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Rules of engagement

Michael Saltz
April 12, 2019 12:06 pm Updated: April 12, 2019 12:07 pm


“’Curiouser and curiouser!’ Cried Alice.”

“May you live in interesting times,” is purported to be an English translation of an old Chinese curse. Some might think (with good reason) that such a curse has been bestowed upon us these days. But I’m going to go with the “curiouser and curiouser” line from Alice in Wonderland, a book that seems much more in keeping with the current moment, the zeitgeist, don’t you think? Just think of all the Lewis Carroll quotes that seem entirely reasonable these days:

“Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Just think of President Trump’s Executive Time TV viewing habits followed by tweet storms. Come to think of it, why limit it to six?

“She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it).” Sort of sounds like Democrats, don’t you think? Who knows what advice Republicans give themselves these days since they hardly ever seem too say what they truly think (at least what I hope they truly think.)

“I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” That sounds like both Democrats and Republicans. I even think it sounds like me.

“We’re all mad here.” I’ll say. Have you looked around you?

I could go on, but I won’t.

What has brought me to this particular state of mind at this particular moment in time is Joe Biden. In particular, I’m thinking of … well, you know what, don’t you? No? You’ve been hiding out from the news? I can’t blame you. Simply put, a Nevada politician, Lucy Flores, accused Uncle Joe (or is it grandfather Joe, maybe great grandfather Joe by now) of having touched her in such a way (not sexually, mind you) that made her feel uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that she felt she had to share it with the world. If you look on the internet (not too carefully), you can find lots of pictures of Lucy Flores being touched by one male or another (mostly politicians) and, even, touching others without announcing loudly to the press that she had been made uncomfortable by such loose, inappropriate behavior. Bernie and Barak, you should be ashamed of yourselves for having invaded her personal space. Don’t you owe her an apology?

Donald Trump, of course (he who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “shame,” much less “propriety”), jumped right in, welcoming Joe to his world, thus making grabbing girls or women by their genitals and touching one’s lips to the back of someone’s head one and the same thing.

And the press jumped right in too, hyperventilating about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Did he or didn’t he? Was he or wasn’t he? Was it rape? Was it sexually aggressive? Was it assault? Oh, it was just Joe being Joe, whatever that means. He’s a hugger.

Joe, of course, couldn’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t let the moment pass without public, in person comment (a written press release didn’t pass muster). Thus we were treated to an iPhone looking video (that is to say, a vertical, narrow image) of Joe in his pressed shirt, rolled up sleeves, I’m just one of the guys costume, saying that he’s just an old guy who has to figure out what this new world looks like and how to behave appropriately but he never behaved inappropriately anyway.

And the press, went to town on that, too. He was pitch perfect, he did what he had to do, it was enough, it wasn’t enough, he was right, he was wrong, he should have apologized even if he had nothing to apologize for.

And he’s still leading the Democratic field in the polls.

My own take was the old man part. Joe, to me, looked and sounded like an old guy, a guy out of touch with the cultural moment, the zeitgeist, if you will, just as he said. Sorry, if you haven’t got a sense of the zeitgeist, maybe you shouldn’t be in this thing. He may be in tune with those union guys he addressed the following day but he’s out of touch with me (and I’m older than he is). I’d like to ban all the old guys in this race. Goodbye, Joe. Goodbye, Bernie. Goodbye, Donald.

You don’t think Donald belongs in this mix? Have you watched him walk lately? He doesn’t walk, he shambles; he thinks he’s strutting. If he was a peacock, his tail feathers would be all spread out to here. As it is, he’s just a crotchety, mean old guy with a stomach that precedes him by a good foot or two. Going back to the Tao of Carroll (otherwise known as Alice in Wonderland), “If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’ it is certain to disagree with you sooner or later.”

But getting down to the really serious stuff, what does all this to you and me and I don’t mean politics. What does it mean for you and me in our daily lives? I’ve asked several of my friends (I actually have one or two) who’ve shaken their heads and said, “I have no idea.” Of course, most of my friends are all my age, give or take 10 or 15 years. Frankly, I have no idea what the rules of engagement are anymore for people who are, say, in their 20s or 30s. Then, again, I’m not sure I knew what they really were when I was that age either. The message from Democratic politicians (our moral exemplars) seems to be “DO NOT INVADE PERSONAL SPACE UNLESS GIVEN PERMISSION TO DO SO), meaning, I think, that handshakes are ok (maybe) but everything else is off limits, unless it isn’t. Republicans (our other moral exemplars) seem to be telling us that anything is ok if you can get away with it. Donald, for example, is still trying to find out what he can’t get away with.

So, what is the zeitgeist of the current (it’s sure to be different tomorrow) moment? What are the rules of engagement supposed to be in our personal lives, not yesterday, but today? I have no idea. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.” Good luck with that.

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.