When Ulysses S. Grant sat down to write his memoirs in 1884, he needed the cash. Rather, his wife needed the cash. Grant was sick and destitute, and he knew Julia Boggs Grant would be a widow soon. He did not want her to live in penury.
Grant had no idea he was a gifted writer. The prose that spilled out of his mind during the last year of his life was natural and engaging. When his editors received his drafts, Edmund Wilson relates, they were amazed at how little work Grant’s copy needed.
For anyone like me, who has spent years struggling to write well, Grant’s off-the-cuff performance sounds like the story of a man who, in his sixties, takes up the fiddle on a lark and discovers he can play Beethoven. Some people just have it.
In one of my first posts to this blog, I praised Orwell’s four reasons for writing, which he lays out with admirable clarity in the essay “Why I Write.” Scaled down, I claim Orwell’s reasons as my own for scribbling as I do. Namely, I write for notoriety, pleasure, to record events, and to advocate a political point of view.
Writing, it turns out, is a deeply subversive act. If you use it to discover your own mind, you can never be bought by the established powers. They cannot buy you with TV. They cannot buy you with flavor-engineered food. They cannot buy you with religion. You discover the thing Saul Bellow believed about all of us–that we are eligible to be noble.
Recall that Huck Finn didn’t decide not to give Jim up to the authorities until he had written a letter saying that he would do so. When he saw his own words, which would return Jim to his Christian enslavers, Huck tore the letter up, saying he would rather go to hell than do the right “Christian” thing.
If you try hard enough to set down what is in your mind, you end up defying mass culture and making the fateful choice that Erich Fromm invites us to make in his landmark book To Have Or To Be? You can live your own life. You need not have it shaped and handed to you by product designers, ad men, focus groups and SUPERPACs.
This call to high-minded rebellion may sound silly coming from of a hillbilly-bureaucrat-failed-philosopher like myself, but it is not. Writing, or any creative act, awakens and recognizes everyone’s eligibility to be noble. Recall who Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell’s 1984, was before his rebellion–a cowed, callous, isolated cog in Big Brother’s propaganda machine. And what was his original act of defiance, the tiny sin that brought on the inquisition that caused his torture and death? It was his keeping of a journal. His writing was what he was trying to hide from the cameras the first time we encounter him in his apartment in 1984.
What does this have to do with Ulysses Grant and his unexpected writing prowess? Writing is inextricably linked to one’s motives, which I believe are always part of the existentialist project of discovering and creating oneself. In his preface to his memoirs, Grant lays out his reasons for writing, with deeply touching understatement. For such a long book, about such an eventful life, Grant’s memoirs are introduced with a bare minimum of throat clearing, only about a page. And yet Grant reveals so much. His preface in full:
“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.
Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication. At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of a failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly act of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial, and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, for good or evil; I hope for the former.
In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.
The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work. I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time. I have used my best efforts, with the aid of my eldest son, F. D. Grant, assisted by his brothers, to verify from the records every statement of fact given. The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.
With these remarks I present these volumes to the public, asking no favor but hoping they will meet the approval of the reader.
U. S. GRANT.
MOUNT MACGREGOR, NEW YORK, July 1, 1885.
Grant’s modesty is enough to make one cheer his good luck at being such a natural writer. Why did he write? For the reasons he says–for the money. To wrap things up before he died. To put his perspective on the record.
In his opening sentence Grant implies a whole philosophy of history, and it happens to be the one Tolstoy illustrates in the thousand pages of War and Peace–that life is too fluid and complex to take shape according to our individual choices. Compare, if you will, the narcissistic, unthinking bluster of George W. Bush’s political memoirs, Decision Points. Grant stands, well, not so much like a giant, but like an adult to Bush’s childish mind.
And if that’s not impressive enough, Grant claims no special power inherent in his perspective as General of the Union Army and President of the United States. His memoirs are just one version of history, which may clash with or do injustice to others’s recollections of the same events. He casts the writer’s die and hopes his book ends up doing some good. He admits it might not. All he can claim in the end is that it seemed important to him to write it.
Grant thanks his friends, and he recalls with fondness the help his family gave him. Although he is writing on a deadline imposed by his own approaching death (so was Orwell, as he typed out 1984), Grant unleashes no Sturm und Drang, only quiet decency.
His work done, Grant died one week after finishing his memoirs. He was a great writer.
A professor of mine used to say, don’t bother debating your opponents over terminology. Let them have the terms they want; get to the substance of the dispute.
Apt advice for discussing “socialism,” at least here in America. The average American’s understanding of the term has been so warped by ignorance, misinformation, and the collective guile of several presidential administrations that it is safe to say almost no one here actually knows what it means. Many Americans do, of course, know what they mean by “socialism”–perhaps a meme about not being able to choose one’s doctor in Canada, or anything that goes on in Venezuela. Americans’ cartoon ideas of socialism are so lively, it would feel unkind to dissect them. And so I won’t.
The purpose of my essay is not to try to educate anyone as to what “socialism” really means. It is rather to demonstrate that our country already has socialism as it is popularly understood, and the version we have is for dummies. Time and again, our government’s interventions in the free market serve to award political power and economic advantages to the numerically tiny class that already has those commodities in great abundance, and it fools us dummies into feeling, not just good about the whole arrangement, but patriotic and self righteous. There goes America, we say, pride swelling in our hearts, rewarding the intrepid few who fight their way to the top of the heap.
In other words, I am here today to illustrate the truth of Gore Vidal’s quip that in America, we have socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. Vidal was spot on.
How can this be? Well, consider first the one thing that really steams us when we start thinking about “socialist” practices–tax-and-spend handouts that remove economic risk and therefore incentivize economic dependency and other kinds of bad behavior by the poor.
This is the moral hazard argument. We reason thus: If the maternal state steps in to stay the hand of the child reaching for the hot stove–or even succors to the child whose hand has been burnt–the young sprout will never learn to get along in the real world. Excessive mothering produces poor pragmatic reasoners. A better society is attained if the state keeps a cool paternal distance and allows hand-burning to occur at its natural rate.
Our thought leaders often bring this claim to life with a cast of despicable stereotypes. The “welfare queen” does regular service here. If we decent taxpayers keep unstintingly laying out lavish cash benefits for the welfare queen, where will her lifestyle of merry procreation stop? With us propping up her signature bad habit, it is no wonder she gathers so many other unsavory behaviors around her–drug use, absentee fathering, urban grammar.
Our elected officials’ most common entry point for addressing moral hazard is the perennial topic of “entitlements reform.” The state, they say, must stop abetting the bad behavior of poor people through handouts. Our war-strapped budget simply cannot keep doling out food stamps and WIC peanut butter to anyone holding out their hands to receive these riches. Sooner or later, such profligacy will sink even our great ship of state.
But guess what kind of handouts we can afford? Much larger ones that keep the rich afloat as they do the necessary and heroic work of growing the economy. The great bank bailout of 2008 was one such instance of massive corporate welfare. Rather than letting giant banks taste the consequences of the subprime mortgage crisis they created, our government urgently rushed cash to them, on the argument they were too big to fail. Thanks to the $700 billion authorized by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, many bank presidents who had been facing ruin in 2008 kept their jobs and were even able to restore their multi-million dollar bonuses in 2009. Emergency stabilized!
