Philip K Dick – The Man in the High Castle

I swore that I’d read more fiction and as this blog shows, I’ve failed miserably.   I was at a used book store when I came across this book, an alternate reality to WWII where the Allies lose and the United States is occupied by the Japanese and Germans. Seemed like a good way to dip my toe in the water after a lifetime of reading about actual wars.

The first hundred pages were all I’d hoped for. Himmler, Goebels and Gorring competing for power, Africa destroyed by Nazi genocide, the Japanese colonizing the West Coast. Just as Americans picked over the cultural corpse of Native Americans by collecting trinkets like dreamcatchers or feather headdresses, the Japanese create a market around kitschy relics of a lost American civilization in the form of Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War muskets.

What would it be like to be on the other side of history? The vanquished instead of the victor, learning some other language, worshiping a foreign God and having to carefully show reverence to your new superiors and their customs. Something as simple as handshakes replaced with bowing would constantly irritate me I’m sure. What if the West were obliterated? I felt a bit queasy just reading about it, which naturally gives way to empathy for any conquered or oppressed people.  I’m as self-absorbed and unimaginative as anyone so it’s easier to empathize when the hypothetical scenario involves me or people like me.  So far so good.

This book was like eating a five star restaurant, beautifully decorated, impeccable service, top flight chef, but then the food comes out and it’s a Big Mac. That’s what the story felt like to me, a long winding intricate road to nowhere in particular. Or in this case to the High Castle.  An A+ concept and setting, with a D- narrative thrown on top.

The literary equivalent of the Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie with near perfect actors, scenery, casting, music and costume, but a story that doesn’t ask the viewer to give a damn about Tom Ripley or any of the other characters, much less the outcome (if there even is one)?

Back to real wars for a little while.

Malcom X – The Autobiography of Malcom X

Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D’s? He said something like, ‘I believe that I happen not to be aware of that’ – you know, one of these ultra-proper talking Negroes. and I laid the word down on him loud: Nigger!”

Malcom Little grew up in rural Michigan. His grandmother was likely raped by a White man, resulting in fair skin and Malcom’s red hair. His father was murdered by racists and his mother was shortchanged on his life insurance, reduced to extreme poverty and ultimately institutionalized when she went insane, with Malcom and his many siblings dispersed to foster care. When young Malcom said that he wanted to be a lawyer his teacher told him to pursue something realistic for a black person, like a trade. It wasn’t unusual for a teacher, in the 1930’s, to openly call him a ni**er or a coon.

As Malcom now X states: “why, when all of my ancestors are snake-bitten, and I’m snake bitten, and I warn my children to avoid snakes, what does that snake sound like accusing me of hate teaching? No sane black man really believes that the white man will ever give the black man anything more than token integration.”

Fifty years later a black man has been elected President, but was Malcom X wrong? Was integration a hopeless idea? Does the USA remain a place where “a thousand ways every day the white man is telling you ‘you can’t live here, you can’t enter here, you can’t eat here, drink here, walk here, work here, you can’t ride here, you can’t play here, you can’t study here.”

The current President started his foray into politics with a campaign to prove that the first black President was not an actual American, as if a black man could only achieve the Presidency through lies or trickery. This wasn’t a hindrance, a black mark on his candidacy, it was his candidacy. Blacks and whites today don’t usually live together, study together and remain, in many ways, segregated.  One group is five times more likely to be in prison.   They don’t appear to be separate, as the Nation of Islam wanted, but segregated, the difference explained as “when your life and liberty are controlled, regulated, by some-one else.”

Was integration hopelessly stupid?  What would life look like for black Americans if, as Muhammad demanded, they were given a separate territory, true reparations and allowed to lift themselves out of poverty by sticking with their own kind? What if black America had its own country, factories, fields and businesses, left “free to find out what we can really do“?

Ultimately the question is whether 270 million people will ever be truly willing to unite with the other 30 million.  Undeniably there’s been progress, but that question remains as unanswered as in 1962. That means going to school together, living next door, dating and marrying one another.  Is there some defect whereby your average white person has “deep in his pysche, absolute conviction that he is superior”?

