Declarations of Independence – Israel and the United States of America

Political comparisons are difficult and sometimes questionable. It is one thing to compare apples and oranges. It is another to compare cherries and potatoes. Do the two items being compared even belong to the same genus? However, whatever the difficulty in making comparisons, there are clear benefits. In this case, the very process of comparison shifts the ground away from making the American declaration the prototype and considering all other expressions of the same genus as either poorer imitations or outliers. Further, new and very different grounds may be used to justify independence. David Hume (about whom more later) in his 1746 volume, Of the Original Contract wrote that any group or people require a justificatory story and “a philosophical or speculative system of principles.” (40)

With an expanded set of explanatory-interpretive justifications, we become more open to both interpretive possibilities as well as limitations on our own thinking. We also see how common problems intermingled with very different ones offer deeper or, at the very least, alternative understandings of the two proclamations. Finally, assumptions built into the model considered to be paradigmatic suddenly can be openly questioned in light of very different justifications and rationales. We enter the arena of cross-cultural comparisons rather than a presumed derivation or deviation from a universal model.

The actual comparison will offer a test of these presumptions.

A minor but important consideration requires attending to what is being compared. In Israel, the only issue is one of an adequate translation into English of the declaration since that is the language being used for comparison. There is only one authentic document. However, in the U.S., there is the 7 June 1776 version introduced at the Second Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee. Then there is the revised version (the Dunlap copy) introduced on 4 July 1776 which has a different title (“In Congress July 4, 1776, A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled.”) than the “final” official version of 19 July, if only because of the inclusion in the latter of New York State as a signatory, and the declaration of the status of the document as unanimous. (“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America“) However, the changes from the original to the revered copy are not central to my comparative analysis.

The latter issue, however, focuses on the authors of the proclamation as pre-eminent in the U.S. declaration. The authors are presumed to be political entities that have come together to a) become sovereign and b) become independent of the state which had been sovereign. However, the latter is secondary, as we shall see. The primary declaration is about the sovereignty of a people. The document only later was referred to as a declaration of independence as the war rather than political maneuvering became the main instrument for delivering that sovereignty.

So the opening sentence reads: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Note the following:

  1. The emphasis on necessity.
  2. The statement that the constituent members of the thirteen states are “one people,” thus declaring that, although the signatories are representatives of thirteen political entities, the proclamation is issued on behalf of “one people.” This will be crucial to the resistance of the north to a second secession in the American Civil War.
  3. The emphasis is on “dissolution” of existing political ties.
  4. The result will be a single sovereign state equal to others that exist on Earth.
  5. The entitlement is seen as twofold: Natural Law and Nature’s God (my italics); (I will deal with this in more detail in the next blog).
  6. The importance of justification for the act of separation.

Compare the above to the opening paragraph of the Israeli declaration of independence. “ARETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) – the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

The U.S. declaration begins with “one people.” The Israeli declaration begins with the land of Israel. There is no claim that the land in North America was the birthplace of the “one people” on behalf of whom the declaration was issued. In history, rather, there was a presumption that the birthplace of the people was Britain and that these were Brits largely of Scottish-Irish (northern and Protestant) descent who were declaring themselves to be one people as a distinct political nation from the Tory High Anglican character of their motherland. Of the 56 who signed, 16 were Welsh. Although individuals ratified the document on behalf of states, 8 were Irish American Orangemen, 3 born in Ireland; all of the Irish officially signed the document together on 2 August 1776. At least 9 were of Scottish origin. In a speech, George W. Bush even traced the roots of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to the 1320 Scots’ Declaration of Arbroath arguing for Scotland’s freedom from England. Thus, over half had Celtic heritage.

More importantly, their intellectual heritage was Scottish. The heritage of the Scottish Enlightenment had perhaps the greatest influence on the American Declaration of Independence. Though Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the first version, was of mixed French and Irish ancestry, he is not included among the Celts, but he openly acknowledged that John Locke had been the greatest influence on his thinking. I well remember giving a lecture at the University of Edinburgh with portraits of John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume on the walls. The era of the Scottish Enlightenment following the Dutch one was the portal to the modern world and one must stand in humility beneath those portraits.

Locke in the Second Treatise on Civil Government had set forth the thesis that all men are born equal with natural rights, rights which enabled them to determine whom they would bind with to form a people. A nation, therefore, was a construct itself of the self-determination of individuals who entered a social contract for mutual defense and benefit. David Hume, who died in the same year as the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, argued that, although justification required citing history and general principles, the primary motivation for action was passion or sentiment. “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Treatise of Human Nature, II, iii, 1740) This would serve as a subversive strain in the American character given a scientific rationale through the recent works of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and George Lakoff.

John Locke, however, offered the dominant prescription for a government of, by and for the people. On very different grounds, both he and David Hume detested the Tory thesis of the divine right of kings and the pre-eminent sovereignty of the monarch which forbad revolution against the king. However, they offered a very different ground for the formation of a nation. Whatever differences over the motivation for a social contract, both agreed that a social contract was a foundation for the legitimacy of a state.

Not so in Israel. The people were formed by a land and a history rooted in a great historical document, the Torah of the Jews. Their identity was not constituted by a contract of self-interested individuals to ensure the security and happiness of those Jews, but by that history and the formation of their ancient state that shaped their culture. Though not derived from alleged universal principles and more akin to the moral sentiment espoused by David Hume, the Israeli declaration made the claim that the Jewish culture had a universal significance.

There is no foundation in logical or natural necessity for the Israeli proclamation. The declaration of independence did not constitute Jews as a people; peoplehood preceded the declaration of the State of Israel of 1948 or even the Israel of ancient history. The emphasis is not on dissolution of existing ties, but on re-constituting ancient ties both to the land and one another. Thus, the emphasis in the second paragraph on exile and return and restoration. However, the same idea of freedom forges a link between the two declarations which may go back to the days when the members of the Dutch Enlightenment (Hugo Grotius for example) had such an enormous influence on the Scottish Enlightenment since the Dutchmen justified the separation of the Netherlands from Spain, knew Hebrew and used the history of the Jewish people, adapted for Dutch purposes to justify the separate but equal status of the Netherlands.

The Israeli document bears the sweet scent, not of equality among nations, but about historical leadership by the People of the Book. They shall be a light among the nations. Finally, two-thirds of the American document focuses on tales of oppression and absence of recognition, whereas the Israeli document cites the worst type of oppression, genocide, but, more importantly, a history of recognition from the British (the Balfour Declaration), League of Nations and United Nations rulings. The Israeli state is rooted more in the international law of Hugo Grotius than in the social contract theories of John Locke and David Hume.

The traditional attachment, however, is vintage Hume. Further, the nation preceded the state and was not constituted by a social contract forming the state. The authors of the proclamation are not representatives of existing states seeking sovereignty, but of a nation seeking to reclaim its sovereignty. Thus, though referred to as the key document behind Israel’s Independence Day, the document does not seem to be about independence. The primary declaration of the American Declaration of Independence is about the formation of a sovereign people; the primary declaration of the Israeli Declaration of Independence is about the pre-existing sovereignty of a people.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Foxtrot and Contingency

Let me be perfectly clear. Samuel Maoz’ film Foxtrot, that won eight Ophirs in Israel, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice and was a runner-up to the shortlisted nominations for the Academy Award for the best foreign film, is superb. I, however, do not recommend that you see it. The film is just too heart wrenching, just too painful to watch. When physical self-harm is used to inflict pain on oneself in order to distract from the far more ominous and inescapable emotional pain, then you get some idea of the depth and breadth of the pain aimed at the audience. We cannot feel the self-inflicted physical pain. Extraordinarily, that is a relief. For we cannot escape feeling the emotional pain.

