Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

How does Politics affect Writing, and Vice Versa?

I recently attended the 15th International Conference on the Short Story in Lisbon, where I met many interesting writers, read from my own work, and participated in a panel that discussed the question in the title. I would like to thank my fellow panelists, all wonderful people and writers: Garry Craig Powell, Sandra Jensen, Rebekah Clarkson, and Robin McLean. In this essay I will expand on some thoughts from before and during the discussion.

What is considered ‘political’ in fiction writing, and how far can the definition be stretched? Is it merely engagé works dealing with topics war, oppression, instability, or injustice? Or is it also anything regarding social identity and issues like race, gender, and economic class? Likewise, creating feelings of empathy is often cited as one of the greatest roles or benefits of reading fiction: is this itself a political end, for example is belief that empathy is good or that there is such a thing as shared humanity a political belief? What about writers and readers who appear to fall short of that ideal? Is it true that reading, especially of the “great books”, is educative and character- and society-improving? I always wonder about Stalin, for example-a voracious reader of literature and history, and a loving family man to boot, who was still one of modern history’s biggest monsters.

Is there a duty (or responsibility) of writers (and all artists) to take a stand against injustice or make political statements in their work? If so, does this risk the work becoming too didactic or heavy-handed, possibly subtracting from its aesthetic appeal? If not, does the writer risk accusations of withdrawal, ignorance, or cowardice, especially if they should somehow ‘know better’ based on their time and place (something akin to a writer’s version of the ‘Good German’)? 

Is a writer’s attempt to avoid anything remotely related to politics itself a privilege?

Or, in times of political danger or instability (which is really all the time), is there value in creating fiction that allows the writer and her readers an escape from this reality, however brief or superficial? Is all fiction therefore escapist in some sense, or is that modifier appropriate only to popular “genre” fiction?

Regarding so-called “genre” fiction, is it possible to read mystery, romance, thriller, or fantasy novels as apolitical? It is possible, but it would be missing the point that the stories that a writer chooses to tell or not to tell is itself a political expression. For example, the paradigmatic version of the romance is often an affirmation of the status quo, and thus on the side of the patriarchy or other oppressors.

Is it fair to say that the “best” works of fiction combine a sense of personal, individual, or particular aesthetic quality with something “bigger” than the particular story-a sense of collective, universal human solidarity, or a longing for justice, for example?

How important is the author’s identity itself in how she is read? And how important is the reader’s identity in how she interprets a work? How does this dynamic change in the case of pseudonymous or unknown writers? For example, the Torah is considered an archetypal text of patriarchy, but Harold Bloom reimagined it in The Book of J as a highly subversive and satirical work of a female courtesan in the Solomonic court.

Accordingly, how does the reader’s knowledge of (or assumptions about) a writer’s identity and biography either facilitate or preempt charges of cultural appropriation? Is such a charge only accessible to various minorities, or only against, for example, the typical Western (especially Anglo-American) white male who has long dominated our politics and cultural output? If there is some truth to this, how careful does a white male need to be when making characters and plots? Are there stories, characters, and words that can be used by one writer to great power, but used by a different writer to great insensitivity?

I have myself never been to Southeast Asia, and am ignorant of much of the literature and culture of that part of the world. As it stands, I would never even attempt to write characters or plots that involve, say, Vietnam, without the relevant knowledge and experience; to do so would be doomed to failure and rightly prompt accusations of cultural appropriation. There are many white male American writers who have written about Vietnam very powerfully and convincingly, however; veterans Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) and Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain), for example, or David Joiner (Lotusland), an American who lived in Vietnam for years. Even such examples must be compared with someone like Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer), a Vietnamese-American writer who is obviously even more well-placed to write about his own country than the knowledgeable outsiders listed above. I think that charges of cultural appropriation can fairly easily be avoided by a sensitive writer carefully choosing only things that she can write about from experience or extensive knowledge.

Cynthia Ozick, an American writer most famous for The Shawl, has been primarily a writer of the Holocaust and its aftermath. She appears to refute Theodor Adorno’s famous (and probably misunderstood) quote that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In Quarrel and Quandary, there are several essays that deal directly with the issue of politics and fiction. In fact, just quoting some of her lines would be much more effective than anything I could come up with. For example:

George Orwell, in “Why I Write,” asserts that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” There are times when one is tempted to agree with him… Yet inserting politics into literature has, as we have seen, led to the extremist (or absurdist) notion that Jane Austen, for instance, is tainted with colonialism and slave-holding because Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park owns plantations in eighteenth-century Antigua.

As would be supposed, she holds that not only do politics and writing mix, but it is necessary that they do so. All of the writers I heard from at the conference would readily agree. Despite this, the apolitical writer is not a mere straw man. At one point she also mentions a speech E.M. Forster gave in 1941 arguing for “Art for Art’s Sake”, even at a time when evil was spreading across the continent. Here is the crux of Ozick’s essay:

Art may well be the most worthy of all human enterprises; that is why it needs to be defended; and in crisis, in a barbarous time, even the artists must be visible among the defending spear-carriers. Art at its crux—certainly the “Antigone”!—doesn’t fastidiously separate itself from the human roil; neither should artists. I like to imagine a conversation between Forster and Isaac Babel—let us say in 1939, the year Babel was arrested and tortured, or early in 1940, when he was sentenced to death at a mock trial. History isn’t only what we inherit, safe and sound and after the fact; it is also what we are ourselves obliged to endure…

