Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/27/2010

Woody Hayes and Nuclear Arms; Ken Mehlman Says, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Please see the end of my next posting (August 28) for an explanation of the impossible-to-follow logic here. Thank you.

Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” ends with a wonderfully enigmatic exchange between two (unrepentant?) murderers:

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

She has no name. She is “the grandmother” or “the old lady.” The Misfit has no name. The story is about these two nameless characters, characters the reader knows by description rather than by name. The grandmother sets her family up—the son whose life she does her best to control, his wife (known only as “the mother”), and her two despicable grandchildren, June Star and John Wesley—for The Misfit and his sidekicks to murder. And she sets herself up, too.

Exposing first-year college students to this story is a dangerous business. Dangerous because first-year college students have a greater propensity than other folk to try to figure out what the story “means.” They aren’t to blame for that; their high school advance placement English teachers have set them on the path to the ridiculous and impossible.

Trying to figure out what something “means” is much less dangerous than trying to find out what it “is.”

The story is a symbolic expression of something.  I think the correct “critique” of a work of literature is Alice’s response to hearing the Jabberwocky poem. “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!” (1)

The grandmother insists on her own way in all things. Her son Bailey doesn’t have a chance. Where can a story take my imagination when it begins with the sentence, “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee.” Want. She wanted. And at the end, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

What the grandmother wanted was not what she needed to be a good woman. She needed someone to kill her (shoot her three times in the chest after killing Bailey, the mother, June Star, and John Wesley) every time she tried to talk her way into getting what she wanted. This story makes me radically, hugely, profoundly uneasy.

The story might as well “mean” that, after you murder five people, the natural reaction is to “yodel.” Meaning has a way of slipping away.

We all know that we live in a world made unsafe (under constant threat, a threat so pernicious we should be prepared at any minute to take cover) by stockpiles of nuclear weapons. They are everywhere and spreading. As in a good work of fiction, the meaning of this pernicious threat is illusive. We knew what it meant when Dwight Eisenhower was President. It meant that, when the bomb dropped (way out there in Western Nebraska five hundred miles from nowhere—which I wrote about on October 13, 2009), we were to get under our desks (the wrought-iron legs with pine seats and tops I wrote about on August 26, q.v.) to save us from the devastation. Lewis Black, my favorite news analyst, has explained this phenomenon.

We are reminded, warned, constantly told by street-level bureaucrats, as well as by those at the highest levels of government, that we live under this threat of nuclear annihilation (it is no longer annihilation—according to President Obama it would merely “. . . .badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life”). The world is full of horrific Weapons of Mass Destruction. The meaning of the threat is clear we are told.

Not only do governments keep arsenals of these weapons that could destabilize our entire way of life, but nameless terrorists possess them as well. Harvard Professor Graham Allison, picking up on the government-supplied intelligence documenting (imagining?) the threat of nuclear destabilization of our entire way of life by terrorists, explains there is “a rogues’ gallery of other terrorist groups that may find nuclear acts attractive in the years to come” (2). He wrote in 2004. No bomb has been found floating through an airport or exploding over an American city. Perhaps he has altered his opinion somewhat.

One might well ask where the “intelligence” came (comes) from (and what the intelligence “means”) that keeps us all looking out of the corner of our eye to be sure we know where our desk is so we can hide under it at a moment’s notice when one of those bombs comes our way. John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Professor of National Security Studies and Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University says, however,

. . . . for more than 60 years now all they [the bombs] have done is gather dust while propagandists and alarmists exaggerate their likelihood of exploding—it  was a certainty one would go off in 10 years, C.P. Snow authoritatively proclaimed in 1960—and nuclear metaphysicians spin fancy theories about how they might be deployed and targeted (3).

Woody Hayes dealt in reality—the reality of Big Ten Football. Guys knocking each other about on a grassy (or plastic) field while millions watched, for the glory (and financial gain) of the universities that used them. Perhaps that’s why the Woody Hayes Professor of National Security Studies deals in realities. He says the threat of nuclear annihilation is a “fancy theory about how [nuclear weapons] might be deployed.”

So, whom do we believe, Professor Allison or Professor Mueller?

The news yesterday included stories about Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the George W. Bush campaign for president. The stories were about Mehlman’s “coming out” as the gay man he was rumored to be while he was working for George W. Bush. In other words, for the entire time Mehlman worked for George W. Bush, he was a phony. Living a double life.

Does anyone need to be reminded that the Bush campaign, indeed much of his presidency, was based on the fear that Sadam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? Perhaps even one of the “rogues” in Professor Allison’s gallery with nuclear weapons. Ken Mehlman was the leader of a campaign designed to convince the American people of a danger that did not exist for the purpose of maintaining the power of a President, a campaign of twisted meaning. He was the chief of the “propagandists and alarmists.” John Mueller asserts that the talk of the spread of nuclear weapons has “contributed big time to the hysteria that has become common coin within the foreign-policy establishment on this issue (5)”.

The grandmother wants what she wants. Apparently Ken Mehlman wanted what he wanted in 2004, and now he wants something else.

“She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The Misfit had a solution to the grandmother’s monstrous self-centeredness. I have no idea what the solution to the deceitful self-centeredness of politicians like Mehlman is.

Not believing them every minute of their life?
(1) Lewis Carroll,  The Annotated Alice in Wonderland. Ed. by Martin Gardner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966.
(2) Ramberg, Bennett. “Avoiding the nuclear nightmare.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 61.2 (2005): 67+. Reviews: Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison. New York: Times Books, 2004.
(3) Mueller, John. “Nuclear weapons: president Obama’s pledge to rid the world of atomic bombs is a waste of breath. But not for the reasons you might imagine.” Foreign Policy 177 (2010): 38+.
(4) LaVictoire, Bridgette P. Mehlman May Be Out, But He’s Not Exactly Helping.” LezgetReal: A Gay Girl’s View on the World. 08/26/10. Web. 27 Aug 2010.
(5) Mueller, idem.


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