Monday, November 29

Imagination



Double Blind starts strong, but character and plot development struggle by the novel's end. Still, Edward St. Aubyn masterfully explores many of the themes found in Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit including philanthropy, the human desire for control, and the corruption of immense wealth. 

Francis is an ecologist, intent on returning large patches of land to the wild. He meets Olivia at an Oxford conference and immediately falls in love: “They had only spent one night together, but it had the tentative intensity of a love affair rather than the practiced abandon of hedonism.” The couple assists Olivia’s good friend, Lucy, who discovers she has brain cancer shortly after starting a new position finding worthy innovations for her billionaire boss, Hunter. Hunter is spoiled, surrounded by sycophants and regularly fueled by drugs until he falls in love with Lucy.

Olivia and Francis start spending time with Lucy, Hunter and wealthy friends – and the book’s easy banter examines how Hunter and other philanthropists influence career scientists, and the more forthright scientists can temper impulsivity, waste and extremism. When Hunter first meets Lucy and tells her about his foundation, she responds: “To a foreign eye, America has so much philanthropy and so little charity. Most people have to kill themselves to prove that they deserve ordinary kindness, while a tiny group of people never stop boasting about how generous they are – as long as it’s tax-deductible.” 

Like Allure of Deceit, the book captures how charity is more about donor image and contentment than support for recipients. Early on, Hunter is interested in funding only big, splashy ideas and he dismisses problems like schizophrenia because the illness only affects 1 percent of the population, most of whom are poor. Lucy rejects such thinking, but she, too, is impatient with science’s narrow specializations, mindless quests for tenure and secure funding.

Olivia is the most traditional and serious scientist of the group while Francis may be the most intellectual, at one point noting “The point was not to assert beliefs, but to remove the rubble of delusion that constituted almost all beliefs.”  Yet he remains defensive about the anecdotal nature of his research and meager income. He is annoyed by career biologists, alluding to the depressing work of documenting the decline of species and referring to dissection labs as “random murder.” In an early conversation with Olivia, Francis - who felt “the weight of ecological doom … sometimes so great that he had felt the pressure of misanthropy and despair” early in life - “couldn’t help noticing the strangely cheerful, almost rivalrous way they had discussed the death of nature.”

When Olivia and Francis first fall in love, he expresses aspirations similar to those of Henry David Thoreau, and she expects him to devote the most time caring for their expected child. But wealth, career recognition and control are alluring, and Francis succumbs to the temptations presented by another billionaire who donates a massive sum to an international ecology project that she expects Francis to lead. The relationship between Francis and Olivia may not survive his constant introspection about the human role in natural wilderness – and his tendency of “identifying with one non-human animal after another.” But Olivia is practical: “babies weren’t born to redeem or justify other people’s lives, they were born to have their own life.” 

In the end, a schizophrenic twin may express more contentment and self-awareness than the most educated characters. That man has secured his first job working in a kitchen, funded by – of course – another wealthy philanthropist who lost his own son to suicide. The young man's goal is pursuing a life that comes close to being ordinary with the ability, as Sigmund Freud once wrote, to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”  At one point, the schizophrenic character tells his therapist:  “Sometimes things are more powerful when you know they’re not true, because you have to imagine them so hard….” 

A determined imagination is useful in setting life goals and finding contentment.

Monday, November 15

Freedom



A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin tells the story of an accomplished singer who angers the Chinese Communist Party and relocates to the United States where he performs occasionally for low wages and struggles for a green card while taking on odd jobs of tutoring students and laboring with a construction crew. His new life requires separation from his wife and daughter, flexibility and humbleness. Still, Tian hopes to find artistic freedom and hopes for his daughter to attend a US college. 

The haunting and eloquent book may move too slowly for some readers as Tian compares his career and life in China versus that in the United States, exploring the multiple meanings of freedom when intertwined with comfort, trust, security, responsibility as well as the quest for a meaningful life. 

Early on, Tian claims to have no interest in politics and hopes that his superiors might forgive him and plead for his return. Instead, he learns the party has a long reach through the diaspora in the United States, intent on ostracizing him if they cannot keep him under their control on their terms. And a good friend points out, “Freedom is not just a personal choice – it’s also social conditions.” 

For Tian, separated from his family, freedom comes to mean solitude and isolation. Chinese government contacts argue that freedom is worthless if one must go hungry and live apart from loved ones, and Tian agrees that “freedom is a different kind of suffering away from tyranny.” He admits that freedom can be “frightening and paralyzing,” taking time to get used to, yet he worries that “cultural pragmatism” limits Chinese people’s visions and pursuits. He misses his celebrity status and the many associated favors while also embracing anonymity. He eventually determines that “solitude is a path to freedom, for which you must accept everything that happens to you, including hunger, disease, and even death. You’re supposed to be responsible for your own existence, body and soul.” At another point, he notes: “To be left alone – that is the essence of freedom.”  

