NORMALCY AND THE CREATION
After the November 11th Armistice in 1918 ending the Great War, the War to end all wars--and only a generation later renamed World War One--President Wilson ruined his health urging the United States Senate to ratify a treaty that would have committed his country to joining the new League of Nations. By 1920 the idea was put to a quiet death with the blessing of the voters, who preferred a return to "Normalcy," international isolation, and Warren G. Harding. America, for a while, had had enough of "entangling alliances" in Europe (but not in Latin America and other spheres of influence). Historians, who by definition have historical hindsight, judge President Harding harshly--maybe more because of the Teapot Dome scandal, involving the interlocking interests of members of his Administration and the Sinclair Oil Company (in Wyoming?), than because the United States stood clear of what was to become a "failed" international institution.
This week, in an address labeled "bold" and "idealistic" by his supporters, President George W. Bush called for the "democratization" of regimes in the Middle East, praising the Coalition of the Willing and their efforts to lead the way in Iraq. At first glance, though certainly a Wilsonian sound bite, I wonder about the enormity of the task proposed, recalling a goal form Wilson's era: "to make the world safe for democracy." What exactly is the Congress committing us to by backing this President, in the long run and in the short run? Why do abstractions like "freedom" and "democracy" appear so different and difficult to define in different cultural contexts? As they say, the Devil is in the details.
November 11th is still called "Veterans' Day" here in the U.S.A. Not so long ago, when the country began running out of World War One veterans for the parades, there was an effort to drop that date in favor of Memorial Day, called "Old Soldiers' Day" within my mother's lifetime, on the last Monday in May. A compromise allowing dates to shift to the most convenient Monday or Friday seems finally to have taken hold for days like Memorial Day which used to always be on May 30th, but strong advocates still refuse to consider moving from a date that has been etched in the memory for so many generations. The result is somewhat confusing. This year in California the community college, where I have a part-time teaching job, is closed on Monday, November 10th as is my bank, but my son's high school still honors the importance of November 11th by closing on Tuesday and so does the U.S. Postal Service.
Public holidays, of course, have their own kind of shifting hierarchical status. Certain ones must be commemorated no matter what day of the week they fall on. Christmas, New Year's Day, and July 4th are so enshrined. There is a second tier of holidays that are defined as coming on a certain day of the week in a certain month, thus we have Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November, Labor Day as the First Monday in September (unlike almost all other industrialized peoples, who celebrate it on May 1st), and Election Day (which, however, is still, as incredible as it may seem in other "democratic" countries, a "working day") on "the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November"--the first Monday of November being a traditionally acknowledged "holy day," All Saints' Day, during the era the Constitution was ratified in 1789.
There is a third category of days that maintain their status as a date in some people's calendars but are not universally celebrated or legal holidays at all. These include other religious holidays (say, Ash Wednesday, Yom Kippur, or the opening of Ramadan) or ethnic holidays like St. Patrick's Day, or folk holidays like Ground Hog's Day, Hallowe'en (at least as we have it now), or St. Valentine's Day (also technically a saint's day but totally secularized, if not paganized by Cupid with his bow and quiver).
Finally there are a host of lesser holidays that have actual dates but have been made more convenient in the calendar to allow for the smooth productivity of the labor force, and longer weekends. They all remain a matter of some contention because some will argue that Martin Luther King's birthday gets this lesser status, along with Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays, which were combined to make a single, movable holiday, Presidents' Day, in February, and, of course, Memorial, Columbus, and, under the conditions detailed above, Veterans' Days. ( In Southern states, it should be noted here, they used to celebrate Jefferson Davis' birthday in February rather than Abraham Lincoln's, while U.S. citizens from all regions of the country could agree on Washington as the "Father of the Country," but by the mid-sixties, a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, there were finally good-enough reasons to pursue unity through anonymity.)
In the early 1980's, one Veterans' Day, I remember waiting inside my car in a very rainy parking lot at Lewis and Clark College, listening to the radio coverage of President Ronald Reagan interrupting a complete reading of the names of every soldier inscribed on a newly erected granite wall near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. His conclusions offered another kind of return to "normalcy," but they didn't seem to square with my experience of the events as I recalled them. I happened to think that Todd Swanson, a classmate from my high school, was one of the names on that wall, and I was compelled to write a kind of sonnet called "Vietnam Memorial" to go along with my previously written, "A Draft for Vietnam." At that moment I think I had the need to find a private means to come to terms with these issues in order to get "back to normal," but I suppose if normal is defined as being ordinary, my way was either quite abnormal or perhaps extraordinary.
I confess I often find it quite hard to get my personal memories to square with public utterances and community sentiment. Moments happen when I feel connected to those kinds of abstractions--more maybe from a kind of customary shared experience than from firm convictions. But more often, when I consider what I hear politicians and pundits saying, ambiguities and ambivalences arise in my mind, and minor irritations begin gnawing at the more comforting constructions.
