Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Centuries

“I feel great. I feel, like, perfect. I think this was a blessing from God, that I caught it. This was a blessing in disguise.”
 —President Trump on his having contracted Covid–19, October 7

“I just think Covid is God’s gift to the left.”
 —Actor/activist Jane Fonda, during a Working Families Party online event, October 2
Sometimes it is worthwhile to look back and recall what was happening a hundred years ago.

As it happens, in 1920 the world was enduring the fourth wave of a pandemic. The first wave of the so-called Spanish Flu had occurred in 1918. Also, in 1920 Russia was midway through a bloody civil war. The two things may or may not be unrelated.

At the beginning of the current year, a lot of political analysts opined that President Trump was sailing toward an easy reelection on the strength of the U.S.’s strong financial numbers. These days, however, because of the Covid–19 pandemic and its effect on the economy, the smart betting is that he will lose to Joe Biden. Did something similar happen with the 1918-1920 pandemic?

Cause and effect are always tricky to prove, but some historians suggest that the flu’s scourge did have a political effect. Europe was already reeling from a devastating four-year war when the pandemic began. In her 2017 book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, author/journalist Laura Spinney suggests the flu “fanned the flames that had been smoldering since before the Russian revolutions of 1917 … illuminating the injustice of colonialism and sometimes of capitalism too.”

No doubt it was one more factor in the deteriorating post-war situation in Germany, which would eventually lead to a second world war. On the more constructive side, the ravages of the disease prompted citizens of democracies to press for better healthcare systems, a struggle that continues to this day.

Did the Spanish flu really fan the flames of activism, progressivism and radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s? More to the point, is the current pandemic having that effect in our own time? It is arguable whether the prospective election of Biden would necessarily signal a major leftward shift in the American electorate. After all, Democratic primary voters—and more importantly Dem party leaders—seem to have settled on him precisely because, compared to younger Democratic politicians, he looks downright moderate and not scary to most voters. If he wins, it will clearly be a rejection of the incumbent rather than a ringing endorsement of anything voters heard in the primary debates.

Still it cannot be ignored that the Democratic Party, which is by all measures (except perhaps the Electoral College) is the largest of all U.S. political parties, has moved decidedly leftward in the 21st century. A Democratic President and Congress will certainly come under pressure from progressive factions in terms of the economy, social issues and climate change. Republicans would have you believe that the country will go full-blown socialist if Biden is elected and particularly if Democrats also take the Senate.

Experience suggests that is unlikely. The Democratic leadership can use all the right woke buzzwords, but once the party is in control of government they can act pretty darn moderate, usually contorting themselves in blaming the Republican opposition for a lack of results. Remember the 111th Congress (2009-2011) when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress? They got through Obamacare—not even the single-payer system progressives had long fought for—and what else? Climate change? President Obama signed a treaty in Paris but then never submitted it for approval to the Democratic-controlled Senate because it was certain to fail. The party’s reward for its one accomplishment, healthcare reform, was a rout in the 2010 midterm elections.

But maybe things are different now? There’s a new generation of voters. There’s better education. People are more politically active. Young people are finally really engaged. The problem is that these are all things we’ve heard during every election since 1968. We’ll find out after November 3 whether things have really changed that much.

More worrying is how activist progressives will react if their political victory falls short of their ideals. Republicans know how that turns out. Four years ago the party saw many of its usual voters give up on the old establishment types and go for a populist firebrand. Will progressives do something similar if they also decide the system is rigged against them?

Here’s something to chew on. The Times of London reported the other day that a survey of nearly five million people found that those born between 1981 and 1996 had less faith in democratic institutions than previous generations. “The collapse of confidence,” said the paper, “is particularly pronounced in the ‘Anglo-Saxon democracies’ of Britain, the United States and Australia. However, similar trends are seen in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Europe.”

The study was conducted by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University. Roberto Foa, its lead author, said, “This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works while in their twenties and thirties.”

