The Breakfast Table

California Dreaming

Dear James,

I know what you mean about feeling like a displaced person. Normally resident at the moment in Warsaw, or even farther east, I find myself this month not too far from Santa Barbara, in the heart of what they say is a university, but looks like a golf course (palm trees, trimmed walkways, shrubs) and feels like a holiday camp: As I was trying to read “NATO Cites Mass Graves as It Weighs Oil Blockade” in this morning’s Los Angeles Times, a girl in a fluorescent-blue miniskirt was ordering a “double double decaf latte, no fat, extra hot,” while the students skateboarded, Rollerbladed, and mountain-cycled their way to class. “Skip” Spence would have loved it. I found it hard to concentrate.

Weirder still, I spend much of the day here reading documents in the Hoover Institute’s superb archives, where they have everything from Trotsky’s letters to the papers of the Polish wartime government-in-exile, only to emerge periodically into the California sunshine and marvel at the peculiar phenomenon that is the United States of America. On the one hand, we have so much money that we can simply purchase the history of some bits of Eastern Europe, meanwhile deploying the most advanced technology in human history so as to bomb the other bits into line. On the other hand, most of us couldn’t locate a single bit of Eastern Europe on a map.

Perhaps because I am so out of context at the moment, I have also spent a good bit of time wondering why American support for this barely understood war remains so high. I have finally decided to blame Steven Spielberg. Think about it: America’s highest-grossing director makes films about extraterrestrials and films about killer fish, but when he really wants to, as he puts it, “get serious,” he makes a film about … the Holocaust. This is the one historical event that has stuck fast in American popular consciousness. We’ve gone hazy on the details of Vietnam, can’t quite remember what started the Cold War, but we have a Holocaust museum, “Holocaust literature” sections in bookstores, people lining up to go on Schindler’s List tours of Krakow (yuck, I know, but it’s true), and we actually give Academy Awards to funny-looking non-English-speaking foreigners when they make comedies about the Holocaust.

No wonder, then, that Americans have so quickly accepted the bombing of Kosovo: Most of the arguments used to explain and defend the war in Kosovo have begun, and ended, with the parable of the Holocaust. In the first big public statement he made about Kosovo, Bill Clinton alluded to the Holocaust. “What,” he asked darkly, “if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?”

Not that it is wrong to remember the Holocaust: I just wonder whether we haven’t skewed our perspective on the world by forgetting everything else: I’m not too certain, for example, that Milosevic and Kosovo are quite the same thing as Hitler and Europe, or that Clinton is Churchill. But it seems as if we are able to remember only one event at a time, to concentrate on just one thing at a time.

Like, where’s India?