From Multitudes: The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith
A few years back, Mark Plotkin started an interview with me on WTOP this way: “How do you respond to those who say you’re just outrageous, off the wall, beyond normal?” Here’s part of what I told him: If you go back and read what I wrote ten, twenty or thirty years ago it’s hard to see what the problem was. The FBI, in a rare of moment of literary eloquence labeled those who fought in the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists.” In this town timing is everything. Phil Hart once described the Senate as place that does things 20 years after it should have. I think I was like a bad comedian; I got the punch lines right; I just delivered them too soon.
I had ended up much as I started: the kid they sent to right field because he couldn’t or wouldn’t play the game right.
I didn’t plan it this way. I didn’t want it this way. In truth, a large part of me still would have liked to have been one of the popular boys in the class, but things kept getting in the way – some addictive confluence of moral aggravation, periodic accident, undisciplined imagination, sporadic and unpremeditated courage randomly suppressing chronic shyness and cowardice, sloppy romanticism, episodic existentialism, recurrent hope, stultifying stubbornness and an abiding intolerance for the dull. A child’s dreams and an adult’s faith pounding tide after tide on the rock of reality, thinking that maybe this time I’ll float off.
Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I’m different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We are, after all, thieves who might abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.
But it’s really more like Vaclav Havel said long ago when he was still a rebel:
You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society . . . “
Those dissidents who somehow remain connected to the normal find themselves alone in the crowd. Even in my home town, I often feel an exile – as though all had emigrated except for me, as though somehow I had missed the ship.
It’s often not easy. Albert Camus spoke of the tremendous energy some must expend “merely to be normal” and added:
The rebel can never find peace. He knows what is good and, despite himself, does evil. The value which supports him is never given to him once and for all – he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly.
Emerson also understood the problem:
You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Still, you can’t talk about such things because it would further confirm the belief that you are best ignored, dismissed, or considered absurd. So you become the charming stranger from a strange place, you tell the jokes first, and you change the subject when it starts to get too close to the real. Better yet, you fool them into thinking that you are one of them even though you really blend better with those the urban itinerant Joe Gould once described as the “cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats.”
Still, among the illusions of my life has been that if I stuck it out long enough, time would provide the acceptance that my words and thoughts had prevented. I. F. Stone used to say that when you’re young you’re blamed for things you didn’t do and when you’re older you get credit for them. It hasn’t worked out like that, in part because just when I should have started coasting, the world around me took a nasty, greedy and dangerous turn. America began destroying itself. It was the wrong time to start fitting in .
True, the best period for a revolution of the good is when one is young. To be twenty or thirty and part of an uprising of the collective soul is a rare gift of life. It does spoil you, though, for you go through the rest of your time wondering why that moment went away and why nothing seems able to bring it back.
What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America’s great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country — without debate, consideration, or struggle — decided it really didn’t want to be America any more.
Few even talked about it, but, as a writer and as a child of segregation, I knew that in the silence could be something as telling and evil as words. After all, the language of the old south was most descriptive in what it didn’t say – and what wasn’t allowed to be said.
Much later I would come across the words of a German university professor who described to journalist Milton Mayer what it had been like under the Nazis in the 1930s:
To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’. . .
Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.. . .
Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.
William Shirer noted something similar in Nightmare Years:
What surprised me at first was that most Germans, so far as I could see, did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their splendid culture was being destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work were becoming regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation . . . Yet the Nazi terror in those early years, I was beginning to see, affected the lives of relatively few Germans. The vast majority did not seem unduly concerned with what happened to a few Communists, Socialists, pacifists, defiant priests and pastors, and to the Jews. A newly arrived observer was forced, however reluctantly, as in my own case, to conclude that on the whole the people did not seem to feel that they were being cowed and held down by an unscrupulous tyranny. On the contrary, and much to my surprise, they appeared to support it with genuine enthusiasm.
Shortly before his death in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz says:
What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn’t we just stay put? . . . We’ve done nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we’ll know better next time.
I didn’t want to miss the moment. This wasn’t an act of nobility; it came more from fear of shame. Consequences can’t be wholly unintentional once you’ve imagined them. Successfully deny or ignore them and you’ll die happy. Open your eyes and you become irrevocably responsible, with all the pain, doubt, and fear that goes with it.
And now the stakes may be even higher than just for better or for worse. This time the stupid things we have done to this planet may not be forgiven. This time democracy may be not only staggering, but gone.
Still, this is not something you talk about over dinner and get invited back. And so, “you wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.”
But it doesn’t happen and you know it’s not happening and you don’t have the slightest idea of what to do about it except to use the archaic tools of your trade and the stores of your mind as best you can, not permit the hostility towards the effort depress you too much, and try to enjoy the countervailing virtues and strengths of the struggle, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter:
“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest. . . Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places. . . The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.”