And there were so many times I wanted to escape, to just get up and leave the theatre. Admittedly, the pain for me might have been doubled because I watched the film yesterday with my youngest son and the film is about the loss of a son. Admittedly, that pain might have been doubled again because of a trauma of death that my son went through that was not that dissimilar to the one in the movie. Nevertheless, when I awoke this morning after going to bed early because I had been so emotionally rung out, I still felt like a dishrag that had been wrung dry. I slept seven hours in total instead of my usual 4-5 hours.

I will tell you the opening of the first 60 seconds of the film, but no more. After a seemingly unrelated frame of a truck driving down a lonely and dusty road, an Israeli soldier appears at the door of an upper middle-class family in Tel Aviv. Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), the mother of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), faints. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is stunned into silence. This is all in the first minute. Little is said. Little needs to be said. And the emotional impact simply grows from there. Reflecting and thinking about the film, rather than reliving it, is itself an escape.

What started as a dance to the syncopated ragtime music of composers and performers like Scott Joplin, the foxtrot was translated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a dance with elegance and fluidity in a 4/4 time signature rhythm. The foxtrot dance alternates between two rhythms – slow-slow-quick-quick and slow-quick-quick. The quick-quicks are reduced to punctuation marks in the movie.

Instead of a free-flowing rhythm, the foxtrot in the film is reduced to a stilted and rigid exercise of squares in which the dancer returns to the original point. According to Maoz, “We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.” However, instead of going around in circles, the movie actually travels in rigid and repetitive squares. And when illustrated in the film, instead of a close dance, the individual performer moves in isolation. Right, back, left, return. Yamina, sig, smola, shub. The movie moves in a straight line, yashar, yashar, only between the corner points of the square, each time after a radical ninety degree turn.

The term “foxtrot,” reduced to very selective essentials, is ironic. There is never a trot. And the movement is so sluggish as to be paralyzing. As we watch each parent separately from a bird’s eye view in the claustrophobic intimacy of a washroom in the beginning act, we suffer from vertigo, but not from movement, but from lives that literally have come to a dead stop even as their bodies painfully curl up in foetal positions.

The film has four acts, though the director insists that there are three. “The three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground. The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel…This act is uniquely non-verbal (in) its wry sense of humor and surrealism.”

It is not as if there is no relief from the emotional pain of Act One. There is. The relief even includes some gentle humour in the second act as Maoz describes it. But the main relief in the film in that second act is boredom, the alternative enemy of human happiness to pain. We choose to be bored, even in the most boring context, precisely because we blame the boredom on externalities. We do not choose emotional pain. Further, boredom is painful in a very different way than emotional pain. For boredom messes with our heads, not our hearts. Boredom results from being disengaged from another (in a Freudian slip, I first typed “from amother”); emotional pain is a product of intimate engagement. We become bored when we are cut off from both internal and external stimuli. We experience the greatest emotional pain when internal and external stimuli combine to whack us in the solar plexus. With emotional pain, there is no one to blame. When people are bored, they always blame their surroundings rather than taking responsibility for their own circular obsession with being bored.

For the German 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.” Life is an oscillation between pain and boredom, between torment and repetitive actions without meaning, such as Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill daily only to see it roll down again just before he reaches the summit. Which is the worst hell? In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, to the degree we escape one, to that degree we are thrust into the arms of another.

However, Schopenhauer inverted the experience of each. Boredom is largely a product of external and objective conditions, but that eminent philosopher believed that boredom comes from the inside. Emotional pain is a product of the internal and subjective, but Schopenhauer attended only to physical pain and attributed it to be a product of poverty and the absence of external conditions that would have allowed us to thrive and prosper instead of feeling pain. The movie tells an opposite story to that of Schopenhauer, of inner emotional pain and external boredom.

But the main philosophical concept underlying the powerful impact of the film is contingency. Contingency has two very opposite meanings. It refers to what may happen. The movie is an exercise in imaginative possibility rather than a depiction of reality. The controversial scene which aroused the ire of Israeli politicians is not a depiction of how the IDF behaves, even though this is what some viewers and commentators thought, but an extension of circumstances to make what is possible plausible. As Maoz said in an interview, “This is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate and recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.”

The second very different meaning of contingency refers to something liable to happen rather than simply a mere logical possibility. If we take the film to be about contingency as a likely existential liability rather than a remote logical possibility, then from my knowledge of the ethics governing the Israeli army, what is depicted may be a logical possibility, but is also a calumny in portraying the IDF. As Maoz himself said, “I was doing something that seemed right and logical. I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.” He was not depicting an existential reality.

The second act is a stylized surreal portrayal, a depiction that attracted the wrath of some leftist Israeli politicians for that stylistic quality and the wrath of right wingers because of the content. In spite of the detailed and heightened reality of the first and third acts, the power of the film comes, not from its existential portrayal of reality in the first and third acts, but from the logical sense of inevitability.

For Immanuel Kant, teleology, the end purpose and meaning of everything, is regulative; it is not a depiction of actuality. It serves as a guide, not as a depiction. Hegel argued that teleology served as such a guide only because of an instinct built into reason itself to bring everything together into an actual whole that appeared to constitute reality. That propensity would end up leading people to believe that they understood the absolute truth of the present when a belief in the absolute was precisely what had to be disaggregated in each age. The great philosophic irony is that most commentators took Hegel to be an advocate for the absolute and not someone who described its all-embracing and claustrophobic but inevitable propensity to characterize life that way.

Is the film about self-knowledge, the whole humanistic effort since the Enlightenment and even the Socratic foundations of philosophy? Or is the film a critique of the militarism that infects Israeli society? Is it a fearless autopsy on human emotions in general and Israelis in particular much more than a social critique? Certainly, Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, belonged to the latter category. “Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.”

Maoz actually offers the same answer in the film. The son of the parents, Jonathan, is a sketch artist. The last drawing he made hangs on their wall. Each parent offers an opposite Freudian interpretation of the drawing. Neither takes it to be about reality. Is the irony that they presume a deep psychological meaning – however opposite for each – when there is none, or is the irony that most members of the audience will believe the parents missed the point – that this was an actual portrayal of a horrific reality?  The audience is then invited to laugh at the parents rather than examine why they do this instead and what such an interpretation says about themselves. Why do commentators and members of the audience tend to interpret the sketch to be about the son’s effort to externalize his trauma rather than a surrealist element in the movie intended to provoke self-examination? Is the weakness of the film, and its limited box office appeal, a result of this ambiguity, when there is one intended outcome but the opposite actual one?

