I’ve been having a really good time following the race for the Democratic nomination. As is usually the case with me and politics, I’m far more interested as an observer than as a participant. The daily maneuvering makes for good reading. I’ve mostly been following the action at The Note, the daily column put together by ABC News’ political unit. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the process. All of this politicking has got me thinking about one of my all time favorite books. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 combines, in a way that only Thompson can, political reporting with author’s deteriorating ability to keep it all together. I enjoy this book the most out of all of Thompson’s books because it provides a terrific outsider’s look at the mealy insides of American politics. Thompson sharing the back of a limo with Nixon on a ride from Boston to Manchester is priceless. But it is also amazing because it comes at an odd moment in Thompson’s career, the point of transition from the clear-headed, idealistic recklessness of Hell’s Angels to the addled egotism of his later work. The book got me excited about politics, but I was frustrated that Thompson wasn’t able to keep writing at this level for the rest of his career. Still, it remains a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in history or politics, especially if you have taste for Thompson’s singular, stylistic flair.
Today I heard from a reliable source some very interesting info about Eric Schlosser. Yes, the same Schlosser who I derided two days ago for phoning in the follow up to his huge best seller Fast Food Nation. First of all, it turns out that Schlosser is currently hard at work on another Fast Food Nation style expose. This time he’s tearing the lid off of America’s prisons. It seems like there is wealth of material here, and there must be plenty of improprieties and outrages that the American public needs to know about. I don’t forsee such a book being quite as successful as Fast Food Nation. Everyone has eaten more than their share of fast food, but not everyone has spent a lot of time in prison. Still, I’m sure it will prove to be a very good read. There is another tidbit of info on Schlosser, as well. Apparently he and the director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) have collaborated on a treatment for a film version of Fast Food Nation I suppose that the book does contain a number of compelling characters, and each of these characters has an interesting enough, if not completely fleshed out, story. But, it would definitely take a director as imaginative as Linklater to really pull it off.More MeloyMaile Meloy’s new book, Liars and Saints came out today. She has been widely lauded for her short stories, so it will be interesting to see how well her first novel is recieved.
There is a sort of raw bitterness gripping the country these days. People in the red states and the blue states are feeling fear and rancor, and it is directed at each other, not terrorists. From every radio, television, and newspaper, we are hearing that we live in a nation divided. It is true, the citizens of this country occupy a wide and diverse range of viewpoints on many subjects. And we each huddle around one party or the other, one candidate or the other, and the distance between the two camps can seem vast. A sampling of the headlines: “Bush vows to unite a divided nation” says the Chicago Tribune. “Very close vote shows U.S. still deeply divided” says the San Francisco Chronicle. “A deepening divide between red and blue” says the CS Monitor. There are hundreds more. So this might be a good time to look back at some other times when our nation has been divided, just for the sake of perspective. And, of course, there are some great books that can help us do this.The Civil War: A nation doesn’t get much more divided than this. Forget red map, blue map; this was grey map, blue map, brother against brother. For four years the nation was torn asunder. 560,000 dead. It becomes hard to declare that our nation is divided when you remember the Civil War. You can read about the period of time when the country was at its most divided in The Civil War, 3-Volume Box Set, an iconic history by Shelby Foote. Or if you prefer a one volume treatment, you can try James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, another fantastic book. These are, of course, just two selections among hundreds on the topic. Civil rights: These days we’ve got battling bumper stickers and arguments about torn up lawn signs. People are declaring that they will move to Canada, while others say good riddance, but it wasn’t long ago that this nation was divided over Civil Rights and desegregation. Brave souls fought against voter intimidation and school segregation and faced the seething anger of those who used firehoses, police dogs, and even murder to maintain the status quo. The pundits will tell you now that we are a nation deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided, but how divided can we be compared to our struggles against segregation and Jim Crow? There is much to read on the topic, but the articles contained in the Library of America’s collection Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 provide a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement as it was happening (don’t forget the second volume, 1963 to 1973, when you finish the first). Another (again, out of many) worth reading is Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer winner from 2002, Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (excerpt).McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Do you regret anything you did in college? Did you used to be a member of another political party? In the 1950s you could have been dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and made to explain yourself. Those labeled “Reds” faced blacklists and public derision. The nation for a time was divided between McCarthy’s supporters and those they sought to label as communists. People may accuse the recent campaigns of similar fearmongering, but our country is not so divided that House Committees are wrongfully accusing private citizens of treasonous acts. There are many books that cover the historical details, but I’ve always found Arthur Miller’s parable of McCarthyism, The Crucible to be much more powerful. One of my favorite films is also a parable of these troubled times. Elia Kazan’s On the WaterfrontSo there are just three examples of exactly how divided this country can get. I don’t think the red-staters and blue-staters will be getting together for a picnic any time soon, but things aren’t going to get as bad as these examples from American history. We live in times that are difficult and uncertain, but after witnessing the self-pity and rending of garments that have resulted from this campaign and the election that followed, I thought it best to try to put things in perspective. It made me feel better, how about you?Update: Some of my fellow bloggers are also turning to books to get them past their post-election malaise. Have a look at this excellent post at Conversational Reading. Bookninja, meanwhile, gives us a more foreboding reading list.
I’m hearing from reliable sources that Bunker 13 by Aniruddha Bahal is a wild thriller with an ending that is not to be believed. It takes place at the India / Pakistan border in the disputed region of Kahmir, so it also includes a good dose of the wider world for folks who are into that sort of thing. Also, Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, stopped in today and as he was signing his book, he mentioned that he will spend the next few months writing his sophomore effort in Italy. It is tentatively titled Absurdistan. Sounds interesting…. First took notice of Shteyngart in the New Yorker (he has contributed fiction and essays), and his book was very well recieved. He also has a great author photo, which I unfortunately can’t find on the web anywhere.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I’ve contributed a piece to The Rumpus series “The Last Book I Loved” about Dexter’s collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it’s not the last book I’ve loved (more recently there’s been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let’s just call it “One of the Last Books I Loved.”