Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump

Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit.”  Chinua Achebe

Of the thousand and one reactions of horror and shock following the illegitimate victory and first months of the Trump administration, one of the most interesting variations I have heard is: “at least there will be good art.” The hypothesis is that dangerous political years inspire greater art than do times of relative safety. That this is an unverifiable consolation distracts from the obvious point: Why can’t we have good art and good politics?

The Dictator in Context

The installation of Trump as president has prompted endless historical comparisons to various dictators and fascists. As I previously argued here, I firmly believe that Trump hews closely to many of the methods, if not always the ideology (it is apparent that Trump has no agenda beyond his self-aggrandizement), of what Umberto Eco labeled “ur-Fascism. Even before the emergence of Trump I wrote of how the Republican Party’s rejection of democratic principles was ultimately a road to fascism. The difficulty in such definitions is that, like unhappy families, dictators, tyrants, and fascists are all infelicitous in their own unique ways. I would still argue that Trump shares certain characteristics and methods with Mussolini, Idi Amin, and yes, Hitler (this is a serious and relevant historical parallel rather than an ad hominem attack, thus Godwin’s Law does not apply). On the other hand, Trump is also different from every other past dictator since, to give one example, he rose from outside the military or political ranks and was merely a failed businessman and con man who played the reality TV character of a successful businessman. Trump’s peculiar brand of power politics is sui generis, but our understanding of the Trump phenomenon is very clearly rooted in our reading of history and literature.

While it is necessary to explore the parallels to Trump in American history (the closest are Andrew Jackson, whose portrait Trump placed in the Oval Office, and of course Nixon) and European history (there are many; regarding Italian politics, to give but one example, a mixture of Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi seems apt), I think the most appropriate family resemblance to Trump is found in the Latin American caudillo, or charismatic strongman. The reasons for this include: 1) personal enrichment as the only constant and coherent ideology, 2) the need for constant praise and adulation, 3) the exaggerated chauvinism, misogyny and virility, 4) the carefully controlled image, 5) the promotion of family members and cronies to key political positions, 6) the claims of a singular ability to interpret the “people’s will”, 7) the appropriation of kitsch over culture, 8)the use of the epithet “enemies of the state” for anyone who criticizes or opposes his will, 9) the total disregard of all existing democratic values and institutions, as well as 10) disdain for writers and intellectuals of every stripe (who are always among the first to be persecuted). Many of these traits overlap with more overt right-wing or left-wing ideological positions held by dictators in modern history, but all depend solely on authoritarianism for the sake of power itself rather than any particular ideology. Of course, there are ways that Trump differs from the typical caudillo, such as lack of a popular nickname (the Chief, the Supreme, Generalissimo, etc.) and a glaring lack of exquisitely adorned military uniforms (give him time, though–he might come around). The cult of personality that is another universal trait of caudillismo easily lends itself to each individual dictator giving his name to the political system, i.e. Peronism, Trujillism, Trumpism, Chavism, etc, and requiring personal loyalty to the dictator himself over any other abstract value like the constitution, the laws, or the welfare of the people. The various labels of dictator, tyrant, despot, strongman, autocrat, autarch, president for life, and the corresponding adjectives for the type of government (authoritarian, totalitarian, kleptocratic, oligarchic, etc.) are all, in my opinion, synonyms differing only in context and nuance. The phenomenon of the caudillo is always located in an American (in the general sense of the Western hemisphere) context, and has a history in almost every Latin American country going back 200 years to when Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín threw off the Spanish yoke.

The Myth of the Benevolent Dictator

Are there any upsides to being ruled by a dictator? There is an old chestnut that says “at least Mussolini got the trains to run on time”. This is probably more propaganda than historical fact, even though he certainly did drain the swamps around Rome (finishing a plan drawn up by the Emperor Claudius). Hitler is sometimes given credit for the Autobahn. Stalin gets credit for…(let me get back to you on that one). In fact, it is inevitable that the apologists of any dictatorship will cite the improvement of public infrastructure and massive building projects, as well as the order, stability, and national sovereignty such regimes bring. There is a lot of truth to these claims. After all, even a budding dictator of below average intelligence (like Trump) would quickly figure out that he (because always men) needs to supplement constant state-run propaganda with big visual signs of progress to pacify and distract the little people under his thumb. Likewise with order and stability—if these are the highest ideals of a regime, they are relatively easy to enact by empowering the secret police and suppressing all individual freedoms.

Another occasional positive side effect of dictators is the unilateral protection of the environment, seen for example in the Dominican Republic under the arch-caudillo Rafael Trujillo and his authoritarian-leaning successor, Joaquín Balaguer (Jared Diamond discussed the latter in depth in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed). Is stopping deforestation and pollution and aggressively protecting natural areas worth tolerating autocratic rule? I think not, especially since we can achieve those goals democratically (as the countries of northern Europe and Costa Rica demonstrate). However practical or progressive a dictator may be in one particular facet of governance, there are always mountains of horrors piled up on the opposite side, clearly disproving the notion that it is ever beneficial for the host country to be under the dictator’s heel. Have there ever been any historical instances of a mostly benevolent dictator?

In the original practice of the Roman Republic, a dictator was summoned only during the most urgent national crises and given complete control of the military and government, but only for six months. This temporal limitation seems like the best way to ward off the universal corruption of power. Kemal Ataturk was the father of the modern Turkish state, liberating it from European militaries after World War One and ushering in centuries worth of reforms in a couple decades. I ranked him here as an overall beneficial dictator, doing the best for his country, with few downsides (one-party rule, authoritarianism) that could not be avoided in that context. Even more exemplary is Giuseppe Garibaldi, the superhumanly heroic leader of Italian Unification. He led from the front in hundreds of battles and dozens of wars over 50 years, always in the name of freedom and what we would today call “human rights”. In his most famous and important campaign, he singlehandedly conquered the southern half of Italy with 1000 men and a few rusty carbines, ruled as a dictator (when the word was still used in the Roman sense) for six months instituting many reforms, before voluntarily handing power to the new king of Italy in the name of national unity, and retiring to farm on his private island. The hardest thing to get right in any transition from dictatorship to democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. That is why early Roman dictators like Cincinnatus, who gave up power and returned to his latifundia, or George Washington, who chose to finish his life as a civilian farmer instead of serving as president-king for life, are so celebrated by later generations (even though Cincinnatus was also violently opposed to the plebian reforms, and Washington was also a slave-owner). It is rare in the annals of history to find leaders uncorrupted by power, or who give up absolute power willingly. That is why the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting the president to two terms, is so important, and why, at a minimum, there should be term limits for every executive office in every country. Only when a precedent for this has been set in a country can it begin to dream of a time without dictators.

Trump the Would-be Dictator

Trump’s open disdain and flagrant assault on hallowed democratic principles like the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press is a deeply disturbing spectacle which clearly demonstrates his authoritarianism. Most dictators have their own particular brand, and Trump uses a strange mix of hyper-partisan, hyper-individualistic, privatized pseudo-fascism that prizes winning (though not necessarily violence) as the highest good, and total humiliation for those who are not “winners”. Not exactly Nazi rhetoric, but there is a family resemblance. Dictatorships do not happen overnight. There is a strong case to be made that America has been creeping towards authoritarianism for 40 years, and thus the reasons for the installation of Trump are many and varied (and have little to do with his skills as a politician). Kitsch, another universal trait of totalitarian regimes, is a powerful tool to control and subvert real independent thinking with sentimentality. Milan Kundera famously discussed the role of kitsch in the Communist bloc in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, saying: “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.” Mike Carson has argued on this website how ubiquitous kitsch is in American society.  Maximillian Alvarez has written that even my identification of Trump as a fascist can be seen as a type of counterproductive cathartic use of kitsch.

