Art, debt, slumber

January 13, 1995|By Russell Baker

THE INSTANT people start talking about the deficit my eyelids droop, and off I go in the arms of Morpheus.

The same goes for the late Kenneth Clark's famous 5,000-hour-long documentary, "Civilisation," which was a Christmas present. I try hard to watch some every night. It's supposed to be good for you, just as cutting the deficit and eating boring food are supposed to be good for you.

Say this, however, for "Civilisation": It's better to look at than the typical platter of skin-free chicken, salt-free fish and taste-free broccoli served up in yuppie restaurants. What's more, it doesn't assume you're a boob.

The deficit people do. They're now telling us the deficit can be abolished by amending the Constitution to say, "Hereafter the budget must be eternally balanced." Between the late Lord Clark and the sounds of these deficit quacks I haven't slept so thoroughly since giving up Scotch whiskey.

If I sound smug about nodding off in "Civilisation," it is only to conceal my inner fear. I nodded off the same way in college physics. As a result I still haven't the slightest idea how to do something people of the world's most backward countries can now do with ease; to wit, build an atomic bomb.

Intelligent people raved about "Civilisation" when it was first shown on public television years ago, and its merits are undeniable as long as it's filling the screen with beautiful pictures of the Western world's most glorious art. No truly intelligent person can possibly sleep his way through it.

And here is El Stupido himself, constantly coming awake, chin on chest, lower jaw drooping, groping for the remote controller to rewind the tape back through Vermeer -- how could any human sleep through Vermeer? -- and all the way back to Rembrandt. Yes, it was right after the astonishing glories of Rembrandt that coma set in.

But why? I think it's the self-assured quality of Lord Clark's voice that does the trick. He is one of those people who know so much more than you know that envy tries to make you hate him for it, for being so superior to you that he is absolutely insufferable.

When Lord Clark persistently pronounces "capitalism" as if it were spelled "kah-PITTLE-ism," thus making it sound like a new kind of cardiac disease, his self-assurance is so complete that you are torn between despising him for it and conceding that all American-speaking humanity is wrong about the pronunciation.

Well, surrendering to barbaric jealousy is out of the question, especially when the fellow's subject is "Civilisation" -- though where does he get off spelling it with that snooty, mocking, high-Tory "s" where a "z" should be?

My theory is that the sleep is a defense against yielding to the basest elements of my nature. I doze to avoid acknowledging my own vile envy.

Deficit talk is different. Since early ladhood I have heard jeremiads about the deficit leading America to destruction. As a door-to-door peddler of slick magazines, I first inhaled this bleak message in Saturday Evening Post editorials of the 1930s.

There has been no change in the music since then. The deficit has grown and grown, politicians have warned and warned, the nation has grown richer and richer.

I have heard this old song from my cradle. It no longer stirs me like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Now it's just a tired old lullaby.

Politicians of course have always tried to terrify people about it, rarely with much success until Ross Perot came along. Now it's the big seller of the month, which is why we have this cynical proposal to constitutionally amend it out of existence. Why cynical? Because it assumes you can fool most of the people some of the time.

The scheme is to amend the Constitution to say, basically, "Deficit budgets, go away." Every mother's statesman son and daughter can vote for it and be an instant people's hero, assured that by the time the amendment takes effect it will be another generation's problem to figure out how to wipe out enough vital government services to fulfill 1995's bookkeeping dream.

If this works, we may next see the crime problem disposed of with a constitutional amendment ordering it to cease.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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