Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Babbits and more babbits

Last spring in one of my creative writing classes, a student wrote a curious short story in which she made reference to "babbitry." When the story was workshopped, many of her classmates asked about the phrase, an allusion that none of them caught, and not surprisingly. Prior to this class, I don't think that Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis's 1922 novel--or the book's title character--had come up in any discussion I've ever had in a ficiton writing class. The novel, as famous as it was in its day, simply isn't taught or read anymore. Even I, who caught the reference and explained it to the class, knew the book only by its reputation. I'd read and enjoyed Main Street (1920) a long long time ago; and for several years I've intended to read Arrowsmith (1925), which is actually on my book shelf. But I'd never gotten around to reading Babbitt. Well, as you know if you've followed this blog, I'm a fan of the audiobook. I "read" a lot of things that way, during my morning run. So recently I went to Audible.com to find and download Babbitt. Turns out I had several different audio versions of the novel to choose from. Even more interesting, many of the versions were released only recently. This surprised me--such new life from an old book--but then I realized it made perfect sense. What better statement about our current political doldrums, and what better dunderhead to represent them than George F. Babbit?

I'm about three-quarters of the way through right now, and the book still seems to be an elongated, satiric character sketch. Lewis is not completely without sympathy for his title character, and it's not as if nothing of interest ever happens to the man, but the clear point of the novel is to hold up the Babbitt type for critical scrutiny. And what exactly is the Babbitt type? In short, someone who assumes that any place or anything not American must necessarily be inferior, who sticks doggedly to a low/middlebrow notion of what art means and sees little use for art outside of generating ad copy and cowboy movies, who believes that only businessmen are doing America's business, that fundamentally no one else contributes, who believes that any idea of shared community needs and community interests is akin to socialism, who walks around determined to see himself as kind, civic, progressive in spirit, and even moral while all the while acting dishonestly in his real estate business, attending church purely for appearance's sake, looking to cheat on his wife, and despising every public-concerned political initiative. In short, someone with no self-awareness. An obvious hypocrite, and--as the book goes on to show--a very sad case.

And I wonder why the novel might be ready for a comeback? Indeed, as I listen to it, what strikes me over and over is how relevant the ninety year old story is. Sometimes scarily so. Nothing depresses and infuriates me more than those who see any and all government investment as simply a matter of taking from the deserving and giving to the nondeserving. That idea is so trite, so mean spirited, and so factually wrong that I almost can't believe it survives. Oh, but how it does. In all this Tea Party zealotry about lowering taxes for the rich, and cutting government services to the bone, what gets utterly overlooked is how mutual so many of the concerns are that lie behind the threatened programs. We all benefit from an educated public; we all benefit from a good health care system; we all benefit from a sustainable environment; we all benefit from an active arts culture; we all benefit from a solid infrastructure and a well-supported military and the opportunity for our children to go to college and accurate scientific data on how our planet is changing. How is any of that a matter of taking from the deserving and giving to the none deserving? So many Babbitts flourish today, trying to convince the public, as they've managed to convince themselves, by masking their motivations in civic and/or religious language, that cutting their taxes is all that should matter to anyone, despite the inevitable resulting fallout to our government, our economy, and our society. Despite all that we could lose. (If you doubt my word, just take a gander at the vital federal programs that have already been cut or are likely to be cut soon--and in several cases with only a microscopic effect to the budget deficit. Meanwhile, the one thing that would significantly lower the deficit--a serious tax hike--seems impossible to pass.)

I used to think that we as a people thought greed was a sin; I used to think that our houses of religion preached against it and our systems of government worked against it. I used to be sure of a lot of things, but with the Babbitts in control of the discourse, nothing--certainly not our economy--is certain anymore.


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