The challenge for American middle class

The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

Any of us, if we live to a certain age, enjoy the melancholy opportunity to look back on the road we’ve traveled from wherever we started, and to remember – fondly or otherwise – those who have been our traveling companions. In my own peripatetic 52 years all around this planet, I’ve had my share of adventures and other learning experiences – perhaps more than my share, because I’ve sought them out – and I’ve been blessed with my requisite allotment of loved ones and friends. Truly, if I were to get run over tomorrow by a proverbial bus, I would have nothing to regret or complain about.

So why do I begin a column that’s kind of supposed to cover American current events from week to week on such a maudlin note? My mood is partly, perhaps, a function of a more or less normal midlife fatigue or jadedness. I’ve “been there, done that” and don’t feel a need or desire for more, at least not at the moment; what I feel a need for is rest and recovery from all the experience I’ve inflicted on my own body and soul. (It has crossed my mind that, were I ever to write an autobiography, I might title it Been There, Done That.) The extremely well-traveled American writer Paul Theroux describes himself, somewhere in one of his later books, as being “in retreat from experience.” That’s the mood I’m in these days, and I can’t blame it entirely on the state of the world or even on Trump, much as I’d like to.

But it’s also absolutely true that Trump and the state of the world impinge on my private world and state of mind, as I’m sure they do on yours. Indeed, at least in my case “impinge” is too mild a verb; my personal serenity, such as it ever is anyway, is assaulted and bruised daily by Trump, and more generally by the feckless and immoral failure of the American political class to do much of anything pro-active, much less effective, to address the national and global emergency we’ve been hurtling toward for at least the past two years. Of course I resent that, and I richly and personally despise Trump himself as well as each and every other member of the malign faction that has wilfully, and at times gleefully, foisted this crisis on all of us.

But anger and resentment are only so useful; in fact, they’re not very useful at all. Very quickly, for each of us suffering to one extent or another under this rouge regime – and I readily acknowledge that the white, middle-class likes of me are suffering far less than are Muslims, immigrants, and black Americans – the question arises: “What are you going to do?” In fact the question has two versions: “What are you going to do about it?” and “What are you going to do, in your own small world, in spite of it?” I won’t claim that I’m doing all that I can – none of us is – but I am doing a few things, this and that, here and there, things I hope will be useful to others and to myself. On the public level, what I’m best at is what you see me doing here: writing, for whatever that’s worth.

But I’m also not sure that, demographically, my voice is one that needs to be heard right now in America, as a matter of any priority. So in addition to writing – and, often these days, instead of writing – I do what I can to promote those I feel deserve an elevated platform, such as the eloquent Pakistani-American writers Rafia Zakaria and Wajahat Ali. I also edit and publish books that tell stories and convey messages that I feel need to be “out there” in the world in these times. I do that on a very modest scale, but I’m inspired by a personal souvenir I keep on my bookshelf: Jakarta Crackdown, a collection of reports, documents, and interviews hastily assembled in 1996 by young Indonesian journalists supported and encouraged by a brave editor named Goenawan Mohamed. Why was Jakarta Crackdown assembled hastily, and why was it published as a book? Because the Suharto dictatorship imposed pre-censorship on periodicals, but not on books. By the time the authorities got around to banning Jakarta Crackdown, thousands of copies were already in circulation around Indonesia and beyond.

That’s the sort of nimble journalistic and cultural work that I think is useful and needed in America now. What I have faith in is that, whatever the medium, once a story or idea or truth is in circulation among free people, no regime can forcibly rescind it. But at the same time, I’m doing something else I think is necessary: habituating myself to the likelihood that the society that formed me may be deforming itself beyond repair, and that, going forward – and even if we do, somehow, manage to rid ourselves of the bane that is Trump – I might need to shed the portion of my self-regard that has to do with my being American. That’s where I find books like Second-hand Time – a fascinating oral history of personal experiences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, compiled by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich – useful as analogues for what we’re living through.

And I’ve lately reminded myself of the importance of staying in meaningful touch with friends and loved ones scattered all around this continent-sized country. Part of what keeps us Americans feeling isolated is the sheer hugeness of the country and our own proclivity to move around it. So I’ve been making a point of having long phone calls with a dear friend in the state of Michigan, another in Massachusetts, my father in Colorado, and my brother in Washington, D.C. And I added two days to a work trip to California, so I could visit in person with friends there. It’s important for us to remember that we’re all in this together.