Confessions of a Born Again Agnostic

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

Born November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut has been dead a few months more than a decade now. For all his dark humor and fantastic stories, it seems impossible to believe he could have imagined the U.S. in 2017.

President George W. Bush left Vonnegut in a near-constant state of exasperation so a country now led by Trump with Republicans and conservative Christians scrambling to excuse every indecency known to humanity, including crimes against women and children, would make even Vonnegut shrug, “Nobody would buy it.”

On this day of Vonnegut’s birth, I am witnessing a world I could have never imagined—especially considering my lifelong mostly closeted existence as an atheist/agnostic.

I came to recognize that atheism/agnosticism in the first years of college, and I also realized this was no choice, but who I am to the bone.

During intense years of reading Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and other existentialists mostly, I was an aggressive atheist, mostly outing myself and obnoxiously confronting peers who were themselves equally obnoxious as witnessing Christians.

Being born, growing up, and living in the deep South, the Bible Belt, I was confronting this aspect of my Self with a great deal of angst, fear, and self-loathing. Once I graduated and entered my profession as a public school English teacher—at the same high school I had attended in my home town—this important aspect of who I was as a young adult was quickly packed back into the closet.

The four schools of the district I taught in literally surrounded the dominant church in the small town, the steeple towering above the horizon when looking from any of the school buildings.

Many students attended that church, but everyone in the school confronted everyone about what church they attended.

The great paradox about my early years teaching was that I was adamant about not sharing my atheism with my students, about not in any way imposing my nontraditional beliefs on my students who were in most ways as I was growing up in that town.

Yet, gradually and increasingly, students were more and more aggressive about asking and even explicitly pushing me to confirm or deny a rumor I was an atheist.

This was incredibly stressful for my early years. I literally feared for my job each time these situations popped up, some of them reaching administration and causing me to be quizzed by the principal as well.

Later in my time at that school for almost two decades, this became something of a joke, that I refused to answer what I did or did not believe. But it lingered as a threat none the less.

I tried to play along; it was a defense mechanism about the closeted life.

Once, when one of the office staff asked me just to tell her the truth, I looked around to make sure we were alone, and then whispered, “I am an agrarian,” before walking away with a smile.

The next day when I saw her, she apparently had shared my confession with someone, unaware of the joke, so I followed up with, “That’s right. I work the land!”

Being atheist/agnostic, however, has never been anything other than stress for me, as an outlier, someone who simply sees the world unlike the vast majority of people. Even moving to higher education, I am moment by moment confronted by traditionally religious students and the norm of being Christian and attending church.

Once while in a diversity training session for faculty, the facilitator had people stand by their religious identities. The list worked through virtually every faith and many Christian denominations, but non-believers were excluded by omission.

In my row were two colleagues who are atheists as well. We made eye contact, one shaking her head, and I simply stood, leaving the session.

From those early days of college, my embarrassing certainty and in-your-face atheism, to my much more reserved and comfortable understanding that I am a born again agnostic, I have continued to suffer under the weight of how angry traditional Christians make me with their conservative politics and egregious hypocrisy.

I want to bite my tongue, but it is challenging, especially in political discussions.

The Moral Majority, the Religious Right, and the Reagan era—these were the sort of perverse marriages of politics and religion that confirmed by humanistic commitments, ones espoused by Vonnegut, and my inability to commit to the petty God and spurious dogma of organized religion, often brilliantly skewered by George Carlin.

So I sit here on Vonnegut’s birthday genuinely stunned at the U.S., this bastardized Christian nation in which white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for a sexual predator and continue to support him.

This bastardized Christian nation in which so-called Christians contort themselves in whatever way necessary to justify child abusers and sexual abusers, abdicating any semblance of moral or ethical beliefs for crass political affiliation.

This, then, is what I could have never imagined: The religious right is so morally bankrupt that I am for the first time in my nearly six decades entirely comfortable to be out of the closet as a born again agnostic committed, as Vonnegut wrote, “to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”

With the current unmasking of very awful men living their lives mostly without any consequences for being very awful, I must admit Vonnegut himself was a flawed man, embodying the tension in the spotlight now between artist and his art.

