Politics & Media
May 04, 2023, 06:29AM

I Just Do What I’m Told

Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Chatterton Williams: so happy together.

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It’s a marvelous day to mess around town, visit all the public squares here in Baltimore, get a pack of Juicy Fruit gum from the locked case at a midtown CVS and consider the bookends of my always-erudite thoughts. (And that’s no reference to the 1968 album Bookends by light-folkies and pre-cursor to “easy listening” music Simon & Garfunkel—a favored duo of longtime friend J.D. King—absent from my pantheon. Had Paul Simon mustered a little more effort in his lyrics, they might’ve mattered; for example, the very good song “America,” which promises much, peters out at the end, with the non-descript couplet “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why/Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike” leaving the listener in the lurch.) I’ve taken the wrong fork in the road to begin this short essay, so buck up, buckaroo and get back to the horses on the track.

Last week, 84-year-old novelist/playwright Joyce Carol Oates—who once churned out novels, never amounting to much, like she had a Mark Kostabi/Jeff Koons assembly line, and maybe that’s what English graduate students were useful for—posted this pernickety; hold on, too kind, let’s amend that to plain old dumb, observation on Twitter (online shorthand included): “in all my years of being in school as a student & being a teacher I have never once witnessed anyone pledging allegiance to a flag. Maybe some schools in the South? Certainly not mainstream America. sounds like an old rerun of Gunsmoke.”

Not surprisingly, the blowback was immediate, and in sifting through her tweets, I did see that Oates did a mild series of “walkbacks”—about as deftly as Roman Roy on last Sunday’s episode of Succession after he fired Joy and Gerri; Roman (the exceptional Kieran Culkin’s star-making role) is the brightest of Logan Roy’s offspring, but he’s kind of a “pussy,” a “problematic” word that maybe now is used exclusively in the South, or on a rerun of Gunsmoke—but they were half-hearted. (I jest, but just a bit: you can imagine Chester, Festus and Matt Dillon at least thinking, off-camera, about using the “p-word.” On the other hand, “cunt” is completely acceptable, outside the South, as Americans continue to pilfer from U.K. slang.)

I don’t pledge allegiance to the American flag on a daily basis, or any basis at all for that matter, since I don’t go to school anymore. But Oates must’ve been huffing airplane model glue (or indulging in “ganja” in the open air, which would distress The Atlantic’s contributor Thomas Chatterton Williams, the second bookend which I’ll get to down the line). Almost everyone has, at one time or another, pledged allegiance to the flag and for which it stands, and it has little to do with age. Given the prolific author’s age, it’s inconceivable she never participated in this ritual as a youth in rural New York. Perhaps she “blocked” the memory, much as she’d “block” a Twitter intruder.

As a kid shoe-horned into the Huntington, New York public schools (don’t “block” me, compadre, for it was a fine education) I pledged every day, without incident from anyone—including future late-to-the-rally SDS/Weather Underground/Friends of Patty Hearst classmates—and thought nothing of it. The exercise was so rote, so mindless that a sneeze held more fascination (though not as much as looking—not leering, you naughty groomers—at Bonnie Robertson’s long blonde hair and, I liked to imagine, Mary Quant-like dresses). Reverent pictures of the current president hung above the chalkboard, again eliciting not a single comment. There were weekly fire drills as well, and, given the time period, “duck-and-cover” atomic war fallout maneuvers, either under your desk (which made no sense) or out in the hall (equally stupid). We schoolchildren just did as were told of course, and blew our noses, shut all the doors and took out tattered arithmetic books.

My kids pledged every day at their Upper East Side school in the late-1990s; Crispin Sartwell pledged in Washington, D.C. my wife in Los Angeles and Jeff Murray did so in New Jersey. Let’s see: New York, Jersey, California and D.C. Even before democracy died and the nation was inexorably polarized, as in decades ago, were those locales ever considered “mainstream”? Maybe Oates believes they’re part of the South, where Gunsmoke was on a 24-hour-reel, them “crackers” chugging Dr. Pepper, slurping bathtub corn liquor and eatin’ Moon Pies while watching Mr. Dillon go about his business, and simultaneously reciting “with liberty and justice for all.” And holding a Bible.

Let’s travel from The Pledge to modern New York City, about which the aforementioned Thomas Chatterton Williams is at the ready with a ruler to rap the knuckles of “ganja”-smoking impolite residents. Williams approves the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in New York (2021) but worries “too much of a good thing” causes its own problems. Like the stench of pot smoke throughout the city. (That’s not exclusive to NYC; I smell smoke almost every day in Baltimore. And as a former New Yorker, the aroma from “spliffs” is nothing compared to piss—or fresh dumps on your doorstep—in the alleys or rotting food in restaurant dumpsters.)

He writes, dramatically: “Smelling cannabis has become an inescapable feature of living in (or visiting) the city, an emblem of life in New York akin to sipping a crème at a café table in Paris [if the cafes aren’t on fire or destroyed by Macron protestors] or strolling through Rome eating a gelato.” Williams writes of the elderly and the children subjected to pot smoke on the subways; my older friends, male and female, who ride NYC subways are far more nervous about crime than the “perfume” of cannabis. It’s the “lack of etiquette” that gets Williams’ goat about free-wheeling (and possibly obnoxious) pot smokers, reminding him of the “bad old days” when open use of tobacco was common. Today, those who smoke cigarettes are lepers, while the multitudes who relax with a joint are, to some, heroic.

I’m glad marijuana is increasingly legal, I’ve become used to the sneers when smoking a Merit, and let’s be honest: compared to the crushing problems New York, and smaller cities, are experiencing today, Williams’ complaint is just a lot gunsmoke to me.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

  • Regarding Oates, as Ms. Trump said (or did she?), “You know that woman is lying, don't you?” One (minor) quibble: The 5th (of 13) parentheticals is not closed.

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  • I follow her on Twitter; she occasions a completely off-the-wall tweet, like the Pledge one. Of course she said the Pledge -- unless she was home-schooled.

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