Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sartre on the banality of evil

This past Sunday, TheNew York Times published a front page article that purported to tell the story of an American teenager’s journey from playing b-ball in Minneapolis to joining the fight for the Muslim Caliphate in Syria.

But the article left the young man at its center, Abdi Nur, a cypher. All we learn is that he was slim, apparently liked playing basketball, and was attending a local community college with the hope, perhaps, of becoming a lawyer. The newspaper did report that there are, according to best estimates, a few dozen Americans (the article gives various specific figures that, unfortunately, don’t add up) and perhaps 3,000 Europeans who have joined or attempted to join jihadi groups. But it didn’t give us anything about their lives either. It was the same with all the coverage of Mohammed Emwazi, raised in London since he was six, who studied IT at the University of Westminster and worked for a Kuwaiti computer company before rocketing to fame as Jihadi John of various ISIS snuff flicks. Yes, we now know his name and we have seen some columns asserting that the atmostphere at the  university was friendly to fundamentalists—but who the hell was he? A similar dynamic was at work in what has been written about ShamimaBegum, Kadiza Sultana, and Amira Abase – the three teenage girls who snuck out of London on a flight to Istanbul and now are, presumably, arranging to make their way to Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria that is not far from the Turkish border. We know their names but almost nothing else about them.

The Times noted that, in the U.S., a cluster of radicalized American kids developed in the Minneapolis area. According to the paper, the local mosque has accused a 30-something volunteer of pointing kids in the direction of militant action. But we don’t learn anything about him either.

Sadly, it seems, there’s not much to find out about any of these people. This is not a criticism of them. They are, for the most part, just starting out in life. They are largely unformed and, probably, like most of us at their age, trying ideas and identities on for size. We’d probably like them if we met them on the street. I’m sure they are good kids. Dutiful sons and daughters. Thoughtful. Caring. Open to experience. Energetic. They are exceptional only in that they are not exceptional. They are the norm. And so we don’t know how to talk about them.

We seem to want our terrorists larger than life – people who have gone through a grand conversion experience or a quick boil in the stew of radicalization. We don’t know how to talk about terrorists who have not gone through anything extravagant. We don’t know how to cope with absolutely normal terrorists.

Fortunately, there is a narrative of how an ordinary kid becomes a violent extremist. The Childhood of a Leader, a 75-year-old short story by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, chronicles the life of Lucien Fleurier, a bourgeois Mama’s-boy who morphs, as he reaches adulthood, into a violent anti-Semite. It was published in French in 1939 and translated into English 9 years later.

Like most kids, Lucien spends much of his childhood trying to find himself in a family and world that doesn’t seem to care what he feels. He loves his doting mother with an almost erotic intensity – but is repulsed by his own feelings. He fantasizes about being an orphan, but his guilt over this implied rejection of his family moves him to redouble his outward expressions of affection. His father – who owns a factory in the countryside – is, for the most part, a distant and dreary presence. He clearly expects Lucien to take charge of the family business when he grows up. This troubles the youth, who sees himself as a follower, not a leader. Lucien’s not sure he’s got the strength of character to run a factory.

In short, childhood offers Lucien little to encourage him to forge his own identity. Instead, he is mired in bad faith. No matter what he does, he finds himself inauthentic – a loving son who fantasizes about being a castaway, a kid who expects an inheritance he doesn’t deserve and doesn’t think he can handle.

In pursuit of an identity – any identity – he apprentices himself to people who seem self-possessed: older students who strike him as more decisive than he is, adults who seem to offer a firm sense of the world. He flirts with surrealism and has a brief affair with an older man (this scares the hell out of him, because, whether he’s gay or not, he knows he doesn’t have the guts to face the judgment of society, his family, and his peers.) His late-teen years are, as they are for most of us, an egotistical time. He picks up and drops friends and role models without wondering who they are or what they feel. Almost without thinking, he manipulates people under his control. He hooks up with a girlfriend he doesn't really care about. The sole question, for Lucien, is selfish: “What am I here for?”

