This time of year I feel the urge to watch old black and white movies, preferably starring Jimmy Stewart. This year, It’s a Wonderful Life is too painful, a reminder of what we used to be but aren’t anymore. I prefer screwball comedies like The Philadelphia Story, with its sympathy for alcoholics and philanderers, and schizophrenic alternation between class rage and craven worship of old money.
Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn play an upper crust couple who, though divorced, still love one another. Hepburn almost, but not quite, falls for Jimmy Stewart, a writer from a modest background. Every time Hepburn waxes nostalgic about the sailboat Grant designed for their honeymoon, the True Love, she murmurs, in that wonderful Connecticut lockjaw, “My, she was yare.” This means, in boat language, fast, agile, and resilient. When she says this, my own eyes brim with tears along with hers.
Christmas is the season when we take stock of our collective disillusionment. The season lost its innocence in the 1970s, around the same time we did. In my Manhattan barrio, children spent the holidays being passed back and forth between divorced parents, teenage girls devoured Vogue articles about Christmas in St. Bart’s and Mustique (Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret sightings obligatory), and parents engaged in the holiday standbys of drunkenness and depression.
In the 1980s, Mom and Dad settled into corporate harness, the stock market boomed, greed was good. We agonized about the commercialization of Christmas, but it didn’t stop us from buying things.
In retrospect, even these stirrings of disquiet seem like relics of a more innocent time. In the 2000s, “the season of giving” just adds to the overload of marketing. I’m beginning to wonder if forking over cash on “Giving Tuesday” actually makes things worse. The perfect example is a tweet I got from Rocco DiSpirito, presumably yet another celebrity chef. After announcing that 50 million Americans suffer from food insecurity, Rocco urged me to click through to a website for food donations that Bank of America will match dollar for dollar.
The number of ways this is wrong is so staggering that it is difficult to know where to begin. It goes without saying that I am not a subscriber to Chef Rocco’s twitter feed. More importantly, the real beneficiary of my largesse would be Bank of America. Sure, a few people might get fed, but the real benefit is to BofA’s brand, in poor repair and deservedly so: the bank is one of the worst offenders in the economic meltdown. Before the crash, Bank of America acquired Countrywide, the country’s highest-profile purveyor of subprime mortgages, as well as the venerable stock firm Merrill Lynch. The federal government sued the bank for allegedly engaging in a practice known as “the hustle,” churning out mortgages at a feverish clip without proper checks on wrongdoing. Another lawsuit alleged that the bank’s top managers lied about Merrill Lynch’s troubled financial state while in the midst of closing the deal to buy the firm.
The bottom line? This is the same bank that cut 30,000 jobs in 2011 and the following year rewarded CEO Brian Moynihan by quadrupling his annual pay to $8.1 million.
This is not Jimmy Stewart’s bank. Ironically, it started off that way: Frank Capra modeled George Bailey, the good-hearted smalltown banker played by Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life on Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini, the self-made millionaire who was the first to offer loans to the working stiffs of America, people he believed to be generally honest.
I wrote back to Rocco, telling him if Bank of America’s management really cared, they would stop laying people off. In reality, it’s not Moynihan’s job, or yours, or mine, to (fill in the blanks): feed the hungry, buy textbooks for public schools, keep hospitals open, bankroll local arts councils, or even put up money for animal shelters.
We’re OK with Bon Jovi and Bruce rocking for hurricane relief, but buying into the fiction that corporations should be playing the role of government will not end well. Foundations shouldn’t be the fount of good works, either. It’s not Bill Gates’s job, or Warren Buffett’s, to decide which diseases to cure, or what kind of equipment should be in schools and libraries. Good works on a broad scale should not subject to the whims of private individuals and certainly not to the self-interest of corporate CEOs, former or otherwise.
Call me a grinch, but even dropping a dollar in a bucket so little Brittney can have a new kidney is a capitulation. Our good works mean there is less pressure on insurance companies to do the right thing, and on government to force them to do it – or for the government to provide health care directly to citizens, which is what Obamacare would have looked like in a sane America.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1988, Americans bought into the President George Bush’s exhortation, written by Craig Smith and the vile Peggy Noonan, to become volunteers, one of the “thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” Bush’s maudlin call for volunteers was the logical next step after Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of corporate America, attacks on labor unions, and cutbacks in social programs.
We stepped up. What else could we do? Helping others made us feel good so we kept doing it. We donated to heart disease research. We ran for the cure.
People kept giving, but Americans kept getting poorer. By 2011, a record number had slipped below the poverty line; 15.9 percent, totaling 48.5 million people. That’s not even counting the millions above the poverty line – $23,050 for a family of four — who are, by anyone’s standards, in deep economic trouble. As Paul Krugman recently wrote, none of the economic remedies being proposed on either side of the aisle will solve America’s real problem: mass unemployment.
