Monday, August 24, 2009

A Job Gone Bad

Today in my ongoing project to re-read books from high school literature classes, it's John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

If you're like me, this was your first exposure to the character of Lenny:

Not that those old cartoons aren't art in their own right -- they are -- but prolonged exposure to Mel Blanc's nigh-perfect imitation of Lon Chaney's portrayal of Lenny from the 1939 movie version makes it really, really hard for a young man to take the book seriously. Which is a pity, because the book is worthy of serious thought. But be warned: it's not a fun, light read.

The writing isn't as tight as Fitzgerald's, but given that Steinbeck chose to present the story mostly through conversations between characters, I suppose that can't be helped. It's an effective storytelling device, though; it pulls you quickly through a story that becomes quite unpleasant and uncomfortable. The quickness is a saving grace. The territory the book covers would be unbearably grueling if it lasted much longer. My wife said that reading Steinbeck leads to suicidal thoughts, and I won't say she's wrong.

The one thought that occurred to me as I was reading this was: life was ugly before Welfare. Think on it. If this story were to occur today, there's at least a chance, maybe even a good one, that Lenny would be a ward of the state. He'd have gotten treatment, help to learn how to live within his condition, and a measure of supervision. Back in the day, family or friends had to do all of that. As long as they could do so, all was well. But when that ran out ... You're basically up the creek without a paddle, a boat, or a life preserver.

I've always been of two minds about this issue. I tend towards minimalism in government. That's because I don't trust people with lots of power and/or authority. Also, if freedom is to mean anything it should also mean the freedom to fail. But failure shouldn't be final -- there should be a safety net, so that you can learn from your mistakes and do better next time. There's a balance point somewhere between benign neglect and smothering supervision. Finding that balance point is extremely tricky, and while I don't think we've found it yet, we're certainly closer than we were when this book was written.

I can't recommend this book to everyone. It's a harsh read. Horrible things happen to people that don't deserve them. But if you think you can take it, go for it. But follow it with a chaser:

You've got to maintain an even strain. Moderation is good in all things, including serious thought.


Anonymous said...

We were once acquainted long ago.

Congrats on your academic and other successes. It's gratifying to know you are a happy man.

Less gratifying is to see that someone so undoubtedly bright has, like so many other code toads, been sucked into the vortex of libertarian idiocy. Honestly, the folks who sell that shit must target your demographic.

Thankfully, in reading some of your recent blog posts it's clear you are not too far gone to be saved.

Consider the history of libertarianism, the ultimate astroturf "movement."

Mr. Anonymous and the Not-So-Spontaneous Birth of the Libertarian "Movement"

Tim McGaha said...

This deserves a longer reply than I have time for right now, but later I'll try to explain why I believe what I do.

That said, I also know that Satan will drive to work in a snowplow before a Libertarian wins any office higher than dog-catcher. I'm not what you'd call emotionally invested in their success...