Sunday, October 22, 2006
Sunday, October 22, 2006
I was born on this day 59 years ago. In 1947 America was a different country. Back then my parents and two older brothers were living in a kind of cabin-hunting lodge on my grandparents property outside of Birmingham. I am told that the house had such poor insulation, the joints between the logs plastered with mud, that it was freezing in winter. I don't remember that, but I do remember the odd pie-shaped rooms and the expanse of tangled lawn and woodlands outside.
My father served as a lawyer in the U.S. Navy, and after the War, he went to Germany as a part of Justice Jackson's staff at the Nuremberg Trials. That would have been 1946 - the year before I was born. When he returned to the U.S. it appeared that he had contracted tuberculosis, perhaps in Germany, and during my early years he was in and out of sanatoriums. That was before the age of penicillin, and the cures in those days meant sleeping on freezing porches in places like Saranac Lake, New York. He always claimed that what cured him was the psychoanalysis that he received at the Saranac Lake Sanatorium. In any case, the experience was right out of Thomas Mann's book, The Magic Mountain - a book I read many years later.
I try to project my mind back to those days after the Second World War, when America had the whole world and future before it. We did some terrible things in that war - like bomb Dresden and drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese. But still, back then, we were the good guys, or we considered ourselves good. We fought the Nazis and stood up for principles of international law, and we said it was wrong to invade countries without cause. For years I would look on my father's bookshelves and see the multi-volume set, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, -- the transcripts of the Trials - sitting on the shelves.
Those days. My father, when he was cured of tuberculosis, returned to Birmingham and increasingly took a vocal role in the budding civil rights movement. So I was raised with one foot in the "old Birmingham Establishment" (not very old, because Birmingham was a new city, having only been founded in the 1870's) and the other foot in the liberal camp, comprised of all the foreigners and Yankees who came through the town to observe the benighted South in action and set it straight.
Well, Birmingham got pacified all right, and for years the image of Birmingham's police dogs would be flashed on TV screens around the world. So I guess I learned some "historical consciousness" right in my own home and backyard - not only because the things that were happening were happening right there, but also in the power of the media to project automatic reactions and stifle thinking. Maybe it made me aware, as my father wrote some years later, that "You can't live alone in these times."
But those who are actually getting the lesson are a different bunch of folks from those who exploit the message for their own purposes and make a profit or an ideology from it. The civil rights movement was real, but it was followed by the age of profiteers and ideologues. And the country they have made I do not recognize.