Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Trump, Too, Had a Mother: On the Limits of Empathy

I, like a majority of Americans, am deeply disturbed by every aspect of the ongoing catastrophe that is the “Trump Presidency”. I am strongly opposed to everything Trump and the Republican Party stand for politically, but the most important issues we are now facing go beyond mere politics and policy. The issues that must be resolved one way or the other are no less than the biggest questions of philosophy come to life: What is truth? What is the good life? What does it mean to be good? What kind of society is best for humans? How should we act towards our fellow humans?

There is a deep political divide in America, the deepest since the Civil War, between factions called “conservatives” and “liberals”. Each has a set of policy positions that are now diametrically opposed, and which are all very important to the lives of real people. The biggest of these issues include foreign relations, immigration, tax policy, government regulations, environmental protections, educational funding, and very personal choices surrounding drugs, sexual orientation, and abortion. The problem we are facing does not revolve around any of these issues or the rival party platforms as a whole. The problem is that each faction views the other as a mortal enemy to be defeated rather than fellow citizens and humans to debate and ultimately compromise with. I do not like moral equivalence, so it needs to be said that while both parties contributed to this sad state of affairs, it is the Republican Party, a totally corrupt cesspool of hatred, bigotry, and spite, which bears most of the blame. This has not (yet) led to much actual violence, but a tragic, violent conflict to decide who holds power is becoming more and more plausible. Trump resembles a dictator in his authoritarian methods (as I have written extensively), and it is obvious at first glance that his preferred system of government would be a hereditary absolute monarchy (the type of government that the first Americans were fleeing and which the Founders sought to prevent). Ultimately, Trump is too inept and ineffective for anything like this to actually occur under his watch, but what he has done is made America a crueler place for a majority of its citizens.

While I have long been interested in history (past politics) and politics (present history), I have recently been converted to a more biological and scientific world view thanks to E.O. Wilson (whose books I reviewed here). Wilson convincingly explains the paradoxical dichotomy of human evolution that led to our survival and success. The two rival instincts at work were tribalism and altruism. The first is the older, more primitive instinct that is present in all primates. The second is a later and rarer development that arose only in Homo sapiens and explains how our species came to dominate the planet while every other is either on our menu or on the way to extinction (except the ants). Because of this deeply embedded tribalistic instinct, most humans in most communities are and have always been inherently conservative. This is a conservatism based on fear of outsiders and fear of change. Much less frequently have visionary leaders and relatively progressive communities been able to appeal to our less engrained but just as emotional altruistic instinct. While fear is the dominant conservative emotion, empathy is the dominant progressive one. Fear leads to cruelty, while empathy leads to kindness. Two opposing human behaviors that lead to two different views of human society.

Political theorist Judith Shklar defined liberals as “people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.” Richard Rorty seconded this remark, adding humiliation as a subset of cruelty. Indeed, cruelty and humiliation are gratuitous acts of violence towards other humans, or even to other living beings (animals are always forgotten in the litanies of human violence). Those who engage in such behavior make it hard for other humans to sympathize with them, but it is still important to try.

Sympathy is sharing feelings with someone. Empathy is feeling as another person. Both are important steps towards building better communities and healthier lives. I am the first to admit that it is hard to even imagine finding empathy for someone like Trump, a cruel narcissist and sociopath. A man who does not even care about his own children except insofar as they reflect well on his own image (or, with the daughters, in an almost unspeakably disturbing sexual banter). Yet, as a writer, a philosopher, and a self-improvement-seeking human, I can attempt to feel empathy for Donald Trump. Yes, he, too, had a mother. He even had a father (albeit one who was just as cruel and bigoted as his son became). 

If I can feel empathy for Trump, if I can imagine the environment he grew up in, the regressive ideology he imbibed his whole life, the feelings of inadequacy he felt towards his father, and the possible love he may have felt for his mother, I can help understand people better in general, and thus help to make the world a slightly better place. I will not personally change any of Trump’s cruel and bigoted pathologies, and as an individual citizen I will not make much of a difference on my own. What I can do is to seek understanding, even and especially in the most unlikely and difficult to comprehend places, like Trump’s heart (which must be like the Grinch’s–two sizes too small). If I can get somewhat of a grasp on that, it will be all the easier to extend understanding to people who are similar to Trump in their behavior (boorish, aggressive, or violent) or ideology (racist, sexist, or fascist). I am aware that those types of people do not often display their own empathy unless it is someone who is already very close to them. But the whole point of this exercise is that my behavior will be different from theirs, and based on Peter Singer’s idea of expanding the circle of altruism. This should be a peaceful protest, or mindful resistance, and, to my mind, a better strategy than stooping to the level of vulgar insult and ad hominem attacks. I will certainly continue to oppose everything Trump stands for and do my part to fight for his imminent downfall, but that does not mean that I will dehumanize him. He is, if anything, very human. All too human, as Nietzsche might say.