There are those—human beings both like and unlike ourselves—who relish evil joy, and pursue it, and make it their cause; who despise compromise, reason, negotiation; who, in Forster’s words, do evil that evil may come—and then the possibility of aesthetic order fails to answer. It stands only as a beautiful thought, and it is not sufficient to have beautiful thoughts while the barbarians rage on. The best ideal then becomes the worst ideal, and the worst ideal, however comely, is that there are no barbarians; or that the barbarians will be so impressed by your beautiful thoughts that they too will begin thinking beautiful thoughts; or that in actuality the barbarians are no different from you and me, with our beautiful thoughts; and that therefore loyalty belongs to the barbarians’ cause as much as it belongs to our own…

The responsibility of intellectuals includes also the recognition that we cannot live above or apart from our own time and what it imposes on us; that willy-nilly we breathe inside the cage of our generation, and must perform within it. Thinkers—whether they count as public intellectuals or the more reticent and less visible sort—are obliged above all to make distinctions, particularly in an age of mindlessly spreading moral equivalence.

She mentions how Forster ends his speech with Shelley’s well-known quote that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, and notes the irony that Forster took this as a dictum from Mt. Olympus even while Panzers were running roughshod over Europe and the camps were already operating. I like the quote myself, but I would certainly not interpret it to mean that poets (or all writers) should withdraw from the world in the hope that the aesthetic beauty of their work alone is enough to improve the world. Ozick’s comments above demonstrate why that will never be realistic.

Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity rejected the possibility that there was a single “aim of the writer” or “nature of literature”. He compared writers who pursued private, aesthetic perfection, like Proust and Nabokov, with those seeking human liberty, like Dickens and Orwell. He says “There is no point in trying to grade these different pursuits on a single scale by setting up factitious kinds called “literature” or “art” or “writing”; nor is there any point in trying to synthesize them.” In response to this, I have heard it said that even aesthetic pleasure is political. If this is true than all the admirers of Lolita will surely perceive the political foundation underlying that aesthetically pleasing novel, even if not overtly present in the plot.

J.M. Coetzee is a white South African who was opposed to the Apartheid regime, but chose to avoid overt politics or write about it obliquely, almost in the form of Platonic ideas. Here is his quote explaining his method:

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.

On the other hand, Nadine Gordimer, another white South African writer and life-long opponent of Apartheid, chose to deal head-on with political issues, or to supplement history, in her works. They both won the Nobel Prize, and both showed how writing about politics can still be done in many and various ways, including supplementing it, à la Gordimer, or rivaling it, à la Coetzee.

Social reform has been a goal of certain types of literature (and art) at least since the 19th century. Dickens comes to mind as one example among many. It has always been hard to pinpoint concrete effects literature may have had on politics, beyond vaguely influencing readers to feel empathy for people unlike them. One notable exception is the much-anthologized short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story tells of a woman oppressed and driven mad by her doctor husband’s “rest cure”, a real-life treatment popularized by a doctor named Weir Mitchell. After the story was published, Mitchell read it and actually retracted this psychologically destructive treatment method. Other real-world political effects came from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the muck-rakers, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, to name two more examples.

Could Kafka be considered a political writer? Is there a spectrum of how political aa writer is, or how political certain literary themes are? For example, alienation and outsiderness play a big part in Kafka’s work, but is this because of his identity as a hated minority living among another group of oppressed minorities, or because he held views against the imperial and royal Hapsburg authorities? On the other hand, is there anything political that could be found in Borges’ stories? He seems to stick rigorously to theme of intellectual escapism in the form of his unique literary metaphysics. What about Chekhov, whose incredibly deft, character-driven portraits seem, on the surface, to be apolitical? Or Zweig, who tried to be apolitical in all his fiction even while he was working to build a more cultured and cosmopolitan Europe in real-life (and who killed himself in Nazi-induced despair in 1942)? The answer is that, obviously, all these writers were/are very political.

And all art, including fiction, is political. That holds true even if the author herself denies it or tries to avoid it. We have been told to never trust the writer but to trust the work; this seems a bit of academic sophistry, but in the case of a politics-denying writer we may do well to keep it in mind. The fact is that art production can only happen when the artist is free. Freedom of speech is central to the artist just as it is for the survival of a free society. There is no escape from politics for a writer or for anybody. We are all bound to the systems of power and human behavior that surround us. To not see or to deny this only reveals one’s privilege.

My own biographical information, if relevant: I was an officer in the US Army for over four years and spent two years in Afghanistan. This has obviously had a big effect on my character and political development, but in the 10 years since I have been out of the army, I have mostly had no desire to write or create fiction dealing with military themes. The exception so far is my story in The Road Ahead, a 2017 anthology featuring writers who are all veterans of the American wars. My other stories and the novel I’m working on were not apparently motivated by any explicit political stance and are more like historical fiction. After this panel, however, I have realized that I was rather naive and that all of my fiction and ideas are very clearly based on political realities.

Recently, like many Americans, I feel that the gravity of the political situation demands of all of us to do more. I know other American writers who have told me that they are not able to work lately because of the weight of the 24/7 news cycle. I know others who are trying to produce art or poetry specifically engaging political issues (like gun violence, for example). As a white male from the global hegemonic power, who has participated personally, if incidentally, in the ongoing state-sponsored violence, do I now have a duty to anyone other than myself, to fight for justice or against oppression? Would it be considered insensitive or even unethical of me to write only for myself? There are probably no absolute answers to any of these questions, but most of their utility comes from their very formulation and expression. In the end, there is probably no absolute duty of a writer to bring politics into their works, but it will still always be a good idea, and probably the best thing we can do.

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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.

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.

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