The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez, a Lahore-born and raised Pakistani, returns home after graduating from Princeton in the US and getting fired from his job at a prestigious New York finance firm. A woman may be to blame, but so is America's reaction to 9/11 in general and a semi-bearded Pakistani in particular. His story is unspooled through a dinner conversation with an unnamed American who Changez happens to meet next a market in Lahore. 

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2007), the Reluctant Fundamentalist is a mediation on identity and nostalgia (both personal and public), class (Changez comes from a noble, but falling family in Pakistan and climbs the ladder in America's education realm and New York’s finance sector) and the truth/fiction of the stories and myths we use to define us. 

The novel's tension lies in understanding why Changez rescinds his role as bridge between two countries (or, two worlds). Here Changez lectures his unnamed guest:

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

While much of the narrative flow takes place on the personal level (and in the the US), Lahore becomes a great unnamed character:

You will have noticed that the newer districts of Lahore are poorly suited to the needs of those who must walk. In their spaciousness — with their public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards — they enforce an ancient hierarchy that comes to us from the countryside: the superiority of the mounted man over the man on foot. But here, where we sit, and in the even older districts that lie between us and the River Ravi—the congested, maze-like heart of this city—Lahore is more democratically urban. Indeed, in these places it is the man with four wheel who is forced to dismount and become part of the crowd.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Mohsin Hamid's second novel. He’s now written four, and he continues his experimentation with the dramatic monologue, in which a single speaker uses stories to reveal his or her character to a silent audience. These tales, especially in the hands of compelling narrators like Changez, have an intimate and warmth to them that is supposed to persuade the listener.

As always, such conviction should be taken with a grain of salt. Check out these CliffsNotes questions you should ask yourself when coming across a dramatic monologue:  

- Who is the speaker talking to or why? 
- What tactics is the speaker using to make his case?
- Does the speaker seem to change his mind during the poem?

Reviewers and book jacket blurbers spent a lot of time exploring the underlying tension between this man of the “East” who once lived in the “West.” If we know Changez through his stories, though, we don't know much about the man he's speaking to. Much was written about the first CliffsNotes question above— who is the person Changez speaks to? He is just a tourist? Or, something a bit more complicated? 

Mohsin Hamid explains some of his explorations with story forms: 

In my final year, as I was starting my first novel, I read The Fall by Camus. It is written as a dramatic monologue, with the protagonist constantly addressing the reader as “you,” and it changed how I thought books could work. I was amazed by the potential of the “you”, of how much space it could open up in fiction.

The book I was writing then, back in 1993, became Moth Smoke, the tale of a pot-smoking ex-banker who falls disastrously in love with his best friend’s wife. You, the reader, are cast as his judge. The story has what might be called a realistic narrative – there is no magic, no aliens – but the frame of the trial that it uses isn’t realism. It is something else: make-believe, play, with “you” given an active role.

In my second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I wanted to explore this further, push the boundaries of what I knew how to do with “you”. Camus’s novel was a guide, but my project was my own: to try to show, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how feelings already present inside a reader – fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty – could colour a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on. I wanted the novel to be a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics.

In all, this is a fascinating read.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes

For the last 15 years or so, the US has been increasingly failed by its institutions:

  • The government (think response to Katrina, build up and carrying out of Iraq War)
  • The universities (think Penn State child rape scandal, and I'd add, Baylor University)
  • The Catholic Church
  • Financial regulators
  • The media (think missing the story of the Iraq War, the missing story of financial regulation).

Hayes is interested in illustrating where the failure comes from and what it's doing to us.

We do not trust our institutions because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of broad and devastating crisis of authority.

...

Over the last thirty years our commitment to this parody of democracy has facilitated accelerating the extreme economic inequality of scope and scale unseen since since the last Gilded Age. … There are many reasons for inequality, but the underlying idea is it is shared in our meritocratic commitment. Fundamentally we still think that a select few should rule; we’ve just changed our criteria for what makes someone qualified to be member in good standing of that select few.

...

But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and under appreciate its costs, because we don’t think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it a a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable.
 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The closest I ever came to first-hand knowledge of slavery in the US was a station on the underground railroad in Milton, WI where we would take elementary school field trips. Suffice to say, I don't know too much about the human details of the system of slavery: terror as a economic model and an organizing principle.

Colson Whitehead’s novel the Underground Railroad is certainly eye opening on the level of day-to-day existence of slaves: living on the economic whims of agriculture (especially cotton) and the barbaric and impetuous impulses of slave holders. But that’s not the power of Whitehead's book. It’s making these personal stories so universal and modern.

