I’m perplexed. Not too many years ago it would have been thought unbelievable that the so-called ‘heart of modern democracy’ – the capitol building at the end of the Mall in Washington in the state of Columbia, U.S.A. – could be assaulted by a horde of irate people gathered to protest at the result of a free election at the heart of what they believe to be the ‘world’s greatest democracy’!
The historic background, too often ignored, is soon forgotten. I first visited the U.S.A. when invited by the English- Speaking Union to go on a lecture tour. Until then my overseas travel had just been to Europe, propelled by the wish to practise the languages I had chosen to study – French, Spanish and Italian. I was fascinated by the Mediterranean basin, lured by visions of olive groves, vineyards, cypresses like sentinels and umbrella pines that dropped their needles to spread a springy carpet on the ground. There, charcoal burners meticulously built their large round mounds to steam patiently while sunshine slanted through the glade to allow glimpses of the tranquil blue sea beyond. Above all, it was the art and architecture, created through centuries of ideas and beliefs, that beguiled me.
But the steam from the charcoal mounds had to escape, and so does the frustrated anger of those ‘left behind’ the ‘sophisticated’ citizens, the ‘simple folk’ isolated in remote mountain regions or in the dusty settlements along the inter-state roads. I met some of them in the Appalachian mountains and was, inevitably, amazed and fascinated by their way of life. Simplicity attracts, like the major key in a symphony of complementary or competing notes. Most of what one remembers is in the major key, while strains of the minor ones haunt the silences in between.
All the tasks one did not have time to complete in the warmer seasons are relegated to winter. The long dark evenings were once the time for reminiscences, to hear and make up one’s own narrative. Now television does that for us. Imagine a diet only of quiz programmes and personality games, fuelled by the fantasy that one could win a hefty sum of money and a brief moment in the limelight. The addictive excitement comes imagining the fantasy of winning! I chose to watch the staid programmes on history or that explore distant places that I have not visited.
History and geography are the two disciplines seen as expendable. When drawing up a school timetable, I was told to allocate Wednesday afternoons for sport and a couple of periods a week for exercise in the gym because they were absolutely necessary for physical wellbeing. When Biology, Physics and Chemistry were to be taught as separate subjects, space in the curriculum had to be found. The casualties were again history and geography, the hinterland of the human mind. The result is that people may leave education with vast factual knowledge but ignorance of human behaviour and of the seedbed for considered decisions that could rein in the rash emotional response that led to the assault on the Capitol on January 6. Mob frenzy is based on ignorance, on the emotions of people disregarding, unable or unwilling to realise that balancing the merits of various viewpoints, stemming from different backgrounds, is a pre-requisite for any responsible person of authority.
I have never forgotten a dinner in New York when we were all asked to toast ‘the red, white and blue’. I asked why we were toasting colours. Amazement around me.
‘Those are the colours of the flag of the USA!’
‘But they are also the colours of the French flag, bleu, blanc, rouge’, I stated, ‘and also, though I haven’t thought of it before, of the Union Jack: red, white and blue again but in a different symbolic pattern.’ Perhaps they are the colours that stand out best against a white background, a better rallying point.
On January 6 I was perplexed – and dismayed.