In my essay Why Black Literature Matters, I quoted an Egyptian writer commenting on the use of empathy in Dostoyevsky’s fiction. The key example was a single sentence, describing an otherwise unsympathetic character: “He, too, had a mother.” It is the job of a writer to imagine and enter the mind of any possible character, good or bad. Many people have also held that it is a role (or the role) of literature to build empathy in readers. This is a laudable objective, but I remain skeptical. After all, Hitler and Stalin were not altogether uneducated or uncultured, and the latter was astonishingly well-read. Reading is not a panacea, and it will not improve the world on its own. We take into what we read what we already believe or feel. In some cases literature does change us, but probably just as often it has no moral effect whatsoever. What most certainly has a real impact, however, are real-life interactions with other human beings. Despite the apparent rise of cruelty, humiliation, and tribalism in the USA, the best way to fight back is to do it with understanding, empathy, and kindness. But reading more couldn’t hurt either.

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What I Read in 2017: 115 Books

This is the fourth edition in what has now become my annual tradition of recording and reflecting on my yearly reading list. I have increased my reading output each year since I started this project, and this year’s 115 titles surpasses even 2016’s (approximately) 100 titles in quantity and possibly in quality as well. I should also mention that this year’s list also comes from only 10 months of reading, as I hardly opened a book for the last two months of the year (firstly because of final prepartions for the Cambridge Delta Exam, secondly to give my overheated brain a break and to do more rock climbing). Over the last four years I have read over 300 books total, including a whole lifetime’s worth of great literature. I’m happy with this, even if I found this article about a woman who read over 500 novels in one year! My future goals are for expanding more into unfamiliar literary territories, rereading more (which I have rarely done until now), and writing more. Without further ado, here’s the conspectus (unfinished marked with *):

Books (76):

The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

In the Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee

Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee

Youth by J.M. Coetzee

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

Here and Now by J.M. Coetzee

Three Stories by J.M. Coetzee

My essay on Coetzee’s works here.

G by John Berger

To the Wedding by John Berger

Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

The Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger

Selected Essays by John Berger

Austerlitz by Max Sebald

Vertigo by Max Sebald

The Emigrants by Max Sebald

The Rings of Saturn by Max Sebald

Everyday if for the Thief by Teju Cole

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

My essay on Berger, Sebald, and Cole here.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe

Anthills of the Savanna* by Chinua Achebe

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

My essay on dictator novels here.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

On Writing by Stephen King

England England by Julian Barnes

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Working on completing all his works.

Solar by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

I’ve now read everything by this author.

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid

My essay on Hamid, Ackerman, and refugee novels here.

A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished reading everything by Ishiguro a few months before the Nobel was announced.

Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Job by Joseph Roth

The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil

Five Women by Robert Musil

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (1130 pages!)

Two great Austrian writers I will say more about later.

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

His version of the Iliad. My essay on Kazantzikis here.

Under the Volcano* by Malcolm Lowry

The Power and the Glory* by Graham Greene

These two well-regarded novels of drunkards in Mexico just didn’t hold my interest; I’ll come back to them (maybe)

Zone by Mathias Enard

Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard

Excellent French author.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

I finished her dytopian trilogy this year. Never has Atwood been more relevant.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Ethics in the Real World by Peter Singer

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

My essay on Stalin here.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

A Palace in the Old Village by Ben Tahar Jelloun

The Marquise of O and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist

Complete Stories and Parables by Franz Kafka

Deliver Us* by Luigi Meneghello

The author writes about growing up during the war in Malo, a small town where I live now. Too boring for me to finish, alas.

Audio books (39):

My goal was to start with as many Greek/Roman works as possible to reread or fill in some gaps (Cicero, for example, whom I’d never studied). All of the free audiobooks at Librivox are by definition older works out of copyright.

The Iliad by Homer

The Odyssey by Homer

The Aeneid by Virgil

The Oresteia by Aeschylus

The Works of Aeschylus

History of the Peloponesian War by Thucydides

The History of Rome from the Founding of the City by Livy

Agricola by Tacitus

Germania by Tacitus

On Duties by Cicero

Moralia by Cicero

On the Laws by Cicero

Tusculan Disputations by Cicero

Philippics by Cicero

The Life of Cicero by Anthony Trollope

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The Works of Hesiod

Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto

Garibaldi and the Making of Italy by George Trevelyan

The Bhagavad Gita by Unknown Author(s)

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey

Under the Shadow of Etna by Giovanni Verga

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Phaedra by Jean Racine

The Bourguoisie Gentleman by Moliere

The Imaginary Invalid by Moliere

The Miser by Moliere

The Misanthrope by Moliere

The Autobiography of Goethe* by Goethe

Unfortunately, much more boring than I’d hoped.

Faust by Goethe

The Volsungasaga by Unknown Author(s)

The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

The Tale of Genji (abridged) by Lady Murasaki Shikabu

Felix Holt: The Radical by George Eliot

Romola by George Eliot

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Homage to Veneto

There is no status quo in politics. Things really do fall apart, to quote the overly quoted Yeats. For those of us born after WWII, the seven decades of Pax Europa and subsequent founding of the European Union seemed like a permanent state and a symbol of progress and hope for human solidarity. History, it turns out, really is a cyclical story, where collective human action occasionally succeeds but is often defeated by the other deeper and stronger human impulses: tribalism and greed.

The United States has not been so disunited since 1865. The United Kingdom will not remain united for long (nor, possibly, a kingdom). The European Union, after many expansive years of plenty, is now receding and fighting a losing battle against internal enemies of unity. Despite barbarians outside the gates, the fall of any empire always comes from internal pressure within its borders. In Europe these days, that pressure takes the form of nationalist political parties.

In Spain, the autonomous region of Catalonia held an illegal referendum on independence on 1 October, 2017. In Italy, the regions of Lombardy and Veneto are holding a legal referendum on autonomy on 22 October, 2017. It seems that the first step to independence is greater autonomy, and that is what Lega Nord, the dominant political party in the north of Italy, has been agitating for ever since it was founded in 1991. Though I am not Italian, I have lived in the Veneto region for over 10 years, and this is where I will now focus.

Łiga Veneta (that strange L is supposed to represent elision in the local dialect, though I’ve never heard this elided L at the beginning of a word) is a political party allied with the Lega Nord, both of which ultimately want to secede from the Republic of Italy to form a new nation called Padania. Why would they want to do this? Obviously it’s all about the money. The north of Italy is much wealthier than the south, and supporters of the Lega Nord want to keep all that money for themselves. The central policy platform of the Lega Nord is greater fiscal autonomy and eventual secession. It is a populist right-wing party, strongly opposed to immigration and the EU, allied with like-minded parties in other countries such as the French FN and the Dutch PVV. Just as with these other parties, the Lega Nord are not as popular as they like to appear, and they have never been able to translate their separatist sound and fury into electoral success.

In the 2013 federal elections, they took about 4% of the national popular vote. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, they took about 6%. Even in their regional strongholds of Lombardy and Veneto, they only took 12% and 10% respectively. They have had a bit more success in the regional elections, winning the governorship for both regions, including a record-high 40% in Veneto in 2015. Despite this, the Lega Nord has never won a majority of votes even in its own territory. Part of that is due to the fractious nature of Italian politics and the huge number of political parties appearing on the ballot (I counted over 100 different party “lists” at one point). Maybe a larger part of it is that northern secession is just not as popular as the Lega Nord wants it to be.

Sign advertising the referendum next to my town’s elementary school. It shows the Italian flag torn in half with the intact Venetian flag flying away, an illegal image according to Italian law.

I am writing this one week before the referendum on autonomy, so the results are still in doubt. It seems very probable that the “Yes” vote will win in a landslide, though I’m less sure if there will be a quorum. This is not an election between many different political parties and platforms, but merely a single-issue emotional appeal to the citizens of Lombardy and Veneto to “take control of their history and their future”. A few days ago, I noticed an elderly Italian man stuffing papers in my mailbox, going from house to house on foot doing the same throughout my small town. I thought it was probably a fundraiser for a church event or advertising for the town’s upcoming chestnut festival. Almost everyday mailboxes are stuffed with brochures for supermarkets or other local businesses, but 100% of the time these are distributed by African or Asian immigrants (who probably do this work 12 hours a day for a pittance, all so that those reams of wasted paper can go straight to the bin), not by retirees. When I opened the box, I found a well-made, colorful, 25-page pamphlet supporting the “Yes” vote, full of statistics and other propaganda.

The pamphlet enjoins “The Venetian People” to “rewrite its history” and finishes with the slogan, in Venetian dialect, “Vote Now, or Shut Up Forever.” Catchy. I’m doubtful that the individual tax burden will relent if Veneto becomes autonomous. In fact, the whole referendum seems like a victory for propaganda rather than actual change to the status quo. Unlike the illegal Catalonia independence vote, the Lombardy and Veneto referendum for autonomy is based around a weakly worded question, and even the results would have to be voted on for approval by the full Italian Parliament afterwards. The question appearing on the ballot is: “Do you want the Veneto Region to be given other particular forms and conditions of Autonomy?” Not very specific, to say the least.

