Monday, April 30, 2012

The Great Migration

Why do people have to be this lonely? What's the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?
Haruki Murakami,
Sputnik Sweetheart

All over Paris, people are walking. They go in ones and twos and groups, but all together they seem to move as a herd. Along the sidewalks, through the museums and now, as I sit and watch, down the broad central pathway of the Jardin des Tuileries. Meg and I have dropped out of the flow and are taking in the great migration as it passes before us. Others nearby have paused as well. Some are taking photographs to remind them later where they have been, perhaps to help them find their way back. Soon enough, they and we will get up and re-enter the steady march.

It makes me wonder why we do this. There are obvious reasons, of course. A pleasant stroll on a beautiful day for relaxation and exercise. Many of us from other countries have come to explore the history and beauty of this great city. Seeing her helps us understand more about how we humans have come to be what we are today. This is why we stare at ancient art in the Louvre. This is why we are fascinated with archbishops and kings and their churches and castles.

I wonder whether there might be another reason too, one of which we are less consciously aware. In the past we were migratory by nature. Before we learned to plant grains and domesticate animals, we wandered for a living—literally. A tribe could linger in one place only as long as the food supply lasted. Then, it was move on or die. Perhaps our current wanderings are merely vestigial manifestations of that primitive instinct to search for new and better habitat.

I know that, in my own case, I have to keep moving. If I stay in one place too long, I begin to twitch. Whether it is a dinner table, a house or a job, after a time I need to get up and try something else.

We live inside our own heads. We have family and friends, sure, and we interact with others, but ultimately we are alone with ourselves. I think Haruki Murakami has shaded our longing too darkly, but restlessness may be a closer cousin to loneliness than I want to believe. The only difference may be that loneliness causes us to search for others, while restlessness leaves us searching for ourselves.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ich Bin Ein Franzose

The day the French voted for their president, some of them also had brunch in a little café called Le Valmy in the Paris neighborhood of Canal Saint-Martin. Brunch was quiche and salad with beets and green beans and smoked salmon and ham, couscous, a small dish of applesauce and cheese and coffee, tea or (naturally) wine enjoyed as causally and moderately as water. The street outside the café runs along the canal and it is closed to cars on Sundays; families with children in strollers and on hand scooters passed alongside men and women of all ages on bicycles rented from community rental sites stationed all over the city. The café Le Valmy is far from the Champs Elysees. No one was speaking any language other than French.

Parisian families in a park near their poling place.
I wished I spoke their language better so I could ask some of them about the election, about whom they supported and why. The race will come down to Nicolas Sarkozy, a kind of French neo-con, and Francois Hollande, an old-fashioned socialist. I read an essay a few days ago in The New York Times by a French journalist who said neither man is on the right track. He believes that the socialism of Mitterrand that Hollande wants to revive has been discredited; and both men are urging that France, which has been beat up by globalization, return to isolationism at a time when, the journalist believes, only fiscal austerity will save her from ruin.

In the United States, those on the right warn that President Obama is a socialist who wants to make America like France. Now, here is a Frenchman, speaking for many others too, who wants to make France more like the U.S., or at least like the U.S. our social Darwinists would have us be.

It is sometimes said that Europe is a few hundred years ahead of the U.S. in terms of its cultural and political evolution. Certainly France is ahead of us in the march toward guaranteeing health care and other social services to her citizens. But like American car companies, with their generous pensions and medical benefits for retirees, the financial burden of that generosity has become too great. There will have to be a retreat.

That seems to be the way of it, for car companies and countries alike. We want to have economic vibrancy, and we want to keep people out of the gutter. It can be tough to do both. Each time the pendulum swings one way or the other, the forces of gravity, represented by the need to work, on the one hand, and compassion for the less fortunate, on the other, exert their inevitable pull.

There is no utopia. Karl Marx didn’t find one. Nor will Grover Norquist. What I see around me here in France, though, in this neighborhood of Parisians, is people living life the way we all strive to. There are noticeable differences between our countrymen. The French (at least the ones around me as I write this) are thin. I would say they are fit--they look great--but they smoke too much. On the other hand, they are way less addicted to their smartphones. They seem happy in a way we all want to be, gathered in warm conversation, embracing, kissing on both cheeks like they really mean it. They also--men and women--wear neck scarves with a casual flair I could never pull off. A toddler across the way grins shyly when I make a silly face. As we get up to leave, I glance over and see that she is contentedly breast feeding while her mother chats happily with a woman who must be her own mother.

We have no need to fear becoming like the French. They are us, and we are them. Each of us rides the bob of our political pendulum, swinging between productivity and compassion, looking toward one another as our paths converge and diverge under the influence of the forces of social and economic gravity.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Where Are U

You helped him pack his car for the trip. You offered, for the umpteenth time, to go with him. I’ll be fine, Dad, he said, and you thought he would but still you wanted to be there to help him if he needed it. There would be things to buy for his room, things you hadn’t already thought of and packed in his car.