Mitt Romney was right when he complained about the 47 percent of Americans who are dependent on government aid, even though he got the reasons wrong. Staggering under the escalating cost of living – higher college tuition, rising rents driven by the housing bust that made bankers rich — we are becoming aid junkies, just like our cousins in Africa. We have no choice. We don’t have jobs, or if we do, they don’t pay us enough for a decent life. At the same time, our defunded government is externalizing its costs, like bankrupt airlines charging $25 for a piece of luggage.
Reaganomics was bigger than us, and bigger than President Obama, too. He may be willing to look over the fiscal cliff, but in the name of pragmatism, he appears to have given up on passing another economic stimulus bill to create jobs.
I try to be a realist, too, but the culture of giving feels demeaning and hopeless. As I prepared for my first Christmas in New York for more than a decade, I found myself remembering when giving a few bucks felt real. As a girl living in Manhattan, I could tell the Christmas season was off and running when I saw a neediest case article in The New York Times. These were heartbreaking stories of people who lived beside us, but whose hardships we rarely knew about. Now, of course, those people are us.
The paper’s Neediest Cases Fund celebrates its centennial this year. The Fund started on Christmas Day, 1911, when publisher Adolph Ochs encountered a shabbily dressed man on the street. The man struck Ochs as a respectable fellow who was simply down on his luck. Ochs gave him a few dollars and a business card.
“If you’re looking for a job, come see me tomorrow,” Ochs said.
If that sounds like a scene from a Jimmy Stewart movie, it played out pretty much that way. The Neediest Cases articles began the following year. The Fund, which is still in existence, has raised $250 million.
But it’s the story of Ochs and the homeless man that makes me swallow hard this Christmas. The old story is new again, as profound as one of those Jimmy Stewart movies. Because Ochs didn’t just give the man a handout. He gave him a job.
My, we were yare. Weren’t we?
The day I stopped being an environmental writer, I was on a river in Madagascar.
Stop. I hate reading stories like this: the Patagonia catalog, Barry Lopez-Gretel Erlich School of Upper Middle Class Environmentalists Finding Meaning on a $10,000 Trip to a Place No Regular Person Can Afford to Travel.
But there I was, and I wouldn’t mind being there again. I was in Madagascar on a fellowship that I’d applied for during a major case of burnout. After writing my first book, I had been trying to sell the extinction crisis to New York editors for almost ten years, and my career was in the toilet. “I don’t really like sleeping outside,” an editor at The New York Times Magazine confessed to me. “But I just bought these great rock-climbing shoes – you know the ones with the sticky soles?”
That was the scene with magazines. When it came to selling books, the comments usually ran like this: “Susan is clearly a talented writer. Alas, we have never done well with environmental books. If she could find another subject…” (Why, I wonder, do rejections always contain the pretentious wordalas?)
In desperation, I applied to a foundation that trained journalists in the developing world. In Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, I learned fairly quickly that I was superfluous. The local reporters knew what they were doing; they just weren’t allowed to do it. The president-for-life kept a tight grip on the media and my Malagasy colleagues risked a beating or worse if they offended him. My job was to provide moral support, and accompany them when they interviewed people. As an American, I could intimidate their sources into talking. I was well-suited to the job. I rather enjoyed intimidating people, especially bad guys.
After a while, life felt seamless. Antananarivo was faded elegance at its most charming, and the Malagasy people were extraordinary: warm, genuine, and precisely calibrated to nuance. I lived in a hotel, like Eloise. I ordered room service. At night, I ate in the dining room, where I met dashing gem smugglers. I became friends with one of Madagascar’s most successful businesswomen, a principled, chic, and utterly gorgeous woman who is one of my best friends to this day. Using traditional methods of study – a French boyfriend – my language skills improved.
In Madagascar, I learned that nature and culture were not separate, one pure and the other sinful. After seeing a rare mouse lemur in its solitary nest and, not far away, the owl that hunts it, I emerged from a spiny forest to hear the night watchman playing a delicate stringed instrument under a soapstone moon. The music, the lemur, the predatory owl, the man and the moon; all were of a piece.
Like Baudelaire (“luxe, calme, et volupte…” he wrote of his time on the island) I found a better way of life in Madagascar.
When I accepted the fellowship, I insisted that the foundation allow me to spend two weeks on a river trip through the island’s arid southwest. Very few people rafted the Mangoky River, but I had connected with an American river guide and his Malagasy partner, Gerard Ravoajanahary, a former World Wildlife Fund staffer.
We fell into the rhythm of the river, life measured by the slow but inexorable current — and Gerard smacking his paddle on the surface of the water. This was necessary to frighten the crocodiles when we had to jump out of the boat to pee. All the women wanted to be in Gerard’s boat because he was so charming, so we stopped twice as often as the other boat. We also took longer to leave in the morning: cries of “I forgot to put on my sunscreen!” and “Wait, I need my bandanna!” were so routine that Gerard took to starting our day by saying, in mock drill sergeant tones: “Ladies! Arrange yourselves!”
