France and Muslims: What Camus Would Say

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Algerian ChroniclesAmong other things, Albert Camus would remind his fellow Frenchmen of the poisonous legacy of the Algerian war that did great damage to society in both Algeria and metropolitan France, as the French empire unraveled in the 1950s. He is in fact reminding us of the bitter history that he – an Algerian-born Frenchman – lived through, via the 2013  English translation of his fascinating, long-forgotten book Algerian Chronicles.

His decision to compile the book – a collection of his journalism from rural Algeria dating back to the 1930s and his urgent occasional writing  as the situation deteriorated through the 1940s and 1950s – was an act of integrity and of faith, unrequited at the time, as its publication sank like a proverbial stone because radicalized factions on all sides were refusing to hear voices of moderation. But the translation by Arthur Goldhammer and publication by Harvard University Press amplify the great moralist’s enduring relevance by displaying the power, or at least the human value, of moral and intellectual clarity and honesty, even when these qualities are demonstrably ineffectual in political terms.

What Camus saw clearly above all was the moral vacuousness of us-versus-them factional rhetoric. “The truth, unfortunately, is that one segment of French public opinion vaguely believes that the Arabs have somehow acquired the right to kill and mutilate, while another segment is prepared to justify every excess,” he wrote. “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries.”

The proximate occasion for my publishing this short appreciation is, of course, the terrorist murder of a dozen staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7. But Camus speaks to us far beyond France, and beyond any particular event. To those Americans who are still confused about or oblivious to the implications of the recent Senate torture report, he has this to say:

 The reprisals against the civilian population of Algeria and the use of torture against the rebels are crimes for which we all bear a share of responsibility. That we have been able to do such things is a humiliating reality that we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must refuse to justify these methods on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain. One cause is as good as another, and pointless warfare, unrestrained by the rule of law, consecrates the triumph of nihilism.

The tragedy and poignancy of Camus’s writings on Algeria is that few on any side listened to him at the time. But therein also lies his relevance to us right now, half a century later. He refused to “grandstand for the sake of an audience,” as he put it: “I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent and to deepen the divisions in a France already poisoned by hatred and factionalism.” In today’s world, a writer like the Pakistani novelist Bina Shah is in a similar position. We can hear echoes of his attitude in her January 7 series of tweets :

I refuse to condemn/apologise as a Muslim. The people that did this stand for the polar opposite of what I believe in. … Those of you asking us “peaceful Muslims” to condemn terrorists rather naively assume they’re actually going to listen to us. … I do not apologise for Islamist terrorists because I live my life in opposition to everything they stand for. That is braver.

Camus’s credibility, then and now, lies largely in his willingness to deploy his moral authority, as both a prominent French liberal and a longtime public sympathizer with the Algerian cause, to condemn terrorism explicitly and forcefully:

The massacres of civilians must first be condemned by the Arab movement, just as we French liberals condemn the massacres of the repression. Otherwise, the relative notions of innocence and guilt that guide our action would disappear in the confusion of generalized criminality, which obeys the logic of total war. … When the oppressed take up arms in the name of justice, they take a step toward injustice.

Most poignant, and most relevant, to us and our times, and what comes through most clearly in Camus’s Algerian writings, is the writer’s humanity. In her 1985 essay “The Essential Gesture,” reflecting on the variety of ways to involve oneself, as a writer, in events and the times and activism, Nadine Gordimer reminds us that it was Camus who famously said, “It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.”

Much of the enduring human appeal of Camus lies in his unwillingness to distance himself as an intellectual from his own visceral and particular loyalties – and why should he? Why should any of us? The correct version of the response he gave to an Algerian student at a press conference in Stockholm in 1957, much misquoted and misunderstood at the time, illustrates how his moral and political positions arose directly out of his personal agony as a pied noir or Frenchman born in Algeria: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

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After Ferguson: driving and speaking around the Midwest

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Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyEthan Casey, author of Home Free: An American Road Trip, is planning a follow-up trip through the Midwest in the fall of 2015 to document the attitudes, aspirations and worries of Americans and in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere nationwide since the summer of 2014. He will be writing an account of that 2-3-week trip to supplement Home Free. Along the way he plans to speak at colleges, high schools, civic clubs and religious congregations. Destinations will include Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City.

