Many years ago a counterculture cartoon called Odd Bodkins featured little bloblike creatures doing things that weren't raunchy enough to make it an underground comic or funny enough for a mass audience. One particular strip that recently came to mind began with a deceptively simple inquiry: "What Is a Scorpio?" (This was the '60s, and things like that mattered.) The next panel showed one of the blob-creatures sleeping blissfully under a tree, being observed by another with a malicious grin. The latter sneaks up to the dozing one and gives it a hot foot. The ex-sleeper awakens with a blood-curdling scream, whereupon the culprit accuses, "You hurt my ears!" The strip concludes, "That is a Scorpio."
Having known a number of Scorpios and fathered one, it sounded right to me when I first saw it. Lately, though, I realized it wasn't about Scorpios at all. It was about whining. The hot-foot giver committed the perfect whine, so good as to be virtually unrecognizable, almost poetic. ("To be, or not to be?"Äprofound art or a guy who ought to get a life?) Obviously, defining a whine isn't always easy. One person's rational explanation is another's whine. A great deal depends on context, nuance, and the hearer's gullibility. Is "I could have been a contender" a statement of probability, a heart-wrenching summary of a life gone awry, or a whine?
Nevertheless, the essence of a whine is clear: to whine is to pass off responsibility for one's own deficiencies, injuries, failures, shortcomings, and villainies. Politicians are especially good whiners, and part of the reason the subject is on my mind is last November's election, which produced a bumper crop of whines. My favorite came from a senatorial candidate known for his strong stand against illegal aliens. When confronted with the fact that he had employed one, he forthrightly accepted full responsibility, then noted that his wife had hired the person. He lost the election, but this was a Senate-class whine. Perhaps the honor for the all-time top Presidential-class whine goes to our 37th chief executive, who uttered the now immortal, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore."
It is tempting to treat whining as a sign of the decay of the American spirit, a product of our media culture or of a society that rewards victimization. I don't agree. I think it arrived on the boat with the first European settlers (for all I know, there may have been a prior tradition of Native American whining). It's as American as cherry pie and baseball strikes.
Take the austere and sturdy Puritans of New England, among the last folk you would expect to produce whiners. (Witches, maybe; whiners, no.) Yet consider one of their descendants and one of America's keenest intellects, the 18th-century clergyman, Jonathan Edwards. As he left his western Massachusetts pulpit prior to assuming the presidency of what would become Princeton, he declined to let bygones be bygones. "I have often been troubled on every side, yet I have not been distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; cast down, but not destroyed," he declared to his contentious congregation. This is a throughly superior whineÄso muffled in bluster that one almost misses the core of the matter, with which he concludes: "You have publicly rejected me." Edwards then left it to God to judge his local enemies. Bright guy, but a whiner.
Even those symbols of the rugged, individualistic American spiritÄthe men and women who settled the American WestÄwhined. A debunking book, Patricia Nelson Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (W.W. Norton, 1987) portrays those sturdy pioneers of the overland trail as self-cast "innocent victims" who refused to take responsibility for disasters that befell them as a result of their own behavior. So what if they settled on barren land, outraged the Indians, introduced the weeds and pests that came to plague them, and befouled their environment? Someone else surely was to blame.
Even the outlaw John Wesley Hardin considered himself a victim, according to Limerick. He blamed his first murder, committed at age 15 in his native Texas during Reconstruction, on "inveterate enemies of the South. Unwillingly," he declared, "I became a fugitive, not from justice be it known, but from the injustice and misrule of the people who had subjugated the South." I do not know his excuse for his next 20 murders, but it must have been good. The man was a natural-born whiner.
Whining is nothing recent that we can blame on Oprah, Phil Donahue, or People Magazine. It's just that our forebears were better at it than we, and had smaller audiences.
There is another reason I've been thinking about whining lately. Last semester I thought I had finally assigned a whine- proof paper, one that would defeat student ingenuity in finding reasons to turn it in late. The topic and due date were on the syllabus. Later on, I even postponed the due date slightly to accommodate complaints that it came right after a short break. (I've never understood why students need more time to do a paper after a break, but I wanted no excuses.) I twice discussed the topic in class. The due date came and, for the standard fraction of the class, went. There were illnesses, accidents, roommate or family problems, computer crashes, and the inevitable "I didn't want to turn in a bad paper." (My favorite variation on the latterÄan excuse marking the student as destined for success, barring indictment and convictionÄis, "I thought you deserved my best effort.") In other words, there was the traditional mix of plausible excuses and whining.
Naturally, if the papers had been in on time and better written, I wouldn't have taken twice as long to grade them as I had promised, and I would have had this column in on time.
"Guido Veloce" is a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
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