[For links to earlier posts in this series, please see the right sidebar under the heading, “A mind is a difficult thing to change.”]
I thought this post would be relatively easy to write. After all, the years between 1975 and September 10, 2001 were fairly quiet for me, at least politically speaking, especially compared to the bitter and personal struggles of the Vietnam era. But strangely, it’s that very quietness that has made this post harder to write than I ever thought it would be–in fact, far harder than the previous ones–because of the absence of such drama.
I don’t want to bore you all to tears. I could summarize the whole era by saying I was otherwise engaged. But, in the end, that would be too simplistic. After all, I’m writing this to try to understand and explain what was going on for me, and for others, in the psychological/political sense: what led to change, or failed to lead to change.
So, exactly what was I thinking about, politically, during those years? Was I even thinking at all, or was I more or less on automatic? And was my experience idiosyncratic, or was it typical, representing a general trend of the times?
In other words: was I like Karel’s mother? (And who, you might ask, is Karel’s mother?)
I confess that I have been an inveterate New Yorker reader for the last thirty-five years or so. I’ve even kept my subscription in the face of my neocon conversion and the resultant fact that I can no longer stomach their political articles. I recall that the New Yorker published excerpts from expatriate Czech author Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting shortly before the book came out in 1978. All I had to do was read the very first paragraph of the work and I knew I was in the presence of something extraordinary. I read with mounting excitement and total concentration, and when the book was available I immediately bought it and read it from cover to cover. It merged the political with the personal in a free-form style like no other–gripping, entertaining, profound, and totally idiosyncratic.
Certain images in that book made a deep impression on me. I’ve already discussed one of them here, in my post “Dancing in a ring.” The image of the circle dance was memorable, although it was only many years later that I even began to understand what Kundera was saying.
But the story of Karel’s elderly mother and the pears–that, I understood from the start. Here it is:
One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country [a reference to the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia]. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly afterwards they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.
But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective–a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.
That’s an exaggerated version of what seemed to happen to me (and others) during those years: the tanks didn’t disappear, but they receded into the distant background; and the pears loomed, large and ripe, in the foreground. And who wouldn’t want that to happen? Who would choose to focus on tanks when they could think about pears instead? Most people seemed only too happy to throw themselves into life itself, and to leave the interminable political discussions to the politicians and the policy wonks.
The military draft had ended in 1973, and Saigon had fallen in 1975. The men of my generation no longer had to face the possibility of putting their lives on the line in that difficult and ultimately tragic cause. The news from that part of the world no longer screamed in blaring headlines, but drifted in on the tide, like the boat people fleeing the Communist regime that had taken over South Vietnam. The news was not at all good. But it no longer had the personal immediacy it had had during the late 60s and early 70s, when the draft had forced us to confront it up close and very very personal. Terrible, wasn’t it, what was happening in Cambodia; and awful about the poor boat people, but what could you do at this point? The tragedies in Southeast Asia began to recede into the generalized din of human suffering all over the globe. It seemed it could not be helped; it was the human condition.
There was a general retreat from political activism. Of course, this was not true of everyone, but it certainly was true of a sizeable portion of the generation that had been so activist just a few short years before. Remember the catch-phrase “the ‘Me’ decade,” to refer to the 70s? There seems to have been a certain truth to it. With a sigh of relief, people concentrated on good times and on the self, not unlike the Roaring Twenties which had followed the horrors of World War I and the influenza pandemic that took so many lives at that war’s end.
I was only too happy to pull back from thinking about politics. I got married in the mid-1970s, and my husband and I were concerned with starting out in jobs and finding a place to live, making new friends and adjusting to life beyond college and graduate school. I remember the oil crisis mostly because it happened around the time of a trip I had planned, making it hard for me to travel by car. It was both a nuisance and a warning bell, but I was driving a small foreign car anyway, and the financial pinch wasn’t too hard, and then it was over almost as soon as it had begun. I remember the sickening feeling of watching the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, but my perception was filtered through the fact that I was very late in my first pregnancy when it began, and the mother of a barely-walking one-year old when it ended.
Starting a marriage and a family is an all-consuming period of life for most people, and it certainly was so for me, along with many of my friends. I was a stay-at-home mother for many years, devoted to the care of my child, and exhausted much of the time. I still managed to read the Boston Globe most days, and the New Yorker most weeks, and watched some TV news (I recall that Nightline got its start covering the hostage crisis). I had a vague sense that events in Iran boded no good, and watching the Iranian women don their chadors I wondered why they would be so eager to go back to what seemed to be medievalism. But what did it matter to me if they wanted to wear black robes and have a cleric for their leader? It seemed to be their choice; was it any of my business?
