Only someone badly lost would find himself driving through a village as unremarkable as this, I’m thinking. The lights are on in the post office, but the parking lot is empty: no one, I imagine, is in a hurry to pick up their mail when it consists, mostly, of bills. The two-storey elementary school is quiet: it’s as if they’re waiting to hear the answer to some question the teacher has posed and it’s been a long time coming. All along the road there are small family graveyards. They have stones with barely legible dates that coincide with old and mostly forgotten wars, the short lifespan of the buried indicating that they were the casualties of such conflicts, and their last names that their descendants continued to live in this area and may rest in this same ground, next to these woods and these fields covered with rocks they never quite succeeded in clearing.
Northern New England is beautiful in the fall. The leaves turn pretty colours and the days tend to be bright and mild. Once the rains come and the trees and gardens turn bare, one can see how modestly many people live, their homes in need of paint and repair, the cars and trucks parked in their driveways looking more than a few years old. Of course, when Christmas decorations start appearing in doors and windows and on some of the lawns, the small towns have a cheerful and welcoming air, especially after night falls, although this year the decorations are less extravagant than in years past. Everyone around here is broke and worried about the future.
The bigger towns in the area, except those on the coast, which lies half an hour away, are in bad shape. Though they never fully recovered after the last mills and factories closed in the early 1970s, they managed to get by and recently even showed signs of recovery. Not any more. Formerly their downtown streets were lined with modest, locally owned stores selling hardware, stationery, medicine, newspapers and clothing; they have now either gone out of business or are doing poorly. The people one sees in the streets or in the remaining stores look downcast, unhealthy and unemployed. The sight of a young woman pushing a wobbly stroller with a sickly looking little girl past a boarded-up gas station is a sign of the future.
For sure, there are worse places in the United States. Towns like Detroit with their abandoned neighbourhoods and gutted train stations, banks and hospitals overgrown with weeds and littered with trash wouldn’t look out of place in some country devastated by war. Is this where we are all heading? One hears every day about towns and cities that are unable to pay their bills, or the salaries and pensions of their employees, while they cut basic services like street lighting, snow clearing and police work, as well as funding for libraries and the maintenance of parks.
How anyone here can support a family is unfathomable to me since there are no decent-paying jobs any more. The official national unemployment rate is 9.8 per cent, but everyone knows the real figure is much higher, since 9.8 per cent doesn’t include the huge number of Americans who can only find part-time employment or who have stopped looking for work. Most larger businesses have outsourced their jobs or moved them overseas, so that when one calls for technical assistance about a malfunctioning cell phone or computer one is now connected to a man or a woman in India. Given the indifference of our corporations, banks and politicians to the plight of American workers, it is hard to imagine where the salvation of these communities will come from, particularly since many of those who suffer the most don’t bother to vote, or give their votes to politicians who can be counted on to ignore their growing despair.
Once in a while I drive past a courthouse where on weekday mornings there is usually a small, unhappy group of people waiting for the court to open. The accused have just been brought in from the jail, or have come along with their lawyers and relatives. Most of them are young men, some still in school, and they’re likely to be here because they’ve stolen something, assaulted someone or used illegal drugs. No matter what happens to them in court, they have little to look forward to. If they go back to school and manage to graduate, their chances of finding work are slim. Their best hope may lie in joining the army – as has now become feasible even with a criminal record – so that they can eventually return home with some money saved. They may also come back in a coffin, or maimed, mentally or physically, but, again, in a country where economic inequality is now shrugged off and where there’s no political will for shared sacrifice in time of war, their fates, whatever they turn out to be, will barely register in the public mind.
New York, or rather Manhattan, gives the impression that the economic downturn is over and that we are again rolling in money. The restaurants and bars are packed every night. A Spanish woman who lived in the city in the 1980s told me that New York now feels like a huge, crowded shopping mall. It may seem like that in some parts of town, but even here there are millions worried about their jobs, praying that they won’t get sick and be faced with huge medical bills: so who are these carefree people in their midst? To get back to reality, one must walk the streets at six in the morning, when the poorly dressed and dejected human beings of all ages who do all the lowly jobs in the city are coming out of subways on their way to work or lining up for coffee at fast-food joints and grocery stores. It’s the cold weather, you might argue. It makes everyone look grim, even those who work in offices and fill these streets a couple of hours later, but I don’t believe that’s the whole story.
‘I feel now like one of those men who used to stretch a wire between two skyscrapers and set out to cross it, swaying in the wind as they made their first hesitant step,’ I overheard an older, well-dressed man say on the bus.