No matter the underlying causes of the illegitimate Trump election, even an openly authoritarian president backed by a cowardly Congress cannot unilaterally dismantle 240 years of republican government. Therefore, there are still reasons to be hopeful about the outcome of this constitutional crisis. One is the incompetence and corruption of Trump and his administration. Their conspicuous weaknesses will prevent them from accomplishing some policy goals, and could sooner or later lead to impeachment. Another is the unprecedented unpopularity of Trump (almost every dictator had authentic claims to mass popular support at least in the early years, something Trump certainly lacks) and the highly energized resistance movement by the majority of Americans that will in turn greatly reduce this aspiring tyrant’s capacity to subvert the U.S. Constitution. This counts not only for the big-ticket marches, protests, and lawsuits, but even for a more profound reawakening to the values of civic participation in civil society, and widespread grassroots involvement in things like discussion circles, teach-ins, and reading groups. Indeed, the burgeoning interest and sales of classic dystopian novels like 1984, The Plot Against America, It Can’t Happen Here, and The Handmaid’s Tale, to name four of the most famous, is a sign of these troubled times. As important and relevant as these English language novels are, I would argue that there is a less well-known but even more relevant genre: the Dictator Novel.

The Dictator Novel

The novela de dictadore is a sub-genre with wholly Latin American roots, and drawing on the long history of caudillismo in the former Spanish American Empire. Most of these countries have spent many more years as dictatorships than democracies, and by my rough count there are at least 50 examples in Latin American history of strongmen (yes, all men, though Eva Peron comes the closest to being a strongwoman; it is actually unsurprising that I cannot find any examples of female dictators in world history). The development of the Dictator Novel was a reaction by the writers of Latin America to the endless parade of caudillos preying on their people like wolves guarding flocks of sheep. The first example is the 1845 novel Facundo by Domingo Sarmiento, which is a criticism of Juan Manuel de Rosas of Argentina, the first major caudillo and a model for many subsequent ones. The sub-genre became especially popular since the Latin American Literary Boom of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2000 novel The Feast of the Goat recounts the horrific totalitarian regime of Rafael “el Jefe” Trujillo, who made the Dominic Republic into his personal fiefdom from 1930-1961. Vargas Llosa, a master storyteller who won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, was also a political activist who ran for president of Peru in 1990. He is therefore well-placed to write about politics and dictators in Latin America. I first encountered the horrors of the Trujillo regime via Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I would consider a semi-dictator novel, about how the protagonist is the recipient of a multi-generational curse caused by the rapaciousness (literal and figurative) of Generalissimo Trujillo.

The Feast of the Goat is concurrently told from three perspectives each revolving around Trujillo’s last day before being assassinated. One part is told by Urania Cabral, the daughter of a disgraced official of Trujillo who visits the Dominican Republic for the first time in 35 years. One part recounts the harrowing tale of the conspirators who kill Trujillo and seek to evade capture and torture. The final part enters in the mind of Trujillo himself as he goes through every minute of his final day, interrogating and humiliating ministers, while also revealing his own most humiliating secrets to the reader.

The main character, Urania Cabral, tells her family the story of why she never returned to the Dominican Republic, ending in a harrowing climax at the long-dead dictator’s country mansion: “I don’t think the word ‘kitsch’ existed yet…Years later, whenever I heard it or read it, and knew what extremes of bad taste and pretension it expressed, Mahogany House always came to mind. A kitsch monument.” The tyrant’s horrors reach deep, and continue to haunt long after death.

Trujillo was certainly one of the most prototypical of the caudillos, both by his beliefs and his actions. At one point Vargas Llosa’s version of Trujillo says: “I don’t have time to read the bullshit intellectuals write. All those poems and novels. Matters of state are too demanding.” Then later, echoing every dictator ever, he says to Balaguer, his puppet president and unbeknownst successor: “I’ve always had a low opinion of intellectuals and writers. On the scale of merit, the military occupy first place… Then the campesinos…Then the bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, businessmen. Writers and intellectuals come last. Even below the priests. You’re an exception, Dr. Balaguer. But the rest of them! A pack of dogs.” That these words were put into the Generalissimo’s mouth by a notable writer and intellectual is part of the irony. One can easily imagine Trump expressing the same sentiment, if much less coherently and eloquently.

One of the most nightmarish aspects of living under a dictator is the vague idea that his reign will never end, or will swallow up entire generations like Saturn devouring his children, rendering the future well-nigh hopeless. This is the central theme of the 1975 dictator novel The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature and the most esteemed Latin American writer. In an unnamed country, the unnamed Patriarch has been the sole ruler for nearly 200 years. The novel is a poetic meditation on the dangers and solitude of absolute power. At the beginning, the superannuated tyrant’s corpse in found in the presidential palace, but his allies, the people, and finally the reader, are led to wonder if this is really the unimaginable death of the eternal leader, or merely one more of his ruses to root out enemies and tighten his stranglehold on power. Absolute power is absolutely corrupting, and frightening to imagine. The lengths to which the dictator must go in order to gain and hold power for decades always leads inexorably to a regime of terror and torture. The Patriarch reminisces about past actions he has taken to defeat one of his foes or increase the awe of the people, but the narrative is not explicit about the details of this dark-side regime. Vargas Llosa’s novel is a much more straightforward prose account of such a regime, while García Márquez’s deals more obliquely and poetically with the nightmare of a never-ending totalitarian ruler.

There are a great many dictator novels, just a few more of which I will mention. The Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos wrote I, the Supreme (1974) about the first dictator of Paraguay, Dr. Francia (whom Adrian Bonenberger has written about on this website here). Dr. Francia was a populist despot who isolated his country from the outside world, both for trade and immigration, and cracked down on all political opposition and criticism (sound familiar?). Bastos’ novel is widely considered an attack on the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for 35 years over a repressive regime and forbid the Bastos to return to Paraguay after the novel’s publication.

García Márquez wrote a second dictator novel, The General in His Labyrinth (1989), about the last month of Simón Bolivar, the Liberator of South America whose rule once extended to Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Bolívar has most often been treated as a universal and mythical hero, a portrayal that García Márquez does away with. He shows the Liberator with all his defects, dying prematurely, scheming for a return to power, howling about betrayals by his enemies. It is a powerful meditation on power and death. Likewise, Vargas Llosa wrote another dictator novel, the monumental Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), which describes life in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría

While the Dictator Novel has its roots in Latin American history, its impact has spread to other continents. Two examples from Africa are Chinua Achebe’s 1987 Anthills of the Savannah, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 2006 Wizard of the Crow. Both of these novels are excellent works of fiction from two of the most eminent African writers, showing both the horror and black humor that can paradoxically be found in the dictator’s regime. Like the caudillo, the typical African strongman also has a love for buffoonish uniforms, which is possibly the only thing separating Trump from their ranks.

One final aspect of the dictator novel is the constant presence and impact of United States imperialism, whether implicit or explicit. Insofar as the U.S. does intervene in Latin American politics, it is virtually always by means of the C.I.A. and its bag of dirty tricks. For example, the precariousness of the last two years of Trujillo’s regime before his assassination can be directly attributed to loss of American patronage, C.I.A. agitation and material support for the assassins, and threat of invasion by the Marines. Trujillo, originally trained by the Marines himself, always considered himself the United States’ strongest supporter in the Western Hemisphere, and was long treated by the Americans as an important and reliable bulwark against Communism. It is either ironic or just sad that the same organization that is responsible for propping up so many dictators and overthrowing or assassinating so many others in the name of “American interests”, is now one of the principle means of stopping the new would-be American dictator. If Trump had read any dictator novels (even though he is functionally illiterate), he might have been able to understand that waging a war on the entire press as well as the many powerful intelligence communities is the wrong way to consolidate power. It is a war that he will lose decisively, we can be sure, but Trump’s bungling experiment in tyranny have exposed the flaws in the American political system, possibly paving the way for future exploitation by a younger and much more competent aspiring dictator. From now one, we must always be on guard, never taking for granted the inevitable survival of our democratic principles, and never forgetting the lessons of historical and literary cautionary tales.


There is something very disturbing, for me and millions of others, in the fact that we are veering towards an outcome we have been warned against by our literary prophets (not to mention our reading of history), and it is a message people are taking seriously. Two plus two is four, the emperor has no clothes, and the dictator is neither omnipotent nor immortal. For all the comparisons to the Nazi rise to power, one advantage we have as historical latecomers is our awareness of the past, our vigilance against a Reichstag fire-type event, and our will to resist the encroachment of the totalitarian dystopias we have read about. The power of the pen is real—satire and mockery of dictators are some of the best ways for writers to fight for freedom, as is the relentless reportage of the truth for journalists. I do not believe that all art is or should always be political. The artist is free to transcend or vie with the bounds of politics and history in her own search for beauty and meaning. However, there are times when, as Hannah Arendt said about 1933, it is no longer possible to be indifferent. We are living in one of those times when no one, including the artist, can afford to be indifferent.

