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The Old Scout
How to Cleanse America
August 13, 2008

People accuse us old liberals of smarmy self-righteousness and God knows they are right. Four of us had lunch the other day and we agreed before we sat down: no politics. We know what we're going to say so why say it? Self-righteousness is a good old American vice, and we have it, and though preferable to cruelty and cynicism and deliberate dumbheadedness, nonetheless remind yourself: You are not so different from the others.

So when we got onto politics halfway through my tuna sandwich, I said a deliberate unself-righteous thing: "I don't think any of us believe what we say we believe. It's just our neurons responding to a phrase or something, a learned response that makes us feel warm for some reason that goes back to childhood. And in the end it doesn't matter. We're motes of dust on a tiny insignificant planet spinning around in a solar system so vast our minds can't comprehend it, and one day the planet will implode and all will be lost—Beethoven, Plato, Monet, the Minnesota Twins—and it won't make any difference to the cosmos whatsoever, so why should we care who wins the election in November?"

There was a moment of silence and then somebody said that Barack has a commanding lead in Wisconsin and that McCain is in deep mud in Ohio.

What I didn't get to talk about at lunch was my bath last week. Somehow the subject of cleanliness never came up. We covered children, gardens, travel, the Olympics—swimming was the closest we got to the subject—but then somebody got on a soapbox about China and how dearly we will someday pay for the cheap goods.

My bath. (Thank you for asking.) I went to a Japanese spa and sat in a steam bath and after 20 minutes felt some of my liberal smugness trickle down my legs. Extreme heat breaks down moral arrogance—look at equatorial peoples; do they lecture the rest of us about our duty to the environment? No, they don't—and I sat feeling more and more chastened, and then a stout Japanese woman poked her head in and led me into a tiled room and laid me out face-down on a padded table and sloshed me with hot water from a basin and splorted some soap on my back and started scrubbing. She wore rough gloves for this. She rinsed me with pans of hot water and scrubbed some more.

My nakedness did not interest her. I suppose that repeated exposure to the male form will do that, just as plucking chickens might make you a vegan.

It was luxurious, being bathed, all the sploshing and skritching, but also humbling, a naked creature feeling scourged, the sheer ordinariness of it. Here you are, wet and naked, and you are not so different from any other wet naked person. And then came the tiny masseuse with the powerful thumbs, and the steam room again, and a shower, and out into the world I went, cleansed and twanged, somewhat chastened, my neurons trembling. "You look extremely clean," someone told me.

I think I still believe what I believe. Liberals hold that the test of a civilized society is how it deals with the weak, the sick, the powerless. As William Blake wrote:

A Dog starv'd at his Master's Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State.

A Horse misus'd upon the Road

Calls to Heaven for Human blood.

Or as Jesus said, "Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, the same ye do unto me." And so the great test of the state is the state of the public schools and the treatment of the elderly, the ill, the demented, the incarcerated. And so the adoption of torture as American policy, and loosing the darkness of the soul upon some poor manacled taxi driver at Guantánamo who got snatched up six years ago because he had the same last name as somebody on the CIA's list, and some fine young Caltech grad is shoving Ahmad's head into a toilet—this is no small matter. But I will spare you the rest of the sermon.

Let's bring back community baths. If we all got together naked in a steamy room and got sploshed with hot water and scrubbed down hard, we would be better people. Cleaner, too. Before the first presidential debate, put the geezer and the skinny guy in a steam room for 30 minutes and see if it doesn't bring out something fine in them, something profound.

© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.



From the Desk of Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville


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