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Passage of Years Makes It Easier to Spot the Wholes in Arguments

August 25, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Seniors are caught in a double bind when it comes to strong opinions on moral, political and social issues. We have been around long enough and seen enough that we know very few issues as black and white; we see the grays with dismaying clarity. At the same time, we are impatient with the weaseling, public relations-type of approach to issues: Don't offend anyone and you won't get in trouble.

The famous French photographer Robert Doisneau, who is 72, spoke to this point in a recent New York Times Magazine article when he said: "When you're young, you see only the details. When you grow up, you see both the details and the whole. That's the peak of everything, it's what you've lived for. When you get old, you forget about the details and see only the whole."

Seeing the whole makes it very difficult to sympathize with one-dimensional advocates, whatever their mission. And if your head works the way mine does, it also makes you want to call attention to these people in the hope that the "whole" might come into better perspective.

For example, if you want to get a quick and violent reaction, the two sure-fire ways are to say something negative about animals or something positive about gun control.

I think the most mail I ever received from four decades of published writing was from a magazine essay I wrote some years ago in which I suggested--light-heartedly, I thought--to dog owners that not everyone shares the affection they feel for their animals, especially when they defecate on one's front steps or howl half the night. I know I could probably double that volume by asking anti-vivisectionists if they would be willing to sustain that position if they knew that their own life or that of a loved one could be saved by medical research on live animals.

But the animal lovers can't hold a candle to the National Rifle Assn. The slightest suggestion in print that we should restrict or control the private ownership of guns--even toy guns--brings an avalanche of mail, all signed by private citizens and all sounding alike. I have a feeling that someone pushes a button at the NRA headquarters in Washington and 10,000 letters are launched. This must be at the same time the most arrogant and the most effective pressure group in the world.

Every independent poll I have read shows that a majority of Americans favor the control or banishment of handguns. Every set of statistics I have seen supports that position. Yet the NRA has its foot on the throat of Congress so effectively that tough gun legislation never gets off the ground--usually on the argument that if we let the camel's nose under the tent, the whole tent will come down. By that line of reasoning, we shouldn't have speed limits on our highways, either, on the grounds that once we allow government to legislate for our own safety, God knows where it will stop.

For years, I have also had a desperate--and hopelessly counterproductive--urge to take on those earnest, self-righteous people who sit behind tables at John Wayne and numerous other airports with a banner across the front saying "Send Jane Fonda Back to Hanoi." They represent the devil syndrome: Blame it on somebody. Then you can excoriate that person as the devil incarnate and you won't have to think about the problem anymore. Best of all, you won't ever have to look at the "whole," which might turn out to be confusing as hell.

I doubt if any of these people have ever read anything Jane Fonda has said or written beyond the fragments they have extracted for their own purposes. When I was writing Hollywood pieces for national magazines, I talked with Fonda at some length. I didn't like her very well because--at least then--she seemed to lack humor and any sense of self-absurdity. But I was startled by the depth of her knowledge and research--something of which most of her airport lobby critics aren't guilty. She knew what she was talking about and could support it in argument.

That is why I was distressed by the recanting she did in her recent TV interview with Barbara Walters. To my knowledge, no responsible critic of the Vietnam War--including Fonda--ever included the men who fought it in that criticism. They were brave and valorous victims of what critics considered, and still do, a totally misguided war. That is the point I hoped she would stress, along with the acknowledgement of the mistakes in judgment she made in trying to end that war. But most of what came through was back-pedaling--in the hope, apparently, of unblocking her husband's political career and mollifying veterans' organizations that were preventing her from filming a movie in several New England locations.

I also had the opportunity of knowing Fonda's father briefly when he was in his early 70s. He allowed some excesses on Jane's part but told me he was "in awe" of his daughter's knowledge and the courage of her convictions. I don't think he would have approved of the Walters interview. But Henry Fonda was an old man then, and he was looking at the "whole" of his daughter as only older people can. It's a pretty good--and frequently uncomfortable--place to be.

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