A friend wrote to me yesterday to say that January 11th 1908 was when Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon National Monument. It sparked a memory of when I was in the Grand Canyon in 2007, doing a Writer-in-Residence programme, and a ranger there, Eric York, died of the Pneumonic Plague. He had caught it skinning a mountain lion carcass, he died on Halloween, and it sparked a visit by the CDC, the Centre for Disease Control, and their top virologist in Washington. Thankfully the Black Death, although existing in some animals, like squirrels and cats, especially at certain heights, is very difficult to transfer into the human population – Zoonotic Transfer, it’s called. It’s also easy to cure with antibiotics, if you get to it in time. It was a tragedy for Eric York’s family, and his girlfriend and friends, but for me it was part of a series of surreal, even unbelievable events, in America and London, that highlighted a growing ‘grand canyon’ gulf in sensibility, and deeper than The Pond, that could redefine the special relationship!
I remember another ranger though, before we learnt of the death, giving an impassioned talk at the foot of the canyon about the CCC programme for public works, the Civilian Conservation Corps, inaugurated by another Roosevelt, FDR, in a vital spirit of National Renewal, that Obama seemed to try for. Maybe we are too cynical now, but the ranger was glowing with health and that special brand of American idealism, that politicians can so often exploit, and which often sadly masks the hardball behind the scenes. I had talked about that kind of needed connection, and inspiration, often found in nature, after a visit to the amazing Muir Woods in San Francisco. What could highlight that needed spirit more than yet another American horror story, and the Arizona madness and killings? It is a national tragedy, but is there really a kind of madness in America that is spreading? I am afraid I felt it in the way I was treated by someone I had gone out with for two years, and my own publisher in New York too. That person, when I complained a little that they had not even acknowledged an email about the Black Death, concerned only with issues at their work in New York, said they thought ‘I was joking’. Don’t they know hundreds of people still die of the Plague each year in India? They had already disconnected though, and so quickly, it was as if we had never even known one another. I and others have called it a kind of Ego Consciousness, that some Americans are very guilty of, an obsession with their surface opinions, rights, and decisions, without any sense of a bigger or deeper picture, including a psychological one. An aspect perhaps of a younger society, a newer consciousness, and I still feel the failure to teach History in American schools, but to wrap it all up in Social Studies, designed to convince everyone how wonderful America is, is a big mistake.
What is it that leads to Colombines, Lock-Downs, gun sprees, yet another awful and frightening tragedy? You have to profile the individual, of course, for WordPressers interesting that he was madly obsessed with literacy, and not lives, yet it must be possible to make wider cultural points. About the aggression in American politics, and by extension society, the Republican-Democrat Ping Pong match, with metaphorical hand grenades, about the puerile madness of politicians like Palin setting each other up as gun targets in crosshairs, but also about a public climate of fear. I felt that fear in New York, when I ‘fought’ for a person and lost, then fought a whole firm on quite different principles, for nearly a year, and experienced the brutal arrogance at times, from people I knew, and was supposed to be working with. I went wrong, but it became truly awful, and if that can happen to an established author, under contract, what pressures are American youngsters suffering under? What deeper role models do they have? I found from another person that they were terrified to raise their head above the parapet, frightened of that public face a writer has to have, and in effect utterly unaware of it too, yet were perfectly willing to see the weight of that fall on me, with a bizarre moral righteousness too, that a firm bought into, a political correctness, they did not merit. Political correctness is itself a curse, when it masks truths about human beings, societies, lives, because it becomes nothing but an inhuman front. Feeling themselves totally in the right, when they certainly weren’t, and when it became purely political, the arrogance and aggression became awful, the disillusionment even greater. A much used word became ‘respect’ too, when I was badly disrespected at every level of my life, but that became the official political tool at a firm, that was completely one-sided, indeed exactly about sides. It was also about fear and projection too, that created a wall of nonsense. There are so many absolutes and Holy Cows in bullish America, and one of the very reasons may be the unchangeable Constitution itself. In Britain on Newsnight two nights ago we were told that the American gun issue is just a no-no. The genii is too long out of the bottle, the Gun Lobby far too rich and powerful, ‘by my cold, dead hand’, and above all the 2nd amendment is still there; the ‘states’ verses Washington, the individual versus big Government. The American Constitution is an extraordinary document, founding the idea of Government of the people, by the people, for the people, underlined at Gettysburg, but very many societies have fought the causes of freedom and equality over vast amounts of time, not just America, and a government is only as good as its people, and people only protected by good government. It also seems to make Americans think they are still fighting the American Revolution, which is what the 2nd amendment was about, and that they and the World does not need at all. As it gets smaller and smaller, it needs true leadership and connection, involving many cultures that fear America too, and which America can learn from, and is vitally made of. Perhaps it needs to deepen, and really talk, not shout. The problem is in such a big place, most often you have to shout to be heard.
The American psychologist Robert F Johnson also makes an interesting point about that famous substitution of the ‘right to happiness’. Better than wealth, maybe, much as we’d all like it easier, but do any of us actually have a right to happiness? Is that supposed ‘right’ not crystalized in the overwhelming prosperity goal of the often tarnished American Dream, tarnished most especially recently? Surely happiness is something that life teaches us, or not, and actually most about our engagement and involvement with other human beings, and the world. For some that is a lesson that takes a long time to learn. So our responsibilities to each other, as much as our rights, are involved, and that makes freedom a complex interrelation of factors, not any absolute. Politicians, Democrat and Republican, might learn some respect for each other, some deeper dialogue, remembering that. Johnson points out that the root of the word happiness though is the latin verb Hapere, namely to make things happen. It is when voices are not heard, individuals are alienated, when they feel disempowered and cannot make things happen, in a frightening and rabble-rousing public climate, often hypocritical, and very violent in what is peddled culturally too, that much danger lies, especially when guns are so readily to hand. That spirit of engaging, connecting, and making things happen, is exactly what gives us our meaning and dignity in life, and what both Roosevelts keyed into in America, with that most appealing element of true American idealism, that also addressed and helped solve an equivalent economic crisis. Yet it is not just about America, because we are all interconnected now, not things to be made easy enemies or scapegoats, an easy ‘other’ that has so harmed the world, and fear and aggression do spread like a plague. DCD