Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America

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CarsickEvery American road trip is different; thus every American road trip book is, and should be, different from every other. The beauty of such books done well has much to do with the nature of the country itself: so enormous and diverse, and so (if we’re honest) contingent and arbitrary in its history and geography, that any trip across or around it is bound to have as much to do with the personality of the road tripper, and the happenstances inherent in the act of traveling, as with any putative qualities of the vast abstraction that we call America. This is as it should be.

Still – and regrettably –  any of us who drive around America and write a book about it do so in the long shadow of a very famous writer’s very famous book. Reflecting on his own planned trip in his prologue, John Waters makes the requisite reference, though he makes it with an admirably critical eye and purpose:

Or could I just make up the whole book and say it was true? How would anybody know? It took years for scholars to figure out that John Steinbeck’s supposedly nonfiction Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a well-reviewed bestseller published in 1962 (and still in print), was in fact total bullshit. Instead of driving cross-country in a pickup, staying in campgrounds, and chatting up the locals, as the author claimed, he actually had company with him, stayed in motels and luxury hotels, and made up the conversations. According to writer Bill Barich, quoted in a recent New York Times article, Steinbeck was “discouraged by everyone from making the trip.” He was too old, “trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of knight-errant.” Uh-oh. Could that be me?

But – before I tell you how wonderful Carsick is, which it is, I’m compelled to take Waters to task for a sloppy reading of the New York Times coverage of the unmasking of Steinbeck’s fraud. Bill Steigerwald, the man who busted Steinbeck, is a friend of mine. And the reason he’s a friend of mine is that, after reading the same April 2011 Times article that John Waters read, I was so impressed that I made a point of stopping in Pittsburgh and taking Bill to lunch on my own drive around America for my book Home Free. Bill deserves credit for a genuine mighty feat of reporting, and he rightly seizes every opportunity to claim the credit that he deserves. It wasn’t the New York Times, and it certainly wasn’t the cozy coterie of scholars Bill dubs the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex, who painstakingly read the original manuscript of Travels with Charley at the Morgan Library, then doggedly drove around America and documented Steinbeck’s specific failures and evasions in a wonderfully entertaining book aptly titled Dogging Steinbeck. It was retired Pittsburgh newspaperman Bill Steigerwald who did those things, and no one else.

So I hope that Waters sees fit to give Bill due credit in future editions of Carsick. That said, Carsick is a wonderful American road trip book in its own right. Apropos the passage quoted above, it really is three road trips in one: two fictional, one real. The book’s first section imagines “The Best That Could Happen,” the second “The Worst That Could Happen,” and the final section relates Waters’s actual trip. Waters would no doubt be amused to learn that a friend of mine (who is gay, which is relevant to much of the sometimes profane subject matter) read the prologue inattentively and got almost through the first section before realizing – or rather being told by me – that it was made up. The first two-thirds of the book is no less enjoyable for being fictional; in fact, both the “Best” and “Worst” trips are jaw-dropping, page-turning exercises in imagination (sexual and otherwise).

After all the shocking and appalling made-up misadventures, it’s a relief to read about Waters’s actual trip, which was plenty adventurous enough for a man of sixty-six, especially when you remember that Waters didn’t even drive but hitchhiked. Bill Steigerwald traveled at a similar age and also, as he puts it, doglessly. I agree with Steigerwald’s dictum that, if you’re planning to make an American road trip and write a book about it, you shouldn’t take either your dog or your wife (or, if we must be explicitly gender-inclusive, your husband). What Steigerwald means is that traveling alone helps you stay alert. Steinbeck took both (though only his talking pedigree French poodle appears extensively in his bad book). The journalist and novelist Philip Caputo, well known for his classic Vietnam book A Rumor of War, took his wife and two dogs in a vintage Airstream trailer, and the effect in his 2013 book The Longest Road is of spending a very long evening at the senior center watching the vacation slides of a kindly but self-involved and dull retiree couple.

Caputo’s whole conceit is that the same flag flies over Key West, where he and his wife and dogs started their trip, and Nome, where they ended up, and isn’t that swell, with precious little reflection on how that fact illustrates that the United States of America is, effectively, an empire. My own very different summing-up at the end of Home Free  is that “while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.”

Caputo’s book is not fraudulent like Steinbeck’s, but it is dreadful. Both show that being a Famous Writer doesn’t suffice to write a great, or even good, American road trip book. Carsick is a triumph because Waters had sufficient humility, sense of humor, and perspective on his own fame to turn it from an obstacle into a literary device. Throughout the book he frets alternately about whether he will or won’t be recognized, and he carries – and once or twice makes use of – an actual “fame kit” that he had his staff put together for him. “I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever,” he informs us at the beginning. “I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?”

