Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Damn hippies

The Wall Street Journal frequently finds room on its front page for purely ideological stories, that is things that are in no way newsworthy but establish some cherished ideological point for the Journal's core readership. In today's case, a story called "Left in Nepal at 3, Daja Takes Decades to Find Out Why" (in the first column), that point relates to the selfish foolishness of those who sought alternatives to the status quo in the sixties. The story manages to massage all the sweet spots of mainstream anxiety, which stems from middle class folks being encouraged on the one hand to be radical non-conformists (in their consumption choices, consuming ever more "extremely" to differentiate themselves) and on the other to be passive anti-intellectual quietists who go with the flow, lest they begin pursuing "alternative lifestyles" that will lump them in with homosexuals and habitual drug users and Muslims and all the rest on the lunatic fringe. Stories like this one help assuage the cognitive dissonance that threatens to overtake those whose lives must be lived in the nexus of these cultural contradictions. Human interest stories are always about enforcing ideology, about reassuring readers that the prevailing values are the only logical ones, the only ones that make sense, the only ones that work. In exchange for subscribing wholeheartedly to such ideological values, stories in publications like People and Reader's Digest are able to inflate with a fulfilling sense of uplift, a satisfying sense that all is right in the world, at its core. The Journal story is especially effective, because it allows a vicarious imaginative escape into hippiedom while ultimately condemning it, rewarding readers for having done nothing about their own daydreams of such a liberated life.

The Journal story details the fate of a white man who was raised in Tibet, de facto proof, apparently, that his parents, wealthy privileged liberal ingrates with Hollywood connections, were negligent. The key paragraph is halfway down the column: "He was an odd casualty of an era in American history when many young people dropped out of the mainstream and abandoned their families in pursuit of enlightenment and adventure. Some turned to communal ways of child-rearing. Some, like Daja's parents, essentially quit parenting and left their children for others to raise."

The hypocrisy of this paragraph is almost beneath comment. Never mind the nannies who typically raise the children of the Journal's core constituency. Never mind the "essentially" slipped in there to allow this distorted picture to pass as representative. Never mind the man is referrred to as a "casualty," as if his upbringing in a monestary (where he was forced to spend "lonely years" exploring "broad philopsphical riddles" such as "what is right?") made him for all intents and purposes, dead. Note the way that communal methods are elided with abandonment as if they are equally reprehensible choices and the way "enlightenment" is linked with "adventure," to make the package of the two seem equally capricious and irresponsible.

Damning details mount, including Daja's parents' experimentation with "psychedelic drugs" and "love-ins," which made them "flower children in the classic sense" and the fact that Daja's mother refused to sufficiently mourn her mother's death by suicide, which the story strongly implies was caused by Daja's mother's marrying in a tie-dyed dress. Daja's mother, now known as "Wongmo" remains a Buddhist monk, which has taught her that "Just because it's different doesn't mean it's bad or wrong." The story's writer, Clare Ansberry, has thoughtfully and diligently endeavored to trivialize Buddhist life with such well-chosen quotes and details, emphasizing everywhere Wongmo's selfishness, shallowness, and inauthenticity, and then quoting liberally from her mea culpa to her son to solidify the emerging epitomizing portrait of a bad parent, one who leaves the mainstream with idealistic visions only to produce a misfit child who spends his life trying to atone for her mistakes. Never leave the mainstream, not if you love your children. Don't question how things are. Your children will despise you for it.

What an uplifting story. It buoys the good feeling I received when I saw reported enthusiastically that Philip Morris hopes to expand tobacco operations in Indonesia, "a tremendous growth opportunity," since American smokers have the unfortunate tendency to quit or die of cancer. All is indeed right with our world.

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