WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Of all the learned and authoritative nationally syndicated columnists in the country, I am willing to bet not one -- aside from me -- is going to tackle the vexed topic of nudism this week.
Read George Will. He will not touch the topic. Read Ellen Goodman and Maureen Dowd. Both are famously provocative and even playful, but you can be sure they will find nudism too hot to handle, especially as it is floriferous springtime, the sap is rising, and the birds and bees return. Yet, my thoughts do turn to nudism -- nudists, human body parts leaping and dancing under the sun.
Simultaneously, I think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. The New Deal, you ask? What does the New Deal have to do with nudism? Well, there is a significant connection between nudism and the New Deal, as came to mind when I read that another great university is dumbing down its curriculum, the University of Chicago -- more on that anon.
Nudism has its place in contemporary times. The various sexual liberation movements of recent decades have unfortunately overshadowed nudism, but its place remains, whether one be conservative or liberal. Conservative nudists, such as myself, heartily approve of and even advocate nudism in the shower; or, if one is daring, the bath. Liberals, when they think of nudism (which is to say if they can get their minds off necrophilia or whatever their latest sexual liberation movement might be), approve of nudism everywhere else. They approve of it on public beaches, in national forests and probably at the suburban supermarket. As you know, liberals approve of anything that disturbs conventional people. Probably the only reason they do not talk much nowadays about nudism is that it causes much less disturbance than their other enthusiasms.
Yet there might be another reason liberals do not talk much about nudism. It played a role in the New Deal. Thanks to research in the Soviet archives, we now know that there were communists in the New Deal, for instance Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss and Laurence Duggan. There were also nudists, and from time to time they brought Franklin and Eleanor's project to grief.
One of the leading nudists in the New Deal, as erudite readers will recall, was Dr. Maurice Parmelee, a very learned man, draped or undraped. He was a Ph.D., a member of the Institut International de Sociologie, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the American Anthropological Society. He was also in the early 1940s an employee of Vice President Henry Wallace's Board of Economic Warfare, where he advocated "universal nudism" both at work and at play, until -- at the behest of Congress -- Wallace's right-hand man, Milo Perkins, fired him.
Parmelee was not a minor figure who wandered into government. He had been the butt of fun in the 1920s from many sophisticates. The writer and editor George Jean Nathan mocked Parmelee in a pleasant 1929 book, "Monks Are Monks," for writing such silliness as, "Nudity aids materially in bringing mankind closer to nature and in promoting more genuine and sincere relations between the sexes." Nathan jeered, "One shudders to think what the world will be like when Dr. Parmelee's great undressing scheme is universally adopted."
Nonetheless, a dozen years later and at the height of World War II, with America's future in the balance, the New Dealers placed this zany at an important position in one of their great bureaucracies. When in 1942, Rep. Martin Dies called for the naked Ph.D.'s removal, FDR got off a pretty good witticism in Parmelee's defense, telling a press conference that Dies was worse than a nudist. He was an "exhibitionist."
All of which brings us to the University of Chicago's dumbing down of its curriculum. It proposes to replace most of its illuminating and demanding Western civilization core classes with European civilization courses. These courses will begin with Western civilization at the Middle Ages. The foundations of our civilization among the Greeks, the Jews and the early Christians will be obscured. The development of Western reason and spirituality, law and human rights, will get short shrift. What generations of civilized Americans have found laughable will become a mystery to growing numbers of supposedly educated Americans.
It is well known that American universities are becoming sanctuaries for grimly earnest disseminators of the dubious -- women's studies programs, ethnic studies, sex studies -- most of which are not far removed from the silliness of Parmelee. All of these propaganda courses arrive in the curriculum at the expense of serious studies in history, literature and philosophy that are at once intellectually stimulating and that inform students of the origins of the way we live. They also have for generations developed discriminating minds.
That is the mark of an educated person, the ability to analyze right from wrong, seriousness from absurdity, good sense from nudism. Wherever Parmelee is today, who doubts that he sides with those university officials now driving core courses in Western civilization out?