Roving thoughts and provocations

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Goodbye Serenity

Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos
A stuffed animal and an old man sitting on a bench in Central Park, 1983

I’m having trouble deciding whether I understand the world better now that I’m in my seventies than I did when I was younger, or whether I’m becoming more and more clueless every day. The truth is somewhere in between, I suspect, but that doesn’t make me rest any easier at night. Like others growing old, I had expected that after everything I had lived through and learned in my life, I would attain a state of Olympian calm and would regard the news of the day with amusement, like a clip from a bad old movie I had seen far too many times. It hasn’t happened to me yet. My late father, in the final year of his life, claimed that he finally found that long-sought serenity by no longer reading the papers and watching television. Even then, and I was thirty years younger than he, I knew what he meant. What devotees of sadomasochism do to their bodies is nothing compared to the torments that those addicted to the news and political commentary inflict on their minds almost every hour of the day.

My own inordinate interest in what the lunatics are up to in every corner of our planet has to do with my childhood. When I was three years old in Belgrade, German bombs started falling on my head. By the time I was seven, I was accustomed to seeing dead people lying in the street, or hung from telephone poles, or thrown into ditches with their throats cut. Like any child growing up in an occupied city during wartime, I didn’t think much about it. I was as serene then as I will ever be, sitting among the ruins smoking my first cigarette, riding on a Russian tank with a friend, or watching our school janitor hang the portraits of Marx, Stalin and Marshal Tito in our classroom after the liberation.

Becoming a displaced person after that, one among millions, ending up in country after country, learning one foreign language after another, mispronouncing its words in school or when asking direction in the street, struggling to read and make sense of the history of the place, worrying about some war being declared and even bigger bombs falling on my head, and later, when I was older, fretting about being inducted into the army and sent half-way across the world to die for a cause that made no sense to me or to a great many other humans being capable of thinking—all this contributed to my need to know what plans are being hatched behind our backs.

I mustn’t forget, either, that I was surrounded by political exiles in my youth, many of whom, after having lived either under Stalin or Hitler, or in some cases both, never lost their vigilance. Even after twenty or thirty years in the United States, they gave the impression of keeping a suitcase packed under their beds, ready to flee at a moment’s notice should hippies or some variety of American fascists come power.

Lucky for them, they are all long dead, so they can’t read some opinion piece or hear a congressman or a senator today clamor for the very same police state measures they barely escaped from. Watching the government of the country they grew to love curtailing liberties, spying on its citizens, militarizing its police forces, imprisoning both foreigners and Americans indefinitely without having to prove their guilt, and coming to admire the mindset of authoritarian regimes it used to despise, would have been both terrifying and depressing. They could not help but note that some of their fellow Americans who cheer for the death penalty and for torture, and call the people demonstrating against Wall Street lice-infested misfits and degenerates, are no better than the ones they knew back home and are as eager to persecute, imprison, and even commit murder should they be called upon (I think people who clap for death, love war without end, and adore guns are perfectly capable of it). My mother, who never recalled anything but trouble, and was sure the worst was yet to come, would be saying, I told you so, all day long.

Her generation at least didn’t have the Internet to torment themselves with. This morning, for example, reading around on the web, I discovered that our top political commentators are in complete agreement that the so-called “Grand Bargain” that the two parties failed to agree on last summer and again in November, must be enacted sooner or later. Either geezers like me tighten their belts, stop heating their homes in winter, forget about the cost of living and future social security increases, don’t run to the doctor every time something hurts them and allow their teeth to rot and fall out, or the United States won’t have enough money to fight wars and bail out the big banks.

To anyone who has been paying attention and knew that our political system has long been incapable of solving any of our country’s real problems, none of this comes as a surprise. I remember overhearing an inebriated elderly businessman in a restaurant back in the 1970s telling a lady companion, “The American worker is too expensive and has no future. I can make more money in Asia than in Pittsburgh.” However, I never realized that our ruling classes would be in such a hurry to give up on the rest of us, and not just the workers and the old, but the young people as well, and without a twinge of conscience. My only hope nowadays is that in my dotage I’ve got all of this wrong, and that in President Obama’s second term, or with Mitt Romney’s or Newt Gingrich’s first, we’ll see everything in this country change for the better.

Till then, Happy Holidays!

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