Weekly St. Helena Star Column

Thursday, April 15, 2010



The death of J.D. Salinger in January hit a lot of us hard. With him went the passing of Holden Caulfield——the most famous anti-establishment hero of post-war America. As every school child knows, Holden was the protagonist in Catcher in the Rye—a life changing read for many. Holden was a preppy--cast astray in New York City, after being expelled from school. He couldn’t stand phonies. He yearned for authenticity. To those of us of a certain age, the word “phony” was the ultimate opprobrium. It became our life’s ambition to become “authentic”—to be anything but “phony.”

Eleven years after A Catcher In The Rye , Herb Gardner penned the play, A Thousand Clowns. It took “Catcher” to another level. In this one, Murray (Jason Robards) was an unemployed comedy writer. His sister’s illegitimate child, 12 year old, “Nick”, lived with him in a tiny apartment.

Naturally, do-gooding social workers were checking up on “Nick’s” welfare (We're from the government and we're here to help). Despite the obvious love and stability of the “home”, Murray is deemed an unfit guardian. Though he’s an incredibly talented writer, he won’t take a job writing comedy for a TV show. He has a phobia about becoming a middle class, train rider, living in the suburbs who can’t tell one day from another.

In the 60’s Murray was a hero—snubbing his nose at the establishment while harboring artistic gifts.

When the social workers threaten to take Nick away, Murray tells them, “I just want him to stay with me until I can be sure he won't turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he'll know when he's chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won't notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are, I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it's worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

When Murray caves and takes the job, the audience boos.

Those were the days when everyone wanted to be an athlete or a rock musician. The ethos was to ”work while you play and play while you worked. “ Anything else was “selling out.”

Both Holden and Murray despised “Marketeers.” Today, we call them spinmeisters or media relation folks.

Whatever you think about Tiger Woods, he hired Ari Fleischer to “hone his message.” Ari worked with Mark Magwire and advised the Packers concerning Bret Farve's divorce. Need we bring up John Edwards or other politicians’ multitudinous apologias—all crafted by spinmeisters?

This isn’t about adultery. It’s a plea for authenticity. A plea for substance.

Championing an idea on intellectual grounds is admirable. Using neighbors and kids to justify questionable behavior from a misspent youth is quite another thing.

Why is it the promiscuous teen, who as a mother, markets the “sleep over” on prom night as a healthy option? Or that the guys who stole the booze as kids want to sponsor the keggers as parents? Ever notice the kids who cheated in school are the first to say about their own, “Everybody does it these days?”

Every social issue from abortion to illegal immigration has reasonable arguments—pro and con. But marketeers obfuscate rational debate. Working out their own guilt, fighting their own demons, they market ideas in our community we all know are intrinsically wrong.

Is one man’s truth another man’s Marketing? Maybe.

Take Medical Marijuana in St. Helena. No doubt it is a godsend for certain medical conditions. But are enough locals that sick that we need a store on Main St? Marketeers twist obvious folly into supposed truth.

We shouldn’t blame them. They're playing to their audience. They give us what we want to hear. We could stand up and say, “We demand the truth.” But we don’t.

So outliers will rule the day and a compassionate medical solution to easing pain will get twisted into validation that there’s really been nothing wrong with having a few joints these past 30 years.

Next thing you know, they’ll have us believing Universal health care “won’t add one dime to the deficit.” Why shouldn't they pitch it? They're not going to get much of an argument from a table or chair.

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