Then, a guy he knows asks him to sign an anti-Jewish petition. Lucien had previously shown no interest in Jews. In fact, he had no experience with them whatsoever. He simply lived his reasonably cushioned life—summers at Férolles, the factory town, the rest of the year in Paris. But this makes the appeal perfect: Lucien doesn’t have to feel anything or know anything to put his signature down. So he signs and begins hanging out with the fascist cabal.

A short time later, his group, out for a night on the town, mugs a Jewish man, and Lucien spontaneously throws the final knock-out punch. With this single swing, he finds exactly what he has been craving. Previously a nebbish, a nothing, he has become someone who acts from conviction. He has an identity – he hates Jews – and that identity allows him to project a sense of authority. “The real Lucien—he knew now—had to be sought in the eyes of others, in the frightened eyes of Pierrette and Guigard [two friends who are impressed by his anti-Jewish views], the hopeful waiting of all those beings who grew and ripened for him, these young apprentice girls who would become his workers, people of Férolles, great and small, of whom one day he would be master. So many people were waiting for him, at attention: and he was and always would be this immense waiting of others.”

This, Lucien decides, is what he is here for, this is who he is. “I am the cathedral,” he tells himself. He wants – deserves, even – to be worshipped, and to achieve this end he doesn’t need opinions. Indeed, it’s better if he doesn’t have any – because then he can do horrible things without feeling or thinking anything at all, just telling himself it’s a matter of conviction. And, he doesn’t need any interest in the feelings or thoughts of others – because to let these things in is to admit that your convictions could be wrong. He assimilates anti-Semitism and hews to its line. The more resolute he is, the more people will watch, follow, attend to his views. And if he ceases to hold the line, he knows, he will lose his grasp on people’s attention and imagination.

In the final moment of the story, Lucien looks at his reflection in a store window. He expects to see the newly-serious committed man he has become in his mind. Instead, he encounters what he has always seen: “a pretty headstrong little face that was not yet terrible.” Nonplussed but still resolute, he knows what he has to do: “I’ll grow a moustache,” he decides.

It’s a banal decision, yet a telling ending.

For more than a decade, we have deluded ourselves into believing that terrorism is something radically other, outside our milieu of multi-culti tolerance and democracy. We believe that jihadis have to have been injected with some theocratic brainwashing virus or grown up in some stultifying medieval culture. Sartre’s ¾-century-old story reminds us that the appeal of terror is not alien. It is wired into modern life. Every person wants to make their mark—yet doesn’t know what to do to make it happen. We live on a ruthlessly competitive and utterly unfair planet. We seek to be extraordinary yet find ourselves condemned to be insignificant and ordinary, bit players even in our own lives. Despite contemporary rhetoric, we do not live in an inclusive world. Our system discards many without a care or even a thought. Our big cities – supposed melting pots – are segregated by race, by class, by country of origin. And as inequality rises, the lines of demarcation are getting more extreme even as we pretend they are being erased.

And then, on the verge of despair, people find a way they can differentiate themselves. Like Lucien, they grasp at this chance to be respected and revered. Like him, they discover something alien from their lives which offers them the chance to have what the world so far has denied them: an identity, a chance to become a leader, an opportunity to become a person to be reckoned with, a person with firm commitments that lead to spontaneous and resolute action. In search of identity, then, they become exactly what they are not. This is, of course, the essence of bad faith. The lure of violence, hatred, and terror is one of the outward expressions of this thin veil of nothingness that separates us from who we desire to be.

It is so ordinary it seems impossible to comprehend.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

the spoken world

An ancient midrash holds that when God pronounced our world ‘good,’ this implied that God had created and destroyed prior worlds, because how can you decide anything’s good without something that came before to compare it to.

