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What We Can And Can't Afford

By rg cantalupo (reviewer)

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What We Can and Can't Afford: Essays on Vietnam, Patriotism and American Life
by W.D. Ehrhart
(McFarland, 2023)

There is a sense of urgency, even sad desperation, in W. D. Ehrhart's new collection of essays, What We Can And Can't Afford. It's as if the "world" has reached its limit of stupidity—ignorance, meanness, cruelty, violence—call it what you want. The sky is falling, and if we don't do something soon, it will only lead to the sky—or the "world"—being gone or lost to radical and ignorant American Fascism. There's a genuine melancholy here, a real grief that the "world" as we once knew it is gone, and all that's left is a Trumpian stupidity that will kill us all or corrupt reason and the American promise to the point of no return. Ehrhart's poem at the end of the book tells it all:

A team of misfits, yes, I guess,
that pretty well describes us,
thinking we could find a home,
build a world we could live in,
one that everyone could live in

That's Ehrhart's hope, his romantic idealism fueled by a progressive philosophy that everything about Trump and Trumpism and where we are politically in America is at a dead end.

This collection is Ehrhart's fourth collection of essays (one published in every decade since 1991), published in various progressive newspapers over the years. The difference here is that many of these essays feel like a call to action today.

As a progressive—though I identify as an independent and am more radical than most moderate progressives—I identify and support most of the ideas and beliefs conveyed in the essays.

And yet, they often are beside the point. It's ok to argue cell phones are destroying intimate or worthwhile human communication, but what's the point of discussing this in a two-page essay? Cell phones, Google, Facebook, and the many new mediums and conveyors of cultural discourse ARE, by their very nature, "superficial" and lead to superficial value systems. But, and this is a big BUT, what will we do about it? This is the problem with the book and progressive philosophy in general. Ehrhart knows this. And, at 73, he realizes there's not much he can do about it. That's where the sadness comes in.

We, "baby boomers," are the generation being "replaced" with millennial values that are often opposed to, or in conflict with, many of the values "we" thought and believed were important. From 2007-2011, I taught American Literature, Remedial Reading, and Creative Writing at Mesa State College in Colorado. These were, for the most part, freshman courses taught at most colleges and universities throughout America. Though my students were intelligent and did the assignments competently and sometimes excellently, they were not what some might call "intellectuals" or striving to go on to Harvard Medical School. They were average 19 and 20-year-olds trying to get a BA so they might get a better job. Ten years later, in 2021, I filled in as an adjunct in another college and discovered the students were not motivated to read or write and often couldn't care less about American Literature or American History. They just wanted to complete the assignments however they could with as little time or energy as possible. Nothing I assigned was relevant to their lives. They just didn't care. It felt as if, in ten years, the "world" had changed.

And that is the culture we live in now. Ehrhart may rant and rave about it but can't change it. Can we "afford" it? Can we do something about it? Do we have alternatives and enough people who can commit to such changes to make it possible? Is there even a tiny constituency who wants to turn in their cell phones for a new Thoreauian lifestyle?

Unfortunately, I don't think so, thus making the whole argument irrelevant. We are old. We are being replaced. And our replacements, for the most part, don't care about what we believe. Take these "new" patriots who want nothing better than to dismantle the constitution, put a dictatorial authoritarian in power, and return to a 1950s world and a pre-World War II racism.

And honestly, I am just as surprised and saddened as Ehrhart to wake up to this 2023 reality.

But let me get back to the book.

There are many excellent and revelatory essays in this collection. I would recommend anyone wanting to read American history—true American history—or wish to learn and debate issues like the 2nd Amendment, 21st Century Luddism, or "what US taxpayers can or can't afford" to pick up or order a copy from McFarland. My wish would be for a group of Millennials or Gen Zers to carry on a discussion about any one of these essays.

However, I can't say the book enlightened or inspired me to do something about the many challenges the book explores. The question remains: What are we to do? And are we simply too old to do much about it? Shouldn't we just graciously pass the torch to our new replacements—the millennial and Gen Z generations—and live our last years in sentimental bliss?

Sure, we can write about the dilemma we find ourselves in. We can hope that Trump goes to prison or Biden does something that will change how most voters see him. But this is a tough road to walk. I pay homage to Ehrhart for writing what needs to be said and for having the clarity to say it, but, like climate change, I want to do something about it constructively. And again, that's where we hit an impasse.

And that's the torch I want to pass on: the challenge of finding ways to make a better world. That should be our mission, our call to act. Maybe we start with "what we can afford" and create a new value system—and a new world—based on "what we can't."

rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire.

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