Ethan Casey Saut d'EauTo invite Ethan to speak to your group during his fall 2015 Midwestern trip, or to learn more about his travels and writings, contact Ethan directly at ethan@ethancasey.com or through his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author

About Home Free: An American Road Trip:

Over  3 1/2 months and more than 18,000 miles between Labor Day and Christmas 2012, during and just after the presidential election, author Ethan Casey, whose previous books include Alive and Well in Pakistan and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, drove clockwise through every region of the contiguous United States, starting and ending in Seattle.

His purpose was to do what reporters and travel writers should do, and what he had done previously in books about Pakistan and Haiti: show up on the ground in person, seek out interesting and representative people, listen to their stories and points of view, take notes, then later sit down and stitch together a coherent narrative. His intention was to get away from the liberal echo chamber of his home city, catch history on the fly, and craft a nonfiction narrative account of America circa 2012 that will echo forward and remain relevant and readable for years to come.

Ethan’s itinerary included in-depth conversations with a few notable public figures such as the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat in Miami and Enron scandal whistleblower Sherron Watkins in Houston, but most of the people he met were ordinary Americans from a variety of backgrounds, in every region of the country. What he found they all had in common was that they were struggling to make sense of the confusing and uncertain times we’re all living through.

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, says: “Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he’s listening to America.”

And Bill Steigerwald, author of Dogging Steinbeck, considers Home Free better than the most famous of all American road trip books:

Just as John Steinbeck did in 1960 for his classic Travels With Charley, in the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey set out by car to discover – and document – the pulse of America and its people. Steinbeck’s ambitious search for his country was a failure, as the great author himself admitted. But Home Free is travel journalism at its finest. Casey delivers a valuable snapshot of 2012 America and its most contentious political and social issues.  Best of all, he introduces us to a rich cross-section of good, smart and thoughtful Americans who tell their stories and express their opinions fully on everything from immigration and gay marriage to the death of Detroit. Home Free is, in a real sense, the American road book Steinbeck set out to write but didn’t.

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Has Our Interest in Haiti Peaked?

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To mark the fifth anniversary of the massive earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, I’m republishing this review of Amy Wilentz‘s book Farewell, Fred Voodoo, originally posted in April 2013.

Farewell, Fred Voodoo coverThe lengthening aftermath of the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti is at a telling moment in its history, as an occasion for international humanitarianism and as a public event in the awareness of the American public. On one hand, more than three years after the horrific event itself, enough time has passed that it’s possible to begin describing and assessing its impact on Haitian society and – at least equally – the impact of the massive international response. On the other hand, sad but not surprising to say, the American public’s attention has turned elsewhere. As a New York literary agent guilelessly told me in early 1995, in the wake of a previous Haitian crisis, “people’s interest in Haiti has peaked.” Thus, just as what can only be called the glaring and culpable failure of the international community’s response to the earthquake is being documented with irrefutable authority, it’s becoming more difficult to interest most Americans in that failure, what it means for Haitians, and what it says about us.

Did you text ten dollars to the American Red Cross after the earthquake? Half of U.S. households “gave to Haiti” then, an astounding factoid about what was not only a shocking natural disaster but also a phenomenon of 21st-century communications technology and global electronic interconnectedness. Americans do deserve credit for empathy and generosity, but we’re too quick to congratulate ourselves on that point. The phrase “self-indulgent overkill” may be harsh, but it sprang to my mind fairly soon after the earthquake, and it took on an especially pointed significance half a year later, when the annual monsoon hit Pakistan late and with unusual and abrupt severity, at one point leaving some two million people homeless and 20 percent of that large country underwater – and the American public scarcely noticed or, to the extent it did, felt free to dismiss human suffering in that case as unimportant or somehow deserved. (If you think I’m overstating this, read some of the comments on the Huffington Post version of my article “Pakistan Floods: Why Should We Care?”)

