I've been back home in Bronxville, our small town in the New York suburbs, for nearly two weeks. This is a particularly beautiful autumn - sunny days showing off the fall colors, and roses still in bloom alongside the Halloween pumpkins. At the school field, a stone's throw from our house, three or four different teams jostle for space every afternoon as the fall sports season reaches its climax - football, soccer, cross country and field hockey are all taken seriously here. It is strange to recognize fewer faces now that both our daughters have graduated from the Bronxville School. (It's 4:10 on Halloween day and I've had my first trick-or-treater at the door - they get earlier, and younger, every year).
Of course, this fall there are only really two topics of conversation: the election and the economy - and the effect of one on the other. I left New York in September, a week before the financial crisis hit home. Returning six weeks later, the mood is palpably different. Kurt Andersen wrote in New York magazine (October 27th) that for New Yorkers the economic bad news of the last two years - the bursting of the housing bubble and the sub-prime mortgage crisis - was something happening elsewhere. "Our chronic New York exceptionalism was nicely affirmed by the fact that our super-prime housing wasn't losing value". Now Bronxville's local news website is running barely reassuring articles about how Bronxville real estate is relatively safer than that in Connecticut towns like Greenwich and New Canaan (hundreds of spec MacMansions unsold), and about how this compares to the last housing bust (took 3 or 4 years to recover). And we daren't look at the state of our retirement savings accounts. People are losing jobs, canceling vacations, or looking for cheaper restaurants when they eat out. Our cleaning lady has been laid off by one of her other families, for whom she's worked for twenty years. Everybody fears that this is just the beginning of a dire recession - the Wall Street job losses will multiply, affecting the whole economy of the region (for, as Kurt Andersen says, in New York Wall St is Main St).
On the other hand, many of us are cautiously optimistic about an Obama victory at the polls next Tuesday. Friends and neighbors who usually vote Republican are so disenchanted with George Bush, and dubious about the McCain/Palin ticket, that they are voting Democrat for the first time. Not that New York is a swing state, but on Sunday I'm off to help canvass for Obama in the key swing state of Pennsylvania.
A couple of days ago, I was glad to have a break from today's twin obsessions by refocusing on Chinese history. I attended a discussion at the Asia Society on "Assessing the Lasting Legacy of China's Cultural Revolution", moderated by Orville Schell, director of the Society's Center on US - China Relations. Among four panelists with varied perspectives there was more of a search for understanding than any outright condemnation of Mao for leading his people into the Cultural Revolution. There was consensus though that this history is not taught in schools in China - there is 'official amnesia' - and the country has not come to terms with this aspect of its recent past. One Chinese panelist reminded us of a moralistic slogan popular with the Red Guards in the early days of the Revolution: "Doubt everything". Perhaps a good motto for these dizzying times.