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Retiring abroad

Peter Wicks | Thursday, April 20, 2006

The mayor of the city where I went to high school once spoke at one of the school’s awards ceremonies. He was an amiable speaker, and much of what he had to say consisted of the kind of inspirational anecdotes to which high school students are regularly subjected for their general edification. I have completely forgotten many similar speeches, but in this case one thing the mayor said has stayed with me ever since.

“When I was your age,” he said, “people kept telling me that your school days are the best days of your life.” He paused for a moment to allow us to reflect on just how many times we had heard the very same thing. Then he went on, “I didn’t believe it then, and I certainly don’t believe it now.”

My experience of high school was happier than most, but still I found those words tremendously liberating. I wonder if any of the adults who are always telling the young that these are the best days of their lives really stop to consider how depressing it is to be continually told that your life is about to enter an inexorable decline. This is my last column writing for The Observer. Since I am not leaving Notre Dame, it isn’t appropriate for me to finish on a valedictory note, but I do have one thing I want to say to the graduating seniors, which is this: however much you have enjoyed and been enriched by your experience here, rest assured, these aren’t the best days of your life.

I started writing these “Englishman Abroad” columns in November, 2002. My first column was mostly concerned with the trials and tribulations involved in acquiring a student visa and getting through customs.

I had originally intended Englishman Abroad to be a straightforward biweekly humor column, but I broke with that plan completely after reading an article about the incendiary attack on the National and University Library of Bosnia by Serb nationalists. This had happened in 1992, and since it was the single largest act of book burning in history, I was shocked that I had never heard about it, convinced that the story should be more widely known. So after two lighthearted pieces, I made my third column a somber reflection on the connection between book burning and genocide. There were no jokes in the column about book burning – one of the few topics on which I think humor is obliged to absent itself – but most of the subsequent columns were a hybrid of these early ones, attempting to make both jokes and serious points. Some objected to this approach, taking it as a sign of flippancy. As G.K. Chesterton noted, this objection is based on the assumption that funny is the opposite of serious, but that is wrong; funny is the opposite of not funny and nothing else.

Writing the column has taught me a lot about the difficulties and dangers of column writing. Columnists have a lot of freedom in choosing what to write about, but in other respects the genre is very restrictive. I have a great many opinions, but few of them are 800 words long and cutting them down to size is a painfully procrustean enterprise, all the more so because one does the cutting in the certain knowledge that some readers will assume that if you do not mention some particular argument or statistic, it means you cannot be aware of it.

Another occupational hazard is the columnist’s duty to be interesting. One of the easiest ways to be interesting is to take an extreme view on a topical political issue, but political commentary is a crowded market and these days, to generate interest that way, the view will have to be pretty extreme indeed. I suspect that this is the origin of the centrifugal force that affects so many professional political pundits, pushing them to more and more extreme versions of their political views with the result that if you spend too long being professionally opinionated, it is hard to avoid self-caricature.

This centrifugal force is a market force, and I have often thought that the people who refer to the marketplace of ideas do not take the metaphor seriously enough. A marketplace of ideas will only provide accuracy and truth if accuracy and truth are in demand. That’s likely to be the case if the ideas in question concern how to make a better mousetrap, but if they are about the performance of a particular politician or political party or how best to alleviate poverty, the highest demand seems to be for ideas that flatter our preconceptions and sense of self-righteousness, as even a quick glance at the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list will confirm. One recurring theme over the past four years has been partisanship and polarization. I have tried to avoid these vices without giving in to the temptation of the reflexive moderation of Hazlitt’s common sense critic who always supposes that the truth lies between the extremes of right and wrong.

Before I finish, I want to thank all of you who have written to me over the past four years. I would also like to thank all the people who have edited these columns over the past four years, and who have doubtless spent a good deal of time wondering how a writer who has regularly preached on the importance of the precise use of words could have so much trouble with such an elementary term as “deadline.”

I have plans for my retirement. I intend to embark on a three month punditry detoxification program in which I don’t touch a newspaper and don’t read any book or magazine article concerned with current affairs. If something really important happens, I am sure someone will tell me. The world will get by just fine for a few months without my having opinions about it, and, like the mayor’s comment, that too is a liberating thought.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. He started writing for The Observer in the fall of 2002. If you wish to contact Peter, he will be at the bar.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not of The Observer.