I addressed that contrast, which tells us little about either Haiti or Pakistan and all too much about ourselves, elsewhere some two years ago. The gist is in the connotation of the title of Paul Farmer’s book The Uses of Haiti: We Americans allow ourselves to use other societies as repositories for our own baggage – Haitians as objects of pity, Pakistanis as bearded bogeymen. Since then, others have produced documents that should spur all of us who “gave to Haiti” and/or watched it on TV to reflect on our role and our obligations. Unfortunately, much of what they’re documenting is unedifying and hard to swallow.

I haven’t yet read The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan Katz, but people I trust recommend it, and the title is perfectly apt. I have read Farewell, Fred Voodoo and heard its author, Amy Wilentz, speak at Town Hall Seattle in January, and I’m relieved and grateful that it and she have given me an occasion to lay aside the misgivings I’ve long felt about the outsized influence her previous writings exerted, if not on Haiti’s own politics and recent history, then certainly on the parameters of allowable views on Haiti among bien-pensant Americans.

The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier (1989) was a good book, but its timing, bent, and reception conferred on Wilentz far more authority than should ever properly be granted to a young journalist and her first book. Perhaps Wilentz shouldn’t be faulted for having made the most of that opportunity to advocate for what was essentially a secular leftist Manhattanite’s understanding of Haiti; other willful (mis)understandings of Haiti – the cornfed Protestant “lay Jesus on ‘em” school, for example – have done more damage over a longer period. But throughout the crucial 1990s, Wilentz’s was, if not the only voice in the American debate, such as it was, on Haiti, certainly one of the most audible and influential. For the positions she advanced then, she should be held accountable. On the eve of the long-delayed U.S. invasion of Haiti in October 1994, for example, her conditional verb tense – arguing in The Nation that what we should hope for was “the transformation that would [my emphasis] come about when this regime is toppled from within, under pressure from the outside, and not for the cosmetic quick fix of intervention” – betrayed a moralistic wishfulness that the political and brute power of an imperial state could (because it should) be exercised on behalf of the helpless people of a poor and tiny nearby country. She was arguing, that is – albeit reluctantly, but quite explicitly – that, to serve a political purpose, Haitians should have continued paying the deadly human cost of the economic embargo that, in the real world, finally ended with the invasion.

But that is, on some levels, a very dated nit to pick at this point. Both tellingly and appropriately, at her Seattle reading the once ubiquitous and poisonous rhetorical war – “debate” is too polite a word – over the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide didn’t rear its head until I asked her about him, in the final question of the q-and-a session. “He largely hijacked my first book, is how I put it,” she answered. Then she went on to give Aristide his due: “He was a great spokesman for the Haitian people. … Whatever Aristide is personally he still is, for many Haitians, a symbol of their possible power. And that’s what [many elite Haitian and American] people fear.”

Aristide may have hijacked The Rainy Season, but it’s Wilentz’s book and she let him do it. By the same token, The Rainy Season was and remains crucially useful as perhaps the only thorough documentation of Aristide’s early career as a renegade populist priest, before his eleventh-hour decision to run in the December 1990 presidential election, which he won with 67 percent of the vote. Wilentz spent much of the ensuing painful and damaging period of recriminations and far worse that finally culminated, sort of, in Aristide’s February 2004 second overthrow courtesy of the Bush administration (“We’re glad to see him go” – Dick Cheney) awkwardly backing out of the corner into which she had painted herself. She eventually became very critical of Aristide, thus alienating him, but it was too late for her to regain the confidence of others who had been warier sooner about whether Haiti’s problems could be helpfully addressed in straightforwardly political ways.

Haiti Where Did the Money GoWhy does any of this matter, at this late date? In some ways it doesn’t, because other issues have become much more urgent, such as what exactly the vaunted “international community” has achieved with all its power, money, and suffocating presence in Haiti since the earthquake. In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Wilentz addresses and partially documents the failure and, even more appalling, the damage wrought by international organizations and personalities who came to save Haiti and then overstayed their welcome. The title alludes to the dismissive monicker Wilentz heard fellow journalists using to refer to the hypothetical Haitian man on the street during her first stint in Haiti in the mid-1980s. Explaining the title at the Seattle reading, she said, “I wanted to be insulting; I wanted to be in the face of everybody. … These people who all thought they were helping, they were saying, ‘Fred Voodoo.’ … Outsiders thought they were fixing Haiti, remaking Haiti.” Anyone who has loved and learned from Haiti as long as I have can sympathize with Wilentz’s exasperation. It’s not for us to fix Haiti, and anyway, who’s to say Haiti is what needs to be fixed? Sometimes it’s important to get in people’s faces, or at least not to go too far out of one’s way to be polite.

