A Burning

My intent this time out was to forgo the increasingly bleak political and societal scene in the US and examine a compelling work of fiction instead. The book under review here is A Burning, by Megda Majumdar, and it is a debut novel. Don’t let the word “debut” put you off, though—this is one of the most powerful and accomplished works I have read in quite some time.

A stunning debut and a savage indictment.
A stunning debut and a savage indictment.

However, if you sometimes read fiction to “escape” the cascadingly unpleasant realities of day-to-day American life, I cannot in good conscience recommend A Burning, even though it is set in and intimately concerned with India instead. While the societal particulars are quite different (and in some ways, as bad as ours have ever been), and while there is no pandemic underlying the action, this novel is a razor-sharp examination of basic aspiration in a capitalist society of grotesque inequality, and the ways in which universal human nature can be twisted in such circumstances. Indian setting or not, this book will not let you escape life in the United States.

The plot is streamlined and increases in intensity throughout the novel. A Burning will in fact grip you like a thriller. A poor young woman whose principal ambition is to achieve a middle-class existence is unjustly accused of a horrendous crime. The lives of two other Indians striving to make their way upward in a fundamentally flawed society—a physical education teacher who falls in with a right-wing political party and an engaging Hijra who is determined to achieve film stardom—intersect with hers in ways that seem inconsequential at first, and then increasingly heartbreaking.

If calling a novel “the book of the summer” once conjured up beach reads like Jaws, this novel will instead make you freshly aware of just how much we all have left to achieve. It truly is the one novel you should read this summer, and experiencing Majumdar’s brilliant and savage dissection of Indian society will help fortify you to face the enormous challenges remaining in this country.

This is a stunning and immensely rewarding book.

Why We’ll Never Fix the Police

In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder in Minnesota and the resulting nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, there’s been a lot of hopeful talk about the possibility of structural change.

It’s not going to happen.

Granted, there have been positive steps taken around the country. New York State, for example, just put in place several reforms—including the banning of chokeholds and the opening up of police disciplinary records—that should make it easier to prosecute individual cops who commit murder. That’s the theory, at any rate.

Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.
Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.

But already, ambitious reforms are running into age-old roadblocks. This is certainly the case in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, and it will prove to be the case elsewhere as well.

Structural change is hard. Especially when the conditions for it do not exist. And the conditions for it do not exist in these so-called United States.

To actually change the system, a great majority of the populace must agree there is a great need to do so. But in the U.S., a substantial portion of the population does not agree such a need exists. A substantial portion of the population does not agree on anything.

While earnest and appalled citizens were taking to the streets to protest racism, millions of others were challenging them, on the streets and, especially, on social media, with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” taunts. Others have signed on to the so-called boogaloo movement, which wants to incite civil war and overthrow the government. And that movement has plenty of company on the far right.

Meanwhile, the nation’s government itself works against the interest of its citizens on a daily basis (see Covid–19, America’s failure to respond) and pays the most token of lip service to protesters’ demands for change.

As much as all reasonable and empathetic citizens would like to change America, we must face the truth of life in this country today:

  • Racism is built-in. It’s not going away.
  • America’s cultural and political divisions may have reached an all-time high, and there is no fix for this on the horizon.
  • There are many good cops, as the truism goes. But there are many more bad cops. They join the force from warehouses and fast food restaurants and become drunk with their newfound salaries, benefits and power. What’s more, they become part of a cool blue fraternity that always sticks together. I contend that the worst young men and women in America aspire to join the police precisely because they will be able to commit violence with impunity.
  • America’s two-party system is hopelessly hamstrung in terms of flexibility and rapid response. And it, like the people it supposedly serves, is also crippled by cultural and political divisions, likely beyond repair.
  • There are too many stupid politicians and too many stupid cops. If we don’t have a competent and professional government, how can we expect to have a competent and professional police force?
  • The ideal solution to eliminate killings by the police would be to disarm them, as in Britain and other countries. Oh, wait—there are more than 300 million firearms floating around the United States. Guess that’s not such a practical idea.
  • Well then, what if we got rid of all the guns, then disarmed the police? Yeah, good luck with that one. Refer to all the points made above.

Our country is irremediably broken, folks. Outrageous police brutality is just the latest systemic problem we will not be able to resolve, at least not as the U.S. is presently constituted. And racism, of course, is our original sin. It endures.