J.M. Coetzee: The Master of Cape Town

South African-born writer John Coetzee is one of the most decorated and celebrated living writers. He has won the Nobel Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and was the first two-time winner of the Booker Prize. He has written 13 novels, 3 fictionalized autobiographies, and numerous essays and translations. Every one of his works from his first novel, Dusklands (1974), to his most recent novel, The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), is uniquely compelling, difficult, ambiguous, and, for me and many other readers, richly intellectually rewarding.

Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940 to white, liberal, middle-class Afrikaans parents who insisted on speaking English at home and sending him to English, rather than Afrikaner schools. He was a sensitive, poetry-loving child in a land of ruddy, big-boned, bullying brutes who maintained violent separation of blacks and whites, all of which gave him a life-long sense of being a foreigner in his own land. It is no wonder that one of the most ubiquitous themes among the many to be found throughout his works is the solitariness of the outsider, and the need for individuality to resist powerful systems of government or societal control.


J.M. Coetzee

He has long had a reputation in the literary world as a writer of austere, inscrutable, almost Platonic prose, and as something of a recluse with no sense of humor. Always a moderately experimental novelist, since approximately 1999, when he won his second Booker Prize for Disgrace, he has adopted a confessional, highly metafictional style of writing which has revealed an intriguing portrait of a renowned author who is wrestling with his legacy, his mortality, and his place in the literary pantheon, while also subtly hitting back at critics and giving academics much more to analyze and debate.

Coetzee is himself an academic, with a Ph.D. in literature (written on Beckett’s novels), and decades of university lecturing in America, South Africa, and now Australia. He is the namesake patron of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at his current position at the University of Adelaide, and he is well-respected, studied, and taught in the academic world (he has inspired as many monographs and research papers as any living writer). Coetzee once ruminated on his critics by writing that he consoled himself for many years of his early teaching career by telling himself that he was actually a novelist; once he became famous it was frequently claimed that he was just an academic pretending to be a novelist. Either way, his work is indeed steeped in the history of literature and ideas, with widespread intertextuality a key feature. His most important influences are Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Beckett.

The two phases of Coetzee’s career can be roughly divided based on his relationship to South Africa; the first phase lasting through the last years of apartheid and the presidency of Mandela, culminating in the publication of Disgrace in 1999. The second phase is ongoing since his move to Australia, where he has been a citizen since 2002. It seems apparent that Disgrace is the final novel that derives most of its ideological and narrative intensity from the need to resist colonial violence and the pressures of the apartheid state. The “Australian” phase novels and autobiographies are much more focused on literary and ethical concerns. Coetzee was always an opponent of apartheid and the National Party in general, but he chose to deal with politics in his works obliquely, unlike other South African writers and intellectuals, such as Nadine Gordimer. The key quote to help understand this perspective was given in a 1987 interview, during the death throes of apartheid. “In times of intense ideological pressure like the present when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel, it seems to me, has only two options: supplementarity or rivalry.” For Coetzee, the role of literature is too important to allow it to merely supplement politics (which is present history, temporary, and changeable). In his eyes it is necessary for novelists, and artists in general, to create their own reality and history that challenges real-world events on its own terms, and, one assumes, striving for universality and timelessness that are beyond the province of merely history or politics. Coetzee’s first-phase works, often enriched by the reader’s awareness of the landscape of contemporary South Africa, do in fact surpass local politics, reaching the level of literary allegory or fable (I’m thinking especially of the two most important works of this phase: 1980’s Waiting for the Barbarians and 1983’s Life & Times of Michael K), though they still suggest complicity in the systems of violence that are often present in these books.

The second, Australian, phase is characterized by more metafictional experimentation, and a preoccupation with physical mortality and literary immortality. In Elizabeth Costello (2003) the title character is a quintessential Coetzean (he has attained nominative adjectival status) creation: an aging Australian novelist with a prickly personality, a problematic relationship with her surviving relatives, and a set of strong, contrarian opinions despite inner uncertainty.  She first appeared in the short campus novella The Lives of Animals (1999) which presents her two speeches at an American university to accept an award, all within a narrative frame involving her son and daughter-in-law’s reluctant hospitality, and the various (skeptical) reactions to her speeches afterwards. Interestingly, these two speeches were really delivered by Coetzee at Princeton before this book was published, and the whole of this novella was later subsumed into Elizabeth Costello. The most memorable and controversial part of these speeches is when the character compares the modern system of factory farming and the suffering it imposes to the Holocaust. Coetzee is himself a longtime vegetarian and animal rights activist. In a break from his usual fictional renderings of his own ideas, he has written essays and editorials under his own name arguing for the immorality of factory farms and abattoirs, and his concern for animals has featured in some of his other fiction (such as the treatment of dogs in Disgrace). The second novel gives much more substance to the character of Elizabeth Costello’s life and travels, with each chapter featuring other speeches she gave on different continents (and all of which were actually given by Coetzee in real-life, which could be considered an example of literary performance art). Coetzee’s fictionalization of his own life for novelistic ends is an ongoing project (or joke) of his. The last chapter of Elizabeth Costello is a direct homage and appropriation of a Kafka story, where the protagonist finds herself in the afterlife trying to express her inexpressible beliefs before a tribunal in order to gain access to the golden gates. The meta-character of Elizabeth Costello also appeared in Coetzee’s following novel, Slow Man (2005), as well as a short story in which the author’s alter-ego visits her daughter in Nice. Elizabeth Costello is probably my favorite of all Coetzee’s novels due to its fascinating ideas presented with great literary craft and exceptionally intelligent dialogue.

Another recent novel, his most autobiographic, is Diary of a Bad Year (2007), featuring another thinly disguised authorial doppelgänger known as Señor C. The main character, an author whose life and works almost totally align with Coetzee’s, is working on a collection of serious essays about politics and other things called Strong Opinions to be published in a German magazine. One of the most powerful and recurring arguments deals with his horrified reaction to the Iraq War and the use of torture by the Bush regime. The range of the essays is broad and reminiscent of Montaigne. He discusses the relative merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and also reaches the conclusion that the music of J.S. Bach may be “the best proof we have that life is good.” The most interesting part of the book is the almost Bach-like contrapuntal narrative in which each page of the essays is shared by the story of author’s working relationship with his beautiful, part-Filipina secretary who lives upstairs with her sleazy investment banking boyfriend. Two threads of narrative strands are woven in simultaneously with the essays–the conversations between C. and the woman, and also between the woman and her boyfriend. It is another complicated self-conscious metafictional gambit that Coetzee somehow pulls off successfully, in the end revealing personal stories and opinions that are deeply revealing and anything but banal.

His two most recent novels, The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and The Schooldays of Jesus (2016), both tell the ongoing story (I’m sure we can expect a third part in a few years) of a young boy named David, his guardian Simon, and his adoptive mother, Ines. The setting is an unnamed Spanish-speaking country (or afterlife) where everyone arrives by boat with no memory, everything seems to be vaguely socialistic, and people go about their daily routine with no real problems but also no real passion. These inscrutable novels are highly open to interpretations in what message they may be conveying from the author. This is exactly the point, to my mind. Coetzee in these latest works seems to be trying to set up a stage for universal questions that have always been present in his work, but which results in the raising of even more questions than answers. At its heart, the questions are what is truth, what is happiness, what does it mean to be an individual in a rule-based society, what would a post-historical society look like? Coetzee has apparently drawn heavily on his literary influences with a Beckett-like stage and Kafka-like mysteriousness and inexplicability.

The three novelistic “autre-biographies” of late Coetzee also introduce a fascinating way to subvert a well-worn literary form. Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and Summertime (2009) are all narrated in third-person, present tense, and they all present the author in the harshest possible light. The first deals with his time growing up, attending school, and visiting the family farm in rural South Africa in the 40’s; the second covers three years from finishing university in Cape Town to working as a computer programmer for IBM in London in the early 60’s; the third acts as a posthumous series of interviews by a researcher talking to four women and one man the author was close to in the mid-70’s. None of the books say much at all about any of the published novels or even ideas of the great writer; rather, they detail an endless series of personal shortcomings and character flaws, especially his emotional immaturity, selfishness, and sexual ineptitude, of the young man to an almost uncomfortable degree. Of course, it is highly fictionalized and it’s hard to know how much to take seriously and how much is some sort of dark humor, but they make for fascinating reading. The first two books are clearly Künstlerromane in the mold of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Another obvious precursor is Tolstoy, who also wrote self-criticizing autobiographies called Boyhood and Youth. The confessional spirit of Rousseau and especially Dostoevsky seems ubiquitous in these and all Coetzee’s later works. In all three autobiographical works, it is clear that Coetzee’s holds consistently to his devotion to literature and art as rivals to history even when it is his own personal history.

