Culture Notes


Issue: "Dirty little secret," Aug. 23, 1997

The last beatnik

The death of novelist William S. Burroughs, from a heart attack at age 83, marks the final passing of the Beat generation. Poet Allen Ginsberg, who made the transition into the flower power of the '60s, died earlier this year, while novelist Jack Kerouac-born again as a Catholic and as a conservative-died in 1969. Of this influential triumvirate, Mr. Burroughs represented the darkest side of American bohemianism. His novel Naked Lunch (1959) was a heroin-induced reverie, whose randomly sequenced chapters were filled with paranoid obscenity and sadomasochistic pornography. The court case that allowed the book to be published in the United States in 1962 effectively dismantled the nation's obscenity laws and opened the door for the anything-goes mentality that continues to shape America's literary culture. Though a self-proclaimed homosexual, Mr. Burroughs was married twice to women. His second marriage was to the love of his life, Joan Vollmer, whom Mr. Burroughs shot and killed. He said that he was trying to shoot a glass off her head, but missed. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, he fled Mexico, where the incident occurred. He later said that the experience helped turn him into a serious author. Despite the ravages of heroin addiction, Mr. Burroughs lived to a good old age. He wrote other books, such as Junkie and Queer, and experimented with a technique called "cut-ups" in which he cut and pasted passages from other people's writings in random order. In his final years, Mr. Burroughs was lionized by today's young trendsetters. He wrote a song with Kurt Cobain, appeared in music videos for Ministry and U2, and shot a Nike ad. The groups Steely Dan and H?sker D? took their names from phrases in his novels, and Mr. Burroughs, who did have a way with words, is credited with coining the term "heavy metal." Admired by academic critics for his "transgressive" writing, Mr. Burroughs is being mourned as a literary genius. "The passing of William Burroughs," said one member of the literary establishment, "leaves us with few great American writers." The comment is telling: first, that Mr. Burroughs is considered a great writer; and second, that he is considered so much better than most of the authors still alive.

Sissifying the military

In today's bootcamps, Army drill instructors are not allowed to raise their voices. Instead, they must help recruits avoid stress and raise their self-esteem. In the Marines, obstacle courses are called "confidence courses," with footstools to make it easier to climb over the walls. In the Navy, recruits are told that it is OK to cry and are given "blue cards" to give to their trainers when they are feeling blue. Military units are evaluated with the help of "focus groups" that assess not combat readiness but whether or not soldiers "feel very close." As reported by syndicated columnist John Leo, today's military-like education, business, and other institutions-is capitulating to the current culture of therapy, with its pop psychology, self-image coddling, and touchy-feely sensitivity exercises. The military brass says the changes are to accommodate today's young people, who are unaccustomed to discipline and authority and who easily have their feelings hurt. G.I. Jane's fantasy storyline aside, Mr. Leo shows that in the real military, the main factor in this kinder, gentler approach to warrior formation is mixed-gender basic training and the pressure to make sure that women perform as well as men. Because women were twice as likely to get injured as men during basic training, standards were lowered for everyone. Carrying a stretcher had always been a two-man job; now four people are required. The principle of "comparable effort" allows women to make up for poor performance in one area by scoring higher in areas in which they excel. A woman who flunks hand-to-hand combat can make up the points by scoring high in map-reading. "Gender norming" sets different criteria for men and women. Climbing ropes have a yellow line where women can stop. Men must do 20 push-ups, but women just have to do six. Throwing hand grenades had to be gender normed when it was found that 45 percent of female Marines could not throw them far enough to avoid blowing themselves up. Such affirmative action policies are resulting in lower standards, bad morale, and a feminized military. Many officers and enlisted personnel are opposed to the new policies and are pushing for an end to mixed-gender training, but the political pressures-especially in light of sexual misconduct scandals and charges of sexism in the ranks-are intense. Beginning with the Aristotelian question, What is the purpose of the military? and setting policies accordingly might serve the nation better in the event of some politically incorrect event such as a war.

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