I was in Philly Wednesday night—it was still sunny at 7:00—to debate the Advantage and Disadvantage of Thrift for Life. The debate was sponsored by the Institute for American Values, a New York-based organization funded by the Templeton Foundation and led by David Blankenhorn, the recent apostate on the question of gay marriage—once influentially against, now firmly in favor, as recorded in his NY Times op-ed.
I expected a hostile crowd because David had been presiding over a week-long Teachers’ Institute at the Philadelphia Historical Society, where the mission has been to incorporate “thrift education” in the public school curricula of Pennsylvania. Instead I found myself in agreement with my ostensible opponent, Sheldon Garson of Princeton, the author of an important new book, Beyond Our Means (2011), and even, for the most part, with our interlocutor, David Blankenhorn, who moderated the debate. I believe a good time was had by all, including the substantial audience, although at one point my cell phone rang—the loud ring tone is “Gimme Shelter”—and at another David insisted that thrift could not be questioned as the emotional medium through which the character we all need gets built.
My favorite moment came immediately after the official occasion, however, when Svetlana Goretaya, the administrative brains of the Institute, introduced me to a former student of mine from Rutgers. It seems that once upon a time I had a profound impact on this young woman’s life, and she wanted to thank me for it.
“I was in your cultural history class, the 20th century one, we watched all those weird movies. I was having a hard time that year, and one day somebody asked you what a post-modern culture would actually look like, and you started talking about the ‘universalization of exchange value,’ I think that’s what you said, it was like what would happen if you had to buy what you wanted to be . . . ‘Nothing sacred, nothing stable,’ something like that. So I’m sitting there and I don’t have a clue, what do I want to be, I don’t know, so I close my notebook, and I pick up my backpack, and I leave the class . . . I walk straight to the Registrar’s office and drop out of school.”
“Holy crap,” I say, “I’m sorry, I had no idea—”
“No, it was great, thank you, for that I mean, it really helped me. You won.”
“Well I’m a teacher now, social studies, in a high school just outside of Philly.”
“You mean you won?”
She just laughed.
My girlfriend was there for the debate, having accompanied me on the harrowing journey through a lot of New Jersey on the Turnpike, from Exit 14 (the Holland Tunnel) to Exit 4 (the Ben Franklin Bridge to Philly). She actually wanted to witness the proceedings, having debated David Blankenhorn in print on questions of marriage and sexuality, and having meanwhile maintained some interest in my argument against thrift.
When we arrived at the Historical Society, we were both pretty hungry, looking for the boxed dinners promised to us as late arrivals on the scene. Having procured these cardboard masterpieces by means of Andy Klein, Blankenhorn’s large and agile second-in-command–the left tackle type, you want him on your side–we started drinking white wine and biting into sandwiches, standing on the second floor landing of the fabled Society. When David himself, another even larger lineman, hove into view, seriously clad in black, Andy called him over and there were introductions all around.
I congratulated David on his apostasy, and, believe it or not, he said, “Thanks, you and three other people approve!” We talked a little about his dilemma as a purveyor of traditional American values–whatever they are–who has decided that gay sexuality is, or might be, consistent with them. But it was pretty clear that my girlfriend’s name hadn’t registered in all the back and forth, so I said, “You know, Laura has been writing about these issues for a long time. She wrote Against Love.”
Well, you should have seen the look on his face, if I may borrow the last cliche untouched by country music. I thought David Blankenhorn was going to faint, or maybe set into an Irish jig. He looks at me and he looks at her, and then he looks at Andy as if he’s just been bushwhacked, and we all start laughing. The shock of recognition, and then some.
He says, “Oh my,” and everybody laughs some more. But then the two of them start trading stories about how the parry and thrust of argument in print has been fun as well as enlightening. So there’s a happy beginning to my story.