Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Brief Encounter

Twenty years ago I attended a book party for a friend of mine, Nancy Holmes, who had just written a novel. She was being honored by an old acquaintance who had booked the party room at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills, one of the long standing celebrity restaurants of that era, now defunct. It wasn’t a large group, no more than forty people, many of them celebrities and former high officials of the government.

The atmosphere was friendly and congenial. One of the guests was James Stewart, an iconic figure who had graced the silver screen for most of my life. He put out his hand and introduced himself to me.

“I’m James Stewart,” he said, as if I didn’t know.

Of course, I knew a lot about James Stewart and I was tempted to show my knowledge of his background by addressing him by his military title, General. I demurred and in those few brief moments of conversation, we touched on a topic that, for some reason, engaged us both in a strange male bonding experience. I can’t remember how we got into it, but it concerned the Boy Scouts. Imagine, here was one of the iconic figures of American movies, a decorated General in World War II and me, a former corporal and novelist drifting into a conversation about, of all things, the Boy Scouts, going back in decades of time.

Stewart seemed to light up when he recalled his Scout experiences which, like mine, continued to resonate in our lives as a quintessentially happy moment of adolescent camaraderie and joyful male bonding. The actor had been an Eagle Scout, the highest achievement attainable in scouting. I hadn’t made Eagle, only Life Scout, one rung below Eagle. I guess he was always a super achiever.

Being a serious Boy Scout required an enormous commitment for a boy, which for most of us was of a five year duration starting from age 12. There were numerous meetings, band rehearsals if a Drum and Bugle Corps was involved, day hikes, overnight hikes, summer camp and home study to learn the ropes for acquiring merit badges in numerous disciplines from outdoor cooking, bird study, first aid, camping, and the like.

During the discussion, my imagination conjured up a picture of a proud Jimmy Stewart as a lanky skinny teenager festooned in his Eagle Scout merit badge sash and his neat Boy Scout uniform. We took a great deal of pride in that uniform which announced that we were something quite special, and we believed implicitly in the values that the organization espoused, values that continued to resonate in the zeitgeist of our world view. It is no surprise that James Stewart was the first famous Hollywood star to enlist when America went to war against the Nazis and the Japanese. Unfortunately, I was too young to have made such a grand gesture.

It was obvious that both of us really loved the experience. I had no doubt that his memory recalled halcyon youthful days when the world, to both of us, was still a young and hopeful place. Indeed, we shook hands again with the Boy Scout handshake as if all the years between then and now never happened despite the fact that his scout troop was in the Midwest and mine was in Brooklyn. Such is the power of connection, especially when it comes to adolescent memories.

The sense of commonality continues to connect and whenever I see an old movie with James Stewart or hear his name, that odd experience pops into my mind.

I can still recite the scout’s oath and the scout law. I bet James Stewart could as well. Against the background of what the world has gone through since Stewart and I were Boy Scouts, the 12 points of the scout law are worth revisiting again, after years of maligned neglect and criticism. Indeed, to many, the Boy Scouts have often been dubbed as a relic, a naive anachronism that had long been left behind in the laissez-faire new world of anything goes. I fervently disagree.

The 12 points of the Scout Law were quite simple and usually recited with a three finger raised right hand to brand it as a solemn pledge. It went like this: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

Recite that to a rebellious hippy of the sixties or a hip hop singer of the new millennium or the gaggle of misanthropic and boneheaded executives and politicians involved in guiding us through the shoals of our recent past and current misfortunes, and they might regurgitate at what they deem as empty clichés. Maybe it’s time for them to swallow a vatful of antacids and confront the real source of our national folly, their own timid politically correct rejection of these values.

However you might characterize these 12 points of the Scout Law, I have come to believe that, despite what a rough ride they have gone through in my lifetime, they represent the magnetic arrow of the moral true north. In an age when we are confronted with daily affronts to these bedrock virtues, they somehow seem stronger and more resilient than ever.

Think of how the moral compass struggles against the magnetic north. While our language is lofty and inspiring and we thrill to read such titles as “The Audacity of Hope” and “The Purpose Driven Life” and the inspired stories they represent, the moral compass at times seems to have lost its bearing.

How is it possible that our financial system which must operate on trustworthiness, the first point in the scout law, has produced such tawdry violators such as Bernard Madoff and his ilk, and the liars and greedy fools who operate the systems we all must depend on like the banks and brokerages on main street and Wall Street.

And look at all the Hail Mary passes being handed out by Congress, even as our new President struggles to maintain a high moral tone. A treasury secretary who evades taxes, a secretary of state whose husband accepts donations from countries of dubious moral intent with whom she must negotiate, the head of one of the most crucially important committees of Congress avoiding taxes and soliciting funds for a personal venture on the people’s stationary. And on and on.

I don’t mean to be partisan or nasty minded, only contemporary. There is enough moral baggage floating down the Potomac in the wake of the last administration that would be too numerous to mention in a limited essay. But there are moments when I do gulp hard and try my best to believe in redemption. The memory is long and if the name Chappaquiddick still resonates, you know what I mean.

I like the idea of being courteous, helpful, kind, friendly and cheerful, five other points in the Scout Law. Witness the way people reacted during the inaugural of our new President. That enormous crowd that shoehorned their way into Washington D.C. was a real tribute to these qualities. Indeed, it is possible, to obey these simple virtues.