It’s not just police departments that need to be dismantled and rebuilt more intelligently.

It’s the nation itself.

Learning from The Plague

Several months in, it seems to me that too many Americans have begun to accept the ongoing pandemic as some kind of “new normal.” Perhaps not the millions who have recently lost their employment, and certainly not those who have been directly impacted by COVID–19, but many, many others seem to have become quite acclimated to America’s current state of affairs. This may be due in part to the rash/rush of “openings” in the past few weeks.

Casual accommodation is not a realistic viewpoint, as the majority of American health officials continue to maintain. Not with a death count of more than 100,000 and rising. If you’d like a corrective dose of reality, you could do far worse than read Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Plague. I reread the Stuart Gilbert translation a couple of months back and it is a brilliant work of art and philosophy which goes straight to the heart of what it means to experience a pandemic.

Albert Camus's exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.
Albert Camus’s exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.

The novel describes the sudden disruptions, growing fear and increasingly desperate measures taken to fight the invading disease in ways that are now intimately familiar to thinking Americans. Its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exemplifies the heroic medical personnel fighting on the front line of today’s pandemic. Moreover, the book is a gripping read in and of itself.

But perhaps the novel’s greatest contribution lies in its depiction of human nature, vis-a-vis the outbreak. While it’s true that the townspeople in Camus’s novel did not have to contend with deluded far-right “patriots” determined to expose themselves and others to the disease in the name of “freedom,” they did have to contend with many other dark strands of humanity. The novel’s invading plague is often cited as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. One might make a similar comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic and what passes for “government” in America today.

Our broken and corrupt national government will certainly need to be dealt with, and soon. But so will COVID–19. The current policies being implemented, especially in Middle America and the South, are not going to work.

Odd as it may seem, reading The Plague today is a strangely uplifting, even hopeful experience. This is because, while it tells stark truths about human nature, it also shows people at their best, as with Dr. Rieux. The book is both cautionary and morally instructive, as shown in its final paragraph:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Invoke the 25th

President Trump is already responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Americans due to his inept and belated response to the onset of COVID–19 in the United States this past February. He will soon be responsible for the deaths of many thousands more, thanks to his criminally irresponsible support for “Reopen America” protests and disobeying state shelter-in-place guidelines. He should be removed from office immediately.

Does Mike Pence have the guts to save American lives? Photo: pbs.org.
Does Mike Pence have the guts to save American lives? Photo: pbs.org.

Vice President Pence actually has the authority to do this, acting in conjunction with other high-ranking officials in the executive branch, thanks to the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The fourth section of that amendment explicitly states this. The first paragraph of that section reads as follows:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

We’ve had “acting” officials in almost every major government position during this administration, so we may as well have an Acting President. When Trump behaves in a manner that results in massive and needless loss of life, he is obviously “unable” to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Whether Pence, who has raised obsequiousness to an art form during Trump’s reign, has the courage to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment is debatable. One hopes he will find the courage, through naked self-interest if for no other reason.

Trump’s willingness to callously sacrifice American lives for his own political self-interest is both murderous and treasonous, and he should face legal consequences for his actions as soon as he returns to civilian life. That day should be, must be, soon.

President Pathogen

If there was ever any doubt that Donald Trump’s misbegotten elevation to the presidency in 2016 was a flashing alarm for American democracy, the Covid-19 pandemic has eliminated it. This country’s institutions, infrastructure and governance were seriously ailing before Trump took office. Once he entered the White House, he and his supporters and enablers quickly made America sicker still—even before the first coronavirus case on our shores was diagnosed. Now he serves as a malignant pathogen enabling the spread of the disease.

A sick president. Photo: Al Drago for The New York Times.
A sick president. Photo: Al Drago for The New York Times.

The country’s tardy and inadequate response to the pandemic has been widely reported, even as Fox News and Trump’s right-wing followers tend to downplay its significance. Trump’s outrageous malfeasance with regard to the disease has been less widely covered.

Let’s look at one flagrant example, from Trump’s Friday news conference. Like his address to the nation on Wednesday evening, the news conference was meant to reassure Americans that everything was under control. Trump uttered the magic words “national emergency,” which was enough to generate a temporary stock market rebound. The markets assumed this meant competency would finally come to the fore and the coronavirus pandemic would now be dealt with appropriately. This was a faulty assumption.

