Long-Time Holdout Learns to Be a Hugger

Commentator Andrei Codrescu disdains public hugging. He traces it back to Frank Sinatra — and lust. But he admits, as he gets older, and fears not seeing people again, he has reluctantly become a hugger.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Bush gave a commencement speech at the Merchant Marine Academy this week. And while he was handing out a diploma, he got a surprise, a big hug from one of the graduates.

Commentator Andrei Codrescu has sympathy for the chief executive.

ANDREI CODRESCU reporting:

I was never big on hugging unless it was the result of such a spontaneous feeling that it couldn't be avoided. I've dodged professional huggers adroitly in many situations, not always successfully. Being hugged against your will is a little like being taken prisoner by the invisible man. You didn't see it coming.

In some countries, like France, you can't avoid hugging and cheek pecking if you know what's good for you. In other countries, like Italy or Romania, men lick women's hands, but that custom is quickly going out of fashion as the locals become increasingly Americanized.

At the same time, Americans are becoming quickly Europeanized and hugging is becoming an epidemic. In the old days, Americans would rather shoot you than hug you. A stiff handshake was about the most that the Americans would prefer, suspecting, quite sensibly, that getting too close to anymore, man or woman, might be misconstrued as invasive and subject to retaliation.

Touching someone was a big deal in the days when there were only a few people in North America, separated by each other by 40 acres and a mule. Back then, if you touched somebody, you were as good as proposing to them. Even the mule, if you touched it the wrong way.

All that prudent behavior ended in the early '60s, when Italian lecherousness via Frank Sinatra became all the rage in New York. In the mid- and later-'60s, the hippies started hugging in California and that phenomenon spread all the way to the Midwest, taking in even small areas of Detroit.

The Sinatra inspired hug was to the hippie hug what a martini was to a joint. Sinatra soused dreamers hugged with sex in mind. A good hug might lead to the sack. The hippies hugged to demonstrate the ubiquitous presence of love supreme manifest in all things, including your fellow creatures, and it was supposed to be an end in itself. But, it often led to a futon on the floor.

In effect, all the hugs of the '60s were expressions of lust for living, communicating the joy of Americans for no longer being so poor that they suspected anyone trying to hug them of picking their pockets. In the decades of suspicion, the '80s and the '90s, the hug retreated to cultish occasions and gang-related retro.

Now, in the early 21st Century, hugging has come back programmatic like everything else. People hug ritually as part of a tensed up program for the conclusion of a religious service. The word hug is usually written down on the handouts so everyone will know what's expected of them.

Weirdly, though, I don't mind. The older I get, the more I hug people. People are getting older and frailer. I see them less often than I used to and every hug could be the last one. I would rather I or they went out with a hug than with an awkward handshake. I guess, I've joined the softies.

SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University.

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