In some ways, though, Madagascar’s southwest was not so different from the American southwest I had left behind. On the remote Mangoky River, streamers of smoke accompanied us like wraiths. The forest was burning. We saw smoke nearly every day, sometimes more than once. Slash and burn farming was Madagascar’s version of suburban sprawl, the final solution, napalm. As far back as 1881, Queen Ranavalona II had banned slash-and-burn agriculture, but then as now, the warnings were ignored.
Smoke trailed us everywhere, but we saw very few people. In ten days, we passed no more than a few dozen. A lone man poled a pirogue rigged with sails made of old rice sacks that shone gold in the sun. Naked men bathing at the shore grinned and waved at us. We waved back, trying not to look. We stopped at a sandy spit full of children. I braided a little girl’s hair: she gave me her address and made me promise to send her a postcard.
The illusion is over, say the Mexicans when a love affair ends. On our next to last day, we reached the outskirts of a village. As we slid onto the shore, we were greeted by a woman and her young son. The woman had a pet lemur draped around her neck. The lemur was alive, but barely. The mangy lemur reminded me of one of the creepy-looking fur pieces worn by old ladies on the 79th Street crosstown bus when I was a kid: a fox with its jaws clamped on its own tail.
Maybe it was the cumulative effect. For ten days, we had traveled a corridor of rare birds, bats, and vanilla plants. Smoke scrolled beside us, silent but constant, a reminder that the world was closing in. I had not exactly ignored it, merely noted its presence.
Now it reached me. I had traveled around the world, and here I was, on the 79th Street bus.
If the ecologist Raymond Dasmann was right and World War III was industrial man’s war on nature, that particular guerre was fini. Not for everyone. Many people cared about nature for its own sake, whether it was beautiful or not. These were the environmentalists of the future: people who got excited about “sustainability” or “trading pollution credits.”
For me, it had always been about something else. Aesthetics, I suppose. Transcendence, the old Emersonian saw. That part was over. Fini.
I left in June. From the U.S., I followed the news of Madagascar’s contested presidential election. A stalemate: the old president wouldn’t give up power, and the younger insurgent candidate refused to concede the election. While they bickered, an estimated 7,000 children died because road blockades were stopping the rice harvest from reaching markets.
In September, the World Trade Centers fell. Nearly three thousand people died in the attacks.
When I saw the profiles of the victims in The New York Times, I felt nothing but anger. Not anger at Al Qaeda. Anger at us. Who was writing profiles of the children who died in Madagascar? Who was talking to their families, finding out what kind of food the kids liked, whether they cared about sports, or flowers, or if one of the girls was missing a front tooth that left a gap when she smiled?
In the midst of the Malagasy standoff, a boatload of French mercenaries tried to invade. I think there were 60 of them. Brazen to the point of being comical, they were turned back before reaching shore. I couldn’t stop thinking about the old Peter Sellers movie “The Mouse That Roared.” When the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick, whose sole export was Pinot Grand Fenwick wine, was threatened by economic collapse, the country’s leaders decided to invade the United States. Armed only with bows and arrows, they were hoping to be defeated so they could receive U.S. largesse, a la the Marshall Plan. In a series of coincidences and misunderstandings, Grand Fenwick wins.
This weird childhood association led to research on mercenary soldiers, and eventually to Sierra Leone, the poster child for failed states, a country that many people feel benefited from an incursion of mercenaries in the late 1990s.
For the next few years, my life was steeped in magic, military coups, cannibalism. I sold my house, and spent a month in Sierra Leone, contracting the usual gringa mystery disease (in my case, probably Lassa virus). I spent three years in The University of Arizona’s MFA program in fiction, the only way I could deprogram myself from the flat narrative voice of journalism. I workshopped my novel-in-progress with African writers at the Summer Literary Seminar in Kenya, to assuage my worries that as a non-African, I might not get it right.
I married a Kenyan guy, brought him to the U.S., watched him struggle, and thought more about identity. I had felt the boundaries of my personality shifting when I lived with him in Kenya; now I wondered if it was right to force him to adapt to our cold and impersonal culture. As I wrote my main character, a young West African army lieutenant who takes power in a military coup, and ten years later, is living a quotidian existence as a soccer dad in suburban Virginia, I asked: Who is Victor Kamara? The warlord who stole from his people and ordered his opponents shot? Or the husband and father with a graduate degree in peace and reconciliation studies?
I found the answer, the one Walt Whitman gave us: I contain multitudes.
I love writing fiction. It’s not that I don’t care about politics anymore. I do. But differently.
Madagascar: the music, the lemurs, the bats, the moon. Gerard doing his Johnny Hallyday imitation around the campfire. All of you released me from the need to save the world right now, right here.
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