Here are the highlights from the pamphlet, all resembling mytho-historical propaganda rather than facts, and none of which seem remotely relevant to the current political or economic situation in Italy:

  • the Veneto civilization is older than the Romans, with foundations in the 13th century B.C., fighting with the Trojans against the Greeks (shouldn’t need much commentary, but my Master’s Degree in Ancient Greek and Roman History gives me reason to be skeptical of this one)
  • the @ symbol was invented by Venetian merchants for commerical reasons (impressive!)
  • Federico Faggin, a scientist from Vicenza, invented the world’s first microprocessor (Faggin was actually my neighbor in one of the apartments I used to rent in Vicenza overlooking the magnificent Basilica Palladiana; I’m doubtful that he supports the referendum despite being named–he has lived mostly in America for the last 50 years, has American citizenship, and received a medal from President Obama in 2009)
  • the American Constitution was inspired by the laws of the Venetian Republic, and Benjamin Franklin entertained himself in Venice for almost a year (almost as impressive as the @ symbol!)
  • the Venetian Republic lasted 1100 years (I’ll concede historical accuracy here, even if “Republic”, just like the earlier Roman variety, meant something more like “oligarchy”, and by the time Napoleon put an end to it the “Serenissima” had been in decline for two centuries)
  • in October 1866 the Veneto became Italian because of a fraudulent referendum, which then caused widespread hunger and forced the people to emigrate to all parts of the world (tendentious and overly simplified; after the Austro-Prussian war, Veneto was passed from Austria to France, who passed it directly to the new Kingdom of Italy according to prior agreements; Italy was unified by force and fortune, not by popular votes)
  • the first state to abolish slavery was the Venetian Republic in the 16th century (difficult to confirm; cherry-picking from a long and complex history)
  • Elena Cornaro, a 17th-century philosopher, was the first woman in the world to receive an academic degree (no qualms with this one; too bad most Venetians or humans today are not more like the highly intelligent philosopher herself)
  • the bells ring at noon to celebrate the Venetian victory over the Turks at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, which stopped the Muslim advance into Christian Europe (the Venetians single-handedly won the victory with only a bit of help from the Kingdom of Spain, Naples, Sicily, Papal States, Genoa, Tuscany, and a few other friends like England and the Holy Roman Empire; also, this plays into the current Islamophobic narrative of European right-wing parties such as the Lega Nord)
  • the Venetian flag is the only flag in the world with the word “peace” (the actual Latin translation says “Peace to you Mark, my evangelist”; seems similar to when Muslims say “peace be upon him” when they name Muhammed; we could also add that this flag is the only one in the world with a flying lion–impressive!)
  • Veneto has the highest number of volunteers in Italy (can’t find any source data on this; even if accurate it probably counts food-selling volunteers at the ubiquitous town feasts more than anything else)

Yes, that was fun to deconstruct, but propaganda and manipulative emotional appeal for political gain is something that I am always happy to fight against (even if I will probably always be on the losing side). The rest of the pamphlet is a series of tables and cherry-picked statistics basically stating the same thing over and over: that Veneto contributes more money to the federal government than it receives in public services. What a terrible tragedy! A relatively rich region subsidizes other poorer regions in a modern nation-state. It would appear that there is no poverty whatsoever in Veneto, and all its problems comes from the federal government (or immigrants!). This is a widespread opinion among well-off citizens in every developed country; it is the mentality of self-interest over altruism; tribalism over human solidarity.

The last part of the pamphlet takes much time and care to compare Veneto with the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, also known as Alto-Adige or Südtirol, the German-speaking, formerly Austrian region ceded to Italy after World War One. One table shows how Alto-Adige keeps 50% of tax revenue for local administration while Veneto keeps only 24%. One point of emphasis is also that education is completely managed locally in Alto-Adige while in Veneto the federal government manages 70% of the budget. There is no reason given for why this is good for Alto-Adige or bad for Veneto. One obvious point is that Alto-Adige is 100% German-speaking and has always been awarded special autonomous status because of its history and culture (along with four other Italian regions with similar situations: Sicily, Sardinia, Fruili-Venezia Guilia, and Val d’Aosta). I have spent a lot of time in schools across Veneto and I can tell you that a huge number of teachers come from the south of Italy (Veneto has a relatively low educational level and the Southern regions are relatively high, probably because there is no work in the South so more people attend university and get advanced degrees). Many residents of Veneto in general also have roots in other parts of Italy or other countries, especially Romania, Morocco, Moldova, and Albania, since there is more work to be found in here.

