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.

Secure America

Secure America

by

Howard Adelman

This morning I received the following email:

Secure America

by

Howard Adelman

Howard —

Today is Election Day! This is a critical election and we need every single American to do their part.

Hillary Clinton is a danger to Americans. Go to the polls today and stop Clinton from implementing her dangerous policies by voting against her. Hillary plans to increase the number of unscreened refugees in the U.S. by at least 550%, directly endangering our communities. Through her role in the murder of Americans in Benghazi and her support of Obama’s disastrous Iran nuclear deal, she has demonstrated her terrible judgement over and over again.
Point blank, we cannot let Hillary Clinton become the President of the United States.

America is at a crossroads and this election will have huge ramifications upon our national security. With so much at stake for the future of our nation, you simply cannot afford to stay home. Your vote will help to restore our national security and protect Americans across the country.

Do you know where to vote today? Click here to find your polling location: http://vote.secureamericanow.org/

Get out and vote today!
Thank you for your loyal support,
Secure America Now

Quite aside from the fact that the organization did not know that I am not an American and am not eligible to vote in an American election, and setting aside the vilification of Hillary Clinton, this short email makes a number of simple factual errors. The organization is accurate in several respects – today is election day in America. It is accurate also in asserting that “America is at a crossroads.” Sometimes, making such an assertion is merely rhetoric, but I believe it is demonstrably true today.

The email stresses the two core themes raising fears among Americans:
1. The fear of terrorism and of Syrian refugees;
2. The Iran nuclear deal is a direct threat to the U.S.

Secure America asserts, “National security is the most important issue this cycle. Hillary Clinton endangers the security of Americans with her support of the Iran nuclear deal and admitting Syrian refugees.”

On Syrian Refugees

One year ago, following the terrorist attack in Paris, Hillary Clinton weighed in on the refugee issue in a city not particularly pro-refugee – Dallas. America had a target of 13,000 Syrian refugees last year. Hillary argued that closing the door to refugees fleeing Syria would “undermine who we are as Americans. “We always welcomed immigrants and refugees. We have made people feel that is they did their part, they sent their kids to school, they worked hard, there would be a place for them in America.” She added that those seeking refuge must be carefully vetted by “our defense and intelligence professionals.”

So the email is blatantly incorrect that Hillary Clinton proposed allowing the entry of unvetted Syrian refugees. She never did. She never has. And she never will. For even the strongest bleeding heart for refugees does not recommend an unvetted process. As for numbers, Hillary did support a 550% increase in the intake, from 10,000 to 65,000, just about the same number Canada will take this year with a population one-tenth of America’s. A 550% increase seems enormous, but not if you start with a very low figure. Given traditional ratios, if Canada takes in 50,000 refugees, the U.S. would be expected to take in 500,000. But given the temper of the times in America, it is hard to imagine America getting back anytime soon to being a large haven for the oppressed in the world.

The fear mongering about Syrian refugees, other than telling an outright lie about vetting, ignores a number of facts:
1. Syrian refugees include Yazidis and other Christians who are being and have been systematically religiously cleansed from the Middle East;
2. If you are a terrorist, the refugee route is one of the poorest routes through which to gain entry into the United States or Canada since you become so well documented. Arriving as a student, as a visitor, as a business person, are all far easier routes into the country;
3. 70% of Syrian refugees are women and children;
4. The vast majority of terrorist acts committed by terrorists – and there have not been that many given the huge threat from them – has come from radicalized young Muslims who grew up in Canada or the United States; they are homegrown influenced, by the ideology of Al Qaida and ISIS.
5. Syria thus far has been a magnet for extremists far more than a producer of terrorists for export. This may change with the imminent defeat of ISIS.
6. The Harper government, far from being pro-Syrian refugees, was very suspicious of Syrian refugees, but still authorized Canada to adopt the same absolute target as the U.S. in the Obama administration. [In its 2013 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, published by Public Safety Canada, there is no suggestion that refugees from Syria currently pose any threat.]

