We always had ideas and opinions in our home, strong opinions, and sometimes strange ideas. As a boy I didn’t know what it was like to live a day without an argument about opinions. Even the nature of the opinions was skewed. Until I started reading newspapers myself I thought that the two dominant political parties were “The Democrats,” and “The Republicans Those Bastards.” My folks always included the epithet, as did most of my uncles and aunts. But then, there were strong opinions about everything. One day, long after boyhood, living alone after my divorce, I mentioned to my mother that the nice folk who deliver the New York Times had skipped me two days in a row. “Those bastards!” She said.
“Mom, they’re not bastards. They’re just incompetent.”
Perhaps it was a little sick, but even if it was I had caught the disease early on. I, too, had strong opinions about everything and found it odd when there were people who did not. It confused me a lot when I married and my in-laws, intelligent people, really au courant, comfortable almost everywhere with almost everyone, just couldn’t seem to muster the same passion for opinion and controversy that I had known in the argumentative family that reared me.
So here’s today’s strange idea. Even today I remain a little perplexed when students tell me that they can’t think of anything to speak about. “Why not just give a speech about something you care about,” I usually suggest, only to feel yet more puzzled when I discover that, apart from their next meals and their grades, some don’t seem to care much about anything. “What do you love to do?” I might ask, or “What really makes you happy or gets you steamed?” Still they feel lost about controversy and disoriented that they should be asked to express opinions or hold forth with ideas. In some odd novel way they create a fresh definition for Luftmenschen; they are people whom the wind can blow about yet they feel unbothered by it. One might argue that there is air in their heads, even blowing through them, that we have failed to challenge them.
No. On the one hand it might be immaturity or failure to think, but on the other, it might also be humility, early recognition that a lot of the things that bothered ‘60s nuts like me just do not, in the long run, matter all that much. They’re as puzzled by my desire for opinion and controversy as I was in middle age by my mother’s zeal to find people to blame, to portray as today’s bastards, this week’s miscreants, the year’s true villains.
Many of my students are wonderfully calm about ideas, and when I compare them to the tea partiers, the crazies of this decade, I feel comfortable. For the screwballs on the far right with little bags hanging from their hats and nasty vitriol painted on signs with racist themes, they are the lunatics with whom I grew up, but in different guise and with different targets for their very strange strong opinions. Yes, I caught the opinion disease early on, only to become immune to it should it pass my way again, and to feel that I have seen it all before when I see it anew today. And I feel comfortable that like the ‘60s radicals the new nuts will grow up, too, even if already they are middle-aged, and they will become as mature and calm as my young students and maybe will realize that they have, after all, really nothing to say. That’s why they’re so loud. They have no real ideas. They have, after all, nothing to say.