Yes, I could see him up there too, flapping his arms like a scarecrow in a storm, while the crowd below gasped and cheered, some of them wanting him to keep his balance, others wanting him to fall to his death.
I’ve heard friends say this holiday season that they are beginning to hate family reunions because the talk inevitably turns to the economy and politics. Arguing with relatives who get all their information from Fox News is as much fun as driving nails in with your head. Transforming once reasonable human beings into gullible idiots is one of the biggest businesses we have. One could call it our chief national product. To make someone unlearn everything they’ve ever learned about their country’s and their family’s history, and come to believe the opposite, requires that they be subjected on a daily basis to misinformation and lies about everything from our domestic problems to the wars we are fighting until they have no opinions of their own.
It’s fairly common nowadays to meet individuals who not only parrot the ravings of right-wing radio hosts, but do so with the serious and confident air admirers of the Soviet Union used to have when quoting something Stalin or the Daily Worker said. I have been told by men and women who get all their information from such sources that we should invade Mexico in order to stop illegal immigration, that we should let prayer and not government dole take care of people who go hungry, that Hitler and the Nazis were liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, and that Obama is a power-mad Muslim who wants to bring socialism and sharia law to the United States.
In an atmosphere of growing fear and hysteria, it is easy to understand why the money men are funding these peddlers of ignorance and hatred. They want to confuse the voters who suspect that something is fundamentally wrong with their country, conceal from them the causes of our economic decline, set them against one another by reviving old bigotries and force them to look for scapegoats. What I find incomprehensible is that so many of them don’t care if we end up with a huge underclass or the kind of suffering we saw during the Great Depression. You’d think the prospect of riding in a limousine past soup lines of miserable-looking human beings would make them reconsider, but all they dream of is making a killing and turning the social security and pension money of the retired over to Wall Street to gamble with. In the past, one could count on the Democratic Party to put up some resistance. Not any more. Now that getting elected for public office costs so much money, everyone who runs must prostrate themselves before the bankers and pretend to find virtue in their reasoning.
My brother said to me the other day: ‘If only business wasn’t taxed, didn’t have to provide healthcare for employees, and wasn’t in any way regulated, and was immune from lawsuits for wrongdoing, and if there was no unemployment insurance for the unemployed and social security for the old, this would be a wonderful country.’ He was summarising what the Republicans were saying in the last election, when the Americans who would be most hurt by these policies overwhelmingly voted for them. The unions used to remind their members at election time of the bosses’ undying wish to find some new way of screwing them out of their salaries and their pensions. Today even the old union members who depend on government programmes like social security and Medicare have come to believe that their problems are the fault of big government, undeserving minorities and illegal aliens. If government would only get off our backs, they keep shouting, things would be swell once again. One finds oneself reminding people that we pay taxes so planes don’t collide in the air and our rickety old bridges don’t fall when we drive across them.
I wonder what those early explorers who left us their accounts of coming into contact with previously unknown cultures, or their fictional counterparts like Swift’s Gulliver, would make of today’s Americans. Delegated by God to be the masters of the universe, convinced of their moral superiority, they find it easy to slaughter both the guilty and the innocent with no remorse and continue to maintain, despite all the evidence, that there is no relation between cause and effect. Even stranger is their belief that never taking into account the consequences of their actions is a road to happiness. Otherwise, the natives are hardworking, usually friendly, enamoured of sports and their various pets, and fond of a good laugh now and then.
The gunshots of a hunter frighten the poor old dog, so he hides in the corner, as does the small boy left at home with his old grandmother. Outside her small, two-storey house, yellow leaves fly in the air. It’s Halloween. The crows look bored strutting past coffins and skeletons and the big fat pumpkin flashing a toothless smile someone set in the yard. The shots she hears in the woods do not alarm the old woman. Living in ignorance of what her country does in the world has been the secret of her lifelong cheerfulness and confidence about the future.
Now that we are in a permanent state of war, we are no longer permitted to see the carnage we are the cause of, either on television or in the newspapers. I’d like to believe that a month of images of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and the tribal areas of Pakistan would bring back the peace movement, but I’m no longer sure. I mentioned to both strangers and friends the video WikiLeaks released of a helicopter in Baghdad gunning down Reuters journalists and civilians while its crew whooped with delight. They either hadn’t watched it, or just wanted to talk about what a bad man Assange was and whether he ought to be taken out. They also confessed that they preferred not to think about war in order not to get depressed. Putting aside both reality and morality, they imagine that our wars have nothing to do with them. This I find especially true in some universities, where the students are the first generation I have known who have no desire to question their government’s policies. A friend who teaches at a local college told me that his students find Emerson and Thoreau troubling for the dissent they showed from conventional opinion. Dissent is difficult when not a single politician in November’s election, as far as I’m aware, mentioned the more than a trillion dollars that have already gone into the maintenance of our global empire, or hinted that this may have something to do with the state of our economy. We are like a family that sits around arguing about its finances, the need for mother to get a part-time job, sis to quit college and junior to stop taking ski vacations, without daring to mention that dear old dad has a serious and expensive drug habit he has no intention of doing anything about.
