My son, age 10, got his first black eye last week. And by Saturday, it was still so swollen that it became necessary to have him miss soccer practice -- because this shiner wasn't of the cute, painted-on, Our-Gang variety. For the attack had come from behind, the blow had been viciously hard, and the eye had an alarming appearance.
In other words, he was beginning to be a political scientist. But he felt shaky about the injury and unhappy about missing soccer practice. So his mother, by way of consolation, took him way out to George Mason University and let him enter his first chess tournament -- from whence he returned with a big trophy and a big grin, thereby causing some disorderly jubilation around here.
Then, just as his mother and I were leaving for a dinner engagement, he said, in an open-hearted way, that he was going to go up on Monday and shake the hand of the boy who'd attacked him.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because if it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have won the trophy."
But I was worried that he might not understand the true nature and future implications of what had happened to him, and was just starting to say something about the dangers of "expansiveness" when it became absolutely necessary to leave if we were going to get there on time.
Our hosts, who had a great big handsome house in the right section of town, were friendly, likable people who'd read a lot of books and were fond of talking about what was in them. And, like the rest of their guests, they were hired guns. In fact, everybody in this goodly house was the employee of some cause or leader; was charming, well-spoken, and well-to-do; and had made a good thing out of championing, in a professional way, liberal causes from environmental purity to the ERA, and from better civil rights to more federal funds for abortionists. On the other hand, these charming, talkative people bore no special disresemblance to that lobbyist for the right-to-work laws who had cornered me only the day before, and come on with a honey-jar fill of smooth words and some very questionable statistics on some very slick paper. But I was miserable and wanted to be home with my son.
It wasn't long before I found myself being lectured by an environmental-purity lobbyist who spent his spare time working for Jimmy Carter, and who drummed his fingers on a smooth mahogany table, or ran his fingertips sensuously over the brocaded drapes, or gazed up at the Renoir on the wall, while taking me scathingly to task for having characterized the president as "inept."
Now, on questioning it became evident -- and he admitted freely -- that he did not know about any "wars of national liberation" in Latin America; nor about any of the events leading up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; nor about Carter's role in precipitating the crisis in Iran. Moreover, he did not know exactly where Ethiopia or South Yemen were, or what had been going on in those places -- since, after all, his doctorate had been in limnology, about which he knew a great deal. But while he might not be current on all these fine details of foreign policy, he said, he understood its essence, which was that if we would leave the Russians alone, they would leave us alone.
All in all, it was a bizarre conversation: his arguments on the astuteness of Jimmy Carter seemed to be coming from the room -- the glitter of crystal, the texture of drapes on his fingertips, the comforting, clean, rich bigness of things. Everything had to be right, was the argument of that room. And when the evening was over, he shook my hand warmly and called me a "fellow writer" -- something the right-to-work fellow had also done. In fact, in a town full of swell fellow writers like that, it was perhaps a wonder why I always wanted to stay at home.
But I felt bad. And I speak here, not as one who as any idea of what to "do" about the situation I describe, but merely to express perpetual astonishment at the intellectuals in our town (those making up what Peter Berger calls "the new class") -- who live well fronting for politicians or causes; and who can be counted on to know a great deal about clean water or right-to-work or whatever they are paid to sell, and not much about anything else; and who habitually see, on a social basis, only those who agree with them; and whose influence on the life of this country is profoundly destructive. These people, whatever the causes that own them, seem cozied to the point of blindness with the glory of good living, and from left to right propagate this prosperous, overflowing sense that all is well.
When we got home, I went upstairs to read out loud the Uncle Remus stories that cap the end of every day around here, and found my son lying thoughtfully in his bed staring up at the ceiling with one good eye and one bad.
"What does 'expansive' mean?" he asked.
And so I explained it to him: how it means that you feel so good, personally, that you begin to think that everything in general is wonderful and that everybody is your friend.
He lay there silently for a long while. "I understand," he said at last.
"I was just so happy to win the trophy."
I was happy about the trophy too. But I was glad he would think twice before walking up to one who was no friend, and offering to shake hands. He would get enough of that in this town when he grew up.