Farewell, Fred Voodoo is not a tightly structured or fully coherent book, but it’s an honest and earnest one, and its publication represents the consummation of a long-cherished personal commitment. Any topical writer’s attention to the subject matter – that is, to the suffering human beings and societies – that he or she stumbles on early in life should be not only incisive but also sustained, as well as morally and intellectually honest. Farewell, Fred Voodoo thus is a triumph in a way The Rainy Season could never have been. “I thought I was done, and then Aristide became president,” Wilentz said in Seattle. “I thought, ‘Now I’m done, I’ve had my babies, I’ve written two other books.’ And then the earthquake happened. I felt I had an obligation to go back down to Haiti, see it all again.”

Farewell, Fred Voodoo hits hard on some truths that Americans need to hear, but – or rather, and – it’s not only (per its subtitle) a letter from Haiti, but a love letter to Haiti. If you “gave to Haiti” but haven’t read a book about it, start there and then keep going. Please do keep going; there’s a lot that you need to know. An excellent next stop would be the documentary film Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? directed by the journalist Michele Mitchell.

The hour-long documentary released in 2012 doesn’t answer its own question completely, but it certainly asks the hard question bluntly and effectively. In other words, it does what any work of journalism is supposed to do. Mitchell and her colleagues at Film at Eleven are not longtime Haiti hands, but they didn’t need to be to ask the question we all should be asking. The short answer is that a lot of it went to feed the bureaucracies of some of the most prestigious international organizations and the self-indulgent lifestyles of many of their employees. If that sounds harsh, watch the film and judge for yourself. The American Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services come off looking especially bad, but that might be partly a function of their hapless availability to the filmmakers; other groups Mitchell didn’t catch on film might well be just as bad.

And then there’s the United Nations, whose soldiers introduced cholera into Haiti, and which refuses to take responsibility for a bridge that one of its shipping containers destroyed near the new Partners in Health-run teaching hospital outside Mirebalais, when it came loose upriver. (I discuss the bridge, as well as the cholera epidemic, with Dr. David Walton of Partners in Health in my book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, pp. 294-95.) “Every one of those ten thousand NGOs are here to live their own dream,” says the Dutch journalist Linda Polman, one of the film’s most thoughtful voices. “[Haitian] people are very poor, but they’re not stupid. They know that the money was raised from their suffering and their poverty, and it’s not being spent on them. … Like everything in life, it comes down to politics.” Adds Dr. Barth Green of the University of Miami and Project MediShare: “I can tell you that most of the money did not leave the United States.”

Another of the film’s memorable voices, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, says of the Red Cross: “They’re like the Halliburton of disaster relief, right? But that’s still no excuse. … There has to be some demand from the people for accountability from these organizations.” Clarke means in this case not Haitian people, but those American people – half of U.S. households – who “gave to Haiti” after the quake. She’s saying that there’s a responsibility implicit in our having done so. At screenings I attended in January in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, Mitchell echoed this point: “Take the time to follow your money,” she urged. “It starts with the donor. If we start holding them accountable for what they did with our money, then things can start to change.”

Late last year, to their great credit, Mitchell and her colleagues returned to Haiti, not to film but to screen the documentary in the camp where they had filmed much of it. The camp’s residents enjoyed seeing themselves and each other onscreen, she told us at the screenings I attended; and they told her, “Thank you for not forgetting us.” For her part, Mitchell said, “I didn’t want to be another white chick journalist who shoved a camera in their face and didn’t come back.”

Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? is an important film because it has a hope of reaching some measurable fraction of the American public with a truth that I know from my own Haitian experience and friends to be true: that the earthquake provided a novel occasion for the affluent outside world to do what it has always found an excuse to do, which is to use and exploit Haiti and Haitians. It’s fitting that those Haitians should be given the last word in this essay. “The NGOs pretty much focus on Port-au-Prince,” my remarkable friend Gerald Oriol Jr. told me as early as August 2010. “It would have been an opportunity for people to rebuild their lives in provincial towns. But the emergency period wasn’t well planned. Everybody was like, ‘Hey, Port-au-Prince is where all the journalists are,’ and since everybody wants to get their logo on national TV, the NGOs pretty much centered relief efforts on the capital.”

