American Culture

From Christmas to August: Prologue


Michael Tracey

Courageous and Good Ladies All

Oft in the stilly night,
Ere Slumbers’ chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me;
The smiles, the tears,
Of boyhood’s years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimmed and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
– (Thomas Moore: 1779 – 1852)

* * *

This long essay was originally intended to be a short memoir. It did not work out that way. It has evolved, for good or ill, into a work of parts, and can be read as such.

* * *

In late 2006 Professor Michael Murray, of the University of Illinois, asked me to contribute a chapter for a book he is editing on crime and the media. It would be an account of a curious, singular event I happened to get caught up in, an event that in a sense began in 1997, but took an unfortunate turn in 2006. Writing it, he suggested, might even be therapeutic. He was correct. But as I started to write it almost inevitably grew, moving in various directions, as the narrative which I initially wrote raised questions that begged explanation.

The account of the “event” is told in narrative form. The essay then shifts direction, to engage what is to this mind’s eye, more substantive issues that not only do I want to raise but which I take be of considerably greater importance than the dark dance that occupied my life for a miserable, harmful year, indeed ten years. Inevitably, then, the style changes, or evolves, from a narrative of unfolding events to an examination of larger social and cultural issues, reflecting my long held belief that the only reason to examine, pick apart, the particular is better to understand the general. Blake put it best in his admonition : “ see the world in a grain of sand, to hold infinity in the palm of your hand.” In this case the particular was the murder, on Christmas night 1996, of JonBenet Ramsey and the August 2006 arrest of a person claiming to have killed her “accidentally.” The general is the meaning of the national, indeed global, reaction to these two events.

This was not, however, an act of scholarly whimsy, of knowingly using an account of dreadful tragedy as a tool to go where I “really” wanted to go. It was, in truth, a deeply personal experience out of which, by happenstance, I was able to think through other questions which I have long pondered and never quite resolved, issues of the nature of our culture, a condition defined not just by the stuff of its content, or of how it comes to be what it is, but also by what one might call its mood, its psychology and morality, its texture if you will. Perhaps, within all of this, what I really wanted to get to grips with was something I have long detected, and been massively disappointed by, the sense that there is within the public mind and heart, within the societal corpus, an anger that seeks the balm of calm through occasional explosive, emotional fury, a fury which is, by the way, ever so open to manipulation – as we have seen of late.

The need to engage with these questions of the condition of American culture and the role of the media in defining that condition comes naturally. I am at one level simply intellectually curious about the world around me, always have been, and for that I make no apology. There was, however, I understand and will admit, another purpose , another need to know the forces forming and, to my way of thinking, distorting, this society, drawn from the well of my childhood.

295 Shaw Road

A few miles from where I was born, in the English working class community of Oldham, an old cotton spinning town that went into steep decline in the early 1950s and which has been trying to climb out of the pit of industrial failure ever since, is Moston Cemetery. My father is buried there. I was 4 years old, he was thirty one when he died. He was in the Royal Air Force and burnt to death when his plane smashed into the side of a Welsh mountain. I have a feeling that he didn’t want to be in the RAF but it was 1952, he was working class, the prospects outside weren’t great. He chose to stay in the service, he died and I never knew him. I have no memory, no picture gallery of the mind to occasionally roam through. He was too young to die and I was too young to have been deprived of his presence. Never a day has passed, nary a moment when I don’ t think of him. I miss him desperately, and I’m old enough now to understand and, more importantly, to acknowledge that his loss impacted, scarred, my whole life. It was unfair, just as the loss of the young always seems so unfair, like acid poured into an open, never to be closed, festering wound. Such loss is unfair, and we lash out against it because it offends against a core thesis of our world, that death is not for the young.

After his death my mother and I moved in with my grandparents. They were kind and I loved them very much. The physical circumstances were, however, to say the least meager. 295 Shaw Road was a 19th century terraced house, what would be called a row house here, built by cotton factory owners to house the workforce. It had been condemned many years before I was born but still stood there, a defiant reminder of an age long gone except in the hearts and minds and moods of those who lived within its cramped, damp space. It was what we called “2 up, 2 down,’ that is, 2 bedrooms upstairs, a downstairs living room and a kitchen. There was only running cold water, a coal fire and an outside toilet. I lived there, sharing a room with my mother until I was 14 when the local authority re-housed us in a council “flat,” what here would be called public housing. At least this had an inside toilet and, oh wonder of wonders, central heating – we had of course been moved because my mother had convinced the powers that be that it wasn’t quite seemly for a teenage boy to be sharing a room with his mother ( thank God for puberty.)