The happy paradox is that it’s precisely by maintaining a light touch and not taking himself or his quixotic project too seriously that Waters has written what might well be something of a minor masterpiece. “The CHECK ENGINE light continues to add a touch of anxiety,” he writes somewhere in the desert in Nevada, near the end of the real trip, “but we’ve risen above that – just that we’re still moving is proof we’re okay.”

I could quote endlessly from Carsick, which tells you something. Enjoy it for yourself. Among its greatest pleasures are the many paragraph-length gems of narrative whimsy, so true to the reality of American road-tripping (and so very different from anything either Steinbeck or Caputo offers). Here’s just one from Waters, temporarily stranded in Bonner Springs, Missouri:

I see the dreaded Holiday Inn but don’t go near it. I stumble into a convenience store and buy two giant bottles of Gatorade and another bottle of Evian. Exiting, I spot a Taco Bell, the only fast-food joint I’m ever tempted to patronize in my real life. I enter, plop down my even heavier bags now that the liquids are inside, and get in line to order. I flash on Lana Turner, who, her daughter Cheryl Crane once told me, was an early financial backer of Taco Bell, and think how I couldn’t be any further away from Hollywood glamour than right now. All the normal people on their lunch break look like aliens to me. I’m almost jealous of their lives. I order two tacos and sit by myself in a booth awaiting my number to be called, hoping to be recognized, but customers just stare back at me blankly. I guzzle down an entire bottle of Gatorade, then another. I feel like sobbing as I walk up to get my order but control myself, sit back down, and eat my tacos. With lots of hot sauce, they’re pretty tasty. I hope Lana Turner’s estate made a small profit.

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The Indian Ideology, by Perry Anderson

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The Indian IdeologyThe Indian Ideology is three essays (titled “Independence,” “Partition,” and “Republic”) by UCLA historian Perry Anderson, originally published in 2012 in the London Review of Books, collected and published in book form by Verso in the UK and US and Three Essays Collective in India. It’s exactly the sort of thing one never expects to find published in India at all, which is part of what makes it so bracing. It could have been written only by an outsider; no Indian would write such a book.

My strong and longstanding interest in Pakistan prompted me to read the second of the three essays, “Partition,” when I first noticed it in the LRB. The Congress Party, writes Anderson,

had accepted Partition as the price of a strong centralized state in which it could be sure of a monopoly of power, but in the mind of its top leaders it was a temporary concession. The party’s resolution of June 5, 1947 that formally agreed to partition made its position very clear. “Geography and mountains and the sea fashioned India as she is, and no human agency can change that shape or come in the way of her final destiny” – least of all “the false doctrine of two nations.” Mountbatten had engineered point-blank Partition with the same end in mind, saying explicitly that this would “give Pakistan a greater chance to fail on its demerits,” and so was in the best interests of India, because a “truncated Pakistan, if conceded now, was bound to come back later. … The delusions of the Congress nationalism reshaped by Gandhi to Hindu specifications died hard.

I was so intrigued that I bought and read the whole book. It’s short but packs a wallop, explicitly and forthrightly challenging decades of cant shamelessly kowtowing to the presumptions of the Indian state that emerged from the struggle against British rule in 1947. Anderson’s incisive critique is especially timely given the current ascendancy of the assertive Hindutva ideology personified by new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat at the time of an infamous anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. But Anderson makes clear that he considers the ostensibly secular Congress little moreso than Modi’s BJP.

The fictional character of India’s secularism is historically significant given the appalling situation in Muslim-majority Kashmir, which I saw for myself in the mid-1990s and wrote about extensively in the early chapters of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan. Kashmir is widely considered the crux of the chronic tension between India and Pakistan, but to assert that is either myopic or a subtle evasion; the real crux, per Anderson’s words quoted above, is the mere existence of Pakistan. Nehru, Mountbatten et al. did all they could circa 1947 to cripple Pakistan at birth, and 67 years later Pakistan – for all its severe and glaring flaws – still exists. And many Indians will never forgive it for that.

That said, the unresolved status of Kashmir, and above all the appalling suffering of ordinary Kashmiri people, deserves to be remembered and emphasized. Anderson does so, with characteristic candor:

There should be little need for any reminder of the fate of Kashmir, under the longest military occupation in the world. At its height, in the sixty years since it was taken by India, some 400,000 troops have been deployed to hold down a Valley population of five million – a far higher ratio of repression than in Palestine or Tibet. Demonstrations, strikes, riots, guerrillas, risings urban and rural, have all been beaten down with armed force. … The death toll, at a low reckoning, would be equivalent to the killing of four million people, were it India – more than double that, if higher estimates were accurate. Held fast by Nehru to prove that India was a secular state, Kashmir has demonstrated the exact opposite: a confessional expansionism.