Dostoevsky’s influence on Coetzee is very overt in one way: he wrote a novel about him. The Master of Petersburg (1994) recounts (mostly invents, actually) a few turbulent months of the Russian writer’s life in 1869, three years after Crime and Punishment was written, and during which time he was writing the lesser-known novel Demons (aka The Possessed). The story is that Dostoevsky returns from exile in Germany to Petersburg to investigate the apparent suicide of his 20-year-old stepson, Pavel. The author stays in his Pavel’s lodgings, starts a relationship with the landlady and (possibly) her young daughter, and interacts with police authorities and the leader of an anarchist group with whom his son was involved. The novel is very evocative of 19th-century Russian literature, and there seems to be some attempts at dry humor or irony that is part of Dostoevsky’s style (he was a great admirer of Gogol). The novel’s style is occasionally reminiscent of the Russian’s work, in the later scenes with the landlady and her daughter, and with the anarchist leader, Nechaev. While real-life Dostoevsky did lose his newborn son with his second wife around this time, the stepson story is wholly invented. Real-life Coetzee, on the other hand, lost his 23-year-old son to a mysterious accident similar to Pavel’s four years before this novel was published. Knowing that fact helps explain how this is one of the darkest and difficult, but also most moving, novels in Coetzee’s oeuvre.

One way in which the common critique of Coetzee as an academic, austere, even pedantic writer rings true is in another of his major influences: poststructuralist philosophy and literary theory. As a lifelong literary scholar and academic himself, Coetzee is obviously steeped in these theories that have more or less dominated university humanities departments since the 60’s. Various themes that can be found in many of his works include the limitations of language, the paradoxes of post-colonialism (including Coetzee’s common theme of awareness and complicity in violence carried out for the sake of others), the subversive role of the author, and the impossibility of locating unambiguous objective truth or semantic meaning. There are entire monographs dedicated to poststructural deconstructions of Coetzee’s work. The French philosophers of Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault figure prominently, as usual. As an example, the novel Foe (1986), a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, is overflowing with poststructural ideas. A woman named Susan Barton lands on Crusoe’s island where she finds the old castaway living with Friday, a mute ex-slave who had his tongue cut out by slavers (or possibly by Crusoe). Crusoe dies en route to England, and Barton hires the writer Daniel Defoe to make the story into a best-seller. It is very easy to see Barton as a representation of feminist critique, and Friday as representing postcolonial theory. The somewhat duplicitous character of the writer Defoe is also interesting; at various points he says things like: “you must ask yourself, Susan: as it was a slaver’s stratagem to rob Friday of his tongue, may it not be a slaver’s stratagem to hold him in subjection while we cavil over words in a dispute we know to be endless?” Curiously, Coetzee returned to this theme in his 2003 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where he read a short story called “He and His Man” also questioning the nature of fiction by way of the conflicting authorial relationship between Defoe and Crusoe (and Coetzee).

Another novel that is ripe for poststructural analysis is the Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K. The hero is a very simple (or perhaps autistic, or just severely uncommunicative) black South African (though there are only the faintest explicit references to location or race in the novel) who journeys from the city to the country to help his mother find her childhood farm. She dies en route, and Michael finds himself adrift in a confusing and unforgiving world. He spends a lot of time living rough outside an abandoned farm, before being taken to a camp, where he stops eating and eventually escapes by floating away and walking through the fence. At one point towards the end a medical officer at the camp imagines addressing Michael directly saying: “Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory, if you know that word. It was an allegory—speaking at the highest level—of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.” This is a reference to Derridean deconstruction in the apparent lack of any final meaning to the words that comprise the novel. The novel also plays off the story of Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial, where the search for knowledge is always elusive and incomplete. Michael K.’s personal agency and continued survival on his own terms is also paradoxical and subversive of such merely intellectual constructs as deconstruction.

The effects of violence, especially in colonial and imperial societies, is the last major theme I will discuss that runs through many Coetzee novels, figuring most prominently in all throughout the “South African” phase. One of the questions he also raises, and struggles to answer, is how the writer, qua artist, can represent violence and torture without supplementing or becoming complicit in it. This is most apparent in Waiting for the Barbarians. An unnamed magistrate represents an unnamed Empire in a small provincial town at the Empire’s northern edge, beyond which lie nomadic barbarians. The question of torture and its psychological effects is explored in great depth here. In an essay, Coetzee wrote that the writer’s duty is to “establish one’s own authority to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms,” and to refuse to “play the game by the rules of the state.” Resisting the regime is not only the job of real-life dissidents (in apartheid South Africa; the martyred Steve Biko, for example), but also writers by way of their characters’ actions, and how the state-sanctioned violence and torture is dealt with in narrative form. Though the magistrate (and Coetzee) resist the violence and torture of empire, Coetzee always acknowledges the complicity of “ordinary” citizens that make state terror possible. The novel, whose title is taken from a poem about the Roman Empire by Constantine Cavafy (“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.). It also evokes the Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony.” This is a powerful allegorical masterpiece that I would recommend as the best place to begin for first-time readers of Coetzee.

I will briefly touch on three other novels from Coetzee’s first phase whose narratives all feature varying types of political (imperial and colonial) violence and implied resistance to it. His first novel, Dusklands, a fusion of two thematically-related short novellas, features his most unsettlingly explicit verisimilar representation of violence; he refined his allegorical and distancing technique in subsequent novels. The first is a tale of a psychological warfare analyst writing a report about effective propaganda in the Vietnam War, involving the campaigns of terror that characterized much of the American effort, and who ends up going mad. In this harrowing excerpt, the narrator ponders the use of the torture and prison camps by Americans in Vietnam: “These poisoned bodies, mad floating people of the camps, who had been–let me say it–the finest of their generation, courageous, fraternal–it is they who are the occasion of all my woe! Why could they not accept us? We could have loved them: our hatred for them grew only out of broken hopes. We brought them our pitiable selves, trembling on the edge of inexistence, and asked only that they acknowledge us…But like everything else they withered before us. We bathed them in seas of fire, praying for the miracle.” It is worth mentioning that Coetzee was arrested, but never charged, for participating in an anti-Vietnam protest while a faculty member in SUNY Buffalo; this is apparently the reason why his permanent visa was later denied, forcing him to return reluctantly to South Africa in 1971. The second tale is of a brutal Dutch colonizer named Jacobus Coetzee who marches inland from Cape Colony on an elephant hunting expedition in the early 18th century. As the first white man in these parts, he “discovers” the giraffe and the Orange River, ends up being humiliated by a “Hottentot” tribe, and returns later to exact vengeance (I am reminded of an ice-cold line from the scientific Vietnam report in the book’s first part: “Atrocity charges are empty when they cannot be proved. 95% of the villages we wiped off the map were never on it.”). In these two stories of imperialism, the theme of complicity (by way of awareness and complacency) in violence becomes personal since one of the characters is an actual, though completely fictionalized, ancestor of the author.

Coetzee’s second novel, In the Heart of the Country, is the story of a white Afrikaner woman on an isolated farm in the Karoo desert. She first imagines her father bringing home a young wife and murdering them both; later, she does commit patricide after her father begins an affair with the young wife of the black farm worker. Afterwards the power relationship between the black worker and the white woman reverses when they are left to survive unaided on the remote farm. It is narrated in numbered paragraphs representing the main character’s lonely and disjointed thoughts.

The final novel I will discuss is Age of Iron, in which an old white South African woman who was a classics professor becomes terminally ill. The novel takes the form of a letter to the woman’s daughter in Canada. She is completely alone and allows a homeless black man to live with her, drive her around, and listen to her one-sided conversations (he rarely speaks). Two young black men, the son of her housekeeper and his friend, are murdered by the police, and the woman protests vehemently but ineffectually (even this harmless, liberal old woman concedes that the system was designed to protect “people like her”, thus conceding her own complicity in the violence) against the state of affairs in the country. It is Coetzee’s most explicit political commentary on South African politics. It is a powerful and thought-provoking meditation on mortality, which also features Coetzee’s first attempts at the confessional style he will later perfect.

