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October 24, 2014

H. Brandt Ayers: The center looks out

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Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2014 3:30 am | Updated: 12:30 am, Wed Jun 18, 2014.

Those of us who read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer might remember that places depicted on the screen have no resonance for the narrator, Binx Bolling, unless he has been there and the action lifts him above the ordinariness of his life. It is then that those places are validated.

Imagine Binx, now in retirement, who often falls into contemplation about what he learned of the human condition; a journey that began aimlessly, whose attraction to journalism was … it was more interesting than insurance sales.

When TV focuses on Russia, Binx does not think first of Vladimir Putin, the cocky Slavic version of George Wallace rousing his peoples’ ancient resentment and damaged self-respect.

He thinks instead of his first trip to Russia in 1975, a gray November in Moscow. A gray city of gray, unsmiling people. And he thinks of the somber underground war memorial in Leningrad where there is a case that contains only a piece of molded bread.

That child’s fist of dried bread awakened a whole symphony of suffering in World War II when the Nazi siege of the city claimed 1.1 million civilian deaths — most from starvation.

Asking officials and citizens on that first trip if they had lost anyone in the war, he stopped asking after a few days; they all had.

Contemplating now on the contrast between his egocentric tour and the historic scale of Russian suffering, Binx would remember clues that made him see Russia in the context of his own American South. Both have been devastated by war and have borne poverty, isolation and scorn of luckier peoples.

Two clues to how people react to a hard and friendless history were provided by reporters. At a meeting between a large group of Soviet and American journalists, our imagined Binx asked a question that may have been mistranslated.

A woman with a construction worker’s build smiled with sadistic pleasure, “So, you are afraid of Russia, gooood.” When told, “No, we are afraid for you and the knock of the secret police on your door,” she visibly crumbled.

Her resentment became damaged self-respect when a pretty young reporter answered Binx’s comparison of being looked down upon because he was from a poor Southern state. With anger on the verge of tears, the young woman said, “Yes, some people speak of us as if we aren’t even human beings.”

Two years later, in 1977, Binx would have found himself in a society that exactly mirrored Louisiana’s recent past. The Union of South Africa unfortunately was still mired in recently assassinated Hendrik Verwoerd’s “final solution” — Apartheid.

Arriving in Johannesburg, he was stabbed by the signs “White” and “Colored,” seeing them for what he knew they were, signposts of a doomed civilization.

After a few weeks, he felt comfortable in that beautiful country. He knew blacks from birth and liked Afrikaners as friendly and hospitable, just like friends and family from formerly segregated Louisiana.

As opposed to British-speaking South Afrikans, Afrikaners had no place to express their culture but there, and they were holding on for dear life. Binx would have known what lay ahead for ordinary Afrikaners, knew how their culture would end, and felt a twinge of sympathy, though he also knew justice required an end to white rule.

At dinner with the Zulu Chief Mangosuthusu Buthelezi, the chief told Binx that the white minority would be “under the protection of the Chief,” which made his white host conclude, silently, that a black dictatorship would be no improvement.

That thought recurred when he met the wife of the Soweto leader, Dr. Motlana. Looking into eyes that burned like dry ice, Binx would’ve shuddered slightly at feeling the power of resentment from a lifetime of humiliation.

As the all-news networks changed their focus from nation to nation, always from an American point of view, Binx concluded with regret he was no longer in the game but that egocentrism is the worst way to understand the world.

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