Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Americans

Phil and I are watching "The Americans," a series about two Soviet spies in the 1980s who have a genuinely married life in Washington D.C. with two genuinely loved children. But they pass themselves off as Americans--with perfect American accents--and in this, as in a host of other assumed identities, they are imposters.

In hopes of having a more authentic relationship with their teenage daughter, they admit that they are Russian spies, but they compare what they do to mission work, drawing comparisons between themselves and their daughter's trusted pastor.  This is partly true; they both believe that what they do protects and defends the interests of their country, Russia. But we, the ardent viewer, know better: their work, however important to Russian interests, looks like a continuous narrative of deception and violence.

The husband, Phillip (the one in the series), woos and marries a secretary of the FBI director. He spends two nights a week living with her, and this goes on for years.  Both of the spies do whatever they have to do to cultivate or protect their "source" (a human being).

Anyway, this couple are not the classic sociopathic personalities that I associate with international espionage. And this is one of the great things about this series: It manages to avoid expected stereotypes. Phillip, the husband, is more emotional and sensitive than Elizabeth, who is not cold,  but  is rational and discerning. We feel sympathy for the spies, their sources, their associates, and their American counterparts. We feel sympathy for the FBI agent who is their neighbor.  It strikes me as remarkable how fairly they treat Russia and its spies in light of American history and prejudices (and the renewed Cold War environment).

We're watching the fifth, most current season of "The Americans," and I find myself, not coincidentally, contemplating the emotional power of their homeland.  Is it a sentimental attachment to a place they think of as home?  Or is it the place itself?  They are haunted by memories of growing up with more or less constant physical and emotional hunger.

I was going to, but decided not to say, "growing up in poverty with hunger...," because if everyone is experiencing poverty, is it poverty?  In this country, poverty exists outside of the mainstream until something sea-changing, like the Depression, makes economic struggle almost universal.  The Great Depression had a leveling effect on mainstream society. Poverty was no longer someone else's problem. It was the way people lived--which, I imagine, would take some of the sting of shame out of it, especially for kids growing up that way.

The point was that growing up in Russia, Phillip and Elizabeth (not their Russian names) wouldn't have viewed themselves as poor because everyone was in the same boat. Everybody also shared memories and scars, wounds, from the horror and grief of WWII, (which claimed 20,000,000 Russian souls).

Yeah, so, I would conclude that our spies' attachment to their homeland doesn't rely on memories of a happy childhood, or the promise of opportunity....There isn't anything like what the American Dream is to Americans (or aspiring Americans).  I would be really stretched to say what it is, exactly. I've never been to Russia.

However, when I was in eighth or ninth grade, my mother was part of a study group that read Monopoly Capitol.  I remember listening in on those conversations, and later, peppering my mother with questions.

When she was a young woman, my mother was a little bit Marxist. She grew up in a large family, the daughter of a philosopher.  I imagine it was a little like growing up Russian: They were poor; they had grandmother and grandfather living close by.  For years, Mom's grandmother made clothes for all the kids.  They didn't view themselves as poor, of course; nor perhaps were they viewed as poor, because my mom's parents were very well educated. They were erudite. Her father had a Ph.D.  in philosophy from Harvard. Sometimes he was a minister, sometimes he was a professor.  So, my mother grew up in genteel poverty, in a very free, laissez-faire parenting environment.

While I was growing up, my mother shared Phillip and Elizabeth's (our spies, don't forget) condescending attitude toward American materialism and status symbols.  To my mother, being intelligent and educated and open-minded were more important than wearing the right clothes or driving a fashionable car.  She rented an apartment in the town that had the best school system for me. When the rent got too high, (my mother was divorced), she moved to one that she could afford.  We lived in modest apartments, surrounded by impressive books.

When I was in seventh grade,  my mother discovered that she could add protein to Ragu spaghetti sauce with several tablespoons of wheatgerm.  It wasn't bad. It wasn't good.  Our milk came from a box: Carnation nonfat powdered milk.  We ate a lot of Hamburger Helper.  We shopped the ghetto-ized no-name-on-the-label section of the supermarket.  While I was at my father's house, my mother occasionally ate organ meats (which, if you can choke the down, are an excellent source of nutrition, but I couldn't stomach it--so, I guess I wasn't that hungry.)

With her Bachelors from Radcliffe and her JD from Northeastern, and with a bunch of commie feminist friends, my mom started the Women's Law Collective, in Cambridge.  One banner year she made $7500, gross.  My father was appalled; he thought she was squandering the opportunities Radcliffe gave her to make a decent living for herself and her daughter.

My father's rebuke fell on deaf ears. My mother didn't care about money, not in those days. She had a terrific group of friends--funny, smart, idealistic young lawyers, recently graduated, most of them women. (I remember two men of note: one lanky charmer who would look like a hipster in Starbucks today; and a man named Murph, who was Woody Allen if Woody Allen had a soul and moved to Alaska.)

But I digress. No, I don't!  The point was, I did kind of grow up in Russia. Not exactly, of course; given my tendency toward self-expression and Judaic affiliations, it might have been a different HBO series altogether.  Nonetheless, I can use some of my memories from my childhood to get an idea of what homeland meant to Phillip and Elizabeth (our spies, don't forget).

And, as much as Russia today is an enigma, as far as I'm concerned; my homeland, the United States of America, is even more confounding, looking like a failed experiment in democracy--an idiocracy, if you will; a grotesque parody of capitalism, and the very worst of usWe have literally elected an anti-intellectual, ideologically opportunistic, ultra-materialistic, narcissist as President. What were we thinking????

If Elizabeth, our spy, could see us now, she would surely shake her head and say, "America!"

Sigh.  It's so depressing.

It wasn't that long ago that we elected Barak Obama to his first term in office, and the spirit of Abraham Lincoln (so often quoted in Obama's stunning oratory) seemed to live and walk among us.

Do you remember how Obama convinced us that we were good people?

You heard the story dozens of times: His grandparents were white folks from the heartland. His mother was a free-thinking intellectual idealist. His father was an intellectual from Kenya.  He grew up in Hawaii (always more progressive than most of the country in terms of diversity, healthcare, gender, and sexuality). His middle name was Hussein, for God's sakes.

He never let us forget any of it.  He told his story at every stump speech, optimistic and hopeful that we would not hold it against him.

Obama told us that he had faith that we could think with clear heads and open minds, and make the right decision. And we did!

Obama told us that we were a caring people. He often quoted from the bible, and I think his favorite quote must be, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. 

From my perspective, the hope and promise of Obama was not about healthcare. It was not about fixing the economy or regulating Wall Street.  It was not about climate change.

It was about us, as a people.

In the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.  

Two-thousand-eight wasn't so long ago that we can't remember when the world celebrated with us, inspired and hopeful, as though America had been born anew.

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic, 
for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all. 

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