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Ping Pong balls

A model that explains the relationship between the people and the powerful


We’re Americans, right? We believe in democracy, independence, self-determination, self-actualization, and the uniqueness of every individual.

But imagine a machine spitting out Ping-Pong balls that bounce around a small room — onto the floor and off the walls. Maybe a few hit the ceiling before they roll around.

What if that room is the world? And those Ping-Pong balls? They’re us.

* * *

When I started writing a book about my family, I thought I would be writing interesting character studies, or maybe telling quirky but compelling life stories.

I started at the beginning, with my ancestor Barnard Schneider (1840-1916), a tailor by trade in the Galician city of Krakow. After his wife died, he packed up his young family and left Eastern Europe to come to America by way of England.

(According to family legend — which turned out not to be entirely true — the family spent seven years in London and came to America speaking English with a Cockney accent.)

But why did Barnard leave Krakow? I didn’t really know. When I was growing up, all I ever heard from the elders was that the people there “didn’t like the Jews.”

To find out what that meant, I read about 30 history books and personal memoirs and interviewed a lot of people. After, I understood a lot more about the cruel political and social upheavals going on in the late 19th century in Poland and Russia — the ones that eventually led to the Holocaust in my generation.

Even though Krakow, then part of the more-liberal Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a fairly safe place for Jews in 1880, my ancestor’s life was almost completely out of his control. So he pulled up stakes — in what I imagine as a singular act of courage — and joined a massive westward migration.

Little Ping-Pong balls for the powerful tzars and emperors — that’s what Barnard and his five small children were. But did they escape that fate in America?

Because they spoke English and read Dickens, the family adjusted well. However, the concept of the “melting pot,” which I always thought of as a benign, almost folksy thing, turned out to be quite racist.

As they did with the Native Americans, the authorities tried to “Americanize” and “Christianize” the immigrant Jewish children in the public schools, turning them against their parents and their own culture.

(The Jews may have gotten the last laugh, because they eventually infiltrated “American” culture through vaudeville, Hollywood, radio, television. Jewish culture is now in the American bloodstream.)

* * *

Immigrants? Even today, their lives are nothing so much as Ping-Pong balls for the powerful to play with.

Buying on margin toppled the stock market in 1929. My dapper grandfather, Ben Kampler, who owned two garages in the Broadway theater district, lost all his money in 1932. My mother never recovered from the abrupt end of her golden childhood.

My grandfather was reduced to becoming a “crumb-catcher” in a Bronx bakery. (Clerks wrapped the bread and cakes and swept the crumbs into a small chute in the floor. Stationed in the basement, my grandfather caught them and bagged them for sale.)

The family was ping-ponged from wealth into poverty by forces completely out of their control.

Ben Kampler’s only son — Bernard Kampler — died fighting the Germans in World War II. He was just one of many Ping-Pong balls maimed, killed, or destroyed by the desire for world domination by a mad egotist and a German culture deprived of compassion.

People who went through the Great Depression in the 1930s and then World War II in the 1940s came out of it determined to make the world a better place. It was a time of fierce idealism, Communism, unions, Socialism, and economic opportunity.

College education was affordable and within the reach of almost everyone. The economy was close to full employment in the 1950s and 1960s. People could have a career with the same company for 30 years and retire with a secure pension. That’s the world I inherited when I came of age. (I graduated high school in 1959.)

With the arrogance of the young, I always thought that I, at least, was free. My ancestors had come to this country to find freedom, and I was the inheritor of their courage and foresight. No Ping-Pong ball, me!

Then came the lies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations in Vietnam and America’s continuing descent into the bankrupt hell of intervening in the internal affairs of faraway countries. All manner of Ping-Pong balls hit the air.

(My generation, by the way, launched quite a few Ping-Pong balls into that room ourselves. We marched to help foster civil rights, and women’s rights and gay rights came to the fore in my time.)

But then came the Yuppies, the unravelling of the regulations on the banks and financial markets which were intended to prevent another Great Depression, the Greed-is-Good era of the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, union busting, corporate money that corrupted elections, and a new century that brought us George W. Bush, Iraq and Afghanistan, climate change, and economic collapse.

Holy hell, all those Ping-Pong balls — all we could do was duck!

* * *

Americans are no different from the people in undeveloped countries. As wealthy, sophisticated, and pampered as we are, we are still the victims of political, economic, and social movements far outside of our control. The powerful still hold the power. Just ask Occupy.

History is never linear. It zips and zags and bounces around with the spring of a — oh, what the hell — with the spring of a Ping-Pong ball.

We are all creatures of our times, whether or not we recognize the social and political movements that control our lives. Democracy is a fragile thing; sometimes we have more of it than we do at other times.

It would be nice to think that human history moves in a progression, forward and upward. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

* * *

Just recently, tapes made by Lyndon Johnson revealed that he knew Richard Nixon secretly negotiated with the Viet Cong to keep the war going until he could win the presidency.

Nixon promised the Viet Cong a better deal than Johnson was offering them. Johnson and Nixon’s opponent, Hubert Humphrey, knew and said nothing.

“Nixon ended his campaign by suggesting the administration war policy was in shambles,” reports the BBC. “They couldn’t even get the South Vietnamese to the negotiating table. He won by less than 1 percent of the popular vote. Once in office, he escalated the war into Laos and Cambodia, with the loss of an additional 22,000 American lives, before finally settling for a peace agreement in 1973 that was within grasp in 1968.”

Because of Nixon’s need for power, 22,000 more American soldiers lost their lives. And how many more came home wounded in mind or body? How many Vietnamese were killed or wounded? To what end?

Sometimes calling people Ping-Pong balls is only a polite way of not calling them something else.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #198 (Wednesday, April 10, 2013).

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