In Vonnegut’s case, I do not justify or excuse his flaws as a man—just as I admit my own—but I do hold tight to the many wonderful and enduring codes he at least promoted with his writing, and best expressed in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)

Everything else, including religion in the service of politics, is, as Carlin charged, bullshit.

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Growing Old Not the Problem, But Lack of Community Is

Since I teach mostly young people, college age, and have been an active cyclist with much younger friends for a while now, I have depended on a persistent self-deprecating joke about being old.

Since the end of 2016, a pelvis fracture, a winter of illnesses including the flu for the first time in decades, and then my mom’s stroke followed by my father’s death have all tempted me to shift that joke to a more serious view of life. However, I am increasingly convinced the problem with the human condition is not aging—which is inevitable and preferred to the alternative—but a lack of compassion and community in the U.S.

While literature and pop culture are awash in portrayals of the challenges that families bring, Kurt Vonnegut spent a great deal of his work as a writer—in speeches, essays, and fiction—arguing passionately for more human kindness as well as the importance of the extended family, an idealizing of tribal life that recognized the horror that is human loneliness.

Like most people, Vonnegut himself may have failed some or even often as a spouse, sibling, and father, but that doesn’t diminish the power and truth behind his essential message.

I suspect I have compassion for Vonnegut’s flaws since I share them along with his ideological commitments to kindness and community—regardless of how inept I can be at both.

And my curmudgeon tendencies are strong, but as I grow older, and as I struggle with the necessary deteriorations of aging, I am more and more apt to recognize the futility of lamenting aging, of fearing and regretting old age (whatever that may be).

I remain frustrated with aging, and my vanity is triggered more than I like to admit. But I am more convinced than ever that the real fear is a lack of communiy as I continue to struggle with how to provide for my mom the sort of late life she deserves despite the consequences of her stoke (which took a significant part of her humanity) and the barriers we are encountering because, to be blunt, she has very little money to sustain her—and the typically horrible insurance that most working-class and poor people are saddled with (if they have any at all) in the godforsaken U.S.

Many times I have lamented that in the U.S. we simply do not care about children, and about that I am both deeply saddened and convinced. But that callousness and carelessness is a subset of a much larger and damning part of the so-called American character: we simply do not care about any vulnerable populations: children, disabled people, carers, and the elderly.

The great and caustic residue of being a rugged-individual culture is that we are willfully choosing to reject community in favor of Social Darwinism, consumerism, and the all-mighty dollar.

Instead of social safety nets being a foundational commitment among us, we have chosen to cast everyone to the fate of the Invisible Hand, our claims to being a Christian nature reduced to so-much hokum in practice.

The cost of growing old is in fact not the deterioration of the mind and body, but the consequences of aging being magnified by a people who refuse to provide for vulnerable populations as an unwavering commitment to human dignity.

I will continue to joke with my younger students and friends about being old; it is fun and often a way to assert my humanity into an environment that I recognize will eventually discard me because of age, although my privileges of being male, white, and well-educated will inoculate me for quite some time.

Despite my many, many flaws, my anger about the callousness of the U.S. toward vulnerable populations is not about me, and extends well beyond my sadness at how the world does not really care about my aging and disabled mother.

My anger is reflected in why Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” has resonated so powerfully over the past several months. Smith forces us to admit “[t]he world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/ estimate,” and she keeps us focused on the vulnerability of children.

My anger is enflamed because I do believe Smith’s closing lines: “This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”

My anger grows because I doubt we will ever assure that comes to fruition.

To squander vulnerable populations—from children to the elderly—is to abandon our souls, to spit in the face of beauty, to declare our society morally bankrupt.

“So it goes.”

Lost in Space with Jaroslav Kalfar: So It Goes in One Man’s Nightmare of Errors

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar immediately appealed to me as a very near-future, 2018, science fiction story by an intriguing new novelist. Kalfar was born in Prague, Czech Republic, but came to the U.S. as a teenager, completing his education here and now residing in Brooklyn.

The story seems relatively simple for much of the novel: Jakub Prochazka, a scientist, is enlisted to be the first Czech astronaut to explore a phenomenon of space particles that could be crucial to all of humanity—but also may gain his home country the sort of influence and significance that has been dominated by the U.S. and Russia (powers that lurk throughout the novel).

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

As I was reading, I became intrigued at how Kalfar’s space odyssey seemed a powerful and superior companion to Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, and the film Gravity.

