Friday, September 30, 2011

Every day brings its discomforts, until it all gets to be too much and I boil over.  I know I am not alone in my thinking, but I am dismayed that sensible voices are being silenced or ignored.  My current list of grievances:

The uproar over mandated health insurance.  If everyone participates in the system, care is more affordable for everyone.  We require car insurance and mortgage insurance (sometimes); what's so different about health insurance?  Let people contribute on a sliding scale, but bring everyone into the system.

The outrageous things said by Republican candidates in their debates and elsewhere: denial of climate change, denial of basic civil rights to the LGBT community, resurrection of the gold standard, total obduracy vis a vis anything proposed by Obama, insistence that America is a "Christian" country, absurd defense of the wealthy alongside scorn for those in need.  I could go on.

 Is it just me, or does the WHOLE country seem to be tilting farther and farther right?  Why are so few willing to admit to being a "liberal?"  Why are so many silent?  That may be what bothers me most of all--the silence.  Wall Street is occupied by protesters for days, yet the mainstream media doesn't mention it.  It took Michael Moore to get the media's attention.  I'm sorry to say, I don't believe Michael Moore's voice is the best one to speak for the good and the true these days.  He gets attention with his baseball cap and sneakers, but his clownlike presentation of himself only alienates the more sober folk who should be his comrades-in-arms.  Al Gore is more serious, but he lacks flash.  Where are those who can speak for liberals, be taken seriously, and receive the public attention they deserve?  The silent majority, I assume, is moderate, temperate, responsible, compassionate--qualities that don't attract attention or headlines.  The Tea Party with its fulminators, its cranks, its ignorance, is front and center; it is, I fear, becoming respectable.

I can't help thinking of Germany in the 'thirties.  A paranoid megalomaniac was able to transform a tiny cohort of followers into a vicious society, wherein regular folks were turned into monsters, and the crowds cheered.  I worry that some of the same forces are astir in our land.  We assassinate our enemies, and we cheer.  We don't turn a hair when the uninsured suffer and the unemployed seek sustenance.  It's every man for himself, and Ayn Rand is considered a hero.  "Freedom" and "liberty" are code words for "I've got mine, Jack, so f--- off."  A political movement fueled by anger is unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable.  The Right today feels nothing else, from Wayne LaPierre and his paranoid fantasies about the second amendment to Sarah Palin and her hatred of just about everything, from Rush Limbaugh to the whole tribe at Fox News.  Anger is energizing, but it is also frightening. 

Place these alongside each other and ask yourself which you would choose:

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
The Great Society, one of whose aims was to end hunger in America.
FDR standing up to the big banks and averting a revolution.
Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit.
The GI Bill.
Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
The Civil Rights Act

Requiring photo ID in order to vote, thus disenfranchising thousands of people.
Building a "Berlin Wall" along our borders.
An enchantment with guns that goes beyond reasonable limits.
Government-sanctioned torture.
Ignoring habeus corpus.
Debilitating wars with so many unintended consequences it's hard to count them.
Prejudice against anyone who is "different."  The denial of rights and protections to those so defined.
Laws based on the beliefs of one religion.

What scares me is that a sizable portion of Americans would choose the second list.  Once a tipping point is reached, it may be impossible to impede a rush to destruction.  Public office is for sale.  Religious disputes are settled with horrifying violence.  Enemies of the state are held incommunicado in secret locations.  Illegal wiretaps and covert surveillance of innocent people are commonplace.  Foreigners are treated like criminals; alternative lifestyles are considered deviant.  Sexual exploitation is rampant in the sexualization of children, advertising, and entertainment.  Privacy is invaded, and difference of opinion is branded treasonous.  Rome once thought itself the "eternal city," until the sale of public office, the corruption of the legislature, debauchery, cruelty, and the repudiation of republican values led to disaster and eclipse.  America is no more eternal than Rome, but we have history to learn from.  We will need more than monasteries to keep culture alive if we don't learn how to choose between the better and the worse.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Portobello" by Ruth Rendell

I have been a fan of Ruth Rendell, the British mystery writer, for years, but her latest novel, "Portobello", is something of a departure for her.  For one thing, there isn't really any character you could call crazy, and for another, the only murder is accidental.  What Rendell has done in this novel is present a slice of London life, circa 2010, not the London of tea rooms and green parks and intimate theaters, rather the gritty goings-on of what we might call the underclass, some of whom work, sort of, and some of whom live on what the government metes out.  Juxtaposed to the ramshackle lives of those who get by are Ella and Eugene, a long-engaged, middle-aged couple.  Ella is a doctor; Eugene runs an art gallery.  When their paths cross with Lance, Gemma, and Fize, there is trouble with a capital T.

