Some 30 years ago, I read Stuart Brent’s The Seven Stairs, an autobiography about the author’s life-long love affair with his books and his Chicago bookshop, once a Mecca for bibliophiles and authors. Brent’s customers included patrons like Katharine Hepburn and Ernest Hemingway, and he counted among his friends numerous writers, including Nelson Algren.
Though little read today, Algren wrote several worthy novels, including The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, both of which were made into films. Algren and Brent became close friends, and on several occasions, according to The Seven Stairs, Algren led Brent on a walk on the wild side of Chicago.
Brent reports that, on one of these excursions into the underbelly of the city, Algren took him to a Clark Street tavern, “a long, bare hall perhaps 150 feet long and thirty feet wide.” They had just taken their seats when a man at the bar slugged his female companion in the face, and they fell to the floor, clawing and punching each other until the bartenders ejected them. “The tavern din,” Brent tells us, “was terrible, a demonic blend of shouting, laughing, swearing, name-calling—the human cries at inhuman pitch.”
Soon Brent noticed a peculiar odor, the smell of “a zoo.” He then writes:
As I looked about, I observed a mesh of wire fencing across the section of the ceiling beneath which we were sitting. I got up and inspected. There above us were live monkeys sitting on a bar behind the fence. I sat down and asked Nelson what this meant.
He said, “Wait and see.”
Algren and Brent sat drinking beer for a while. Then,
My bafflement was intensified when two men walked in and approached the place where we were sitting. They pulled a ladder from the wall, climbed the steps, and opened the door of one of the cages. One of the men took a monkey by a leather strap attached to its collar, placed it on his back, and climbed down the ladder. He walked to the far end of the room, opened a door, went in, and closed the door after him and his companion.
Brent then writes that he sat stunned, feeling the “impenetrable wall between my innocence and the full possibilities of human depravity.”
First, Houghton Mifflin published The Seven Stairs in 1962. The incident in the bar presumably occurred in the 1950’s. (Brent doesn’t use a lot of dates.) Since we can be reasonably sure Brent is telling the truth here—Nelson Algren was alive and well at the publication of The Seven Stairs—we may conclude that our current level of sexual lunacy, formerly known as perversion, is nothing new.
Next, AIDS. Various reports point to Africa as the place of origin for AIDS. These scientists claim that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome derives from hunters killing chimpanzees and then somehow becoming infected by their prey’s blood. Yet counterparts to the Clark Street tavern as described by Brent must have existed in other major U.S. cities. Is it possible that AIDS originated in such places, a result of these tavern couplings, rather than in remote parts of Africa?
Finally, and most importantly for my purpose here, is the subject of depravity. Though Brent describes the “impenetrable wall” between himself and this example of human depravity, he then reveals that he later felt small and mean for his judgments, that Algren had shown him a place where people lived “without choice or destination,” that the “lack of love is not alone on Clark Street.” Like the Roman poet Terence, who famously declared “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“I am a human; I regard nothing human as alien to me”), Brent suggests that he understands these people and even sympathizes with their predilections stemming from the lack of love in their lives.
In contemporary American culture, where tolerance and diversity are the highest of virtues, many people might offer similar understanding and even approval. Some do so because of a knee-jerk progressivism demanding obeisance to the idea that, so long as we don’t hurt anyone else, we may do as we please. Others follow along from ignorance or intellectual sloth. And not a few, I suspect, either lend their support or keep silent for fear of being attacked as bigots by friends, colleagues, and the media.
There are three way stations on this path of relativity, this refusal to render any sort of judgment on the social lives of those around us. First comes our desire, like Terence, to understand all facets of the human being. Next comes tolerance, where we may disagree personally with certain beliefs or types of behavior, but repress our reproaches to grant what others regard as their “rights.” Finally, quite often, comes acceptance, meaning that we approve, at least on the surface, positions we once simply tolerated. (Sometimes we willingly accommodate these changes; on other occasions, as in the case of “gay marriage,” the courts force them upon us. Moreover, we should note that not all follow this path of understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. Many supporters of gay marriage cannot define the word marriage, much less understand that institution. Influenced by the culture and the media, they accept such propositions without understanding them.)
Understanding, if we have our wits about us, comes easiest of the three. We can learn, study, and listen, and so can generally comprehend why others believe and behave as they do. If a member of the Islamic State explains to me that beheading infidels is a part of his religious faith, I then understand why he is about to lop off my head. If a vegetarian tells me that the world would be a far better place if everyone gave up eating meat, and then supports her arguments with data, I may continue eating my steak and chicken, but I would understand her position.
Tolerance, of course, demands more of us. That Muslim sword-swinger wins zero toleration from me, as I rather enjoy having my head attached to my neck. The vegetarian, so long as she refrains from attempts to ban foods I enjoy, wins full toleration. Even when I don’t always understand the thoughts or behavior of another, I can practice toleration. I don’t understand the motivations of the man who dresses as a nun and rides a bicycle through my adopted city of Asheville, but I tolerate him.
