I love America
Food for Thought.
The final section of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel ‘The Lacuna’ makes up around a third of the book and recounts the protagonist’s dealings with the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), so I won’t have to tell you that in the text the word ‘Communist’ appears quite a lot.
My early this morning re-reading of that section — extraordinarily well-written, by the way, in that it succeeds in leavening the horror and tragedy with comedy; it would be unbearable to read otherwise — sparked off a coming together of various threads of thought that had been buzzing around in the back of my mind for a while. While I was here in our kitchen nook: not only the place where I put thought into our food, as you will see.
One of those threads, and the one I’m most concerned with here, concerns the 2016 run-up for the United States presidency. For I, word-child that I am (thankyou, Iris Murdoch), have been following, although tracking might be a better word here, the various mentions of and reactions to the word ‘Socialist’.
This word, when I first started noticing it in articles and blogs and so on and so forth, around October 2015, when it was mentioned was done so, we can safely say, with the aim of fomenting fear. And it was only this morning, re-reading Ms. Kingsolver as I said, that a possible reason came to me.
Because it seems to be being used in the same vein as the HUAC’s ‘Communist’, that is, as the putting into one handy package all things Un-American.
At a certain point, round about December 2015, I saw the start of a ‘wording’ process whereby the word ‘Socialist’ gave way to ‘Social’, with ‘Democrat’ getting tagged on to that with distinct tinges of apologia. This notwithstanding, for great swathes of the American population, the ‘S’ word held sway, provoking at times violent reactions, irrespective of what the man so ‘worded’ was actually saying §. And this I found disturbing.
Now, I was born and brought up in England and the English are averse to extreme reactions in anything (witness the reams spent analysing the reaction to Princess Diana’s death; they even made a film about it). This extends to politics still, though there are some changes happening there §§.
George Orwell put this aversity down to us being a ‘cosy’ little island. But he made it his mission to set out plainly (that words should say what they mean was very important to him) and measuredly (no hearts on sleeves, please, we’re British!) the dangers of this attitude and the dangers the -ism or -ist labels in politics.
More importantly though, and this is another of the threads, if you read any one of his writings, it is obvious that he forms part of a descendance through the ages of people with the urge to improve the human condition in any way that they can.
And that is so quintessentially American. As I have seen over the years in American literature, film and TV. As I don’t see in our European equivalents. Mr. Orwell was an extraordinary exception, and was reviled in some circles in his lifetime and for many years after his death.
The HUAC knew what it was about when it weighed in on Hollywood. There were, have been, and are still so many people there who take very seriously the great opportunity they have to do good, to pay their good fortune forward, and are not afraid to use it. Susan Sarandon, to name at random, is one such example §§§. Kevin Spacey is another.
If you’ve followed me this far, I am going to have to disappoint you in having no conclusions, as such. Except the following, taken from that same Kingsolver novel:-
“You asked me why I stayed here (America n.d.r.) so long. I can try to say. People have a lot of color and songs in Mexico, more art than they have hopes, it often seemed to me. Here, I found people bursting with hope but not many songs. They didn’t sing, they turned on the radio. They wanted stories, like anything. So I decided to try my hand at making art for the hopeful. Because I wasn’t any good at the other thing, manufacturing hopes for the artful. America was the most hopeful place I’d ever imagined. My neighbours were giving over their hairpins and door hinges to melt down for building the good ship America. I wanted to give her things, too. So I stayed here.”
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§ I am happy to say that the ‘S’ word has all but disappeared, now, because our attention has become ever increasingly focussed on how prescient Mr. Sanders has been, how right, how profoundly human in the causes he has made his over the years. And this is as it should be. Oh dear. I spoke too soon. This just came up. And it is a blatant attempt to get the voters ‘back on track’, through words. Words are very very important.
§§ See the brilliant Johnny Void, for one.
§§§ Ms. Sarandon is in another branch of that descendance whose line is direct from Vanessa Redgrave (with Glenda Jackson there, too). Ms.Sarandon has been routinely pilloried for her activism, but that is nothing when compared Ms. Redgrave’s. For a time, I remember, when the media wanted to conjure up The Looney Left, it was Ms. Redgrave (and her brother, Corin) whose images were routinely used. According to my aunt Elena, who was Joely and Natasha’s Nanny, she would get very upset by the awful coverage she got, for the denigration her causes suffered, as she saw it, because of her. But just look at some of those causes here. Her Oscar acceptance speech for ‘Julia’ is an exercise in historical memory that the younger among us might do well to observe so as to avoid the carpings and sneerings at the Di Caprios of our times.