The parable is told of the boiling of a frog. If you put it in boiling water the frog will jump out as soon as it feels the heat. But if you put it in cold water that is slowly heated it will not perceive the danger. The warmth feels good. It will slowly relax. As the water warms more and more the frog’s energy will begin to drain and its sense of well-being will increase. The water gets hotter and hotter but the frog begins to fall asleep. By the time the water boils it is too late for the poor frog to take any action at all. The frog perishes in the boiling water, cooked to death. (A metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that arrive gradually.)
I remember how it was back there, once upon a time. But my remembrances are infrequent, weak and mendacious, illusive and unreal. I remember best little things, emotions and impressions, like how it felt in my halcyon days, back in what seemed another epoch. Once upon a time in my boyhood and youth there was the spirited sweetness and vigor of the smell of lively clover rising up on a summer day. The resplendent colors of the hillsides in the fall. The taste of fresh blackberries with cream in the summer. The sounds of the ships’ horns as they eased so gracefully down the river toward the bay and the high seas. The first intrepid touch of a girl’s soft downy thighs. It had seemed good and endless.
And sometimes still today, for briefs moments, walking in a park or eating a certain fruit in a certain way at a certain time or watching river boats gliding along winding waterways, I feel it. A flash of nostalgia before the familiar sensation vanishes back to where it came from. Then I feel disillusionment at the behavior of the Homeland, although I know I shouldn’t, for now I have become aware that the fablelike “once upon a time” never existed. It never was. Not even at the very start. It was nothing but a dream.
Already back then, as I matured, I had seen that things seemed to be changing in the Homeland. I sensed something in the air. Like a medium I saw before me the transformation in arrival. The world of then was metamorphosing like Kafka’s man morphing into an insect. In my time the Homeland distanced itself from the rest. Slowly, at first, ever so slowly, then as the heat in the world increased, faster and faster. But strangely, I thought, most people in the Homeland were not even aware of the gulf widening between themselves and Others.
Ugliness intervened in the history of those long summer nights. I knew my history—past, present and future—the history of the greatest city in the world. History projected brutal images. I imagined the timing: out of the nocturnal mists of oceans had once emerged the outlines of arriving ships—the English and the Dutch were landed, bearing evil. Ghostly silhouettes of Indians with their faces painted white must have looked on in astonishment. Then, almost in the beginning, out of the same dark ocean mists arrived waves of blacks with round faces and white frightened eyes. As the city began to grow, new houses crept up the island of Manahatta like waves of the sea. Blue and gray uniforms and cannons and flags and luxurious mansions rose menacingly from the ground. Boatloads of dark foreigners with cardboard suitcases arrived, many from where I live now and simultaneously ships packed with conscripted soldiers departed. A whole continent was in movement. Fevers rose. Railroads like spokes of a wheel had covered the country and subway tracks laid in tunnels. Parks with mansions on one side, slums on the other. Dandies and rag pickers. Robbers and thieves. Colors screamed. The colors of the skins were distinct—white, yellow, red, brown, black. Palaces, cinemas and vaudeville halls, beer parlors, art galleries, train stations and stadiums, ships on white rivers of waters turning black, smoke and steam, pale women and silent girls seated in long lines of the urban factories. The banks, the Stock Exchange façade shrouded in ticker tape and bands of strikers whose ranks over time transformed into homeless sleeping in doorways, in parks, in subway stations. And ranks of white-faced policemen in blue opened fire on the legions of homeless and darker skins.
The signs of what was happening within the anarchic chaos were there back then. But I hadn’t seen them. Not at first. The crackling and crumbling were audible. I hadn’t heard the breaking apart. Few people seemed to notice. It was the great swerve, I came to think. At first it was unobtrusive in all the bedlam of world war and the deadly confusion of the post-war. And as human senses died. Change so imperceptible as to happen unremarked. No one even paid attention. Unreality reigned. I wondered then how it could happen that people were so comfortable, so at ease in the midst of the crumbling of the structure. Unperceived realities in their ignorance of what was happening. For me, at my present safe distance, it was as if a whole society were disappearing from human memory.
There was the swerve from republic to empire, I had philosophized. (Thanks to Professor of Humanities at Harvard Stephen Greenblatt for the title of his wonderful book, The Swerve, the story of how the world became modern.) Now I realize that the crumbling and chaos truly had started much earlier, in the very founding period of my Homeland. Proof was the wars. The wars. Not only the wars I have known. I researched the list since the Mexican War of 1844. Astounding. Uninterrupted war. Eternal War, like the Roman Empire.
War of 1812, Opium wars in China, American Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, Boxer War in China, WWI, Russian Civil War, WWII, Korean War, Bay of Pigs in Cuba, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Gulf War, Bosnian War and Kosovo War, Afghanistan still underway, Iraq War still on, Libya, plus dozens and dozens of dozens of wars against native American peoples, Sioux, Cheyenne, Seminoles, Navajo et al and the police actions and the putting down of fanatical internal rebellions, endless interventions and occupations in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Central America. War. War. War.
