Russell Baker, the noted columnist for the New York Times, who passed away earlier this year, was, like the best chroniclers of American life, clear eyed with a dry wit and perhaps ironically when read now, an understanding that no matter of much things change; so much remains the same.
This becomes apparent when reading his collection of columns from the 1070’s in the book, So This Is Depravity. In it, he explores, in his own inimical style, dysfunctional government, boorish politicians chasing the money and lying for the benefit of inattentive constituents, pointless destructive war, sexism, racism, the allure and corruption of the American myth, bad parents, and the new generation that has no thought for the old. He also notes our never-ending fetishing of personal habits and vices.
We are certain that we are so much better, more knowledgeable, and prescient of what the future holds than those who trod the earth before. We are also forlorn, depressed, and certain that the old days were so much better. As Americans, we held the exact same views 40 plus years ago.
Having been a teen in those years, witnessing the high of the moon landing, the lows of Vietnam, Nixon, domestic terror; the apex of Rock and Roll, sexual hendonish before scourge of AIDS, all of the essays in Baker’s book bring back a flood of memories and the tacit acknowledgment that we are fighting the same internal wars again and again.
The beauty of Baker’s writing is the humor he infuses into it. Like his contemporary, Art Buchwald, he recognized the comic nature of modern cultural life in America. A fine example is his parody of a Times food critic’s (Craig Claiborne) gastronomic feast by juxtaposing his own futile attempt to replicate it in his small understocked New York apartment kitchen. It is a small piece that so expertly mines the American fascination with the obscenities of wealth and privilege, and our desire to somehow take it for our own, as if we too are living the great American dream.
To read So This Is Depravity today, is to see, that in character, so little has changed in this country, both good and bad. That there has been substantive change in how we approach race, gender, inequality, and supplication or rejection of our supposed national myths, only reinforces the understanding-assuming you have any interest in understanding-of how long the road is and how little of it we have truly traveled.
In the 70’s we warred with each other over the very things we are warring over with each other now. The thing we miss, or most need, I believe, is what Baker provides: a wry knowing, yet gentle humor that gives the reader a moment of pause to both laugh and perhaps consider the idocies we perpetuate for no other reason than to aggravate those who aggravate us.
It’s an idiots circular firing squad made all the more galling by those who profit by it. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that we continue down this particular road is somewhat cliched since there is no mad desire to get off it, but rather the doleful hope that somehow in the perfid pit that is our political life a savior will arise.
Russell Baker in his fine prose assures us that we are not alone in history when it comes these hopes and desires that we are not the first, and unlikely the last-and yes, there were doomsdayers then too-to suffer through it.
©2019 David William Pearce