As always, Rendell's characters are vividly drawn and quirky, if not eccentric.  Gemma is a pretty young mother who uses men for all manner of purposes, often playing one against the other.  Lance is in love with her, but she kicks him out when he hits her and knocks out a tooth.  She has better things in mind for herself than being kicked around by an unemployed lout.  Lance's friend Fize (Fizal), a Muslim who drinks and loves his mother, moves in with Gemma, mainly as a babysitter so Gemma can go out.  Fize's friend Ian is the closest thing to a psychopath in the novel.  There is no doubt he is capable of murder and worse, but when a Romanian immigrant is burned to death in a fire that Ian sets, it is an accident.  Ian and Fize, his reluctant accomplice, don't realize the house they're burning is occupied. 

With this unholy trinity, Rendell presents the sordid lives of many of Britain's young.  A young man with nothing to do and nowhere special to go, a basically decent Muslim who loses his cultural bearings and gets swept along by the current, a teenage mother with ambition and limited opportunity.  Of the three, I put my money on Gemma, but time will tell.  What is wonderful about this novel is the way Rendell takes us right into the thick of the noise, the crowds, the shops, and the hustle of Portobello Road.  A crossroads of sorts, it attracts all kinds and classes of people, who in rubbing elbows sometimes throw off sparks.

Eugene is a pip.  He's likable enough, I suppose, but he's a bit unformed for a forty-something art dealer.  His track record with women is abysmal, yet he has a loyal companion in Ella, a physician who treats all sorts, including Gemma and Joel, who, yes, I guess would qualify as the crazy and menacing, but ultimately harmless, character Rendell is known for.  Ella is on the cusp of forty and would like to marry, perhaps have children, but Eugene is evasive.  He is reluctant even to live with Ella because he harbors a deep, dark secret.  He is an addict.  He is addicted to chocorange, a sugarless sweet that he absolutely can't get enough of.  He hoards these candies all over his house and in his pockets the way an alcoholic keeps bottles of vodka in his underwear drawer or behind the commode.  He his ashamed; he tries to quit; he succumbs to temptation and feels wretched.  Yet, despite his obvious suffering, there is something ludicrous about a grown man who can't get married because he cares more about chocorange than a loving woman.

I'm tempted to say that Rendell dissects the corrupting influence of materialism, but that would be too simple.  Portobello Road is a place where practically anything can be bought, from trash to treasure.  Eugene's art gallery is cheek by jowl with kabab stands and cheap jewelry boutiques.  His home is comfortable and well-furnished, a perfect setting for an educated, professional couple, while Lance lives with his Uncle Gib, a reformed thief who now cares absolutely nothing about things of any kind.  His house is worth a lot, but it's falling apart, and he couldn't care less.  Rendell doesn't so much indicate that wealth, even relative prosperity, is a bad thing as show what living like Tantalus with the world's goodies just out of reach can do to unformed or chaotic minds.  Joel, Ella's patient, is obesessed with her and lives alone in the dark in a flat his wealthy father pays for.  His family is broken, and his father's response is to throw money at the problem in order not to have to deal with Joel or confront his own demons.  Joel's difficulty isn't material temptation; he lives like an ascetic, but his attachment to "stuff" is as pathological as Uncle Gib's or Ian's.  What should our relation be to the objects around us? Rendell seems to ask. 

In "Portobello" we have a whole range of socio-economic classes crashing into each other like calving icebergs.  We see death, theft, lies, family breakdown, loneliness, obsession, addiction, weakness, and grief, and what kind of an ending does Rendell provide?  Not the one you might expect.  Rendell's vision is generally dark, and even though the guilty may be brought to light in true English-mystery tradition, you wouldn't necessarily call her endings happy.  In this novel, however, there is a twist.  In a brief few chapters, everything sorts itself out.  Ian goes to prison, which he deserves even though he didn't mean to kill the Romanian; Gemma and Lance reunite, and she will be the making of him; Ella and Eugene marry; Uncle Gib ends up with his prophet's widow; and everyone lives happily ever after.  As a great American writer once wrote, "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so."