Borrowed Time: The World at 65
Conspiracies Large and Small
As in the original meaning of the word "conspire"--to breathe the same air--we conspire in the realities we breathe in. No wonder we so often can't see them for what they turn out to be.
Until recently, our world looked so easy, so stable. A two-party world. No one imagined that the world my father and mother lived through, that of the Great Depression, could sneak back on stage for another bow. A year ago, had I told you that a former Clinton-era secretary of labor was going to write a piece headlined "When Will the Economic Recovery Begin? Never," you would have laughed.
Now, we know. Our reality, like that of our last president, was distinctly inside the bubble, while the world out there was so much fiercer, so much less tame than we imagined.
Let's face it. It's been a dizzying journey, these last hundred years, so much odder than we imagine. We don't have a picture of it yet. Not really. We're still waiting for the face of the past--the actual face--to appear in a mirror, or on one of those many screens of our lives, to tell us where we've really been, and where we may really be going.
Surprises abound. For sixty-five years, my face lacked my father, at least when I looked, anyway. Now, entering my 66th year, he's back to take another bow and that--you'll have to take my word for it--is fierce.
And here I am, well beyond any point I was capable of imagining when young. That's fierce too, especially when your life, no matter how you look at it, is so much closer to death than is truly comfortable.
It's been a dizzying trip so far. Screens are now everywhere you turn--in bars, airports, taxis, on gas pumps, in restaurants, hair salons, your new car, your doctor's office, in your pocket, in the street and in your home in multiple ways--and you're often attached to them, not them to you. People check their screens and then take phone calls at your dinner table. The young, while sitting in restaurants not talking to each other, text friends in distant places.
In the meantime, the newspaper, that lifeline of my childhood, is in the media ER on life support. It's amazing to think that the print newspaper-reading habit, passed down from parent to child, is now following the typewriter out the door and into oblivion. Meanwhile, for the first time in our world, a new reading habit, the online one, is being passed upward from child to parent.
We grew up imagining the newspaper as primarily a purveyor of the news, and pundits still write about it that way, regularly bemoaning the potential "loss" of a pillar of the American democratic system. But looked at in a fiercer way, everything about the present moment tells us that was never the real story.
It's clearer now that the newspaper as we knew it was, first and foremost, a purveyor of ads. That, not the news, was what actually mattered, which should be apparent to anyone who bothers, for instance, to glance at the anorexic Sunday New York Times Magazine. Like the Incredible Shrinking Man of 1950s sci-fi, it's disappearing right before our eyes. Ads fleeing the premises take journalists, bureaus, meaning, the news itself, the paper, everything, with them.
It was a small flap, the recent one at the Washington Post, in which publisher Katharine Weymouth was to host "salons" at her house, offering corporations and lobbyists off-the-record, non-confrontational "access" to Post reporters, Obama administration officials, and Congressional representatives. At $25,000 a pop, corporations could get a seat at these friendly soirees, $250,000 for a package of eleven. The stern, tsk-tsking discussions of this attempt to pull a little extra dough into a dying brand have all focused on newspaper "ethics"--the Post's own ombudsman referred to the to-do as "an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."
In the meantime, a striking aspect of the brouhaha has gone uncommented upon. Weymouth (or, at least, the sales side of the paper) was offering full-frontal access at only $25,000 per salon. That's chump change for a big health corporation, or Exxon, or a major lobbyist. It would be like tossing a few coins to a beggar. If her grandmother, Post publisher Katherine Graham, had offered a similar deal--and that, of course, would have been inconceivable in an era when the ads in the pages of the paper were still thick as thieves--imagine the value she might have put on a night of her time and the Post's influence. Not $25,000, you can be sure of that.
The world reveals itself to us in its own sweet time, just as my father waited all these years after his death on Pearl Harbor Day 1983 to remind me that I'm his child--as indeed I am--and that I was shaped by his world--as indeed I was. A world of war and suffering, of wonder and ashes. It's also a reminder that our pictures of how life works can develop late indeed.
Who knows when you'll glance into a mirror and meet a past you hadn't expected and weren't ready for? Or a future for that matter. After all, that can happen, too. You're passing, as usual, through our land of screens and war, driven by ads and companies that were so sure until yesterday that the arms race and the good life could be melded in them forever and a day, when suddenly the planes appear, the skyscrapers begin to tumble, everything that's ordinary and accepted begins to unravel. As it could. All those screens, all connected, and all the texts that go with them, everything we count on. It could go.
If you care to look, you can see the outlines, the shorelines, of our world changing even as I write this. For the future, "dizzying" might hardly be the word.
Look in the mirror and tell me what you see.