Au Revoir but Not Adieu
For 12 years as a columnist I wore my “heart out after the unattainable.”
By Roger CohenNov. 14, 2020
When I was a younger man, a quarter-century ago, I clambered into the armored Land Rover provided by this newspaper to cover the Bosnian war. It was, at the best of times, an unbalanced vehicle. At the worst, it would shudder as if possessed. I was headed from Sarajevo back to Paris to see my third child born. There was no other way home. The airport, under fire from Serbian artillery, was closed.
Over Mount Igman, out of range of those Serbian guns, on the paved highway to Split, I exhaled. The blast from a shell as I walked through the old town had blown me off my feet a few days earlier. Now I was out of suffocating Sarajevo, home free. Until the steering wheel, spinning in my hands, lost all connection to the wheels. I was helpless. The car slalomed across the oncoming lane, tumbled several feet down an embankment, flipped over and over across a field, to settle at last on its side. The first thing I saw was a small red ax. To smash the bulletproof windows.
If, unlike several dear colleagues, I walked away from the war, it was to say something. Otherwise life was wasted breath. Something about crazed nationalism, how it giddies people with myth, how it gets their blood up building walls, how it births loony ideas like turning the east-west crossroads of Sarajevo into an ethnically pure Serbian preserve, how its endpoint may be 100,000 dead or more in the rubble and the ashes. How it quashes tolerance, destroys civilization, enables dictators, and devours freedom.
To say something, also, to my four children, whose lives I was lucky to see unfold, about engagement in the great causes of the world, about the pursuit of justice, about what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the bitter cup of heroism,” and about his advice to wear the “heart out after the unattainable.”
In Sarajevo, a man, half-Serb, who’d just had both legs blown off by Serbian shelling, told me a child needs his father even if he’s just sitting in the corner. Life is a struggle but we must seize it, for hope is the last to die. I like the spirit of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “We would not seek a battle, as we are; Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.”
This, dear readers, is goodbye, my last column for The New York Times. I have tried to defend the causes I believe in — freedom, decency, pluralism, the importance of dissent in an open society, above all. Uniformity of thought is the death of thought. It paves the road to hell.
I’ve learned a lesson or two. I can say, after a dozen years, that the best columns write themselves. They come, all of a piece, fully formed, a gift from some deep place. They enfold the subject just so, like a halter on a horse’s face.
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Such inspiration is rare. Most columns resemble exquisite torture. Having an idea is not something you can order up, like breakfast. The battle between form and subject is ferocious. Eight hundred words constitute a rigid carapace resistant to descriptive writing and narrative.
Lincoln did all right with 272 words at Gettysburg. When the cutting began, I tried to console myself with that. But shed no tears for the columnist’s lot. I always wanted to witness what I wrote about. Armchair pontification too often turns to bloviation. Travel the world, see desperation in the eye of a raped Yazidi girl or a refugee dumped by Australia in Papua New Guinea, and battle to render the unimaginable in a few words. Brevity is a bitter stimulant to pithiness.
It is hard to go at this moment. I did not expect the lessons of Bosnia to come home to the United States of Donald Trump’s “America First” nationalism. Because each vote still counts, because no state has seceded yet, because a “gunned-up” population has not taken up those guns, the country I love appears to be emerging from the Trump nightmare. It is not yet free of the tentacles of his derangement. To beat back the defeated president’s ongoing assault on truth, the rule of law, and the institutions of democracy has been the absolute moral imperative of our times.
The American idea freed me, a British Jew from the land of “trembling Israelites,” as it has freed countless others in various ways. Naturalization is a rite of passage to responsibility. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” depend on the engagement of citizens. The fight to defend America’s openness, renewal and unity against Trump’s walls, retrogression and fracture is inseparable from the struggle to save the world from the creeping autocracy of the 21st century. On lies is tyranny built.
But to everything there is a season. I have tried not only to say what I think but also to reveal who I am. That work is done. You know me, unfiltered, for better or worse. Wisdom is also knowing when to go. Persist too long and, like all those armies bent on reaching Moscow, you may face the Russian winter.
Nobody ever told me what subject to choose, much less what to say about it. “You write and you are free,” a Saudi friend once said in Jeddah. He could scarcely imagine to what degree. Free and solitary, like a runner on the beach in the early morning at low tide. Such freedom is rare.
The thing is to use it. To listen through the silences for a clue. To see the intersection of personal and national psyches, the richest point of journalistic inquiry. To marry the head and the heart. To make a difference. To know, and it’s enough, that a column saved a life. To suggest, in the name of a child’s innocent gaze, that putting food on the table beats an eye for an eye, for then soon enough everyone is blind. To hold power to account.
Having spent my infancy in South Africa, grown up and been educated in England, and then, after a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, found my home in New York (the place that took me in), I have been concerned with belonging.
It could scarcely be otherwise. From Lithuania to Johannesburg, from South Africa to Israel and Britain, from London to New York, my family has been on the move since the 1890s. Trees have roots. Jews have legs. Displacement is hard. A new land is also the loss of the old. The mental toll, as on my intermittently suicidal late mother, may be severe.
Exclusion precludes belonging. I learned that young. The beach at Muizenberg, near Cape Town, was full of white people. The surf leapt. Bathers frolicked. Blacks waded into the filthy harbor at Kalk Bay. They slept in concrete-floored outbuildings with little windows like baleful eyes. Or in distant townships of dust and drudgery, where the stale stench of urine filled the alleys.
But I stray into descriptive writing, anathema to the columnist. Suffice to say Bosnia redoubled the lessons of South Africa. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”
There is no place, on this small interconnected vulnerable depleted planet, for the ideologies that took tens of millions of lives in 20th century. So, dear readers, fight on for an American democracy freed at last of racism, for a borderless federal Europe, and for a sustainable world.
I am off to head our bureau in Paris, the city I miraculously reached after that Land Rover somersaulted, the city where I started in journalism more than 40 years ago. I may even indulge in some narrative writing, possibly also a good meal, conceivably a decent glass of wine. I will set opinion aside, as I did in Bosnia, where everyone knew what I thought, for we are human after all.
I hope this is au revoir, not adieu. And muchibus thankibus, as Joyce put it in Ulysses, for bearing with me down the years. It’s the voyage that counts, they say, but so does the ever-flickering destination, that promised land where the unquenchable quest of every human being to be free and live with dignity is honored and safeguarded in perpetuity.
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