I have tried to help keep alive the beleaguered tradition of plain speaking and truth-seeking that I understood to be at the heart of good journalism. But in a time when much of the media prefers perceptions to facts, bullet quotes to understanding and spin over reality, such efforts are seen as eccentric at best, apostasy at worst. The proper journalist has become, wittingly or not, the accomplice of a system in which news, advertising and agitprop are hopelessly mingled and the facts fatally adulterated. Truth has little to do with it anymore. It is as if we are living in a new Middle Ages, only with the myth being driven by cable TV rather than by the church.
Further, where once saying unconventional things was regarded as hip, it is now considered ‘inappropriate.’ Hipness has become a fashion statement – a consumer selection carefully synchronized with corporate intent rather than outward evidence of a state of mind free of the corporatized state. And so it is easy to feel ostracized, alone and ineffectual. Such feelings are bad enough at 26, but far harder at 66 if for no other reason than that you have less time to recover from them.
I know because I’ve had the feelings at both ages. And at both ages the despair has often been exaggerated, self-defeating, and self-fulfilling. Which isn’t to say unnecessary, for wrestling with the pain of living is one of the surest signs that you are still alive. The problem is that you never know when you’re exaggerating and when you’ve got it right.
Part of my love of the craft of journalism has been the simple joy of possessing the license to go wherever curiosity leads, to consider no place in the planet alien to my inquiry, to use words as a child uses little plastic blocks. Part of it has been the pleasure of deliberately learning more about something than any reasonable person would want to know.
Tina Hobson once said of her husband, the civil rights activist, “The trouble with Julius is that he takes the Constitution personally.” I suffer from a similar debility. But sometimes people credit me with a sense of justice when in fact I am just titillated, fascinated or surprised. In such ways I have also disappointed some of my more didactic allies who expected me to stick to business and not be distracted by the noise of news and the search for better words with which to describe it.
George Orwell faced something similar and wrote:
Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself.
I also want to walk away from it at will. Back in the 60s, I was sitting in an office on 8th Street SE in Washington talking with one of the sergeants of the War on Poverty. It was shortly after the riots of April 1968 and our conversation drifted in the shadows of those smoky and charred days. Then the community organizer stopped in mid-sentence and said, “Look, Sam, all I really want to do is to sit on my front stoop in the sun, drink beer, and shoot craps.”
His words keep coming back, a reminder that even the best politics are a pretty poor substitute for life and that the worst politics compound their felony by forcing us to leave the front stoop to do something about them. Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things — like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.
That community organizer in the dingy office on 8th Street understood that the proper end of politics was not a policy, not a budget, not an ideology, not even worthy abstractions like peace and justice, but rather good places, and good days and healthy and happy people — the collective little republics of our individual hopes and dreams.
In the melancholy that descends from time to time, in the loneliness that lies like a desert between myself and my imagination, I think about opportunities and offers that have come my way that I brazenly – wantonly, some might say – rejected. I think I knew in my heart that if I had accepted such things, I would have ended up broken or fired. And probably a drunk as well.
And as best as I can tell, my real impetus was not masochism but a truly manic, grandiose, and cockeyed optimism – the faith that even in late 20th century America I could do something on my own that would be even better than what I could if I just did what was expected of me.
Saul Alinsky was once asked by a seminarian how he could retain his values as he made his way through the church, “That’s easy,” replied Alinsky. “Just decide now whether you wish to be a cardinal or a priest.” It was a choice I made early.
As far back as high school, when I first read of Thoreau’s preference for sitting on a pumpkin and having it all to himself to being crowded on a velvet stool, I had rated freedom ahead of power. Raised in dysfunctional luxury, I have placed an abnormal emphasis on things I could do without benefit of social standing, money, or power, such as writing, playing the piano, . . and imagining. I would come to suspect that I had spent a lifetime trying to finish the script of a radio show first concocted under the covers as a child – a lifelong broadcast in which I was the stumbling protagonist. I have tried to live a daydream – one that began because I didn’t like what was going on downstairs. And still don’t.
I can’t recommend such a way; I can’t even justify having tried it. A lot of it doesn’t make sense. I spurned the normal icons of ambition, yet was so ambitious that I sought the unattainable. I gave the outward impression of a radical but in my heart was just a moderate of a time that had yet to arrive. I constantly sought change but was most happy enjoying the changeless virtues of music and conversation and returning to the mooring after a long, happy day on the bay.
Sometimes I would think of myself as a reluctant draftee, called up to serve in the struggle that Albert Camus described: “It is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.” I didn’t really want to do it. I just had to. What I wanted most was that the struggle be won so I could live in a land where people laughed and made new friends and were gentle with one another. So I could return to that place where the sun hit the front stoop just right on a quiet morning, reminding me that this was how good everything else could be as well.