What else makes us think of socialism? Why, federal jobs programs, of course–big, flabby organizations of make-work day laborers who in fact accomplish nothing. If we just avoid tinkering with the labor market by creating fake jobs, real jobs would arise naturally from a rational demand for them. Market conditions will of course produce a bit of see-sawing in the employment rate, but that’s life in a dynamic, highly developed economy. Workers who are both disciplined and flexible will prosper even on the choppy sea of technological change and supply-and-demand variability.
What we don’t want is anything like FDR’s New Deal, which created jobs and whole new employment agencies out of thin air. Like cash handouts, this kind of market intervention invites moral hazard, conditioning workers to believe they deserve jobs and they can plan a future. But free-market orthodoxy says workers should not learn to kneel and sup at the trough of public funds–they must roll up their sleeves and make themselves useful to America’s private wealth creators in whatever way the market demands.
It’s nice thought, but it ignores the fact that our government in fact runs a massive jobs program, for gentlemen only, in defense and security. This program is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In 2013, according to the Washington Post, our government payed out $100 billion for intelligence (just one sector of defense), 70 percent of which went to private companies, which are supposed to be the avatars of capitalism.
While I admit such companies may cultivate impressively skilled work forces and even develop significant capacity to innovate, the point to bear in mind about them is that they exist because they do precisely what we rugged capitalists say should never be done–they find a richly-endowed a teat of public expenditure and fix their mouth firmly to it. Scale seems to make a difference in how we view this behavior. The “welfare queen” who pulls in a few thousand dollars a year from the public trough is a parasite, but the CEO of a large defense firm who strikes a vein of billions is a good man doing good things for the country.
Just bear this in mind the next time you hear a rich old senator like Mitch McConnell go on about the need to reduce entitlements. He’s talking about the welfare queen’s entitlements, not the defense contractor’s. And he’s taking money from ad men who are paid to make sure we taxpayers never draw a parallel between the two.
Which brings me to the next feature of socialism for dummies–pointless, undisciplined government spending. The histories of socialist countries offer numerous object lessons in the inefficiency of ideologically driven spending. These range from the silly to the tragic. As socialist governments created “industrial cities” throughout eastern Europe in the 1940s and -50s, they spent much more on building theaters and “literary halls” than venues of low entertainment. This in deference to Marx’s doctrine that happy, fulfilled workers would naturally wish to exercise their minds at the end of the day. What the workers wanted, but didn’t get (at first), was bars. They did get them, eventually, but only after socialist governments had wasted millions on theaters that went unused and eventually sprouted with weeds.
Anyone who has read Orwell’s Animal Farm can recall the animals’ (but really just the pigs’) decision to build a large windmill. It would power their barn, reduce their labor and ease their lives. They spend the better part of a year putting their excess labor power into building the windmill only to have it collapse in a storm because it is poorly designed. Badly demoralized but still undaunted, they pick up the pieces and try again, oblivious to the fact that they’re throwing good money (or its equivalent in labor) after bad. Why do they do it? Their ruling class has determined they must. For the animals to carry their socialist project of liberation through, they must build this technological marvel. It is a sacred priority.
We also do this in America. Our defense and security jobs program is permitted by the people to grab lavish amounts of cash to spend on contract cost overruns and even projects that go nowhere. To take just the latest and most glaring example, in June 2017 the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built by Lockheed, had reached cost overruns of $406 billion despite having met none of its development targets. It was originally scheduled to be fielded in 2008. It is still fumbling toward partial capability.
Why do we allow so much of our tax revenue (and, let’s face it, borrowed sovereign wealth) to sluice into the coffers of Lockheed and the other defense giants to no good purpose? There are the usual grubby political reasons, of course, most of which have to do with pork. No politician in his right mind will vote to defund a Lockheed contract if he has constituents who benefit from it.
But the overarching, unassailable reason we allow such profane waste is an ideological one. The defense of our country is a sacred value, and we cannot put a dollar figure on it. This is what Ronald Reagan meant in 1983 when he said that “defense is not a budget item.” There is no amount of money we won’t spend on defense, even if it means slopping billions over the side of the public trough, to be supped up by billionaire CEOs and their millionaire minor coteries.
Often I think most Americans believe socialism is just tax-and-spend government. Whatever. I’m not going to try to argue. What I have tried to argue today is that our government does tax and spend, pretty lavishly on some things. The vast majority of what gets spent, though, goes to the rich, those who have learned how to feast on the state’s largess while insisting to us of the 99 percent that they’re just smarter and harder working than us and therefore deserve to be at the top of the capitalist heap. This is a lie. You should not believe it. Our capitalist masters live on socialist entitlements, but they have convinced us we should worship them as heroes of rugged individualism. This is socialism for dummies indeed.
You’ve probably never heard of the early 20th-century Indian nationalist Vinayak Savarkar. I know I hadn’t before I read Pankaj Mishra’s 2017 book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. But you’ve heard of Hitler; you’ve heard of Mussolini.
Like those famous despots, Savarkar believed in a strong sense of national identity based in racial purity, traditional values, military strength, and the redemptive power of violence. This is the usual laundry list of nationalist creeds. But there’s one more thing. Scan the beliefs of Savarkar and the better-known militant nationalists of the 20th century, and you invariably find misogyny too. Fascists, from Hitler to Savarkar, hate, fear and scorn women.
One way or another, they all picked up on Nietzsche’s charming advice to men: “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!”
Savarkar went to England in 1902 to study under Herbert Spencer. Under Spencer, Savarkar wrote that when he reflected on the restrained way Indian nationalism had developed, he lamented how limp-wristed his countrymen had been. In particular, they had given in to “‘suicidal ideas about chivalry to women’ that prevented Hindu warriors from raping Muslim women.”
Unsurprisingly, Savarkar believed more broadly in the emancipatory power of violence, not just for bringing women in line. Every humiliating curtailment of Indian power, he believed, could be redeemed through an act of violent coercion. “In his world view,” Mishra writes, “revenge and retribution were essential to establishing racial and national parity and dignity.”
Throughout Age of Anger, Mishra makes a powerful case that violent nationalists–right up to the sadistic loyalists of ISIS’s caliphate–take their ideas from a surprising source–Europe’s intellectual history. I have much praise for this aspect of Mishra, to be delivered in a separate book review.
What riveted me to his pages, though, was not Mishra’s main argument, powerful as it is. What held me was the uniformity with which he depicts all recent fascists espousing the hatred of women. By the middle of the book, misogyny no longer seemed to me like the spare change of fascism. From Hitler to Mussolini to their lesser known forbear Gabriele D’Annunzio, strong men evince a need to subjugate women, to take revenge on them for achieving parity with men.
Here is one of D’Annunzio’s main expositors trumpeting the ideas their movement tried to implement when D’Annunzio took over and briefly ruled the Adriatic city of Fiume in 1919 (my italics):
We want to glorify war–the world’s only hygiene–militarism, patriotism, the destructive acts of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.
Upon reading that sentence, I started to get the tingling sense that misogyny was no mere appendage to fascism. Could it be an organic part of the whole setup? To set the right tone for his brave new city state, D’Annunzio invented the goosestep, the sleek black party uniform and the stiff-armed fascist salute. All that and woman hatred. Sounds like a merry place.
Now fast forward to today’s reactionaries. Few of them are so bold as to keep up the full trappings of 20th century fascism. (Although some do echo it. Check out GQ`s analysis of the “Fashy” look at Charlottesville’s 2017 white nationalist rallies.) But what they do keep up is the besetting sense of having been victimized by weaker parties, and, boy, is there a list of them. This is what marks fascists off, from Europe’s obscure nationalist ideologues right up to Charlottesville’s tiki torch bearers of 2017–the feeling that their natural prerogatives as the master sex have somehow been undone.
