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C. Fraser Smith: Idiots in the Kingdom of Whatever

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. — Here the bells ring and the light gets in – the light of civil discourse, of life-long scholarship, of music, of art and of critical thinking.

The need for a ringing of bells was invoked as the 139th season opened by the Very Rev. Alan Jones, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The need for light was cited by all the speakers who followed him during homecoming week here.

Many of us, Jones said, are living in the Kingdom of Whatever. The problem? That kingdom is peopled with idiots.

“I use that word in a very specific way,” he said. “In Greek and Latin, the word ‘idiot’ meant a private person who had no regard for the common good, a person who declined to participate in public life. We confuse that with freedom.

“In the Kingdom of Whatever, there are too many choices and no ways to discern what is good. We are slaves to appetite.”

This first week of Chautauqua’s nine-week season was officially devoted to writers and writing. But there were several prominent subtexts: mankind’s mindless consumerism, preachers who mistake religion for God and politicians who cast us adrift in a sea of “war and rhetoric.”

‘Few honest brokers’

Chautauqua’s president, Thomas M. Becker, inaugurating the season with three taps of his gavel, said political leaders speak today as if they were having “an ongoing conversation with God.”

We must resist this kind of demagoguery, he said. And there are ”precious few honest brokers” to help.

“We do not assign sole responsibility for building [what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called The Beloved Community] to our leaders. We retain personal responsibility for justice in our beginning with our internal sense of right and wrong.”

Our ability to discern right from wrong is compromised by our increasingly consumer-driven lives, Jones said. We are apt to buy anything that is well-packaged, including candidates for public office – not a new observation, of course, but still an important one.

We are insufficiently engaged in – if we even recognize – the struggle between community and what Jones called “rancid individualism.” The condition, he said, is elegantly summarized by the woman or man who said, “Don’t let government touch my Medicare!”

“Are we willing to allow the wounded uninsured to die in the street?” he asked. This would seem to be the logical conclusion of rancid individualism.

Beyond thoughtless consuming

On-rushing waves of new gadgets make us unthinking “techno barbarians,” thoughtlessly consuming and selling new stuff to each other and to the world. We are exiles from the covenant that calls us to love each other – to be neighbors more than consumers.

For this week, we look for solace and direction in stories.

Leadership was left, for the third time, to Roger Rosenblatt, the writer and teacher, and to his literary friends.

Many of the 5,000 or so Chautauquans were immersed in “Kayak Morning,” Rosenblatt’s further “reflections on love, grief and small boats.” The book follows “Making Toast,” the story of his ongoing fight with God after his daughter Amy’s death at age 38. He and his wife, Ginny, moved in with their son-in-law to help raise her three young children.

Since Amy’s death, Rosenblatt has done much of his thinking on the water in his one-man kayak. Throughout these years, the Chautauqua community has been an extended family for the Rosenblatts, something he acknowledged during an afternoon discussion of “Kayak.”

He has become a fixture here, artfully inducing his friends to talk about how they work and who they are. It’s quite a list: E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Billy Collins, Alice McDermott, Meg Wolitzer and others.

The spiritual and the artistic have frequently merged with Rosenblatt, speaking candidly about his enduring anger with grief and with God, and Alan Jones suggesting that the way to God’s grace for all of us is to be found in story.

In “Kayak,” Rosenblatt is lyrical and honest about the five-year struggle find peace or to live with his rage. Writing, he says, can be a lot like chimney sweeping, dung removal and plastering.

“I told a class of mine writing makes sorrow endurable, evil intelligible, justice desirable and love possible,” he said. “I talk the talk.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays and other days in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.