Over the course of seven years, he wonders if the separation and suffering are worthwhile, if the sacrifices are really necessary and justified, and for Tian the answer remains a steadfast yes, as he recalls words of his father-in-law – that courage is “manifested in the way one lived and worked every day.” By the end, Tian is a fervent and thoughtful advocate of democracy, suggesting: “It was time to remind people that democracy must not retreat any further, or the Chinese government would export its system of digital autocracy to control and dominate the world.” 

Freedom of thought is a fundamental human right, nurtured by formal education and self-education. The American Library Association points out that "censorship, ignorance, and manipulation are the tools of tyrants and profiteers" and true justice and freedom depend on the constant appreciation and exercise of such rights. 

Thursday, October 28

Self-deception

 

The novel Where the Truth Lies from British author Anna Bailey demonstrates how a community or individual can use religion as a weapon to control or belittle others. The book is set in small rural Colorado town, where a father regularly abuses his three children, insisting that God made him the way he is and God “understands why I’ve done the things I’ve done.” Of course, that argument does not apply to others who may choose to live differently, whether that might be homosexuality or immigration. 

For the fundamentalist father, his way is God’s way, the only way, and a cycle of cruelty, humiliation, guilt, anger and shame ensues. Expectations of rote forgiveness mock Christian principles. Teenagers observing and subjected to such abuse lash out against the unreasonable controls and expectations with self-abuse – shutting down with self-loathing, substance abuse, sexual debasement. Hurting one’s own body “feels like power, the way a mad king might slaughter his people, just to prove he can.” Resorting to extreme behavior is perhaps a last-ditch effort for finding someone who might care. If that savior does not emerge, then a life with so much anger and control is not worth living anyway. 

Children trapped in such situations, expected to honor insane parents, cannot help but question whether God even exists. In this book, young Jude protests that "God wouldn’t –" and his brother Noah responds: “This has nothing to do with God, you idiot. God doesn’t do anything, He just whispers in people’s ears that they’re worth jack shit, and they pray and pray hoping He’ll stop, but He doesn’t, and in the end they just go crazy. That’s all God does, He makes people go crazy, so get that into your head and grow up!”

Most adults in the small town express sympathy but then shrug and look the other way. The worst of it is when family members turn on one another, pointing out transgressions, some true and others false, finding scapegoats for the tyrant to attack. The goal is to deflect attention away from their own wrongdoings or create horrific chaos so that others outside the family might intercede. 

The book's title, Where the Truth Lies, reflects the multiple meanings of the verb “to lie” as detailed by Merriam-Wesbster: to engage in falsehoods, to sleep or remain motionless, to remain inactive or in hiding, to bed with, to have an effect, to remain still, to belong or to be neglected. Of course, there is but one meaning for truth - what happened to Abigail Blake and why.

Bailey’s novel supports the notion that an outsider can sort through carefully crafted myths, history and expectations and reveal our true natures. 

Self-deception, the embracing of false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, leads to horrific behaviors and crimes. Self-deception is both morally wrong and morally dangerous, individually and collectively. Those who engage in self-deception, evading evidence to avoid knowledge and truth about real problems swirling in their midst, cannot be trusted on any topic. 

Collective self-deception is especially dangerous, and yet the growing trend, fueled by the internet and social media, “has received scant direct philosophical attention as compared with its individual counterpart,” notes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The self-deceived turn to groups who reinforce their beliefs and most frightening: “Compared to its solitary counterpart, self-deception within a collective is both easier to foster and more difficult to escape, being abetted by the self-deceptive efforts of others within the group.” 

Monday, October 11

Stories and myths

 


Story

the series of events in a book, film or play


Myth  

story from ancient times, especially one that was told to explain natural events or to describe the early history of a people



 


Firuzeh’s family flees the threats of Afghanistan, traveling to Australia by way of Pakistan, Indonesia and Nauru in On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. Hope quickly turns to despair as the young woman observes the refugees around her resort to lies and bullying, prostitution and suicide. Firuzeh does not know how to respond when pressed about why the family left, and a doomed friend retorts, “We need reasons like we need water or air…. I’ll find you your reason.”

