Sunday, March 13, 2011

Speaking as a foreigner

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
(L.P. Hartley, The Go-between)

L.P. Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, is written from the perspective of a man in his 60s who is looking back at one summer during his childhood. Looking at his own past from the vantage point of several decades of maturity, his past seems like a foreign country, a slightly alien setting populated by people whose actions and values are not quite like those of people of the present. This sense of foreignness is compounded by the fact that the main character is recalling a time when he visited a boarding school friend whose family came from a higher social class and much wealthier conditions than the protagonist himself came from. All the awkwardness of crossing the class boundaries of England at the end of the Victorian era—the incidents narrated in the novel took place in 1900—are explored in a narrative style that brilliantly captures the nostalgia of a man in his 60s looking back on the dawn of his adolescence, and the confusion that goes with having lived through events that are not thoroughly understood.

The melancholia of the The Go-between, published in 1953, anticipates the mood that comes over me as I think back on a past that has become something of a foreign country from the perspective of my current age and that was something of a foreign country to me even then. A time that combines that dual foreignness for me is Wisconsin in the 1960s, when I was a college student. Having lived most of my life in New Mexico and Colorado, I found Wisconsin more strange than I would have guessed. Although I had already had the experience of living for a year in a foreign country—Virginia—as an elementary-school pupil, I was unprepared for how strange some of the ways of the American midwest would feel to a young man from southwest. For much of the time I was there, I felt a longing to be closer to a place I could think of as home.

One day while I was in Wisconsin during the 1964 presidential campaign, a political campaigner came through town who had some connection with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). I made a decision to join a small group of other students in a minor demonstration outside the venue where this campaigner was speaking. I carried a placard saying “The House Un-American Activities Committee is un-American”—a slogan that admittedly lacked originality and imagination but one that adequately expressed my convictions.

Wisconsin had been the home state of the notorious communist hunter, Senator Joe McCarthy, a man whose name conjured up feelings of deep loathing in my parents' household; he was the very antithesis of everything my family most loved about America. While Senator McCarthy had no formal connection with HUAC, both McCarthy and HUAC had an obsession with the dangers of communism, many of them imagined. Many of the Wisconsinites who had admired McCarthy in the 1950s approved of HUAC and were passionately devoted to Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. Like McCarthy, and like many members of HUAC, Goldwater was determined to dismantle the social programs that had been put in place by Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Goldwater campaigned against the so-called welfare state, an umbrella term that included social security, Medicare and most other government-managed programs designed to help people through hard times. Not surprisingly, Goldwater also opposed labor unions. He was a vehement opponent of the Soviet Union and was quick to point out similarities between Communism and any and all governmental programs designed to promote social and economic well-being. Goldwater carried only a few counties in Wisconsin in 1964, but the outnumbered Goldwater supporters made their presence, and the depth of their passions, felt.

As I marched around in a tight little circle carrying my anti-HUAC placard, a grandmotherly woman about half my height walked up to me and asked me my name and address. I told her. She wrote it down and then turned around in jubilation to a group of her companions and said triumphantly, “ I got one! We'll turn his name into the FBI!” Never had I felt more as though I had wandered into a foreign country. It was beyond my imagination, and certainly beyond my experience, that anyone would think that someone protesting against a governmental organization would be deemed in any way worthy of being reported to the FBI. While living in the foreign country of Virginia I had taken a tour of the FBI building and was assured that no criminal had ever escaped the grasp of the FBI, an agency that worked around the clock to protect innocent Americans from gangsters and hardened criminals. They said nothing on that tour of the FBI investigating Quakers and other peace makers, so how was I to know that granny might have meant what she said? The idea that a college student carrying a placard could be seen as a danger to the American way of life was so ridiculous that I could not helping bursting out laughing—even though I had been raised well and knew that it is rude to laugh at my elders. My laughter was returned with a scowl of unmistakable disapproval on grandma's face. I was, after all, an unwelcome foreigner, a stranger in her land.