More broadly, the defining sentiment of today’s pro-Trump, pro-Brexit populists is the feeling of being put upon, of having been disadvantaged by alien ideas that lack popular legitimacy. Effete bureaucracies, such reactionaries believe, have constructed a system of airy-fairy political fictions that unfairly constrain the individual’s scope of action and deplete his identity. Meanwhile, one’s competitors outside the liberal order run rampant, their natural “rights” untrammeled by polite society.
Since the French Revolution, the liberal project has had as its centerpiece the idea that all humans are equal and therefore equally deserving of political rights and freedoms. Fascists, though, are quick (and correct) to sense the frailty of this creed. It only stands up if the masses believe it.
Like the Indian nationalist Savarkar, today’s outraged reactionary awakes one sordid morning, surveys the dirty tricks used by pathetic schoolmasters trying to run his life, and says, “I didn’t vote for this. And furthermore, what I’m being taught is patently false.” The world speaks a different, harder language to the brave few who have ears to hear it.
Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th-century Russian writer, probes the simmering rage the born-again nationalist feels when he sees how the elites have hoodwinked him into a life of unmanly submission. Once you’ve been red-pilled, you cannot fail to see that all your schooling was really just an emasculating sham, a war against basic facts:
Our education deprived us of religion; the circumstances of our lives gave us no solid education and deprived us of any chance of mastering knowledge; we are at odds with reality and are justified in hating and despising it, . . . .
Nothing is so frustrating as dealing with someone who cannot accept reality. We feel such a person denies mankind’s very hope for survival. Live with your illusions if you must, we feel, but don’t try to foist them off on the rest of us. We’ll take good, hard reality, as unwelcome as it might be. This is more or less what Belinsky is saying. He hated the fictions that polite society had imposed on him.
As I read Mishra, I kept coming back to a disturbing, almost radioactive realization. The clearest, hardest reality of the communal human experience is the male’s brute physical superiority. It is undeniable that males seek access to sex above all else, and they are fitted by nature to be able to win it by force. This is a plain biological fact. Only a statistically insignificant number of females can fend off males who are determined to rape them.
This hard, unwelcome fact sits at the very basis of human relations. Getting over it is the first step of setting up a rule-bound society.
There are very few things we can say humankind has done to its credit. The social contract, though, is one of them. By alienating our natural prerogative to use violence, and by transferring that prerogative to a state ruled by law, we make possible a safe, sane community of citizens. Rape need not rule our procreative relationships, just as extortion, theft and murder need not rule agriculture and commerce.
But make no mistake about the foundation of the social contract: it is a fiction. It only holds up if almost all of us agree to abide by it and treat it as an unquestionable article of faith. Strip away the trumped-up consensus behind it and we are back to the hard truths of the natural world, a world red in tooth and claw.
America has reached a point today where our reactionaries ache for a return to hard realities. America is white. It has borders. Its military is supreme. Money is our goal. We are a meritocracy, not a welfare agency. We carry guns and Stand Our Ground. If you feel threatened by these realities, buck up. The world is what it is. Believing in a rights-based utopia inevitably cedes advantages to the unfit. Mercy, charity, indeed all of morality, is a fool’s game.
America’s reactionaries today feel deeply put upon by all the advantage-ceding we’ve been doing in recent decades. We let the UN push us around. The Paris Climate Accord tries to tell us what to do with our smokestacks.
Animating this resentment is the feeling that the liberal order has emboldened an army of free riders, ranged insolently against us and laughing at our weakness. Chinese industrialists out-produce us by polluting at will. Petro-states ridicule us as they drill without restraint. The President of the Philippines just kills drug dealers, smirking at our enslavement to courts and due process. Iran captures and humiliates our sailors because they know how desperately we want(ed) the nuke deal to work. The list goes on. The whole world is laughing at us.
The reactionary wonders, where did we begin to buckle under to the effete madness of the liberal order? If you trace the constraints imposed by rule-bound society all the way back to their theoretical origins, you find the culprit.
The original, and arch free rider is the woman. Note bene: all the 20th century’s fascist strong men have thirsted to re-subjugate women and drive them back toward the state of nature, where they depend for their safety and well-being on the man’s willingness to restrain his natural prerogatives. Is this simply because fascists are unpleasant people? Let’s look at a good example of one and try to work it out.
Hitler outlined the first step back toward better, more natural times in these terms:
In the really good times of German life, the German woman had no need to emancipate herself. She possessed exactly what nature had given her to administer and preserve; just as the man in his good times had no need to fear that he would be ousted from his position in relation to the woman. If the man’s world is said to be the State, his struggle, his readiness to devote his powers to the service of the community, then it may perhaps be said that the woman’s is a smaller world. For her world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home.
Hitler cribbed this idea from Nietzsche, who (disingenuously) said that the main purpose of women was to produce warriors. The man’s happiness is “I will;” he rhapsodized; the woman’s, “He wills.”
When Belinsky raged against polite values that were “at odds with reality,” he was attacking, among other things, the “artificiality” of the idea that men must hold themselves back from assaulting and subduing women. Look around you: the animal kingdom shows us plainly that males are patriarchs and predators. Why pretend otherwise?
Male supremacy is the natural endpoint of the reactionary’s longing for a return to the good old days. Today’s MAGA nostalgist is no less defined by men’s resentment at their loss of original power than were Hitler, Mussolini, D’Annunzio, Belinsky, and Savarkan.
Until I read Mishra, I had always considered Donald Trump’s contempt for women to be an accidental side effect of his predominant cloddishness. The fact that he told Howard Stern his ideal date was “a great piece of ass” was a crass but honest admission of casual misogyny–merely the least savory part of his unlovely personality.
But through Mishra’s expose and the political genius of Steve Bannon, I learned that Trump’s attitude toward women is much more than that. It is a broad, deep indicator of national mood here in America. It is part of a wave of resentment among ordinary Americans who feel put upon and disadvantaged by polite society.
Bannon revealed this part of us to ourselves in July 2016. When the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape surfaced, Donald Trump’s closest advisors counseled him that his political run was over and he should quit the presidential race. Trump’s smirking boast of sexual assault, they calculated, was beyond the pale.
But not Bannon. He knew better. He alone saw the winning strategy, which was: Ignore the tape. It doesn’t matter. And he was right.
What did Bannon know about the American people that no one else knew? For starters, that we were sick and tired of twisting ourselves into pretzels over political correctness. The college boys telling us what was right and wrong were the same class that produced Bill Clinton. Fair enough, but still, how could Bannon have gauged how far we had gone, that we were actually ready for an outspoken enthusiast of sexual assault to helm the nation? This insight was a real, almost Nietzschean, flash of brilliance.
It all comes down to Trump’s fear of being laughed at, which turns out to be our fear of being laughed at. Take any issue you like on which Trump has made a strong stand–border security, immigration, trade, corporate taxation. His policy ideas on all these issues reduce to the idea that America, the strongest country on earth, has given away its power and ceded a crucial advantage to some weaker party who is now in a position to laugh at our self-handicap.
Well, in a way, Trump is right. The advance of liberal humanism over the last 300 years is largely a history of powerful parties agreeing to limit their own ability to coerce and subjugate weaker parties. That’s the whole point of the social contract, which I just mentioned.
Generally speaking, liberalism is not a static idea, but a form of political activism that seeks to empower disadvantaged communities with new rights. The ending of slavery, to take one example, actively limited the coercive power of southern planters, producing a more just and prosperous society, which no decent person would reject today.
