Good guys and bad guys

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in a conference at University College Dublin earlier this month called Alternative Realities: New Challenges for American Literature in the Era of Trump, and then to take part in a panel discussion at the Museum of Literature in Dublin with the other keynote speakers, Aleksandar Hemon and Karen Bender, and the conference organiser Dolores Resano. I had a great time.

The following is (more or less) the text of my keynote speech.

Good Guys and Bad Guys: a writer’s perspective.

My qualification for being invited here is that I’ve written a novel about American politics in the near future called America City, so I’ll start by telling you a bit about it.

The original prototype for this novel was a short story I wrote in 2012 about an American politician called Stephen Slaymaker.  I wanted to write about global warming, and the context of the story was an America in about a hundred years’ time, that was already almost completely closed off to climate refugees from other parts of the world, but was facing new stresses as a result of mass internal migrations caused by climate change: Hundreds of thousands of people from south-eastern and south-western parts of America were moving north to escape from flooding, fires, hurricanes and droughts.  And northerners were beginning to feel threatened by them and therefore to ‘other’ them, in the way that migrants from overseas are othered now.  Just as in the past, farmers fleeing from the dustbowl were derided as Okies, these new migrants were called ‘dusties’ or ‘storm trash’, and northern states were beginning to talk about building frontiers to keep them out.

The term ‘Storm trash’ was inspired by my reading of a couple of books about refugees from Hurricane Katrina: a real-life example of American refugees from an extreme weather event being briefly welcomed as fellow Americans in other parts of the country but then very quickly becoming the objects of resentment and hostility.  A detail that stuck in my mind was a mother from New Orleans who said her children were ostracised at school in Texas because, as she put it, they ‘came from the storm’.   

They came from the storm.  I felt this was a foretaste of things to come. Some people from New Orleans, made homeless by the hurricane and trying to leave, were stopped at gunpoint from entering neighbouring communities.  

My character Slaymaker was not a bad man by his own lights, but his sense of moral responsibility ended at the borders of his own country.  Later on, when I eventually wrote the novel, I’d compare him to the king described at the beginning of Beowulf, King Scyld, of whom the poet says ‘that was a good king’ because he is a ‘wrecker of mead-benches’, and a ‘ring giver’ who looks after those who are loyal to him. 

A ‘ring giver’.  I’ve thought a lot about that notion and I explore it in the book. I’ve concluded that all political leaders are, of necessity, ring givers.  And even now, it seems to me, it tends to be the case that the flip side of being a ring giver to one bunch of people is being a wrecker of someone else’s mead halls.

Slaymaker had no interest in opening the country’s external borders, but he was a patriot and he hated the idea of America itself being divided.  He wanted to become President in order to bind the country together again, north and south. 

* * *

As I say, I wrote the short story in 2012, but I realised —as probably seems obvious— that this wasn’t really a short story at all but rather the setup of a novel. 

So I began to plan a book.  In my plan I introduced, as the main viewpoint character, a bright, ambitious young British publicist named Holly Peacock, who has the idea of  winning the Presidency for Slaymaker by getting him to turn the focus of American people’s fear and resentment onto a neighbouring country instead of onto each other.  Holly also sees herself as a good person, and she defends the morality of what she does throughout the book.  Having grown up with impeccably right-on activist parents who seemed to care about everyone in the world but her, she’s drawn to the simplicity of Slaymaker’s Beowulf-style morality, which is based above all else on loyalty to your own.  

I say a Beowulf-style morality, but I suppose you could equally well call it a Homeric morality, or even an Old Testament one: a good king is a strong king who looks after his own people and defeats their enemies.  Nowadays, we could also call it right-wing. 

But then we use the words left wing and right wing to mean many different things. 

* * *

Anyway, I decided to write this novel about President Slaymaker but I didn’t pursue the idea for quite a while because I was working on other things.  It wasn’t really until four years later that I settled down in earnest to write it. 

So there I was, in 2016, writing this book I’d been planning about an American presidential election being won by appealing to atavistic tribal loyalty and hostility towards a demonised ‘other’.  And meanwhile, out there in the real world… 

No one ever thinks about the problems all this rapid change is causing for writers of speculative fiction!   Sitting there at my laptop, writing America City, it sometimes felt to me as if reality was overtaking me. 

Of course I used this turn of events to my advantage, borrowing ideas for the novel from the real election as it unfolded, and from what had happened in Britain earlier that year.  I plagiarised reality.  But there were times too when reality seemed to be plagiarising me.  For instance, I came with the idea of AIs that collected data about individuals from their phones (which by that point in the future are routinely monitoring things like heartrate in order to understand the current mood of their owner).  These AIs worked out what mattered to each individual and what they wanted to hear, then tailored bespoke electoral messages accordingly, with no regard for factual accuracy, using fake social media accounts that posed as regular human beings in order to deliver them.  I called these fake social media accounts ‘feeders’, because when I invented them —and I kid you not— I had not yet heard the word ‘bot’. 

I’m not in any way technical, but one thing I’ve learnt as a writer about the future is that if you think about something that could plausibly happen then very likely it will exist, and quite probably already does.

Incidentally, though I do say it myself, my Stephen Slaymaker was a way more plausible and better-drawn character than Donald Trump.  If I’d come up with someone like Trump back in 2012, I’d have dismissed him as a lazy one-dimensional stereotype, told myself to try harder, and started again.  I still haven’t quite come to terms with reality’s sloppy workmanship there.

You may be wondering, if you haven’t read the book, which other country Slaymaker makes an enemy of?  Well, I’ll just say that one thing that’s going to become highly desirable as the world heats up is empty Arctic territory.   You may remember that earlier this year —and very spookily from my point of view— PresidentTrump tried to buy Greenland from Denmark.