The Iran Nuclear Deal

This is a subject on which I have written extensively and a quick survey of the SAN site indicates that it is another area with enormous misinformation.
Note the source of the missive I received – Secure America Now (SAN). SAN claims to be non-partisan, but seems clearly linked to the Alt-Right and headlined by hard-line ideological Republicans such as John Bolton. It was established by two pollsters, John McLaughlin and Pat Caddell, in 2011. It is one of the major sources of non-scientific “push-polls” that Donald Trump frequently cites to show he is on a winning track.

SAN has pushed petitions that are strong on rhetoric and very weak in providing information that urge the U.S. government to “lead a multi-faceted campaign to stop Iran” and “to send a powerful message to the world that America is strong and will not tolerate illegal aliens infiltrating our land.” The organization is alarmist and demonstrates little concern with accuracy. For example, while urging support for the American intelligence and military service arms of the U.S. government, SAN ignores the simple fact that those same communities, whatever hesitations or qualms they might have about the nuclear deal, contrary to SAN claims, agree that Iran’ nuclear program is NOW not geared to nuclear weapons production. SAN’s videos are also replete with geographical errors, errors about dates, and questionable maps about Iran’s nuclear sites. If you wonder where Donald Trump’s vision of restoring water boarding and other even worse torturing techniques, that even the conservative U.S. Supreme Court insists are contrary to the American constitution, look at this site. Further, its “information” data base looks even worse than Donald Trump’s mendacity, if that is possible.

“Push polls” spread politically driven talking points under the guise of gauging public opinion, They are the same types of polls that the National Citizens Coalition in Canada used to raise fears in 1979 that the Vietnamese refugees arriving in Canada would each bring an additional 16 relatives – for some of us, not a fear at all – but it played on a deeper “yellow peril” fear that once ran through Canada. However, while the National Citizens polls mislead with leading questions, they did not distort, as SAN polls seem to do, by cherry picking those to be interviewed or respond. One SAN poll claimed to show that Americans viewed Iran as a top security threat when independent scientific polls show no such thing.
The oldest trick in the American political playbook is to play up America fears. JFK did it in his race against Nixon in 1960 – “the myth of the “missile gap”. SAN is part of that tradition.

This is what SAN has to say. “Secure America Now will work with like-minded groups to help our elected officials to make the right policy decisions on a wide range of security issues. For too long and too much the threats to our security have been downplayed or even ignored in our political discourse. Secure America Now exists to make sure our security concerns are no longer ignored. Secure America Now will challenge political correctness that often leads to avoidable security situations such as the Fort Hood massacre committed by Major Hassan. Secure America Now will expose and promote action when governmental policies fail to effectively address direct threats to our national security such as the nuclear program of Iran, the rise of China’s military challenge, and growing lawlessness in our society. For too long national security policy has been made by politicians in a vacuum. These issues are too important to be left to the politicians. The American people should be heard on these issues that impact all our lives.”

Scaremongering along the lines of Trump lying! Just two more from the above list. One is the alleged “growing lawlessness in our society.” If the reference is to ordinary crime, crime rates have declined steadily. If the reference is to the lawlessness of torture or to urging people at rallies to take protesters out, then the point is self-referential and not at all about society as a whole. On the issue of Dr. Nidal Hasan (not Hassan), a major and a psychiatrist in the Army, Hasan shot 13 people and wounded 32 others seven years ago. He was convicted and awaits execution. The FBI, the DOD, and the Senate all conducted thorough investigations and all concluded the same thing: “Investigators in the FBI and U.S. Army determined that Hasan acted alone and they have found no evidence of links to terrorist groups.” He would describe his colleagues as anti-American. On the other hand, he was a devout Muslim who examined terrorist sites and was upset by what he heard from the soldiers he was treating about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is more information that is readily available, but there is no suggestion of any connections with refugees let alone Syrian refugees.

The SAN missive alone is sufficient to make sure one does not vote for Trump.