But Trump’s natural reflex is to view the liberal surrender of power in microeconomic terms–from the enslaver’s point of view, so to speak. Forget the long view of macroeconomics, or the mamby-pamby talk of history arcing toward justice. If I’m competing against someone in my line of business, and he has not alienated certain advantage-giving powers which I have alienated, that person has an undeniable edge over me, at least in the short run.
This kind of thinking is Trump’s entry point into every collective political cause from environmental protection to gay marriage to, yes, women’s rights. Every time we dream up some new law to advance the rights of a hitherto weaker party, we shoot ourselves in the foot. That is, we shoot ourselves in the big male, straight, white, Christian, capitalist foot. Meanwhile, what of our more tribal competitors who have not given in to such self-handicap? They’re laughing at us.
What does this have to do with the provocative claim in the title of my essay? This: If you trace the liberal project of advantage-ceding back to its theoretical origin, you arrive at the deeply discomfiting fact I mentioned in connection with the social contract. As beasts, we are a male-dominant species. The man’s resort to physical superiority is the ultimate guarantee of access to sex, the thing he is biologically determined to value above all else.
As social beings, though, we pursue what Thomas Hobbes, the discoverer of the social contract, termed a more “commodious life” than the one afforded by rape, murder and pillage. The paradox of this better life, though, is that we really do have to twist ourselves into pretzels to accommodate new rights-giving moral norms. That’s the price of morality. Someone really does pay a price for the spread of fairness and decency, and in a species that must have begun with males according all the original advantages to themselves, it is the predatory, patriarchal male who will inevitably witness his power flowing to others as civilization expands.
So, I am not saying that all Trumpists are (necessarily) misogynists. But I am saying they’re playing with fire. Roll back the liberal assault on “traditional” values too far, and you will return to the brute male supremacy of the jungle. If you doubt this warning, take note of how many nostalgic, authoritarian strongmen hated women, as I’ve tried to indicate here. It’s no accident. Read Mishra, and this conclusion will stare you full in the face.
Every time Trump mocks, insults, demeans or otherwise objectifies a woman, he is voicing a sadistic reminder that women’s equality is a fragile civilizational fiction, which can be violently revoked at any time by any sufficiently pissed off man. This is the meaning of sexual assault. Men may have lost the war for gender supremacy, but the true Trumpist believes an endless rearguard action to demoralize and immiserate uppity women is nonetheless a desirable state of affairs. If we were to recognize that women are truly, irrevocably equal with men, the next thing you know, they’d be laughing at us.
I recently moved to suburban Virginia, USA, and I do not fit here. Not at all.
Logic tells me this could be for one of three reasons:
I do not fit in the suburbs.
I do not fit in Virginia.
I do not fit in the USA.
There are many potential variants of these these propositions. My discomfort is probably the result of a tangle of factors. Wisdom says: wait for the rough edges to wear off. There are happy humans around you: they can’t all be misfits.
I blogged a couple weeks ago about the main reasons for my discontent: my new environment is set up to herd humans into a dead-end life of car-driving and money squandering. If you enjoy piling into your car for the fifth time on any given day to travel a few miles to buy a piece of junk from a big-box wasteland roamed and staffed by zombie cretins, well, voila–the perfection of mankind exists right in my neighborhood. Come check it out.
If, however, you wish to do something noble or decent, like walk somewhere useful or look upon a public space of even minuscule appeal, you are–to put the point as politely as it deserves to be put–shit out of luck.
There is an antidote to my unease, of course. As I I told my wife the other day, adult humans can and do get used to anything. This idea is from Camus, and he was right. Even in Europe’s 20th-century death camps, prisoners conversed, got in petty squabbles, had secret love affairs. A few survived, like the fabled frogs, in water that was insensibly being brought right up to the boiling point. Like the frogs, they got used to it without becoming uneasy.
Mutatis mutandis, this will happen to me too. I will, in all certainty, wake up one bright suburban morning in the not-too-distant future and discover that, like Winston Smith, I have given up the fight and learned to love my tormentor. I will have forgotten my dreams of being able to walk anywhere useful or to shop without brooking idiotic harangues for my personal data.
Well and good for grownups, I suppose. We will survive, albeit with diminished dreams. But if Camus is right about us adults, surely it is Whitney Houston who is right about our children, and herein lies a deep problem. I believe that children are our future. What if my placid surrender to a life gravitationally fixed to the bogus, the tawdry and the wasteful denies my children a life spent in mindful pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful? Have I not done them an irreparable harm by giving up?
Here is the thing I can’t get past. Very recently, my children could do the most amazing thing. Each one could walk out the door, point her nose in the direction she wished to travel and then by god go there. It might have been a bike, a bus, a streetcar, or her own God-given feet that propelled her, but there she went, free as you please, chasing her dreams. She would return with tales of friendly camaraderie, joyful loafing, and city charms unbidden.
The child who can do such things is, without even trying, developing the autonomy commonly attributed to adults. In other words, she is growing up. What she doesn’t know (yet) is that it takes a certain kind of world–a world fitted out to abet humans in the natural expression of their desires–to enable this miracle.
The way we must treat our children here in suburbia, though, is a cruel satire on the idea of freedom. Children must be transported from one protective bubble to another to get anything done. And the transporting must also be done in a bubble–the family car or a school bus–never in the fresh, open air or by any public means. In Virginia, schools are required to provide bus service to children living any distance from the school, even if they live just across the street and could easily recognize the face of a friend standing on the school’s front stoop.
This farce is performed under strong institutional pressures. Parents and schools alike demand the bubble system. Policemen oversee it. Traffic engineers assume its sanctity. The schools’ grounds are laid out to reinforce it. (One of my children’s schools would easily satisfy the U.S. State Department’s high demands for an embassy compound’s physical unapproachability, or what it calls “setback.” That means no sidewalks, no public transportation stop, and and hundreds of feet of unused space to buffer against a potential car bomb. The only thing missing is the blast wall. The armed security guard is present here in suburban Virginia, as s/he would be at a foreign embassy.)
In case you think I am indulging in uninformed speculation, I assure you I am not. I have already engaged parents, school officials, political activists and traffic engineers on this topic. I have gathered information, outlined a plan of resistance, and already achieved some (meager) results. A shiny new crosswalk now exists leading from my subdivision to a swimming pool. It crosses five lanes of traffic. It is not perfect, but it does enable an attentive 14-year old to walk to the pool instead of asking his parents for a one-minute car ride.
I asked the county traffic engineers for the crosswalk, and, after determining it would not excessively infringe the rights of King Car, they made it happen. It constitutes a mere millimeter of progress in a struggle that calls for miles of great, swooping advances–bike lanes, crosswalks, overpasses, underpasses, pedestrian lights, and other outlandish ideas from the radical left. I get the dull sense that one crosswalk every six months just might just be the pace of future progress.
Try walking here: a too-typical suburban “walkway”
What elicits hot, desperate tears, though, is the depth of ordinary citizens’ ignorance of the travesty being perpetrated on them. When one explains to them that it is possible for children to walk to school, once receives a blank, imbecile stare. It is as if one just explained to a goat that geosynchronous satellites orbit the Earth, and this is what makes enhanced telecommunications possible. One weeps.
In closing, I’d like to return to my three-part guess at cause of my complaint, the part where I treasonously conjecture that the idea of a free human being just might clash, not just with something in suburbia, not just with Virginia, but with the basic setup of our beloved country itself.