One thing I came to understand at an early age is that the English working class don’t handle death well, and in some senses they are not all that great at handling life. I’ve been away a long time now and maybe today it is different, maybe. What I recall, however, is a world, a culture that was in considerable part, traumatized by its circumstance. It was also a world, one that could never go inside and engage the pain. The idea of therapy, of talking about feelings and hurts was unthinkable except when fueled by alcohol at which moments the emotional engagement either translated itself into a certain maudlin, self-pity or violence in a curious ritual in which one way to deal with pain was to inflict it. To my young eye none of this was necessarily apparent since life seemed fine ( black dog, who would later emerge snarling, was still a puppy.) On the surface life was lived with a kind of jolly chirpiness, a mood that spoke that all was well, life is basically OK, when in fact it wasn’t. I remember whenever I walked with my mother to the local store, or around the town centre’s outdoor market, and we passed someone with whom she was familiar, they would say to each other, with a quick smile, “hiya,” the local version of hello and then very quickly move on, no conversation other than perhaps a piece of gossip or “how’s yer mum?” For a long time I assumed that the greeting and the smile were real. They weren’t, more often than not they were milquetoast artifice behind which lurked something far less cheery, a dark misery. There was humour, buckets of it, but it was I think similar to what someone once said of Graham Greene’s novel, Travels With My Aunt, “laughter in the shadow of the gallows.” The fact is that the English working class, no less than the English middle class, if for different reasons, knew when they listened to their inner voice, that they were sad, disappointed, incomplete, frustrated.

And then there was death. They bury it in the darker recesses of the mind where demons lurk, they don’t talk about it, pretend that there is no need to grieve, that somehow grief is actually a sign of weakness, unless it is the orchestrated, sad, even bizarre spectacle of public grief, as happened with Diana in 1997. It is a sad, but perhaps necessary consequence of the felt need to just “get by,” to survive in a hostile world that is designed for and by their “betters.”

There were no photos of my father in the house, not one. I once found some letters of his but they quickly and inevitably disappeared. No one ever spoke of him, mentioned his name, reminisced about him, told the stories that I was so desperate to hear, as is any child who has lost the other most important person in their life. There was one exception, when a family friend said “you have his eyes,” at which point I blushed and changed the subject. It was as if he never existed, except of course in my heart. The silence was so intense that it was impossible for me to even ask those simple, but vital questions: what was he like; was he funny; did he like soccer or cricket; did he love me?

I remember my first day at Cardinal Langley Grammar School, an all boys school run by a religious teaching order. In one class, taught by Brother Leonard, he asked us what our fathers did – not, note, our mothers (mine was a shop assistant.) I heard the boys say “he’s a teacher,” “a solicitor (lawyer),” “he owns a shop,” “he works in a factory.” The brutal question slowly snaked towards me, from the front of the class to the back where I was sitting. I was terrified, what would I say, what could I say – I knew what I couldn’t say, the truth. I lied. I said he was a “dustman,” a trash collector. Looking back it was an interesting choice in that if I was going to give him a job it wasn’t going to be glamorous. I simply didn’t have the emotional strength to say that he was dead, that he had died serving his country, that I was proud of him, loved him very much and missed him dreadfully, even if I hadn’t a clue as to who he was. What a wretched moment, one that I’ve regretted ever since. Of course the silence about him could not last, and one day my mother asked me what I wanted to know? I was 50 years old. I think she sensed my rage at what they had done, but I simply replied, “It’s OK, it’s too late.” I did ask her one question that had plagued me, “did I go to his funeral…?” Of course, I knew the answer to that one.

It was during these years on Shaw Road that two things happened that, along with his death and the screaming silence, came to define my whole life, and laid the ground work for the events of 2006, indeed the past ten years. My grandfather was a leading local politician and every Friday night his political pals would come to the house and talk politics. I would sit on the floor and simply listen. I was entranced, and there was born my love of language and my fascination for all things political. Then when I was about 13 I was browsing in a book store and picked up a copy of Theodore White’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Making of the President 1960. Each week my mother would give me my “odd money,” what here would be called an allowance. It was tiny, but each week I would go to this small bookstore and spend two or three hours deciding which book to buy. I stood there in the bookstore ( I have always loved the smell of books), opened White’s book and read its famous first words, “It was invisible, as always…”

The “it” was the unfolding majesty of the electoral process, as the first votes are counted in the far eastern corner of America and then slowly, surely moves like the sun from east to west as the leader of the free world is chosen by the ordinary, but decent, folks of this most free of lands. If I might engage in a cliché, I couldn’t put it down. Here was the proffering of a dream to a young boy so desperately in need of a dream. I fell in love with the idea of America, with its politics, its institutions, its peoples and most of all its glorious possibility. I drank in White’s wonderfully mad, idealized narrative of the process, and in particular I fell in love with the iconic figure of JFK – the first of many iconic father figures I would come to adore and respect and learn from.

