Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wagons West: ignorant armies still clash by night

How much the family of my German Jewish father took its heritage and mindset from Europe. At a time when America plunged deep into the heart of Europe via two World Wars -- all the while absorbing millions of European immigrants -- high, low, in the middle.

Even though my father, Arthur, was born on a new frontier -- in Guatemala in 1897 of a German Jewish dry goods merchant, Albert, who immigrated to America in the 1880's.

My grandfather railroaded to San Francisco, rejected the West as a place with little opportunity, before setting up business in Guatemala City. Then coming east to bring his family home to New York City circa 1902.

My father grew up a child of Europe in America's East.

In the last century European ways of thinking (Freud, Marx, as well as more classical studies) deeply penetrated our universities and political movements. Our power and energies allied with Europe against a Russian political religious movement whose prophet, Marx, was a German Jew.

It seemed no American could be truly educated without reentering and studying the belly of the mother from which he/she sprung.

Only "now" perhaps has "push back" really picked up steam.


The other powerful strain in American history was the push west, expansion, wagon trains, the Mexican War -- the China trade -- and of course the marines and businessmen (such as in a small way my grandfather) who pushed south to influence, create hegemonies in Latin America.

Perhaps no one played as great a part as President James K. Polk in turning an offshoot of Europe into a great trek west. We, who sprung from Europe, spent little time studying this "father" of the Mexican War. For my generation it was sometimes fashionable to look upon this frontier son of North Carolina and Tennessee with embarrassment for stealing America's future from Mexico's past.


I find it interesting how some friends of mine, the children of immigrants, know little of American history in the times before their ancestors came here.

For some such people the folk music and culture of the Sixties was a way of connecting with that deep American tradition which sprouted before the turn of the century European immigrants came. Even as our generation marched separate from America, we could "pretend" to connect.

So I, a child of the Cold War, took off in the other direction -- to the West. To the University of California at Berkeley to study the mysteries of "Communist China" -- China, where Europe and the US at one point uneasily co-existed in the years before Japanese and American expansions collided.

It was this collision of non European dragons which merged with, perhaps decisively, the Second World War.

Looking back, those of us who were products of the Cold War.....A strange time when the "enemy" the government funded us to study seemed opague, distant, as behind a screen -- through a glass darkly.

Now there is but one superpower -- no doubt strategically overextended -- but that only time will tell. Many centers of power and culture co-existing amidst the technologies of communication and globalization......

It is a world convulsing still in minor struggles -- throwing sparkling and often misleading images of both color and darkness all around the globe.
The images change so fast it is sometimes hard to tell day from night.

Amid the shifting sands of faith and doubt are seeds for both the secular and the fundamentalist. It sometimes seems the more the communication, the more the confusion and fear.

And so, as it seemed to Matthew Arnold, trapped in the Nineteenth Century "loss of faith," it can seem so still:


And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

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