For the granddaughter of a Russian-born, Jewish, general store owner in Port Deposit, Maryland, our UD has certainly rubbed noses with a lot of aristocrats. For starters, there’s Mr UD, descended from an old, pedigreed Polish family; and then there’s her friend of many years, Peter Galbraith, described as American aristocracy (see this post’s headline) in this rather insightful New York magazine piece about him.
UD, to be sure, grew up in Bethesda, where her father was a high-ranking NIH scientist; but as you know if you read this post, she didn’t even know what a private school was until her Goucher College roommate (who went to one) explained it to her. Her parents were clueless – and indifferent – in matters of class, and so was UD, for whom a writer like Tom Wolfe, who believed everything came down to status, was a kind of revelation. She recalls deciding that his satire in Bonfire of the Vanities was just that – an absurd, surreal, impossibly exaggerated account of humanity… Had to be…
But, you know, I had a lot o’ livin’ to do. And eventually UD took on board the fact that yeah a lot of people care a whole lot about status, which means, in America, gaining admission to the upper middle class. Here’s Paul Fussell on the subject, in his book Class:
If people with small imaginations and limited understandings aspire to get into the upper-middle class, the few with notable gifts of mind and perception aspire to disencumber themselves into X people. It’s only as an X, detached from the constraints and anxieties of the whole class racket, that an American can enjoy something like the LIBERTY promised on the coinage. And it’s in the X world, if anywhere, that an American can avoid some of the envy and ambition that pervert so many. De Tocqueville saw as early as 1845 what was likely to result from the official American reprehension of the aristocratic principle. “Desires still remain extremely enlarged,” he wrote, “while the means of satisfying them are diminished day by day.” And thus “on every side we trace the ravages of inordinate and unsuccessful ambition kindled in hearts which it consumes in secret and in vain.” The society of Xs is not large at the moment. It could be larger, for many can join who’ve not yet understood that they have received an invitation.
Now X’s are people who, in Fussell’s terminology, do not find reprehensible the aristocratic principle, which here clearly refers to people who do not care or know about the latest model Mercedes and who may indeed (as Fussell notes) be seen driving around (but they don’t drive much) in the same beat up old Saab (Peter’s father, John Kenneth Galbraith, drove a not-shiny Saab, as I recall) they’ve owned for twenty years. What they tend to care about is the pursuit of something meaningful that engrosses them – it could be Etruscan pottery or global diplomacy, but something meaningful and engrossing, pursued with personal passion and not because it impresses anyone or makes them rich.
Anyway, Peter and Karol carried, with thoughtless ease, all the goods the upper-middle strivers tend to be after – accomplished families, iconic private schools, the Ivy League, fancy friends, fancy international travel, etc. But what people missed about them was that they were – and are – Xs. Peter, as the New York article makes clear, is a moralist, consumed by the imperative to rescue a suffering corrupt world from suffering and corruption. This does not mean that Peter himself always behaves morally; it does mean that at seventy years of age he can be found day after day tramping through squalid ISIS prisoner camps, looking for people to rescue. That is what Peter’s doing with his retirement.
“A US-born 8-year-old girl who grew up with her ISIS parents has been rescued from a Syrian camp — and is now awaiting word to see if she can return to the US, according to a report… The girl’s rescue was made possible by [Peter] Galbraith and a Canadian woman who met her mother while living under ISIS, which she has since denounced…
Aminah’s mother, Ariel Bradley, was an evangelical Christian who converted to Islam and later married Yasin Mohamad, a Swedish Muslim, through an arranged marriage.
The family lived in Sweden but eventually relocated to ISIS-controlled territory in the Middle East, where they lived under the terror group’s rigid guidelines.
According to Buzzfeed, Mohamad was killed in an airstrike in June 2015, and [Aminah’s] mother remarried a devout ISIS follower, an Australian named Tareq Kamleh.
When both Bradley and Kamleh were killed in 2018, Aminah was turned over to another of her stepfather’s wives, a Somali woman who remained devoted to the terror group.”
Aminah is only the latest of Peter’s rescues; he seems committed to continuing the work. (That last link is to an extremely detailed account of Aminah’s dramatic rescue, and includes a photograph of Peter.)
I try to imagine the military raid that freed Aminah from the fanatics hiding her in the camp (Peter convinced a Syrian Democratic Forces general to carry out the raid); I try to picture my friend of forty years gingerly approaching this thoroughly traumatized and abused child (I guess someone would first have removed the niqab they swaddled her in). My mind’s eye attempts to conjure a scene in which one of the most privileged people on the planet leans down to greet one of the planet’s most downtrodden — and I don’t want to sentimentalize it, because in my rendering the child is wailing since after all she has just violently been taken from the only facsimile of a “mother” she may ever have had much awareness of… And how could she not have tried loving this latest mother facsimile, since in her experience mothers are all shrouded fanatics, and fathers distant and then dead apparitions? And so, she says to herself, here’s the latest iteration of Aminah’s Childhood – all these nice Americans and Canadians and consular officials. And if she’s lucky and we take her back there will be the maternal grandparents, people who have been mourning the unaccountable life and death of their daughter, the daughter who they see in the eyes of the granddaughter who they have never met and who they will now love and raise…