‘God bless war,’ a man I know said. ‘Otherwise we’d spend all our hard-earned money feeding the poor.’
One night before Christmas in New York, a thin, sickly-looking man whose hands shook badly, as if he were playing a pair of maracas, asked me for money. ‘Hands clutching wounds to staunch the flow of blood, wherever you go,’ he said mysteriously as he pocketed the dollar bills, backlit by a store window full of magazines with fishing-rods, cars, guns and enormous naked breasts.
In the area where I live, on plots of newly cleared land, there are several houses, some of palatial dimensions, built in the last ten years, most of which sit unoccupied. What the builders had in mind has always been unclear to me and to my neighbours. Yes, it was easy to get a mortgage, often with no down payment, but who could possibly afford to heat that many bedrooms, bathrooms and a huge kitchen? Too far from Boston and the larger Massachusetts and New Hampshire cities to commute to work, and with the long, cold winters making them undesirable vacation homes, they made no sense except to the banks and construction companies. Some claimed that these smart folk know what they are doing, that there are many young couples with highly paid jobs who don’t mind commuting two hours each way to Boston, but it seemed unlikely, and still left the question why one would pay between $400,000 and $800,000 for a home and spend so little time in it.
Now we have our answer. Not many bought, and the few who did either gave up their homes or were evicted by the banks. We are left with these monuments to the greed and foolishness of the last decade. As the gap between the well-to-do and the rest of us widened, credit became easier to get and people took on a staggering amount of debt, putting themselves in the position of being one paycheck away from financial ruin. ‘When your bank says No, we say Yes,’ one mortgage company used to say. Even if one had a decent salary, once in debt to a bank, a credit card company or a store, it was near impossible to pay off the full balance of the loan, because of the exorbitant interest rates and hidden fees and penalties. Still Americans kept borrowing, accustoming themselves not to think about the consequences, living from month to month and often taking out second mortgages and endangering whatever equity they had in their homes to pay the bills.
They lost their jobs, their health plans and had their home foreclosed, someone says of one family in the neighbourhood. No one has any idea where they went or what happened to them. The last time the mailman saw the husband, he was sitting on their porch still in his pyjamas, staring into space, while a small white dog kept running in the front yard, barking at the leaves falling from the trees. He waved to the man, but the man, who was usually so friendly and eager to have a chat, did not wave back.
Only the bereaved mother, some neighbours and a few old schoolfriends, I was told, came to the wake for a young man who died in the war, and they left quickly because of the freezing rain outside, while an unknown girl remained at the back, seated in a row of empty chairs, acknowledged by no one, still wearing her coat, engrossed by something invisible to anyone else in the ugly brown carpet, which grew more and more intriguing to her as the hour passed and the men about to remove the coffin and put out the lights finally asked her to leave.
A letter in the New York Times on 23 December, from a Mr John E. Colbert in Chicago, defended the White House’s recent compromises:
President Obama is a realist who gets things done: he makes his case, counts votes, makes his best deal and the country moves forward. That’s progress. He doesn’t gloat or count enemies but moves to the next task.
In contrast, others hold to principle and accomplish nothing. Purists for healthcare reform, for example, insisted on the best solution in 1993 and came away with nothing. Mr Obama took the best he could get and came away with sweeping improvements.
I hear this argument from liberals every time Obama capitulates to his opponents. Having no principles and not living up to any promises he made to the people who got him elected is now regarded as the height of political wisdom. I wonder what kind of pragmatic compromise the president would have urged Martin Luther King to make with the segregationists in the South?
After putting aside the Sunday papers after lunch and peeking out of the window at the snow beginning to fall, I closed my eyes in my chair and concluded that clearly there hasn’t been enough misery in the world for some people out there. The early darkness makes it difficult to chase away such thoughts and look for a book, to find again, perhaps, that passage in Thoreau where he speaks of the grand old poem called winter, coming around each year without any connivance of ours, or that other one where he pleads to heaven that there be birds on days like this with rich, colourful plumage, recalling the ease and splendour of summer days, among the dead bushes and frozen trees in the yard.