Take this — from the novel's main character Cora as she hides in an attic in the home of Martin and Ethel, very reluctant (and they thought, former) members of the underground railroad in barbarous North Carolina (which used to be a popular stop, the underground railroad conductor told Cora, “from what I’m told. Not anymore.”). The North Carolina of the novel tried to outlaw not slavery, but African Americans.

“In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes.”

Riding in a carriage, Martin pulls back the blanket covering Cora to show her what the locals call ‘The Freedom Trail,’ corpses of African Americans hanging from trees, signs of torture apparent, going all the way to town.

Cora spends months hidden in Martin’s and Ethel’s attic, across the street from the town park where every Friday the town meets for a concert, the production of a play and the hanging of an African American:

Cora hadn’t left the top floors of the house in months but her perspective roved widely. North Carolina had its Justice Hill, and she had hers. Looking down over the universe of the park, she saw the town drift where it wanted, washed by sunlight on a stone bench, cooled in the shadows of the hanging tree. But they were prisoners like she was, shackled to fear. Martin and Ethel were terrified of the watchful eyes behind every darkened window. The town huddled together on Friday nights in the hope their numbers warded off the things the dark: the rising black tribe; the enemy who concocts accusations; the child who undertakes a magnificent revenge for a scolding and brings the house down around them. Better to hide in the attics than to confront what lurked behind the faces of neighbors, friends, and family.   
 

What is Populism?

"Populists may be militarists, pacifists, admirers of Che Guevara or of Ayn Rand; they may be tree-hugging pipeline opponents or drill-baby-drill climate-change deniers. What makes them all “populists”, and does the word actually mean anything?" The Economist recently asked.

Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton University answered in a book-length essay: What is Populism? “Populism is seen as a threat but also as a potential corrective for politics that has somehow become too distant from ‘the people,’” Müller writes.

“Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unifiedbut I shall argue, ultimately fictionalpeople against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way inferior.” (19-20)

Populists justify their acts by claiming that they—and they alone—speak for the people. Müller says the populists government's exhibit these features:

  1. Attempts to colonize the non-partisan state apparatus (judiciary, civil servants, etc.) with representatives of “the people”
  2. Corruption in the form of mass clientelism — trading specific benefits or favors for political support
  3. Efforts to systematically to suppress civil society seen in opposition

“Of course, many authoritarians will do similar things. The difference is that populists justify their conduct by claiming that they alone represent the people.” (p. 4).

What sets populists apart is how they define who “the people” is. Populists, by Müller’s definition, often view citizenry in narrow terms, purposely excluding specific groups. “Right-wing populists also typically claim to discern a symbiotic relationship between an elite that does not truly belong and marginal groups that are also distinct from the people.” (p. 23)

“Apart from determining who really belongs to the people, populists therefore need to say something about the content of what the authentic people actually want. What they usually suggest is that there is a singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy.” (p. 25)

When in power

“Populists in power tend to be harsh (to say the least) with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize them. Again, harassing or even suppressing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them, opposition from within civil society creates a particular moral and symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people. Hence it becomes crucial to argue (and supposedly “prove”) that civil society isn’t civil society at all, and that what can seem like popular opposition has nothing to do with proper people.” (p. 48)

For all the potential problems populists bring—the silencing of opposition civil society or the press, the corruption, the narrow definition of what it means to be a true citizen—the reasons populists become popular stem from a very specific issue:  parts of the population are truly underrepresented.

“Those defending democracy against populism also have to be honest that all is not well with existing democracies in Western Europe and North America…[T]hey are increasingly suffering from the defect that weaker socioeconomic groups do not participate in the political process and do not have their interests represented effectively.” 59-60


The man in the crowd photo by Hernán Piñera.

A primer for Creative Confidence

A discussion of the book Creative Confidence by David Kelley, a founder of the international design firm IDEO, and his brother Tom, who also works at the firm. We look at how the Kelleys argue that understanding customer needs is the key to giving them innovative solutions.

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On finding the true narrative of events (or some such thing)

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon, page 322:

...Maxine recalls that Heidi has a collection of decorated dollar bills, which she regards as the public toilet wall of the U.S. monetary system, carrying jokes, insults, slogans, phone numbers, George Washington in blackface, strange hats, Afros and dreadlocks and Marge Simpson hair, lit joints in his mouths, and speech-balloon remarks ranging from witty to stupid. 

"No matter how the official narrative of [Sept. 11, 2001] turns out, it seemed to Heidi, "these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep."