I learned something about this “strongman” thing years ago, while in a taxi heading to JFK to meet a friend.
Taking cabs to get places is not a habit of mine; they are expensive. When I first moved into the city, I realized quickly that happy living in New York without a high income was possible, but only if one eschewed cabs and went out to eat only for special occasions.
In a way, I regret not traveling in cabs because I’ve learned things by talking to cab drivers, things I would not have learned anywhere else. Long appreciative of how cab drivers represented the most recent waves of immigration, I’d always look at their names on the ID cards before asking them where they came from.
Once I ran into a name so unusual to me, I couldn’t even guess its origins. I asked the driver, a young man, who spoke American English without an accent, where the name was from. “It’s Basque,” he said, although he’d been born in America. But his family came from…and he named a town I didn’t recognize. “How do you spell it?” I asked him.
He named it again, and said, “You know, it’s that Picasso painting at MoMA. Most people pronounce it ‘Guernica,’ but it’s actually ‘Guer-NEE-ca.'”
It was the late ’80s when I found myself in that cab heading to JFK, driven by a Russian Jew whose accent was thick with Russia. I asked him the usual question — where are you from? and things went on from there.
I was curious about how difficult it had been to get out of the USSR and what had inspired him to come. There I was, thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts of “freedom,” “democracy,” the standard, if over-simplified, American sales pitch.
“Money,” he told me. He could make real money here. Somehow, then, we got to voting — our power to choose our government. No, he said, because the people we vote for are weak. Weak people!
We were stuck in a traffic jam outside the up ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, so his hand was free to be raised, which he did. He raised it in a fist: “Strongman!” He said. We needed to elect a strongman! He saluted Reagan with that fist. “Reagan was strongman!”
That was pretty much the end of this illuminating conversation. I’ve never forgotten it, and never forgot that American immigrants who come here from totalitarian countries do not necessarily come here for “freedom.”
No. “Freedom” is the right to make as much money as you can grab in America. Fuck governing, fuck the imponderable complexities of democracy. Governing should be in the hands of a strongman, like Stalin. A strongman knows how to take care of everything, knows how to keep it simple.