In Memoriam: Paul Fussell (1924–2012)
I’d like to add to the recent wave of eulogies in honor of Paul Fussell, poetry and culture critic, veteran of the Second World War and author of a classic study on the First, who died this past week at age 88. Brave, ornery, and fascinating even when wrong, he argued a thesis in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) that remains brilliantly right:
I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.
This mode of irony, bred in the trenches and nourished by literary and popular culture, permanently wounded all the old Edwardian certainties—about God, country, sex, death, and of course, war. “Every war is ironic,” Fussell wrote, “because every war is worse than expected…[and] because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends. Eight million people were destroyed [in World War I] because two persons, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.”
In light of his war writings, Fussell’s early criticism may look disproportionate in the other direction, a kind of stoic sublimation of trauma into technical minutiae. Unable for many years to write straightforwardly about his combat experience—among other things, he saw a beloved staff sergeant killed beside him—he fought the battle of English poetic meter instead.
Yet in its own way, this work was as passionate as anything that came later. Into his Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (1965) I read the attitude that if you’re going to write poetry after two world wars, the least you can do is restore a little order to civilization by getting your damned scansion right. By the same token, if you go above and beyond the call and produce a metrical masterpiece, you might qualify as something of a hero:
The poet whose metrical effects actually work upon a reader reveals that he has attained an understanding of what man in general is like. It is thus possible to suggest that a great metrical achievement is more than the mark of a good technician: it is something like the signature of a great man.
Such sunny passages were rare for Fussell. True to his perfect critic’s surname, he attacked everything from poems to pop culture to the American class system with lethal persnickitiness. (“From the 1950s on,” he said, “my presiding emotion was annoyance, often intensifying to virtually disabling anger.”) Here’s the grenade he tosses at Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in Poetic Meter:
Compared with Keats, and even with [Wilfred] Owen, Tennyson uses spondaic substitution in “Ulysses” in a more facile and obvious way:
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long/ dáy wánes;/ the slow/ móon clímbs;/ the déep/
Móans róund/with many voices…
This is showy but easy. We get the feeling that one substitution in line 2 would be quite enough: two is too many, and the third, which calls excessive attention to the speaker’s technical powers, almost negates the skill of the first. Tennyson has more success in “In Memoriam,” where he is content to leave well enough alone…
To my ear these are some of the most seductive lines in English poetry, but never mind—Fussell writes with such relentless ballsiness that he almost convinces me “Ulysses” is a hack job. His grudge against the Tennysonian style ran even deeper than this passage suggests; in The Great War he links the diction of Tennyson’s Arthurian poems—the flowery idiom of “steeds” and “valor” and “the fallen”—with the idealism that drove thousands of boys to the Western Front:
The language is that which two generations of readers had been accustomed to associate with the quiet action of personal control and Christian self-abnegation (“sacrifice”), as well as with more violent actions of aggression and defense.
Whether or not this smear by association is fair, it speaks to a critical view I fully embrace. Poetic language is what infiltrates, if not creates, our highest ideals. It is, ultimately, what we believe—scriptures and campaign speeches are built on it—so it's our duty to read and write it with the utmost care. For decades Fussell, who loathed war but lionized discipline, urged his audience’s toes a little closer to that mark.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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