Kit Rachlis on why Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is a wonderful LA novel

Ok, I have to admit, I have not read Bats of the Republic, which Rachlis eventually chooses over The Sympathizer in Powell’s heart-wrenching, teeth-gnashing, fist-shaking, I-can’t-turn-away-even-though-it-ruins-my-March-every-year Tournament of Books. BatsOfRepub sounds great from the descriptions, I admit. But I was rooting for The Sympathizer, which is a brilliant book, written by a fellow USC professor who, unlike me, can actually finish a book and have it be amazingly good. I can forgive Rachlis the decision, however, because it is clear that his/her judgment is sound and based on good reading. More importantly, here’s a comment on southern California that I wish I could tattoo on foreheads for both a) insight and b) awesome writing:

Further, it takes place in Southern California, where I have spent most of the past 27 years and which remains, to my prejudiced mind, one of the most misunderstood places in the United States: an object of endless cliché, stereotype, envy, and superciliousness in the hands of too many writers who should know better but don’t. But like the best writing in which Southern California plays a central role, The Sympathizer looks past the region’s surfaces—its malls and freeways and palm trees—and burrows deeply into its mysteries and contradictions.

Gaaaaaaaahhhhhhh such good writing.

And thus the book dies, with a whimper, and not a bang

After working on a book for three years, I decided to kill it this week. It’s a mercy killing: the book just wasn’t coming together. I argued myself out of its central thesis, and I simply lost faith in myself and my ability to write it. This is the second book I’ve killed off.

Perhaps I was too ambitious. Maybe I just started believing everybody who acted like I couldn’t do it. I really can’t count how many of my senior faculty have looked at me with grave eyes and said “You’re not a book writer” or who sucked in their cheeks and said “Really?” Perhaps it was the considerable undermining I deal with every day as a woman.

Maybe I am just as not as smart as I thought I was. I suspect a large number of people will exult in that last admission.

Either way, the light went out. I wish I felt free, but I do not. Just defeated.

Despair

I’ve been reading When Nietzsche Slept by Irvin Yalom via a recommendation from one of my students. I encountered this sentence, and it made me drop the book:

“Despair is the price one pays for self awareness.”

Christ–life summarized in a sentence.

A short sentence, no less.

Then later in the book:

“How could he admit to having wagered his whole life only to find that the final prize was, after all, not to his liking? No, these things he must keep to himself. There are things you don’t tell the young ones.”

No, one doesn’t.

Thomas Jefferson on Bonaparte

I was complaining on Fboo about how my students won’t read a page and a half of Thomas Jefferson, which is a shame, because he wrote like so:

Instead of the parricide treason of Bonaparte, in perverting the means confided to him as a republican magistrate, to the subversion of that republic and erection of a military despotism for himself and his family, had he used it honestly for the establishment and support of a free government in his own country, France would now have been in freedom and rest; and her example operating in a contrary direction, every nation in Europe would have had a government over which the will of the people would have had some control. His atrocious egotism has checked the salutary progress of principle, and deluged it with rivers of blood which are not yet run out. To the vast sum of devastation and of human misery, of which he has been the guilty cause, much is still to be added. But the object is fixed in the eye of nations, and they will press on to its accomplishment and to the general amelioration of the condition of man. What a germ have we planted, and how faithfully should we cherish the parent tree at home!

Bam a lam.

Why would this writing appeal to me right at this political moment, I wonder. Atrocious egotism. Hmm. I wonder.

Hitler, Mussolini analogies are more important than Godwin’s Law leads one to think

I took a long time to respond to a FBoo post this morning and I decided to turn it into a blog post.

So the new round of “let’s incessantly discuss a certain celebrity candidate” seems to involve people dismissing analogies to Mussolini and Hitler because of Godwin’s Law.

Now, I really do like Mike Godwin’s writing, and he did us a solid by giving us a shorthand term to something one of my mentors credited to Michael Walzer: you can prove anything you want using Hitler. Walzer’s point was that Hitler was so extreme, and so terrifies us, that any moral argument you want to make either dominates or falls apart around analogies to Hitler. Why? Because most moral arguments concern about general conditions, about behavior in every life, society, or politics, and they are not about the extremes (unless one is Kant, and unless one has never read Wittgenstein or Rorty.) Now, I like to use extremes to bound arguments and use them as thought experiments, but they are often much less useful than we want them to be.

That said, I really do not want Godwin’s law to shame people away from thinking about or even invoking Hitler.

First of all, most people are not sufficiently versed in either a) politics or b) European History to make claims about what is or isn’t fascism in detail. Of course Donald Trump is not Hitler or Mussolini—those guys already lived, and every politician is a product of their time, place, etc. But people are afraid of Hitler, Mussolini, and fascism for damn good reasons including 1) their ascent to power was incremental, opportunistically drew on both sides of the political spectrum, and easier than I suspect anybody would have predicted it to be; and 2) the consequences should be unimaginable, but unfortunately are not. So in general, I am happy enough letting people dwell on Hitler, trying to figure out where the lines are between individualism and collectivism, patriotism and nationalism, etc etc.

I think it’s very, very dangerous to get into a comfortable model of thinking that “It can’t happen here.” The fact that people are worried about it happening…it’s good that people worry, that they use Hitler as a chastening idea. No, I don’t think you should let people get away with just throwing out the label and moving on–FoxNews looooooves to label people Nazis, and they of course associate Nazis wth lefties. This neither accurate or fair; I think they would have more grounds to do so with Mussolini and the Italian fascists who did start from the left, but both men exploited the fears of the right and the utopian desires of progressives simultaneously, so I have trouble sorting who is to blame. (Hint: lots of people; that’s one of the problems that should make our hearts stop with fear when we look at it closely. )

So all that said, I see definite fascistic tendencies in Trump’s style and rhetoric, and those deserve scrutiny, if only as a means to learn more about fascism as a political phenomenon.

Things I see in Trump that reflect elements of historical fascism, based on my read of the various histories I’ve read over the years:

  • Trump’s “enemy within” narrative based on derogative ethnic stereotypes;
  • his prelapsarian narratives about about how a once-great nation has now just turned into a giant mess who needs a strong man to fix it;
  • He emphasizes metaphors and emotions over practical arguments or reason. Every effective leader mixes these forms of rhetoric to varying degrees, and that is not a problem in my mind (Remember: “Hope”) but fascistic leaders emphasized emotions to the extreme, even becoming violent or belligerent if somebody questions their impressionistic claims about the world based on other ways of knowing or communicating;
  • Trump, like fascist leaders before him, exploits and inflames fears about foreigners;
  • He’s absolutely in his element in front of a large crowd; he’s masterful in front of his rallies, and he makes damn sure that anybody who might heckle, shame, disrupt or best him in front of that crowd is disciplined, either by encouraging his followers to be violent or using security to shut them down.
  • He openly brags about the extra-legal things he wants to do as president (like torture) and revels in the cheers that ensue, thereby creating opportunities to legitimate lawlessness.

Some of these are really scary and people are not being weenies with their concerns. If he convinced enough generals to go along with him…he could lead us to some damn dark places. Any leader can if we don’t critically examine what we are doing.

THAT’S WHY POLITICS IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE, and not some dirty word you think yourself somehow “above” because you’d rather focus on your family, your job, and your friends. If good people eschew politics, the people who step into the vacuum left are often not the people we want there.

I see Robert Paxton is getting quite a bit of press on this. He has somewhat overlapping, somewhat different views on Trump as a fascist you can see here.

Bibliography

Paxton, R. The Anatomy of Fascism.

Payne, Stanley G. Fascism: Comparison and Definition.