Tuesday, 28 April 2015

taking the waters or four freedoms

While visiting my parents in the state of Georgia, H and I saw Franklin D. Roosevelt’s retreat in Warm Springs, called the Little White House, though not a place for politicking per se and constructed at the beginning of FDR’s political career in 1921 when New York governor Roosevelt was stricken with polio and almost saw his prospects cut-short, whether or not the presidency a decade later was included in his aspirations. Local luminaries and physicians (possibly mistresses as well) gathered at the Little White House but politicians and dignitaries were mostly feted at either Camp David, the big White House or stately Hyde Park. FDR sought out a thermal spa treatment and the clean air of this town, building his private residence and going on the found an institute to try and cure other polio sufferers.
Of course FDR was wheel-chair bound and kept that from public-attention and appropriately, the grounds are handicapped-accessible but I thought it was quite upsetting and telling that there was a fleet of mobility-scooters available that otherwise able-bodied visitors used pretty shamelessly and rather gratuitously. The tour was pretty interesting and engaging but the experience was made even more so by a pair of strange coincidences. First, to the day, our visit fell on the seventieth anniversary of FDR’s death from a stroke suffered while sitting for his official presidential portrait in his study there, which remained unfinished—and that made the experience more poignant.
Second, I happened to be reading the brilliant alternate history novel by Phillip K. Dick set in a present (1960s) where a protracted World War II was won by the Axis Powers.
In this parallel reality, Nazi engineering has continued a pace and there are regular excursions to Venus and Mars and one character took a commercial Lufthansa flight (as we did) that took a mere three-quarters of an hour to fly from Scandinavia to San Francisco in the Pacific States of America and it took more time to collect one’s luggage at the baggage claim, but The Man in the High Castle, named after a reclusive author who’s penned a naturally contraband book that wonders how the world might have turned out if the Allies had been victorious, portrays a nasty and brutish dystopia.  The Earth has been divided from east of the Caucasus to the western seaboard of America under the control of the Empire of Japan, Europe and the East Coast under control of the Great Nazi Reich—the Mediterranean was drained for reclamation of agricultural land, the Holy Land under Italian control, and most of Africa depopulated—with lesser races enslaved or eliminated.  A nominally independent Finland, Canada and the Midwestern states offer some pockets of resistance and neutrality.
Terrible and inverted as it is, it is affecting how some of the same geopolitical prejudices and sentiments, with a few substitute words, are still common-parlance and the world is still a hostile and polarised place.
Though there was a line or two that identified the point-of-departure, the hinge-event that diverged into the present of the story, I don’t think I would have picked up on it without the visit to Warm Springs. There was a time-line of FDR on one of the displays that mentioned the assassination attempt, just months into his first term, at the hand of one Giuseppe Zangara, who missed and killed the mayor of Miami at a speech. In the novel, the assassin’s aim was truer and as a result, there was no New Deal, no economic recovery from the Great Depression that allowed America to bolster its manufacturing capacity, no Lend-Lease policy that allowed a tenaciously isolationist America to undermine the German and Japanese advance while still begging neutrality. Seeing FDR’s achievements and artefacts really made the contributions he was able to impart and his legacy even more extraordinary and made the wonder of how things might have been (and how things become the same) all the more disquieting.