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Unarmed but Dangerous: A Withering Attack on All Things Phony, Foolish, and Fundamentally Wrong With America Today
A Worthy Adversary
Hal Crowther’s first collection of columns shows that he’s a cynic, but not a hopeless one

by Jim Jenkins

Don’t be deceived, or driven from the cash register, by the title of Hal Crowther’s collection of essays. It isn’t dangerous, it won’t hurt you, and while there are “withering attacks” herein, to categorize Crowther strictly under “C” for curmudgeon does him a disservice.

My pick of the litter, in fact, isn’t one of the tougher pieces in this collection of Crowther’s fare from The Independent, the feisty weekly out of Durham where the ex-magazine guy (Time, Newsweek) leans over a keyboard these days. “Songs of Innocence,” my choice, would likely get Crowther labeled a conservative by some. Had they not read it before, it could even have resulted in some of his Independent colleagues, those noted watchdogs of political correctness, using more colorful monikers.

It’s about sex education, and the modern theorists who believe children should be taught about sex early and given as much information as their little brains can stand.

“I object,” Crowther writes, “to creating adult sexual awareness among preadolescents, not because sex is evil or even unsafe and unsanitary, but because it’s so powerful.”

It is a stand for innocence. “Innocence is brief and getting briefer, and there are few besides me who mourn its passing. It’s a useless thing, like an orchid. And after innocence comes the breeding and the feeding.”

In concluding this essay against the sophistication of early sex education, Crowther says, . . . as far as I can see, sex and work are the time-consuming and self-consuming things that never end. All we control is the beginning.”

Nice stuff, that. One may dispute some, or all, of Crowther’s opinions ( I write with the prejudice of one who happens to agree with most of them), but the indisputable fact is that he can really put the words together—always cleanly, often artfully. And though his Independent essays (1,200-1,500 words) run long for what would loosely be called a “column,” he uses the language with economy, as if words were precious items stored in a vault, to be spent carefully.

Consider this single sentence from, yes, a “withering” essay on the publication of the book “Sex” by the professional celebrity Madonna: “If there’s a mother hiding somewhere, looking for a reason to live, Madonna has published the book that will kill her.” I suppose there are 1,100-and-some-odd more words in the piece of which those 21 are part, but that will cause heads to nod. Yes, that’s right.

Crowther covers the personal, political, sociological and pop culture spectrum. He writes of nature, of the media, of sports. He is a cynic to be sure, but not a hopeless one. He is politically correct in many cases, but with a sense of humor in most. And in some instances, his views transcend a philosophical bent and could be shared by all who have thought on occasion that society is collapsing under the weight of people like . . . Geraldo Rivera:

“I understand why [O.J.] Simpson might try to kill himself, if indeed he murdered his wife; what I can’t understand is why Geraldo Rivera doesn’t try to kill himself. How can you get up and look in the mirror, know that your’re Geraldo and you’ll always be Geraldo, and live with it? It’s a twisted kind of courage.”

Now here is where we come to the let’s-not-appear-breathless-with-praise part of this overview of Crowther’s offering. Like all os us liberals, Crowther does sometimes take things a bit too seriously. In pondering the disputes over a Disney theme park near a Civil War battlefield, he blisters old Walt’s corporate descendants in terms specific and general. And then he writes:

“When you choose Disney World for your children’s vacation instead of the Grand Tetons, the Great Smokies or the Outer Banks, it seems to me that you risk marking them for life with a certain kind of inferiority—a weakness for fakery they may not overcome.”

Hal, Hal, Hal. To my knowledge, no Disney World visitor has as yet committed mayhem and offered to the arresting officer the explanation that “Mickey made me do it.” (It wouldn’t kill you guys at The Independent to switch off “Masterpiece Theatre” now and again in favor of “The Andy Griffith Show”).

Crowther also has a penchant for tossing in his familiarity with writers and philosophers, the sort that would be included in everyday conversation only by the type of person whose brow is so high it could be a toupee. To be fair, he doesn’t do that kind of thing with no point, and count me as one who doesn’t mind the essayist who challenges me now and then.

Crowther’s piece on Lewis Mumford, the writer-philosopher-thinker, is one of his best, and we find in it perhaps Crowther’s own philosophy , when he says of Mumford, “Lewis Mumford taught us to stand apart, in a high place, and look at the whole thing; he taught us by his example to work and to persevere in spite of everything. We can learn these lessons well and still lose the game, but what else do we need to know?” Nice stuff. Again.

And it wasn’t even “withering.” The truth is, like all good writers in this format, Crowther has more than a fastball. His remembrances of heroes, his occasional essays about children or old friends or fond places will please even those who’ve come to search The Independent for Crowtherisms like his cynical, vicious barb about Ronald Reagan and Mount Rushmore: “I want him next to Thomas Jefferson, so the president who learned six languages will be cheek-by-granite jowl with the president who needed a Teleprompter to handle one.” Ouch.

I own a number of published collections of columnists from graybeards like Mike Royko to wacky humorists like Dave Barry to those of even older vintage. I shall line Crowther up along the shelf with Joe Liebling and H.L. Mencken, and trust he will feel at home. Like them, he’s a bit prickly, and he does nice stuff. Again, and again.

Jim Jenkins is an editorial writer for The News and Observer

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