The Breakfast Table

Beware the Vacant Stare

Dear Will,

Damn you, man! I’ve been telling people for years that I went to Penn State. Now I’ll never get to meet Joe Paterno. You’ve outed me! But since you made one of my favorite arguments in the process, you’re forgiven.

Allow me to butcher Barry Goldwater: Extremism in the service of anything is tiresome, but only when it isn’t kind of spooky. (It’s kind of funny how Goldwater, a man who entered politics and departed life with roughly the same worldview, became the Republican Party’s voice of moderation.)


Spiro Agnew–a great vice president and a fine, fine crook–did indeed call Swarthmore “the Kremlin on the Crum,” although the line always smacked more of Safire than Spiro. The mean-spirited Marylander was simply trying to depict the place as a den of pinkos and degenerates. He was pretty much on the mark.


But that never bothered me about Swarthmore. Dialectical materialism can be fun at parties, and Rosa Luxemburg was a babe. Besides, I was one of the degenerates.

No, what I hated about the place–and I really, really hated the place–was that many of our professors and most of our peers were such cheerless twinks. Serious as a heart attack, diligent, soft-spoken, touchy-feely, weepy, earnest: They were simply awful.


And they were frighteningly prone to suggestion, particularly when uttered by a tin-pan charismatic. To this day, I regret not rounding up a dozen of them, driving them to the airport, and putting them to work selling peanut brittle for my very own Non-Violent, Non-Hierarchical World Conflict-Resolution Foundation. I could have retired at 19.


Now, as then, I’m a Republican. I’m a conservative. When the Times suggests that the lifelike Mr. Cheney is too right-wing to abide, I start to regret that his cadaver isn’t at the top of the ticket.

And yet, Will, if one of our nameless classmates knocked on my door and said he had given up Mao for Milton Friedman, I’d take the kids out of school and run for the hills.


See, people like that go too far no matter what political philosophy they choose. The vacant stare is always diabolical no matter what it’s staring at.

When they’re young, they can’t become innocuous Fabian socialists; they have to become Lenists. And when they become Leninsts, they have to look like Lenin, sound like Lenin and–because there’s something about middle-class leftists that doesn’t like baths–smell like Lenin.

Fast-forward 15 years: Our aging Swattie decides to go right. Instead of filling his closet with garish pastel golf pants, proposing to a willing Muffy, and joining the GOP–he becomes Freemen. Soon he has a basement full of dried food, a blood-feud with the BATF, and a Kevlar-clad Maximum Leader dating his 11-year-old daughter.

Everything changes, and nothing changes. The hammer and sickle is gone, but he’s still an asshole.

That said, I grudgingly envy people like that. I always read about these grand, ideological epiphanies–where some guy on the road to Damascus sees one line in one book, and BANG! His life is never the same. I’ve never had that experience. My worldview shifts glacially, after miles of type and years of contemplation. Maybe I’m missing something.

Think anything in this week’s “Breakfast Table” will change someone’s life?