            Of the third creation much has been written. That’s only fitting since the experiment continues to this day and has become self-referential.
But the first two. Of these, little has been recorded. Not for want of trying, but because whatever evidence there is exists only as inference or judgment. To study the first two creations is to map cobwebs. The strands break as soon as we try to trace them.
And yet we are drawn to this unending task. For us, these bewildering attempts hold the key to the already lived in, hand-me-down quality that inhabits our world along with us.

The first creation didn't last long. In the blink of an eye it lasted two million years.
            It came from a dream.
This is only fitting: the act of creation was an inadvertent, casual, unconscious thing.
            And then, quite suddenly, there was a world. Thousands of species unknown to us today existed in the limbo of this un-lived world and were consumed when the dreamer awoke.
            Destruction, of course, can never be complete. There is always a residue, some resin, ash, slag, grease, some slight afterimage like the shadows of things incinerated by the A-bomb blast in Hiroshima.
            Snowflakes are the primary evidence of the first creation. They are crystallized time, condemned to exist for a brief moment and then disappear into drifts or melt on a child's tongue. Also, a reminder of the millions of snuffed out voices can be heard today in the surging and singing of high tension power lines. From these melancholy remnants, we receive the news that the creator was a killer.

            The second creation lived an interesting life. It existed, as it were, backwards. The fundamental principal of this world was disorder and people accepted it. Everyone was born in various different ways, repeatedly, and all animals could understand each other.
            Rats were treated as creatures of distinction. Cows slept on their backs with their feet in the air. Dogs had not yet discovered campfires. Rolling stones gathered moss.
            The earth was smaller then, and you could get places without moving at all. Barnacles grew everywhere, spontaneously, so there was no point in trying to travel anyway. Everything was crusted over, immobile. As a result, the world was a fully imagined place.
            In the second creation, people lived according to no set principles. Murphy's law was the norm. In fact, everything went wrong all the time. People never got anywhere they wanted to go when they wanted to be there. And they never ever got what they wanted. But they didn't care. They had a great time doing it.
            Their pleasure in this unruliness and disorder created a massive disharmonious energy disturbance. Today we call this the big bang.
This charged pulse was made up of billions of voices undertaking quixotic individual acts of desperation – sounds spoken out of nowhere, messages without sender or receiver, and, indeed, with no message.
            Meaning was irrelevant. The important thing was the word, the syllable, the individual atom. There were contests, of course. One eloquent, sonorous, properly-placed word could mean respect, riches, or nothing at all. Talking was a game of chance.
            Each word disappeared as soon as it was spoken, not to be used again. New words were invented every minute. They seemed inexhaustible as forest fires, and consumed themselves just as quickly. Speaking at all was an act of planned obsolescence. The words burned brightly for a brief span, but as soon as they were replaced by new words, they died.
            In this way, to use a word was to challenge God, to engage in a spontaneous act of creation, definition and destruction.
            So words became fetish objects. To have a word and hold onto it for more than a few seconds – this was truly to have lived. There was no Everest, no Kilamanjaro, to match that height.
            A market sprang up. People who needed words could go to the bazaar. It was a place much like Times Square of old – a wondrous cacophony of barkers hawking adverbs, whole department stores dedicated to nouns, attics of pronouns, basements of verbs, presided over by small gray-haired men who guarded their inventories with specially trained Dobermans. Sometimes the merchants even slept with the words, but thefts were still common. Some people became addicts – and they thought nothing of killing for a new word.
            Those who could not afford the market prices bartered. They kept lists of their old words and met once a week or once a month or whenever necessary in the market to find new ones. Sometimes it was a one-for-one exchange. But at times when people were desperate, they'd give two, three, even four of their old words for one new one. Thus words became a commodity.
            At some point, though, an unheralded group of savants discovered a revolutionary sound, unmistakable in its meaning yet always new. Laughter never sounds the same – always a different texture, a different feeling, a varied timbre. Laughter alone escaped the commodity fetish and became the quintessential sound of the second creation.
            In time, the authorities (for there always is some authority, no matter how negligible) taxed laughter and its use declined.