Although I haven’t made the case in detail (maybe a topic for another day), I hope I have at least outlined an argument that suggests, by driving our kids from one bubble to another, we dramatically limit the scope of their freedom. In so doing, we bring them into a social world made up of buffers and protections that mock the notion that America is the land of the free. We are training our children to be fundamentally unfree and to accept their condition as normal. To speak directly to the Whitney Houston problem: we are proliferating an anti-libertarian model of American citizenship. This model is one in which highly regimented institutions collude to intervene in our public lives, protecting us from making basic life choices, starting with crossing the goddamned street.
And what of the home of the brave? It turns out to be another cheap joke. Right up to the age where we can legally enlist our children in the military and send them to trumped-up foreign wars to be maimed or killed, we treat them like babies. Why? Because life is too scary. The streets teem with psychopaths.
There are real dangers out there, but they are mostly of our own making. What the streets actually teem with are cars, driven by distracted people on smart phones, many of them carrying–not just driving–lethal weapons. The police guarding our children know in the backs of their minds that every encounter with a citizen could escalate instantaneously to a gun battle, and they are driven by this pervasive fear to a chronic state of trigger happiness.
Fear. This is what drives the decisions of everyone complicit in the travesty I now inhabit. Principals and school boards fear losing a pedestrian student to a car accident while crossing the busy street in front of the school. They designate their institution a no-walk school. (I am not making this up. One of my children’s schools is deliberately set up to quell the idea that it can be approached by walking. It has the official designation of no-walk.)
Fear drives the parents who every morning and afternoon crowd the roads approaching the school just so they can drop off and pick up their children. The safety bubbles must exist! In the pursuit of safety, the phalanx of parents each day exacerbates the unsafe conditions that lead the school officials to repel walkers in the first place.
Fear also drives the traffic engineers who have determined that certain roads are too dangerous to be crossed by pedestrians. The idea that such roads can be made safe does not enter their calculations. My impression so far is that the traffic engineers, sensible people for the most part, might be led to think humanely on this point, but their mindset is entrenched by the interlocking fears of the parents and schools involved. It all works together.
Our myths tell us we are a nation of lions. We stood up to the world’s most powerful empire and won our freedom through raw courage. Since then we’ve gone from strength to strength, showing the world what a truly brave country can accomplish for its citizens. Nonsense. Washington may have crossed the Delaware, but we, his progeny, can no longer cross the street. Or, to be more precise, we are no longer permitted to cross the street. We accept the bland, presumptive authority of a system that says our world just cannot be made safe for play, self-locomotion and purposive behavior, traits that define humanity and have been honed by 70,000 years of evolution.
Moving, I find is like grieving. Anyone who has lost a loved one can recall the kind assurances made by people around us promising that we will emerge from the deep pain of loss to accept a new world in which only memories of the late loved one exists. The first response to this counsel is rejection. We may have to accept the loss of the departed loved one, but we do not have to accept a new self that makes this accommodation.
Moving is like that, or at least it is for me. I may ultimately have to accept that public space here is denuded of the things that make it possible to walk with dignity or purpose, but to let go of my old self, the one who expected these things and taught my children to do the same, seems not just like a loss but a betrayal.
My plan to “read America” this year has gone off the rails. I knew it would.
The original idea was to delve into several big American themes, among them flight, democracy, presidents, slavery, war, money, race, and literary criticism.
Here is what I said, rather grandly, to myself when I came up with the plan. I was in my home on the edge of a forest in Germany, which had been my perch for 11 years:
. . . [I]n 2018 I will read only about America. The longer I live overseas the more I feel like I need to re-explain my homeland to myself. The place is always changing, and I think my distance has given me a certain perspective on what is means to be American in the swirling tides of recent history. We’re always in what I.F. Stone called a “time of torment.” He thought the phrase applied especially to the 1960s. But history never stands still, and neither does our identity.
What happened to my plan? I lost my focus. Instead of reading topically-focused books on the themes I had in mind, heavy on interdisciplinary stuff, I got sucked right in to sprawling, romantic series of American novels–great cycles of stories that tell us what it was like to be alive here at certain times.
I suppose the bug bit me a few years ago when I read Shelbey Foote’s novelistic rendition of the American Civil War, a massive, 2,700-page trilogy that Foote says was inspired by Proust. Foote felt the same devotion to mood, memory, and minute coloration of detail as the Searcher for Lost Time, and it shows.
I also took inspiration from Gore Vidal’s sly, subversive seven-book series of historical novels commonly known as the American Chronicles. It provides what Gore calls a “useful” history of our country, by which he meant a history deflated of myths. The apex of the series, Lincoln, is undoubtedly Vidal at his best. He depicts our greatest president as a human being who need not be made into a god to earn our love and respect.
Who knows–my attraction to long, literary meditations on American life possibly goes back to my fondness for Laura Ingalls Wilders’s Little House series, which I read in the fifth grade.
A paradox: a novelist can only tell large, universal truths if she reflects intimately on what she knows best–the minutiae of a highly particular, individual life. I got this much from Günter Grass, a German, and Orhan Pamuk, a Turk. They both worried that their masterpieces would flop in English translation because their stories were too parochial, too local to be understood by foreign Anglophiles.
Not so, though. When their big books came out in English, both authors did very well, and this was because they gave English speakers deeply appealing stories whose meanings were heightened, not obscured by their particularity. Grass showed what it was like to be from a Polish-German family before and after World War Two. Very conflicted, and absurdly tragic. Pamuk meditated on how today’s Turks still suffer from the cultural loss that followed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The breakneck social engineering of Attatürk left them wondering who they are to this day.
American writers, I tend to think, come by a universalizing attitude comparatively easily. Since they hail from a big, consequential country, they assume that their stories automatically have broad appeal. Günter Grass and Orhan Pamuk had to sweat over this aspiration; American writers seem to be born with it.
And so it should come as no surprise that Americans have more than our fair share of sweeping national novels that tell our stories on large canvases, with great depth of feeling and insight. When we do things, we do them big. So if you can have sweeping national novels, why not have whole series of them–stories that go on, book after book, rendering America in ever-deeper nuance, ever-finer portraiture? It was the bounty of such series that drew me in and wrecked my plan of interdisciplinary reading. (So far. There’s always next year.)
I started my journey with Willa Cather‘s prairie trilogy, made up of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. They tell deeply personal stories about conservative but adventurous Europeans who come to a wide-open new land and watch their progeny leave off old ways and turn into entirely new kinds of people. So, the stories are bittersweet tales of immigration and alienation–what it is like to love your children as they effortlessly leave you behind to dream new dreams you can’t even understand.
But the stories are also about personal grit, determination and success, solidly “American” themes. Each novel depicts a woman who authors her own life in a way only made possible by the westward push of American frontier life. If you could make it on the 19th-century high plains, you didn’t need a man to tell you you had arrived. Two of Cather’s heroines do precisely this, raising themselves up to master both the forces of nature and the stifling social constraints of a rural patriarchy. Cather’s third heroine, the eponymous subject of My Antonia, fails to master her surroundings in any obvious way but achieves a stoic embrace of frontier life that is lyrically beautiful and affirming of the human experience.
It was the grandeur and natural innocence of Cather’s Upper Midwest settings that led me to read Sinclair Lewis. Although Lewis is not credited with an American series as such, his cycle of Midwestern morality tales–Babbit, Mainstreet, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith overlap just enough in themes and character types to think of them as a single, broad critique of the rising American middle class.
