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Paul Greenberg / February 17, 2009

This — I Don’t Believe

Whoever runs NPR, aka National Platitudinous Radio, can’t have read Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.” If they have, they must have missed the definitive dissection he performed on an old radio program called “This I Believe,” an Edward R. Murrow special that NPR now has revived.

“The Moviegoer” is one of those little classics (and real spiritual guides, which never advertise themselves as such) that every Southerner should read through once a year – just to hold on to some last shred of sanity in this post-Christian age. An age that no longer has enough character even to be called neo-pagan.

It was a passage from “The Moviegoer” that got me started thinking about NPR and good ol’ Binx Bolling of New Orleans, the book’s narrator.

Maybe you had to have heard “This I Believe” to not appreciate it. Failing that, a new generation can just turn to “The Moviegoer,” pages 102-103 in my prized original paperback edition (Popular Library, 1961, 60 cents), and read Binx’s reaction to the show.

With your permission, Gentle Reader, or even without it, I can’t resist letting Binx explain his addiction to “This I Believe,” for his analysis of it applies to so much of today’s genteel, feel-good, NPR-certified American culture:

“Being a creature of habit, as regular as a monk, and taking pleasure in the homeliest repetitions, I listen every night at ten to a program called ‘This I Believe.’ Monks have their compline, I have ‘This I Believe.’ On the program hundreds of the highest minded people in our country, thoughtful and intelligent people, people with mature inquiring minds, state their personal credos. The two or three hundred I have heard so far were without exception admirable people….

"I doubt if any other country or any other time in history has produced such thoughtful and high-minded people, especially the women. And especially the South. I do believe the South has produced more high-minded women, women of universal sentiments, than any other section of the country except possibly New England in the last century. Of my six living aunts, five are women of the loftiest theosophical panBrahman sentiments. The sixth is still a Presbyterian.

"If I had to name a single trait that all these people shared, it is their niceness. Their lives are triumphs of niceness. They like everyone with the warmest and most generous feelings. …. Tonight’s subject is a playwright who transmits this very quality of niceness in his plays. He begins: ‘I believe in people. I believe in tolerance and understanding between people. I believe in the uniqueness and the dignity of the individual–’

"Everyone on ‘This I Believe’ believes in the uniqueness and dignity of the individual. I have noticed, however, that the believers are far from unique themselves, are in fact alike as two peas in a pod. ‘I believe in music. I believe in a child’s smile. I believe in love….’ ”

“This I Believe” never loses its temper. It never forgets its well-modulated radio voice and risks sounding … alive. It’s so empty, so cliche-ridden, so filled with platitudes, that it’s only natural it would be revived on NPR.

Eventually, poor Binx can’t take the believers on “This I Believe” any more, and fires off a succinct response:

“I recorded a tape which I submitted to Mr. Edward R. Murrow. ‘Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans,’ it began, and ended, ‘I believe in a good kick in the ass. This – I believe.’ I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called ‘a smart-alecky stunt’ and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to ‘This I Believe’ ever since.”

As an act of penitence, no doubt, for daring to let his thoughts show. For Binx is irredeemably nice himself at the core, no doubt the result of his Southern upbringing, which may be why he has such a hard time breaking through the malaise that envelopes the times.

So does “This I Believe,” which seldom strays from its fabricated cheeriness, its cloying niceness, its facade of civility, its unvarying air of insincerity.

In the spirit of the corporate age, “This I Believe” now has returned as This I Believe, Inc., whose Web site informs that it claims certain contractual rights to any submissions aired “so that your thoughtful words can inspire as many people as possible for generations to come.”

Binx would see through that kind of blather at once, though he might be too nice to say so.

What the country needs at this juncture, if I may suggest, is a radio program called “This I Don’t Believe.” As the first unbelievable assertion, I nominate this proposition:

Because no other country or other time has produced such thoughtful and high-minded people, to borrow a phrase from Mr. John Bickerson (Binx) Bolling of New Orleans, La., as many people as possible will be inspired by This I Believe, Inc. for generations to come.

This – I don’t believe.


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