Earlier, Trump had claimed that everyone who wanted a test could get one, which was an enormous and obvious lie. Rather than reassuring the country, he increased Americans’ fear and anxiety.

President Pathogen uttered more damaging falsehoods on Friday, chief among them this one: Google was designing a website—1700 engineers were working feverishly to complete it by Sunday evening—which would enable anyone to see whether they needed a test and, if they did, would direct them to a “convenient” drive-through testing center.

This was complete and utter bullshit. While there have been  reports outlining some of the individual lies involved in that claim, none of them adequately condemned the brazen degree of Trump’s mendacity. It boggles comprehension, simply because it is so glaringly obvious. Why would the President of the United States voice such easily disproved lies in public? What did he think would happen when Sunday evening rolled around and there was no such website to be seen, let alone any “convenient” drive-through testing centers?

I’ve often wondered, along with countless others, what accounts for Trump’s sick behavior. It’s easier to explain away his supporters (ignorance, desperately misplaced hope and/or personal gain) and enablers (sycophancy and/or personal gain). But what about Trump himself? Is he evil? Stupid? Incompetent? A complete sociopath? So incredibly self-involved as to believe any statement he makes must perforce be true?

I would surmise all of the above. What’s certain is that Trump is a malignant virus in America’s bloodstream and a greater threat to the country’s future than Covid-19 is. Like that disease, he and his cohort must be eradicated.

Stupidity Wins Again

The Conservative party’s decisive win last Thursday in Britain, and the consequent path forward to a massively misguided Brexit, is only the latest in a series of increasingly ominous events circulating through the 24-hour news cycle.

Nationalism wins again. Ignorance wins again. And so the West (and indeed the world at large, cf. India) continues to march backward, steadfastly ignoring science, history and common sense.

Boris Johnson photo: ibtimes.co.uk.
Boris Johnson photo: ibtimes.co.uk.

The similarity of what’s happening in the US and the UK cannot be ignored. In both cases, discord, ignorance and resentment—and sometimes downright hatred—are ascendant. In both cases, the less educated, less affluent rural districts manage to dictate results to their more informed “betters” in urban areas. In the UK, a plurality of voters would prefer not to leave the European Union. In the US, a plurality of voters would like to impeach and remove Donald Trump from office. Neither electoral system will permit the plurality to have its way, and yet the right-wing victors on each side of the Atlantic continue to trumpet the virtues of “democracy.”

This devolution of the “special relationship” contributes nothing to progress in the world at large—see, for example, the latest failure to adequately respond to the global climate change emergency.

At the end of this year and decade, here are three wishes for a smarter, healthier decade to come:

  • That the European Union, arguably the twentieth century’s greatest political achievement, remains intact despite Brexit and other pressures;
  • That the American people, despite a skewed electoral system, manage to elect a Democratic President and Senate; and
  • That a new American administration will act quickly to tackle climate change in a meaningful way.

Happy holidays.

Big Other

How to begin? Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an extremely important book, one that critics have already compared to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It is the first book to truly tackle the full aspects of what is actually happening in the whirlwind digitization of our society, along with the pervasive and deeply sinister threats this transformation poses to our freedom and to our very selves. It is essential reading—“easily the most important book to be published this century,” according to the acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith. Indeed, the Guardian has already named The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as one of the 100 best books of the 21st Century.

Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.
Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.

Shoshana Zuboff is Professor Emerita of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she was awarded the 2019 Axel Springer Award “for her courage and forthright stance in analyzing the problematic sides of the digital economy as well as her tireless efforts to remind us of our responsibility to be conscious of the personal and societal impacts of a data-driven economy on the public.”

In the award’s citation, Germany’s Axel Springer SE, Europe’s largest publishing house, noted that Zuboff has largely “shelved her lectureship,” as she does not agree with Harvard’s economic relationship to the digital economy. The citation further noted that Zuboff “sharply criticizes the collection of personal data, in particular by global internet corporations like Google and Facebook, and describes their business models as ‘surveillance capitalism’ which, in her view, ‘destroys the inner nature of man.’”

Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.
Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is very much concerned with the inner nature of man, and with the absolute human right to self-determination which has been and is being stealthily undermined by the predations of “Big Other,” of which big data is but a part. The ultimate goal of companies like Facebook and Google (the book’s two primary villains) is nothing less than the “the colonisation  …  of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves” (Zadie Smith) in the service of predictable behavior and outcomes harvested for private gain.