I blogged a few months ago on the enduring relevance of Lewis’s critique. His target was the unthinking ease with which WASPs presumed to dominate America’s Leitkultur between 1890 and 1930. If you want an idea of what the reactionary right wants today when it says it wants to make America great again, you can find it in Lewis’s novels. Read them, and you can see the clock turned back to the very time when America’s can-do, small-time money makers elevated their crass, mediocre ideals of conformity and commercialism to a normative idea of what it means to be a good American.
If Cather’s and Lewis’s novels take in a great sweep of Americana, John Dos Passos‘s USA trilogy captures a more punctuated, crucial juncture in our history. Its three novels–The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money–freeze-frame the societal changes that drew us into World War One and then sustained an economic boom that would set the stage for the defining events of the twentieth century–the Great Depression, World War Two, and the Cold War.
Dos Passos’s leading characters are hustlers trying to make it on a brand new economic playing field– movie actors, airplane designers, public relations specialists–wholly novel professions suddenly made possible by the war’s disruptive changes in attitudes and technology. The trilogy’s overarching story, which the characters swirl in and out of, is a morality tale about what happens when a nation on the go starts believing its own propaganda.
The disquieting message of the USA trilogy is one for which Dos Passos gets too little credit. Democracies being led to war, he indicates, must work themselves up into a nationalist lather, which is fed by widespread, self-flattering lies. Understandable enough: you can’t charge the trenches for ho-hum reasons, even if they are honest ones. To anticipate a U.S. statesman of the Cold War era, the motive reasons for war must be made “clearer than truth.” Dos Passos would have liked that.
After war ends and peace returns, though, the material beneficiaries of the big lies want to keep the profits of the hullabaloo going. (Have you checked out the price of a state-of-the-art fighter- bomber recently? You should.) And so they entrench and normalize the pro-war falsehoods. The chronic fear of “national security threats” have become part and parcel of the nation’s life. We denigrate Iran and North Korea for their trumped-up war rites and the flagrant lies they tell themselves, but we are only about a half a step behind them. Our ad men are better.
Americans’ interlocking beliefs that we are great because we are good and good because we are great are largely a product of wartime propaganda, a one-off, special circumstance that Dos Passos documents in the USA trilogy. The consequences of that special circumstance, though, have, since World War One, come to feel normal to us. The next time you are occupying a $100 seat in a sports stadium, and at the behest of a billionaire corporate sponsor, you set down your nachos to applaud the military veterans in your midst, know that you are obediently playing your part in this cheap and cynical theater.
(A mini-digression: If there is a one-word sentence to describe the purpose of my blog, it is to persuade even one other person that you are born to better things than to play your part in cheap and cynical bits of theater.)
After Dos Passos I jumped ahead in time to John Updike‘s Rabbit series, which spans the 1950s to 1990s. It includes Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest. I had long wanted to read Updike because he authored the gaudily implausible idea that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” He came up with this quip after the Vietnam war, by the way. Anyone capable of such a one-sided view of our society must have a massive, and interesting, blindspot.
As Martin Amis, one of my favorite novelists, observed, Updike seems unable to write poorly. Good thing. For some 1,500 pages, the Rabbit series pays serious literary attention to what must be one of the most unappealing character types in our history, the complacent narcissist. (Echoes of Sinclair Lewis here.)
The long “parade of days” that Harry Angstrom’s Rabbit character unfurls certainly draws the reader in, or at least did me. There is something so blandly awful about Rabbit’s persona that one simply must witness the next wreck in his life-long melodrama of decline.
Put as briefly as possible, Rabbit sallies forth from one half-baked endeavor to another–he half-asses everything and everyone: wife, career, child, mistress–while cultivating the expectation that he deserves to be made happy by the aggregate mess. When Rabbit dies, his wife forgives him for, in effect, having raised assholishness to an existential art. During their life together, Rabbit habitually referred to her as a mut and fantasized repeatedly about bashing in her head with a decorative piece of glass.
Don’t get me wrong. Rabbit figures a few things out about his American life along the way. Having accidentally become rich, and later having been brought to the edge of ruin by a complex web of bad luck, bad parenting and stupid choices:
Rabbit realized the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being, all for the sake of money. You just passed through, and they milked you for what you were worth, mostly when you were young and gullible. If Kroll’s [his once-profitable Toyota dealership] could go, the courthouse could go, the banks could go. When the money stopped, they could close down God himself.
There is, despite the objectionable character of Rabbit himself, one good reason to go ahead and read Updike. Rabbit puts on full display a highly useful concept: the partially examined life. Today, with our iPhones, our robocalls, our TV addictions, and our distance-learning degrees, the partially examined life is probably as much as we will be able to muster. The fully examined life is beyond us now. Read Rabbit and behold the bonds of mediocrity you accept when you breath in the sweet intoxicants of consumerism and pop culture. You’ll still be haunted by the vague longing for a life less tawdry, as Rabbit is, but you’ll have no idea how to summon it.
Philip Roth‘s American trilogy–American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain–builds up a towering counterpoint to Updike’s Rabbit. With wrath and eloquence, Roth defies the dying of the American light, insisting that the examined life is still possible even in a land given up to the shabbiest of values and the most venal of principles.
“The meaning of life is that it ends,” Roth wrote (paraphrasing Kierkegaard). Try escaping that riddle, no matter where you live or what you call your nationality. If you do not have the sense to fear the life-wasting power of your iPhone today, you will come to loath it on your deathbed. Count on it. America cannot insulate you from mortality, try as it might. Roth’s American series examines the lives of three men who believe their country should abet them in their combative quest for meaning rather than abandoning them to money fever and cheap thrills.
The second large theme running through the trilogy is the opacity of an individual human life. In each book, the assiduous novelist Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, is commissioned, in one way or another, to write a biography of the story’s hero. In each case, Zuckerman’s first impression fails him. Then his second one does, and his third. Each novel turns on the idea that humans, as the planet’s only self-creators–with strong motives for deception, deflection, braggadocio, and countless other corruptions of the truth–are impossible to know.
And in each novel, Roth gives America a special role to play as the stage on which the individual’s autopoeisic myths have the widest range to play. The Human Stain is about a light-skinned African American who, shortly after high school, begins passing himself off as white and Jewish, utterly alienating his loving mother and the rest of his family. (This is Willa Cather again. Our children leave us to dream new, unrecognizable dreams. We love them anyway.)
Late in life, the professor of The Human Stain loses his job as a college professor after he lets fly a flippant remark that is understood as a (white-on-black) act of racism. He can’t even begin to deal. The American life he created is based in a network of beliefs, myths, attitudes, delusions so complex they can never be untangled and reassembled into a moral defense of his innocent remark.
Roth opens American Pastoral, the first book in the series, with the Kierkegaardian idea that each person has an inner and outer self. Simple enough–you dig and grope through the outer, and you can get to know the inner. Roth takes this archaeology of the human to be the novelist’s main task.
By the end of The Human Stain, though, Roth has dropped Kierkegaard’s overly simplified formulation. Human selves consist in unknowabilty all the way down; and in America, “all the way down” can be a very long way. You may think you are breaking through the outer self to the inner, but in truth you are merely apprehending the next inner layer:
There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.
My next encounter will be with James Farrell’s O’Neil-O’Flaherty novels, a five-part series about growing up in turn-of-the-century Chicago. It will be about unknowlability all the way down. I know that ahead of time. But that’s okay.