“In western democracies,” reported The Times, “41 per cent of millennials agree that you can ‘tell if a person is good or bad if you know their politics,’ compared with 30 per cent of voters over the age of 35.”

Added Dr. Foa, “The prevalence of polarizing attitudes among millennials may mean advanced democracies remain fertile ground for populist politics.”

One-hundred years ago next month, the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Vladimir Lenin, addressed the Conference of Political Education Workers. He declared, “Each man must choose between joining our side or the other side. Any attempt to avoid taking sides must end in fiasco.”

A century later his words echo strong and clear.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Expat Literary Hero

 They began to raise their voices.
 «Now we have a Fascist dictatorship!»
 «Instead of a Communist one!»
 People sitting near us looked uncomfortable. As for me, I was becoming, strangely and unexpectedly, aroused.
  —Excerpt from Chapter 11 of Searching for Cunégonde
There is something empowering about writing fiction. When you pen a novel, you experience the illusion of being God. You create people. You make them do what you want. You have total control of their fates. You can bestow them with good fortune or you can punish them with senseless tragedy. Their destinies are pretty much literally in your hands.

In practice, it doesn’t really feel that way. Characters—even ones you create yourself—have a way of taking on lives of their own. I think most authors have the strange experience of finding they are channeling their characters rather than controlling them. Your own characters sometimes do things you did not plan or want. Events sometimes take a turn you didn’t see coming when you started out.

These are interesting things to ponder but are probably best left for my book blog where I announced this week the publication of my fifth novel Searching for Cunégonde. More pertinent to this space is the fact that, when one writes a story set in a particular time and place, one is generally constrained by real-world events and situations.

The new book continues the adventures of Dallas Green, the protagonist of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead and Lautaro’s Spear. More pertinent to this space is the background provided by the real world to his story. In all three books, he is a picaresque hero journeying through the strange world in which he finds himself. The first novel was set in 1971, the time of the Vietnam War, the military draft in the U.S., and political unrest in Central America. The second book took place in 1980, the year of a U.S. presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan’s election, the sixth Deauville American Film Festival, and a constitutional referendum in Chile.

The new tome splits its narrative mainly between two different time periods. One strand picks up directly after the end of Lautaro’s Spear in December 1980 and proceeds through the following year. These bits alternate with events in the year 1993. This larger scope allowed me to draw in all sorts of historical references. Dallas experiences several weeks of comfortable living under the Pinochet dictatorship as well as venturing into Argentina, also governed by a military junta. There is then a return to California which not only provides a contrast between South and North America but also an implicit comparison between the rural San Joaquin Valley and the suburbs of the Bay Area. Indeed there are a number of contrasts drawn in this story, for example two very different funerals in two very distinct cultures.

By the time this leg of Dallas’s journey ends, he has become all too acquainted with the violent latter days of Ireland’s Troubles. He has also become a nearly unwitting participant in the bad old days of the Cold War, and he even gets to witness the single most symbolic moment of the fall of Communism.

If I have made Dallas’s exploits sound as if they are all about politics, then I have misled you. In this book, as in the others, the heart of the story is really in the friendships. There is some romance as well, or at least as much romance as a neo-Lost-Generation baby-boomer can manage in a cynical world. He finds himself in bed with an interesting array of lovers and not-quite lovers.

At one point someone compares him to the hero of Voltaire’s Candide, thus tipping my hand. That is how I have always seen him—someone more or less politically innocent, wandering the world with wide eyes and bearing witness to the strangeness and wonder of the wider world.

Appropriately enough for this blog, in the course of this novel Dallas becomes an expat. I tried to capture at least a bit of the disorientation that comes with adjusting to a different culture and functioning in a different language. In the end, though, the goal was always to entertain. Mainly to entertain myself, but in the hope that others might be inadvertently entertained as well.

