Which is It? You Decide; I Can’t

I think that’s a fairly close paraphrase of an entry in Harry Truman’s diary, in which he agonized whether to overlook several thousands of dollars of fraudulent contracting in building the new courthouse . . . in order to save several tens of thousands of dollars in the overall project cost.  He couldn’t decide which to call it.

So also with one of the most famous photographs of the entire 20th Century, at least here in the U.S.  It’s the photograph of a sailor in Times Square when the surrender was announced.  Carried away by the euphoria of the moment, he reached for — well, we don’t know if she was the first he saw, or the most likely-appearing, or what it was that attracted his attention.  But she was a nurse, a total stranger, and like him she was in the streets when they announced the end of four years of killing and dying.  Who knows whether or if so how many wounded or maimed boys she had seen?  Maybe none.  Maybe some.  Maybe more than she’d ever known could exist.

And he grabbed her and laid on the Kiss of the Century.

This moment has lately become the subject of a bit of a fire storm.  The “feminists” of today, apparently with not enough to occupy their thoughts what with 750,000 more women unemployed now than in January, 2009, with small businesses collapsing wherever one looks — small businesses owned by husband-and-wife teams, or by single women who’ve got children to raise and can’t accommodate a 9-to-5, punch-the-man’s-clock job, or whatever — have decided that The Kiss was actually a sexual assault, possibly a rape, and the complete lack of public outrage (including by the “victim” herself, who stayed in touch with her “attacker” and even re-enacted the scene, publicly, with him decades later) evidence of a pervasive “rape culture.”

Crates and Ribbons (the subtitle of which is “In pursuit of gender equality”) weighs in.  Here’s the money quote: 

“The articles even give us Greta’s own words:

‘It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!’

‘I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vice grip. [sic]’

‘You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.’

‘That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.’

“It seems pretty clear, then, that what George had committed would be considered sexual assault by modern standards. Yet, in an amazing feat of willful blindness, none of the articles comment on this, even as they reproduce Greta’s words for us. Without a single acknowledgement of the problematic nature of the photo that her comments reveal, they continue to talk about the picture in a whimsical, reverent manner, ‘still mesmerized by his timeless kiss.’ George’s actions are romanticized and glorified; it is almost as if Greta had never spoken.

“In a way, I understand this. The end of war is a big deal, and the euphoria felt throughout the nation on that day is an important part of American history.”

And in the other corner, we have Victory Girls, whose wrap-up runs —

“So nowhere does Friedman actually call it assault. After the fact, she went back to work proclaiming that the war was over. And in the decades after that iconic moment, she repeatedly took the time to meet up with the sailor in the photograph.

“But the woman ‘assaulted’ doesn’t get to say whether or not she was assaulted, right? That’s up for the feminazis to decide, because clearly, women are too dumb to make those kinds of judgements for themselves.

“This photo wasn’t an example of sexual assault. It was an example of the exuberance of a nation exhausted by war, having millions of the best and brightest among them either be killed or injured. The photo captures that moment, the emotions behind it and the excitement, relief, and enthusiasm of the day, perfectly.”

 I think the key phrase in Crates and Ribbons is “by modern standards.”  The author is more than just a little bit falling into the same error as those who want to read the 14th Amendment back into the Pilgrims’ dealings with the locals they found in 1620.  People have not always dealt with each other the way we do now; they have not thought of each other in the same ways.  Things that we just laugh off now would have destroyed a person’s position in whatever society that person moved in — think Lydia’s escapade with Wickham.  Things we might view as at least questionable (such as grabbing a perfect stranger on the streets of New York in front of God and everybody and laying a lip-lock on her) or worse just don’t seem from the participants’ recollections and contemporaneous statements to have been that big a deal. 

Recall that all across Western Europe for the year-plus preceding this photo’s date, perfect strangers, both men and women, had been grabbing each other and kissing, as for them nearly six years of slaughter passed from their lives.  Maybe in the relief that they or their family members weren’t to be hauled in by the Gestapo after all, and “disappeared” into Nacht und Nebel (“night and fog”; the program involved snatching people, shipping them off for “Sonderbehandlung” — “special handling,” i.e., killing them — but denying their families all information of their fate; it was adopted specifically as a terror mechanism for the occupied countries), maybe, just perhaps, they overlooked the pervasiveness of the rape culture for a few moments.  Poor deluded Europeans; what a good thing Crates and Ribbons has come along, all these years later, to clear up the real issues for them.