I do not take the film to be primarily a critique of the IDF and the extent to which it does or even could engage in literal corrupt cover-ups that infects and makes complicit the lives of individual soldiers in the IDF. I do not interpret the film, as the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, did, as offering a “searing, for her, unjustified, critique of Israeli militarized culture.” As Maoz declared, “If you choose to see this narrow picture (that of Regev), it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Does the film attempt to provide an understanding of military reality or is it primarily an exposure of inner psychological reality? The overwhelming focus of the film on the parents and their internal emotional pain suggests that the latter is the case, that the film is primarily about self-understanding and is not a critique of society, however depressing the external narrative concerning the perpetual nature of the external conflict.

Maoz said, “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always end at the same starting point. This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.” However, he also said that, given the Holocaust, “we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.” Sometimes he seems to describe the film as a social critique, at other times as a socio-psychological inquiry into the Israeli and human soul. Is the terrible scene in the film’s second act and depicted in the drawing an ewar, death,ffort to describe political reality or is it a metaphor, as Maoz said, “a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society”? “For me (Maoz), this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”

 

Annihilation and Darkest Hour

Yesterday, I saw two movies as well as attending Jill Lepore’s J.F. Priestley lecture on “Numbers.” The first was Annihilation starring Natalie Portman and directed by Alex Garland (who previously directed Ex Machina) that I saw with my youngest son at a movie theatre (it has to be seen on a full wide or even IMAX screen to be really appreciated) before I went to the lecture. The second was the Winston Churchill movie, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour with Gary Oldham offering a simply outstanding portrayal of Winston Churchill. I saw that movie in the evening on TV. Since I slept in until 6:00 a.m. this morning, I might not finish this blog today. For I need to take a driver’s test given that I have turned 80. And I want to hear Jill Lepore’s third lecture on data which I am going to hear this afternoon with one of my grandsons.

My son loved Annihilation. I hated it. There is no question that it was an extraordinary visual experience; the imagery throughout blows your mind. But it is also a horror film in which at every turn there is another horrible creature or spectacle about to attack the five brave women who have entered the “Shimmer” to find out why no one comes out who has gone in to the spreading alien presence on earth. One explanation for our radically different reactions to the film is that he loves horror movies and I cannot abide them.

But that is an insufficient explanation. For I could have enjoyed the visual and visionary spectacle and tried to ignore the cliché of the five-person team of individuals with different characters and motives going on such a suicidal mission, with one important and significant exception – the team in the current era of #Me Too was all female. The plot, instead of lauding the women for their courage, played up the “fact” that each was driven by a different self-destructive motive. Except Natalie Portman as Lena, who was the only one of the five that survived and returned to tell the tale.

The film in both its aesthetic and plot line is based on the scientific phenomenon of refraction with which all film directors, cinematographers and photographers are familiar and which either plagues them or delight them as they use the phenomena to evince an alien presence. However, in this film, refraction becomes a more elementary principle, not simply of bending light, but of interacting with our DNA and mixing it up to form new hybrids. As the suicide-prone physicist in the movie, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) discovers, radio signals cannot escape the Shimmer, not because they are blocked, but because they are refracted like light in a prism to prevent them from escaping. The extraordinary visuals of the film, however, not only come from the beauty of light being refracted, but from the horror of DNA being refracted to form mutants that not only cross the species divide, but ignore the radical division between animal and plant life.  The visual story line is one of the juxtaposition of terribly ugly (and dangerous) forms of life with extraordinary beauty.

My scientific critique has nothing to do with mutation, including mutations through refracted light, but with such an extraordinary and unbelievable recombination that, in my understanding of science, would make it impossible for any living being to emerge. And when something does not make sense, I turn off. The clichés of horror movies, including the initial appearance of Kane (Oscar Isaac) as a dead-eyed zombie returning from the dead at the beginning of the film just before he turns into a blood-vomiting dying man whose organs are all collapsing, were not the only elements that repelled me. I could not buy into the science and, if I watch a sci-fi movie, I want to see an extension of science and not the abuse and mutation of it.

I admit that the biological aberrations were brilliantly constructed and offered haunting images that were discomfiting, disorienting and genuinely frightening, all enhanced by the sound track, but when I wanted to go sleep to escape the misuse of science and the horror film assaults on both my sensibility and my intellectual critique, the noise – and, for me, it was just noise – kept me awake. Instead of loving the way Garland used plot and flashbacks to tantalize and tease by allowing us to both fall behind and sometimes even get ahead, I simply felt manipulated. And to what end? After all, the vaginal hole in the bottom of the lighthouse that had been the destiny of the five women may have been a visual wonder, but for me was a Freudian bore.

However, there was also something deeper going on to propel such a strong negative reaction in me and such a powerful positive response in my son. One reader of my blog just sent me a reference to another blog: (https://medium.com/personal-growth/seeing-vs-reading-29365d4540e2). That blog argued that seeing versus reading, intuition versus rational logic, looking at patterns versus parsing into elements, watching the interplay of solids, light and shadows rather than simply applying a taxonomy of categories using language, explained the difference between aesthetic appreciation and analytic skills, between creativity and, presumably, non-creativity.

Though I think the general argument is bogus, there is a difference between those who love pattern recognition, love the interplay of images and those who do not primarily see through such eyes. But for me, it is worse. For in medical school, I could never recognize anything through a microscope and had to use reductionist reasoning to determine what I was looking at. I have serious problems with face recognition. So, at root, whatever the large areas of overlapping interests between myself and my youngest son, in the end we see the world somewhat differently, especially when it comes to aesthetics and, in particular, certain kinds of film.

Obviously, this difference has grave consequences with respect to dealing with facts, numbers and data, which my son has no difficulty handling even though his prime interest is elsewhere.

In contrast, both my son and I loved Darkest Hour. If Annihilation used light to brilliant effect, darkness pervades the Winston Churchill film from an opening scene in which a secretary walks into a dark room and Churchill is nowhere to be seen until he lights his phallic cigar and adumbrates that he will be the guiding light for a nation under siege. The interplay of light and shadow operate in radically different ways than in Annihilation. The film takes us through the claustrophobic underground corridors of Whitehall and Westminster and even has Churchill riding for the first time on the underground (Did that really happen?). Further, we are into a realm of courage of a radically different and higher order. Churchill wavers between the pressure to sue for peace and the need to resist a tyrant to the death.

Citing Cliff Orwin, in yesterday’s blog I wrote that, “Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.” All these themes are in the film. Is Churchill after glory or is he the embodiment of courage resisting the retreat into the argument for safety at the cost of selling one’s soul, the position of Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane). In this film, Churchill is not so much driven by imperial ambitions as by a need to protect Great Britain, but without allowing the concern with safety to sacrifice the principle of self-determination. And into that balancing act, a normally forthright Churchill of candor retreats into equivocation to hide from the British people what a desperate position they are in before he returns to trusting them and once again demonstrating a reverence for truth and candor.

It is not as though Churchill does not feel. Instead of being portrayed as simply a brilliant orator with his finest speech at the climax of the film – “We shall fight them on….” He does not sell out his head, but knows what he must do. He does not act on impulse or simply based on his feelings and the need for safety most of all, but, instead, musters all that he knows and understands and the courage to do so against all odds and the sceptics that surround him. Instead of sentiment, he feels genuine compassion for the 4,000 troops at Calais but nevertheless decides to sacrifice them in a stalling maneuver to buy time for the rescue of 300,000 British troops from the shores of Dunkirk by an armada of small fishing boats and yachts under the serendipitous clouds that provide the needed air cover. To succeed, compassion and justice need to be supported by a willingness to face and share facts, with truth, and the quest for a real peace rather than to an ersatz peace of a nation that has surrendered to the rule of a tyrant, the core danger of populism.

