In Praise Of…
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: The last line of W.H. Auden’s elegy to W.B. Yeats is: "Teach the free man how to praise." It seems an unusual wish, until one thinks of the connection between freedom and the impulse to praise. Praise, especially of one’s country, does not come easily to a free people, to us for example, because there are so many more caustic, or disapproving, or critical reactions to our country to choose from– freely. Who, in the sauntering republic, would praise a President if more fun could be had knocking him down? Praise not Ronald Reagan for his unswerving patriotism; rather, mock him for his corniness or laziness. Praise not Bill Clinton for his attention to the economy or to the poor; instead, mock him about Paula and Monica. Ask not what good you can say about your country, but what amusement the country can provide for you — which is all right, as far as it goes, and we would not be safe from our own excesses if we praised promiscuously.
The trouble is, until September 11, Americans praised too little. We lost the knack, if indeed we ever had it. One forgot that praise has value. It diminishes arrogance, encourages the creation of useful models, gives a person proper perspective as regards great people and great events. On and after September 11, we saw both.
PRIEST: Oh, lord, you are a refuge in our strength, an ever-present help in distress.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Great people risked and lost their lives to rescue others. People we thought small, specifically the mayor of New York, became great on the spot, which meant that he had greatness in him all along. People like the people who continue to clean up downtown New York in the heartbreaking excavation of the dead, show themselves worthy of praise, as do the young people enlisting in military service, as do the people already there. And we praise them, as if excavating the act itself. Since September 11, we have learned how to praise. As Mel Allen used to say: "How ’bout that?" (Gunshot)
This is the time of year when one thinks about God, if one thinks about God at all. And one has to be careful about deciding that God is on our side in the war against the Taliban, because that is exactly how the Taliban thinks, too. Religion is probably best practiced as an expression of pure awe, which, on the more sublime level, is a tacit form of praise. Live in mystery and lift a joyful noise unto the Lord. Praise Him, and leave it at that.
But it’s a good deal easier to praise God than it is the mayor or the President, much less the whole country. Praise can feel a bit embarrassing; it can also give license to mischief. In the three months since the attacks on our country, Americans have had to be watchful about matters that require watching: interferences with civil liberties, the prospect of military tribunals, wiretaps, lawyer-client privileges, the deprivations of established individual rights. If one did not pay attention to such things, if one were lost in hymns of patriotic praise, we would damage the value of what we’ve got, and risk losing two wars at once. Yet along with all that, something is rising in our consciousness, and it is rising in a season when it is especially important to recognize the value of the country around us.
Who, then, to praise? After the nation’s officials and leaders, who deserves praise? I suggest you consider yourself, ourselves, most of us citizens who have behaved more admirably than our reputations in this crisis. With a very few exceptions, there have been no attacks on the Muslims living here — something that would not have occurred in other nations — there have been no public demonstrations of panic, no mobs. There even has been a surprisingly little show of crazy jingoism; flags and slogans, yes, but stopping at that. Not bad, really, for a country taken by surprise. Praise is nothing to make a career of, nothing to overdo, but it does feel quietly good, as we wish one another happy holidays, to know that we are a bit better than we might have imagined. How ’bout that?
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.