I started to read everything that I could get my hands on, books, newspapers, magazines. I subscribed to the London Times and would clip every article about the United States, a land that I “knew” in my youthful heart was truly blessed, that shining city on the hill. I became a huge fan of the Times’ then Washington correspondent, Louis Harris. I would do crazy things like writing to the Port Authority of New York and the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce for anything they could send me. The packages would duly arrive, and I couldn’t wait to open them and devour the latest information on a new industrial plant in Schenectady or Buffalo or…name a place, or the tonnage of shipping passing through the waters off New York City.

Ah, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and to be young, even in Oldham. I could recite JFK’s inaugural, detail the stories in his Profiles in Courage, tell you about the Constitution, explain the reason for being in Vietnam even before Vietnam was a major blip on the global radar. I “knew” that JFK was a good and great martyr, that LBJ while gruff was designing the Great Society of which, by the time I was 15, I definitely wanted a piece. In the eyes of a sad child “America” was quite simply heaven on earth. And then I came to live here and that’s where it started to go wrong.

A Troubled Place

I have no regrets about my childhood naivete, which has never quite left me, because if a child can’t dream, who can? It was not, however, as I would have wished it to be. It disappointed as I realized that like few societies on earth America promises people Heaven, and gives them Hell, and then for good measure gives other parts of the planet a good kicking. In his 2005 Nobel lecture, the English playwright, Harold Pinter, savaged what America had become and done, particularly in its foreign policy and its almost fetish-like desire to cuddle up to this and that authoritarian regime that had perfected the fine art of ripping peoples’ fingernails out – if they were lucky.

He noted, however, that the United States was particularly adept at masking all of this – just as it had with the boy from Oldham. Standing in the Stockholm Konserthus he observed that whatever the miseries inflicted, in the public eye,

“…It never happened. Nothing ever happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite classical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis. I put it to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most salable commodity is self love. It’s a winner. Listen to all American presidents on television say the words ‘the American people’…It’s a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words ‘the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable.”

What Pinter said resonated. His critique was twofold: of the dreadful actions of the political class in foreign affairs and of the witless compliance of “ordinary” Americans. It was this latter that particularly concerned me because while I was troubled by what the United States was doing to the rest of the world I was equally troubled by what it was doing to itself. I wanted, somehow, on however small a scale, to do something, to say something about what I saw as a miserable, wretched but fundamentally unnecessary condition. The Fell upon which I had long walked was that of culture, particularly as expressed through, and by, the media.

For many years as I observed I became ever more troubled, arriving at a conclusion that I wished would go away, but which lurked with an ever greater and chilling presence. I had come to see the dragging down of the idea that cultural expression could serve larger purposes, could be imbued with the spell of wisdom and profundity, could work from the premise that there was something ultimately good, indeed great, about who we are, who we can be, who we should be. I had come to feel a growing belief that there was no longer any meaning to the old aphorism that, for example, broadcasting at its best made the good popular and the popular good. I come to agree with Newt Minnow who, forty years on, revisited his famous claim from the early 1960s that television was a vast wasteland, declared that it was a vaster wasteland still. OJ was happening, along with a growing trend of reality television, that bitter broth of voyeurism and public humiliation – Cowper’s “Detested sport/That owes its pleasures to another’s pain.” I had this unshakable sense, a long time in the making, that mass culture was evolving in ways that shoved aside things of worth and merit in favor of too much vacuous, juvenile, even primitive “pleasures,” egged on all the while by ever larger corporations.

The larger body politic also seemed driven more by the will to power than the will to serve, a metastasizing lack of grace. When he was dying of a brain tumor, Lee Atwater, who had been the wunderkind who had masterminded the election of the first President Bush and who all but single handedly invented modern-day, dirty politics, had a profound epiphany. He wrote:

“What was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood…I don’t know who will lead us through the 90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, the tumor of the soul…”

It was as if the culture and its institutions, its governance as much as its education system, had failed and left vast numbers of people ill-equipped for the hard work of citizenship, a population that was bored, too readily drawn to simple pleasures, ignorant of the world around, drawn ever more to absurd beliefs and world views. In other words, I had arrived at a place I didn’t want to be, a troubled place. Perhaps it was all inevitable.

On such a broad landscape it may seem curious to admit, but when JonBenet died and the media frenzy began, and the public clamoured for ever more information, and sought retribution against her “ghastly parents,” here, for me, was an opportunity to say something about what was a deeply troubled land, to say that this is not how it is supposed to be, this is not how the media should function in a democracy, this democracy, this is not how justice should be pursued, it’s wrong. I wanted to do this because I could not, do not want to, shake that feeling of calm and warmth and, finally, finding a future, a place to love not just live in, a place in which to belong, not just be in that I felt as I stood there in that bookstore, opened the pages of the book and read those words, “It was invisible, as always…”

NEXT: JonBenet


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