Spaceman of Bohemia sputters some with managing time and maintaining the delicate tension in tone, mostly tragi-comic early and then sporadically through the middle and end. But on balance, Kalfar avoids the critical pitfalls of The Martian (glorifying the sacred white male) and Gravity (subsuming the female lead in masculinity), while depending on the plot tricks of both—being lost in space and manipulating the possibility that the protagonist will not survive.

But as my mind was parsing Spaceman against the lesser novel and film, Prochazka alone in his spacecraft encounters (or imagines) an alien, eventually gifted the human name Hanus (one of many aspects of the novel that highlights and also satirizes Czech history, its national heroes and its political unrest driven by Cold War communism/capitalism anxieties).

Kalfar’s writing had already triggered my love for Franz Kafka, maybe too easy a notice, but it was at the philosophical exchanges between Prochazka and spider-like Hanus that I recognized Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five—Billy Pilgrim, time (not space) traveller and Tralfamadorians debating free will and human nature as well as concepts of time.

Kurt Vonnegut also had a career as a visual artist.

Pervasive throughout Spaceman, in fact, are both the weight and levity of Kafka’s existential metaphor of human existence as a nightmare and Vonnegut’s fatalistic refrain, “So it goes”—possibly (but definitely beautifully) captured by the ever-present allure of Nutella, nectar of the gods, it seems.

Kalfar embodies Czech/Russian-European ideologies and historical/political groundings—distinct from the worldview of U.S. literature or even Margaret Atwood’s Canadian-fueled literary speculative fiction.

Spaceman falls into the genre, then, literary science fiction, that is Vonnegut’s (and Atwood’s) domain; in other words, the conventions of lost in space and an alien are vehicles for a dark satire of the human condition, the fact of humans as pawns of their own devices (politics, technology, the pursuits of knowledge and power, love, and capitalized materialism).

There is a melancholy and even fatalism to the novel, of love, loss, distance, and time, yes, but more overwhelmingly something more biblical—the sins of the father are the sins of the son.

Prochazka’s father becomes a political pariah, and his grandfather tries to help Prochazka cope as a child while the grandfather skins a rabbit:

“You know that the world is always trying to take us. This country, that country. We can’t fight the whole world, the ten million of us, so we pick the people we think should be punished, and we make them suffer the best we can. In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier.”

The weight of history, familial history, shapes and even twists Prochazka, reminding me of the violent urges experienced by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale: “I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual over my hands.”

While Billy Pilgrim literally travels back and forth in time, Kalfar stylistically shifts the narrative back and forth in time, where readers witness the young Prochazka struggle with the personal against the political:

I don’t care what reigns outside our house—capitalism, communism, or anything else—as long as my parents will return to me and keep me safe from men like the stranger [a man tortured by his father before the fall of communism]. Yes, perhaps my father could even torture him a little. I would allow it. I would ask my father to torture the man until he stopped hating me.

And like the alien Hanus, the grandfather becomes a philosophical voice of doom: “‘Different lords and the same shit for the commoners.'” And eventually, Prochazka appears to have drawn a similar conclusion: “Now I am a cadaver in waiting….The body is the worker and the soul the oppressor.”

Ultimately in that existential despair, however, Prochazka as scientist seems to survive, somewhat hopeful nonetheless: “If a sequence of random events is repeated many times, patterns can be detected and studied, thus creative the illusion that human observers can truly know and understand chaos.”

Spaceman of Bohemia ends with Prochazka pummeled by that weight of history, the existential facts dramatized in the novel—Nutella smeared on his arm to attract the spider (substituting for Hanus) in his dilapidated childhood home.

The fantastical of science fiction and the ambiguity of a psychotic main character or a human having a close encounter with an alien build to a harshly realistic ending, winding through echoes of Vonnegut to something we can imagine a twenty-first century Kafka would have penned.

Against Spaceman, The Martian (novel and film) and Gravity are exposed as propaganda and careless, even when they are compelling and grand.

Kalfar’s first novel is satisfying, although a bit uneven, and extremely promising—especially for those who are drawn to the sort of science fiction that embraces the conventions as a captivating way to help us continue, like Prochazka, to make meaning out of the chaos that is being a human on a tiny, fragile planet in the infinity of the universe.

