Let’s go back three decades.
My girlfriend and I are stopped at a red light on Lombard Street. (Not the steep corkscrew section of postcard fame, what they call The Crookedest Street in the World. The section I’m talking about is the western end, a mile’s worth of flat, die-straight, multi-lane drag that takes you from the Golden Gate Bridge to Telegraph Hill.) We’re on our way to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store in North Beach for eggplant sandwiches, which, since Mario’s kitchen consists of a chopping board and a toaster-oven, is basically the only thing they serve. (But those sandwiches are so good. I could go for one this minute!) Anyway, I’m in the driver’s seat; my girlfriend — and that really is the word we used in those days — is in the passenger seat, flipping through a Marie Claire. For no particular reason I glance up at the rearview mirror. Interesting, I think: here it comes. Milliseconds later a huge black Mercedes plows into the back of our tiny beat-up Datsun. Shortly after that, I complete my next thought: ouch.
Fortunately, apart from our car’s having been instantly squashed to half its former length, we seem to be fine. The driver of the Mercedes — I’m still looking in the mirror — jumps out and races up to my window, which I crank open. Halfway down, the window suddenly disconnects from its pinion and free-falls, disappearing inside the door with a thud.
“Are you hurt? Are you hurt?” the man asks, his voice quavering with panic. Is he saying it twice for emphasis or addressing us each separately? Dazed, I fail initially to emit sounds of any kind. One lapel of his suit jacket has flipped upward, I serenely observe. Since there’s a lot of crash debris — groceries, books, and cycling shoes from the backseat, pebbles of safety glass from the rear window — scattered onto our laps and shoulders, things probably look far more dire from where he is standing. “Stay calm!” he exclaims, gesticulating at me with a brick-sized electronic gadget in his right hand. “You’re in luck! — I have a car-phone, I’ll call for help.” (You can probably see where I’m going with this.)
Now let’s jump ahead — to the present, give or take …
A couple of years ago a friend challenged me to invent and then try to introduce into common parlance a conceptual phrase. As I understood, he meant something along the lines of famous, well-established coinages like “negative capability,” “ornamental psychosis,” “radical will,” and the truly unforgettable “unamended aura.” So my bon mot would need to gain currency as shorthand for some otherwise very cumbersome idea. Moreover, it would need to achieve this status without ever having done time in a learned text. And the real kicker was that — shady provenance notwithstanding — the idea would need to be a real idea, a real concept, not just some jumble of arcane verbiage that sounded like one. Once I had worked out my idea and named it, I would be granted one year to allow the new phrase to proliferate. My assertion that it might take longer than a year for any phrase, let alone a conceptual one, to attain social fluency went nowhere. The thing would need to go viral, which never happens with language of this kind.
What I came up with — operating on a tautological mechanism not unlike that in Saint Anselm’s familiar proof for the existence of God — was circular morality.
By circular morality one would mean, roughly, acquiring good standing within a community by paying for it with profits earned from exploiting that very community. (Or to invert a popular liturgical axiom: The hand that taketh away is the hand that giveth.) As an illustration, think of any multinational’s PR campaign in which — to the tune of, inevitably, Johann Pachelbel’s mind-numbing Canon — white people wearing Tevas and sprouting three-day beards are seen unspooling fiberoptic cable into African villages.
I failed. I failed to promote the phrase into parlance. More disconcerting still, I failed to get more than a handful of my acquaintance to agree that circular morality — the phenomenon, I mean, not the phrase — might be at all problematic. That it might be a thing. Bright, engaged, presumably politically aware people kept saying brow-scrunching things like, “Well, isn’t it good if the offending party gives something back to the injured group?”
Maybe I’ll try again. I remain fascinated by the idea as such, and especially by the social legerdemain it performs everywhere in our lives.
Meanwhile, still sorting it out, I’ve identified a second meaning, a slight variation: getting credit for a salutary outcome to some calamity of which one’s own behavior was the cause. Consider for instance this headline to a story in The Guardian a few days ago: “Harrison Ford ‘saved several lives’ By Landing on Golf Course.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only lives Ford could have saved were the ones he had first jeopardized by engaging in his aerial hobby. There’s no sense in which he might have said to himself, “OK, today I’m gonna barrel-roll this rusty ’41 Ryan in the skies above Santa Monica and save some bastards.”