America, America, wherefore art thou?

Brook’s “Paradise Lust” is getting great reviews. Ethan arrives in Houston this weekend to start grad school at Rice. Dan and I are doing fine. But America? That’s another story. Without jumping on the disbelief bandwagon about our politics getting crazier and crazier, I’m going to do what helps me most. I read. I write.

Historically, there’s always been political craziness in the United States, and it’s mostly been incited by greed and hatred of “the other.” But recently I read “America, America” (2008) by the terrific writer Ethan Canin, and he reminded me about many of the warped personalities who jump into the political fray. Yes, we’ve had sane politicians like George McGovern, Jim Jeffords, and Gabby Giffords. (I won’t bore you with the outlandish things that we’ve heard masquerade as public policy lately.)

Here’s what Canin writes in his novel: “We tend to elect those who can campaign over those who can lead.” It’s sad, but maybe that’s what happened with Barack Obama. I’ve wondered if Hillary Clinton might have been able to get more done, even though I dislike her more opportunistic style.

“How diligently privilege has to work to remain oblivious to its cost.” Denial is a powerful tool. How can any of the right-wing loonies lash out at Warren Buffett for being honest about billionaires being “coddled” with such a low tax rate?

“Power begins to grow from its own essence, rising no longer exclusively from the character of the man [or woman] but from the office itself. And this is where some balance must be found between its attainment and its allotment, between the unquenchable desire in any politician to rise, and the often humbling requirement that one’s station must now be used to some benefit. And here, of course, is where corruption begins. For power contains an irresistible urge to further itself: there is always the next race.” Sad, but true.

The narrator of the book, a newspaper editor [ahem] says “it never fails to surprise me that journalists, and politicians, and all the people whom my profession now calls opinion makers, can still be swayed with just a few of the right gifts and the right trips, with just a few of the right drinks and the right singers and the right last names, and that the citizenry, in turn, by the millions and millions, can still be brought in line behind them.” (Are we a bunch of sheep?)

I love the part of the book about the narrator’s father, reading constantly as a retired older man who never went to college, who finally has the time. He reads philosophy, and even Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States,” which endears me to him. Maybe he’s the book’s hero, someone who wants to keep learning, who doesn’t take the bullshit for granted.

And I love the part about Trieste, the young newspaper intern, explaining that it was in the worst of times during the Depression “when the national economy was at its low point of the century, that’s when we wrote the child labor laws. That’s when we showed the most care for our children.”

I still have faith that the majority of American people are sensible, and while all this yelling is going on for the next year and a half before the 2012 presidential election, let the farmers and the teachers, the writers and the plumbers, the students and the old folks, go to the polls and disregard the crazies. First our formerly eloquent young president — with his hair rapidly turning white — must act. Sometimes I wonder. A darker mood seems to be spreading across the country. So I read. And I write. What do you do?

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