Experienced refugees warn that Australia is cruel, lonely, hard. After a lengthy process of confirming citizenship, the government offers families $2000 and plane tickets to return to Kabul. Only refugees who persist through the delays and indignities make it to Australia, and a prostitute reminds Firuzeh that those who still treat others with kindness, even after repeated pain and humiliation, are wealthy. Others, including the Australians who fear and resent the refugees, are poor. 

Beauty and creativity can be found even in hardship. Early on, the family tells favorite stories to entertain and inspire one another. Only a few stories reach the status of myth. “There’s something about beginnings and endings,” explains Firuzeh’s imaginary friend. “That polishes them so smooth you nearly see your face in them. Then you open your hands and let them go, and the current pulls you onward and way. Behind you, those stones sink down to the mud, where no one will ever find them again.”

Individual tales of hardship go quickly forgotten for Australia's policies nad public opinion. Firuzeh’s family receives a TPV – a temporary protection visa – without understanding the consequences of a three-year stay.  A few Australian teachers understand that such visas are “inherently destabilizing” for children absorbing a new language and culture.  Others resist examining the deeper consequences:

‘I don’t think our government would do anything evil. Besides, isn’t Afghanistan safer these days? With the Americans there, and everything?’

Mr. Early said, ‘I haven’t heard much in the news lately.’

‘That’s good, isn’t it?’

The refugees endure long waits to enter Australia and start a new home life. E. Lily Yu details the meager rations and crowded conditions of refugee camps, with guards freely dispensing sleeping pills and other psychiatric medications to ease boredom and maintain order among detainees. “Sleeping is an easier way to wait,” notes one character. “All of us had something to wait for, and that kept us going…. Now the minutes of our lives are wasted. Time scrapes our nerves.”

Never-ending hardships replace the hopeful storytelling. “What a story, your family’s,” observes Firuzeh’s imaginary friend. “Over and over, without an end.” Firuzeh admits she does not like how her family’s story is going and Nasima suggests “You can change it…. If you want. If you’re brave. If you remember how.”

Family cohesion crumbles as the couple and two children lose respect for one another. Upon learning about their temporary status, the mother urges the father to take action while Firuzeh insists their father is a hero who will think of something. The argument intensifies, the father blaming his wife for working and neglecting the children while she criticizes him for weakness and men's habit of blaming problems on wives. The wife repeats her mother’s assessment that hers husband is a frightened boy, not a man, and the Firuzeh’s father strikes her mother.

Firuzeh, who always admired her father, lashes out, telling him she hates him and wishes him dead. The man weeps, wondering how his more assertive wife and children will ever survive in dangerous Afghanistan.  

Of course, such tragic scenes unfold daily in the camps and neighborhoods where refugees try to start anew, so common that most fail to notice their own role in the dangers of routine cruelties and entrenched inequality. 

The anger and recognition of temporary status changes the world for Firuzeh and her brother who runs away. Searching for him, she boards a train full of happy students, “holding bookbags as shields, laughing and shoving each other. Firuzeh hated them wit ha black and overwhelming passion. Not one of them had to worry about deportation, or a missing brother, or a broken mother…. ”  

The father takes desperate action, giving his family a reprieve, and Firuzeh contemplates how the stories of Australia differ from those of Afghanistan and wonders if they are still useful. The imaginary friend reminds that “Stories go where people go…. In dreams, in fresh tellings, in memories.”

Taking control of one’s story, sensing how others respond and making adjustments that suit the author and her audience, can make all the difference in surviving the life we're handed. And we won't recognize that the making of a myth is underway, and our own role, until long after the fateful conclusion.

Tuesday, September 7

Left unsaid

 











“No one is truly voiceless, he whispered, either they silence you, or you silence yourself.”

After fleeing Aleppo and enduring a traumatic journey separate from her family, a young Syrian woman lives in a London apartment from which she observes daily routines of her neighbors. She does not speak and embraces privacy, an instinct for self-preservation.

Silence Is a Sense by Layla Alammar reflects the constant comparisons and contradictions of the refugee experience – the comfort and annoyances of tradition, the discoveries and puzzles of another culture, the curiosity and ignorance and assumptions of new companions, the guilt over fleeing one’s homeland, doing anything to survive and not knowing what happened to those left behind. Tyrants, whether in Syria or London or Kabul, fear comparisons. As observed by the protagonist of Fear of Beauty: “Those who prefer continuity avoid comparison and regard any hint of choice as criticism. New interpretations from others might twist opinions in unknown ways.”   