Then again, when going quite far in the direction of critical thinking and especially after the experience of unsettling events and major changes, I can see why a return to "normalcy" is so appealing. Historians point to the many "enlightened" voices that saw the American and French Revolutions as beacons of a progress to come in the articulation of human rights and democratic ideas in societies around the world, but then almost immediately we hear the conservative voice of an Edmund Burke who noticed the disconnect between those rational and enlightened ideas and the realities of locality; convenient, though sometimes barbaric, customs; and intransigent human nature. When William Wordsworth mourns for the loss of childhood innocence because "custom [will] lie about thee [the child] with a weight/ Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life," he is also bemoaning his own lost enthusiasm for Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in revolutionary France, as well as for the need to keep the existence of an illegitimate daughter, born in France during that giddy time, from a conservative, if not reactionary, reading public back home in England.
Just a little over a week ago here in Southern California, we were fighting wild fires and wondering who would have to evacuate their homes next. Many were displaced and returned to find their possessions consumed by the flames. Today we lucky ones are going about our business, which means for me a chance to write down these reflections in a condition I must define as "normalcy" rather than "normality." This morning the air is cool, the breezes are damp off the ocean, and a few clouds hover overhead. Yes, the weather, by bringing showers our way, is less hostile again, but I feel it comes along with an edgy kind of "normal." If this is normalcy, as opposed to a disrupted or fractured life, I am all for it.
Still, I would define "normality" as something a little more ideal--something that might be created or re-created with the right kind of balance between thinking and doing. Something I have to work for by writing these essays, and others might achieve through their own creative outlets. That kind of "normality" might be something achievable only for a certain length of time, leading to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls a "reconciliation of opposites," and to a sense of the self as you would want it in its "normal condition." Normalcy, however, is something you just have to accept for want of something better--some oversimplified place you wake up in every day gratefully enough, but that needs to be sorted out and offset by the clear assertion of your own inner vision.
In high school, when I first encountered that historical reference to the Harding Administration, I remember wondering why the word, "normalcy," had been chosen rather than "normality." The latter seemed to be the normal construction of such a noun from such an adjective, and the former definitely looked odd to me. Now I see that it is a matter of ease of pronunciation. NOR-mal-cy only requires a simple, euphonious suffix to make it a noun, whereas the accent shifts to the second syllable in Nor-MAL-it-y and is kind of a mouthful with its extra syllable. More intellectual, "normality" seems to fit the norms of rigorous grammar, whereas "normalcy" has something too comfortable, if not downright fishy, about it.
But to return to Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush. It is ironic that what once used to be the platform of most Republican tickets early in the 20th century: high tariffs on foreign goods, isolationism, and normalcy (meaning, in the words of Calvin Coolidge, "The business of America is business"), somehow got replaced by assertive (if not aggressive) foreign interventionism, "free-trade zones," and major deficit spending. Not for me, despite a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation and two J. William Fulbright Teaching Fellowships in Europe, to chronicle the events from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and the birth of the United Nations, to the nuclear peril that froze the world into Cold War for nearly half a century. That I came of age during the undeclared, but very hot war in Vietnam shapes my consciousness. I was part of a loud minority that was drowned by the silent majority that re-elected Richard Nixon rather than "bring America home" with George McGovern, who was labeled an "isolationist," though today an argument can be made that he was merely a multi-lateralist prophetically concerned about a "go-it-alone," Fortress-America mentality.
Of course, the unraveling of the Watergate scandal later explained in part why any Democratic opposition in 1972 was doomed to failure, and my generation fell victim to a similar kind of giddy idealism that touched dreamers in San Francisco, Paris, and Prague. I think both capitalism and socialism were healthier for having shown a "human face"--and maybe a moment of non-ideological "normality"--though it would take another twenty years of "tough talk" (and "nuclear freeze" protests?) before the Berlin wall was torn down. And, despite whatever lessons can be learned from history, it is clear today, well after the events of September 11, 2001, that most people in and out of government are far more comfortable with everyday "normalcy," so that good and evil might appear again in high relief.
So here I may have come full circle with what is left of the Democrats arguing for a timidly cautious, fiscal conservatism, and Republicans offering an emboldened idealism that still manages to wear the cloak of "normalcy." Whether that woolen cloak covers a "real sheep" or hides a "wolf" I leave the reader to ponder according to his or her own sense of "normality."
Rather, in closing, I find the need to synthesize for myself a little bit more normality. Last night, my mother and I visited the Disney Concert Hall to hear Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Master Chorale in Haydn's The Creation, a wonderfully bright product of the Enlightenment wrought into the excellence of acoustic perfection. For that evening we perceived something of what our normal selves are capable of being in the right setting, overarched by bulging wooden panels on a ceiling lifted by hidden bending girders of steel and flowering modules of weight-defying space. Driving there and back again on Los Angeles freeways girded that experience in yet another way, and already I see that kind of "normality" as maybe only a remembered temporary state of levity becoming more and more valuable the harder it is to recapture or re-create over time. Haydn created harmonious order out of barely dissonant chaos and ended the story with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden long before their fall.
Therefore, even today, some build such magnificent buildings; therefore, some compose new joyous, or not so joyous, music; therefore some write. But some questions are left unanswered, some stories left inconclusive, for yet another day.
11 November 2003