I could go into detail writing about this or that event, and my reaction or non-reaction (or mild reaction) to it. But more important than all of that was the fact that I had come to accept a certain level of turmoil in the world. I felt bad about it, but I no longer thought there was much I could do about it, except give money to a cause such as Save the Children or Amnesty International (which I joined over twenty years ago, back when it actually did appear to be devoted to the cause of helping political prisoners around the world). It seemed as though human misery was in a sort of steady-state mode: about the same level existed from year to year, with a dramatic surge here and there in one third-world place or another, but the overall amount seemed stable.
Part of this attitude of mine (and so many others) was the phenomenon of growing older and seeing that problems were not going to be solved overnight, if at all. Part of it was the aforementioned attention deficit: for many years, the pressing demands of family left me little time for the leisurely study of world events, and when I did have a spare moment, I wanted to relax and enjoy myself. In this I think I was probably quite typical of everyone except political junkies.
This situation fostered maintaining the status quo. If I (and others) had little time to study events in any depth or detail, there was no way my political opinions and/or my interpretation of those events were likely to undergo any changes. How could they? As I moved through my thirties and forties, I considered my political opinions to be fully formed, anyway. It never occurred to me that they might change or might need to change, any more than the color of my eyes might change at that point. They were part of who I was. I was no child or teenager in a state of searching, no young adult solidifying my sense of self; I was middle-aged, and although I didn’t think I was stagnant, I was certainly set.
What’s more, I don’t think I had ever personally known anyone whose political opinions had changed after the age of thirty or so. My parents, and the parents of most of those around me, had reached adulthood during the Depression and the Presidency of FDR. They were liberal Democrats and proud of it, and nothing in the intervening years had caused even a glimmer of a change in their points of view. Nor did I see changes in my friends–not that we ever talked about politics much, because we did not.
Nevertheless, in retrospect, I felt certain stirrings. Maybe “stirrings” isn’t the right word, since it indicates too much motion and awareness. They were more like glimmerings, moments of slight dislocation and questioning so mild that they only disrupted the smooth surface of my thoughts for a short while. But they did occur every now and then when an event made a deep emotional impression on me, and especially when there was some sort of cognitive difficulty on my part in understanding the meaning and/or the cause of that event.
The greatest of these dislocations occurred with the fall of the Soviet Union. The USSR had been a constant for my entire life, and had loomed particularly large in my childhood. When I was born, the Soviet Union had already been in existence for over forty years, making it seem to me at the time as though it were as ancient and enduring as Greece or Egypt. Since WWII, it had been the principle threat to the US around the world.
When the Soviet system collapsed, it seemed to me that the end came very suddenly. Oh, there were rumbles during Gorbachev’s tenure– something was indeed happening–but in 1989 it seemed as though the entire Iron Curtain came down so precipitously you could almost say it evaporated.
My question was: how can an Iron Curtain evaporate? And, even more to the point, why didn’t any of the ‘experts” see it coming?
The latter question plagued me at the time. Perhaps I was able to give it more attention because the events were so very dramatic, and involved an issue that had been a constant for all of my life. Perhaps the fact that my child was older now and his needs not so labor- intensive gave me enough energy to actually do some thinking about it. I knew that I hadn’t paid proper attention to the news in recent years, so for a while I wondered whether I had missed something. But when I tried to read more about it, I couldn’t find anything that made sense to me; when I tried to ask other people whether anyone had seen this coming, I was met with resounding silence, indifference, shrugs.
Perhaps somewhere there had been some excellent analyses of the situation, even some that had predicted the events with some accuracy. Perhaps these brilliant and prescient articles had been published in a journal such as Foreign Affairs, or something of the sort. But I wasn’t reading journals then, nor were most of the electorate. The mainstream media (I didn’t know that term at the time) hadn’t demonstrated any foresight about these developments, nor even much of a grasp of why they might be occurring at this point. All they seemed to be able to do was to describe the events of the moment.
Surely, I asked friends and family, the Soviet experts at the NY Times or even in the State Department or at Harvard, surely they had seen this coming, right? If not, then why not?
It would be an overstatement to say I became obsessed with this question. But it certainly was the world event that engaged my interest more than anything since Vietnam, and my puzzlement about it was profound. If the experts–academic, governmental, and media–had been unable to foresee this, then how could I trust them to guide me in the future? In retrospect, it was probably the first time I began to distrust my usual sources of information, although I certainly didn’t see them as lying–I saw them as incompetent, really no better than bad fortunetellers.
What they seemed to lack was an overview, a sense of history and pattern. Newspapers could report on events, but those events seemed disconnected from each other: first this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened, and then the next, and so on and so forth. In the titanic decades-long battle between the US and the USSR, there had been a certain underlying narrative (yes, sometimes that word is appropriate) that involved the threat of Armageddon, and the necessity to avoid it at almost all costs, while stopping the spread of Communism. Although T.S. Eliot had said the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper,” who ever thought the Soviet Union would end in such a whimpery way, and especially without much forewarning? It seemed preposterous, something like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy throws the bucket of water on the Wicked Witch, who dissolves into a steaming heap of clothing, crying “I’m melting, melting.”