The protagonist writes her thoughts as a refugee for a small newspaper, under the pseudonym “Voiceless.” She initially resists the editor’s requests for more memories and experiences. “Everybody here wants a story,” she notes. “They all want stories – how did you get here? How long did it take? How easy was it to process your papers? … They want to hear about the hardship and the struggles and the people who died along the way.”  She worries that her more liberal-minded editor and readers have an agenda, wanting “to see, in me, all the hopes and ills and frustrations and struggles and singular stories of some five million plus people. They want me to speak for the chaos of the world…” She finds that “The human need for stories is itself an obstacle to memory. Like our dreams, we are not content with images or scenes or fragments of sensory stimuli… We try to place these elements within a structure that makes sense, wading back through fragments, trying to stitch it all together into a coherent pattern – a beginning, a middle, and an end.”  Stories are never so easily completed, and the protagonist feels “persecuted by the things I remember and by what my mind chooses to hide from.” She suspects that the most common routines may have been forgotten or blended into one memory: “It seems to me that complicit in the very idea of memory is actual forgetting.”

Memories meant to be cherished are reviewed over and over again until they become rote, over-practiced even while blending with new awareness and perspectives. Efforts to vanquish the most horrific memories, piercing again and again with renewed vigor, are useless. All shape her character, and she embraces literature and poetry, such as that of Edgar Allen Poe, because “There is someone out there who has been gripped by fear and loathing as I have.” Emotions may take precedent over actions in the most enduring memories, and it may be possible that life's most beautiful moments escape notice, failing to be preserved by memory.  

London is supposed to be safe, but refugees confront discrimination and hatred, and the character expresses pessimism about the na├»ve notion that education might overcome hatred, an error “repeated on the news, in op-eds, in documentaries, in social media posts. There’s this idea that if only you bombard bigots with enough facts and data and statistics, you can cure them.”  The problem is not lack of education, she maintains, but “fear of the unknown, the Other, fear that things are changing in ways he can’t predict or control.” Of course, change is inevitable for any society, with or without refugees.

The protagonist finds that memories presented as stories lure “the public into caring about things and Others they might not otherwise care about.” Stories carry listeners to other places, helping them understand other cultures and perspectives, and thus do “make migrants of us after all.”  

Some of the most powerful stories go untold. They might be too unbelievable or, in this case, a writer is “terrified that a story will diminish the real, that it will cheapen the experience beyond what I can bear.” The protagonist cautions others to examine the gaps in many tales, the questions that no one asks and the answers that remain hidden inside another person: “That’s where the story is.”

Tuesday, August 24

Need for expertise

 

cargo plane evacuating Americans and Afghanis from Kabul


As suggested by this blog's "Functional leadership?" and "Key to success," the Taliban cannot afford to lose the most talented, educated Afghani citizens. 

Al Jazeera reports today that the Taliban are urging the United States to stop evacuating skilled Afghans, such as engineers and doctors. “We ask them to stop this process,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a press conference in Kabul. “This country needs their expertise. They should not be taken to other countries.” 

But like most fundamentalists, the Taliban will reject "expert" opinions on sensible education programs and public policies. Skilled agriculture specialists don't want to grow poppies. Modern health providers may support women's reproductive rights and family planning. Computer scientists do not want to collect or abuse citizen data. Weapons specialists won't want to target former international colleagues. Chemists and physicists will struggle to develop religious rationales for scientific phenomenon and limited resources. Engineers focus on math and lack time for theological rhetoric. 

The educated, fully aware of Taliban's past disdain for education, will balk at working for the extremists. "Insurgencies the world over, from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to Boko Haram in Nigeria, have sought to attack, resist, influence or control access to and the content of education," notes "Taliban Attitudes and Policies Towards Education" by Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson for the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups. "However, the Taliban’s level of interference, and the growing sophistication of its approach, sets it apart. It has developed a series of policies and bureaucratic guidelines governing education provision and established a shadow education ministry, with education shadow ministers at provincial and district level and monitors charged with overseeing schools in Taliban areas."

Key aspects of Taliban attitudes that will conflict with education that creates expertise:

-a preference for Islamic religious education, with the group divided between traditionalists and those who recognize the need for modern approaches;

- reluctance to acknowledge women's capabilities or allow mixed-gender workplaces and teams;

- opposition to donor conditions on human rights and women's rights, even though the country's education system heavily relies on international aid. 

In December 2020, the Taliban negotiated an agreement with UNICEF to operate 4,000 classes in areas then under its influence. "That the Taliban is willing to negotiate a national agreement with a UN agency demonstrates its desire for aid – and international recognition," note Amiri and Jackson, adding that "the Taliban is increasingly seeking to position itself as capable of governing. Some segments of the insurgency’s leadership acknowledge that Afghanistan needs a diverse, modern education system. They also understand that, if they want external recognition and political legitimacy, they will have to make concessions on some of their more hardline positions, particularly on female education."