Malcom X was a born extremist. When he was a hustler in Harlem, he was the loudest, wildest, most outrageous criminal in New York. In prison he took to educating himself through books, reading for 18 hours a day for years on end. As a Black Muslim he was the most pious, dedicated and outspoken member. It isn’t surprising then that his life ended prematurely, not that this was in any way deserved.

All told this book transplants the reader into the mind of someone that suffered immense pain as a result of racism and it’s impossible not to come away with sympathy and understanding for his anger. As he states it’s a miracle that more people aren’t as angry as he is. The saddest thing in the entire book is that young Malcom wanted to be a lawyer, but was discouraged from it due to his race and never even finished high school. If anyone on this planet, past or present, was a perfect fit for being a lawyer it was probably Malcom X, but he never became one. Nothing speaks more to the tragedy of racism than the incompatibility of those two simple facts.

 

 

 

Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

The quote on the cover is apt: “a staggeringly good book.” This is a cutting political dissection of Rwanda from before it was even conceived of to modern times, with the horrific genocide of 1994 the unfortunate climax in this story.  The salient point is that Rwanda and by extension Africa isn’t a hapless mess, but a complex web of competing interests. In the case of Rwanda the country didn’t succumb to barbarism, there is a clear party at fault which is the Hutu supremacists, the perpetrators of the genocide.

There’s a tendency to write off the continent altogether since it seems blighted by war, poverty, dictators and dysfunction. There’s truth in that, but the reality is that the people aren’t amoral savages destined to Hobbesian brutality; they just happen to live in places with a web of competing and conflicting groups and interests, not unlike a Europe of  500 years ago (or even 25 years ago in Yugoslavia). Even an insane situation like genocide can’t be attributed strictly to homicidal barbarism. There is a logic to it and a brutal pursuit of self-interest at play.  Rwanda is decipherable if you pay close attention and anything decipherable is also workable, which is the good news.

The unfortunate truth is that no country and even no individual person can rely on others to save them when in need. To quote The Streets:

“No-one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.  You are the one who’s got your back ’til the last deed’s done.”

When staggering evil is unleashed and you assume that surely someone will realize this and do something, that something might not happen. In the case of Rwanda there was an assumption, or at least a hope, that individual Hutu’s might restrain themselves from killing, that other African nations, the United Nations or the USA would intervene.

Unfortunately it was not in the interest of anyone to risk anything to prevent the Tutsi from being slaughtered, aside from themselves. Individual Hutu found it safer to follow orders, even when it meant hacking your in-laws to death with a machete. The United Nations did not have members willing to fight for the Tutsi, nor did the USA, which was still reeling from the killing of 18 marines in Somalia. The French even sent in troops to aid the butchers as it was somehow calculated that it was in their self-interest. The only salvation for Tutsi’s were other Tutsi’s, as those exiled in Uganda were able to mount a successful invasion of Rwanda and come to their rescue.

The conundrum for Rwandans today is that they must cooperate and identify first as Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi, if the country is to function and anyone is to prosper.  This requires an enormous level of trust, especially when you know the other side has the potential to obliterate you and has tried to recently. If you can’t trust anyone else, how do you then build trust? The good news for Rwandans in all of this is that they at least know they can’t count on the USA, the United Nations or anyone else for guidance or salvation. If they want the country to work and to prosper, only they can truly figure it out.

Currently the country is a dictatorship run mostly by Tutsi’s, who form only about 15% of the population. The human rights record is poor, as opposition and free speech are not tolerated. However, the life expectancy rate has doubled, the economy is doing well and child deaths are much lower. It isn’t an ideal situation as people should be able to speak freely or run for office.

At the same time it’s a logical arrangement as it’d be asking a lot of Tutsi’s to cede power to Hutu’s, akin to Jews handing the reins to Germans in 1955, as would be the case if a free election were held. The objective is to create and instill a Rwandan national identity that supersedes an ethnic identity. When this project is complete and a level of trust is established, there’d be minimized risk that more freedom would lead to violence. In the meantime a Tutsi government ensures the Hutu, if tempted, can’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past.  As with Europe post-WWII the solution to unbearable violence is to expand the concept of who “us” is and hopefully there will be a realization that violence is in nobody’s interest. It isn’t perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems like a Rwandan solution from those who know best the realities of their own country.

I can’t rate this book highly enough if this is a subject that remotely interests you.