Albert Camus said that “the whole of Kafka’s art consists in compelling the reader to re-read him.” This is high praise that can only be applied rarely, though subjectively, in the canons of literature. Borges, Chekhov, perhaps, for shorter fiction. For longer fiction, the universality and depth of human experience captured by Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy makes them the undeniably strongest precursors to their literary inheritors. Below this holy trinity, the slopes of the literary Olympus become more and more populated the farther down one goes. John Coetzee will never be as re-readable as Kafka, nor does he reach the rarified heights of the summit (or of one of his heroes, Dostoevsky); nevertheless, by great imaginative skill and intellectual tenacity he has climbed higher up the mountain than any of his coevals. That is a significant achievement, and a gift to readers like me.

Yes, We Tortured Some Folks

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree December 2014)

By now everyone in the world has heard about the recently released U.S. Senate Torture Report, which details the shocking and mind-numbing inhumanity of the torture program sanctioned by the Bush administration and operated by the C.I.A. after 9/11. With the appearance of this new report, there has been an enormous amount of press coverage and commentary in America and around the world, which must be considered a victory for freedom of speech, press, and information. One representative example of good reporting on this case is this recent New York Times article. The more we understand and discuss this issue, the better we can avoid ever repeating the same crimes* (I use this word rather than the more euphemistic “mistakes”, as in the common newspeak example “mistakes were made”, as can be seen in the C.I.A. director’s unrepentent rebuttal to the report).

The issue of torture is one that has troubled me for some time. At a press conference last year, American President Barack Obama uttered the phrase “We tortured some folks.” While this acknowledgement was a small step in the right direction in admitting the possible existence of responsibility and guilt in the highest levels of government, it is troubling in its own ways. First of all, the phrasing itself is incongruous, with the transitive verb “torture” being followed by the unlikely direct object phrase “some folks”. Obama has most likely been advised by his speaking coaches to use more down-to-earth vocabulary like “some folks” in order to seem less “professorial” and more simple “middle American” (in America, there is a prevalent view that the best way to win votes is to appear as normal and mediocre as possible). Anyway, “some folks” is not a phrase that should follow “tortured”. I have enough trouble imagining people being tortured who may be actual terrorists without also having to imagine the torture of average innocent “folks”.

The second problem with Obama is that he apparently tried to stop, delay, or water-down the Senate Torture Report for reasons slightly mystifying. Obama famously cancelled his predecessor’s torture program in his first week in office and has often said how he disagrees with what was done (notice the use of the passive voice). The only reason he would stand in the way of this report is respectful fear of the intelligence community, namely the C.I.A. And I don’t blame him–the C.I.A. scares me a lot more than any actual terrorist organization. Even as an American citizen who is ostensibly “protected” by the C.I.A. because of my natural born citizenship, I am still somewhat fearful of attempting to openly criticize this organization by describing in greater detail its long criminal history. Its crimes are so widespread over the course of its entire seven-decade history that the only shocking thing is that more people in America do not know or care anything about what is done by such powerful and unaccountable organizations in the name of their security. In fact, in many countries in the world, where the C.I.A. has supported assassinations, regime change, torture, and state-sponsored violence, it is quite strongly believed to be an evil terrorist organization in itself, but in America people still believe the old lie that it protects Americans’ safety and interests. A revealing fact is that for the first time ever the director of the C.I.A., currently John Brennan, has testified in front of a Senate hearing. In a long and sordid history, the governing body overseeing this organization has never resorted to a public investigative hearing until now. What we do know is that not only is this one of the most unsupervised and counter-productive of publicly-funded American agencies, but also one of the most flagrantly dishonest, with lies covering up deceptions covering up misinformation. No matter if it is spinning counter-intelligence abroad or testifying in front of elected lawmakers, we can be sure that the lies run deep. The proper thing to do would be to disband the C.I.A. and start over with a smaller and less problematic intelligence agency.

The details of the torture report, which is 6000 pages in length, of which 500 are declassified, are so harrowing and brutal that I do not want to mention them here. They have been widely reported and the readers are encouraged to look into it further if you have not already. Or just take my word for it that it is worse than you can imagine. There is something about torture that is more emotional and horrifying than anything else we can imagine. Thinking about humans, even ones possibly guilty of some crime or another, being tortured by other humans makes my stomach turn and makes me want to break down and cry. Thinking that it was done repeatedly to humans who sometimes committed no crime at all is too much to bear. Accordingly, this article is being written in a haphazard way, guided by my emotions and my wandering train of thought rather than in well-ordered paragraphs. In his book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Richard Rorty often repeats the claim of Judith Shklar that “liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do…the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear…or the willful infliction of a certain kind of nonphysical pain called humiliation.” That quote has stuck with me, not because of its political context, but because of its ethical ramifications.

For years after 9/11, we heard about how torture was necessary if it allowed us to stop “the next attack”. The word torture was never used–it was defined as “enhanced interrogation techniques” for obvious euphemistic reasons–and the media never challenged the new fear narrative that gripped the country. The use of language can be a powerful tool in the hands of media and politicians, and they knew that there would be less concern about something labelled “enhanced interrogation techniques” than there would be for the much more visual and visceral “torture”. We could similarly rebrand the death penalty as “enhanced state-run life-taking procedure”, or war as “enhanced state-sanctioned attack and defense system”. In this kind of Orwellian newspeak, meaning is both hidden and meaningless at the same time. It is no coincidence that TV programs like “24” were popular in these years. I never watched it, but I am aware of its false glorification and justification of the use of torture because the soldiers around me during my deployments were often prone to become obsessed with certain TV shows and binge watch an entire series in a week. The truth, which we can see clearly now that the fear has passed and some of our rationality has slowly come creeping back, is that torture never stopped the next attack, and that there never was and never will be any legal justification for torture.

Even now, after the release of this report, the torture apologists have crawled out of their caves insisting on the same lies, as though even had all of this torture stopped a single attack, it would have been worth it. It is telling that cowardly men like former Vice President Dick Cheney (who avoided military service at all costs) refuse to acknowledge regret for the black tide of illegal war and immoral acts they duped the country into, yet men like John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, remain firmly against it due to hard-lived experience and certainty of its inefficacy and immorality. It is also troubling that no less than a Supreme Court justice has justified the case for torture using the ticking time bomb situation (Antonin Scalia’s Case for Torture) and saying things like “I think it’s facile for people to say, ‘Oh, torture is terrible.'” Yes, it’s facile because it is terrible, and illegal, and immoral.

The philosophy of utilitarianism derived from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill is a useful and interesting moral calculus for certain types of situations. In certain cases, the best thing to do is the one in which the most number of people will benefit or be happy. We can stretch this even into financial considerations of how to best spend money in a way which will benefit the most number of people. This should be considered one tool among many to weigh the merits and demerits of a particular decision, but not a hard and fast ethical rule. Doing so leads us into any number of thought experiments where we are playing with human lives and trying to decide the most moral thing to do. Utilitarianism is one form of consequentialism, which basically says that the benefit of an action is decided by its consequences, and not in the action itself. Thus, with the famous trolley car thought experiment, we are asked whether we will shift a runaway train onto a track where it will kill only one man instead of five. Though some will disagree, these types of problems are a proverbial “bridge too far” in the field of ethics. Once human life is involved, rather than mere lifestyle or economic questions, the equation changes. It becomes more emotional, more blurry, less calculable. If I was asked to kill one man to save five, or even to save 100, I am not sure that I could do it. That is exactly the situation presented in John Fowles’ book, The Magus. The Nazis on a Greek island (it is also no coincidence that Nazis and torture are our two ubiquitous subjects for testing the extreme limits of various ethical positions) gave the character a choice of shooting three men in order to save the village, but he could not pull the trigger. When we are asked to do the dirty deed, or to unjustly take human life, something changes in the consequentialist calculus and the ends no longer justify the means.