One of the main platforms of the Lega Nord and Łiga Veneta is xenophobic anti-immigration, but given the history of Italian emigration (including huge numbers of Venetians, who mostly fled to Brazil, Argentina, and Australia) it seems myopic and hypocritical to use immigration as a rallying cry. There are plenty of racists in Italy, just like every other country in the world, and the presence of more dark-skinned people on their streets and in their schools and companies has scared the natives. This is unfortunately a universal trait in humans that can only be expunged with education, travel, empathy, and an open mind, many of which are sorely lacking in Italy, Europe, America, and the World.

My main question regarding autonomy, secession, and independence is this: why is a smaller political unit necessarily better than a larger one? It seems like flawed logic to me that any given region with mostly arbitrary borders would automatically and by definition be better at governance than a nation-state with mostly arbitrary borders. Why not autonomy or independence for every province, every city, town, village, and house? On the other hand, why isn’t every world region divided into European Union-like entities that together would make up a single world government? The contigencies and accidents of history have determined our present political circumstances. If Princip’s pistol had misfired, if Marshal Ney had taken Quatre Bras earlier, if Ali Pasha hadn’t missed his coffee before Lepanto, if Hektor hadn’t killed Patroklos outside the gates of Troy, history might have turned out differently and there might have been no Veneto, no Italy, and no EU.

Superstrada Pedemontana Veneta

The point is that history and culture are not the same thing as governance. Appealing to history and culture in the name of more fiscal autonomy is incoherent. I see no evidence that an autonomous or independent Veneto government would be any more efficient or less corrupt than the obviously inefficient and corrupt Italian government. On the other hand, I need only to mention Veneto President Luca Zaia’s project of a new highway called the Superstrada Pedemontana Veneta to make the opposite argument. It is an unnecessary highway, that no one asked for, being built across the previously beautiful foothills south of Monte Grappa and the Asiago plateau. It has created a hellscape of endless trucks, dust, and cement where once all you could see were cherry orchards and castles. It is so enormously behind schedule and over budget that it may never be completed. If so, it will be financed by increased taxes on local residents, followed by the additional slap in the face of making it a toll road for the same residents. A recent collapsed tunnel under the hills near my town is the latest construction setback for this environmental and economic disaster. This, along with policies favorable to corrupt, Mafia-driven cementification, enormous banking scandals involving the Popular Bank of Vicenza and Veneto Bank, and the super expensive and useless MOSE flood prevention project surrounding Venice, proves that regional government is no more efficient, capable, or trustworthy than federal government.

Absent oppression or persecution, I see no justification for nationalistic separatist movements. That is why the propagandists of these campaigns, including the Brexiteers, rely on disinformation as well as natural human greed and tribalistic tendencies. There is a difference between Kurdish or South Sudanese independence, and that of Catalonia, Scotland, Lombardy, or Veneto. There is nothing wrong with being a proud patriot or even being appreciative of one’s history and culture; there is something wrong with being a nationalist who bends and misuses that history to suit exclusivistic political aims. The best thing to do is to help one’s country and everyone in it to succeed, rather than retreating into a fantasy world of mythical history and no taxes. What’s needed in Italy, Europe, and the whole world is not more division and greed, but more openness, activism, and human solidarity.

Exit West and Dark at the Crossing: Two Novels of Syrian Refugees

It has been a long six and a half years since the Arab Spring, the popular movement of early 2011 that toppled dictators and challenged regimes across the Middle East. While Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt have since then followed different political paths trending either upwards, flat, or downwards respectively, Syria has virtually fallen off a cliff. Over six years of constant war between four major belligerents have left the country with perhaps half a million dead and at least two thirds of its people displaced. The formation of Daesh created a new terroristic boogey-man for Westerners that somehow distracted from the consistently cruel inhumanity of the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, the worst refugee crisis since World War II continues unabated. The neighbors of Syria–Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq–have taken in most of the refugees. The paltry number of victims that have made it into Europe or North America has prompted a xenophobic and Islamophobic backlash resulting in a resurgence of far-right parties. In such a world of hard-heartedness, it is often art that helps us rise above the quotidian news mill and find shelter in stories of compassion, love, and our shared humanity. Two new novels by two very different authors have attempted to tell the stories about Syria and its refugees that we need to hear: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman.

Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, is the fourth novel of Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. It tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, focusing on how their relationship begins in an unnamed city (presumably Aleppo) before and during a civil war. The first third of the novel follows a straight-forward narrative arc of the main characters’ increasing desperation in the face of the violence surrounding them. Nadia, independent and rebellious by nature, agrees to leave her flat and move in with Saeed after his mother is killed in her driveway by a stray bullet. Hamid describes the life-altering horror of trying to survive in an urban warzone: “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.”