The gift of American literature, like the gift of any literature, is that its gaze into the individual life turns up a thousand little things worth discovering and one big thing worth acknowledging. We all learn this thing from Macbeth in the eighth grade or so–that life is a poor player, that it lights fools the way to dusty death, and so forth–but great novels illuminate this truth in new ways and bring it to life in ways that remind us of our own selves. This kind of self-discovery is still rejuvenating, although here in America it is endangered by a general war on thought. Read our great novels while you can. Our children will dream new dreams that may make them unrecognizable.
Life is a funny thing. Even the most self-aware among us don’t understand it as it unfolds. We grope forward guided by instinct, guess and habit; the resulting action only makes sense when it is all but over. Purpose and order are things we see–or construct–in hindsight.
Luckily, though, we need not wait for the deathbed to make sense of absolutely everything about us. We can sometimes achieve insight into certain chapters of our lives as they conclude.
Recently, I closed one such chapter. Call it the European chapter. It lasted 19 years, not including a four-year hitch in the Air Force spent in Europe as well, from 1991 to 1994. At the time, that phase felt like a destination in and of itself, a coming-of-age set to U2’s AchtungBaby that might have led to any other kind of experience, set anywhere else on the globe. But in fact, it was a prelude to the main plot-line of my life. It led back to Europe after a short break for school, and yielded up what turned out to be my life’s defining chapter. It was an era again set to music by U2, this time All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with its signature song Beautiful Day.
For the time I lived in Europe, I was happy. No surprise. It was there that I made a career, fell in love, got married and started a family. For most of us large, thinking mammals, those are the goals we live for, and so I know, more or less, what the source of my happiness was–the well-being that comes from doing satisfying work in the company of the people one loves best.
But still, even the main human patterns don’t make an individual life completely predictable. Some of the things that formed me in Europe came as surprises. Exhibit A: Four of the best years of my life, which I will always recall with intense and pleasurable nostalgia, I lived in a noisy, slightly run-down, provincial capital city in what used to be Yugoslavia. On the surface, this setting would hardly be any American’s idea of bliss.
My neighborhood looked ike this:
You might not think much of it, but to me it was a paradise. I courted my wife there, went to family dinners on the weekend, ran errands, and, a little later, watched my kids play, usually in a playground right behind the buildings you see here. The place overflowed with kids, all of them running and shouting. Grannies would stuff bites of bananas into their mouths as the kids would swoop toward them and then carom off to re-join the happy chaos.
To get back and forth to work, I bought a brand new Russian jeep for 6,000€, paid cash. It performed like a 15 year-old car right off the lot, but it did the job, albeit with shimmies and rattles. I had a theory that no single part of that jeep cost more than a dollar to manufacture.
It looked like this:
There were too many other enchanting things about my neighborhood in Skopje to recount them all. The richness of my memories will always consist in the I family started there and how my life began to take shape in its streets, churches, cafes, and, of course, the small apartment where we lived.
Well, you might say, these things will happen anywhere. Human appetites being what they are, my bourgeois pleasures might have sprung from any ground on the planet whatsoever. Mid-town Skopje just happened to be where I was during my years of rising sap and professional hustle; there’s no need to get moony over the place’s noisy playgrounds and downscale apartment blocks.
I suppose that’s all true; I would have looked back with gauzy fondness on whichever place my adulthood finally began to form up in. But my rootedness to Skopje (and, as it turns out, to all of Europe) was more than just an aesthetic response to accidental conditions. Something more formative was happening to me. Without knowing it, I was receiving an economic and sentimental education in the sustaining pleasures of Europe’s public goods. The thing I came to love about Europe was how easy it was for any person of limited means to lead a gratifying life there, abundant with simple pleasures. Europe is, at least today, a continent made for people.
What I began to discover in Macedonia–and continued to do in Germany–was that public life in Europe is ingeniously geared toward dignifying the proletariat. While American tourists can easily get the idea that living in Europe takes loads of money (a 25€ check for an espresso on St. Mark’s Square in Venice will do that to you), I discovered that quite the opposite is true. It is common to be able to lead a pleasant, secure life well within one’s means in a European city even at the lower range of the middle incomes. I don’t pretend to know all the reasons why this is the case, but two factors suggested themselves during my 19 years there.
The first is how generously furnished public spaces are in Europe. While of course there are roads and highways, the main thing one notices as one moves around any European city is how navigable and accessible everything is to the carless. The abundance of sidewalks, walkable streets, public transportation, parks, playgrounds, shopping districts, and extensive foot- and bike paths that actually go somewhere is astonishing. Well, it’s astonishing if you’re American, and you’re used to having to drive even a quarter mile just to get across a street that is unnavigable by foot- or bike traffic.
One of my deepest satisfactions in Skopje sprang from the ease with which I could walk everywhere. My weekends with my wife routinely consisted in paying bills, doing the shopping, running other errands, exercising the kids, enjoying the sights, or going to my in-laws, all on foot. And Skopje is an interesting test case for such mobility precisely because of the, ahem, “modesty” of its infrastructure. Macedonia is not a rich country, and many of its roads, sidewalks and playgrounds are broken or poorly maintained. But they work. They prove the hypothesis that basic infrastructure need not be lavish to improve the quality of life; it just needs to be there and to function with a modicum of safety.
I expressly used the word “generous” to describe Europe’s pedestrian infrastructure. I could have justly called it “plentiful,” but that would have missed an important point. Roads and paths are built with the people’s tax money, and the people must in some sense agree on this expenditure. An experience I had over and over in Germany revealed to me just how generous the taxpayers are in funding the paths that support carless travel.
Frequently, as I was jogging along a hardpack trail through one of the numerous forests that abut or thread through German cities, I would come right up to a rail line or highway, and instead of the trail diverting to nowhere or just stopping, I would encounter an underpass that let me keep going, like this one:
Or, I would zip over the top of an Autobahn on a footbridge, like this one:
These things obviously cost money. A rail line with trains going 300 km per hour cannot pass over just any old underpass in an anonymous German forest. Statics must be drawn up, stresses calculated, and the underpass built just so. Ditto for the bridges. A huge pile of money goes into the provision of these things that are so common throughout Europe that they nearly escape notice.
Who benefits from this largess? Well, on any given day when I was jogging through, it was typically me, some other schmoe biking to work (I guess–there were often briefcases bungie-corded to their carrying racks), and a young mother or two with strollers. That’s it. Traffic picked up on weekends, of course, as families and elders came out for long strolls, but even then, if you would stop to do some math on a cocktail napkin, you would–or at least should–be astonished at how much tax money was being spent per capita to keep the Volk ambling pleasantly along through the forest.
Before I leave this theme, I should also stress something that I only hinted at a moment ago–that car-free infrastructure in Europe actually goes places. That’s the whole point of it. It’s the reason for building all those under- and overpasses, as it also is for countless well-protected crosswalks and pedestrian traffic signals. In America, a walker might set out on their subdivision’s fitness trail for recreation, but God help them if they hope to use it to go to the store or post office or the next town over. In Germany, I need not even look at a map to know that I could have walked on protected foot trails all the way from my home to the seat of the national government, 550 km away. (Fun fact: You can actually look up the best walking routes for this trip without breaking Google Maps.)
Confession is good for the soul. And after 19 years of walking, biking and running places in Europe, with my wife, with my kids, by myself, sometimes to get somewhere, sometimes to go nowhere at all, I find I have something to confess: I feel I have right to go safely carless in public, and I feel this right with as much conviction as Americans tend to reserve for gun ownership and freedom of expression. I see no reason whatsoever why a state that calls itself modern cannot provide for its citzenry to walk from here to fucking there without risking their lives or attracting unwelcome attention as potential vagrants.