He set off alone on the long drive. You tried not to worry about the trip. You had paid for new tires for the car and had your mechanic check it over one more time. You waited by the phone for him to call. Two days went by. Three. You couldn’t stand his mad need for independence any longer, so you cracked and called him.

How is it? you asked. Um, I’m not sure yet, he said. What? Well, I haven’t found it yet. What? The school. It’s supposed to be here in this town, but I can’t find it. What? Listen, Dad, I’ve got to go. Don’t worry. It’s here somewhere. Love you.

This is the way it feels when your grown children, the ones long past college, well out in the world, get in a tight spot. It feels like they’ve gone off to college, driving their little cars all by themselves (as my mother would have put it), and they can’t find their schools. You can’t help them. You know that. Still, what you want to do more than anything is go to them and hug them and tell them everything will be all right, that you will always be there, even though you understand now that you are no longer what they need.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Taking Back the Country

At the dawning of my awareness of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren was Chief Justice. Perhaps I remember him so vividly because of the yard signs and bumper stickers in my native South urging his impeachment. The idea that a Supreme Court Justice could be impeached for writing opinions people didn’t like seemed both ludicrous and thrilling. Ludicrous because even then I knew that it was the Supreme Court’s job to tell us hard truths, things we might not want to hear but were essential to our being a great nation of freedom and opportunity. Thrilling because I also knew (in a kind of smug, elitist way) that if the rednecks in pickup trucks plastered with Confederate flags and those impeachment exhortations wanted to lynch Earl Warren (and indeed, if you asked them, that’s what they really wanted), he must be doing something damned good.

"Do you think we'd look better
in black robes?"
The Supreme Court of the fifties and sixties was a guiding force for progressive policy. The country came along reluctantly. From my vantage point in a decidedly unprogressive part of the country, it seemed right that that should be the Court’s role. No one else I knew was going to do it, certainly not the white men at the nearby country club whose principal interaction with blacks was being served by them. I just assumed this was the way progress was made, through the gentle and wise leadership of nine wise men (yes, it’s true, in those days I didn’t notice there were no women on the Court). I didn’t yet know about the Court of the Roosevelt era that tried to derail the New Deal. I hadn’t yet read Plessey vs. Ferguson.

I so took for granted that the Court would always be progressive that I didn’t think too much about it when Earl Warren left the bench and after him the other lions of his era--Marshall, Brennan, Douglas—who spoke to our national conscience and called upon us to be mindful of those who did not have within their grasp the levers of political or economic power. I should have been paying closer attention, for now it seems I have awakened from a dream and someone has done what President Roosevelt famously tried and failed to do: packed the Court. Someone went back to the bar at the country club in my old town and pointed to four smug guys sitting at a table in the corner and said, Come on boys, let’s go to Washington and make us some law. They slipped on their robes (black, for a change) and slapped each other on the back, maybe exchanged a wink, and took their places on the bench.

What do you think might happen if a bunch of good old boys got a big block on the Court? We don’t have to guess, do we. Forget about affirmative action. Forget about gun control. If they have their way, I’d say we can probably also forget about abortions and expanded health-care coverage. Oh, and you know that little thing called the Voting Rights Act? That might not apply to you if you’re Hispanic and don’t have your papers in order.

Among the most frightful of the decisions already rendered or worriedly anticipated, however, is Citizens United. Frightful for the effect the Super PACs it spawned will have on our democracy, perhaps even more frightful for what it says about the worldview of the conservative block on the Court. Actually, it’s not right to grant those four men the intellectual credential “conservative.” Conservatives respect precedent. These old boys are anything but conservative. They are the modern KKK, riding down from Stone Mountain to take back this country for the people to whom it should belong.

There could be no other reason for such an obdurately wrongheaded decision. Certainly not precedent. The decision upended a hundred years of judicial precedent. Certainly not regard for democracy. No one denies that money corrupts politics. Opening campaign finance coffers to unlimited donations from corporations will undeniably lead to greater corporate influence over the legislative agenda. And how did the Justices arrive at their opinion? By saying that the first amendment protects the right of the people to free speech, that money is speech (see above), and, as everyone knows, that corporations are people.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. Perhaps this is just part of the long cycle of steps forward, steps back, steps sideways. I guess I had my hopes up, though, and now, like a boy at Christmas with lumps of coal in his stocking, I’m taking it hard. I thought Jim Crow was behind us. I see now he is not. Not his old literal self. He’s gotten wilier. His signs no longer hang over rust-stained water fountains. They don’t say “colored only.” Now they hang over the doors to Congress, and they say "rich white people only."