U$A: Beware Capitalism as well as Fascism

Often accurately praised as a deft and almost idealizing satire of religion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle also can serve as a fictional examination of political science.

Central to the politics of the novel is the fabricated tension among military, government (dictatorship), and religion (Bokononism):

“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174-175)

The U.S. has existed for much of its history on a similar tension between democracy and capitalism, but other tensions have been incredibly important also, many of which are as fabricated as the one in San Lorenzo: the U.S. versus [insert foreign country/enemy], capitalism versus communism (McCarthy Era, arms race with Soviet Union).

With the election of Trump, many have raised concerns about the creeping threat of fascism, and then, some have countered that with arguments that Trump is not a fascist threat.

Lost in that debate, I think, is a very real and present danger: Trump is the logical consequence of the manufactured tension between corporate America and “government” (here, well represented by Bokononism).

For much of the existence of the U.S., the ruling elites of corporate America have created a public demon, “Big Government,” and used that mischaracterization of the democratic purposes of government to meet the very narrow needs of business leaders.

While fanning the flames of the general public’s hatred of the evil Big Government, corporate America has remained mostly unscathed, and then, as a result, the rise of Trump may be about fascism, or it may not be, but it is clearly about the ultimate triumph of naked capitalism and the end of democracy, even as weak as democracy has always been.

The problem with this is that we are now fully committed to an amoral way of being as a people. The rightful tension between capitalism and democracy, what was essential to our becoming a free and equitable people, depends on the moral imperative of democracy to guide the essentially amoral mechanisms of capitalism.

Government as a moral lever has ended slavery and child labor; has expended voting and marriage to all adults; and has corrected innumerable unethical and abusive elements that were created and sustained by naked capitalism.

Left without a moral barometer, heroine sales would be shaped by market forces to respond to heroine addicts; the same if true of snuff films, and the most abusive forms of pornography.

There is no market that would not be shaped by capitalism in ways that are “right” for that amoral paradigm: heroine priced at the level the market will bear, and so on with snuff films and child pornography.

Without the collective moral imperatives of a people—government—people become mere consumers at the whim of the Invisible Hand—and some become sacrificed along the way (slaves, children, women, etc.).

And here we are: Trump is the embodiment of naked capitalism, in which no moral standards exist, just ratings—the crassest reduction of market forces.

Trump’s administration is not a reality show, but an infomercial on replay, a shitty product that depends on the force of overstated (and false) claims that simply have to convince enough people to buy in to not only survive, but thrive.

But Trump has not caused this ugly erosion of a people; he merely represents who we are.

And who we are is a culture in which millionaire pro athletes enjoy the necessary tension between labor and billionaire owners through unions while the rest of the country sits by after electing Trump who is marshaling in the very real possibility of a national right to work law—a federalization of erasing the necessary tension between labor and owners.

All decent people should fear and work against the rise of fascism, but right now, the U.S. is experiencing the real and horrible consequences of abdicating our moral and ethical boundaries to the naked capitalism that is Trump, that is us.

We have become lost in very garbled ends and have completely ignored the means.

Government is rightfully the collective will of the people, a necessary moral and ethical check to the amoral forces of the free market, in which the “free” is not about liberty but about being free of any ethical concerns.

And thus, I see no need for fascism because there is no resistance; the fall of democracy in the U.S. serves the same interests whether by fascism or the slowly creeping cancer of naked capitalism.

The fall of democracy in the U.$.A. is about a people freely admitting we have no soul, no real concern for anyone except “me.”

The branches of government be damned; we have the Home Shopping Network, the foma of a lost people drunk on crude oil.

Half of a Yellow Sun: Adichie’s Historical Parable of Race, Class, and Politics

In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”

Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.

All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.

Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.

But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.

Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.

Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”

As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”

Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.

This:

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own, perfectly naturally.

The families were rooted in land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Against this:

Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.

Think of that: slaves….

What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.

Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.

Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.

The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.

As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.

Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.

Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.

Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.

Words matter, they also intone.

Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.

I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.

Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.

As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.

I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.

Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.

After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”

Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.

Anything

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

Broken, I lie here writing after having been handed an entirely new life not of my choosing, an accident in the first week of my holiday break probably redirecting a significant part of my life as a recreational cyclist.

