Tag Archives: books

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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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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Where Is the American Writer Writing about America in Pakistan?

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Here I am. That’s my short answer to the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s rhetorical question the other day in The Guardian. Here I am, an American, living in America, writing about America’s involvement – as well as my own – in Pakistan, and trying to catch the passing attention of some measurable fraction of the great distracted American public.

Shamsie’s words, at the tail end of a profile pegged on the release of her latest novel, were understandably exasperated. But they were also exasperating, because her question was used as the article’s attention-grabbing headline – it certainly grabbed my attention – and because, well, here I am.

It’s not about me, of course; I’m not saying that Kamila Shamsie should promote or even necessarily notice my writing in particular. But if someone like her is going to say things like what she said to The Guardian, then it’s both fair and, I hope, helpful for someone like me to point out that for her to paint with such a broad brush is both unfair and unhelpful.

What she said was: “I am deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It’s a completely shocking failure, not of any individual writer … but it’s the strangest thing to look around and say, ‘Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?’ At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.”

The phrase “not of any individual writer” functions as a caveat, but otherwise her claims are un-nuanced to the point of being aggressively unequivocal: “total failure to engage … completely shocking failure.” I share Shamsie’s dismay, but I think it’s important to retort to her that it’s easier for a Pakistani writer living in London on a British passport to prescribe engagement with the American empire, than it is for an American writer living in America to practice it.

I’m not excusing anyone’s failure to engage, but several points need to be made. One is that America’s empire is not only global but also internal, and there are many examples of heroic American writers engaging with that, from Larry McMurtry to Octavia Butler to the great Peter Matthiessen, who just passed away at age 86. Two of Matthiessen’s most powerful testaments are the great Shadow Country trilogy, about the colonization of Florida, and the nonfiction feat of literary courage In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the notorious persecution of the Native American activist Leonard Peltier, the publication of which was suppressed for some years by legal action.

Another point is that the American public is supremely difficult to interest in anything, much less to mobilize. This profoundly frustrating phenomenon is easy to disdain or rage against, less easy to engage or challenge in any sustained or effective way. It’s like wrestling with a giant ameba. In fairness to Shamsie, this might be what she was getting at in saying that “At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.” It’s like the proverbial tree falling in a forest: If an American writer engages with the American empire, but no American readers read it, is the writer still engaging with the empire?

The American public’s chronic disengagement is a big part of what any American writer is up against. I deal with it myself, from the woman in the back of the room at a church in Seattle who – bless her heart – raised her hand to ask, “What’s a drone attack?” to some guy named Earl who, reviewing my book Home Free: An American Road Trip on Goodreads, quite inaccurately complained that I did not seek out white people and/or Americans with right-wing views: “the people that Mr. Casey talks to are either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” It’s apparent from internal evidence that Earl did actually read my book, which I appreciate, but his review is a telling confirmation of George Orwell’s observation that reviewers will find bogus literary excuses to dismiss books that challenge their ideological predilections.

But it’s important for us pointy-headed coastal and transatlantic types not simply to write off Middle America as a lost cause. This is personal to me, because Middle America (small-town Wisconsin) is where I come from. It’s also a big part of the reason that, having engaged at book length with the American empire in Pakistan and Haiti, I left the comfy liberal enclave of Seattle, where I live, to spend 3 1/2 months driving all around Middle America during the 2012 election season.

Finally, Shamsie’s privileging of fiction over nonfiction needs to be challenged. “I don’t think there’s anything like the novel for empathy,” she told The Guardian. “… If you write non-fiction it’s as though you are from the outside looking at something. But if you write fiction, you are behind someone’s eyes looking out, and that’s the difference.” Shamsie is a veteran novelist, and I’ve never seriously attempted to write fiction, but I don’t buy it. There’s a whiff of condescension in the claim, as if by definition nonfiction cannot be as serious or deeply engaged as fiction. As a veteran traveler, reporter, and writer of engaged nonfiction, I endorse Norman Mailer’s much subtler and truer claim that “there’s no clear dividing-line between experience and imagination.” For proof, and indeed for a supreme instance of an American writer’s engagement with the American empire, one need look no further than Mailer’s own nonfiction masterpiece The Armies of the Night.

Granted, that book was published 46 years and several wars ago. Which supports the point of Shamsie’s question: Where are the equivalent American books today? My point is that such books do exist, but it’s perpetually difficult for any writer to slip any message or story that Americans don’t already want to hear past the cacophony of American culture and through the fetid miasma of American nationalist pieties. And browbeating doesn’t work; I’ve tried it.

And “rage” – admittedly not Shamsie’s word but interviewer Natalie Hanman’s – is less useful than candor. It’s both possible and desirable, even necessary, to be at once candid and calm. This is why – if I may end as I began, on a self-congratulatory note – The Daily Telegraph‘s Alex Spillius identified the true subversive quality of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan (which I’m just now republishing in an updated 10th-anniversary edition): “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.”

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004; updated 10th-anniversary edition 2014), Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012).

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