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Film review: What is the meaning of Pakistan?

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I was honored to be asked to introduce and lead a discussion of the wonderful documentary film Without Shepherds at the 9th Annual Seattle South Asian Film Festival on Nov. 9, 2014. Below is my review.

withoutshepherdstruckerPakistanis are human beings, with a normal range of human worries, charms, foibles, weaknesses, and susceptibilities. This is a working premise and major theme of my own writing and public speaking around the U.S. these days, because I think it’s an important point to bring home to Americans. It’s an obvious point, not subtle or complicated, but challenging to make because of mindsets ingrained by a dozen years and more of war, bad political leadership, and popular culture. And anyway, you can get only so far by insisting on something.

How much more effective it can be to show than to tell is demonstrated by the documentary Without Shepherds, produced and directed by Cary McClelland with Pakistani colleagues. (You can like and follow the film on Facebook.) Beautifully shot and artfully edited, the film follows an assortment of Pakistani individuals in their lives and work and allows them – or rather, asks and invites them – to speak for themselves. The result is a lovingly witnessed and depicted, endearing, and even haunting tapestry of human stories inhabiting the landscapes of Pakistan.

The landscapes, plural, linger in memory as much as the personages, perhaps for me because they quicken nostalgia for my own deeply felt Pakistani experiences. Parts of Pakistan are stunning and lush, of course; much of it is hard, dusty, unlovely, but (to me) deeply lovable and loved. You can’t express such love in words, or really even in pictures. (I do try to express it in words, though, in Alive and Well in Pakistan and in a speech I titled “Why I Love Pakistan.”) It’s what Graham Greene in The Quiet American called “the real background that held you as a smell does”: in Pakistan, it’s the trains and train stations, the highways both flat and mountainous with those wonderful colorful trucks – one of the people the film follows is a long-distance truck driver – the flat-roofed urban neighborhoods, the earth-colored Afghan refugee camps.

The film’s visual portrayal of these slices of Pakistan rings exquisitely true to the country I’ve known and loved for almost two decades. This might be partly due to today’s new super-duper video technologies, but it’s at least equally about the filmmakers’ eye, where they opt to direct their attention and let it linger. What is important and meaningful is always and unavoidably a matter of personal choice and responsibility, and the question – at once artistic and political – is whether we’re going to determine these for ourselves, or let others with vested interests or manipulative agendas decide them for us. For me personally, that’s not a question at all but a fundamental matter of self-respect. True art endorses and amplifies things one already knows or viscerally feels to be true. By that standard, Without Shepherds is true art, a true depiction of the Pakistan that I know and love.

withoutshepherdstearsWithin the country’s and the film’s landscapes are the voices (mostly in Urdu, with subtitles). Abdullah, the truck driver: “If there’s a traffic jam or a strike, then everyone gets long faces, saying, ‘Where did all the trucks go?’ A driver gets respect when he’s at the wheel. The moment he steps out of his truck, he’s a nobody.” Ibrahim, the earnest young man who, as we learn, became and then ceased being a militant: “It’s our nature to take the things we inherit for granted. That’s why we don’t value Pakistan.” Vaneeza, the businesslike fashion model: “Tidying up is one thing this country will never do.” Laiba, the intrepid Pushtun woman journalist (like so many tough, gutsy Pakistani writers and artists – especially women – that I’ve known): “This country is so plentiful, but we’re just busy fighting each other.” These people have their being amid the perpetual white noise of events, politics, policies decided in Islamabad and Washington. They’re along for the ride, hanging on as best they can, maybe nudging things in one direction or another according to their lights. In this they’re representative not only of Pakistanis, but of all of us.

The personage in the film I haven’t mentioned yet is Imran Khan. We can debate politics later and elsewhere – that’s what long Lahori dinner parties are for – and it’s not for me to say who should govern Pakistan or how. What I will say is that Without Shepherds offers a marvelously intimate portrait of Imran at work and at play: speaking at rallies, mumbling about politics while reading the newspaper, playing pick-up cricket in the mountains, duck hunting with his sons. This film offers delightful and fascinating glimpses of who Imran Khan really is and what he’s about.

