A distinction

A peaceful transfer of power is a column of the republic, & it’s appropriate for political leaders to cooperate graciously with Trump now. But there’s no comparable duty for writers and intellectuals. To the contrary, by temperament and profession, we’re the canaries in the coal mine. Our calling is to say what we see happening, as soon as we see it, as forcefully as we can express it.

Kashua, Mbue, and Platzová

On 18 September 2016, I moderated a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival called “Occupy and Resist,” which featured the writers Magdaléna Platzová, Sayed Kashua, and Imbolo Mbue. Here’s the introduction I gave:

I’d like to try to have a conversation this afternoon about the place of politics in literature, given that all three panelists have written about the changes that political realities and politial ideals make to people’s lives. But before we start that conversation, I feel as though I should state, for the record, that the three books are very different, and as a way of introducing the panelists, I’d like to say a little about how they’re different.

Sayed Kashua is an Arab writer who now lives and teaches in Champaign, Illinois, but grew up in Tira, a small Arab city in central Israel. He’s the author of two novels, a memoir, and a hit television series. His hilarious, brutal, and urgent new book, Native, a collection of columns that he wrote for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, describes his move into, and then out of, an upscale Jewish neighborhood in west Jerusalem. Describing the early days of his move, Kashua jokes about how unnerving he finds the high water pressure, and how unsettling it is that municipal functionaries visit regularly to deliver mail and take away garbage, along streets ornamented with such luxuries as traffic signs and sidewalks—the implication being that these amenities were lacking in the Arab neighborhoods where he had previously lived. His humor, in other words, has a political edge. At times the edge grows so sharp that he drops humor and writes with plain pathos—as, for example, when he relays the accounts his children give him of being hurt by the casual cruelty of classmates giving voice to anti-Arab bias. Now and then Kashua does mention political events and controversies in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but for the most part, the politics in Native is the politics of everyday life. A friend of his, quoted in a 2015 New Yorker profile of Kashua, called it “the kind of politics that arises from the dirty dishes in the sink.”

Though Kashua and his family are Arab, he wrote the first-person essays in Native in Hebrew, the language in which he was educated from high school on. I’m putting myself in a bit of peril by mentioning this, because in one essay he makes fun of people who incessantly ask him, “Why do you write in Hebrew?” But since American readers will be reading his book in an English translation, which, though very elegant, obscures this provenance, I think it’s worth bringing up. There’s a politics of translation, too, after all. When Kashua’s daughter declines to play in a recital scheduled to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, for example, she explains to her music teacher that her family refers to the anniversary as Nakba, a commemoration of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.

Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, a seaside city in the West African nation of Cameroon, and has lived in New York City for more than ten years. The young couple who are the heroes of her rich, vivid debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, share her geographic origin and are trying to make the same migration. The recent immigrant Jende Jonga lands a job as chauffeur for a wealthy executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende’s wife, Neni, joins him in the city, along with their son, and goes to school with the hope of becoming a pharmacist. Jende’s working papers are only temporary, however, and his residency in America uncertain. As Jende drives his employer’s family around, he becomes an intimate witness of their lives and, thanks to his cheerful manner, to some extent a confidant—an entanglement that becomes more complex after Neni goes to work briefly for the family, too, as a maid and babysitter. If one axis of the novel runs between Cameroon and New York, another runs between the Lehman executive’s home on the Upper East Side and Jende and Neni’s home in Harlem—between a wealthy white American world of status, convenience, secrets, anxiety, and loneliness, and a more communal and informal world of struggling, exiled Africans, where meals may require hours of preparation and may be eaten happily on the floor. This isn’t a conventional American immigrant’s novel, however; the axes cross in unexpected ways, and the story becomes quite dark, before the end.

Jende and Neni also live in a world in translation, speaking a mix of English, French, Cameroonian Pidgin English, and native African languages. Jende worries that his immigration lawyer might be mbutuku and refers to his native country Cameroon as pays. At the novel’s start, Neni is flummoxed when her precalculus instructor says he has a boyfriend, but by novel’s end, she and her husband have become so fluent in American culture that they’re able to poke fun at the typical Cameroonian’s taste in U.S. consumer goods.