Unlike Annihilation, this is a real thriller even though you know the outcome in advance, for both films are about the process of reaching the end, not the end itself.  At least in Darkest Hour, as we move between eloquence and meditative and even mumbling silences, we have the reference of a real linear timeline, the 26 days of May and June 1940 when Britain must face the results of the Nazi conquest and victory in Europe. In Darkest Hour, words are key, not visuals. They are enhanced by a lyrical score rather than what I heard as jarring noise in Annihilation.

Of course, the response to the film reflects a deep need for real leadership when one’s values and way of life are under siege.  Look at today. Russia kills those who flee abroad with nerve and atomic chemicals with virtual imPUTINy on British soil and the British government simply expels a 23 Russian “diplomats.” It is akin to responding to murder with a pinprick.

It is not as if we are absent of any examples of courage to speak out at the present time to confront both tyranny and the pusillanimous response of populists and sentimentalists. Though far from the grand scale of Churchill’s achievements, when Jeff Sessions totally misrepresented the position of California and the record of alleged felons that had “escaped” because California did not support the roundup of illegal immigrants, James Schwab, a spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Agency (IEA) – clearly no softie – was asked to deflect journalists’ questions about the basis for the “numbers” of alleged “criminal aliens” and 800 wanted criminals cited by the Justice Department as having “escaped” because of the Californian government intervention. Schwab resigned rather than lie about the facts and the numbers and echo the claims that, because of Californian federal government action, “864 criminal aliens and public safety threats remain at large” because of warnings provided by the mayor. The lie concerned the number of people planned to be picked up – far fewer than the 800 or so – or the numbers of criminals among them.

Of course, Donald Trump’s lies are much worse, come far more frequently and have greater consequences. Every Canadian knows how interdependent the Canadian economy is with the American one. Every Canadian knows how important NAFTA is for Canadian prosperity. But Trump lied, lied right to Justin Trudeau, and said that America has a trade deficit with Canada when the reverse is true, a truth even in an economic report issued by the White House and signed off by Trump.  “You’re wrong Justin,” Trump said in response to Justin’s claims that Canada had a trade deficit with the U.S. When Trump was forced to admit that, “we have no trade deficit,” he added. “Well, in that case I feel (my italics) differently, but I don’t believe it.” In fact, (we are delaying dealing with facts and numbers until tomorrow) the U.S. enjoys a $US12.5 billion surplus with Canada.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Tomorrow: Facts and Numbers with Jill Lepore.

I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees Part V: Conclusion

Mike Molloy’s book, co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, may be a captivating read, especially surprising for a volume on the working of a bureaucracy, but, also surprising since it is the best and most accurate record of what actually took place such that it will serve as a source book for many subsequent historians. However, there is too much repetition, indicative of a book with multiple authors that was inadequately edited. There are also a very small number of errors. Happily, not one of them detracts from the main theme and the unfolding narrative.

As one example, there is the story of how the record of the past can influence the present and how the scholarship of two Canadian academics – Irving Abella and Harold Troper – actually influenced Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration, to take the bold initiatives that he did. Relying on memory is a dangerous historical (or legal) device. That becomes clear when Molloy cites Ron Atkey who purportedly recalled that Jack Manion, the Deputy Minister, sent him the manuscript of None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948by Irving Abella and Harold Troper (a book that won the National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category, the Canadian Historical Association John A. Macdonald Prize, and that was featured in The Literary Review of Canada as one of Canada’s 100 Most Important Books).

The volume depicts the callous Canadian government response to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. In the Preface to the 2012 edition published by The University of Toronto Press, the source cited of this information is the review of the 1982 edition by Roger Robin that appeared in The Literary Review of Canada. What could be more authoritative than the Preface of the book? Further, this version has been repeated many times. The last I read before Molloy’s was by Sean Fine in an article on the Indochinese 1
refugees published in 2015.

The core story is accurate, but since the book was not published until 1982, then by Lester and Orpen Dennys, it was highly unlikely a manuscript could have been circulated. I was told at the time, by Ron Atkey no less, that he had read an academic article that he circulated to his top staff with a note saying that he did not want them (or him) to go down in history like Frederick Blair, the then Director of the immigration branch, who did his utmost to exclude Jews from entering Canada. Blair, or some other unnamed official, was the originator of the phrase “None Is Too Many”.

Blair was not alone. Most of the elite in Canada did not utter a peep to oppose such a position. Canadian politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, journalists and Church officials openly and actively rejected proposals to allow Jewish refugees entry into Canada. The article that Atkey cited was: “‘The line must be drawn somewhere’: Canada and Jewish Refugees 1938-1939,” Irving Abella and Harold Troper, The Canadian Historical Review, 60:2, June 1979, (178-209). As Atkey told it to me, it was he who had Manion distribute the article. But then, on this, my memory could be faulty as well.

Molloy notes the chance confluence of detailed administrative preparedness and the new trend towards a revival of the social activism and engagement of the sixties. Molloy claims the two groups united around an idea. (81) But it was not “idea” as a sense of purpose, but “idea” as a suggestion as to a possible course of action. Instruments are not ideals in the sense of goals. The legislation, the preparations and the activism of the civil service “gave Canadians the means to convert their concern for the refugees into direct action.” (81)

The December 1978 story of the people on the Hai Hong (2,500) escaping Vietnam and paying gold bars to do so turned into a narrative of suffering and rejection in the media. The Mennonites, as indicated in an earlier blog, had set a precedent. But the lengthy preparations and actions of the civil servants were now matched by continuing and heart-wrenching tales of the exodus in the media. The latter motivated a group to come together in my living room on 24 June 1979 to write a letter to our Minister of Immigration, Ron Atkey, who also happened to be our member of parliament and a former academic colleague of mine at York University.

The meeting was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon after church services were out. Molloy does not tell the story of how Atkey heard about the meeting. When I had asked him, Atkey said he did not remember. But he did send two immigration officers, André Pilon and Bob Parkes, on a Sunday no less, to my house. They arrived at the door and requested permission to attend the meeting. It was they who suggested that instead of writing a letter, we initiate some sponsorships. We soon readily agreed that witnessing would be preferable to advocacy.

Serendipity then took primacy of place. A graduate student of mine had attended the meeting. Unbeknownst to me, he was a stringer for The Globe and Mail, billed as Canada’s national newspaper. He fed the story to Dick Beddoes, a columnist, who the next morning dubbed our “movement” Operation Lifeline. Within eight days, our constituency had organized fifty sponsorship groups. Within two weeks, there were sixty chapters of Operation Lifeline across Canada. (117) However, though the will to act had been built up and then facilitated by the media, little would have actually happened if legislation and regulations had not been in place and politicians and mandarins also in place to both communicate and implement commitments.