I’ve saved mention of Imran until now because I don’t want to leave the impression that Without Shepherds is a film about him. It’s not. But he certainly is part of Pakistan’s story, not only over the past two decades of his long, hard political slog, but of course before that with his career as one of probably the five greatest world cricketers of all time, culminating in one of Pakistan’s great national moments: the 1992 World Cup triumph. It’s part of the triumph of Without Shepherds that it includes his story seamlessly and without pretension among the stories it tells of Pakistan and Pakistanis, and it shows him as much more fully human than the mere “cricketer-turned-politician” that non-Pakistanis read about in news reports.

The film takes its title from Ibrahim, the ex-Taliban: “Sometimes you see animals here without a shepherd,” he tells the filmmakers while showing them around the rocky, scrubby landscape where he used to fight. “We let them roam free. And no matter how far the cows wander, they come home by dusk.” But, except for a couple of charming codas, the last words in the film are Imran’s, appropriately leaving us with things to think about. “Now answer one question,” he tells a rally. “Pakistan ka matlab kya? What is the meaning of Pakistan?”

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Has America Spoken?

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Late in the evening on election day, unable to sleep, I posted on Facebook:

My friends on the right need to keep in mind that they live here in America with the rest of us, and that the rest of us are far from happy. And my friends on the left need to grow some self-respect, quit your bellyaching … and get out of bed tomorrow morning, and every morning thereafter, and figure out how to make yourselves directly useful in some way or ways, if you’re not already.

… and more in the same vein. My hope was to say something constructive at a moment when America’s destructive divisiveness had become all too glaringly obvious. My post got some “likes,” but it also brought out of the woodwork a few of my fellow Americans who had little more to say than “Ha! We win. Deal with it!” – although that didn’t keep a couple of them from saying that at some length. Most telling was a comment from Wayne Pimental of Summerville, South Carolina:

America has spoken, most Americans, some realizing too late, that our country is going in the wrong direction the past six years, change most didn’t want. Now, as Americans lets [sic] move forward and preserve the Constitution the way it was meant to be. Oh, now you know how some Americans felt after the last two presidential elections.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyWhat’s revealing is that Wayne seems to feel that America has spoken this time, but apparently didn’t really speak in 2008 and 2012, when it said things he didn’t want to hear. The truth, as I discovered when I spent 3 1/2 months driving 18,000 miles around America two years ago to research my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, is that America is far too big and various to speak with one voice. And that in itself bothers many Americans, because it’s complicated as well as ambiguous.

Near the end of my 2012 trip, as I turned the corner at Los Angeles on the home stretch to Seattle, I happened to be reading Lustrum, Robert Harris’s historical novel of Rome, whose narrator muses: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. … Perhaps Caesar is right – this whole republic needs to be pulled down and built again.” Part of the grim fun, if that’s the right word, of Harris’s novel is that we know what happened next in Rome.

Come to think of it, America itself is like a big, sprawling multi-generational family novel, but part of our problem is that we want to skip ahead to find out how it ends. We also are haunted by the yawning gap between the abstract ideals we ostensibly cherish and the concrete realities that we actually live. “America in theory is so awesome,” the libertarian writer Lucy Steigerwald remarked the other day. “America in practice is terrified, Puritanical, and punitive. It is a nasty, bitchy teenage nation that can dish it out and can’t take it. This never fails to be disappointing.”

What I’d like Wayne from Summerville and others like him to know is that during my 2012 trip America spoke to me, and it spoke in many voices. When I asked Cathy Waller, executive director of the Republican Party of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, whether it was possible for people like her to find common ground with Madison liberals, she said, “I’m going to be honest: I don’t know if we can. We’re not going to get anywhere.” Democratic Party activist Elisa Miller told me about specific death threats and hangings in effigy of President Obama around Wisconsin and reflected, “This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism. Volunteers are like, ‘You want me to knock on doors, when those crazies live out there?’”

“I told my parents that if Obama wins, there’s gonna be riots,” Lenny Miller, an African American airline pilot and entrepreneur in Virginia, told me just before the election. “There’s gonna be lawsuits, recounts, all that.”

“If you were President of the United States, would you be more vocal than he is?” I asked him.

“Oh, I would,” replied Lenny. “I’m Morehouse College. He’s Harvard.”

“Does the American system have what it takes to self-correct at this point?” I asked George Campbell, a thoughtful young Republican lawyer in Greenville, South Carolina.

“Yep, it does,” he assured me. “The system does. The question is whether the people do.”

No selection of American voices would be complete without the voices of immigrants, and one that I met was a Haitian teenage girl in Orlando, Florida. When I asked which presidential candidate she preferred, she said, “I would say Obama. The most point is, why would you choose somebody who’s already rich, that don’t have a clue what it’s like for the poor?”

America did speak this November 4. But what it said that day was not the last word; we’re all still subject to the remorseless grinding forward of events.