In the system of ethics devised by Immanuel Kant, “duty” ethics, a man is called to do his duty by acting so that his action will make a universal law. This so-called categorical imperative calls for us to never treat someone as a means to an end, but rather an end in himself. There are holes in this line of thinking, especially that it is too categorical (for example, Kant would have us tell the truth even if a lie protected a loved one from harm), and that what a man wills can differ from person to person (for example, what was willed by the Nazis into being universal law is not what we want to represent our infallible sense of morality). What I take from Kant’s system is his dignity for humanity and for each person existing as an end rather than a means. This is important. Paradoxically, torture cannot be justified in a Kantian system of ethics since it violates personal sovereignty and dignity, yet National Socialism could be justified if it was willed into being as the representation of universal law by a society.

Back to modern times, this brief synopsis was intended to give some philosophical perspective, but I must insist, against certain consequentialist philosophers, some film and TV producers, and some politicians that there is no situation in which torture can be justified. Ever. A situation will not arise in which torture is necessary for any reason. There is no ticking time bomb. There are no lives to save. It is all dissimulation in order to maintain some sense of power and control by the torturer. “The torturer”, in this case, must be understood to represent not America as a whole, but a certain specific regime that controlled America for some years before losing democratic election. Since torture is not only immoral in all circumstances, but also illegal according to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and many other national and international laws, someone should rightfully be held accountable for such crimes. In comparable historical contexts, I would not hold the modern countries of Chile and Argentina accountable for the crimes and torture inflicted by the authoritarian regimes of Pinochet and Videla, to name just two examples; the responsibility is of those who held power and made decisions first and foremost. On the other hand, these countries renounced the crimes of their dictator regimes and prosecuted anyone who was involved whenever possible. This raises the question of prosecuting members of the Bush administration and the C.I.A. leadership for crimes against humanity. It is an open question in which I will leave to the legal authorities and scholars whether it is legally possible or politically wise, but I think it is safe to say that the torture report is a step in the right direction, but seeing high-ranking abusers of power on trial would be an even more powerful statement than a partially declassified report.

It is also troubling that while Obama has refused to prosecute anyone for admitted crimes, saying things like “it’s important to look forward and not backwards” (do they ever say that about any other situation where someone committed a crime?), the only person who has been prosecuted in the C.I.A. torture case is the person who leaked information about it to the press. His name is John Kiriakou, and he is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence for leaking information about illegal activity, while the illegal activity itself goes unpunished.

Lastly, I would like to briefly speculate on the principles behind the practice of torture which, in my opinion, comes from the corrupt desire to exert complete power and control over another living being. One of the best books I’ve read that deals with torture is the novel Waiting for the Barbarians by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Bertrand Russell, in his 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, attempted to define a new sociology based on power being the supreme guiding principle of social science. He says, “The ultimate power of the Law is the coercive power of the State. It is the characteristic of civilised communities that direct physical coercion is (with some limitations) the prerogative of the State, and the Law is a set of rules according to which the State exercises this prerogative in dealing with its own citizens”. Here, we can understand his “direct physical coercion” to include not only torture but police brutality, war (including the violence it brings to combatants and non-combatants alike), and the death penalty. Most of these things are done legally because it is the prerogative of the state which makes its own laws. Torture, though illegal according to the U.N. Charter of Human Rights and many international treaties, is the only form of violence which is exercised merely as a form of total control over an individual. This key characteristic of totalitarianism comes from the corrupting influence of unchecked power. As Dostoyesky (a former prisoner) once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” While this quote could easily apply to modern-day America, we could paraphrase it by saying “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by how those in power treat those without power.” If the answer is to torture with impunity, then we are no longer living in civilization but in hell.

Dr. King’s Final Dream

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree September 2013)

We recently witnessed the 50th anniversary celebration of the famous 1963 “March on Washington”, which was a peaceful gathering in the nation’s capital to advocate for Civil Rights for African-Americans. The original event climaxed with the magnificent speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “I Have a Dream” speech, and rightly considered the most important piece of modern American oratory. What went unmentioned at this recent celebration was the same thing that has generally been lost to history: the fact that Dr. King’s vision went beyond just civil rights. The official name of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King knew that civil rights and voting protections were essentially hollow achievements if they were not accompanied by the arguably more important economic rights that would provide more jobs and opportunity for poor Americans (no matter Black or White). The March is generally considered to be one of the important catalysts that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act — two highly important and symbolic new laws that were nonetheless mildly enforced. On the occasion of this semi-centennial anniversary, let’s take the time to assess the legacy of the March as well as Dr. King’s more profound and controversial vision for America.

The March on Washington and the subsequent passage of the two above-mentioned laws were the impetus for a massive change in the American political landscape that still has very real ramifications. When the former slave states of the South saw that the Federal government was no longer going to implicitly support their violent segregation and terrorism of their large Black population, the White leaders of the South led an exodus away from the Democratic party (which had passed the civil rights laws) to the Republican party (which had been the party of Lincoln and Emancipation 100 years earlier). The rampart white supremacism that united the “Solid South” thus led to cynical politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan exploiting the new “Southern Strategy”, a gambit designed to actively alienate Blacks and minorities in order to gain full access to the electoral block of the southern states. It was a hugely successful strategy that allowed the Republicans to win all but three presidential elections from 1968-2008. The election and re-election of Barack Obama, as well as demographic change, seems to have finally rendered ineffectual the 40-year dominance of the cynical Southern Strategy.

On another front, the Supreme Court decided in June of this year to effectively erase one of the most important provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: a clause which provided Federal oversight and protection of voting rights in nine mostly Southern states with the most egregious history of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of dismantling part of the law, with the five conservative judges who were appointed by Republican presidents united on the matter. Their rationale was that the Voting Rights Act had worked so well to protect voting rights from discrimination and to allow minorities to vote that it was actually not needed any longer. That is like saying that because the Fourteenth Amendment has worked so well to stop slavery it is no longer needed on account of there being no slaves at the moment. This foolish decision obviously does not take into account the fact that many states have moved from the “first generation” techniques of disenfranchisement, such as literacy tests and outright intimidation (or even physical violence in the worst cases) to stop Blacks from going to the ballot box, to more modern and subtle techniques of racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and restricting voting times and access. An example of the extreme gerrymandering that has made of mockery of the democratic process are the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio: both states voted for Obama by solid percentages of 5% and 3%, respectively, yet in Pennsylvania Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in the House of Representatives, and in Ohio it was 12 of 15 for Republicans. Similarly, when the Supreme Court made its recent decision to re-allow discrimination, Republican-led states such as Texas and North Carolina literally could not wait a single day to reinstate the types of voting restrictions that we wished had already vanished from public acceptability. Finally, on the anniversary of the March there was not a single Republican who attended the event, neither to give a speech nor to even support the idea that equality is something to be supported by that party. This is despite the fact that event organizers and the King family had strongly wanted and tried to get leaders from both parties to make it a non-partisan affair, and despite the fact that all elected Congressmen were invited to attend. This reflects extremely poorly on the Republican party, which has yet to abandon the success of its 40-year Southern strategy and cannot accept that its time has come and gone. It also reveals that in the 50 years since the March on Washington we still have much work to do to protect freedom against intolerance, and that for every step forward that we make we also have to guard against those who want to take us a step (or more) backwards.

Dr. King himself continued the fight for five years after the March until he was assassinated in April 1968 at the age of 39. A poor white man with an old rifle was convicted for the murder and spent his life in prison, but the findings have always been highly suspect and it is certain that much more powerful forces were at work to silence Dr. King. The reason is that Dr. King was a controversial figure who, despite the peaceful and positive March on Washington, was actually increasingly active against the general economic and political status quo. In the five years between the March and his assassination, the focus of his work and his rhetoric evolved from fighting for civil rights to fighting against the entire system that produced war and poverty at home and abroad. Specifically, he began to express doubt about the efficacy of the Vietnam War. Some of the first opposition to the Vietnam War came out of the civil rights movement, maybe because it was easier for Blacks to distrust the government claims that it was fighting for freedom. A gathering in 1964 in Mississippi held at the same time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution compared the use of force against Vietnam to the violence Blacks faced everyday at home in Mississippi. In 1967 (a year before he was killed) Dr. King gave a speech in New York called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In this speech, he spoke forcefully against the American war in Indochina, saying that the goal of the US was “to occupy it as an American colony.” He also said that the US government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This vocal stance put him in opposition to President Johnson, who had earlier signed both of the new laws protecting civil and voting rights. He continued to speak out against the unlawful military action in Vietnam, and in January 1968 he called for another march on Washington against “one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars.”