“Do you think it’s that cynical?” I asked him.

“Well, maybe I am being cynical,” he allowed. “But sometimes that’s the way you have to view it.”

My equally amazing friend Edrice Dely was more blunt. When I asked him about UN soldiers, he replied, “Peyi kote Nasyonzini ale nan mond, gen pwoblem.” Countries the UN goes to in the world have problems. “It’s not security that they provide,” he went on. “They look for the beautiful women, beautiful beaches, nice houses. If there’s insecurity, they’re happy. It’s their job: per diem, salary, car. Wherever there’s UN intervention, it creates problems. They give arms to twelve-year-old children. They trade arms with young boys for marijuana. They destabilize the economy. They make prices rise, because they have American money.”

As we talked, sitting on the grass near the picturesque ruin of the Sans Souci palace outside Cap Haitien, someone was broadcasting a speech over a loudspeaker in the market area nearby. I asked Edrice to help me understand what the person was saying.

“They’re talking about the reconstruction of the country,” he said.

“Is it political?” I asked.

“It’s the UN who’s talking.”

“Is it good or bad?”

“Good words,” he replied. “Bel pawol sans aksyon. Beautiful words, with no action.”

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Pakistan and the Tragedy of Our Time

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AliveandWell-front-smThere’s a certain glibness prevalent in the discourse of the ostensibly liberal Western and Westernized world today that’s epitomized by the vapid Google slogan “Don’t be evil.” That’s much easier said than done. A few days ago Dick Cheney was all over America’s gravitas-laden Sunday talk shows, speaking as if for me and my country, claiming that there is no comparison between CIA “tactics” (yet another euphemism for torture) and the actions of terrorists. But is that a comparison we want to make, as if evil justifies more evil? My mother taught me long ago that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Moral and intellectual clarity about the world we live in are not compatible with self-exculpating glibness. Our adversaries’ wrongness does not mean we are in the right. The substance of the terrorists’ victory lies exactly in their indisputable success in having persuaded Western societies to endorse and empower our own authoritarian regimes, and to acquiesce in what seems certain to become a perpetual police state and de facto endless war.

It’s not either/or, nor is it “us” in the West versus “them” in the Muslim world. Terrorism is evil. So is the police state we’re constructing to combat it. The tragedy is that after 9/11 we did have a choice in how to respond, and we largely blew it, first and foremost by initiating the unnecessary and immensely damaging Iraq war in 2003. To reflect on that is to know the bitter irony in Cheney’s defiant assertion that he would do it all again. And if we don’t accept how very wrong we were, morally, politically, and historically, to invade Iraq, then we will never achieve either understanding or peace.

These things were on my mind already, and then the Sydney cafe siege happened … and then, early Tuesday morning in Seattle, I awoke to the news of the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar. At 6:27 a.m. Seattle time I read a message from Shaheryar Azhar, who for years has been rather heroically doing his part to keep moderate discourse in and about Pakistan alive by running a thoughtful moderated email forum. “Once again, a great tragedy has struck Pakistan,” he wrote.

TTP [Pakistani Taliban] terrorists chose the softest target possible, one that would have maximum effect – a large public school in Peshawar that at the time was full of children. As of now more than 130 deaths have been confirmed, most of them of children between ages 9 and 16 with about 200 injured. A large number of the dead kids belonged to serving army personnel.  Media reports indicate that there are still terrorists holed-up in the school premises. This dastardly act was clearly a cowardly response from an emasculated TTP in response to Zarb-e-Azab, the military operation going on in North Waziristan against the militants.
Having myself studied at the Cantonment Public School in Peshawar and having worn similar striped blue and yellow tie that I see from chaotic images on the TV as I write these words I suddenly feel very old and very broken. My heart pierced, a gaping hole inside, barely able to muster enough energy to send this message. But this will not weaken us.
This Forum has from the beginning of the conflict called TTP, Taliban, terrorists, non-state actors, whatever name you want to give them, an existential threat to Pakistan. That is, all politics and all other economic and social issues collapse into this one single issue. If we don’t get this right, nothing will ever be right. If we don’t unite on this issue, there will be nothing left to unite for or against [his emphasis].

