American Disconnection

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The Boston Globe

American Disconnection

As a child of 10 or 12, I could tell when the height of summer had arrived by the certain feeling that came over me. Even though I was part of a large, happy family, my main source of connectedness from an early age was school, and in summer I hardly ever saw the kids who, throughout the rest of the year, defined my life. I had chums in the neighborhood, with whom I played ball or crashed through the woods, but it was not the same.

Now I understand that school was more than relationships with classmates. It was an entire culture of belonging, an ordered cosmos that told me who I was, giving me ways of having impact on the world. School located me in time, providing language for the past, lessons for the future. School was the corridor that led from the merely private (secrets of the ruminating mind) to the public (expression of those secrets at work and play). In summer, that engaging network of purposeful association was suspended.

From June into July, the delights of freedom from homework and schedule trumped any sense of dislocation I might have felt, and beginning in mid-August the sweet anticipation of return to school at Labor Day began to carry me along. But the height of summer, just about now, was a time of lonely alienation, when ties to meaning went slack.

I would find myself moseying through those woods alone or sitting by the edge of the creek with an uncharacteristic air of brooding. I had my secret ruminations still, but no way of getting out from under them. I might have identified the feeling as one of intense boredom, but now I see that it went deeper than that -- to a sensation of being cut off, unable to influence anything that mattered beyond myself. As far as the long, empty afternoons of early August went, it was as though they would never end. As though I would never connect again.

Why, apart from the calendar, am I remembering that today?

My adult connections are strong, and ever more interesting. They are writerly, civic, religious, and, above all, familial. My friendships are intact. Boredom is a word of absolutely no relevance in my life, nor has youthful moodiness left a stamp on me. Yet here I am feeling ambushed by a sensation, exactly, of ineffectual isolation. The endless midafternoon of an August summer day seems all at once the whole of life. Disconnectedness is the heart of it, and that points from the intensely private to the very public, for the largest experience of being cut off from what matters of which I am aware involves the American crisis in the Middle East.

There are many players and many problems in that cradle of conflict, and many reasons why, from Iraq and Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan to the West Bank and Gaza, the troubles mount. One can fault feuding Iraqi factions, Iranian fantasies of dominance, Pakistani duplicity, Taliban ruthlessness, Hamas intransigence, or Israeli belligerence, but my responsibility, far more particularly, is tied to the behavior of the US government.

Most immediately, more than a million people face imminent, catastrophic economic collapse in embargoed Gaza, a prospect that transcends the usual left-right analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With so many human lives at stake, what is my nation doing to help fend off a historic tragedy in Gaza?

Regarding Iraq, the answer is clear: My nation keeps the conflagration burning. Like legions of Americans, I have long since concluded that the Iraq war is misbegotten and must end, but I helplessly watch as it careens along, like a runaway train from an old movie, with "responsible" figures from the Pentagon to the White House to Congress to opinion makers continually pouring more fuel into its boilers. Throttle on!

Here is the disconnect that matters this August: A vast population of shamed US citizens, seeing the war as key to multiple unfolding disasters, regard it as the most pressing issue in the world. But so what? Private brooding desperately seeks a mode of public action, yet is thwarted.

The American myth is that such concern gives form to the political process, never more so than during a presidential election. But there, too, as the candidate debates steadily show, the defining note is one of ineffectual detachment. And why shouldn't youthful summer doldrums open into massive civic anguish?

The war has become a god apart, for which now it will really punish everyone.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll is a Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. He is the author, among other works, of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and, most recently, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.


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