That first week of recovery was consumed by pain and immobility, but I was not able to relax and read, although I thought that would be one positive to the situation.

This week, however, as most everyone has now returned to work, I find myself entirely alone. I resumed reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, a 2006 novel focusing on Nigeria during the 1960s.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun

Reading this essentially political novel in 2016-2017 has been chillingly prescient about the current U.S., and while I balk at the use of the term “universal” since it tends to be a veneer for normalizing privilege, Adichie’s narrative often exposes the enduring.

In Part Two: The Late Sixties, the section opens as the novel does with Ugwu, an Opi village boy who is a servant for a Nsukka University professor, Odenigbo.

Several years have passed in the story, and Ugwu is temporarily back in his village:

His visit home suddenly seemed much longer than a week, perhaps because of the endless grassy churning in his stomach from eating only fruits and nuts. His mother’s food was unpalatable. The vegetables were overcooked, the cornmeal was too lumpy, the soup was too watery, and the yam slices coarse from being boiled without a dollop of butter. He could not wait to get back to Nsukka and finally eat a real meal. (p. 151)

This is a powerful scene in the context of the first paragraphs of the novel as Ugwa walks to Odenigbo’s house to become his houseboy. Ugwa’s aunt tells the boy, “‘You will eat meat every day'”:

Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. (p. 3)

So as I was reading Adichie’s dramatization of politics, privilege, and what is and becomes normal for anyone, I was reminded of Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Meursault’s thoughts from prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of my undergraduate time spent as a student-by-choice focused on existential philosophy and literature, leading eventually to my discovering and embracing the educational writing of Maxine Greene.

So as I recover in the weeks leading to my 56th birthday—a new year, a new age, and this new existence forced onto me—I am deeply moved by “you could get used to anything.”

Anything?

What an ugly thing to be human and having the capacity to get used to anything.

But there was a time in the U.S. when slavery was perfectly normal. There was a time in the world when the Holocaust was perfectly normal.

Because normal, like history, is the province of those with power, a way to render some Others “deliberately silenced,…preferably unheard.”

And today the U.S. is eagerly normalizing a person and ideologies that would have seemed illegitimate just months ago.

As happened to Ugwu, will we in a few short years have our tastes so dramatically transformed that this bitter dish being served to us now will become what sates our hunger?

Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist is a brief parable about the “art of fasting”—in which the artist becomes so transformed that he fasts himself to death, explaining:

“Because I have to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food that tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

A gift of Kafka comes in the final paragraph when he offers the briefest of parables within a parable:

“All right, tidy this up now,” said the supervisor. And they buried the hunger artist along with the straw. But in his cage they put a young panther. Even for a person with the dullest mind it was clearly refreshing to see this wild animal prowling around in this cage, which had been dreary for such a long time. It lacked nothing. Without having to think much about it, the guards brought the animal food whose taste it enjoyed. It never seemed once to miss its freedom. This noble body, equipped with everything necessary, almost to the point of bursting, even appeared to carry freedom around with it. That seemed to be located somewhere or other in its teeth, and its joy in living came with such strong passion from its throat that it was not easy for spectators to keep watching. But they controlled themselves, kept pressing around the cage, and had no desire at all to move on.

Like Ugwu,Meursault, the hunger artist—the panther “get[s] used to anything.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Introduction to Mother Night, a work confronting a Nazi reality now again before humanity, begins:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

I am exceedingly over-educated, well-read to an absurd extreme.

I am also too self-aware, introspective to the point of near paralysis.

And my fortune of privilege and leisure leaves me too much time to think about everything.

I am afraid of who I have become, who I pretend to be, and if I too can “get used to anything.”

And I am near to terrified of the same for the world around me.

The Unbearable Lightness of Lying: Renaming What We Value, Fear

“Who is more to be pitied,” muses artist and main character Rabo Karabekian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, “a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”

As in most of Vonnegut’s fiction, there is a tension of tone between the narration and the weight of the circumstances—a tug-of-war between light and dark, or better phrased Light and Dark.

Karabekian’s failed autobiography is an adventure in What is art? with the specters of Nazi Germany, fascism, and World War II as well as the rise and fall of the U.S.S.R. (the novel was published in 1987) lurking forever in the background.