As the fighting escalates, there are rumors of doors around the city that transport you to other places, the kind of desperate superstition that takes hold when true hope for a reprieve is nearly lost. Eventually, Saeed and Nadia decide to pay an agent to lead them to one of these doors; they give him their money and don’t hear back from him for weeks, the victims of con artist. Until he does actually call back and lead them to an bombed out dental clinic with a pitch-black opening where the supply closet should be. They both walk through this portal and find themselves on a beach in Mykonos, Greece. The reader also suddenly finds herself in a new type of book that is no longer realistic narrative but Borgesian speculative fiction. It reminds me of last year’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (my review here), in which straight-forward story of slave plantation brutality opened up to a literal Underground Railroad in which the characters ride from state to state.

The novel changes focus from survival in a war zone to survival as a refugee in a foreign land. After a bit of bartering and wandering between the numerous refugee camps on the Greek island, the pair are helped by a local to another escape door, this one landing them in London. They find themselves in an abandoned but curiously well-appointed condiminium with plenty of food and soft towels. Hamid does not ignore details like the pleasure of a long, hot shower after weeks of living in a dusty tent. Soon, numerous other refugees from all over the third world start filling the house. It turns out that the system of transport portals is not limited to Syria and Europe. Hamid writes: “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move, much of the global south headed to the global north, but also southerners moving to other southern places and northeners moving to other northern places.”

As you would expect, the locals do not like the presence of millions of new residents inhabiting their cities, and a violent nativist movement begins to isolate and attack them relentlessly. Unexpectedly, an eventual accord is reached and people begin to live in relative peace and start a new socialistic society. During their final move to the Bay Area in California, the same pattern repeats. Hamid makes an allusion to the historic promise to freed slaves in America in this passage: “In exchange for their labor in clearing terrain and building infrastructure and assembling dwellings from prefabricated blocks, migrants were promised forty meters and a pipe: a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.”

Throughout the novel there are short episodes of unrelated and often unnamed characters in the same alternate universe, following the tone of the main narrative by telling stories of how other humans are dealing with the radical change of free movement. In one, a Japanese man ominously follows a pair a young Filipinas in a dark alley; in another an elderly Dutch man meets a Brazilian artist and moves to Rio; in yet another an elderly English lady who has never left her mansion watches as society changes around her while she stays in place. As Hamid writes: “We are all migrants through time.”

In Exit West Hamid has created a convincing and uplifting portrait of what the world could become if humans evolve ever so slightly out of their instinctive tribalism. The author is in fact an avowed optimist with an interesting biography, which he discusses in his collection of personal and political essays called Discontent and Its Civilizations. The titles of some of these essays include “When Updike Saved Me from Morrison (and Myself)”, “Get Fit with Haruki Murakami”, “Nationalism Should Retire at Sixty-Five”, and “Why Drones Don’t Help”. The relatively sanguine attitude he conveys in this quote, for example the picture he presents of modern Pakistan, is indeed a refreshing view in an increasingly unoptimistic world: “But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with its havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: we will be more free to invent ourselves. In that country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.” He is also the author of a gripping, enigmatic novella called The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which I highly recommend and which can be read in a few hours (and has even been made into a film that I have not yet seen).

Elliot Ackerman’s second novel, Dark at the Crossing, is shortlisted for the National Book Award. It is the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi former interpreter who wants to cross the Turkish border to fight in Syria. Haris gained American citizenship in return for services rendered from years of loyally working with Special Forces in Iraq (a plausible but unlikely occurrence in real-life). He was able to bring his sister along to his new life in Michigan, but he loses a sense of purpose for his own life after she gets engaged and he does not have to support her studies anymore. He travels to south-eastern Turkey to fight for a cause in Syria. It turns out that neither he nor the readers ever get a strong sense of what exactly that cause is. A large part of the narrative involves waiting in Turkey trying to cross the border, and flashbacks to his time working with SF.

The only American character (other than the naturalized protagonist) was one of the SF team members named Jim, who seemed to be a stand-in for the muscle-bound, arrogant, secretly sensitive, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks American soldier trope. This is similar to Ackerman’s previous novel, Green on Blue, in which a mysterious CIA operator known as Mr. Jack is the only American among a cast of Afghans. In flashback scenes, we see Jim involve himself again and again in Haris the interpreter’s life, including drunk midnight confessionals in his tent. Jim obviously meets an untimely death, and the guilt Haris harbors is part of the reason for his quest.

