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Not Being Able To Connect With Historical Or Social References

March 6, 2020

In the Wall Street Journal today I stopped to read a story about the New York Knicks.  Long-time readers are saying, “What?”  ( I am known not to be a sports fan.)  But the story revolved around Spike Lee and a dust-up about what door he could use when making his way into the stadium to see his favorite team play.  Jason Gay is one of the few sportswriters I pay attention to as he has a way with words that makes even this topic worth a read.

Gay did not prove me wrong as half-way through his story he wrote the following line. The Knicks losing Spike is akin to LBJ losing Cronkite.

The line jumped out at me for far more than the story about Lee.  Rather it fit with the narrative that has played out this week.  There was the blowback following the description from MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, who made a remark about World War II following the Nevada Democratic caucuses.

“I was reading last night about the fall of France in the summer of 1940,” he said. “And the general, Reynaud, calls up Churchill and says, ‘It’s over.’ And Churchill says: ‘How can that be? You’ve got the greatest army in Europe. How can it be over?’ He said, ‘It’s over.’ So I had that suppressed feeling.”

One of my on-line friends called the comment obscure, not knowing at all what Matthews was talking about from a historical point of view.  But at the same time, she was demanding that  ‘something be done’ as her Bernie Sanders friends claimed he had made a “Nazi” remark.

Later this week another on-line friend wanted me to know it was utterly absurd that I could possibly defend Joe Biden after he called a woman at one of his campaign events a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier”.  Once again the lack of cultural references and touchstones to our past demonstrates how unattached we are from one another.

It’s not even the first time Biden has used the phrase. At a 2018 campaign event, talking about the Republican senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Biden said: “As my brother, who loves to use lines from movies, from John Wayne movies … there’s a line in a movie where an Indian chief turns to John Wayne and says: ‘This is a lying, dog-faced pony soldier.’”

Biden’s spokespeople said the line comes from a John Wayne film – but it’s not clear it does. There is a 1952 western called Pony Soldier, but it does not star John Wayne, and no one is called a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” in it, according to Slate.  The general consensus seems to be that Biden is probably thinking of the 1952 Tyrone Power film Pony Soldier, in which a character says, “The pony soldier speaks with a tongue of the snake that rattles.”

The continuing erosion of our national commonalities has long been a concern of mine. I voice that issue, from time to time, on this blog.  The lack of reading the classics, having mainstream sources of news where a vast majority of citizens get their news (as in the era of Cronkite), and failing to teach history in a thematic manner all have contributed to this larger problem.

More and more it becomes so apparent that normal discussions have to be watered down or hyper-explained to carry along some in a conversation. It not only is trying on a personal level but works to add more fractures to the national tension that runs high.

P.S. When CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite let it be known at the end of one his broadcasts that the war in Vietnam was lost, President Johnson knew he had lost this country’s faith.  Johnson stated that when he lost Walter, he had also lost the country.

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