This concept is so startling that it is difficult to grasp and confront—in James Bridle’s Guardian review of the book, he makes the point that “there’s something about its [surveillance capitalism’s] opacity, its insidiousness, that makes it hard to think about, just as it’s hard to think about climate change….”

Some critics exhibit this difficulty in the very course of their reviews. Jennifer Szalai, writing in the New York Times, uses a jokey title for her review (“O.K., Google: How Much Money Have I Made for You Today?”) and says that Zuboff “can get overheated with her metaphors” and that some portions of the book are “frankly ridiculous.” But Szalai is also astute enough to recognize the source of her resistance: “…maybe my reflexive discomfort only indicates that I’ve become acclimated — or ‘habituated,’as Zuboff likes to say — to the world that surveillance capitalists have created,” she notes.

This insight would seem to apply to the Times at large, as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does not appear on the paper’s list of the year’s 10 best books released yesterday, a glaring and irresponsible oversight. (I’m hoping it will show up on the traditional Times “100 notable books” list, which should appear within the next week or so.)

I don’t deny that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism can make for difficult reading. It is long, extensively researched and footnoted, and presents several slippery new concepts that no one else has really identified to date. Concepts that, like climate change, can be hard to fully grasp and absorb.

But if you’re open to new ideas and are concerned about our perilous future, this book will immediately grip you. Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and No Logo, sums it up best: “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense.”

A Divided Nobel Prize: One Questionable Choice, One Great One

Earlier this month, the Nobel Committee awarded two Nobel Prizes in Literature, one for 2018 and one for this year. The double award was necessitated by a scandal involving the husband of an academy member, which resulted in no prize for literature being awarded last year.

The double award proved to be controversial for other reasons as well. One of the winners (Peter Handke of Austria, who received the 2019 award) was denounced by PEN America for his far-right views.

“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide….” said novelist Jennifer Egan, PEN America’s president. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”

However, I am writing this post not to call your attention to the controversy per se, nor to Peter Handke, whom I admit I have not read. Instead, I would like to direct your attention to the other winner, Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk, who was belatedly awarded the 2018 prize.

Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times.
Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times.

As it happens, I had read the most recent translation of Tokarczuk’s work, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a couple of months before the prize was announced. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite books. I won’t try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say the book is utterly unique. If you believe humankind is capable of doing better (and if you’re at all fond of animals), I totally recommend the wonderful
Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation. The book’s title, BTW, is drawn from William Blake’s poem “Proverbs of Hell.”

The novel, which was originally published in 2009 but did not appear in English until August of this year, has drawn universal raves. Here are some samples:

  • “Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. Tokarczuk’s mercurial prose seems capable of just about anything.”—Kirkus Reviews.
  • “[It] succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it.”—Publishers Weekly.
  • “It is an astonishing amalgam of thriller, comedy and political treatise, written by a woman who combines an extraordinary intellect with an anarchic sensibility.”—Sarah Perry, in The Guardian.

Only three other Tokarczuk works are currently available in English:

The latter two titles are on my reading list, as is the book often cited as her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob (2014), which has apparently been translated by Jennifer Croft but is not yet available in English.

Like Handke, Tokarczuk is also somewhat political, but she is his complete opposite, liberal and humanitarian—she has needed to hire bodyguards at times in right-leaning Poland. She has received the German-Polish International Bridge Prize, a recognition extended to persons especially accomplished in the promotion of peace, democratic development and mutual understanding among the people and nations of Europe.

If you’re a questing reader (and if you’re here, you almost certainly are), and you haven’t yet discovered Olga Tokarczuk, now’s the time.

An Important First Step

In the nearly three years of our omnipresent Trump dystopia, it has grown to seem as if he would be with us, floating noxiously through our background thoughts, forever. The possibility of change finally arrived last Tuesday, when Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of impeachment proceedings.

This, of course, is long overdue. Arguably, Trump deserved to be removed from the get-go. He is manifestly unfit, and despite the muddled, legalistic and stretched-out Mueller report, it is clear that he asked for and received Russian assistance in perverting the 2016 election.

But after the momentary uplift many Americans felt from the impeachment announcement, our current ugly reality is beginning to reassert itself. Disinformation is going to flood the airwaves and the internet like never before. Tribalism will harden further. Trump’s supporters will become an even greater danger to the ideals of our democracy, and perhaps to life and limb as well.

The problematic 40%.
The problematic 40%. Photo: foxnews.com.

In addition, it is unlikely that impeachment will actually succeed in removing Trump, given right-wing Republican control of the Senate. Even if it did, we would wind up with the toady Mike Pence, another disgustingly inappropriate person to hold our highest office.

The Democratic argument is that impeachment will lay bare Trump’s corruption and his betrayal of country and office alike. And it could well do that: Trump himself acknowledges the main charge against him, in soliciting foreign assistance to turn next year’s election. It’s pretty damned straightforward. I agree with those who argue that this latest transgression made impeachment unavoidable—it had to be done.

Yet Trump’s impeachment will unleash a dangerous new period of instability in American political life. If Pelosi and her party manage the process tightly and hammer home the need to remove a corrupt and dangerous President from office, there could yet be a happy outcome in next year’s elections. But if the Democrats prove ineffectual against the Republicans’ Goebbels-like propaganda machine, as they have so often over the past few years, next year could be grim indeed.

The best course, now that we’ve embarked on it, is to stay calm and stick to the truth: Trump has betrayed his office and his country and needs to go. Deflect far-right disinformation whenever you have the opportunity. Focus on selecting the best candidate to face Trump (or, God forbid, Pence) in next year’s election. We have a chance here—let’s seize it.

A Modest Proposal

It’s often said that America has not been this divided since the Civil War. Indeed, some prognosticators even suggest a new civil war may be in the offing. To this I say: nonsense. There is always a way to resolve problems, even the most intractable ones.

For example, take guns. That’s a pun, as I am literally suggesting to take the guns. But I do not suggest this merely as a progressive who would like to see a degree of sanity restored to American society by reducing gun violence. Of course not—I recognize that there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate. That being the case, it will be necessary to provide each side with something of what they want.

Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.
Easy target—a recent arrival in Idaho. Photo: News-Press.com.

So, let’s start by envisioning a Democratic landslide in the election next year. Warren or Sanders as President, a solidly Democratic Senate and a Supreme Court which has been expanded to 15 members, now under Democratic control. The first step will be to abolish the Second Amendment and the second step will be to establish a mandatory buy-back program for every gun in America, all 300-400 million of them.

“Wait a minute!” you might exclaim, if you happen to be a Republican. “Everything you’ve just described is part of a far-left Democratic wish list! What do Republicans and gun nuts enthusiasts get out of this?”

I’m coming to that. I’ve anticipated your concerns, and I have some answers I believe you and the Proud Boys will like.

Obviously, a great many patriotic right-wing Americans will defy the new buy-back program. The new socialist government will offer them, and anyone who wants to join them, an attractive cash incentive to relocate to the great state of Idaho. And that’s only the beginning.

Once ten million gun owners and their 350 million guns are in Idaho, the real fun begins!

Now everyone knows guns are only one topic which sorely divides today’s Americans. Race, religion, economic status, climate change and immigration are a few of the many others. Well, I have a plan for that. It’s called The Great American ShowdownTM, and it will enable these brand-new Idaho residents to resolve their differences in the most direct and down-to-earth way possible: with their guns.

Every Idahoan who kills someone with an opposing viewpoint will receive $50 cash. That might seem a meager amount, but with ten million people involved the rewards can add up fast. Not only that, but the victor gets to claim the deceased’s weapons, adding to their stash of guns that are illegal in the rest of the lower 48.

But wait, there’s more—The Great American ShowdownTM will be televised! It’s going to be the biggest program of all time (bigger even than “The Apprentice”), and it will be available for streaming and on network TV. Imagine the thrill of watching real-life bloody shoot-outs in the comfort of your own living room. And imagine the gigantic advertising revenues that will result!

Your new government will be nothing if not fair. Advertising revenue will be divided between renewable energy programs (45%), universal health care coverage (45%, for the other 49 states) and the Republican National Committee (5%). I will retain 5% as the originator of the concept, but the RNC will be able to use their dollars for any purpose they see fit (except firearms).

Idaho will benefit, too. Tourism will increase dramatically, as our more adventurous citizens venture to the Gem State (who knew it was called that?) to witness the mayhem firsthand. And eventually, when all the shooting is over, one lucky Idaho resident will wind up with 350 million guns and a substantial fortune to call their very own.

I call this a win-win! So be sure to vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren next fall and do your part to make it happen.

My apologies to Jonathan Swift.