            Today, we can find muted notes of the second creation in the phrases we use to indicate the difficulty of making anything mean something:
            "Words fail me." What does this mean? How can a word not succeed? "Words cannot describe." If they cannot describe, what can?
Our obsession with meaning has contributed greatly to the decline of our planet. We want everything to make sense, but can't make sense of it all.
My words don't behave themselves. I want them to stand in size order and let me marshal facts. But they move, they cheat, they bob and sway. I have to prop them up. I build scaffolding. I haul out enormous I-beams. I create infrastructure and superstructure. Yet still my words are sinking.
This spoken world is a leaky boat. We bail but can never bail fast enough. At some point, we will be overrun and slip into the lagoon, and then words, like weeds, will expand through the polluted estuary and choke us out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Third Way

Nothing’s truer than fiction, and the crazier the fiction, the closer to truth it sometimes is.
            The Book of the Sultan’s Seal, by Youssef Rakha (published in Egypt in early 2011, just after the Arab Spring brought down the Mubarak regime, and released in English this month by Interlink Books) is a fever journey through the streets of Cairo, with mad detours into the history of the Ottoman Empire, the grand heritage of Arab literature, and the nature of failed relationships. At once a love story (Mustafa Nayif Çorbacı leaves his wife and finds true love – and great sex, though it might only be in his mind – in the following 3 weeks) and a story of crackpot religious fervor (during the same period, Çorbacı, a Western-educated quasi-believer – the book never has him praying or embracing any particular religious positions – has a series of dreams and visions and transforms himself into a zombie with the mission of reconstituting the Ottoman caliphate), this is a work of zealotry that offers a vision of Islam that is broad and inclusive and lusty and fun.
Çorbacı (which means soup-seller in Turkish) is a man of both East and West. His name itself illuminates the contradictions inherent in that identity. Mustafa is an extremely common name that means 'the chosen one' and this chosen one is a naïf who can't help but carry with him the modern world’s not-quite-satisfying multi-culti stew.
Here’s his critique of the system of the West:

Neoliberalism angers me more than anything else. In practical terms, neoliberalism means that life is a supermarket. It’s what you buy at the supermarket that defines your identity. And the more your choices increase—a thousand types of orange juice, for example, or seventy different sizes of aspirin packet—the more the world flourishes and the possibilities for fulfillment multiply. Would you like your milk 1% or 1.5% fat, or fat-free? Which brand of dark Irish cheddar do you prefer?
So you break your head in a daily job that kills any rebellious instinct in you until you yourself turn into a commodity. Your time, your concentration, your enthusiasm. A job whose only purpose is to increase the supermarket’s size.

And here’s his analysis of the dilemma of a modern man of the East:

To be born a Muslim in this age means that you are perforce a different person. Your historical formation is not a logical result of the situation you’re in. I mean, take these silly examples: you’ve resolved to deal with time in a generous spirit; it is in your nature to grant priority to interpersonal responsibilities and feelings over the demands of work; you explain visible phenomena by reference to the supernatural as well as physical laws: and everything  runs, for you, from right to left. This is the complete opposite of the contemporary expectation that time is like an impaling spike, gain is more important than affection, and everything, even emotions and ideas, has a material explanation, in Latin script. So it is quite natural, in a moment of clarity, that you should wake up one day and fail to recognize anything around you, and be surprised even at your own body. There are now only two choices for a way out: either to blend in with the age to such a degree that you forget you were born a Muslim, or to be a Muslim, narrow-minded, extremist, mediocre, in line with the conditions of the age. There has to be a third choice.