Directly connected with his anti-war and anti-Vietnam views, Dr. King began to advocate for anti-poverty programs and social welfare at home. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” For decades after World War Two, the US was by far the wealthiest and strongest country in the world, and spent a large majority of its budget on military spending and only a fraction on social welfare. Today the US is still easily the wealthiest and strongest country in the world and spends more on military than the next 20 countries combined, and yet poverty and income inequality have both increased, rather than decreased, over time. Dr. King’s vision reached to the heart of the matter and saw that the American government spends vast amounts of money to establish and maintain a global empire and a military state, but basically disregards the huge numbers of its own citizens who were poor and without hope.

In 1968, Dr. King started the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for economic justice in general, aimed at helping not only Blacks but all disadvantaged people. He saw that poor white people were in the same boat as poor black people, but that both were wedged apart from fighting together for their economic rights because of the man-made issue of racism. He condemned a system that spent lavishly on making war against poor countries across the globe while ignoring its poor people at home and refusing to guarantee them a living wage. His new message was intentionally more revolutionary than his earlier calls for equal rights. He lost support from many politicians, unions, white allies, the press, and even some of his fellow civil rights leaders. This did not stop him from continuing his new mission to fight against the ingrained injustice of a system that rewards greed but ignores the helpless. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had long monitored Dr. King for subversive activity, and from 1963 until his death he was the target of an intensive campaign of investigation and intimidation intended to discredit him. Wire-tapping was authorized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, and the FBI harassed him constantly, culminating in a letter threatening to reveal allegations of extramarital affairs unless he committed suicide. Dr. King dismissed the forces stacked against him and continued to fight for justice until he became too dangerous to the powers that be, and he was silenced.

The tragedy of all wars is not only the horror and death that is brought mostly upon weak and innocent civilians, but the fact that the soldiers fighting the wars often come from the same disadvantaged backgrounds and have no mutual enmity with each other but are manipulated all the same by the class of war profiteers, crony capitalists, and power-mongers. This is the case with the Vietnam war, protested by Dr. King and by millions of other Americans; in that war the world’s most advanced military spread destruction, murder, and mayhem against a poor peasant population across the world that wanted the freedom to live their own lives in peace. Dr. King fought against the injustice of a government that could profess to defend freedom overseas while supporting oppression at home. Today, I think we know what he would be fighting for if he saw that we were still preaching the same freedom while hypocritically attacking and bombing other countries, supporting coups d’etats and violent dictators, creating a massive intelligence infrastructure that indiscriminately spies on citizens at home and abroad, sending unmanned “drones” to fire missiles at military-age males in other countries without due process or legal justification, and building a vast network of private prisons across the country to make incarceration a profit-making business that preys on the poor and minorities, all while saying that there is not enough money to support education, health care, social programs, homeless people (who are often veterans), to raise the minimum wage, or to enact Dr. King’s solution of instituting a living wage. The truth that Dr. King knew was that there is a deep connection between the evils of racism, poverty, materialism, and militarism; for him, the only solution was “a radical restructuring of society” that would go beyond giving lip service to high ideals in order to actually defend justice and fairness and human dignity.

The achievements that came from the Civil Rights movement were due not only to strong leadership, but to the idea of sustained solidarity. This is to be the only solution if we are to continue to fight for progress and a more just society. The March on Washington came about by the unified efforts of six independent civil rights organizations, as well as a wide coalition of students, unions, churches, and white Americans that sympathized with the cause. Differences were put aside so that real progress could be made. Only strength in numbers is able to create the pressure needed to force change from unwilling politicians, who otherwise benefit from stasis. More importantly, we must see each other as one human family rather than a group of various classifications, and to ignore those who profit who the division of the weak and the strong. Only by standing together in great numbers with common cause against the power elite can we change an unfair system and try to bend the arc of history towards justice. As Dr. King showed, this means going beyond mere words or beliefs and becoming socially and politically active, not standing by when we see injustice in our communities or our country at large, and joining groups of like-minded activists who are also willing to make a difference. Dr. King made a real difference in fighting for justice and paid the ultimate price for his principles; the way to honor his legacy and his dream is to get involved and not stand on the sidelines. The only way to guarantee freedom and justice is to ensure that they are extended to everyone, rich and poor, home and abroad.

The Death Penalty and State-Sanctioned Violence

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree June 2015)

A confluence of recent events has led to the practice of capital punishment in America becoming a matter of greater public interest and debate for the first time in several decades. Foremost among these events is the trial and sentencing of the younger of two brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. Another is the undiminished zeal by some state authorities to execute men whose guilt or mental competence was less than firmly established, leading to grassroots protests and calls for clemency. Yet another development is the European boycott of lethal injection drug manufacture, leading some desperate states to resort to more traditional methods of execution such as hanging and the firing squad. In this essay I will lay out some reasons why I believe it is about time America followed in the footsteps of every other developed society on Earth and had this debate as well.

Despite Mark Twain’s memorable quip against the usefulness of statistics, I will open my argument with a few well-chosen figures to put things into perspective. America is the only country in the western hemisphere to use capital punishment, and out of 34 industrialized democratic countries, America is one of three to still use the practice (along with Japan and Singapore); in fact, there are only 26 of 208 countries worldwide that actively practice capital punishment. America has executed 1408 people since 1976, when the Supreme Court’s temporary moratorium was ended (The story of the first person executed after this 4-year hiatus was chronicled in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song). There are currently over 3000 people on death row; even though African-Americans make up only 12% of the total population, 41% of those on death row are African-American. To put the total prison population in perspective, America has only 4% of the world’s population but has a full 25% of the world’s prisoners–well over 2 million, mostly for non-violent, especially drug-related offenses. 31 states and the Federal Government currently use capital punishment, and the average time spent on death row going through the appeals process and waiting for execution is around 15 years, all of which is passed by the prisoner locked away in a small concrete cell with virtually no human contact. The Federal Government has executed 3 people since 1976; the Oklahoma City bombing terrorist was one of them, and the surviving Boston Marathon bombing terrorist would presumably be the next one. Public opinion has generally been strongly in favor of the death penalty in America, but a 2010 poll showed that when people were asked to choose between capital punishment and life imprisonment without parole, the results were 49% versus 46% respectively. As more Americans become aware of the problems with capital punishment as it becomes more of a public issue, I have no doubt that those figures will begin to reverse (case in point: last month the Nebraska State Legislature overrode the governor’s veto to end the practice of capital punishment in that state).

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a 19-year-old college student at the time he collaborated with his older brother in carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing. There is no question of his guilt and need to be punished harshly. The verdict of the death penalty, however, is highly questionable at best. Massachusetts is one of a minority of states which do not practice capital punishment and where the majority of citizens are opposed to it. As an act of domestic terrorism, Tsarnaev was not on trial by the state of Massachusetts; rather, he was tried by the Federal Government, which does follow the practice, even if very rarely.

Why, then, was the trial not moved outside of the jurisdiction of Massachusetts to anywhere else in the country, given the difficulty of an impartial jury in a state rocked by such a traumatic and emotional event? Supporters of the death penalty argue that it brings closure and justice to the victims, but this case is far from over and this much-sought closure, however bloodthirsty and ultimately unsatisfying to the victim’s family, could be decades away. Whereas a life sentence without parole is a cut-and-dry affair with little room for doubt that justice is being served, the death penalty almost always means that the full appeals process will be used, meaning that trials and sentencing can carry on for years and years with no resolution.

This is where Tsarnaev is heading, so even if you are someone who will feel better seeing him executed, you have a long wait ahead of you, as his lawyers will fight the death penalty to the very end. Would you not rather find justice was sufficiently served by putting him away for life in a maximum security prison with little to no human contact or sunlight for the rest of his life, and never think of him again? To me, both cases are barbaric, but only the death penalty gives the power of life and death to the state. This is a power we must ask ourselves if we are ready to give up.

Tsarnaev was by all accounts an intelligent and not abnormal 19-year-old university student who was radicalized by his older brother and the family and cultural circumstances he grew up in. I cannot imagine the horror of life behind bars in the type of maximum security prison I described above, but that is where he should go to live out whatever life he will have there. To my mind, this is the farthest step that the state can take in the pursuit of punishment and justice. The moral authority of handing out death penalties is not one that should have ever been in the hands of the state. Christians and Jews should remember that even the vengeful God of the Old Testament reserved the right to punishment: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”–a decree repeated as the memorable epigraph to Anna Karenina by the notable pacifist author Tolstoy.

