When I walked into the room at 6am and saw the answering machine's blinking light, I knew who it was and why she'd phoned. The familiar voice: "Call me before you go to the airport. It's your father. He didn't make it last night."
His death was a blessing, and a curse. A blessing because he went quickly and without pain. The cancer was diagnosed only three weeks before his death. By the end, the Other Side sucked him in closer on an almost hourly basis. A curse because until the end, he stayed, as was typical, firmly in denial to others about his situation. He never had, or took, the chance to—as the Christians put it—"get right with the Lord." Or with us.
It fell to me—because, according to my mother, I was the only one there with public speaking experience—both to officiate and to eulogize my father at the memorial service. This was, to put it mildly, an interesting exercise—a challenge to my faith in the intrinsic goodness of everyone. So here goes: Jack was in many ways extremely intelligent (his most prized attribute), and a talented musician and artist, even through his old age. He was fiercely devoted to those he loved. He was, at a surface level, scrupulously honest. He served his country well and with honor, both in the Navy and Naval Reserve and in civilian posts with the Army and assorted military contractors. He never cheated on his wife (though she says he wanted to once). He liked to tinker with cars.
Were this a eulogy, those would be the themes. But it is not, and I must explain further. Jack had an extremely high public opinion of himself and was relentlessly critical of everyone else. (We have a very nice photo of him, which we blew up and framed for his memorial. My mother found it in his wallet.) He was, by his public estimation, generally infallible; privately, he was deeply insecure, virulently opposed to shared introspection. He was ashamed of his working-class roots (his father was a farm boy turned career city beat cop), though he also was often unemployed. He was racist. (I spent our four years in desegregation-era South Carolina in a military-style whites-only "academy" he couldn't afford; when I married a Japanese woman, it was three years before he met her.) He was never far away from alcohol. He was also most abusive (emotionally and in other ways) to those he most loved, including himself. I got away from him as far, as fast, and as soon as I could.
Growing up, I saw parents who were militaristic, materialistic, harsh, and rootless—essentially friendless addicts and deeply unhappy people. I didn't, and don't, want to be like that. Much of my life has been spent unlearning, trying to find other ways of living—including other ways of relating to people, whether they be friends, lovers, political adversaries, citizens of whichever country the United States is annihilating this week, or my parents.
I write this in a political column, rather than in a letter to a friend in Denver, because eulogizing my father has me wondering: When we are able, or unable, to find the humanity in individuals we consider repugnant—blood relatives or otherwise—what does it mean for our society? For our politics? For public policy? For war?
Most other cultures place a much higher value both on family and on individual subservience to community good than Americans do. On a global scale, we Americans are unique in our narcissism, a product of our surplus of land and obliviousness to history. Our landscape and our society make it easy to run and to indulge ourselves. This has all sorts of implications, for everything from consumer debt and pop culture hedonism to environmental destruction and our perceived right to rule the world.
Not accidentally, we are both the wealthiest society in human history and the least community-based, the most rootless, the least willing to share with community members in need. These days, Democrats and Republicans alike contend that the poor and powerless, at home and abroad, have only themselves to blame for their plight. Americans of my generation as well as my father's seem unwilling to acknowledge the effects our self-aggrandizing actions have on others ("We're helping them!"); or if we do, we're unwilling to honor or respect those we dislike or don't know ("They deserve it!"). Or we don't care.
American politics, Desmond Tutu once observed, stands apart in considering compassion an obscenity. Sadly, that narcissism is becoming a global standard, which doesn't bode well for the bloodiness of the 21st century. In the last 50 years, the concept of freedom the United States has most actively exported is extraordinarily dangerous—it is freedom from responsibility. How will our society learn to embrace, rather than exploit, a global community we find mysterious, threatening, at times repugnant, if we cannot make similar leaps in our own lives?
So here I am, in Memphis, burying my father. With a great deal of difficulty, I am learning to not only love but also praise him. It's a shame he's not here to see it.
That nasty backlash
One totally unrelated, but irresistible, tidbit: Are you confused about how the Seattle-protesting, Gore-loving AFL-CIO really stands on the WTO and other forces of global economic exploitation? Here's a hint: Among the heads of state and other honored guests at the January 25-31 World Economic Forum, held in Davos, Switzerland, was none other than AFL-CIO head John Sweeney. He was invited to speak on "Addressing the Backlash Against Globalization." One wonders if the nasty paramilitary security operation at Davos—or the WTO's recent decision to hold its next meeting in the feudal monarchy of Qatar, which bans political protest—is part of Sweeney's vision of "addressing the backlash."
This nugget of clarity, incidentally, came from an anti-APEC group based in New Zealand. Among US labor activists, not a peep.