Like others of their generation, my mother and father took the “benign neglect” approach to parenting, so every evening my brother and I found ourselves propped in front of the television set, TV trays and dinners before us, and we watched the reports about the Vietnam War as we made our way through our Swanson fried chicken and mashed potato entrees. This was the late 1960s, so there really wasn’t much else to watch as we ate, and though the war was never discussed either in school or at home, we knew about it well enough.
My own kids are 13 and 12 now, and I guess my parenting style — as it is for many of my generation, especially those who live in New York — can be called “grave concern” instead. Over the past three years, their mother and I have had to assuage their fears about COVID (we’re all going to die next week), climate change (we’re all going to be burned alive next week), Donald Trump (our country is going to be run by an idiot for four more years), and now Ukraine. This makes the 1960s look almost quaint. Therapists never had it so good. Neither have bartenders, especially mine.
I’ll be turning 60 in a few days, one of those taking-stock milestones that come around every ten years, so as my body and my mind edge into decrepitude (well, edge further into decrepitude, anyway), I made a little list of a few cultural and political disasters to which I’ve been privy during my past six decades to see if there’s any general conclusion I can get out of it. Join me, won’t you, with a glass of your favorite adult beverage to hand as I tick them off:
- The Vietnam War (and the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Africa generally, South America generally, not to mention my parents’ marriage)
- Watergate (in my social studies class I learned how government was supposed to work; watching the Watergate hearings I learned how government actually worked)
- Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, another more maladroit Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden, and that’s just the executive branch (the most admirable and courageous politicians of my lifetime have been an absurdist playwright and a TV comedian from Central Europe, which tells you something, though God knows what that is)
- SARS and the swine flu (fondly remembered, these)
- Chernobyl (the gift that keeps on giving, apparently)
- Air travel (never particularly attractive, especially after 9/11)
- Television comedy
- Higher education (for that matter, K-12 education too)
- The Internet (not since Gutenberg has so much stupidity been shared so rapidly by so many; at least a printing press costs something)
- Contemporary American fiction
- Canned wine
I could go on, but neither you nor I want that.
I know there are those of you who cavil that I’m leaning a bit into the negative side of things. Fine. Let’s look at a few of the most commonly cited achievements of mankind over the same period:
- The polio vaccine (sure, try that now)
- The Internet (see earlier list)
- The end of apartheid in South Africa (good idea; we should end it in America sometime)
- Wider selection of good beers in the supermarket (I’ll give you that one, and you’ll have to take it, because beer just makes me bloat these days)
- The legalization of marijuana (it just makes me want to urinate)
- The fall of the Berlin Wall (peace in Europe had a bit of a run there for a while, true, but there are new walls going up all the time, apparently)
And now, to wrap it all up, Ukraine. Top off that drink for you?
With age, they say, comes wisdom. Not for this sixty-year-old; any chance my kids will be the benefit of parental wisdom will have to come from my wife, who’s got it all over me in the wisdom department. I’m not sure what kind of wisdom is going to emerge from Ukraine anyway, let alone all the rest of it.
Maybe the best I can do is a trite observation. These days the word “evil” is bandied about quite a bit. Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different definitions of it, though, which if nothing else is proof positive that they’d all be wrong. In Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray, apparently a pessimist himself in the end, posited “an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America,” which comes closest to the way I look at it, but that doesn’t really tell us what evil is.
I don’t know what evil is either. I can’t even get my DVR to work. One thing I am pretty sure of, though, is something that the late, great P.J. O’Rourke suggested about “trouble” in the introduction to his book Holidays in Hell, a collection of essays about his travels to the Gaza Strip, Belfast, Managua, and other trouble spots in the 1980s. “Trouble” serves as well as “evil,” but given the current social climate and O’Rourke’s tendency to colorful and occasionally offensive language I should probably just paraphrase.
His point was basically this: That evil does not spring from any particular group of people. Evil does not spring from Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Hutus, Tutsis, the Japanese, the Chinese, Canadians, or Americans. Evil does not spring from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or atheism. Evil does not spring from Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Capitalists, Conservatives, or, God bless ’em, liberals. Evil does not spring from adults or children. Evil does not spring from men or women or any given gender variations thereof. Evil does not spring from people of a particular skin color, a particular age, or a particular height or weight.
Evil springs from the human heart.