However, public relations and the role of the media were critical, as Molloy’s book makes clear. Sometimes, the inept handling of a conundrum can have very detrimental effects. This was the case in the face of the oversubscription of private sponsorships from the number targeted (by about ten thousand, one-third higher than the original target of 21,000). A new policy announcement was also a result of the Cambodian refugee humanitarian crisis overseas. Flora MacDonald, the Foreign Minister, carried away by the need, pledged $15 million instead of the $5 million authorized by Cabinet for the Geneva pledging conference. Atkey concurred. But it was the Foreign Minister who announced the cancellation the matching formula. Money saved by the government for government-sponsored refugees would be used to make up the shortfall in monies available for the Cambodian crisis overseas.

This action fed into the trope of many churches and organizations that the matching formula all along had been created as a device to dump government responsibilities onto the private sector. The private sector was up in arms. But Flora did not have to cancel the matching formula. Among the options presented to her by the civil service, she could have simply announced that, given the large number of private sponsors, they would take priority over government-sponsored refugees so sponsors would not be frustrated by having to wait. Excess numbers to fulfill the matching pledge would be shifted to 1981 given the already heavy burden on civil servants. When she was awarded an honorary doctorate at York University, and I was then the chair of Senate responsible as her escort, Flora told me that, in her rush from her constituency office in Kingston to get to Ottawa, she had failed to read the civil service brief. Instead of putting the decision positively as a way of fulfilling the matching formula, she mistakenly announced its cancellation.

Media relations are also crucial in combatting a backlash. Molloy documents how both Ron Atkey and the private sector responded to and undercut that backlash. Supporters of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), the voice of that backlash, were enlisted to threaten the withdrawal of their financial support if the NCC continued its negative campaign against the Indochinese refugees. The NCC campaign stopped.

Molloy stressed another reason for the decision to cancel the matching formula – the fear of a backlash by the Conservative government if the total numbers exceeded 50,000. The NCC anti-refugee campaign had left its scar, especially among those wary of the 50,000 target in the first place. They believed the backlash would mostly come from Conservative supporters. They had no faith that their anti-racist wealthy supporters would take action let alone be effective in silencing the NCC. Perhaps they did not even know that Operation Intellectual Kneecapping, the name of the effort to stop the NCC campaign, had taken place and had succeeded.

What is the final take? With respect to refugees, books can focus on the plight and experiences of the refugees. Others with possible solutions such as settlement in first countries of arrival or repatriation. (The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights, and Repatriation, Katy Long (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)). Miliband claimed that, “Those who do not qualify for asylum (in Europe), because they are not judged to face a well-founded fear of persecution if they are returned home, need to be safely and humanely returned to their country of origin, as a vital measure for the integrity and acceptability of the asylum process.” (115)

However, the actual reception of about a million refugees in Germany indicated that the asylum process could not be and was not the main route to entry and that another route posed no threat to Convention refugee determination. Further, my own book written with Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation (Columbia University Press, 2011) argued that most refugees are members of minorities. Unless their side wins, the vast majority will not be able to be repatriated.

Countries of first refuge are usually overwhelmed and also usually least able to cope with the influx economically. Burden sharing through resettlement is critical to helping refugees. That will not be accomplished through determining the rights of those refugees through a Refugee Convention process.

Miliband claims that, “by upholding their rights…you don’t just help them, you set a benchmark for the way shared problems are tackled. You establish mutual responsibility as a founding principle of international relations. And you set the stage for tackling other problems, from climate change to health risks.” (119) If one had insisted that “rights” had to be the foundation for helping refugees, a very much smaller percentage of the Indochinese refugees would have gained entry into Canada. Rights cannot be and should not be the benchmark for sharing problems. Nor duty. For some may see it as their duty to keep refugees out. The ability and willingness to help is and should be the measure. Further, as Molloy documents, “integration is (NOT) up to all of us.” (Miliband 118) Making it a universal obligation undercuts the effectiveness of integration. It is sufficient if a minority make it its task and the government facilitates such activity.

I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Part IV of V: Foreign Policy as a Motive for Accepting Refugees

Miliband offered four other reasons for accepting refugees having more to do with international relations than domestic reasons. The development of new international institutions and instruments for sanctioning and delivering global responsibilities beginning with the Atlantic Charter during WWII was one. On this Miliband seemed to be on firmer ground and it accords with Molloy’s tale of the postwar development of Canadian refugee policy. I will come back to the fourth reason in a moment, but the fifth and sixth reasons, the search for security in an interconnected world where refugees were viewed as a source of instability and the strategic interest in winning friends by sharing the burden of first receiving countries least able to support a large refugee influx, both seem a propos and in accordance with the narrative of Mike Molloy and his co-authors, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka.

What about the fourth reason, that a state accepted refugees when they were the result of foreign policy mistakes of the state taking in the refugees? “Among the reasons for giving them (the Vietnamese boat people) refuge was the United States’ role in the Vietnam War.” (Miliband 55) But why was Canada so forthcoming? It had stayed out of that war. Most Canadians were critical of the whole war effort. In fact, I used to believe, until I read Molloy’s book, that from 1975-77, Canada offered only token support for resettling the refugees to appease our partners more than out of any concern for the refugees. Canada only became involved in 1978 when government officials became convinced that the refugees were not fleeing because they had worked for or allied themselves with the Americans, but because of the intolerance of the government. That proved not to be the explanation for the Canadian initiatives.

When Canada evacuated its embassy in April 1975, the mission was small, lacked any security arrangements to deal with the huge mobs seeking to escape and would or could not waive the requirement that Vietnamese wishing to leave with them would have to have a passport and exit permit. Canadian officials claimed that the South Vietnamese government enforced these requirements at gun point until the very last minute. But the American evidence and other accounts indicate that money (and one’s own guns) could determine a different outcome. Canadian officials were not in a position to use either device to get the exit permit requirement waived. However, the Canadian behavior contributed to the widespread belief that Canada wanted to completely dissociate itself from Vietnam and the Vietnamese refugee problem.

One exception was the Canadian baby lift of 120 (of the 2,547 orphans taken abroad) that came to Canada, many of mixed race abandoned at orphanages. The Canadian contingent, however, consisted mainly of Cambodian orphans as well as some of the Vietnamese orphans who survived the crash of the US Air Force C-5A that killed 135 of the orphans and escorts on board.
The very high percentage of Cambodians also reinforced the image of Canadian detachment from Vietnamese refugees. But if this was the case, why did Canada admit nearly 7,000 refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam in 1975-76? One answer was that 4,200 were sponsored relatives of Canadian citizens. 2,300 were considered to be genuine Convention refugees. Further, as Molloy pointed out, “The general feeling of Canadian commentators was that the war in Indochina was the United States’ war and that it was up to the Americans to deal with the results of war’s lost.” (43)

That was my understanding – tokenism, minimalism, legalism – not compassion and commitment. Molloy’s book shifted my perspective. The make-up and work of the immigration processing teams tell a very different story. Nick Kyriakides, a Canadian Health and Welfare doctor, died from dengue fever contracted in the Guam processing centre. To grossly understate them, the working conditions were challenging. What pushed those officers? Duty? A moral imperative? Certainly a high sense of responsibility to get the job done in as efficacious and professional a manner as possible. But more than any or all of these was “the sense of adventure, comradeship, and teamwork.” (46) They were having a good time doing good work, good in its accomplishments and good in its implementation in ensuring every chartered flight was full, even though simple tasks like counting were very difficult under the circumstances. In every single location in which they worked, they seemed to be able to combine hard work and joy. Instead of 7 files a day as the norm, the immigration officers processed 80. The 1976 new legislation delegated to those officers discretion and flexibility based on that pilot demonstration.

