“You seem dismayed at the despicable slowness with which the moral arc of the universe seems to bend toward justice. I was bitter by the end of my life about that, too, how, for the most part, real change does not seem to happen perceptibly within a human lifetime. I can tell you from experience, bitterness about the obstinate forces of human nature is not a good play. It has always been thus.”
“Do you think, when you read about the liberal Napoleonic code spreading the ideals of the French Revolution, the Jews, for the first time in hundreds of years anywhere in Europe given full rights of citizenship, that anyone, beyond a few Jews, perhaps, welcomed Napoleon’s invading armies to their cities? You’re listening to Howard Zinn’s son read A People’s History of the United States. An unending series of perfect examples, no?”
Perfect, yes, although ‘perfect’ seems a funny word to use when describing an accurate portrait of hell.
“Sure ‘A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell’ as the song goes. ‘Progress’ was hell for the mass-murdered Arawaks, the many other mass-murdered Indian tribes, the mass-murdered Africans, the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, for most poor immigrants. Take one example though, say the Africans. Do you know, if you brought say a hundred live Africans for sale in New Amsterdam, or later, New York, how much fucking money you could make? It was, like I told you at the end about our decades of senseless contention, nothing personal, truly, as far as the fungible Africans were concerned. One African was worth much the same as the next, if they were roughly the same age, size and strength. There was nothing personal, on one level, when they inspected the slave’s teeth, lifted the scrotum, examined the asshole. Strictly business, Elie. The death of millions of African prisoners during the trans-Atlantic transport blandly called ‘the Middle Passage’ was — what’s that word you love so much? — an externality.”
Union Carbide puts a plant in an area in India where they can hire workers for next to nothing. Tons of additional profit for the corporation. Some toxic run-off runs off and causes suffering and death to the children of the locals. An externality; you have your lawyers pay off the families of the dead kids, get your P.R. department to write something nice and write the whole thing off as a business loss. Net gain for everybody, those Indian children who died would have been fucked in any case.
“Exactly, the cost of doing business. That’s the genius of capitalism, if you want to call it that. It has always been thus, those with the most power are never obliged to take seriously the troubles of those with the least. And the real beauty part, for the rich, every injury can be reduced to a monetary sum, and the poor can always be bought off with pocket change. In colonial times the wealth gap was probably roughly the same as it is now. Barons were granted millions of acres of previously unclaimed land in the ‘New World’, the Indians had no concept of ownership of land, and poorly paid armies fought Indians to the death over this right of vast tracts of private property for the obscenely rich. Poor whites and slaves worked for the baron and it was a new kind of feudalism for the new world. It has walked a pretty straight line since then. Take any period you like. Some, like the present Gilded Age, stand out as worse than others, but for the people who have no power, every period is roughly the same.”
Except for those brief periods of hope for real social change, like when I was growing up.
“Yes, there are little windows when a Gandhi or a King can inspire millions to unite in hope and the moral wind is blowing the right way and you can see small changes that at the time look gigantic. Gandhi, as a Jew in Poland, would not have had such a glorious biography as he did making his name during the active decline of the British Empire when the colonial ruler of India was collapsing anyway. Timing, as they say, is everything.”
“We are brought up with this myth of the ‘individual’– that’s the basis of our culture here in the West. Any individual, we are told, can rise, by his or her own efforts, to demonstrate their unique talents and become great. This is what we are fed, even as millions upon millions have always been born into these societies without any real chance to become ‘individuals’ in the sense that Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates, or your buddies George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump, are.”
Yah, mon. You yourself, without World War Two, what would have become of your chance to grow into an actual individual?
“I would have been sent to sheet metal school, to learn a trade. Fortunately it would have been a good time to be an American tradesman– although it’s hard to say if the prosperity that followed WW II would have been as great without the war — and I would probably have still been able to afford to buy a home, and I would have had a car. Economically, I probably would have done about as well, during that historically rare period of widespread economic prosperity, as I did working as an underpaid teacher. In fact, as a teacher, you’ll recall, I had to work a second job to have the middle class life I aspired to. American factory workers were well-paid back then, I would possibly have made more as a sheet metal worker than molding the characters of teen-aged social studies students,” the skeleton seemed to be mulling something over.
