'Too squeamish to call evil by its name'

September 18, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- David Gelernter, professor of computer science, fresh from vacation, sorting through mail in his Yale office, thought the package was someone's dissertation. When he pulled the wrapping cord, smoke billowed with a hiss and a strange smell. Then the package sent by the Unabomber emitted ''a terrific flash,'' and Mr. Gelernter was blown into a long -- it will never end -- journey of pain, involving many surgeries, a cornea transplant, therapy, diminished capacities, lost time.

Yet such is this extraordinary man's undamaged mind and strengthened spirit, he also was catapulted into soaring self-discovery and social insight, one result of which is his short, exhilarating book, ''Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber.'' Alternately droll and furious, ebullient and acidic, it stands against one of the sins of the age, self-pity.

''When I looked down at my right hand I saw the bones sticking out in all directions and the skin crumpled like paper.'' His blood pressure measured zero. That was 1993, when for many months his undamaged eye could see ''the lines of surgical staples holding my chest closed, the regions on my legs where layers of skin had been sliced off to provide raw materials for chest grafts.''

In 1997 his reassembled body contains a spirit impatient with a society in which the word ''judgmental'' has only pejorative connotations -- as though a nonjudgmental society could have justice. A student of America on the eve of the Second World War, he cites a 1937 Life magazine article on a foiled bank robbery: ''The picture at right shows the two dead bandits lying in the street where the police dropped them.'' Life called it the ''Neatest trap of the year.'' This was, Mr. Gelernter says, good news: ''For violent criminals this long-ago society bristled with contempt. . . . It was judgmental.''

America then was, he says, the world's least passive country. Today we even sentence criminals with words tinged with ''a certain wistful sadness,'' the tone of voice of a society uneasy about being judgmental. And a newsmagazine's cover on the capture of the suspected Unabomber carried the headline ''Mad Genius.'' There was no evidence to support either the adjective or the noun, but the idea of madness is, as Mr. Gelernter says, exculpatory. The phrase, say, ''evil fool'' would have been judgmental.

A society that is, as Mr. Gelernter says, ''too squeamish to call evil by its right name'' is a society in which People magazine anoints the Unabomber one of the most fascinating people of 1996. Which suggests not just how much we have changed, but also why we have changed.

'Nurse your grievances'

Being a target of the Unabomber brought Mr. Gelernter into contact with the media, which filled him with ''disgust and dark amusement.'' He was stunned by ''the assumption in the news industry that a person wants to be addressed and treated as a 'victim.' '' The fact that American society's admonition has changed from ''count your blessings'' to ''nurse your grievances'' helps explain the passing of the America depicted in Life magazine at the beginning of 1957:

''Americans greeted 1957 with high-decibel revelry and effervescent optimism. The old year that was ticking away had been a very good one. The year to come looked just as good or even better.''

But in a society looked upon as a victimization machine, individuals are not actors, they are acted upon, and self-pity sits on their chests like a pile of bricks. Of course people do get acted upon in life -- few as shatteringly as Mr. Gelernter has been -- but that is no excuse for thinking of people as passive clay.

Part of Mr. Gelernter's therapy has been immersion in the spirit of prewar America, in which the guidebook for the 1939 World's Fair said: ''The pedestrian finds it pleasant to stroll at the Fair, where the walks are of bituminous asphalt.'' He marvels: ''Asphalt, the rubbery-hot smell and black sheen of it when you lay the stuff down: progress, the triumphant vanquishing of discouragement and mud.''

He believes America's intellectuals are merchants of discouragement, teachers of passivity, justifiers of self-pity. However, his experience has left him, on balance, confident about the mass of Americans: ''If you insert into this weird slot machine of modern life one evil act, a thousand acts of kindness tumble out.'' Echoing the psalmist, he says, ''Life is a stubborn return from sorrow again and again.'' His is the voice of an angry, happy man.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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