Paris, London, Rome, the three places in Europe I’ve visited. They were all broken.
Cities that were whipped by the evils of World War II. Terrible things had happened there, and no one thought it was all for the best, or that people had learned a lesson, or that everything happens for a reason.
Hundreds of years of wars will do that. Wars over religious practice and land, ostensibly. What was actually at stake was who of the super rich would have a little more power, who a little less, and who would lose their heads.
American myth is that everything happened beautifully. There are footnotes.
One is: well, it is very sad about the Indians.
The other is: it is sad about slavery, but “we” fought a war to stop that evil, and now it is over.
We’ve been revisiting the latter story, in particular. We need to.
(Other footnotes: oops, Vietnam. The Great Depression, when we got spanked for having too much fun, so knock it off.)
This week, a reality TV star was charged with possessing images of children being abused. I was fascinated with this story. The nature of the particular crime doesn’t trigger me. I have been very lucky in not experiencing any trauma related to those particular horrors.
What I am obsessed with is how people don’t know things, how they lie to themselves, how they try to put on a brave face, and how that blows up.
I am obsessed with watching old reality TV or interviews when the person had a secret, or something terrible was about to happen, and there is, as yet, no trace of it. Is there?
Were there clues?
So much confession about reality TV. On another show I’ve watched forever, a wife has an emotional affair. The episodes in which I know what she was thinking, what she was doing, fascinate me. Can you see people being suspicious? Can you see the secret in her eyes?
In another episode, can you see people who are about to become ill, becoming ill?
Can you see someone who will shortly die, is there an ashiness to them, or a brittleness, or a foreboding?
I think I would have always found the suburb where I grew up to be an anxious, brutal place. When my parents divorced, and our family went from being A Perfect Family to The Disaster, the cruelty of the place became clearer to me.
I had a friend in elementary school who took me aside in 6th grade and said, “My family has a deep, dark secret, and I will tell you when we graduate from high school.”
We had been in the same cohort of kids since kindergarten, and would I know him and make note of him six years later? Sure.
I could have known, I think of my parents’ split. I could have been prepared.
Thus one of the primary stories of my life was born. I wish I could have known. Fuck it, preparation won’t help anyway. And I’m going to prepare the shit out of this.
In Europe, it’s hard to pretend that the Nazis “weren’t really that bad.” (Yes, I know some people do, and that’s frightening, but a place where Nazis actually caused damage, and left marks, makes them harder to ignore.)
In the United States, in the last few years, I have hope that more people take seriously our white supremacists and what they’re willing to do– march in the streets, try to get their leaders elected to office, court the favor of the president, wink slyly while increasing their legitimacy, chant racist propaganda and pivot to whine about being rejected or demonized. As if the ideas and actions aren’t demonic.
It’s hard to frame events of the last few years as anything but something to survive. I resent how people have hurt me. People who supported racists. People who insisted school sports had to continue, endangering teachers’ lives. People who literally shit on our Capitol. People who shot suspects as if their lives were worthless, only considered as far as how much of a threat they might pose to others, not how much a human life is worth.
Maybe I can think of it as a maturing. Europeans have thought of Americans as ignorant, pathological optimists, shallow and naive.
Maybe after the last few years we are a little less so. A little more realistic about how a government can be taken over by dictators, by authoritarians. More realistic about how a government can turn on its own people. I’m more realistic about how a civil war begins. A country can have more than one, you know.
If with maturity comes a greater sense of responsiblity, good. If people realize that without their paying attention, we may lose our country, our ability to travel, our electricity, the safety and dignity of our government buildings, that’s good. We can. Some of the reason we’ve begun moving towards health is that people have grown up.
“It can never happen here.”
The helpful lesson of my parents’ divorce was that many, many things are out of our control. The divorce was not just outside of my control, as a kid, but outside of their control, really. Changes happen. Changes need to be made.
I don’t think I like places that are a little sad and broken because they are depressing. I like the frayed edges of cities, the places that are a bit rougher but also more free. I like those places because they feel more honest. When you can be honest about what hurts, or has been hurt, there is also room for authentic joy.