That was 1964. From the perspective of 2011, 1964 is a foreign country. Thank God it is far way from here. They do things so differently there. In 1963 I went with an African friend to a dining room in a hotel to celebrate American Thanksgiving and was turned away by the maitre d'hôtel, who explained that my friend's presence would make the other diners uncomfortable. That happened in Wisconsin, not Alabama or Mississippi—lands as foreign to me then as North Korea. It is difficult to imagine such a humiliating event taking place in 2011. People are not turned away from public dining facilities for the color of their skin in 2011. That sort of thing happened only in such foreign countries as 1964, a foreign country in which it could not even be imagined that an African American could be elected president.

Until recently, I would have thought that many other of the ways of 1964 were quite foreign to the culture of 2011. I had assumed that the virulent anti-union and anti-Communist sentiments that motivated the Republican presidential candidate of 1964, who lost by one of the largest landslides in American presidential history and whose defeat was accompanied by the defeats of numerous conservative Republicans around the country, were as safely tucked away in the past as slavery, dungeons and inquisitions.

The Inquisition

I was eight years old in 1953, another foreign land in which people did things differently. One day I came into our small apartment and found my parents and several other adults lying on the floor, huddled up near the speaker of our radio. In those days, a radio was a large piece of furniture that dominated the living room; it was filled with vacuum tubes that kept burning out. Our radio console also housed a phonograph. All these adults were huddled on the floor straining to hear the sounds of a scratchy phonograph record, sounds that they could barely hear because the volume was turned very low. They were listening to a recording called The Inquisition, a satirical skit that had been made in Canada in which the McCarthy trials were being compared to the Spanish Inquisition. The adults laughed so hard that tears ran down their cheeks. I asked why they did not turn up the volume and sit in chairs like other adults I knew. My mother explained that it could be dangerous if the neighbors overheard what they were listening to. I did not know then about the concept of paranoia, but I thought she was being overly cautious. It was not until later that I learned that several of her friends had been actors and playwrights whose work had gotten them blacklisted. One friend had been involved in making a movie called Salt of the Earth, based on a true story about New Mexican minors who had fought to form a labor union and who had been beaten by thugs hired by the management of the mining company for which they worked. Writing such a play was sufficient cause for getting classified as an anti-American Communist sympathizer in the foreign country known as 1954.

The past is indeed a foreign country. No doubt the same can be said of the future. I am finding, however, that the present is no less foreign. Congressional representatives seeking to dismantle the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known informally in some circles as “Obamacare”) come from a country whose ways are completely alien to me. The inquiry conducted by Rep. Peter T. King (R, NY) into radicalization in Islām is an act taking place in a country that can best be described as barbarian. The wall being built across the Mexican-US border, punctuated by the unconscionable failure of Congress to grant citizenship to the children of undocumented workers from Mexico and points south is a structure that, like the great wall of China, is a silent witness to a xenophobia that is entirely outside the moral parameters of my country. The land in which Glenn Beck reportedly had 3 million listeners, more than the 2.7 million who watch The News Hour on PBS, feels nothing to me like home; I am only slightly encouraged by Beck's rapid decline to 2.5 million viewers since last summer. The systematic assault on unionized labor in the public sector feels like an invasion of aliens. Many of the decisions of the Supreme Court have taken place in a country I barely recognize. A country in which a soldier in the US Army can be kept without trial in solitary confinement for three-quarters of a year for being suspected of having leaked documents that were mildly embarrassing to the US government is a land so exotic that even with my love of adventure I cannot imagine wanting to visit.

The past is a foreign country. The future is a foreign country. The present is a foreign country. They do things differently here than they do in civilized lands. In 1956 I read Edward Everett Hale's short story, “The Man Without a Country.” Being but a child in 1956, I had no way of knowing that that story would be the story of millions, and probably tens of millions, of Americans who had hoped that America would stop being a foreign country where they do things strangely.