Tolstoy himself fought in the service of the Russian Empire against the Muslim Tatars and wrote about the violent wars between the Christians and Muslims in the Caucasus region that have continued for at least 200 years. Tsarnaev’s family come from the Caucasus area of Chechnya which has been violently repressed for decades (centuries, in fact) by Russia. To understand is not to excuse, but every act of violence only perpetuates future violence. From such a background, it is not surprising that Tsarnaev could be convinced to continue the bankrupt path of jihad against real or perceived aggressors against his homeland or his religion; the tragedy is that this path was chosen over another one in which such a young man could have finished his studies and found a peaceful and prosperous way out of the maze of terror that he saw around him.

His execution by the U.S. Federal Government will do nothing to break the cycle of violence of such young men, and could in all likelihood further incite the hatred and search for vengeance for those poor, misguided young men around the world who see America and Western society as an evil target to be fought. In one sense, he would become one more martyr in an ongoing conflict in which there are already more than enough of these to fan the flames of extremism. Like I said before, the case is not closed and you will be seeing it in the news for years to come during the lengthy and likely controversial appeals process that will ultimately decide Tsarnaev’s fate. If capital punishment were not an option (as would be the case if he were tried by the state of Massachusetts, for example), the case would already be over, he would be sent to languish in prison for the rest of his days, and few who weren’t directly affected by his crimes would ever think of him again.

Furthermore to my thesis, even if we grant that the state or federal government has authority over life and death and can execute people whenever they see fit, there is then the question of where to draw the line in who is eligible for execution and how it can be guaranteed that they are truly guilty. The issues this raises should give us just as much pause as whether or not capital punishment is valid at all. There could even exist a strong case for the use of capital punishment (though I disagree), but a situation in which it could not be used in practice because the legal and justice system lacks the ability to prove its worth. I doubt that anyone (with the possible exception of the former governor of Texas) will feel assured that justice is done in 100% of court cases; that is, no one contends that human error, whether by state-appointed lawyers, juries, or judges, never occurs.

We must also dismiss the possibility that racism or other forms of discrimination never take place in the trials and sentencing of millions of accused offenders per year in America. Intuitional and anecdotal evidence is more than enough to raise doubt that pure justice exists in America. If there is the chance that even a single innocent person is found guilty, surely others who share my idealistic and humanistic love of justice will feel that there is no way the death penalty can ever be a real punitive option in a just society.

The fact is that hundreds of convicts have been released after years or decades of imprisonment due to faulty charges, incompetent lawyers, or biased juries, and most likely thousands more sit pining away in dark cells for crimes that they did not commit. Their only hope is that friends, family, and seekers of justice will one day shine the light on their case and win them the freedom they deserve, along with a hefty financial reimbursement. To those who were put to death, no such recourse or reprieve exists, and it is more than likely that no one will ever even know that they may have been innocent. They will never have the chance to clear their name, since it is not in the state’s interest to conduct or even allow inquiries into a case after the execution has been carried out. There are many notable cases in recent memory of just such a thing, especially the 2004 execution of Cameron Willingham by the state of Texas and the 2011 execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia.

Such cases also shed light on the power wielded by states, in the form of the governor, whose word in these cases is law, and whose power to stay executions also means that they single-handedly hold the power over life and death. The callous disregard toward troubling death row cases expressed recently by the governors of Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia, to name only three, should be more than enough to cast doubt not only on the state’s moral authority to kill fellow humans, but that such authority will even be used with the highest respect, consideration, and humanity that it deserves. Instead, we witnessed then-Governor Rick Perry of Texas on the Republican Party debate stage in 2012 saying that he had zero doubt that any of the 278 executions he personally approved and oversaw while in office were less than fully just (despite the prominent case of Willingham mentioned above and the 2014 execution of severely mentally ill convict Scott Panetti). His successor as governor of that state, Greg Abbott, enthusiastically ignored the pleas of the U.S. Justice Department to grant even a temporary stay of execution to a Mexican citizen in 2014, one of over 50 cases in Texas where Mexican citizens have been punished or even executed without having been provided legal counsel by the Mexican consulate.

My final point is about the barbarity, and thus unconstitutionality, of the death penalty both in theory and practice. The Eighth Amendment to the Bill of Rights protects against cruel and unusual punishment, and I would argue that the death penalty is the ultimate cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the enlightened idea of human rights. If we consider the specific details of how death penalties are actually carried out, there should be no remaining doubt about its illegitimacy as nothing less than state-sponsored murder.

The electric chair was—for almost a century—the dominant method of execution in America. A long series of botched executions and malfunctioning equipment gradually led to the use of lethal injection, which has been favored by all states that practice the death penalty since the 1990s. This has typically been a three-drug cocktail that has the benefit of appearing painless and medically sound. It is neither, in fact. It is a method chosen by lawyers and politicians rather than doctors, who are actually sworn under the Hippocratic oath to not harm patients. Over 7% of lethal injections since 1990 have been botched, resulting in long and painful deaths. This was most notoriously seen in the case of the 2014 execution by the state of Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett. You can read the gruesome details of that case in this goosebump-inducing exposé in The Atlantic.

In 2010, the only American-based company that produced the third ingredient in the cocktail, sodium thiopental, was forced by the FDA to stop production due to contamination. States began to scour the globe for other pharmaceutical companies to meet their lethal needs, but were soon foiled when the companies and governments in question discovered the desired use of these exports. A company in Denmark that produced a drug for animals was the last hope of these states; when it was discovered that the drugs were destined for capital punishment in America, this company, too, stopped its distribution. Most states now have a small stockpile of the drugs needed to perform executions, but only enough to last a few years.

The employment of these substitute drugs has been brutal and horrific as well, as documented in the case of Clayton Lockett above. For better or for worse, states are starting to approve a “regression” (if such a term can mean going backwards from something already backwards) to earlier and more visual forms of execution such as the electric chair and the firing squad. To me, and most people who examine the evidence, there is no doubt that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment in practice.

Let us now consider the psychological aspect. I mentioned above that the current average waiting time for death row inmates stands at about 15 years. Even if we were to grant the validity of the death penalty for capital crimes, murder and capital punishment are by no means the same thing. I’ll refer to a quote by Albert Camus for an explanation of this: “But what is capital punishment if not the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal act, no matter how calculated, can be compared? If there were to be a real equivalence, the death penalty would have to be pronounced upon a criminal who had forewarned his victim of the very moment he would put him to a horrible death, and who, from that time on, had kept him confined at his own discretion for a period of months. It is not in private life that one meets such monsters.” If we substitute “a period of months” for “a period of decades”, and also imagine that confinement means a total isolation in a small blind cell, we should conclude that this is quite obviously cruel and unusual punishment and most likely much worse than the original crime. We can argue about some of the conditions of punishment and incarceration while still stopping well short of state-sanctioned murder, which is all that capital punishment really is. Max Weber defined the state as “the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate, violence.” This is most readily seen in the use of war or threat of war against other nations, and the use or threat of capital punishment in domestic cases. I would argue that the former is occasionally necessary to preserve world order, while the latter is beyond all authority of a state against its citizens.

Lex talionis has certainly been both the normative and the most intuitive system of justice in all human societies until the relatively recent development of due process based on “innocent until proven guilty” and variable incarceration. Further examination shows why retributive punishment can never really be just. Although many people would argue that a murderer should be condemned to die himself, this will do nothing to bring back the victim. According to statistics of violence and imprisonment in America, it obviously does little to dissuade future murderers from carrying out future crimes. If punishment, the death penalty in this case, does not stop criminals from breaking the law, then one of the main justifications for such punishment holds no water. There is no study which has convincingly shown that the death penalty leads to less crime, so this utilitarian argument falls flat. In crimes other than murder, how will justice be perfectly administered so as to punish for specific crimes. An eye for an eye, or a life for a life has a certain grim logic (though I don’t agree with it), but how can this logic be applied to non-lethal and non-violent crimes? What if there are mitigating circumstances, such as a criminal who is homeless or in extreme poverty, or was himself a victim of gross injustice? The fact is that retributive justice is a system which will only perpetuate a vengeful and bloodthirsty society rather than stop.  America needs to open its eyes and see that we are better than this.

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