The real challenges to the nascent program came out of left field. Lieutenant General Dăng Van Quăng, who had a very questionable reputation, had been admitted. One unsavory character did more to blacken the prospect of any increased intake than any single cause. With innovation come risks – “there was little appetite, public or political, for serious engagement.”

What changed between 1976 and 1978? Canadian foreign service and immigration officers delivered intelligence. Small boats filled with refugees continued to arrive. The receiving countries were not only not integrating the refugees, they were voicing growing reluctance to even allow the refugees entry. The numbers had grown enormously, placing an unsustainable burden on the economies and capacities of those states. Politicians (Jake Epp and Doug Roche) and the Indochinese ethnic associations in Canada kept up the pressure. UNHCR added to that pressure. And a wise and perspicacious Deputy Minister, Allan Gotlieb, offered the analysis and the sympathy to make the first tentative steps towards a new Canadian initiative. These refugees were not fleeing because of the American involvement in the Vietnam War but because of the harsh and discriminatory rule of the new regimes now in power, regimes that now were at war with one another.

As indicated in Part III, the biggest difference resulted from the new 1976 Immigration Act promulgated in 1978. Legislative foundations matter, especially when “the new act created, for the first time, a legislative and regulatory framework for Canada’s refugee resettlement programs.” (62) Canada had previously admitted refugees who were technically not Convention refugees. Now grounds were provided to make that part of Canada’s mission as the means were provided to carry it out. Humanitarianism directed at refugees had now been ensconced as a “tradition” within Canadian law. This is who we were as Canadians. In addition to the Political Prisoner and Oppressed Persons Designated Class (Chileans and Argentinians) and the Self-Exiled Person Designated Class (Jews and others from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), the Canadian government named the Indochinese as a Designated Class, as refugees who could be admitted without determining whether they met the criterion of the Refugee Convention.

Even before the legislation was promulgated, Immigration Department officers began to gear up in 1977 in anticipation of an inevitable new and large resettlement effort. The requisite regulations were drafted in the spring of 1978 and the Indochinese Designated Class came into effect in December 1978.

Ideals were at work. So were interests. But government civil service experience and professionalism, legislation and regulations, the necessary tools for a large-scale refugee resettlement program, were indispensable. However, I had previously believed that the most significant innovation was due more to serendipity than anything else – the creation of the Private Refugee Sponsorship Program. I had thought that this initially minor change in the legislation was made to satisfy the Jewish community which wanted to sponsor one or two hundred Soviet Jews. Molloy documents, as indicated in Part III, that this initiative was very deliberate. It was introduced to assuage critics from the left about Canada’s handling of the Chilean refugees. The program for the Soviet Jews was not the impetus; rather, the latter established the operational principles: efficiency, no cost to the taxpayers, local groups responsible for resettlement, sponsoring organizations guaranteeing the local group commitment, and defining the package of services to be provided.

Chance without a push to take advantage of that opportunity might prove irrelevant. Far-sighted civil servants saw that opportunity. In the spring of 1978, they initiated a public relations program to educate the public and to bring the churches on board to apply the program to help the anticipated influx of Indochinese refugees. It was an opportunity for Canada. (Gerald E. Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977) As well, politicians and civil servants had created a mechanism to act. One year later, the effort yielded its first results when the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada came on board and signed a master agreement. The Christian Reformed Churches of Canada followed suit a month later.

Molloy does not raise the question why it took many of the mainline churches – Anglicans, the United Church, Catholic dioceses – until the summer of 1979 to join the private sponsorship movement. This is one of the few weaknesses of the book. However, Molloy is not writing critical history; he provides a detailed chronicle, one shaped by his diplomatic background. He probably saw no benefit in investigating this question closely, especially since his focus was on the role of mandarins in the program. But it was widely known at the time that the mainline churches were wary, some believing that the private sponsorship program was a conspiracy to dump the responsibility for resettlement of the refugees on the private sector. Further, there was a degree of racism among some of the congregants of one at least of those churches. By chapter 5, the text makes clear that there was “opposition from refugee advocates in a couple of mainline churches.” (91)

The book narrates how the government overcame religious institutional wariness, fears of a large intake given rising levels of unemployment and suspicion that the refugees were just rich immigrants buying their way out and their passage to Canada. Further, even a left-of-centre newspaper like the Toronto Star initially opined that Canada was not a suitable environment for resettling Indochinese refugees.

To be continued with a final section…

Responsa: The Sympathizer

I want to thank those who wrote and welcomed me back to blogging. However, I am still on holiday for another month so if I resume, I expect my blogs will be infrequent. But, who knows. Infections are very hard to get rid of.

I was asked a number of questions. The first was about why my response was so over the top. The simple answer – it was not. I checked the reviews. They were much shorter and covered the gamut of character and plot, atmosphere and style and did not focus in depth on one theme. But they were just as effusive. The novel did win a Pulitzer.

Why did I not discuss the flaws and only mentioned that they existed? My excuse – the novel was too terrific to focus on the distractions. For example, one flaw I believe was the excessive drinking in the novel, particularly among the Vietnamese characters. The novel is an alcoholic’s dream. But the characters like the crapulant major depicted as alcoholics are rarely described as drinking let alone drinking to excess, whereas the most sober characters drink like shickers.

Was the novel satirizing the Vietnamese imitation of this American trait? I do not believe the novel here was satirizing the Vietnamese community or how much the Vietnamese men had become Americanized, for this was not a trait I have observed at all in my dealings with the Vietnamese. Further, as Nguyen explained in an interview, in using the plot device of a Vietnamese man confessing to another, he was offering a conversation between and among Vietnamese to portray and satirize American culture and the extent to which the Vietnamese sometimes aped its worst traits. But, in this case, do they? Or was the novel then satirizing drinking as a fictional device? I suspect the latter, but I am afraid it did not work for me.

In one sense, the novel is a satire of the spy novel itself. Making the central character a mole had to be a tribute to John le Carré who invented the term. On the other hand, among the many writers Nguyen cites as sources, specifically on the Vietnam War and on Francis Ford Coppola’s film, I did not find le Carré among them. Besides, the anti-hero, Smiley, is le Carré’s chief protagonist and he hunts moles rather than being one himself. Nguyen’s character, who has such a lofty as well as deprecating view of himself, is a counterpoint to Smiley who is modest to a fault as well as self-deprecating.

However, if Nguyen’s novel is in part a satire of the spy novel, why did I not write more about lies and betrayal that provide a central core and fascination in that genre of fiction? Because Nguyen inverts this theme. The protagonist, Man, his handler, and Bon swear fealty to one another at the age of fourteen, and though one is on the opposite side of the other two ideologically, they never betray their pledge of loyalty to one another as much as one might abuse the other in the end. In one sense, the novel is a romance about male bonding and a satire of it at the same time. There is no Kim Philby, or simulacrum to Philby, in the novel.

