I finally finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest brilliant novel, “The Lacuna,” and it’s the kind of book that engenders discussion on a wide variety of important topics.
For those who haven’t read it yet, the sweep of the book — which, clearly was composed during the CheneyBush years, for good reason — is epic in scale. Dealing with several decades of Mexican and American history, from 1929 to the early 1950s, it touches on the end of empires, the pandering mass-media, the use of fear by demagogues to herd the sheeple, the pain and isolation of gays pre-Stonewall, and much more. (The title refers to the hidden entryways that can lead one to different levels of understanding.)
As Kingsolver has demonstrated in many of her earlier novels and essays ( “The Poisonwood Bible,” “Animal Dreams,” “Bean Trees,” “High Tide in Tucson”), she is a committed author with a vibrant social conscience. But she’s also a beautiful writer qua writer, one who can grab you by your emotional lapels and pull you into her created world and characters.
Trotsky and Falling Empires
Her fictional lead character, Harrison Shepherd, is a captivating creation. We meet him as a strange, introverted young boy, and follow his convoluted path through his rich teenage years in Mexico, where he winds up working for and living with the painters Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo and the revolutionary socialist leader Leon Trotsky. (Shepherd’s story is fictional, but these historical figures and their adventures in Mexico are accurate.) Following World War II, Shepherd evolves into a successful writer of romantic histories derived from Mexican sagas about Cortes and Montezuma, for example, and then becomes a victim of the budding McCarthyite “Red Scare” of the late-1940s into the ’50s.
The falling empires in the book include the Mayan and Aztec, the Spanish, the British, the Soviet, and, by clear implication, the American. The historical bell tolls for all nations and religions with ambitions of empire, most of which are laid low by their own internal contradictions, the humongous costs, and the corruptions and moral decay as they seek to conquer and, through brutal repression and wars, dominate more and more territory and peoples.
In “The Lacuna,” the hyped-up fear of Stalin’s “godless communism” conquering nation after nation (in the years right after the U.S. had led the fight against rampaging Naziism) created a paranoia and a national hysteria against anything foreign and liberal and questioning. This response was like a voluntary de-braining, accepting the most simplistic rubbish as fact without even checking to find out the truth of the matter. (Sound familiar?)
The Danger of Music
- I grew up in the late-1940s and 1950s in the deep South, in Florida, the second state to secede from the Union. I can verify that what Shepherd went through in the book is what I, as a teenager, observed as key elements of the zeitgeist of the time:
- To listen to or play any kind of foreign music — what we today would subsume under the category of “world music” — was seen as evidence of one’s “communist” sympathies, and there would be social, political and sometimes physical penalties to pay.
- To even favorably mention the concept of condominiums was to be flagged as a “socialist” or “communist.” Same risk of penalties.
- Playing “folk music” was to risk negative consequences, for harboring “communist” views. (The great Pete Seeger came to play a concert in Miami when I was about 12 or so; the outcry from the rightwing was so intense, and the threats of violence so real, that the owners of the large hall in which he was to appear canceled the show. Seeger performed for far fewer at the local Unitarian fellowship.)
- At least in the South, and elsewhere as well, expressing sympathy for downtrodden, persecuted African-Americans was taken as clear evidence of “communist” tendencies. In the early 1960s, for example, even in relatively “liberal” Miami, I received serious death threats as a college editor when advocating desegregation of the university and equality of treatment regardless of ethnicity.
- The level of ignorance in great swaths of the population was so deep that a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida (who emerged victorious) could rile up voters by telling them, in leering tones, that his opponent’s sister “was a well-known thespian in New York City” and that his opponent was “known to have matriculated in college.” The mostly small-town audiences would eat up this kind of demagogic innuendo and misdirection.
There Is No Center Today
How far is Kingsolver’s fiction-based-on-fact universe from our situation today? In our most recent national election, the vice presidential candidate of one of the parties demonstrated time and time again that proud ignorance and those same demagogic impulses. Huge chunks of her Republican Party are working to get Sarah Palin nominated to run for president this time out.
What used to be the moderate center of that party has felt obliged to shift to the right in order to placate the rabid, Know-Nothing base. That center could not hold. Indeed, there is no center now. In the GOP today, it’s just far-right and extreme right, and the extremists rule. (And the weak-kneed Democratic Party, to its shame, has felt obliged to move toward the center-right battlefield as well.)
Questioning is taken to be somehow unpatriotic at best, or “supporting the terrorists” and “hating America” at worse, terrorism having become the fear-engendering term in place of “communism.”
Are there genuine terrorists who wish us harm? You bet and we have to protect ourselves from them, without invading every nation where they may reside. Were there genuine communists inside corridors of power in the 1950s? Sure, there were a relative handful but the country took a sledgehammer to the Constitution to swing at a few gnats.
Keep Your Trap Shut
Am I exaggerating the contemporary parallels? Let’s return just a few years ago to the CheneyBush era when Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned questioning Americans to “watch what you say” — in other words, keep your opinions to yourself. Attorney General John Ashcroft in testimony asserted that questioning the Administration’s tough “war on terrorism” policies was giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. Here’s Ashcroft’s exact quote: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists — for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies…” Many liberals were denounced by right-wing pundits as “traitors” who “deserved to be shot”; even today, committing murders against IRS agents and offices earns the white American terrorist warm right-wing praise.
Even today, many far-rightists regard the asking of questions about U.S. war policies or civil liberties to be dangerous to the body politic, and want critics and skeptics to just shut up.
I am reminded of one of my Political Science Department colleagues in the 1960s, when I was teaching at a college in the Pacific Northwest. He was unusually timid and quiet, making sure never to ask questions or make any kind of wave in our department meetings. The back story: Sen. Joseph McCarthy, at the height of his destructive power in the 1950s, from the stage of a Wisconsin university had denounced my colleague by name as a “pinko” communist sympathizer. (My colleague, of course, was no pinko anything; his crime was having raised penetrating questions about U.S. policy.)
After that episode, of course, his career was in tatters. By the time he wound up at the campus where I was teaching, he was little more than a terrified shell about speaking and being active in public affairs. You can read similar stories from all over the country, and Kingsolver covers the territory well as protagonist Harrison Shepherd finds himself forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and watches his writing career head into the toilet, all because of denunciation based on lies, distortions and misconceptions — fed by the corrupt mass-media sharks turned on by blood in the public waters.
The Heavy Work of Democracy
Native fascism — as with anti-Semitism and racism aimed at some group or other — is never far below the surface in most societies. America is no exception. All it takes for such hatred to explode into the mainstream is a social cataclysm of some sort or exaggerated warnings about a supposed imminent crisis. Teach people to hate and be suspicious of The Other, supply them with hyped-up and often phony reasons for hysteria and paranoia, and as a politician or media pundit (Coulter, Limbaugh, Beck, Savage, Malkin, O’Reilly, et al.) you can pretty much lead them by the nose.
We are living at a time when the political infrastructures are fraying badly. Political potholes go unrepaired, permitting the ruinous rust and bacteria of extremism to work their way into the polity all to easily, doing their long-term damage basically unchecked.
Our role as progressives in the 21st Century is to be the conservators (true conservatives, as it were) of a decent society, where promoting the “general welfare” celebrated in our Constitution, is taken seriously. Which means we must gird our loins for a constant battle against the forces currently in control of the levers of power in our country: greed, voluntary ignorance, rapacious self-interest at the expense of public interest, and meanness of spirit and moral corruption at the highest levels.
In other words, a return to the glories and hard work of democracy — the worst form of government ever invented, except for all the others. Welcome to Interesting Times!
Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: >> firstname.lastname@example.org