep breath and contemplate the following short poem by Charles Simic:
Fear passes from man to man
As one leaf passes its shudder
All at once the whole tree is trembling
And there is no sign of the wind.
Take another deep breath. In the words of a Park Slope therapist, how does it make you feel? It should, if the poet has done his job, make you feel several emotions at once. Simic combines electricity with equanimity, creating a short but intense little packet of language. In six lines, he pulls off what I consider to be a perfect poem.
Now here’s Simic again, blogging recently on The New York Review of Books website:
“The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullsh*t.”
Whoa. Did someone just hear the needle violently scratch the phonograph? Whence comes this vitriol? Simic has exchanged the poetic for the gaseous. He is upset because:
Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.
Simic is on to something here. High school seniors are doubtless dumber today than were their counterparts of decades past. For instance, how many Class of 2012 seniors at your local high school can recite some Shakespeare or Robert Frost? How many know the difference between a comma and a semi-colon? What a non-defining clause is? What the Ninth Amendment says? How to conjugate an Italian verb without rolling their eyes and checking the foreign-language app on their phones? What “glasnost” and “perestroika” mean? Who George Kennan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Lionel Trilling were? What the capitol of Morocco is? Where Belarus is? What Operation Cyclone was? Who discovered the structure of DNA?
Simic incorrectly identifies the locus of this stupidity. In his eyes, it’s not the decades of progressive-driven intellectual debasement and balkanization—ethnic studies, women’s studies, Marxist literary theory, racial preferences, political correctness, hatred of proper English grammar, hatred of Western civilization and history—that have done in our youth. (It doesn’t, for instance, dawn on him that the bulk of the educational establishment holds the same political views and values that he does.) Rather, Simic writes:
In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth.
Unwittingly, Simic in his short screed reveals the central crisis of left-wing politics today, which is made up of several smaller crises, to wit:
(1) Left-wing education has produced an idiotic, unproductive youth that nevertheless is full of resentment and entitlement.
(2) The Left continues to be confused and rails against this uneducated class as if they had nothing to do with making it.
(3) The existence of this idiotic parasite class necessitates the continued existence of a huge, ever-expanding government.
(4) A very large chunk of Americans, having woken up to the fact that they’ve been swindled by the government, the education system, and the media, starts to push back against Leviathan and its cultural minions in the media and academia.
(5) The progressive Left wrongly equates this chunk of fed-up Americans, most of whom are older and gainfully employed, with the idiotic class they created, most of whom are young and unemployed.
In order to take care of the more left-leaning idiot class they’ve created, the establishment Left must somehow get more money from the more right-leaning, fed-up class.
(6) Since the progressive Left holds all these Americans in contempt, and yet needs those same Americans to pay for their utopian social democracy, they have taken the strange position—perhaps unbeknownst to them—of wanting their enemies to subsidize their own destruction.
I may have got some details wrong, but I think that’s the gist of it. In short: “You’re a racist! Now pay for my healthcare!” You don’t need to be a staunch conservative to be turned off by sentiments like that. Simic doesn’t get why his students are dumb, but, worse, he has confused his dumb students with another group of people who he thinks are dumb but who he really needs. And Mr. Simic, they don’t need you.