November 23, 2020
I finished two books: Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist. The latter I had been reading for months as part of a discussion group at MGA. I missed the final meeting last week, which is a shame because the last chapters were pretty significant to his discussion.
My takeaways from Kendi’s book start with the way he ends: racism is like cancer eating away at the body politic. Racism is created by policies that feed racial inequality—not by irrational hatred. This seems a valuable lesson for today’s world, where the economic elites attempt to wrest greater economic control through legislation and lower taxes, blaming people’s suffering on racial and redirecting their animus to minorities. Racism is a political creation meant to maintain a hierarchy built on policy that favors a particular race, and, as Kendi adds in his chapter on feminism, sex. Kendi remarks in the last chapter: “The source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.” This assertion aligns with Goldstone and Turchin’s idea that our current national instability is based on the selfish interests of the economic elites: “Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government.”
Kendi also notes that education—what he calls “educational and moral suasion”—cannot address racism, and that any appeal to people’s best natures might just make it worse. Only a conscious effort to engage policy creation will help. Again, this squares with Goldstone and Turchin’s conclusion that acquiescence and compromise are the only ways we will emerge from our current political stalemate and avoid revolution. This is key: there must be a willingness of the Republicans to compromise. Yes, it looks grim, especially with McConnell likely to hold on to his majority. We may be in for darker times.
I very much enjoyed The Dispossessed. While I would never reduce a complex work of literature to a single moral, the novel suggests that an individual’s best contribution to a community is to do what s/he does best, even if others do not understand or appreciate it. If Aristotle is correct and that virtue is the fulfillment of function, then Le Guin’s utopian society is based on this moral imperative: that Shevek in pursuing his theoretical physics—ostensibly of no practical use to a society that desperately needs practical solutions to immediate problems—is contributing in the best Wayne can for his people. Whereas the Urrasti would use his theory for the State and its dominance over other planets, Annares has no interest in Shevek’s theories because of more immediate concerns. Yet, the novel highlights Shevek’s heroic struggle to remain true to himself even in the face of social ostracism. Here is one of the facets of the novel’s title.
I can’t help but see this approach to heroism in the same light as Mailer’s: to discover and to fight for one’s own individual truth even while the forces of conformity attempt to beat them down, make them sell out, or take the safe path. The Annaresti live on a moon, a harsh, unforgiving world where their lives are tenuous and existential—where individualism could be detrimental to the survival of the community. Le Guin illustrates the difficult of walking the line between personal truth and social responsibility. Shevek’s actions seem selfish and even traitorous to his people, even though the narrative suggests the importance of his work beyond the local. Shevek takes the risk to achieve something great, even though is people cannot see the value of his endeavors. For Le Guin and Mailer, this is the crucial measure of a person.
Le Guin’s critique of capitalism is trenchant, and Urras has obvious connections with our economic structures taken to the extreme. I guess they were even more extreme when Le Guin was writing the novel in the early seventies; now, the Urras society seems to be even more representative of our own economically stratified structure of elite and poor.
This is a rich book, on the level of Dune. The storytelling is masterful, and the narrative remains engaging throughout. The world-building is excellent, and much must be inferred by the reader—at least initially. I’m a bit annoyed with myself for not picking up Le Guin sooner. I want to reread The Left Hand of Darkness next, as it takes place in the same universe as The Dispossessed. I don’t think I appreciated it the first time through, about 25 years ago.
That said, I really need to start on the novels for my course in the spring. . .
- For more on this idea, see Goldstone, Jack A.; Turchin, Peter (September 10, 2020). "Welcome to the Turbulent Twenties". Noema Magazine. Berggruen Institute. Retrieved 2020-11-23. I just happened to read this article after finishing Kendi’s book, and Goldstone and Turchin’s argument seems to echo Kendi’s.
- Kendi, Ibram X. (2019). How to Be an Antiracist (Kindle ed.). New York: One World.
- Interestingly, Mailer aligns a lack of courage to pursue one’s truth to cancer. Cancer, for Mailer, is a metaphor for the rot of one’s soul that manifests in the body as a result of conformity to the deadening influence of the status quo.