Mainstream Maniac

The mainstream is back, that watery metaphor for respectability and all but universal consensus to which all sides lay claim in our political arguments. Unlike other forms of roughhouse and competitive play, the object of this game is not to toss the other guy into the water, but to push him out of it. "I am mainstream; you are high and dry-stranded up there on the bank all by yourself except for a few other ideological weirdos like yourself." That is the winner's taunt. In the hearings on recent nominees to the Supreme Court this has been an argument of Democrats against Reagan and Bush nominees-they were out of the mainstream; and in the presidential election of 1988, it was the Bush argument against the Democratic candidate and his supporters: those liberals ... they think funny ... they are not like us.

We do not have heresy trials in this country, which is only logical since we do not have state- or church-enforced orthodoxy. But we do have this mysterious yearning for identification with the mainstream and the need not just to exclude our opponents from it, but to accuse them of all sorts of crimes by their absence. Let me be a little perverse here. To the extent that this is merely political and phony, I don't mind it. Partisans have been caricaturing each other as oddballs, as "hippies" and "little old ladies in tennis shoes" and things like that forever. What I think is worrisome is the extent to which we have actually come to believe in the existence and the efficacy of some political or governmental mainstream and to accept that being in and of it should be a precondition of both intellectual respectability and ascent to public office.

All this has come into play in especially stark form in the confirmation hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas's fitness to serve on the Supreme Court. I don't mean to get into his merits or failings, only the notion that many of his opinions were doubly offensive because they were in the eyes of his critics outside the presumed mainstream of thinking on a subject. Oddly, one of the people in the hearing room who seemed to buy into this premise was none other than Thomas, who was at great pains to position himself as the most conventional of thinkers, Mr. Mainstream himself, on the more agitated issues that came up. Since the only interesting things I have ever read that Thomas said were, however, wholly unconventional and, if anything, a defiant challenge to mainstream dogma, this struck me as unfortunate: he had some far more arresting things to say than he said.

But I was not surprised. People at every level of public involvement have been doing this for years. A lot of us incorporate what the polls say we think, believing that it is what we should think, whether or not the thought ever crossed our mind. If you had polled my father in 1967 about what was on his mind, he would have told you he was gravely troubled by the war in Vietnam, although no one ever knew him to bring the subject up on his own or to discuss it when others did except as he considered the war somehow responsible for the incredible length of his grandson's hair-which did inflame him. Not to have this acknowledged and debated in public was no great loss. But it is a loss when people mute their own more provocative ideas in order to stay within the limits of well-received argument.

In all the talk about "political correctness" on campus, this more widespread form of self-enforced orthodoxy is generally ignored. And in all the complaints about government censorship, the kind of mainstream-minded self-censorship it leads to is also ignored. But these to me seem much worse threats than either of the other two, if only because they are more hidden, more general, less easily identified, more likely simply to smother productive argument and thought in our day-today political discourse among ourselves. There are things you "cant" say, programs whose effectiveness you "can't" challenge, ideas whose absurdity you "can't" call attention to. Understand: I am not talking about viciousness or racist claptrap or calls to violence or any comparable garbage here. I'm talking about radical analysis of the emperor's-new-clothes kind.

An example: after almost 30 years of seeking and getting arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union, the United States and the Soviets had tens of thousands more nuclear weapons than they started with, some developed as hedges against dangers the agreements themselves were thought to have created. Were the agreements in some sense driving the arms increases? Were we on a wrong track? Merely to raise the question is to invite being seen as someone who wants to blow up the world, not someone who wonders if we've really found the best way to not do so. Across the board there are programs, ideas and statutes covering every aspect of our society, economy and civil relations whose merit is not to be questioned no matter how little good they may be doing to their intended beneficiaries or, in some cases, how much harm.

One reason is that a lot of people have a stake in these programs, ideas and statutes by now, either having vested their reputations in support of them or actually working at jobs in the structures created to put them into effect. Another is that you risk terrible ridicule and condemnation by raising questions, risk characterization as some kind of malevolent dummy. Even those who do go out on a limb tend to preface their originality with so much banal apology and explanation that the heart of their message is lost. And in some considerable measure this is the work of us media types, the reporters and commentators and general kibitzers who, despite being thought of as way-out troublemakers, are the most hidebound and even reactionary of witnesses, measuring everything on the long since outmoded liberal-to-conservative yardstick and appraising the social worth of any proposal accordingly.

So, faced with enormous tasks that have not yielded to our conventional approaches, we become ever more ferocious in our impulse to penalize challenge and admonish or patronize dissent, all the while professing our heartfelt commitment to both. I wish our politicians and other influentials would pay less attention to establishing who is mainstream and more to establishing who may have a point, who may be right.