The short essays reprinted in Uncivil Liberties first appeared as columns in The Nation between April 22, 1977, and October 10, 1981. The topics treated range from politics to social manners to travel abroad to domestic matters. From the very outset, in his tongue-in-cheek introduction, Calvin Trillin adopts the persona of a “folksy” commentator who worries about his salary, his wife’s spelling, and his country’s future. Engaging the reader’s sympathies, he remarks upon the difficulties of a columnist in contemporary America: according to the (Harry) Golden Rule, everything improbable and bizarre upon which a columnist speculates will have already taken place while the article is in press. Trillin mentions a memorable Watergate column by Art Buchwald in which he ostensibly presents a scenario based on the Watergate scandal to a Hollywood producer, but the scenario is rejected as being “too improbable.”
Trillin’s account of the dilemma faced by the columnist focuses on Harry Golden, a resident of North Carolina in the 1950’s, who perceived that white people did not mind standing up with black people even though they objected to sitting down with them. Golden proposed that the schools be integrated by removing all of the chairs. He called his scheme “the Harry Golden Plan for Vertical Integration.” The irony of this amusing dig at the inconsistencies of bigotry is that after Harry Golden proposed a plan for integration, several libraries were ordered by a federal court to desegregate, and they reacted to the order by removing their chairs. The story of Harry Golden thus epitomizes the problem faced by political and social commentators. Summarizing the unenviable position of the American humorist, Trillin comments: “Someone who writes what has been officially labeled a ’humor column’ about the American scene lives in constant danger of being blindsided by the truth.”
In his column of April 22, 1977, Trillin supplies a quotation attributed to H. L. Mencken, to the effect that the United States will eventually have a president from the Deep South whose brother will gather his “loutish” companions to swill beer on the porch of the White House and snigger over off-color barnyard jokes. To be fair, he turns to another Democratic political figure, Jerry Brown. Reflecting on Brown’s lack of a potentially embarrassing family, Trillin says: “As far as I know, he does not even have any friends.” With great charity, Trillin decides to support Jerry Brown of California for the presidency because he has no sons or daughters to date movie stars. Trillin concludes by recommending that Brown adopt the slogan: “Vote for Jerry Brown—No Immediate Family.”
In an article dated October 18, 1980, Trillin continues to concern himself with the family of the President and to ponder whether Trillin’s own sister Sukey would do anything to embarrass him if he were to become president. His political analyses are generally lighthearted. Attempting, in 1978, to understand why the “New Right” is so aggressively boring, he concludes at length that this style has developed out of a serious and astute political decision by the New Right to model themselves on the Communists. He observes that the Communists in the 1930’s were successful in taking over every group they joined because no one could bear to sit through their speeches. The Soviets, he concludes, decided to bore the workers into submission; the New Right has undoubtedly decided to model its strategies on the successful political tactics of the Communists.
Trillin is just as naïvely intrigued by the hypocrisy of social standing as by political poor taste. After learning from The New York Times Magazine the name of the family who determines the makeup of fashionable society, he listens to the telephone ring, expecting an invitation to their home. He receives calls from the Diner’s Club about his credit rating, from his mother reminding him to write a thank-you note to his cousin Edna, and from Fats Goldberg, the New York pizza baron, inviting him to an opening. Finally, imagining that he has received a phone call from this arbiter of the social world, he replies that he, Calvin of the Trillin, will be right over. Using the same persona of a mild-mannered, well-meaning person who is not always fairly treated by “modern trends,” he responds with overwhelming joy to the news that an ingredient in hot and sour soup and mushu pork may prevent heart disease. This ingredient, a type of tree fungus, is used in certain Szechuan and Mandarin dishes. From Trillin’s perspective, this “good news” is the best possible reply to the pure-food fanatics who snatch eggs from children, chanting anti-cholesterol slogans.
Trillin gives careful instructions to a man whose three-thousand-dollar trips to Europe have been marred by the unwillingness of his wife to tolerate his making a scene. First, he instructs the would-be troublemaker to encourage his spouse to take a stroll. Second, he mentions that the only proper language in which to make a scene is English. He ridicules the notion that good manners require a person to speak to others in their own language when visiting in their country. Such a nicety is fine, he agrees, when it involves talking to shoeshine boys; it does not apply to headwaiters and hotel managers. Third, it will not hurt to refer casually to your wife as “the principessa.” Those Europeans who believe in American-style democracy have already emigrated to some place like the South Side of Chicago. The humor of this sketch again depends on Trillin’s presentation of himself as the wholesome family man who is trying to keep from being devastated by the sophisticated European manager.
The same kind of naïve rhetorical stance underlies the humor in a column which appeared on November 10, 1979. While the Trillin family is eating cereal for breakfast, Trillin’s daughter asks...
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