MAGA Writer

Great news! Sam Quinones, the author of Dreamland, is going to release a new book in two days. Its titled The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth.

Dreamland was so good I couldn’t wait for Quinones to write something – anything! – else. It’s a “build the wall” book whether the author wants it or not. I’m sure Quinones would rather bite his own head off but he’s the biggest MAGA writer in the country.

Halloween Humiliation

There’s this big Halloween parade in our town, and I’d never been until today. First, I was too adult, then Klara was too little, then there was icy rain the day of. Finally, we decided to go because the event is legendary.

Folks, it was horrid. I haven’t felt this humiliated since I stopped working at Cornell. I’m writing this right now, with my cheeks burning in shame. Here’s what happened.

I thought, a Halloween parade, right? Costumes, fun floats, what else could it be? And maybe there was all that but I couldn’t find it in myself to stay beyond the first 8 minutes.

The beginning was beautiful. Veterans walked with flags, everybody cheered. A wonderful moment.

And then the important people in luxurious vehicles drove in a procession. First, the Chamber of Commerce, then the Mayor, the administrators at my university, the owners of a McMansion here in town, a big law firm. As they drove, they threw candy into the crowd and plebeian children crawled on the ground picking it up. If at least the fancy vehicles were decorated for Halloween or the people in them wore costumes, maybe this would feel differently. But no. I was particularly struck by the teenage son of a local millionaire who wore a fancy suit and threw candy at children crawling in the dirt with a look of mild disgust.

That’s when we left. Thankfully, Klara doesn’t get the hype over candy and didn’t mind leaving. I never limit her access to sweets, so she wouldn’t bother to pick a piece of candy off the ground.

I’m particularly struck by the symbolism of the contrast between the veterans starting the parade to remind us of the sacrifices made for our freedom and people crawling in the dirt for meaningless handouts as if the concept of dignity were non-existent.

As they say, this explains a lot. Learn as a child to crawl in the mud to entertain your social betters, and what won’t you do as an adult?

Book Notes: Carlos Alberto Montaner’s Autobiography

Carlos Alberto Montaner is a Cuban writer and dissident. He was 16 when the dictatorship of Fidel Castro imprisoned him. Montaner escaped from prison and eventually managed to leave Cuba. His autobiography titled Sin it más lejos narrates six decades of efforts on the part of Montaner and other Cuban intellectuals in exile to bring democracy to Cuba.

Montaner always believed in the possibility of a peaceful democratic transformation of Cuba. But he hasn’t been to Cuba since 1959 and doesn’t know how far gone it is. I remember seeing in Havana groups of young healthy men sitting on the porches of crumbling houses and drinking rum at noon. They sat amidst piles of fetid garbage but it never occurred to them to clean it up. The difference between them and an extremely energetic, resourceful and active – even as he nears the age of 80 – Montaner is the best illustration of how socialism (and Cuba is a socialist, not a Communist country) sucks people dry and leaves empty, indifferent shells.

The book offers some fascinating details about the dictatorship that I never knew. Montaner also has a lot of stories about Hispanic writers and politicians and how they acted in connection with the Cuban tragedy.

Montaner is a very interesting person. He got married at 16 and lived his whole life with the same woman. Sixty years later, he still writes about her with love and admiration. This is unusual because male authors often erase their wives from autobiographies altogether. VS Naipaul is an example of such writing. I was stunned to discover that he spent his lonely summer in England that he described so beautifully in a book with a wife who isn’t mentioned once.

Poor, poor Cuba. Such a great country so tragically destroyed. And so uselessly, too, because nobody learned anything.

Economic Motive

People keep saying that the Biden administration should have declared a victory over COVID back in April, when the seasonal drop in cases could have been attributed to vaccination. All restrictions could have been removed, ensuring effortless political dominance for the Democrats for the rest of the decade.

That such an easy political win was sacrificed tells us that the economic motive behind COVID mitigation measures matters more. Who cares about the Democrats when the next Republican president or Congress can be easily persuaded – like Trump was persuaded to not build the wall and hence sacrifice his next term – to do whatever is necessary.