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America: Now What?

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Seattle - I’m writing this on election day 2014. My initial idea was to write and post something the day after the election, but the things that most fundamentally ail America transcend any routine scheduled political event, so I might as well address those regardless of the election results.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyNot that election results don’t matter; they do. But still. Just after the presidential elections two years ago I was in New Orleans, where I asked Alden McDonald, CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust, the third-largest African American-owned bank in the country, whether the Republicans would be chastened by President Obama’s rather decisive re-election. “That’s a good question,” he replied.

I have not seen anything that will cause them to change. I think some leadership is going to have to rise on that side to get people to begin looking at what’s best for the country, as opposed to what’s best for the party. Everyone has to realize that we have to get the budget in line, no two ways about it, but we have to do it together. The bipartisan committee came up with some recommendations that the Obama administration put together, and the Republican Party rejected. Now, Alan Simpson, who was not only a well-known but a well-respected Republican, was co-chair of it, and I knew Alan from some past relationships, and we’ve talked about his work privately. He’s terribly upset for his party, terribly upset. Well respected, staunch Republican, and he could not believe the pushback he got from his party. So we have a lot of things to worry about, we have a lot of things we have to fix, and at what point does the leadership of this country come to the forefront and say enough is enough?

I quote Mr. McDonald in my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, published a year ago. I’m currently making corrections and minor revisions to Home Free, preparatory to ordering a new printing. My premise in traveling during the 2012 election season was that the historical moment would prove telling, and that as the American national story continued to unfold, the personalities and stories in my book would remain revealing and edifying.

So at least I hoped and hope. To invoke one of the hoariest of journalistic cliches, time will tell. But one of the strongest impressions my 18,000-mile, 3 1/2-month road trip left me with was that not only are we Americans not all on the same page (to put it mildly), and not only do we not even want to be on the same page, but we live in different worlds.  And really, how could it be otherwise in a country the size of a continent? Near the end of the book I wrote:

One of the motivating premises of my project had been that America was not separate or different from the rest of the world. I had proven that, at least to my own satisfaction. And I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.

This October, invited to give the keynote speech at an annual “conflict resolution” conference in Colorado Springs, I opted to narrate a version of my Home Free slide show. I said jokingly at the beginning that America itself is one big conflict-resolution scenario, but no one laughed. I had misjudged my audience. Colorado Springs (my parents live there, and I devote a chapter to it in Home Free) is less monolithically dominated by right-wing Bible thumpers than many outsiders believe, but it’s true that that faction is both prominent and assertive locally. They also come across as oddly resentful – as if the rest of us were bullying them, rather than vice versa.

Admittedly I could have executed my talk better than I did, but I also violated a peculiar kind of politesse that afflicts Colorado Springs in particular and, I think, America in general: a tacit presumption that we mustn’t talk about precisely the things that we really should be talking about. As my high school friend Jill Radi put it to me in Wisconsin earlier in my trip, “You just don’t enter into the conversation, because it’s just so painful. The emotion’s so high because you can’t even listen.”

What’s funny is that, in my Colorado Springs slide show, I quoted Jill and praised her thoughtfulness and insight, at the same time identifying her as someone who holds conservative views. I did the same with several other right-of-center Americans I had met along the road. Then, after my speech, a man approached me and asked: “Did you interview any left-wing extremists?”

Nonplussed, I cast my mind over my trip and answered honestly, “Um … I don’t think anyone I interviewed was an extremist of any kind. Why do you ask?”

“I think you’re extremely biased in favor of liberals,” he said, and walked away.

Welcome to Colorado Springs, and welcome to America. But I’m an American, dammit, and I don’t want to live in the America that that guy wants to live in. He reminded me of Earl, a reviewer on Goodreads who griped that most of the people I met in Home Free were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” Not so, but even if it were, if the white Middle America that I come from doesn’t start getting used to, maybe even appreciating, the real extent and nature of this country’s diversity, we’re all in for ugly times ahead. In Miami, over lunch the day after election day 2012,  I asked the novelist Edwidge Danticat what it means to her to be an American. “I feel like I don’t know Middle America that well,” she replied.

But what it means to me to be an American has always been hyphenated and diverse, because I’ve always lived in these melting-pot cities. When I first came to New York [from Haiti at age 12], I went to Brooklyn and so, to me, that was America: people speaking Spanish, people speaking Russian, Korean. You have your Haitian groceries at the Korean store. So that, to me, was America: this place where all different kinds of people meet, and sometimes people who are enemies elsewhere can be friends there. Like Haitians and Dominicans might not get along on the island, but in America, in Brooklyn, they’re neighbors.

