Monday, November 12, 2012

Pico Iyer, The Man Inside My Head

Pico Iyer’s book is difficult to review because it’s difficult to classify. It’s part memoir, part literary biography and criticism, and part travel book. Indeed, there seems to be two men inside Iyer’s head, the novelist Graham Greene and Iyer’s father. The book traces its course through various episodes of Iyer’s diverse life. Iyer is the son of Indians who emigrated to the U.K. and then, in the 1960s, to southern California. Iyer returned to England for schooling while his parents remained in California, thus requiring Iyer to ferry back and forth across the continents to experience both school and family. This type of background, along with the fact that his father was an academic and one well-versed and enthusiastic about the classics, made for an interesting background for young Pico (named, by the way, after the great Italian humanist, Pico della Mirandola). 

But during all of this, and well into the present, the singular figure of Graham Greene, the novelist and the man, became the “man within my head”. Perhaps their shared travels and uncertainties lead to this attraction, although as someone who’s been quite rooted his whole life, I, too, find Greene’s work quite fascinating. Greene, if you’re not acquainted with him, is the British novelist who often sets his novels in far-off locales, such as Haiti, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and the like, and then populates the novel with complex, often quite psychologically tortured characters. Greene was not afraid to delve into issues of God, belief, and guilt, as well as all manner of sin and betrayal. And Greene himself proves quite a convoluted and complex character, at once cold and kind, approachable and lonely. 

I recommend this book to anyone who’s read Greene’s work or whose seen the movies that do some justice to his work, like The Third Man (a great film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton—and did you know that in the short story, Harry Lime was a Catholic?), The Fallen Idol (another Carol Reed film), and The Comedians (Liz and Dick at their best along with a fine cast). For established Greene fans, this would prove a worthwhile read. As Iyer has written a lot of other work that I’ve not read, I can’t say how this fits, but it’s interesting, instructive, and like all of the characters in the book, very elusive.

Further Thoughts on the Election

I have been digesting the election results and giving further thought to what happened. Below are some random ideas that occur to me:

The Republicans have always been the party of the wealthy. This also used to mean that they were the party of the better educated. However, that has certainly changed. While Republicans captured a majority of into the votes of individuals making more than $100,000 a year, they didn’t do well among the better educated and many of the affluent. In addition to capturing the wealthy, Republicans tended to attract those who live in primarily rural areas, such as western Iowa. What these individuals who live in these communities, as small business owners and as laborers, have in common with billionaires like Sheldon Adelson? I do not know. This is the “what’s the matter with Kansas?” problem that Thomas Frank has written about. Of course, this reflects the strange marriage of the very wealthy with the socially conservative.

Looking at post-election demographics is also interesting. Obama carried the Catholic vote by a couple of points, which I found interesting. He garnered a majority of the least educated and the most educated, but lost those in between. Does that demonstrate that a little education is a dangerous thing? It’s an interesting split. As I mentioned above, most of the wealthiest voted Republican. This is, of course, traditional. But I wonder, do the rich think that they can enjoy their wealth in a society that is, on the whole, less wealthy and more unequal? Of course, this is how civilizations have worked from their beginning until very recently; that is until economic and political modernity changed the world so drastically. I compare the belief that the wealthy can enjoy their wealth in a sea of poverty with what I experience here in India. I really wonder how the rich can think of themselves as well off when streets, sewers, utilities are poorly maintained (if at all); pollution is rampant (air & water); and all manner of private goods are not as easily available as they should be. The impoverishment of the public sector deeply attenuates the benefits of wealth. But, some think that if they have enough private wealth they can buy themselves happiness.

Politicians have always been known for lack of candor and for maintaining an escape hatch on most issues. In earlier days, candidates could say one thing in Shenandoah and another in Iowa City. But since the advent of national news coverage, this becomes more difficult. With this campaign, we saw a whole new level of mendacity from that Romney. I’ve never seen a candidate criticized so much for reversing his positions or trying to alter the facts (i.e., lie) as Romney has received. (This piece by Kevin Kruse is representative.)But not only between his time as governor of Massachusetts to his time as Republican presidential candidate, but even from the time of the primaries earlier in the year to the time of his campaign this fall. And yet, far too few seemed to mind. (Garry Wills, of course, is an insightful exception.) Now, I am willing to give candidates some slack, and I’ve always been a believer in Emerson’s admonition that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” However, Mitt Romney has taken this beyond any rational prudence. Everyone should have developed grave concerns about his character. This baffles me because while I disagreed very much with his limited worldview and his willingness to pander to the Republican right wing, I didn’t consider Romney, a candidate of deficient character. In his private life, he seems like a fairly forthright and honest fellow. This either means that he was willing to do almost anything to get elected friend (and he did almost get elected) or that he thought that he could somehow square the circle. Neither of these options is attractive, and all the more reason his defeat relieves me of having to wrestle with such vexing thoughts.

Since I left the Republican party about three decades ago, I’ve never been as enthusiastic a Democrat as some. Party ties can bind us in a way that can seriously distort our judgment. I’m thinking particularly of persons like David Frum and David Brooks, conservatives for whom I have a modicum of respect and to whom I give credit as thoughtful observers of contemporary politics. However, I believe both of them tried to justify a vote for Romney by suggesting that Romney would ignore his promises to the Republican right wing and forge a working coalition with Democrats. This assumes the Democrats would keep their goodwill, which, heaven help them, they probably are forced to do because they’re so damned reasonable. But this suggests that we should have elected a man who would turn tail again to please the crowd. First, this is a long shot that, because the political realities would’ve made Romney beholden to a Republican Congress that has much closer ties to the radical right that now controls the party. But second, as I suggested in the preceding paragraph, this defect in character could have made him a tough person to work with, let alone trust.

I highly recommend this article by Rick Perlstein about mendacity in the conservative movement. It’s a pretty shocking piece, but Pearlstein does his homework. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it is an explanation of Romney’s mendacity and the deception within the conservative movement. Krugman has also suggested that conservatives grasp for power in a way that distorts all judgment. Perhaps that’s true.

How much will we see a replay of the politics of the Great Depression! Oh, that Obama will now become an FDR! He needs to drive a hard bargain at this point, and I think a lot of us are holding our breath about this. Stay tuned for further developments!