During the long period of waiting to cross the border, Haris is taken in by a Syrian refugee couple, Amir and Daphne. Educated and sophisticated, they were among the first revolutionary protesters before the civil war started. Now their lives and relationship is stuck in place as Amir wants to move West and start a new life, but Daphne cannot abandon the dead daughter she thinks is still alive in their old village. As Haris becomes entwined with these two and other seedier characters, an opening is found to enter Syria, and their journey together continues inexorably, bewitchingly towards its destined climax.

Ackerman was a Marine Corps officer for eight years, serving multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. His first novel, Green on Blue (review in The Wrath-Bearing Tree here), was a remarkable tale of an Afghan boy’s gradual rise through the ranks of militancy in War on Terror-era Waziristan. In fact, it was riveting reading for me because it is set exactly in the Afghan province of Paktika in which I also spent two years deployed to Forward Operating Bases, specifically around Bermel, Shkin, Gomal, and Orgun. Ackerman has also published a short story in the veteran’s anthology The Road Ahead (to which I am also a contributor), and now lives in Turkey.

One of the greatest benefits of literature is that it can build empathy for people whose lives you could not previously imagine (a theme I discussed in my essay Why Black Literature Matters). I have visited the western part of Turkey, but never the eastern borders of Syria and Iraq, nor have I personally met any Syrians or Iraqis. The only Syrian characters I have previously encountered in my reading are the types of conniving, cultured, expatriot merchants that occasionally dot the pages of a Conrad, Durrell, Naipaul, or Greene. With their characters and their stories that let the reader experience the lives of others, Hamid and Ackerman, like all great authors, show how ultimately we all share the same hopes and fears, and that our humanity defines us more than our nationality.

Stalin’s Biography: For Serious Readers Only

Diving into an 850-page biography of one of the most monstrous and powerful men who ever lived is not something one does lightly. So it was with some hesitation that I opened the pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s acclaimed Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003).

Montefiore begins the biography on a night in November 1932 in which Stalin and all the leading Bolsheviks and their wives were having an intimate holiday party. Up to this point, despite the mass carnage they had wreaked on Russia and the peasant class, the political elite lived a charmed life together, a so-called “golden age”, strolling around the Kremlin relaxedly with their kids, and taking vacations to the same Black Sea resorts. All of this would come to an end on this particular night in which Stalin’s beloved second wife, Nadya, returned home alone after a public row and killed herself. Thirty-one years old to Stalin’s fifty-three and mother to Vasily and Svetlana, she had been his secretary since before the Revolution and, like many of the Bolshevik women, a historically important character in her own right. In a gripping novelistic account, Montefiore shows how this most mysterious and tragic event of Stalin’s personal life began the downward spiral towards the Great Terror of the Thirties.

As a student of history, political philosophy, and literature, I have long been interested in the phenomenon of the dictator–the set of conditions that facilitates his rise to power, the ways he remakes a government and state in his image, and the ways he is portrayed and resisted by writers and artists (the topic of my essay The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump). Stalin, more than any merely regional potentate like Rafael Trujillo or Mobutu Sese Seko, was basically the Dictator to whom all dictators bow down in (dis)respect; the cannibalistic Cronos who ate all his own children; the monster who out-monstered even Hitler. The fact that Hitler is (rightfully) our universal archetype of monstrously inhuman dictator rather than Stalin is mostly because of the not insignificant detail that we were allied with the latter in the world’s biggest war. Regarding Hitler, the title of world’s worst human and author of the most heinous genocide has not stopped him from still being read and worshipped by neo-Nazis in America in 2017 (including the current American president). Regarding Stalin, even his image as an ambiguous but not-all-bad tyrant is being rehabilitated by the current Russian government. Vladimir Putin, himself an illiberal second-rate dictator and master of false equivalence, has stated that “there is no difference between Stalin and Oliver Cromwell”. Whatever that means. Someone named Marx once said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Stalin and Hitler formed a secret alliance that led to WWII; Putin and Trump are now allies. Draw your own conclusions.

The importance of reading true history and biography is that it allows us to work out complex series of causes and effects, and to make sense our own world and how it got to be this way. But also because that old cliche about history repeating itself really is true in a certain fundamental way–this is because the ways in which humans wield political power is fairly limited and predictable, and also because most ideologies human have created share many commonalities. If we want to examine 20th century authoritarian ideologies, for example, we can quite easily find a set of overlapping traits between Fascism, Nazism, Falangism, Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism. They all believed that the ends justify the means, that individual lives are meaningless, that violence is necessary or even good, and that the Leader is indistinguishable from the State. Resistance to existing dictatorships requires no knowledge of the leader’s biography; resistance to future potential dictatorships, on the other hand, does. While I have no interest at all in reading about Hitler (Don Delillo’s White Noise was enough), reading Stalin’s biography has been slightly disturbing but also very insightful.