There is a profound poignancy in Shaheryar sahib’s words that any annotation from me would only diminish. The tragedy for the many patriotic Pakistanis I know and admire is that the state in which they still place their hope against the terrorists is itself severely damaged and compromised. Their best hope is not very good at all. But Pakistanis are not alone in having only bad options; that is the case for us Americans as well. The wheels are coming off here as well as there, and the only discernible upside is that, amid all the confusion and violence still to come, we might eventually arrive at a better understanding of ourselves and our situation.

Both understanding and comfort are available to us from history, and our most urgent compulsion is to seek out and amplify the most humane voices and witnesses, both present and past. I just bought and plan soon to read Albert Camus’s long-neglected Algerian Chronicles, recently published in English for the first time. As an Algerian-born Frenchman, Camus watched helplessly as his two countries fought a war to the bitter end, loss and bloodshed the only result for all involved. In her 2013 review in The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud writes that

Camus’s profound rejection of terrorist violence is obvious in all that he said and wrote on Algeria, not least in his famous (and often misquoted) exchange with the Algerian student in Stockholm, where he said, “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Acutely sensible to pain and suffering, Camus could not condone it anywhere: “I am not made for politics,” he wrote in his notebooks in November 1945, “because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.”

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American Impunity Abroad and at Home

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A university in Texas has asked me to speak to students in January on the subject that we’ve come to call by the shorthand “Ferguson,” and I’ve been wondering what to say. It’s a topical and rhetorical landmine. But the world today is one giant minefield, so the only way to avoid the risk of stepping on a mine is to acquiesce in silence and paralysis. I’m not willing to pay that price for safety, because both personal freedom and the fate of American society are at stake.

Part of the problem with “Ferguson” is precisely that we’ve hastened to make it a shorthand term, the better to pigeonhole it or explain it away, not unlike “Sandy Hook” or “Katrina” or “9/11.” The truth is that each of those events is connected to every other; everything is connected to everything else. The source of our self-induced perpetual confusion is our stubborn insistence on slicing and dicing events, then filing them severally in convenient pigeonholes in order to forget about them, because we find connecting and remembering too painful and demanding.

These musings are on my mind now, because of the long-awaited release of the report detailing just how viscerally and morally disgusting has been the CIA’s torture regime worldwide since 2001. I’m appalled, of course, like any right-thinking person, and ashamed, as every self-respecting patriotic American should be. But to say that is very far from sufficient, and the fact that so many of us “like” each other’s well-meaning, self-satisfied liberal pieties and commentaries on Facebook is actually part of the problem.

But what does torture of terrorism suspects by the CIA have to do with “Ferguson,” anyway? All too much. The connection lies in the demonstrated fact of impunity for those who hold brute power. How is it that CIA interrogators on one hand, and urban and suburban police officers on the other, can intimidate, brutalize, and even kill hapless and/or innocent unarmed civilians, and get away with it? The answer in both cases is the same: because we, the innocent bystanders, are afraid of what will happen if we hold them to account. We’re afraid not only for our own physical safety, but also of what we would learn if we admitted that the state under which we live has squandered its moral and political credibility.

Consider all due caveats about the honest service and good intentions of most police officers and even CIA agents duly inserted here. But those are irrelevant, because the reality of severe abuse by at least some in both categories is too obvious to ignore. The men with guns and tanks and riot gear know that they can misbehave with impunity because – to articulate our situation with brutal candor – they have guns and tanks and riot gear, and we don’t. That is the case both overseas and in nondescript Midwestern suburbs, and therein lies the connection.

If what we really want is to understand, then what we need is to find the courage to face the reality of what the state is and does. There are real terrorists in the world who commit real, despicable acts of terrorism. But what the CIA torture report lays bare is that the American imperial state, under the feckless ostensible leadership of any president, considers a terrorist anyone it sees fit to consider a terrorist, and that it considers itself and its personnel entitled to mistreat such people any way it sees fit, with impunity. Meanwhile, on the home front, as a friend of mine remarked recently, “The line between a long march or protest rally and an urban riot is drawn by the state, and enforced by the police.” Impunity is what makes the state the state.

