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We Could Be Swinging on a Star

by on November 15, 2017 4:45 AM

The only sensible conclusion I can draw from my daily perusal of the news is that we humans are a sorry lot.

Hypocrisy, dishonesty and moral cowardice at every turn. Paroxysms of violence. Needless suffering. Gross abuses of power (and in the case of Louis C.K., who seems stuck in the wanna-see-my-peepee stage of masculine development, I do mean gross).

The news is consistent with the epic poems, plays and novels that have chronicled the human dramedy since forever. When we lie, cheat, steal, rape, murder and destroy we are only acting according to our nature, like the serpent in the folktale.

If we despair it’s because we have imaginations. Glimpses of generosity offer glimmers of hope: We could be better than we are. The great human project is to become more angelic and less devilish.

Apparently, we’re making progress toward getting our wings. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof likes to remind us, we’re less homicidal, less disease-ridden, less hungry and less ignorant than we used to be.

That’s a hard perspective to maintain as we lurch from disaster to disaster, massacre to massacre and scandal to scandal while, scarcely on the radar, the refugee camps remain full and the bombs continue to fall.


I was a teenage purist, one of those kids whose vague but lofty idea of the principled life ensured that I would be disappointed by everyone, including myself. All around me I saw hypocrisy, inconstancy, compromise (dirty word).

I was Holden Caulfield, beset by phonies. I was the hitchhiker Jack Nicholson picks up in “Five Easy Pieces” who delivers a running monologue about the crappiness of everything – except I remember thinking the hitchhiker was ridiculous, which means I must have been emerging from that stage of life by age 16 (to the great relief of my parents, I’m sure).

Cynicism was too easy: Assume everything’s a con and you spare yourself the trouble of separating the real from the fake, item by item, action by action. So I became a skeptic instead, which is to say I allowed for the possibility that not all politicians are corrupt and not all corporations are evil. I thought I had attained wisdom.

Bit by bit, though, skepticism gave way to complacency. If you’re living a comfortable middle-class life, what is there to complain about? Hotel pillows that aren’t puffy enough? Towels that aren’t fluffy enough?

And so I acquiesced to the puffy-fluffy national myth of our prosperity, opportunity and equality -- or at least the more socially conscious version of it that acknowledges that there are pockets of poverty and prejudice while clinging to the belief that America is “the last best hope of Earth.”


Last best hopers misunderstand the simplest gestures. They accuse the players who refuse to stand during the national anthem of disrespecting our troops, though the equation of flag and anthem with the military is specious. Colin Kaepernick’s explanation for kneeling during the national anthem couldn’t have been clearer: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Kaepernick and company know that wearing the uniform on game day is the only protection they have. Once they’re driving home from the stadium without a Ram’s horns or a Bengal’s stripes on their helmet, they’re as likely to be stopped and harassed or manhandled or shot as any other black men in America.

This is not news to black men in America. But it is news to a lot of us whites. New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb tried to disabuse us of our la-la land view of American history when he spoke on campus on Monday night. Cobb, who’s both a historian and a journalist, outlined the ways in which maintenance of white male Christian supremacy has underpinned policies and practices on immigration, voting rights, education, criminal justice, housing and banking since the founding of the republic.

I have always vaguely known this, but lately, as a result of listening to the voices of Cobb, Ta’Nehisi Coates, Ava DuVernay, Colson Whitehead and others, of watching video of police shooting unarmed black men, of seeing Donald Trump curry favor with racists and nativists and anti-Semites, it has begun to sink in at a deeper level.

I suppose I’m getting “woke,” in the current parlance. Shameful that it’s taken so long – and that I’m still so groggy.


Another journalist who came to campus this past week, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, sees cause for optimism. The Trump presidency seems to be galvanizing people into political action, she said. Women, in particular, are flocking to training sessions on running for office.

I hope Rubin’s right. With seas rising and bullets flying, we need to be better than we are, fast. I’m getting perilously close to reverting to that teenage kid who thought all politicians were corrupt, all corporations were evil and all of us were doomed.


Russell Frank will read from his new book of columns, “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town,” at 4 p.m. today (Wednesday) in Foster Auditorium in Paterno Library.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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