Obedience, another point in the law has its place. Ask any teacher. And being thrifty has been a virtue ever since old Ben Franklin championed the process back before we were a country. As for clean, my generation was brought up on the idea that cleanliness was next to godliness. I never quite knew what that meant, but apparently my mother knew since she repeated the phrase ad nauseam and I can still feel the pressure of her washcloth on my ears.

And what of bravery? Are we not the land of the brave and the free. Anything wrong with that concept? There are lots of ways to define bravery. We who served in the Armed Forces know its meaning but there are millions of brave acts being carried out each day by ordinary people acting out of simple and unheralded dedication, decency and self-sacrifice. Who doesn’t believe that being brave means being noble and fearless in the face of adversity?

As for reverent, there is room in our system for both believers and non-believers as our new President intoned in his inaugural speech. Indeed, as a lover of words, I am a great fan of lofty rhetoric, although I do occasionally listen with a jaundiced ear as I beat down a tendency to be jaded and somewhat cynical at times.

I am well aware that in certain sophisticated circles, this essay might sound cornball and naïve. Who cares. Yes, I do know how conflicted the Boy Scout leadership is on the issue of gays and I don’t pretend to have a solution. But I believe in my soul that the Boy Scouts gave me something precious which has stayed with me throughout my life and I, along with the great James Stewart of blessed memory, knew it in the marrow of his bones.

Its just strikes me as strange and wonderful how a Midwestern bred film star and a kid from the roustabout streets of a vanished Brooklyn had a brief encounter, a moment of commonality that continues to linger in memory as an odd personal beacon of light in a troubled world.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Who Can We Trust?

My normal level of skepticism is reaching paranoid proportions. Who can one trust, truly trust?

Can you trust the regulatory agencies charged with protecting you from thieves like Bernard Madoff who got away with his Ponzi scam for decades?

Can you trust the idiots in Congress who allowed Fannie and Freddie to get away with buying mortgages that were clearly credit unworthy, while the executives of these institutions enriched themselves with giant-sized compensation?

Can you trust the incompetent government intelligence services who failed to detect the truth about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs?

Can you trust the bankers and brokers who sliced up credit unworthy mortgages, packaged them with allegedly more secure mortgages and sold them off to other banks and investors who are equally guilty of stupidity?

Can you trust the pharmaceutical companies who pay off doctors to plug their wares, doctors who don’t reveal their ties to these companies? Worse, can you trust them to advertise their products on television with the absurd caveat to consult their doctors on the basis of their advertising claims? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Can you trust the endless barrage of propaganda coming from governments that manipulate photos and create vast fictional accounts to promote their point of view?

Can you trust the media to tell you the truth about anything?

Can you trust most of the advertising with which you are bombarded on a daily basis, especially those who use celebrities as spokespersons who are merely paid to lie about the wonders of the products they are endorsing?

Can you trust the endless stream of misstatements and a vast array of misguided opinions proliferating on the Internet, where anyone who can speak or type can offer anything as if it were the truth? (I yield to the judgment of the readers of this blog. Nevertheless, I cling to the belief that my essays are more questioning and cautionary rather than bombastic or ideological.)

Unfortunately, buried in this clutter of outright lies, half-truths, obfuscations, exaggerations, canards and deceptions are some genuine bedrock truths that get short shrift in the avalanche of what passes for information. How is one to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Remember the days when most of us gave our unqualified trust to priests, politicians, stockbrokers, scoutmasters, teachers, doctors, and a whole array of authority figures? Who has not been shaken by recent revelations and discoveries of malfeasance, manipulation and downright cruelty and deception by those who once basked in our confidence?

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there: our parents, grandparents, siblings and others in our extended families and social circles who have our interests at heart and whose trust and love we treasure. Nevertheless, even in these relationships, trust often goes awry and there is enough evidence of horror and betrayal to question one’s absolute devotion to the idea of the loyalty of friends and family. I’ll drop anchor on this one. It is just too scary and dangerous to surrender to total cynicism. Once you lose your optimism even Little Orphan Annie won’t be singing about the sun coming out tomorrow.

Short of dispensing truth serum to the chattering masses or planting a lie detector chip in everyone now living, I offer my own protective prescription.

Believe nothing at face value. Do as much due diligence as possible. Attempt verification. Ask questions. Get second opinions, third and fourth if you are not completely satisfied. These activities are time consuming and perhaps wasteful, but think of yourself as being a perpetual target who must protect yourself from harm and the deliberate rifling of your money and trust.

Beware of the proverbial “man on the white horse” who has the solution to all the ills of mankind. He or she doesn’t exist. Everyone is fallible.

Recognize that human nature has its dark side. Think of yourself as a human junk filter, not unlike the junk recognizer in your computer program. It may not catch all the junk, but at least it tries.

Of course, you are still subject to be fleeced and manipulated. I know I’m being preachy and have painted this essay with a very broad brush. Sometimes I feel that I’m baying at the moon, merely making sounds of anguish into the night sky.

So who can we trust?

I call your attention to the motto on our money, “In God We Trust.” Substitute whatever non-human supernatural force that suits your faith or fancy and keep your eyes open and your fingers crossed.