The Homeland engaged in a deadly high-stakes game for world hegemony. Not just to be a superpower, but to be THE ONE AND ONLY SUPERPOWER. No gods before me. Its major rivals are also cunning and ambitious, but none like the Homeland. The making of the Empire. The making of the world’s greatest military machine and arms industry, war and industry feeding each other.
Some claimed there was a swerve and that it had carved out a new destiny for the Homeland. But by that time I had come to know better. There really was no swerve. The Homeland itself, from its inception was the swerve. The rest was mimesis. The land of Neverwas, as in the film. And lie, lie, lie. Lie, the legend that Americans have never known war at home on their own soil. They know war. The Wild West we know in the film genre was war. Their manifest destiny was war. Born and bred on internal wars that they now export to the world under the brand name of “democracy.” Nor was the comfort and ease in the Homeland real durable reality; it was false and temporary.
Come back home! Come back and see how things really are here, they beg me from the Homeland. How can you criticize when you don’t know it anymore? Oh, but I do know it. I wouldn’t know how to check in at the airport or at the station for a slow express train but I know what political corruption is, what the 0.1% is. I wouldn’t know how to get a driver’s permit but I know about mass school shootings. I wouldn’t know how to get proper medical aid but I and much of the world know about the war of the militarized city police against the people . . . especially the black and unarmed, crippled or under age. I know nothing about health insurance but I know of the widespread closing down of book stores and libraries for a people forgetting how to read texts not written on an I-phone. Mars is the enemy of books, Greenblatt notes. I know about SWAT teams battering down doors of private residences to collect university study loans. I know of the treatment of exploited war veterans: mistreated social derelicts, the survivors, the hero worship of the killer-sniper and the public fear of death, the anxiety about death, the dying and the hereafter. I know what false flag operations and Gladio are. I know about the devilish religions and school prayers. I know about the lying media, the gobbledygook turned out by The New York Times, back in the Homeland. I see, smell, feel, hear the coarseness, the desired ignorance, the trivialities and the melancholy, the hopelessness, the difficulties of the reality of lived life back in the Homeland for which I feel both the sympathy and the contempt of the stranger.
And moreover I know of the decay, the breakdown of society and its physical structures: the total war between whites (who themselves are dying unawares like the frog in boiling water) and the rest and the collapsing bridges and potholed freeways, the vanishing embarrassed middle class and whole urban agglomerations gutted, their industries shipped abroad, their people abandoned and the cities diabolically transmuted into ghost towns, monuments of former societies. Streets, the putative container of greatness, the vaunted human freedom and dignity where life went on—once upon a time, some still claim!—are dirty and neglected, suited for panzer tanks and armored vehicles.
And I know—or I read about—the spreading poverty in the Homeland (the world’s richest country, on paper) that is experienced by individuals more than it is debated and fought publicly. Where did the many thousands of workers in North Carolina’s closed furniture factories go after their jobs were exported? Where did the cotton mill workers go?
The Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond confirms: “Poverty is not just a sad accident (of losing a job). It’s partly about lack of jobs, but it’s also a result of the fact that some people make a lot of money off low-income families and directly contribute to their poverty. For the extreme poor, it is traumatic, Desmond argues after travelling with movers to witness evictions and see the shocking suddenness of “seeing your house turn into not your house in seconds.” Movers turn on the lights without asking, open the fridge, open the cupboards. Homes are obliterated instantly, and often just piled up on the curb.
Now, with his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, published on March 1 by Crown, Desmond points out an overlooked aspect of American poverty and inequality: For many families in eviction court the difficulty of finding and keeping a roof over their heads consumes as much as 80 percent of their income and has become not just a consequence of poverty, but a cause of poverty. Just as incarceration has come to define the lives of low-income black men, eviction is defining the lives of low-income black women.”
My vision is now clear . . . or less blurred. Where, I ask, is authentic public dissent? Where are the popular dissenters who once claimed liberty, sweet freedom? Oh, the blindness of self-righteous liberals who think marches and sit-ins change the world. It’s just not enough. And the builders of walls everywhere . . . walls instead of bridges. The Clintonitis infecting the Homeland, is it disease or condition? Originality dwindles along with societal life replaced by an imitation society à la Las Vegas. And what about love? Where does love go when it departs? In a time in which even feelings dwindle. That is the horrible reality.
Learn from the past. Serve the future. Live in the present. Beautiful maxim, Stranger! Lovely. But in the Homeland? The past is the past, forgotten. The future is uncertain and misty and promises nothing. And the present is ugly, deformed, mendacious.
My own children, “immigrants” to my Homeland for study, then work, then life, return to visit me in their former homeland. I ask if they were stripped by airport security on departure. They laugh, nudge one another; aw, it’s not that way. Did they X-ray you, feel you up? Oh, why don’t you come and see for yourself. Maybe, I doubt it, but just maybe, someday. But I know I never will.
Gaither Stewart, based in Rome, serves—inter alia—as the European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.