Taliban policy documents on education are clear - the group intends to regulate, control and influence all forms of education, including "what subjects can be taught and who can attend school." 










True education requires critical thinking, which naturally lead to questions and doubts about fundamentalism and extremism. Ruthless, primitive policies that counter best practices are not sustainable. The writers concede that "Education is inherently political, and governments and armed groups the world over have long used the education system to indoctrinate, surveil and regulate the behaviour of the population." 

The educated will balk at working for a Taliban government that does not value freedom of thought that goes hand in hand with the best education programs. Many skilled Afghanis anticipate coercion, and the International Labour Organization describes forced labor: "work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities."

That is why thousands of Afghanis gather at the Kabul airport, willing to sacrifice all to flee the country.

Photo of  US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, evacuating more than 600 Afghans to  from Kabul, courtesy of Al Jazeera and Defense One; photo of library, courtesy of the American University of Afghanistan. 


Friday, August 20

Functional leadership?


A handful of western journalists have stayed in Afghanistan to report on the Taliban takeover and the chaotic evacuation of foreigners and Afghanis who supported US efforts over the past 20 years. 

Taliban leaders are desperately trying to send signals to the foreign media that they can improve governance and bring order to Afghanistan. But good governance requires good communications which rely on strong reading and critical thinking skills. 

Leaders lacking such skills will only deliver frustration, as suggested by Ian Pannell reporting for ABC News.

Pannell and his team had permission from Taliban commanders to head to the airport. Stopped at a checkpoint, shown at the 3-minute mark in this video, the Taliban fighters stopped the crew, staring blankly at a letter from Taliban command. Amid shots being fired, the Taliban then turned the reporters away.   

"These guys can't read," said Pannell, clearly frustrated. "The agony of not being able to get to the airport, past Taliban-controlled checkpoints, is the reality on the ground here." 


The Taliban face a big challenge with the demographics of the country's 38 million people. The median age of the population is 18.6. So more than half the people were not around in 2001 when the Taliban last ruled the country and have no recollection of the harsh edicts based on arbitrary interpretations of Islamic writings. Women also make up half the population, and many bitterly oppose Taliban policies forcing subservience to male relatives, arranged marriages at early ages, and bans on a female presence at schools and work, 

One might wonder why the Taliban would desperately try to prevent Afghans who despise such policies - some of whom might organize formidable resistance - from fleeing the country. 

A key reason is that much of the country still suffers from illiteracy and functional illiteracy. Since 2016, the literacy rate in Afghanistan increased by more than 40 percent, reported UNESCO in March 2020 report. Still, the literacy rate is 55 percent for men and about 30 percent for women. 

Such high rates of illiteracy offers an explanation for the "wholesale collapse" of the Afghan military in defending the country against the Taliban. "[P]erhaps the biggest hardship was having to teach virtually every recruit how to read," suggested Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post, and "only 2 to 5 percent of Afghan recruits could read at a third-grade level despite efforts by the United States to enroll millions of Afghan children in school over the previous decade.... Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count."

The Taliban may have overtaken the country - along with a sizable cache of planes and artillery from the US and other foreign governments - but many of their fighters lack the skills to use the high-tech equipment. Hence, the Taliban have blocked borders and demand that neighboring countries return  fleeing Afghan soldiers who worked side by side with US and NATO troops. More than 500 Afghan soldiers fled to neighboring countries including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, using US-supplied planes and helicopters, reports the Hill. Uzbekistan has since returned some of the refugees, after the Taliban offered security guarantees, reports Reuters. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan express concerns about admitting refugees, some of whom could be fighters in disguise or extremists, reports Al Jazeera

The Taliban also desperately need many Afghanistan's government workers for now, hoping to harness top minds and talent to sort through an array of policies and finances, everything from tracking down revenues and foreign aid to arranging new partnerships and favorable contracts for infrastructure and the sale of resources like rare-earth materials. 

So, the Taliban tolerates the foreign press for now, striking a "conciliatory tone," hoping to prevent mass panic and protests by emphasizing a smooth transition. The leaders continue to claim they will take no retribution against the many who supported the US presence over the past two decades. 

A handful of courageous people, reporters like Pannell and Afghan citizens on social media, document the tense transition, and Taliban leaders will struggle to appease a populace that has become accustomed to more freedom and opportunities over the past 20 years than the the new regime may be prepared to provide.  

Screenshots of Taliban handling a letter authorizing entry to the airport near Kabul and Ian Pannell, courtesy of ABC News.