Acceptance born of toleration is, of course, the sticking point for most of us. I will tolerate a man garbed as a nun riding on a bicycle, but I do not accept what he is doing as anything other than a mockery of my faith. Intellectually, I can understand the actions of the men in Stuart Brent’s Clark Street tavern, but I can neither tolerate nor accept what they are doing as anything but depraved. Think of all the cultural issues of our day—abortion, gay marriage, legalized marijuana, pornography, and all the rest—and the cultural divide regarding acceptance is wide as a canyon.
Which brings me to my point: What constitutes depravity? Can we even use the word anymore?
In an age when relative values and toleration reign side by side, I doubt that few human acts, no matter how atrocious or sick, would win universal condemnation. Most of us would condemn that guy with the sword in his hand and a grin on his face, yet surrounding him are fellow believers clapping, laughing, and egging him on. Most of us would condemn pedophilia, yet movements exist in the United States and in Western Europe that advocate having sex with children.
Clearly, we can no longer depend on society at large for standards of rectitude and depravity. We can look to the law and to our religious faith in hope of a bulwark, but even these institutions often constitute fortresses built on sand. The law frequently bows to public opinion and political correctness, and many of our pastors and priests appear so baffled by trying to balance the injunctions of Christ with contemporary issues that their performance on the tightrope might be comedic were it not so desperate and sad.
So where does that leave those of us who seek some sort of societal standard, some set of inviolable virtues, some guide as to how to live our lives?
In his essay “In Defense of Snobs,” written over 40 years ago and collected in a book titled Controversy, self-proclaimed liberal William Manchester recounts a conversation with a sociologist about prison conditions in which the sociologist advocated calling the prison guards “psychiatric aides” and the prisoners “social patients.” Here is the rest of his account of that meeting:
“Then we can establish outpatient clinics,” he continued, “and give these sick people treatment. Remember, we’re dealing with the emotionally underprivileged. Basically they’re no worse than the rest of us.”
I had spent several years covering police courts for newspapers, and, remembering a certain ax murderer in Baltimore, I said, “They’re worse than I am.”
A sharp exchange followed. The sociologist looked more and more upset. He had always known me as a liberal: a supporter of foreign aid, birth control, and equality at the lunch counter. Now, clearly, I was sick. What was worse, I had a social disease.
“I’m afraid you’re a snob,” he said diagnostically.
Today, no one would call Manchester a snob. Instead, depending on the situation, he would be labeled a racist, or a sexist, or otherwise politically incorrect.
Yet what Manchester writes here reminds us that there was a time in America and in the West when both liberals and conservatives could agree on standards of acceptable behavior. There was a time in America when most of us would look at the “monkey men” of the Clark Street tavern and say, “They’re worse than I am.” There was a time when Americans could look at that Islamist sword-swinger and tell him we didn’t give a damn for his culture or his religion, that he was depraved. There was a time when abortion was regarded as killing a child, when pornography was confined to certain shops in major cities or to mail-order companies, when gay marriage was as unconceivable as the marriage between a man and his dog, which may be next on the agenda.
Once, 25 years ago, I taught adult basic education in a prison in Western North Carolina. Among those prisoners was a drug dealer who had once literally gotten away with murder, another man who had killed his wife when he caught her with her lover, a child molester who told me he wanted to run a children’s camp, an older inmate who vowed to kill his wife for her infidelities. (Within a week of his release, this man tried to fulfill this promise. Deputies shot him dead in a chicken coop on the property.) I enjoyed getting to know these men and taught them as best as I could, but Manchester’s remark was always at the back of my mind. They were worse than I was. I would never consider dealing drugs, or molesting children, or seeking violent revenge for a lover’s betrayal.
America today runs on political and cultural beliefs that often lack any connection to logic and reason, but are nonetheless regarded as respectable—that is, politically correct. This division between reason and respectability—or, if you will, between the intellect and the emotions—accounts for many of our disastrous national policies. This detachment of reason from emotion is embedded in our schools, the media, the government, and most large companies, and the consequences are dire. If you advocate chopping the federal budget and slashing social programs, then you hate the poor and the disabled. If you call for a fence on the Mexican border and strict immigration laws, then you are a nativist and a racist. If you oppose gay marriage, as voters have previously done, then you hate gay people. Your accusers rely on their feelings to make their decisions, unable or unwilling to recognize that the country is broke, that illegal immigrants are putting an enormous strain on limited resources, that marriage to many people is a sacred act that takes place by definition between a man and a woman. Compassion is respectable. Clear, cool thinking is hard-hearted and brings brickbats from the compassionate.
Nonetheless, there are still a few of us out here in the cultural hinterlands who, like William Manchester, qualify as “snobs.” We understand most of you on the other side of the canyon, and we may be willing to tolerate some of you, but we accept very few of you. Abuse us, scorn us, threaten us: We’re still here, and we aren’t going away.