And, no, I’m not saying that all of America should be like New York City.  I don’t live in New York myself, and I’m glad I don’t. But I am saying that we’re all neighbors. If, by the time you read this, the Republicans have increased their dominance of the House of Representatives and maybe even retaken the Senate, we’ll all be feeling the aftershocks, as the Obama White House drifts rudderless for another two long years and the right wing scents blood in the water. But we’ll all still be neighbors, and we’d better at least try to make the best of it.

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Human Beings Are Better Than We Give Ourselves Credit For

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A Paradise Built in Hell coverIn A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the wonderful San Francisco-based writer Rebecca Solnit shows us how ordinary people on one hand, and established authorities on the other, have responded to natural and other disasters, from the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco to Hurricane Katrina. There are exceptions in both categories, but generally speaking Solnit shows that those in power respond to disasters by circling the wagons to protect their own interests both institutional and personal and by sending in the troops, not to rescue victims but to control and even criminalize them, whereas ordinary people often quite spontaneously rescue and comfort each other and assemble themselves into communities of mutual aid and support.

After the 1906 earthquake, for example, ordinary people in San Francisco organized and ran for each other ad hoc soup kitchens, while the mayor and his cronies were busy scheming to relocate Chinatown from the prime real estate it occupied to the far southern edge of the city. The overall impression Solnit leaves us with is an optimistic one: that “just the way things are” is not really the way things are – that human beings are actually a much better species than we tend to give ourselves and each other credit for, if ever we’re left to behave freely without coercion.

Read more about A Paradise Built in Hell in the text of my speech delivered on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado on October 17, 2014, “Why Bother Trying to Change the World?”

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Why Bother Trying to Change the World?

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ImpossibleCoverSmall(Read more about The Impossible Will Take a Little While in the text of my speech delivered on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado on October 17, 2014. I gave the speech the same title as this review: “Why Bother Trying to Change the World?” - EC 10/18/14)

I spent this summer building a patio, something I had never done before. I had to imagine it, then haul out a lot of dirt, then build a retaining wall and haul in crushed rock and sand. I couldn’t have done it without my friend Pete, who has experience and tools that I lack. The surface is 2,000 reclaimed bricks: assorted antique pieces of Seattle history (some  from the original harbor steps dating to the 1880s).

I could get run over by a bus tomorrow, or an earthquake like the one that just hit California could destroy my house, or rampaging condo developers could devour my quaint neighborhood. And anyway, ISIS is overrunning Iraq and Syria and police in armored vehicles have been terrorizing residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and I’m told radiation from the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan has reached the West Coast of North America, which is where I live. So why bother building a patio? My answer is that, regardless of all the bad things happening around the world, my wife and I and our friends and relatives will enjoy it for years to come and, I hope, eventually pass it on intact to others to enjoy. Like establishing a garden or writing a book, building a patio in an uncertain world is an exercise in enlisting the passage of time to advantage: an act of faith.

“Faith” is a widely and glibly abused word, but the sense in which I use it here should ring true to anyone, religious or not, who lives in our world as it is and wants to do what he or she can to make it better. If you’re going to bother getting out of bed in the morning and doing anything at all, you have to believe that life is worth living and that human beings are meaningfully connected through time as well as across space. Needless to say, that can be easier said than done. As Paul Farmer has said, depression is a rational response to the state of the world.

But over 30 years, Farmer and his Haitian and international co-workers have achieved remarkable things in a certain very poor region of rural Haiti, as I’ve seen with my own eyes. They couldn’t have done any of it if they hadn’t started doing it 30 years ago. Farmer and Haiti aren’t featured in Paul Loeb’s wonderfully encouraging revised collection The Impossible Will Take a Little While, but they could well have been. And that’s part of the book’s beauty: Loeb could have conveyed essentially the same message with an entirely different selection of specific material.

The Impossible Will Take a Little While is a judicious selection of writings, grouped thematically and with section introductions by Loeb, by contributors involved in public activism past and present, from South Africa (a compelling excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and Desmond Tutu’s “No Future without Forgiveness”) to Chile (“The Black Hole” by Ariel Dorfman) to Nebraska (Mary Pipher’s “Reluctant Activists” on the remarkable story of how broad-based local citizen opposition arose to the Keystone XL pipeline).