Why did I never explain my reason to focus on the theme of Vietnamese acculturation and American culture? Two reasons. Nguyen saw this as the major thrust of his novel. Second, as I thought I suggested, this was the issue in which I personally was most interested. But why did I not talk about fictional devices at least to illustrate how they advanced the theme instead of quoting so much? Good point. The protagonist is, after all, a Hamlet figure and the war film he helps produce is called The Hamlet, for Nguyen’s novel is about the schizophrenic character of the Vietnamese for whom divisiveness is central – into North and South, into communists and nationalists, into imitators of Americans obsessed with a woman’s cleavage, itself a reflection of division.

The main character may see both sides of an issue, but he is even more hapless than Hamlet. His assassinations are as gratuitous as the murders in a Tarantino film, but they have no finesse. His schizophrenia always sabotages his own actions.

That brings up another flaw that I found in this brilliant novel. I think that Nguyen has a keen ear for the inner voice and thought, almost keener than anyone I have read, but he has a tin ear for actual voices. Read what the characters say – you really cannot tell the characters apart. Just compare Nguyen’s novel to any of le Carré’s who is an artist of mimicry. There are some exceptions in Nguyen, such as the General’s speech or those talks of Richard Held, the prototype of the American ideologue of permanent war who makes Trotsky, the originator of permanent revolution, look like a piker. However, even in these cases, it is content that gives the character away, not the timbre or tone or inflexion. They do not have individualized voices. But Nguyen’s novel is so much more profound than those of le Carré, who is not just a terrific writer of spy thrillers, but a great novelist. But the detailed portrayal of voice and gesture, of clothes and composure, of breathing and glances, all the devices that help make the surfaces of the characters so vivid, are just not there in Nguyen, at least with any great skill. However, the probing of the inner world more than makes up for this deficiency. Far more.

The major difference, however, is that le Carré is not an artful dodger but an artful liar, someone obsessed with dissimulation both as a mechanism and a subject matter. Nguyen is too interested in truth and the spy format is simply a great device to explore his obsessions. In Nguyen, the characters, in spite of their erudition, seem clueless. In le Carré, it is M16 and the institutions sponsoring the spying that are portrayed as clueless.

From one point of view, novels are projections of a novelist’s personal obsession, in le Carré’s case, his relations with his mendacious and irresponsible father. Nguyen’s may be with an officious and uptight authority figure, but I suspect not. Nguyen has a long career ahead of him to give us time to figure that out.

Obviously, in such a rich novel, this type of conversation could go on endlessly. And should.

Thank you for writing.

American Culture and Vietnamese Refugee Integration: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

by

Howard Adelman

The Legacy Of Ho Chi Minh: Nothing is More Precious than Independence and Freedom (cf. p. 27 of the novel)

The writing is full of biting irony. Well-paced, harrowing and comic, complex and compelling, riveting and reflective, the plot combines a capacious imagination with a great attention to detail, a dialectic of the absurd and the real, critical and satirical and full of tawdry scheming to advance the grand goals of history. Though there are many asides, they are never at the cost of the story line. Lush, decorative and extravagant language is squeezed out for penetrating original similes and metaphors in a minimalist presentation that is all the richer for it, almost too rich in circling round and round its prey.

The reflective self-consciousness characteristic of the twentieth century novel, this exploration of the marrow of memories, is at once taken upwards into the world of ideas as it explores the real meaning of hell-on-earth. Rich in treachery, the novel ignores the subtle body language of the French wink and nod, half-glance and raised eyebrow, for the succinct and direct. To live is to suffer because desire will always put life at risk and value sacrifice much more than happiness. For a very long novel, the number of scenes is quite limited, but each is as crowded and packed as the streets of Saigon were before it fell in April of 1975. The characters do not so much grow as multiply like the cancer that eats them from the inside. And the questions raised are always astute. Instead of terminating in a confrontation with one’s steely-eyed and immovable and implacable conscience, the protagonist crashes into the black depths of nothingness to finally encounter and confront his sin.

The book is simply brilliant, not flawless, but all the more powerful in spite of those flaws. A spy thriller, a refugee story of flight and integration, a tale focused on identity, on loyalty and disloyalty, a ghost story, the definitive story of the American War in Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective but more a tale of war crimes than of war itself, a portrayal of the end of the American involvement in that war in its vivid and horrific detail, brutal and tender, an essay on filmography and representation of the first war in history where the losers wrote the history instead of the victors and Hollywood still served to launch the intercontinental ballistic missiles of Americanization “to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart” (173), a reflective perception on American culture, an anti-utopian treatise, an exposure of the fraud of both the dialectic and linear progressive myths of history, a buddy tale of hedonism and stoicism, a story of political and social ideas and of torture and terrorism, of conflicting ideologies each of which turns into a suit that anyone can wear draped on its corpse, a narrative of Vietnamese communism suffused with Catholicism and sin where red is the colour of revolution and blood, versus good luck and fortune, a novel in the form of a bildungsroman, but really a tale of a Vietnamese adult’s (rather than formative) years of embodied re-education rather than a spiritual education, a story of truth and deception, of humanity and inhumanity, but mostly a narrative about morals and about reaching through time, through conundrums and paradoxes, into loss and pain, into a black hole.

The novel is so rich in themes that I can focus on only one of them. That allows you, the reader, to endlessly explore one of the myriad of others. I concentrate on the experience of a refugee trying to integrate into America and from the outside developing a very jaundiced but perceptive insight into American culture. Natalie Walter in her essay, “Heimat” in The New York Review of Books(23 November 2017, LXIV:18) wrote this of her refugee grandparent’s efforts to integrate into British society: “Did they ever feel British? I never asked them. I doubt they would have said yes. Jews who arrived in the UK during the war were given a leaflet by the British Board of Jewish Deputies admonishing them to abide by British customs and never to speak loudly in public.” (12)

I had the same experience, but from the other side of the table. In 1979 in Toronto, we were welcoming the first contingent of Sino-Vietnamese Boat People, the latter a name bestowed on these refugees by our media, but in the novelist’s critical reflection, “a name one might think referred to a newly discovered tribe of the Amazon River or a mysterious, extinguished prehistoric population whose only surviving grace was their watercraft.” (151) The reception for these “Boat People” was held in the Chinese Community Centre on Cecil Street, which, in its previous life was a synagogue with the Hebrew writing still embossed into the stonework, a synagogue in which my older brother had his Bar Mitzvah. The perceived VIPs offered speeches of welcome.

Without any collaboration, we all made the same speech. Our ancestors were immigrants to this country. Many were refugees. They were like you. And you are now part of us. You are just like us. Then the representatives of the National Chinese Association addressed the refugees in Chinese. A friend provided me with a simultaneous translation. Like ours, and again without collaboration, all their speeches carried the same message, but the content was the opposite. They insisted that the refugees must remember they are Chinese and they are symbols of what it is to be a Chinese person in Toronto.

Do not let us down. Do not shame us. Most of all, if you are in close quarters with Canadians who are born here, do not cook with fish oil even though fish sauce is the universal solvent with variety, subtlety and complexity. (Nguyen 70) The Sino-Vietnamese refugees were being told to give up one of the most significant elements of their culinary culture. The refugees were being told by the Chinese-Canadians that they were different, that they were representatives of that difference, that as a minority they were not equal but would have to conform to the dominant culture. And that was right after we, in our oblivious condescending way, were denying difference, were failing to recognize the special horror they had been through, were being indifferent to the challenges and hardships they would confront in being aliens in an alien land. Instead, we drowned them once again, but this time in sweetness and sentimentality.