But if the Soviet Union was the Wicked Witch, who was Dorothy? Reagan? The media acted as though he’d been as clueless as Dorothy had been when she threw that bucket, and at the time I knew of no reason to think otherwise.
At any rate, I was happy about the fall of the Soviet empire, very happy. I watched the joyous scenes of Eastern Europeans celebrating, and even bought a (supposedly authentic) chunk of the Berlin Wall. Was this indeed the end of history? In a way, yes; it felt as though the big questions had been settled; all that was left was ironing out the details. Some of the darkest forces of the 20th century seemed to have run their course, and what was left to think about, politically, were humanitarian concerns around the world, possible future energy and fuel shortages, the environment, and domestic policies such as health care, welfare, and taxes.
The Gulf War of early 1991 seemed to mark some sort of return to ‘history,” although I thought (and hoped) that perhaps it was an anomaly. But by that time certain other events had taken over in my life (as they so often do in people’s lives), that once again made it very difficult for me to pay much attention to anything except the general outline of events.
In December of 1990 I had sustained a series of nerve injuries that caused severe and unremitting pain. (For anyone who might still be concerned about me now, I’m tremendously better.) Neuropathic pain is of a type that is difficult to describe. Suffice to say that, for quite a long while, I could barely concentrate on anything–not my beloved books, not even television; each minute was very difficult to get through, and I was severely sleep-deprived. It was at this point that the Gulf War began.
I watched the bombing on TV, pacing and fretting, unable to get comfortable for a moment. The thought of the suffering I knew must be occurring as a result of those bombs seemed to intensify my own suffering. I could hardly look. I understood the rationale for the war, and the necessity of it, but watching it and thinking about it seemed more than I could bear.
Although the details of my situation were particular to me, I think the general principle is a universal one. Many people move from crisis to crisis in their lives–survival, whether it be financial, emotional, or physical, then takes the lead and shuts out other considerations to a great degree.
The next year, I was improved enough to begin part-time study for my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. With my family obligations and the substantial demands of coursework and seeing clients, my attention was well occupied, and politics took a small role–although as a Democrat, I was happy that finally, for the first time in sixteen years, “my guy” had been elected (although, interestingly enough, I was never a Clinton fan–I voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 primaries).
But there were other distant warning bells sounding. Some were not so distant at all. The first World Trade Center bombing certainly grabbed my attention in 1993. It “only” killed six people, but it was different from previous Islamic terrorist attacks in two ways. The first was that it occurred on American soil and targeted civilians; the second was the scope of its ambition. I read about the attack in some depth, perhaps because it moved me as a native New Yorker who remembered the building of the Towers. I was stunned to discover that the intent of the bombers had been to topple the building and kill many thousands, and that it was only through chance and incompetence that they had failed to achieved their goals.
This sobered and frightened me–as did another article (again, I no longer recollect the periodical in which I read it, or the exact time of its publication), about a bunch of Middle Eastern terrorists (Osama?) whose stated aims were to launch a series of devastating attacks against the United States.
And these were not the only disturbing rumblings from the Middle East. I remember reading about changes in the Palestinian educational system after the implementation of the Oslo Accords (again, I recall that this article appeared in the New Yorker, of all places, although I’ve had some difficulty tracing it). I had originally thought that the Oslo Accords, of which I had only a glancing knowledge, were a hopeful sign. It seemed that now even the Palestinians and Israelis were starting down a path that would end up with, if not reconciliation, then a certain tolerance, a relatively benign and peaceful coexistence.
But this article chilled my blood when I read it. It detailed, for the first time as far as I knew, the intense and vicious hatred that was being inculcated in young Palestinians towards Israelis and even towards Jews in general. I did the calculations–the generation being carefully nurtured in this destructive propaganda were in the early primary grades now. They were due to come to maturity around the time of the millenium, and I felt a tremendous sense of foreboding. But what could be done about it? I couldn’t think of a thing, and the article had no suggestions, either.
What did I do with these fearful thoughts? I put them away, as I had so many years earlier tried to put away the fear of an impeding nuclear holocaust from my childhood mind. I had learned that most of the things I worried about never happened, and that much of what I read in the paper seemed exaggerated and calculated to alarm.
And so time passed. When the millenium came, people seemed much more worried about the threat of the millenium bug than the millenium bomber who was caught before he could carry out his plans to blow up LAX.
A big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight.
Except in this case, instead of taking wing, the tank crept towards us silently and stealthily, getting closer and closer, until its guns were pointed at our backs.
And then it fired.
[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, Part 6A, go here.]