The answer to this conundrum leads to my second comment on proletarian pleasures in Europe. Why is it so hard to go without a car in America? Because doing so would risk giving up our primary identity as consumers, something that large companies spend lots of money to keep in place. Americans’ habits, reflexes and desires–indeed our very lives–are engineered by corporations who want and need us to believe that the highest expression of freedom is the power to buy and consume whatever we want, in whatever quantity.
Getting and keeping us in our cars (ingeniously pitched as another great American expression of freedom) is a sure way to do this. As long as we are somewhere in our cars, driving from the bank where we got the car loan, to the job where we work to pay it back, to the mall where we train our kids to join in the same rat race by addicting them to brands, corporate America is happy. We are enriching the industries that make the world go round (at the same time they are ruining it–a post for another day).
Jogging through the forest or strolling down the promenade, however, doesn’t make anyone any money, or at least not enough to matter, and that is something that the tycoons will not abide. You will not be allowed to get off the treadmill of consumption. Any hours spent being a thoughtful, or creative, or merely idling human being rather than Homo economicus constitute a mortal sin in our plutocracy. (Remember George W. Bush’s plea in 2001 to keep the 9/11 attacks in mind while going out and doing your duty as a consumer? It does not get any more barefaced than that.)
So the second thing about life in Europe that I only slowly came to appreciate but which now stands out in dramatic relief is the extent to which its thought leaders put the brakes on all-out consumerism. I do not pretend that the place is a utopia of Buddhist self-denial. Nor do I contest the legitimate role of commerce in enabling the welfare state. Money is what makes economic security possible. There will be money.
But what is typical in Europe is to say, “Just enough.” We’ll have money and commerce and trade, but we need not have ever more of everything. While the growth imperative governs the choices of boards of directors all across Europe, it is not, as a general rule, transplanted into the lives of workers as an ethic of ever-greater consumption. Society has not been given over by lobbyists and advertisers to the tawdry, all-out avarice that is so easily awoken in the breasts of the working poor.
This is actually a huge deal. It means that a proletarian can live a life that is not defined by ruinous envy and insatiable hunger. You can walk down the street with just 10€ in your pocket and feel comfortable in your own skin. You probably don’t even know it, but somewhere, someone is keeping watch and passing laws to prevent corporations from invading your most private self and debasing your humanity.
As I say goodbye to all that, what awaits me? To what am I saying hello?
Well, I am no curmudgeon, still less Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, bent on exposing the hypocrisies of society. I get a long. I put on a brave face. I teach the kids that the world can be a decent, welcoming place.
And, I am sure I will find things my family actually loves here. We will get into our cars and drive to experience some genuine new pleasures. But I will be honest: to invite that transformation feels like the willful deformation of habits eminently worth having. Europe taught me, with great specificity, that the best things in life are free. Saying hello again to America, where corporations constantly do their damnedest to deny workers the possibility of a life of simple, abundant pleasures, feels like it puts that dream at risk.
I said goodbye to an old lover today. She’s three and a half billion years old, give or take. Which is, I suppose, why the wife doesn’t mind.
She used to be a volcano. You can tell by her shape. She is a hill, and she looks like all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stylized drawings of hills, especially the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo had his big adventure.
She is the hill where I run, once a week when the weather is good, once a month when it is not. I’ve climbed the equivalent of five Everests on her.
Her name is improbable. In fact, if you know any Latin, it is impossible. Melibokus. No name for a lady ends in –us. But there it is. The Germans took to calling her Mälchen, which also fails to do her justice. It’s frusty somehow.
What binds me to her? The usual for old lovers–it’s physical. I come to call and she is there. She has vineyard hips that shine gold in the autumn sunlight. Above she is all old-growth deciduous, dark emerald. Two castles guard her treasures, flags still flying. Her leaves glow lime green in the springtime against the black mud trails and the dun mulch of a hundred winters. There are lava rocks lying around from when she spewed them out, way back when.
There is, in reality, nothing spectacular about Melibokus. She looks like a dozen other hills around her, but slightly taller. She is topped by two big, ugly communications towers and a small, windowless building fenced off with barbed wire. Its stenciled building number looks American GI and so inspires rumors of a secret listening station.
Like I said, I run on Melibokus. I have probably logged 500 kilometers on her since I’ve lived here. I feel the free feelings she offers, and I think about whatever comes up. Usually it’s something I have read and how it applies to my life. It’s a very selfish time.
Looking back, after so many years of being together, I can grasp what was magical between us. I spent hours and hours toiling my way to her top, having what psychologists blithely call a “peak experience.” What was it all about? Why was the simple, sweaty act of running up a mid-sized hill in the middle of Germany so absorbing? It was this: As I was running, Melibokus was all the while playing an exceedingly good trick on me. For 10 years she made me feel I was not aging at all, when in fact when I stopped recently to look around, I could see I had aged at exactly the rate everyone else was. Still, I had those 10 years. If you can find someone who works that kind of magic on you, hold on to it while it lasts.
She was, like I said, always channeling people for me–Hume, Kant, Russell, occasionally even Heidegger and Kierkegaard. For old time’s sake, I should write down the last person she summoned. It was Martin Amis, the English novelist. For anyone of my generation and of my general mold, Amis is tops. He wrote about the insanity of wanting money, the everyday horrors of religious fanaticism, and the unpleasant habits of dictators. (He is still writing, but I think even he would say his best days are behind him.)
Anyway, the last time I turned toward the top of Melibokus and let my mind wander, what came to me was Amis’s remark in an interview that the most rewarding part of his life, despite his immense literary success, had been his “bourgeois” pleasures. This was his snooty way of saying “wife and kids.”
Well, I thought, as I chugged along, that is really something. A guy becomes a modern-day Thackeray, is flown on lear jets to world capitals to talk about books, and he says the best part of the whole thing was his family.
I feel like Amis’s observation expressed a truth that has saved me a lot of trouble. Something like 99.9 percent of humans aren’t set up to become artists, or geniuses of any kind. Amis actually made all the sacrifices necessary to become a genius, which mostly consisted in neglecting his family to tend some inner flame, and then on the other side of all those sacrifices he says family was the best part anyway. It’s striking.
I imagined how my life would have gone had I tried too hard to be an artist–still might go if I got some harebrained idea–rather than getting a job and having a family. Thanks to what Amis said to me in 2018, I felt like a guy who had made all the right choices since 2002, when I met my wife, or possibly since 1999, when I stopped trying to be a genius. It was a huge relief, knowing I hadn’t run other people’s dreams into the ground just so I could go on a vision quest or something stupid like that. Amis was right: family life was much better than any other ideal I might have pursued.
Maybe those communications towers pulled in Amis’s thoughts for me, and all the other people’s thoughts. Bless them, if they did.
I am all done with you now, Melibokus. We had our last tryst this morning. My job made me move, so I won’t see you anymore. I won’t get up at 03:30 on a June morning and start up through your forests as the early summer dawn breaks so I can be done before it gets really hot.
I’m not sure what I will do with my Sunday mornings now, but you will go on as you always have. I will think of you and the nice trick you played on me. You will take other lovers, which is comforting in a way. You will continue to exist, long after quiet returns and there are no more creeping things that creep upon the earth.
Goodbye, my love. I will forget you, slowly I hope, but I will write you as often as I can.