The book is, in a wacky way, the chronicle of a man who finds that third way even as he fears it doesn’t exist. Caught between “the mystical forces of history … dressed up as Atatürk, as European colonialism and national independence movements, then as neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism (“the tail end of the same turd,” as Mustafa called fundamentalism in his notebook….),” Mustafa Çorbacı loses his mind – or, you might say, regains it – as he faces the dilemma that “Everything in his life, if he thought about it this way, would be another example of the marriage of East and West, Mustafa Efendi: the most hateful thing that history has allowed.” Or, as he says later, “Everything he’d known in this world was the aftermath of a crime.”

I can draw a connection between things: to have your love of an emigrée defined as a feeling like loss, while you yourself are abroad; and to be where you are—to be a zombie, with all that the term implies, and to have first met this girl at the time you turned into a zombie—while everything is happening to you in an attempt to understand the meaning of being Arab and a Muslim in this age.

As an author, Rakha is an equal opportunity offender – going after extremes of every sort. And he apparently pisses people off in real life, too: Rakha backed the Arab Spring but has been accused of writing in a kind of veiled support of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general whose regime has imprisoned and tortured journalists and activists. (Rakha has told interviewers that he is against Sisi: "I'm not sure the question is why intellectuals failed to criticise Sisi," he said late last year. "The question is how society and the culture came to be in a situation where there is no viable alternative to Sisi except for a Sunni Iran.")
Rakha has written this book, so translator Paul Starkey says, in a kind of ‘Middle Arabic’ that mimics medieval texts while welcoming contemporary slang, frank descriptions of fucking (the zombie sex, when it comes, is a one-sided male fantasy – but, hey, it’s Çorbacı’s book and he is male and a self-involved fantasist, so why not?), and a multitude of English phrases. The novel is also peppered with quotes from contemporary and classical literature – and, through it, you’ll meet Yemeni novelist Ali al-Maqri (“The homeland is treason. Every homeland is treason. The idea of the homeland is treason.”), Iraqi Assyrian poet Sargon Boulus (he emigrated to San Francisco in 1968, and, while continuing to publish his own writing, translated the Beat poets into Arabic), plus medieval historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, and many others.
The book jumps back and forth in time, and flickers between the 1st person and the 3rd. I felt I could detect the imprint of The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk’s novel of Istanbul, in these pages. And perhaps, subversively, The Book of Questions, Edmund Jabes’ elusive poem made up almost exclusively of quotes from imaginary rabbis.
It’s a riotous high-wire act, grounded by one almost-fatal flaw: Rakha seemed to fear that his story didn’t have an ending. So Part 9, the book’s last section, labeled a “conclusion” and a “confession,” gives the unnamed narrator his chance to plead that, as the very last line of text has it, “the story of Mustafa Çorbacı was not just a collection of fairy tales.”
Fortunately, the chosen one had previously given the book his own ending. At the end of Part 8, ready to embark on the first step of his ridiculous mission to restore the Ottomans as the true Caliphs, Çorbacı hops into a taxi to get to the Plane Yard (‘the airport,’ in his personal cartography of Cairo.) The cabdriver asks, as cabdrivers will, “Where are you traveling to?”
And Çorbacı replies, “I’m going to heaven. Haven’t you heard? They now have a direct flight to heaven.”
What a crushing realization. Çorbacı’s headed to Beirut, the city Westerners once labeled the ‘paradise’ of the Middle East, while tourists, when they fly to Egypt's famed beach resort at Sharm el-Sheikh, understandably feel as if they are headed to heaven – and this is, of course, the same thing Westerners are told the 9/11 hijackers felt when they crashed their planes into the World Trade Center towers and what we assume the Charlie Hebdo shooters meant when they shouted “God is greatest” as they killed, knowing all the while they would be hunted down and killed quite soon thereafter. (see here for Rakha's take on those murders in France.)
Like it or not, our world, like Çorbacı’s, includes all these things. There is a third way and it’s a hard way. It emerges from looking at things as they are.
With its zombies and fanatical fever dreams and crackpot conspiracies involving everyone and everything, The Book of the Sultan's Seal does exactly that.