Systemic Scam

The opponents of the Republican candidate for the governorship of Virginia had to pretend to be neo-Nazis to smear him because there are no real ones.

This has been the case with every incident of “racial bias” that made the news in years. The Muslim woman who had her hijab torn off, the black actor caught by Trump supporters who were carrying a noose, a black girl whose hair was set on fire, a black student who found insulting words scribbled on his door, the girl who had acid poured on her by ‘white frat boys’, and so many more have all been proven to be hoaxes.

Ibram Kendi himself recognized yesterday that there is no “systemic racism”:

Of course, he then deleted the tweet and banned everyone who commented on it but the evidence is overwhelming. In a society where the highest achieving groups academically and economically are non-white and you have to cosplay as a Nazi because there aren’t any real ones, “systemic racism” is a scam aimed at siccing people at each other and robbing them.

Anybody who is using the words “systemic racism” is an agent of the greatest economic dispossession of our times. Whether they do it knowingly or as useful fools, they assist in the robbery of people of all races.

The problem is that it makes people feel so good to say “systemic racism.” They feel so moral, pure, and hip that it doesn’t matter it’s all a scam that will make their own quality of life worse.

Book Notes: Dmitry Bykov’s June

I finished June (2017), and I’m very very happy that I have begun my return to Russian literature with this novel. It’s a serious work of literature. Complicated, big, the linguistic mastery is off the chart. Bykov is a famous poet, so the language virtuosity is not surprising.

The novel has 3 parts, and each offers the perspective of one central character – two Jews and one Pole – that’s given in the indirect free style. (That’s when you narrate the character’s thoughts but in the third person). Bykov even manages to give each character a recognizably different voice, which is very unusual with the indirect free style. When I read the first part, I was really thrown off by the cloying, lisping tone of the narrative. But then it became clear that the tone belongs not to Bykov but to the main character, a sheltered, smug Jewish boy Misha. For those of you who will be reading the novel, I highly recommend paying attention to the moment when the narrative switches from Misha to Boris, and the tone changes completely. It’s no big deal to do that when writing in the first person, but in the third it’s rarely attempted, let alone done successfully.

Aside from the extraordinary mastery on the formal level – and believe my expertise as a literary critic, there’s exceptional mastery here – the novel is great on the level of story, characters, and ideas. Big, big ideas about totalitarianism, war, fear, identity – and not in a stupid American way but in the sense of figuring out who you are and why.

June is the second novel in a trilogy, and now I’ll read the first and the recently released third. I’m beyond glad that Russian literature is back.

This is good news even for those who don’t read Russian literature or any literature. Until now, nobody knew what happens to a culture after 70 years of totalitarianism. Can it come back? Or is it dead forever? And how long does it take? Now we have an answer. It can come back (good news) but that takes a few decades (worse news).

For me, it’s particularly great to know that I can read some new books in Russian. I love my collected works of Chekhov but I know them by heart at this point.

Just Say No

People are still not getting it. Compliance doesn’t bring you freedom. Only non-compliance does.

Have people never dealt with bullies or abusers? Or at least seen them on TV? When did handing over your lunch money to a bully stop the bully from trying to get more the next day?

Also, notice the self-delusional nature of “I’m willing to make a deal.” Because it’s cute to imagine oneself as an equal, a fully autonomous agent of one’s own will. Nobody is offering you any deals, you simpleton. You will do what you are told and then get punished for it.

Keep Loving It

So what do you think happened to Alya, the character in Bykov’s novel who was in love with USSR and sang its praises? Alya’s character is based on a real-life person, the daughter of the famous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (my favorite poet in the world).

Both in the novel and in real life, Alya was imprisoned, tortured, forced to denounce her father whom she adored which resulted in his execution. Then she was sent to the Gulag.

It isn’t hard to figure out that the excitable, pro-Soviet Alya would be among the first to suffer during the purges. But here’s another question. When Alya was finally released – a very ill woman, her husband executed, her whole family dead – how did she feel about the USSR?

She kept loving it, of course.