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Unarmed but Dangerous: A Withering Attack on All Things Phony, Foolish, and Fundamentally Wrong With America Today

by Annie Dillard

Hal Crowther quotes Rush Limbaugh inviting listeners to imagine him—Limbaugh—as a 303-pound cyst in a woman’s abdomen: “Imagine me in this woman’s abdomen as a cyst. Think of it.” Thinking of it, Crowther notes, “Radio doesn’t get much more postmodern than this. It’s easier to imagine Rush Limbaugh as a world-record fibrous tumor than to imagine him as a star.” Crowther characteristically takes off from there, sending up Limbaugh’s “all-you-can-eat buffet of Cro-Magnon platitudes” and simultaneously, with the back of his hand, those “Manhattan mutants” who “honestly believed that Jim and Tammy Bakker were two male actors from Long Island doing an Emmy-winning send up of Southern religion.”

You can’t help but think all’s not lost in the world if descriptions of its wrongs can be so hilarious. Was it Crowther who titled his column on children’s butchering their parents “I Dismember Mama”? Kitty Kelley and Nancy Reagan are, convincingly, “sisters under the fur.” He damns “our current series of designer wars.” A German executive is a “Eurobigshot . . . He—four or five of him—was the worst person I ever encountered who wasn’t actively trying to maim me.”

It is a rare man who possesses both a passionate conscience and a brilliant wit. Crowther’s conscience compels him to distinguish right from wrong, to honor the right, and to decry the wrong. He does so even here, in our “amnesiac culture constructed almost entirely by the lies and distortions of commerce.” He does so even now, when “the things we have to swallow to live in the world keep staining our spirits.” Hal Crowther is a wit who never lapses into cynicism or relativism; he is a powerful intellectual who is immune to “the latest mood in the faculty lounge.” He is a man of honor who can’t be bought.

Crowther’s first-rate social criticism plots “the decline and fall of this hemorrhaging republic we call home,” where corporate and personal greed and institutional deceit keep the underclass under. If he wrote abstractions, we wouldn’t read him; instead, he presents the full spectacle of our culture. Here is Orrin Hatch fawning malignantly at the Clarence Thomas hearings, and a tobacco executive denying outright that the actor who died of lung cancer posed for the Marlboro Man. Here are the homeless people sleeping on beaches, journalists obsequiously making love to power, gleeful crowds shouting at an execution, Native Americans denouncing the film Black Robe because it depicted 19th Century Native American culture as “violent,” and Cambodian immigrants who, upon reflection, consider Cambodia safer.

What can the man of honor do but rage, rage against the dying of the light? Again and again, Crowther’s brilliant jeremiads rise to a pitch of outraged eloquence.

This is a thinker who loves truth. Unlike the trendiest professors, he believes there is such a thing: “We piece it together, scrap by hunch by painstaking reconstruction.” He speaks

the truth—“the simple facts of the case”—because today’s journalism is tomorrow’s history. “Who fired the first shot, how tall was the general, was it raining? It all matters.” He admires Carlyle; he admires Gibbon. “Should we pass this way without an honest clue about what went before us?”

The truth is the humanitarian’s hope in “the hemorrhaging republic.” For Crowther, though, “fools and scoundrels lead multitudes to the precipice,” though John Q. Public may look in the polls like a “vicious, amoral swine,” nevertheless, the public, the multitude, can be aroused to right wrongs. We have a sense of good and evil, however vestigial. Why else would truth-telling work? Why cry in the wilderness? Here is a credo:

It all matter. It’s my personal conviction that cruelty follows a lie, loves a lie, makes its nest in a lie. And I’ve never been able to divine any purpose in our individual human lives, unless it’s to reduce the sum of human cruelty during the time when we’re alive. That’s reason enough to press for the truth, to expose a falsehood, even to deplore the ambiguity if it’s enough for cruelty to hide behind it.

Hal Crowther refers once, modestly, to “those of us who try to be fair.” This begins to seem like a startling claim. Yet it is not too vaunting a claim for Crowther. From this “trying to be fair,” all the rest springs.

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