- 14 Jul - 20 Jul, 2018
- 21 Apr - 27 Apr, 2018
- A Letter From America
These days I find myself often pondering why I write. And why I read. And, for that matter, another closely related pair of questions: what I read and write.
These musings are deeply searching about the nature of human language and communication, thus they’re perilous, because they can (and do) quickly lead down a metaphysical rabbit hole. Such heavy stuff is not for everyone, I know. But the questions are prompted by another question, one of utter topical immediacy and one that, being a writer, I can’t avoid: What is the point of saying something – anything – into the maelstrom of all that’s happening and being argued about in the world and, especially, in America these days?
The great yet divisive V.S. Naipaul used to point out that, in order to write and publish a writer needs a society with a certain built-in or established stability, certain settled assumptions and frameworks, including technological and commercial infrastructure. He said this by way of pointing out the challenges he (and others, but he was less concerned with others than with himself) faced coming from what he called “half-formed” societies like Trinidad, where he grew up. And, of course, Naipaul went around the world writing about just how “half-formed” many societies were, including Pakistan.
The challenging thing about Naipaul, for those of us who find his attitudes and arrogance distasteful, is that he had a point. As a career freelance writer, I understand what he meant about a writer’s need for an audience and a market. If no one can buy my books, or if the context in which I’m trying to write them is too unstable to be comprehensible, then how can I pursue my career? And, as an American, I do appreciate Naipaul’s appreciation for Western societies. But what goes around comes around, and in today’s America the stability and shared assumptions that allowed him and other writers to communicate with readers can no longer be taken for granted.
I’ve referred before to the time lag of several days or a week between when I write these columns and when you read them. That’s a challenge I face every week, because there is simply so much to write about right now. And I feel a duty, in a weekly “A Letter from America” column for a Pakistani magazine, to explain or at least offer some context. But that’s difficult, as fresh and overlapping crises follow each other in such swift succession. Will Trump bomb Syria, or not? He said he was about to – then he said he might not. By the time you read this, he might have – or not. Last year he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now he’s saying, “maybe we’ll rejoin it.” What’s the plan, what’s the policy? No one really knows. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally took part in naval exercises in the South China Sea. I’ve been aware of the South China Sea’s chronic strategic importance since I lived in Bangkok in the 1990s. But Trump wasn’t President of the United States back then, if you know what I mean. Then there’s all that’s been going on lately in Palestine.
Meanwhile, on the American domestic front, former FBI director James Comey releases his long-awaited book likening Trump to a Mafia boss “untethered to truth”; rumours swirl relentlessly about whether, when and how Trump might fire Robert Mueller, the man whose investigation shows every sign of being set to bring down Trump’s presidency; the feckless and unprincipled Paul Ryan announces his decision not to run for re-election – but insists he’s going to remain in the politically crucial role of Speaker of the House of Representatives during the high-stakes months leading up to congressional elections in November that seem certain to be historic (and further destabilising, even if the result is a “good” one); and… out of the blue, Trump might pardon the notorious Dick Cheney apparatchik “Scooter” Libby, helpfully reminding us again of this regime’s continuities with the Bush regime that brought us the Iraq War and much else that the world and many Americans now regret.
“Distraction has become a commercial and political strategy,” said Madeleine Bunting in a recent powerful BBC Radio essay, “and it amounts to a form of emotional violence that cripples people, leaving them unable to gather their thoughts and overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy. It’s a powerful form of oppression dressed up in the language of individual choice.”
Which returns me to my point about how, why and what I – or you – should be writing and reading, that is, what we should be paying attention to. Part of my point is that it’s not always necessary to comment or have an opinion about everything or about anything in particular. It’s certainly not necessary to tweet. The paradox is that we’re all inevitably affected by, and involved in, the world’s political goings-on. But it’s all right – in fact, it’s personally and socially helpful, even necessary – to turn away from it all and focus on things that matter more directly to us, our loved ones, and our local communities. That’s what I find myself doing, or trying to do, these days, and I recommend it.
A Friendly Recommendation
I’ll end for this week by recommending a very fine and hardworking Pakistani-American writer, Wajahat Ali, who first made his name with his play The Domestic Crusaders and now is all over cable television and the op-ed pages of influential American newspapers. Wajahat is younger than I am and has more energy and more stomach for duking it out in the public arena. He rightly reminds us, for example, repeatedly and unsparingly, that Trump’s probable new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is a card-carrying and unabashed anti-Muslim bigot. There is no one better to follow on Twitter than @WajahatAli, if you want to be kept abreast of American events and developments from day to day. And one of Wajahat’s tweets on April 12 kind of said it all: “Too much news today.” •
- 07 Jul - 13 Jul, 2018
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