Magdaléna Platzová‘s meditative and resonant novel The Attempt has two storylines. In the present, a student of history named Jan is seeking for the truth about his ancestry, which may or may not have to do with the novel’s second storyline, which takes place in the past—in the early twentieth century, to be exact—and concerns two anarchists, at one time lovers and later friends, one of whom, Andrei, spent 14 years in prison for attempting to assassinate an industrialist who violently suppressed a strike. Neither the present-day story nor the historical one is told in sequence, and much of the novel’s art consists in the way Platzová interweaves the two. But though the major axis in Platzová’s book is chronological, geography matters to her as well. Jan, like Platzová herself, is Czech; the would-be assassin whose story fasciantes him was Russian; and the industrialist and his heirs, whom Jan interviews, are American. It’s in America that the novel takes place—a country where Platzová herself, the author of six books, has both studied and taught, though today she lives in Lyon, France.

The Attempt has been deftly translated from the Czech by my friend Alex Zucker, who’s probably in the audience, but it feels to me as though within the novel the crucial translation to be made isn’t between Czech and English but between the past and the present. Those are the two worlds that can’t quite make sense of each other—the industrialist’s heirs keeping faith too rigidly with the past, the anarchists losing faith in the utopian future. A secondary axis, perhaps, is the one between fact and fiction, since Platzová’s fictional anarchists are modeled on the real-life lovers Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, who left behind many letters and memoirs, and her industrialist on Henry Clay Frick, who left behind a famous museum.

A panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend

This Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I’ll be moderating “Occupy and Resist,” a panel about politics and literature, featuring the writers Sayed Kashua (author of Native), Imbolo Mbue (author of Behold the Dreamers), and Magdaléna Platzová (author of The Attempt). Please come! It will take place at noon on Sunday, September 18, in the Borough Hall Media Room, 209 Joralemon St., Brooklyn.

Why has Trump come so far?

I want to quickly list all the explanations for Trump’s campaign that I know of or can think up, whether or not I believe them. The hope is that it might be useful to see them all in one place. Maybe the Trump phenomenon is overdetermined, and more than one of the causes listed below is responsible. Not all of them can be, however, because several of them contradict one another.

  1. There are always fringe elements in American politics, but over the past few decades, the political establishment unilaterally disarmed against them. The political middleman, seen as a corrupt figure, was reduced in rank, and many of his tools were taken from him: pork-barrel spending, big-money campaign donations, conventions where candidates could be decided in smoke-filled back rooms. As a result, the political parties are now incapable of exercising discipline. It was easy for Trump to hijack the Republicans, and the Democrats should consider themselves lucky that Sanders is an honorable man. (This is Jonathan Rauch’s explanation, in a recent Atlantic article.)
  2. Twitter and other internet media have removed the benign censorship with which newspapers and magazines once insulated the public. Twenty years ago, Trump would only have been able to reach people by means of articles that fact-checked his lies and registered disapproval of his xenophobia and his racist dog-whistling. Now he can reach people directly. Truth and social norms have become optional, and the contagion of toxic words can spread more quickly.
  3. The internet has accelerated the shift to “secondary orality” begun by television. In a post-literate media environment, politics has a new texture:

    The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate’s health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion… The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion… In a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with. Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer… Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching… He thinks in terms of situations and story lines rather than abstractions.

    Trump’s supporters may still read his messages and read about him, but outside of the elite, most people in America no longer perceive the world in a skeptical, detail-rich, fact-centered way.

  4. Globalization has exposed American workers to competition with foreigners with much lower wages, and NAFTA and other free trade deals of the last few decades have accelerated the damage. The working class feel that America’s political elite has betrayed them, fattening their own bottom lines by offshoring industries that will now never return, and workers are embracing Trump because they no longer believe either the pro-business nostrums of establishment Republicans or the nanny-state reassurances of the Democrats. Government successfully nurtured industry in countries like South Korea in the twentieth century. Trump’s manner is appalling, but maybe free trade isn’t the panacea that orthodox economists think it is.
  5. Increasing automation of the workplace has raised the productivity of manufacturing in America, and American factories simply need fewer workers now. The working class, unable to understand or accept their displacement, blame foreign competition, which they were going to have to face anyway. Trump is channeling an incoherent rage over an inevitable economic misfortune, and the workers themselves would be harmed if a President Trump were to kibosh existing and future free-trade deals.
  6. Workers blame the political elite for exposing them to foreign competition and for failing to take care of them as automation caused their jobs to evaporate. But they probably also understand that electing someone who promises to nuke free trade will bring economic misery to everyone in the country, even themselves. They’re willing to bear the cost in order to have the pleasure of punishing the political elite.
  7. White workers have lost jobs and wages to globalization and automation for decades, but they used to have the consolation of being able to look down on blacks. Nowadays, though, suburban whites have rates of drug abuse, to name one dysfunction, that used to be blamed on urban black “culture.” Since 2009, the President has been black, and perhaps inspired by him, a new protest movement has exposed, and is threatening to remove, the routine racism of much policing, which helped to cause many blacks to feel like second-class citizens. A white rage, over a loss of relative social status, has crystallized around Trump, who flirts with a white-supremacist message.
  8. Since the 19th century, capitalists have divided workers by fomenting racism and ethnic hatred. In the early 20th century, unions proved uniquely capable of convincing workers that cross-race solidarity could protect their wages. But unions have been discredited in the popular imagination, and now there are no institutions in workers’ lives that can make that argument cogently.
  9. Trump supporters are actually a little better off than the average American wage-earner, and the Trump phenomenon shouldn’t be blamed on the white working class but on the white petty bourgeoisie—the class just above the working class, notoriously vigilant about not slipping back into it. They may have racist and xenophobic bias, but their real enemy is the grand bourgeoisie, the class above them, and in particular the liberal element in it, who they see as having made a political alliance with people of color, at their expense. They feel, for example, that when grand bourgeois liberals give away seats in college to affirmative action students, it’s the children of the white petty bourgeoisie who get displaced.
  10. There has always been racism in America, and there have often been economic difficulties. Rage is erupting now because Trump has sown and tended it, ever since his campaign to deny that Obama was born in America. He has worked steadily to make mainstream kinds of speech that would have been heavily stigmatized as recently as a decade ago.
  11. At least since 1968, when Richard Nixon proclaimed himself the candidate of the “silent majority,” the Republican establishment has aroused enthusiasm for itself on the far right with hateful messages, including racist ones. In the 1988 campaign, for example, George H. W. Bush’s team smeared Dukakis with an ad featuring the black felon Willie Horton, who committed rape while on furlough. In 2004, the campaign of George W. Bush riled up supporters by playing on fears of gay marriage. The establishment tapped these fears and angers but never really satisfied them once in office, and now the demon has got away from the sorcerer.
  12. Waves of immigration have provoked nativist backlashes in America before, notably during the 1840s and the 1930s. For the past few decades, many European nations have had to cope with nativist, rightwing parties—led by Nigel Farage in Great Britain, the LePens in France, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—and America has been lucky in not being saddled with one sooner. Perhaps the luck will hold: Trump shows little signs of being able to institutionalize his xenophobia. But perhaps it won’t: even if Trump loses in November, he might decide not to leave the political stage.
  13. As a bullying, charismatic, media-savvy billionaire, Trump is attacking a chink in democracy’s armor previously exploited, in Italy, by Silvio Berlusconi. If Berlusconi’s career is a yardstick, it would be a mistake for the political elite to underestimate Trump. Though dismissed and scorned as a clown, Berlusconi was a damaging force in Italian politics for decades.

Three more, 2:30pm:

  1. As manufacturing jobs have given way to service jobs, men in the working class have become less likely to have jobs that are categorically different, in pay and in kind, from those of women. Add to this decline the prospect of a woman President, and a number of men may be feeling less powerful than they once did. With his disparaging remarks about rival candidate Carly Fiorina and news host Megyn Kelly, Trump has shown himself to be a misogynist. Perhaps hatred and fear of women are driving his campaign.
  2. Misogyny is a perennial force in American politics; there’s no need to hunt for a recent historical trigger. Trump has cultivated an image of himself as a misogynist for years and continues to do so, and as with race, he has helped to foment the rage that is supporting him.
  3. The internet has accelerated the political balkanization of American life. Social media companies know that most people find cross-cutting conversations (that is, conversations with people who hold a different political opinion) unpleasant, and they make it easy for users to dodge them. As a result, supporters of Trump may not be challenged about his falsehoods, and most of his detractors may be expressing their disapproval of him, rather pointlessly, to each other.