What this means is that none of us is either safe or free, except to the extent that we are willing to be free in our own minds and spirits. Necessary to maintaining personal freedom is accurate awareness. One thing that’s accurate to say is that those of us who are white Americans have enabled the American state’s impunity, by mumbling to ourselves and each other that the terrorists are Muslim and brown and the urban rioters are black. We’ve averted our eyes because we have not personally been on the front lines, and we’ve drunk our own Kool-Aid. Others don’t enjoy such luxuries. But there is an upside to living life on the business end of the state’s bootheel, as James Baldwin knew circa 1963:

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.

It’s human nature to want to believe in the rightness of our own actions and intentions. But it’s precisely human nature that is the problem; the fact that human evil is predictable does not make it excusable. Nor does fobbing off the evil on singularly evil individuals like Hitler or bin Laden or Cheney. We must be willing to consider ourselves culpable, and to put ourselves at risk.

Innocence insisted on too strenuously is tantamount to guilt. Graham Greene depicted the sinister aspect of American innocence abroad with exquisite insight in The Quiet American, his novel of Vietnam published in 1955. At home in the same period, no one saw America more clearly than James Baldwin: “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know and do not want to know it. It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”

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Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Forty Signs of RainI discovered the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson a year or so ago through his magnificent Mars trilogy and have become a big fan of his signature blend of speculative science, politics, and character-driven narrative. Forty Signs of Rain is the first in a different and earthbound trilogy about the science, politics, and real-life impacts of global warming. Published the year before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it’s remarkably prescient and realistic in its portrayal of a similar flood hitting Washington, D.C.

The fact that D.C. is the capital of the United States is not coincidental; in fact, the fact that it’s both the seat of American power and a notably vulnerable city, infamously and ill-advisedly situated in low-lying swampland, is central to the story Robinson has to tell. We tend to think of Washington as an abstraction, the place where the politics happens. Robinson brings home its topographic and meteorological realities vividly and with verve, as only he can do, in the novel’s dramatic final chapters.

The fictional narrative in Forty Signs of Rain calls to mind two first-rate nonfiction books I’ve read recently: Straw Dogs by the British philosopher John Gray – Robinson’s characters reflect often on how human beings are, after all, animals like any other – and Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. One recognizes the behavior of real human beings early in the climactic storm, before the worst has happened, when one of the main characters stops in at an Iranian-owned deli near his office near the National Mall:

The Iranians nodded silently. Five years earlier they would probably have been closing the deli, but this was the fourth “perfect storm” synergistic combination in the last three years, and they, like everyone else, were getting jaded. It was Peter crying wolf at this point, even though the previous three storms had all been major disasters at the time, at least in some places. But never in D.C. Now people just made sure their supplies and equipment were okay and then went about their business, umbrella and phone in hand. Charlie was no different, he realized, even though he had been performing the role of Peter for all he was worth when it came to the global situation. But here he was, getting a pastrami sandwich with the intention of going back to work. It seemed like the best way to deal with it.

“It was strange,” reflects the same character a few pages later about himself and his officemates, “to see how they were directly involved in an obviously historical moment, right in the middle of it in fact, and yet they too were watching it on TV.”

In my review of A Paradise Built in Hell and in my recent speech at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus , I reflected that

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.

Part of the interest of Forty Signs of Rain lies in how it illustrates how even the powerful are, in the end, hapless and vulnerable creatures like the rest of us. In a scene that directly illustrates a major theme of Solnit’s book, a different Robinson character leaves his office at the National Science Foundation to join the many volunteers trying to protect Arlington National Cemetery from the flooding Potomac:

Frank nodded at anything said his way, not bothering to understand, and worked like a dervish. It was very satisfying. He felt deeply happy, and looking around he could see that everyone else was happy too. That’s what happens, he thought, watching people carry limp sandbags like coolies out of an old Chinese painting. It takes something like this to free people to be always generous.

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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/spouse/partner/whatever). 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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Journalist, author, publisher