Thursday, November 6, 2008

Personal Aside: Studs Terkel: Disproved Lincoln Once and For All.


More than 20 years ago…when authorities were trying to hype Newberry Library funding…they scheduled a series of debates in adjoining Washington Park, known forevermore as “Bughouse Square.” Bughouse Square was, for decades, this town’s version of London’s Hyde Park where assorted philosophers, poets, madmen and fanatics would address roving crowds which would either heckle them, applaud wildly or drift away. I recall how on a date in 1952 with the girl I ultimately married, we listened raptly to one little man with a serious mien, trying to focus on what he said only to deduce that he was inveighing about pubic hair. Moderation of subjects such as intimate bodily distinctions was then verboten as Bughouse was regarded as composed of alma maters of universities (and the great municipal library nearby) which was devoted to good taste—and they properly heckled the guy off the stage. Today he’d be regarded as a serious rival to Howard Stern.

Not so now when universities large and small…especially the elite ones like Harvard where I taught in the late 1970s…turn to the serious business of making the revolution, with no recognized rules for citizenship, no vision, no competing visions of what an educated human being should be.

But more than two decades ago they asked me to debate of all people Studs Terkel (with Len Despres moderating) on the differences between vogue liberalism and contemporary conservatism. We had known each other slightly, he and I. He had the reputation that still stands of being a 1930s radical on his radio show, prattling the prescribed catechism of neo-Marxism as substitute for thought. I prepared diligently for the confrontation. I should have saved my time. Studs was genial and non-confrontational. The crowd was overwhelmingly in his corner and he became a “Zelig,” identical to Woody Allen’s great film comedy where the central character was nothing in himself but a collection of roles prescribed by others. What I thought was a defender of radicalism was an embodiment of value relativism. Believe it or not the battle was ended shortly after it began with Terkel sort of giving up, declaring that God appeared to be a myth whereupon I responded that this is exactly what Plato says in “The Republic” where he declared war on poetry in behalf of philosophy…I adding that I would be glad to take up the cudgel for philosophy if he wished—the aim of philosophy being to substitute truth for myth. This time the crowd didn’t drift, Studs did. He wouldn’t take the challenge and soon lapsed into a showman’s repartee of the old days…which is when the crowd shrugged and DID move on. The “confrontation” was over.

In short, this image of the man of the people, the man on the street, was concocted by him for suckers who would pay for his books and pay him for his appearances. The late Steve Neal, a friend of mine and a vehement liberal who actually stood for things (none to which I subscribe) wrote a column calling Studs a great phony: someone who tape recorded people without paying them, had their views printed up and sold them at a huge profit to himself without recompense to them. Of course the Neal column was not mentioned during the pop media epitaphs to Studs (it was a great ironic tragedy for Studs that when he checked out for what he would call “the Great Perhaps” Barack Obama was elected which deprived Terkel of much lionization than he received).

Seven years ago he interviewed me with his tape-recorder for one of his books that dealt with freedom…but when I said that freedom of mind requires not the absence of popular restraint but the presence of countervailing thoughts—and that the most exasperating tyranny is one that discounts the awareness of other possibilities, making it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable (which is largely what the media are propagating today)—he seemed disinterested, snapped off his recorder and left my office with laughter but not getting it at all. Needless to say nothing of the sort appeared in his very conventional book.

So in summary, a charming man little man…a professional secular non-observant Jew… never better than in the 1940s when he was the star of “Studs Place” on TV…but following which he became a true phony, making a great-great deal of his singularity…convincing the popular media of it…but at bottom a great con with his red-checked shirts, cigars stuffed in his mouth, not owning a car but riding the bus (which he was very diligent in informing the sucker press about) in short--an average guy with revolutionary views. But he was not very singular at all. He was genial, prosaic, cliché-ridden, unwilling to recognize or acknowledge that education (and we talked of it in my office) is…or should be…the taming of the soul’s raw passions. He saw this conventionally as the suppression of them. A true conventional liberal with little or no thought put into his views.

My farewell to Studs is this: In your long life you disproved Lincoln once and for all. It IS possible to fool all the people all the time and you did it for 96 years, my friend. That’s not much of an accomplishment but the media believe it is solid proof.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a good eulogy on the Chicago's very own soporific and resident agnostic. Truly a man who lent his name to almost any anti-American cause he that he could endorse...but nonetheless one of Chicago's very own characters...phony as he was. RIP, Studs!