How could we pretend to empathize with them? How could we presume to get inside their skins, inside their pain and suffering? Nguyen’s novel is precisely about that effort, but from the perspective of a mole, of a spy, of an alien agent. A sympathizer is not simply one who sympathizes with another, but one who does so to get inside the other so that he can critically reflect on that otherness. He is engaged in spying, not empathetic re-enactment. He is a sleeper agent, (57) not because he is somnambulant and walks and talks while asleep, but because he is under a compulsion to think and talk to prevent himself from sleeping lest someone discover, including himself, who he represents. “Revolutionaries are insomniacs, too afraid of history’s nightmare to sleep.” (355) For war never dies; it is the one thing that just goes to sleep. (225)

As the novel opens, the first person narrator says: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” But not simply any ordinary spy for, “I am also a man of two minds…I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” The true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus.” (374) This singular perspective is what allows an American to feed on the narcotic of optimism. However, seeing two sides is also a limitation. A superb mole can observe himself and he can identify and observe an Other, but he cannot “observe himself as someone else.” (342) He sees two sides but does not possess a way to synthesize them dialectically. Until he can, the symbiotic desire for both recognition and being remembered will not come together. More pointedly, they will tear him apart.

What were the two sides? The US imperial, colonial and militaristic state and society was suffused with delusional exceptionalism and stereotyping of the other. “(N)othing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” (218) And the other side? Vietnam was “the jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States.” (7) Given their habit of singing as they faced death, the Vietnamese “were the Italians of Asia,” (16) but in life served as “a respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, a pimple on the buttocks of the American body politic?” (69) And in America, “most of our fellow exiles had been shrunken by their experience, or relatively, surrounded by Americans so tall they neither looked through nor looked down on these newcomers.” (94)

“All right, a loser is what I am…I’m a loser for believing in all the promises your America made to people like me. You came and said we were your friends, but what we didn’t know is that you could never trust us, much less respect us. Only losers like us couldn’t have seen what’s so obvious now, how you wouldn’t want anyone as your friend who actually wanted to be your friend. Deep down you suspect only fools and traitors could believe your promises.” (163) It was a version of the Groucho Marx story. Who would want to belong to the same club that you were willing to join?

Americans and Vietnamese were culturally at war. It revealed itself even in how young men and women came together, in romance. “Americans understood dating to be about investments and gains, short or long term, but we saw romance and courtship as being about losses. After all, the only worthwhile courtship involved persuading a woman who could not be persuaded, not a woman already predisposed to examine her calendar for her availability.” (244)
Was the clash really of civilizations or was it one between civilization and barbarism? For the American side had lost too. And who were the real barbarians, those who used the old barbaric tools of torture or those who made torture into a science, those who inflicted pain on the body or those who drilled into the mind with unending questions until they came face to face with nothing?

On reflecting on the million who died in the war and the 200,000 to 400,000 who died in trying to escape from the political regime of the victors, “they would not have believed how they died, just as we could not believe that the Americans – our friends, our benefactors, our protectors – had spurned our request to send money. And what would we have done with that money? Buy the ammunition, gas and spare parts for the weapons, planes, and tanks the same Americans had bestowed on us for free. Having given us the needles, they now perversely no longer supplied the dope.” As the General, to whom the protagonist was an aide-de-camp, said, nothing “is ever so expensive as what is offered free.” (4)

But the two cultures were also one and the same. “ ‘(C)onsistency is the hobglobin of little minds.’ Nothing Emerson wrote was ever truer of America.” (12) However, the same thing could be said of Vietnam. Yet America was very different, as exceptional as it claimed to be, but not in the way it claimed. “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl. America, a country not content to give itself a name at its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA [Was Britain not referred to as the UK, though a duet rather than a triplet or a quartet, itself a revelation?], a trifecta of letters outdone later by the quartet of the USSR. Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?” (29)

This is written as America once again works on honing its muscles and enhancing its strength at the same time as it once again seeks to withdraw from its extensive involvement in the world. America remains the same just as it is ever changing. But the change seems to be one of circling, perhaps in the form of a spiral, but circling nonetheless. However, America has not learned that it “could no longer could win wars.” (246) This contrasted with Vietnam where, “violence began at home and continued in school, parents and teachers beating children and students like Persian rugs to shake the dust of complacency and stupidity out of them.” (246)

When the protagonist returns to America in 1975 as a refugee, it has unalterably changed from the US he experienced as a foreign student. Then, whether he observed the antiwar faction or the pro-war gang among the ex-pat Vietnamese community, “Regardless of their political clique, these students gulped from the same overflowing cup of loneliness, drawing together for comfort…hoping for the body heat of fellow sufferers in an exile so chilly even the California sun could not warm their cold feet.” (93)

“By the time I returned to campus, however, the students were of a new breed, not interested in politics or the world like the previous generation. Their tender eyes were no longer exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror for which they might have felt responsible, given that they were citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it. Most important, their lives were no longer at stake because of the draft.” (61) But that was 1975. Three years later, Americans would come face-to-face with stories of suffering and dying in Indochina for which they were not directly responsible, for which the successor communist regimes bore the heavy weight of guilt. But that is when the story ends, not when it begins. But also where it begins as the full story of what it means to be a Vietnamese “sympathizer with the Left, a revolutionary fighting for peace, equality, democracy, freedom, and independence, all the noble things my people had died for and I had hid for.” (61)

But was this not the American rhetorical ideal? Was this not the America the Vietnamese general extolled as he spoke to and rallied his fellow exiles. “I am here to tell you that what you remind me of is America’s great promise! The promise of the immigrant! The promise of the American dream! The promise that the people of this country hold dear and will one day soon hold dear again, that America is a land of freedom and independence, a land of patriots who have always stood up for the little man no matter where he is in the world, a land of heroes who will never relent in the cause of helping our friends and smiting our enemies, a land that welcomes people like you, who have sacrificed so much in our common cause of democracy and liberty. One day, my friends, America will stand tall again, and it will be because of people like you.” (119) “And Vietnamese American, not Vietnamese…must claim America,” (274) for America will not give itself to you.

In that time, and once again, Donald Trump stands the American dream, but this time on its head and turned inside out into a nightmare of American boosterism at the expense of the immigrant and the refugee. Once again Americans have surrendered and are “cowed by power and stunned by celebrity.” (254)

Were the Occident and the Orient never to meet as equals at the same time on a common playing field? Or was it the case that the twain could never meet? Was Kipling’s claim, as the protagonist opines (63), an accurate diagnosis or a myth even more powerful than the one of equality and peace let alone a higher symbiosis of Occident and Orient? Was the protagonist’s trip into the heart of darkness really a trip into the depths of hell and despair, a trip taken through a diahorea of words by one who was a born listener who had mastered “the inscrutable Oriental smile, sitting there nodding and wrinkling your brow sympathetically and letting people go on, thinking you’re perfectly in agreement with everything they say, all without saying a word”? (75)

This is a book of truth and insight, of “the best kind of truth, the one that meant two things,” (121, the one that meant that nothingness, doing nothing while facing nothing, was the one thing that was more important than waging war for freedom and independence.