My favorite verse from “Mrs. Robinson” (1968), featured in the hit Mike Nichols movie The Graduate (1967), arrives near the end:
Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoonGoing to the candidates’ debateLaugh about it, shout about itWhen you’ve got to chooseEvery way you look at it you lose.
The song continues, quite memorably, with the mention of a famous baseball star:
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to youWhat’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away
Joe DiMaggio was reportedly somewhat confused when he heard the song, as he was 16 years past his retirement from Major League Baseball but was still well-known for the records he set (including his still-unbroken record of a 56-game hitting streak) and because he had been the second husband of the late Marilyn Monroe. Friends told DiMaggio that the song didn’t seem to be intended as a criticism of him, and an eventual meeting with songwriter Paul Simon allowed Simon to explain that the lines were not meant literally. Rather, that part of the song relates to (among other reasonable interpretations) a metaphorical absence of heroes and role-models in 1967-1968 and to the disillusionment of younger Americans with the ideals and virtues of the older generation that worked, fought, and started their families in the immediate World-War-II-era.
After the death of Joe DiMaggio in 1999, Paul Simon explained his respect for DiMaggio and the purpose of his reference to Joltin’ Joe in the song (especially considering Simon had previously admitted that his first choice for a baseball player to mention in “Mrs. Robinson” was Mickey Mantle, but that name didn’t have the right number of syllables). Simon wrote in the New York Times:
In the 50’s and 60’s, it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America, and DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life. It was said that he still grieved for his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, and sent fresh flowers to her grave every week. Yet as a man who married one of America’s most famous and famously neurotic women, he never spoke of her in public or in print. He understood the power of silence.
In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.
For all that has lamentably not been improved about our politics and our national discourse since Simon wrote those words about “Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters” in 1999, we should at least consider ourselves fortunate that we GET to choose, however poor quality the options.
And although we might be dissatisfied, and perhaps with good reason, we should not be so eager to declare our contempt for what is best about our nation. In the face of adequate warnings and the lessons of history, doing so would take us down a dark and dangerous path. The United States would re-create the experience of mid-20th Century Argentina, complete with open, organized violence between political left and political right and the nearly unprecedented self-inflicted destruction of substantial economic prosperity (Argentina was in the top 10 world economies by GDP per capita before the First World War, but lost this status and has experienced nearly a century of minimal net economic growth amid continuing post-dictatorship political turmoil and institutional decay).
Our nation, though flawed like all human endeavors, is already great. Angry extremists of the far-left and (particularly this year) the far-right show they either don’t understand, or actually disagree with, the sources and the nature of that greatness. There will always be those who profit from scaremongering and scapegoating, those who benefit from the creation of dysfunction and disorder, and those who just like to watch things burn. An especially pernicious form of this behavior consists of telling those who are hurting something like, we’ll solve your problems, it’s simple: we can tear everything down, and then everything will be rebuilt, but in the process we can make sure to exclude certain groups of evildoers living among us whose perfidy just so happens to be the cause of your social and economic pain. (Well, what do you know folks, that solution is terrific! It’s great, so simple that our previous leaders, whatever their party or ideology, must have been stupid or crooked for not figuring it out…)
To those who have been ignored and feel betrayed by the status-quo, this siren song can sound so persuasive that the would-be destroyers don’t even need to be subtle, proclaiming they really do want to “burn it all down”. The proposed remedies of the destructive charlatans are to our body politic, at best, alchemy–of the turn lead-into-gold variety–and at worst, medieval bloodletting. Such “cures” are far worse than the vastly exaggerated disease, and the process of enacting them would cause us to lose something essential and valuable about being the United States of America. For those who don’t like what we are, who promise to lead us back to a greatness they say we lost an undetermined number of decades ago, who relish the chaotic retribution they will get to unleash upon disfavored groups in order to supposedly bring us there, that’s probably the point. We must reject their narcissistic carnival of institutional pyromania, and mock the pretension that they speak for some greater good as boastful foolishness, because that’s what it is.
As Benjamin Franklin was said to have warned, the nation that declared its independence in 1776 and that created its Constitution in 1787 will be, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It”.
Let’s keep it, and work on ways to make it better.