Also included are poems and reflections on the personal costs as well as enrichments of political action. Loeb is clearly a very literate and humane person, and the book’s greatest value is that it addresses, implicitly and at times explicitly, the question of why we should bother in the first place. As Loeb writes in the introduction to the section titled “Beyond Hope,”

Sometimes we achieve the impossible sooner than we expect. Knowing that can stiffen our resolve. But relying on quick victories can also tempt us to place too much emphasis on outcomes; it can cause us to become unduly impatient, brittle, with our will easily broken by setbacks. A deeper, more farseeing hope, by contrast, combines realism with resilience, acknowledging suffering and despair without giving in to them. … By letting go of impatient hope we can persist no matter how hard it gets.

Loeb quotes his friend Abe Osheroff, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and was still politically active when he died at age 92: “When I was younger, I acted because I hoped to achieve a certain something. Now I’m path-oriented. I act to get in contact with the best part of who I am. I do the work whether we win or lose.” Loeb rightly emphasizes that it’s both permissible and necessary for us to live with paradox: “If we let go of consequences altogether, we can delude ourselves into thinking that critical life-and-death outcomes don’t matter. Yet if we base our commitment solely on whether we’ll prevail, we run the risk of giving up before the full promise of history is fulfilled.”

The Impossible was first published ten years ago, and the new edition is a substantial revision, with a number of additions and substitutions to cover more recent events, such as “We Are All Khaled Said” by the Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim. For some reason to do with rights or whatever, Loeb wasn’t able to include Rebecca Solnit’s powerful essay “Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage,” written in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but he points out that you can read it on the Internet. As a Wisconsinite, I wish that he had included something on the historic citizen occupation of the state capitol building in Madison in early 2011, but you can (and should) watch the excellent documentary film We Are Wisconsin.

Activism by its nature is about current events, but – another paradox – we can’t act effectively in the present without knowing and understanding history. Hence, post-Ferguson, the exquisite timeliness of Loeb’s pre-Ferguson inclusion of Martin Luther King’s classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “I must confess that over the last few years I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Loeb juxtaposes King’s piece with “The Real Rosa Parks,” a memorable excerpt from his own book Soul of a Citizen, because he wants to bring home a crucial point: “She didn’t single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts, but she was part of an existing movement for change, at a time when success was far from certain. … For only when we act despite all our uncertainties and doubts do we have the chance to shape history.”

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Ferguson: We Are All Missourians

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SEATTLE, August 18 – I began Home Free, my account of the 3 1/2-month driving trip I made around the United States during the 2012 election season, with an entire chapter on Wisconsin for three reasons. One was topical: the then-recent occupation of the state capitol building in Madison, by tens of thousands of citizens opposing the policies of Governor Scott Walker, and the seemingly intractable polarization of the state that that expressed. Another was geographic: Wisconsin was on my way from Seattle, where I live, to points east. But the overriding reason was personal: Wisconsin had been my home. I grew up in Oconomowoc, an all-white town of 15,000 at the western edge of suburban Waukesha County.

Oconomowoc is where it is, thirty miles west of the largely poor and black city of Milwaukee, for a reason: it’s near enough that you can get to Milwaukee for, say, a Brewers game or Summerfest, but far enough away that you can ignore and disavow the things and people there that you find frightening or distasteful. There are towns like Oconomowoc in suburban counties all around America, and in those towns live white guys who grow up to become cops.

As I write in Home Free, I made a beeline for Wisconsin because it was available to me personally in a way that Missouri or Indiana would not have been, yet I also felt it was thoroughly representative: middle-class, middle-western America, writ medium-sized. And, after two weeks in Wisconsin in late September 2012, I found my hypothesis vindicated. As lifelong Milwaukee resident Moshe Katz told me specifically about my hometown, “There’s a side of Oconomowoc that is the wonderful beauty of America. But then there’s another whole side of it that’s more than scary.”

Which brings me to Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve never been to Ferguson, but it’s part of the same world as Oconomowoc. And I don’t mean, in some high-minded way, the world at large, but the particular regional world – at once wonderful and scary – of the provincial Midwest.

Elisa Miller, a Democratic Party activist in Wisconsin who chose the largely thankless task of working in heavily Republican Waukesha County, told me, “You have this white horseshoe of racist crap, and that was my area. People were afraid to put yard signs in their yards. A volunteer was driving on a rural highway, and she saw a children’s play set with a noose hanging from it and a sign that said, ‘Obama’s Play Set.’ This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism.”

A reviewer of my book on Goodreads named Lori complained that she “just couldn’t get past the fact that it was mostly a book about politics. I would not have read it if I had known.” Another, Earl, griped  inaccurately and tellingly that most of the people I interviewed were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” I actually bent over backwards in Home Free to avoid “being political” but, I’m sorry, the world we live in is political. And, again, I mean not only the world at large, but in particular – whether we like it or not - the world of provincial America that most of us call home.