“I never would have met and wooed your mother, though,” he said sadly.
I loved what your brother said at the memorial for mom.
“Yeah, that was good, a great moment for him. ‘I was the other one of those two country bumpkins who visited our cousins in Evelyn’s apartment building in the Bronx.’ You know, if not for your grandma’s pushing, your mother would never have given me the time of day. A beautiful big city girl, living half a block from the glorious Grand Concourse, the Champs Elysees of the Bronx… she regarded me as, how did Brando put it? ‘She looked at me like a bug.’ You should have seen her disdain the first few times I passed under her first floor window there in the courtyard on Eastburn Avenue. As a student at FuckMe Sheet Metal Academy I wouldn’t have been able to pry a ‘hi’ out of her. Once I got the chance, I impressed her with my collegiate brain, and my wit, things I hardly realized I even had growing up the poorest kid in Peekskill. When I became a doctoral candidate at Columbia my stock really went up.”
What are the odds of a kid from the projects having that kind of chance?
“Oh, maybe one in five hundred, I’d say. I was born into historical bad luck and then had a stroke of historical good luck. There’s no reckoning these things, there’s only working hard to take advantage of the rare moments of good luck that come your way. I suppose you can think of yourself doing the same thing now. You had a good idea, an excellent idea, really, for that non-profit art and technology workshop for the children of the doomed. You had the good luck to be able to focus on it full-time, because of the money we left you. The bad luck? We didn’t leave you a fortune so you could have hired a capitalist to run turn it into an actual business. You are not a born capitalist, Elie, you’re a fucking idealist. Worse, for you, you live in a supremely materialistic society where branding, spin, marketing, sales, relentless chirping optimism, return on investment, sexiness, etc. rule the world. Can you sell a program to help the children of the doomed? You personally? No. Some people can, particularly if it works as well as what you designed, but I would say they have to have access to huge sources of funding — and never, ever, use the word ‘doomed’ in any connection to anything they ever imagine doing.”
You grew up doomed, did you not?
“I grew up doomed. We were poor, hopelessly so, my father had no skills, could not earn a living, except briefly doing physical labor for the WPA. I was like that Babel character Matthew Pavlichenko, the abused serf who comes back to his former master’s estate as a general in the Red Army, and he’s singing to that magical year when the revolution started, that changed him, unimaginably, from one form to the next. That day that lives in infamy, December 7, 1941, turned out to be my lucky day, the start of my new life. If not for the war, and the G.I. Bill, there would be no you, your sister would have never been born.”
Well, viva Hirohito, then, dad.
“Yeah, every villain in history has people who salute him. I just wanted to finish, I think that what you’re doing now, trying to set down this portrait of me, in the context of the times I lived in, with as much three-dimensionality as you can muster, is trying to put your good luck– inheriting enough to live on for a few years, having the ability to set things out clearly — to the best possible use. You feel better getting up every day to pound at the heavy bag of this story than if you weren’t telling it, don’t you?”
Without a doubt.
“And are you explaining your life to yourself?”
Yes, in some deep way I feel like I am. It’s uncanny how I’m discovering things I didn’t realize before, through the process of combing through everything I can remember about growing up the son of a brilliant and adversarial father.
“Then it’s all good. If you manage to whip the final product into shape as a final product you can sell– your success will be the sweeter for being so long overdue. And, as far as the brilliant and adversarial father, you do, of course, dig the contradiction there. A truly brilliant father cannot be an adversary to his child, except for some perverseness in his nature. An adversarial father cannot be a brilliant father, otherwise he would support his children, not undermine them by fighting them every step of their way. Wait, wait, I know what you’ll say– another example of my black and white thinking. But, hang on a second. Brilliance includes intelligence and insight both. And I know you know what I’m talking about,” said the skeleton.