Montefiore is quick to dispel the common myth, first propagated by Trotsky, that Stalin was a “colorless bureaucratic mediocrity” but was in fact “exceptional in every way”. Early on, he gives a powerful summary of Stalin’s character:

“The man inside was a super-intelligent and gifted politician for whom his own historic role was paramount, a nervy intellectual who manically read history and literature, and a fidgety hypochondriac suffering from chronic tonsillitis, psoriasis, rheumatic aches from his deformed arm and the iciness of his Siberian exile. Garrulous, sociable and a fine singer, this lonely and unhappy man ruined every love relationship and friendship in his life by sacrificing happiness to political necessity and cannibalistic paranoia. Damaged by his childhood and abnormally cold in temperament, he tried to be a loving father and husband yet poisoned every emotional well, this nostalgic lover of roses and mimosas who believed the solution to every human problem was death, and who was obsessed with executions. This atheist owed everything to priests and saw the world in terms of sin and repentance, yet he was a “convinced Marxist fanatic from his youth.” His fanaticism was “semi-Islamic,” his Messianic egotism boundless. He assumed the imperial mission of the Russians yet remained very much a Georgian, bringing the vendettas of his forefathers northwards to Muscovy.”

Montefiore avoids the familiar territory of the Russian Revolution and Soviet foreign policy in order to focus almost exclusively on how Stalin interacted with the small inner circle of Bolshevik leaders to wield power and dominate the Soviet Union from Lenin’s death in 1924 until his own in 1953. Using previously unreleased archival documents and correspondence, Montefiore paints a vivid picture of this unique group of revolutionaries who remained a close-knit family for the first decade and a half after the Revolution: “They were surrounded by the other Bolshevik magnates, all hardened by years in the underground, blood-spattered by their exploits in the Civil War, and now exultant if battered by the industrial triumphs and rural struggles of the Stalin Revolution. Some, like Stalin, were in their fifties. But most were strapping, energetic fanatics in their late thirties, some of the most dynamic administrators the world has ever seen, capable of building towns and factories against all odds, but also of slaughtering their enemies and waging war on their own peasants.”

Despite my having no credentials in psychiatry, it did not take me long to recognize Stalin as a clinical psychopath, rather than the madman he is often dismissed as. Montefiore writes: “He was emotionally stunted and lacked empathy yet his antennae were supersensitive.” He was also an extremely charming and even lovable person to everyone around him, and this was his best tool of manipulation. “The foundation of Stalin’s power in the Party was not fear: it was charm. Stalin possessed the dominant will among his magnates, but they also found his policies generally congenial… While incapable of true empathy on the one hand, he was a master of friendships on the other. He constantly lost his temper, but when he set his mind to charming a man, he was irresistible.”

I usually skip past the first pages of a book which contain laudatory blurbs from journals and reviews, but in this case I found myself reading with great interest the several dozens of such examples. The cognitive dissonance between how an excellent book about a horrible person was expressed, and the contradictory language used for such a delicate purpose led to typically awkward phrases like this: “A wonderful, well-written, extensively researched portrait of a terrifying, inhuman madman.” Some of the reviews seemed to blur the lines to a slightly disturbing extent between the superlative skill of the biographer and the superlative monstrosity of the protagonist. Some examples of this include the words “hero”, “humanizing effect”, and “black humor”; one even spoke of how Labour and Tory ministers should read it for tips on “how to become an efficient fighting machine”, whatever that means (presumably start murdering your enemies and allies alike on industrial scale). One brief review by notable war criminal Henry Kissinger jumped out due to the sheer arrogance of this would-be universal expert: “I did not think I could learn anything new about Stalin but I was wrong. A stunning performance.”

It’s not always easy to continue reading such a book, heavy with chapter after chapter of paranoia, manipulation, and the vicious blood baths inflicted by Stalin and all his equally monstrous lieutenants. It is only Montefiore’s telling of this important story that really draws in the reader and makes it impossible to quit. Neither the man nor the ideology find any semblance of redemption here, but it does help to account for the lengths to which humans can go (or the depths to which they will sink) in furtherance to their ideology. Bolshevism, as much a religion as a political system, maintained that a classless utopia was possible if only the old capitalist corruption were destroyed. One of the most useful facts we can understand by reading history is that there is no utopia that will ever be free of human corruption, and that power should never be concentrated into individual hands. Montefiore comments that: “It is hard to find a better synthesis between a man and a movement than the ideal marriage between Stalin and Bolshevism: he was a mirror of its virtues and faults.” Now we must continue to be on guard against the next would-be dictators of our own age, the type of charming psychopath who values power over others as the ultimate goal and would subsume entire continents to achieve it.

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