Being political means acknowledging that we all live here together, that every citizen and every community has standing. And it means that, as the Midwesterner John Mellencamp puts it, you gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. What I stand for is an America where police are not entitled to execute an unarmed teenager, regardless of whether he stole cigars from a convenience store. But as horrible as the shooting itself was, even more ominous for all of us is what we’ve all seen, and residents of Ferguson have experienced, since: the militarization of law enforcement. In the America that I want to live in, it’s not all right for police to intimidate entire communities with automatic weapons, riot gear and armored vehicles.

It may be, though, that we already no longer live in the America that I want to live in. Events like those unfolding in Ferguson happen when societies fail at being political. As a journalist living and working overseas in the 1990s and 2000s, I witnessed the specific and predictable consequences of the failure of civilian politics in Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Military occupations and dictatorships occur in such countries not only because generals are ambitious and power-hungry, but because the factions and communities of civilian society have proven unable to live and deal with each other justly and peaceably. Something similar is now happening in Ferguson.

 

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Pakistan: “It’s happening right now”

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PHOENIX – On Sunday here I was the main speaker at the annual Daal Saag Luncheon of the local Pakistan Information and Cultural Organization (PICO). I had just sat down after giving my speech, when the Pakistani man sitting to my right informed me that an attack was taking place on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. “It’s happening right now,” he emphasized.

The news, available via the smartphone of anyone and everyone in the room, brought home the surreal immediacy of the events unfolding on the other side of the planet, even as we tried to say good things about Pakistan for the sake of invited guests such as Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. This is the meaning of terrorism, especially in the hyper-connected 21st century: there’s nowhere we can go to get away from it. At the same time, it was also true that those of us in the ballroom of the Phoenix Airport Marriott were a lot farther from the immediate danger than were the travelers and staff at Pakistan’s busiest airport.

In my writing and public speaking I try to stress to Americans the most important thing I discovered in getting to know Pakistan and Pakistanis: our common humanity. That sounds, and is, very earnest and feel-good, but its dark underbelly is the potential and reality of human evil. I’m often asked whether, in my nearly two decades of visiting and living in Pakistan, I’ve ever felt myself to be in physical danger. The answer is yes, at least twice: in a town in the North-West Frontier Province in 1999, and at an arts festival in Karachi disrupted by a political party’s goons in 2009. Age and experience have made me more sober about the real possibility of danger, and I also keep in mind something my friend and colleague Mary Kay Magistad told me years ago in Cambodia: that you can’t report the story if you’re dead.

But the Karachi airport attack is sobering anew. I’ve been telling anyone who asks that I plan to focus my next trip to Pakistan on Karachi, because that huge but oddly neglected city is so clearly at the epicenter of all that’s happening in and to Pakistan today. The airport attack not only renders my rather glibly expressed intention a statement of the grimly obvious, but also forces me to wonder not only whether I would actually travel to Pakistan again, but even whether I could. Will the airport be safe? Will it even be open?

The paradox of our times is that we’re at once more immediately and intimately connected than ever before, and more isolated and paranoid. My pitch to the Phoenix audience was that we can’t count on the authorities or established institutions to do for us what needs to be done, which includes first and foremost reminding ourselves and each other of our shared humanity. For my part, I’m continuing to take the story and message of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan to readers and audiences around America. It’s what I’m in a position to do.

I really don’t claim to know what policies either the Pakistani or the U.S. government should pursue, in response to this attack or anything else. What I do claim is that the most important thing for Americans to know about the Karachi attack is not any geopolitical upshot, but the fact that innocent Pakistanis died.

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan (updated and expanded 10th-anniversary edition, 2014) and Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013).

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Enter giveaway for Home Free: An American Road Trip!

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Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyPlease share: I believe that my book Home Free: An American Road Trip is a very revealing, even landmark, book that anyone who wants to know and understand today’s America would do well to read.

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen, says, “Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he’s listening to America.” Bill Steigerwald, author of the brilliant debunking road-trip book Dogging Steinbeck, believes that I did in Home Free what John Steinbeck failed to do in his famous 1962 bestseller Travels with Charley – and I take that as a very high compliment.

I’m running a giveaway of 50 copies of Home Free on Goodreads. You can join the giveaway through this link:
https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/94492-home-free-an-american-road-trip

You can also like me on Facebook and follow me on Goodreads:
https://www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author?ref=hl

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/723009.Ethan_Casey

Finally, I was recently asked to contribute an op-ed article based on Home Free to The Hindu, a national English-language newspaper in India. That article, titled “In search of America …” has just been published. Here’s the link:
http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-search-of-america/article6090097.ece

Ethan Casey

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Journalist, author, publisher