The pictures from Europe had been in the papers, the newsreel footage splashed across screens everywhere there was a roof over the theater to run it in.  Is it remotely plausible to suppose that the people in Times Square that day had no idea what kind of celebrating took place at war’s end?

Context is not irrelevant.  Want to bet any strangers grabbed each other and kissed the night Dear Leader won the election?  Is this euphoria that, 54 years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas we elected president a fellow who, had he been alive then, would have been unwelcome at diners across the nation, and in certain areas would have risked a beating or worse had he defied the prevailing norms, irrelevant to what happened that night?  Say I’m minding my business on a sidewalk and without warning I’m dashed to the ground by a blind-side flying tackle from someone out-weighing me by 100 pounds (hard to imagine that; I’m what they call a “big ol’ boy” around here), breaking my arm in two places and maybe knocking out a tooth or two.  Now, all the elements of a battery are present: (i) intent to cause the contact; (ii) no consent to the contact; (iii) no reasonable belief that I have consented to the contact; (iv) an “objectively” offensive nature of the contact; and (v) actual physical injury resulting from the contact (actually, that last element is not strictly speaking necessary, except to prove up damages).  Now let’s say that I’m tackled because the chap who takes me down sees the runaway truck and sees that I don’t.  Is his benign — charitable, really — motive irrelevant to whether as a moral proposition I should be exercised about my broken arm and missing teeth?  Would I be a thankless wretch to be upset at him?

I wasn’t Greta.  For that matter neither were the authors at Crates and Ribbons or Victory Girls.  Me, I’m going to reserve judgment, which means that I’m not going to get either all misty-eyed about it, or pop-veined splenetic either.  Once upon a time the Reverend Mr. Brontë (Charlotte’s and Emily’s daddy; he’d changed his name in honor of Lord Nelson, whose Sicilian title, bestowed after his victory at Aboukir Bay in 1798, was Duke of Brontë) sent the Duke of Wellington some drawings of what he believed to be an improved musket lock for the British infantryman.  The reverend was an amateur inventor and the Iron Duke the Master of Ordnance at the time.  The Duke returned, “FM the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to Mr. Brontë.  The Duke believes it to be his duty to refrain from interfering in duties over which he has no controul.  Much time would be saved if others were to follow the Duke’s example.” (emphasis mine)

 Much time would be saved if the well-meaning folks at Crates and Ribbons would refrain from involving themselves in duties over which they have no controul.

In closing, however, I must also take exception to the condescension that oozes from the Crates and Ribbons comment that, “In a way, I understand this. The end of war is a big deal, and the euphoria felt throughout the nation on that day is an important part of American history.”  Very respectfully, and with all possible charity and Christian love for you as a fellow pilgrim, you don’t understand one f*****g thing about that picture’s background, or the world which those two people had just escaped.  Not.  One.  F*****g.  Thing.

Let’s hear, just for contrast, from someone who did understand it.  Paul Fussell was an infantry lieutenant who’d been wounded in Europe.  He stopped a shell splinter with his leg.  The sergeant lying in arm’s-reach beside him that day . . . ummmm . . . he’s still in France.  I hear they mow the grass over his head real nice every so often.  Still, Fussell had been patched up and was on his way to Olympic, the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.  And then we dropped the bombs.  In his 1981 essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” he recounts what it was like to be a young male, in the ground forces of the combat branches, and alive when Hirohito put his foot down and said enough was enough, finally:

“But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that ‘Operation Olympic’ would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all. The killing was all going to be over, and peace was actually going to be the state of things.”

I tell you what, Crates and Ribbons:  Go find you a jury box of twelve gold-star mothers (or their daughters, if you please) from World War II, or any other American war since then, and see if you get you a conviction of the man who kissed Greta, that summer day in 1945.

If not, go save some time.

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