The paperback edition of Searching for Cunégonde is available from major online booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The digital version is available from Amazon’s Kindle store, Barnes and Noble’s Nook store, Kobo, Google Play and Apple iBooks. For those links and other information, kindly consult my book blog.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Peacemaker

“He focused on unity and peace and giving that dignity to every person. We should never underestimate how difficult it was for John to cross the road and do what was intensely unpopular for the greater good.”
  —Father Paul Farren, in his homily at the funeral of John Hume, August 5
One major impact the pandemic has had on Irish society is the curtailment of large, public funerals. Along with weddings, christenings and First Holy Communions, the funeral is one of those rituals the define the Irish character and survives even in a time when regular Mass-going has dropped precipitously.

It is a sad irony that, among the many funerals held during this strangely becalmed period, was that of John Hume in early August. If his send-off in his native Derry had been commensurate with his contribution to life on this island, it would have been a massive affair. Instead, like the man himself it was restrained and dignified and somewhat overshadowed by large events. As it was, though, in the spite of the restrictions the attendance was impressive. Mourners included Northern Ireland’s deputy and first ministers, Ireland’s president, Taoiseach and foreign minister, and the UK’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Tributes were read out, including those from the Pope, the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Boris Johnson and, inevitably, U2’s Bono.

Appropriately, in the evening on the day of his death, the Irish state broadcaster aired Maurice Fitzpatrick’s excellent documentary In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America. It was a fitting homage to the man, and I would heartily recommend anyone with an interest in Ireland’s history or current affairs to take any opportunity to see it. I was fortunate enough to attend the film’s world premiere at the 2017 Galway Film Fleadh and also attend a panel discussion including the filmmaker and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was in office when the Good Friday peace agreement was signed.

Since Hume’s passing, I have done much pondering of what an extraordinary man he was and why we see so few like him in public life. I suppose there are moments when the times require a particular kind of person and they somehow find him or her. When things are going well, such people are ignored in favor of the ambitious and opportunistic.

You could say that Hume was just smarter than other politicians. His strategy led to a peace agreement for Northern Ireland because he saw that there was more chance of success if he got the United States’ leadership on board. Moreover, unlike many politicians, he recognized that there needed to be recognition of legitimate concerns of both sides in the dispute and that an agreement had to benefit both sides. You hear precious little talk like that these days among politicians in Belfast, Dublin, London or Washington.

All that, however, still isn’t the most extraordinary thing about Hume’s achievement. He undertook a course for finding peace in his country, knowing full well that it could doom his own political party and his own career. That is exactly what happened, but he did it anyway because he had his eye on the greater good. Once the peace was secured, unionists and nationalists—whether out of fear or out of a need for retrenchment—abandoned the dominant moderate parties (the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party) that had negotiated the peace and switched their votes to more extreme parties (the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin). Those two parties have governed Northern Ireland in partnership ever since, while the UUP and SDLP have become shadows of the former selves. The peace process also took a personal toll on Hume, as his health went into decline.

Does the rise of the DUP and Sinn Féin mean the peace accord wasn’t worth it? Hardly. There was not only a persistent drop in the province’s political violence, but we were treated to the spectacle an unexpectedly cordial friendship between bitter old enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. They became so comfortable with each other that wags dubbed them the “Chuckle Brothers.”

Things have been by no means smooth in Northern Ireland, and things look to get dicey with Brexit looming, but only very sick minds regret the end of the Troubles. That would not have been possible without John Hume and his willingness to put peace and cooperation above his own personal interests. It will not be lost on cynics, however, that the careers which flourished as a result of Hume’s efforts were those of Paisley, who had stirred the fires of sectarianism, and Adams, who had reportedly been an active participant in the violence of the Troubles.

When looking at my own country these days and the increasingly bitter estrangement between those on different political sides, I wonder if there is an American John Hume out there somewhere who would sacrifice his or her political career to bring the two sides together. Sometimes people surprise you, but right now I don’t see anybody on the political scene who isn’t in it for themselves or their own side.

Will things have to get even worse before the times finally produce someone of John Hume’s caliber?