“The history of writers working under tyranny or in exile is long, and each example involves its own particular cruelties,” writes Nathan Scott McNamara, adding:

From 1968 until 1989, Czech writers like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal were put in a particularly impossible position. They spoke and wrote in Czech, a language limited to a very small part of Central Europe—and a language that had fallen under the control of a sensitive and authoritarian government….

One of the major successes of the Soviet regime’s control of Czechoslovakia was the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other. Kundera has been largely disavowed by his native land, and in 2008, he was dubiously accused of once working with the Communist Police. Toward the end of his life, Hrabal came to see himself as a coward. At the age of 82, he jumped from the fifth story window of a hospital and died.

In the very real world, Kundera and Hrabal represent what Vonnegut fictionalizes, but struggled against in some ways himself as a writer.

Also as McNamara recognizes, the terrors found in Vonnegut’s novel as well as Kundera and Hrabal’s lives and careers are not something of history:

The survival of the writer under an unpredictable government is no less a serious concern today….

Warning flares are going up in the United States, too, where our President-elect threatens his competitors, intimidates private citizens, and warns that he’ll alter libel laws so journalists can be “sued like they’ve never been sued before.” This past week brought us another painful parallel between the 2016 US Presidential Election and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia: the role of Russia. We don’t have tanks rolling through our streets, but a digital hack and a manipulated election nonetheless feel like a kind of 21st-century echo. It’s almost Hrabalesque in its absurdity. It’s almost darkly comic.

Yes, in some ways, Trumplandia feels too much like a black comedy penned by Vonnegut, even more absurd than the political theater and political-religious propaganda in Cat’s Cradle.

2016 in the U.S. has become not just reality TV as politics but a thin and distracting public debate about fake news and post-truth America—as Sarah Kendzior explains:

“Fake news” is a term that entered the vernacular following the election of Donald Trump. Allegedly coined to bemoan the terrible reporting that helped facilitate Mr. Trump’s rise, it actually serves to stabilize his rule. “Fake news” poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting.

When the United States elects a man who peddles falsehoods, obfuscates critical information about his business transactions and foreign relationships, and relies on both mass media outlets and untraditional venues like conspiracy websites to maintain his power, the manifold ways he lies are as important as the lies themselves.

Kendzior recognizes, however, that naming fake news and post-truth actual works—as McNamara notes (“the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other”)—to further solidify Trump:

However, Mr. Trump’s most powerful lies contain a grain of truth that plays to the preconceptions of his audience. When Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.

The mostly unspoken problems facing the U.S. include the fact that the country has always been post-truth, mostly mythology and narrative bluster, and has always mis-named what we value and what we fear.

For example, considered the jumbled responses to healthcare in the U.S., as unpacked by Robert H. Frank:

The same logic explains why private/government hybrid programs — like Obamacare, and its predecessor in Massachusetts, Romneycare — include an individual mandate. Opponents of the mandate argue that it limits individual freedom, which of course it does. But traffic lights and homicide laws also limit individual freedom; everyone celebrates liberty, but sometimes we must choose among competing freedoms. Failure to include a mandate would eliminate the freedom of citizens to purchase affordable health insurance. In such cases, we must decide which of the competing freedoms is more important.

If we frame the overly simplistic embracing of “individual freedom” that is central to the American Myth against McNamara’s consideration of Soviet communism as totalitarianism, there appears to be a powerful space for renaming what we value and what we fear.

And our fears, in fact, have little to do with communism or socialism—but everything to do with totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism. The Soviet labeled their totalitarianism “communism,” but as critical educators know, institutions of a free people (such as formal education and the judicial system) “can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.”

Like “communism” and “socialism,” “democracy” and “capitalism” can be veneers for totalitarianism and oppression; and in the U.S., that “can be” often proves to be “is.”

The nastiness of “Make America Great Again” reflects and then seeps into the fabric of a people without real moral grounding, and with a superficial faith in freedom tinted with a cartoonish fear of the Other.

Renaming, we must call for making America great for everyone, finally.

Renaming, we must reject totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

If we return to Vonnegut-as-Karabekian, we in the U.S. are confronted with neither a formal police state nor “perfect freedom,” but none the less, we are unwilling and unable to say unvarnished what we value and what we fear so that we can gain the former and cast out the latter.