In the summer of 1971 I was twenty-six years old. The previous November my mother, whom I was very close to, had just died at the young age of fifty, and I was feeling lost and hopeless. As a high school teacher at the time, I had summers off, and I decided it would take my mind off things if I learned another language. I had long been interested in Russia, its culture, its people, and its literature, so I enrolled in an intensive summer language course at SUNY New Paltz. The first six weeks of it took place on that verdant and inviting campus, but the really exciting part was the second six weeks, when we went to what was then known as the Soviet Union. We took an Aeroflot flight to Moscow in July of that year, and – believe it or not – when I arrived, I felt like kneeling down and kissing the Russian earth. Luckily, I refrained, and did not make such a complete ass of myself
Having grown up in relative poverty, I wanted to visit the Soviet Union because I thought that communism might provide a possible answer to the unequal distribution of wealth that I felt so keenly in this country. The whole set up, then, seemed to me like a good way to kill several birds with one stone. I would get to visit Russia, see communism first hand, learn some of the language, and then – well, unfortunately, that’s about where any clarity of thinking on my part ended. After that, I guess I thought I’d just somehow figure things out later.
I should maybe hasten to say that things did not turn out as I had planned. Not so much in terms of the language. Although Russian is complex and difficult for foreigners to learn, I worked hard and began to gain a little fluency. That part was fine, and I was pleased with my progress. However, once I arrived in the country, along with my professor and the class I was part of, it began to dawn very quickly on me that communism wasn’t what I had hoped it might be. People seemed depressed and downtrodden, and although I met more ordinary Russians than I had expected, most of them did not seem at all happy with their government. Anything built at least since the war had a shoddy look too it, and people seemed somehow disappointed. I remember one person telling me, frankly to my surprise, that he didn’t think much of communism, and he added: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,”
I started to question all of the premises I had previously held, and by the time I left the country six weeks later, I was depressing aware that communism was pretty paltry as an economic system. And what was worse, I had also witnessed enough of its totalitarian governance system to know that I did not at all like what I saw.
So, I came back to the United States in late August of that year, a little sadder, maybe a little wiser, and just in time to begin my teaching assignment in a rural high school in upstate New York. The point of all this reminiscence is that I felt adrift, morally and politically. Communism was clearly not going to be the answer, and capitalism had always seemed cruel and greedy to me.
Things eventually changed in my life, and I left upstate New York, heading west, settling after a few years in California. There I decided that you can’t stay disappointed with life forever, so I plunged in headlong. Later still, I ended up working at a large public university. I ultimately rose to hold a relatively responsible position there, in charge of the university’s international programs.
But the question remained in my mind, had I ever figured out what was the best way to live? In the end, there was no getting around the fact that I had embraced capitalism. I was not a rich capitalist, mind you, but it’s almost impossible to live in this country without taking on the trappings of the system. I eventually earned a decent wage, not huge, but enough, with my partner’s salary, to live not too uncomfortably. Now, I’m a pensioner, and although in my heart I often still feel like the shanty Irish stock I come from, I’d have to say that things are okay.
But I think a lot about other people, right here in this country, those who have not been as fortunate. I think about the millions who do not have jobs, young people who haven’t been able to start their careers, people who can’t feed their families, or who have to choose between buying food and buying medicine, of those who are serving long prison terms for minor drug offences, those who are sick but have no insurance, or just so depressed they don’t feel like they can go on much longer. Has capitalism served them well? Probably not has to be the answer, I think. Would communism have been a better choice? Again, I doubt that very much, especially if Cuba and North Korea are any models from which to learn.
Contemplating these questions is, in a way, a lot like facing the issues related to global climate change. You often feel pretty helpless about doing anything that seems all that meaningful. I guess what I have ultimately decided is that I can at least write about my concerns, and I can give what’s possible to the charities I believe in, and I can vote for politicians who seem better to me than their opposites. That pretty much comes down to voting for all the Democrats I can. Not that Democrats are universally wonderful, but they’re a whole hell of a lot better than most Republicans, who cynically use wedge cultural issues to get the working class poor to vote for them, even though it goes contrary to people’s own economic interests.
So, I’ll vote for Pres. Obama in the fall, and for as many liberal politicians as I can find. All the while, knowing that the system is awfully far from perfect, that I in some ways contribute to it by accepting it and living according to its rules, and just by leading as happy a life as I can. But maybe in the end that’s the answer, if there is one: live as intensely and as fully as you know how to, help others whenever possible, do what you can to find the answers to the Big Questions, however you define them, and leave the rest up to whatever Divine Power is beyond the thrust of your everyday routine. It’s not a political dogma, that’s for sure, at least not like capitalism or communism, but it’s probably the best we can do. And that, after all, is maybe all that’s expected of us.