I’ll make you a prophesy: Greenland will belong to America one day.  (If it happens you’ll be impressed by my prescience at least.  If it doesn’t, you’ll forget I said it.)  But, though Greenland is as big as Mexico, it’s very small beer compared with the Arctic territories to its west.

*  *  *

Let me tell you something about my personal approach to writing about the politics of the present time.  And I’d like to start with some thoughts from someone I admire. 

Natascha Kampusch is an Austrian woman, now in her thirties, and her claim to fame is that she was kidnapped at the age of 10 in 1998 by a man named Wolfgang Priklopil who bundled her into his van when she was walking to school and then kept her captive for the next eight years.  For the first six months she was entirely confined to a tiny underground room.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, ten-year-old Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her great fears was that he would have a road accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He kitted out her dungeon like a schoolgirl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, and even fetched her books and magazines at her request.  But he also became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her without warning with his fists and with hard objects.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  He abused her sexually. 

Yet Kampusch to this day refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster.  This refusal led to her being subjected to abuse and hate mail in Austria, but she remained absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her refusal to see Priklopil as evil is a symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome, a label which, she says, victimises her all over again.

Naturally, when reading her book about her ordeal, one identifies with Kampusch.  And that’s a very disturbing experience: my relief when she finally escaped was so overwhelmingly cathartic that I often replay it in my mind even now, years after reading the book.  But of course it’s much more challenging to do as she asks and consider Priklopil not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a human being who is on the same continuum as the rest of us.  Priklopil, as Kampusch sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to see other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Natascha Kampusch, 3,096 Days.

This idea that Priklopil was human like everyone else was too much for the many people who saw fit to direct hate mail at a woman who’d spent half her childhood in solitary confinement.  Presumably they just couldn’t bear the thought that what was inside him was inside them also.  (Yet their own behaviour demonstrated this to be true of course.  What strangers we are to ourselves!)

Anyway, my thought is that, if Kampusch can manage to think about her captor and abuser as a fellow human being, I really ought to be willing to do likewise about people who actually aren’t locking me up, or beating me —shaving my head obviously doesn’t come into it— but whose politics I hate.  In fact I think I see that as part of my task as a novelist: to try not to ‘other’ people but instead to understand why they think and feel as they do, both from the inside, as subjects, but also in terms of the external forces to which they’ve been subjected and which have shaped them.  

This is not to ‘excuse’ bad behaviour —seeing Priklopil as human, motivated by the same desires and fears as the rest of us, doesn’t mean it was okay to turn a child into his personal slave, or that it was anything other than an utterly vile thing to do— but, unlike those upright citizens who wrote hate mail to Natascha Kampusch, for daring to suggest that Priklopil was anything like them,  I don’t want to pretend that I can see no trace of Priklopil inside my own head.

I agree with Solzhenitzyn that ‘the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.’  Whatever a hundred million outraged voices on Twitter might have you believe, it doesn’t run neatly between us and them.

*  *  *

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that most human beings think of themselves as the ‘good guys’.  I suppose there are a few people in the world who actually enjoy the idea of being bad, but my guess is that even murderers and torturers usually have some sort of story they tell themselves that allows them to feel justified in what they do, like my characters Stephen Slaymaker and Holly Peacock (who by the way I actually like.)

Most of us think of ourselves as the good guys and those who threaten us as the ‘bad guys’.  I’ve seen this happening in Britain during the endless arguing over Brexit (which will incidentally be the subject of my next book): this tendency to demonise the other side, to assume the worst and most unforgivable motives to them, and to attribute nothing but virtuous motives to our own side.  Psychologists call this the attribution bias: we see only the good in us and only the bad in them.

But how likely is it, actually, that we (whoever ‘we’ may be!) really are straightforwardly the good guys, given that nearly everyone thinks they’re the good guys and has some sort story to explain why it’s so?  Many years ago, I visited Belfast, and had the strange experience of passing through one neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all vociferously agreed that one particular view of the constitutional situation in Northern Ireland was the only one consistent with truth and justice, and then almost immediately coming to another neighbourhood whose inhabitants apparently all believed the opposite. 

I mean — what are the odds?

But of course this isn’t just a massive coincidence.  It’s not the case that all the right-thinking people have ended up in one street and all the wrong-thinking people in another, as the result of some kind of colossal cosmic fluke.  The truth is that our political views — our theological ones too for that matter—  are not just the result of individual choices we make as free agents.  People’s beliefs, opinions and loyalties are very powerfully shaped by their history, their social context and their material circumstances, even if not completely determined by them.

The Brexit map of Britain illustrates that.  Just as Belfast people know which areas are nationalist and which are unionist, and can often tell which side someone comes from when they meet them, I’m guessing most Brits have a pretty good sense of which areas are Leave and which Remain.  I don’t need to look it up, for instance, to know that the fairly working-class Essex town of Harlow would have voted Leave, or that the attractive seaside city of Brighton will have voted Remain.  On one level it seems surprising that Dover voted Leave, given that it’s the most famous of our gateways to Europe, but on another level, I don’t find it surprising at all because I’ve been there, and I know it’s a Leave town just by looking at it.  Regardless of economic self-interest, there is something about a place like Dover that tends to make you Leavier.

As a matter of fact, Cambridge, where I live, is the Remainiest city in the entire UK. A wealthy, rapidly growing, university city with London-style property prices and booming IT and biotechnology industries, Cambridge was 75% remain.  But in the same county, and only an hour or so’s drive away, is the rural, dauntingly flat, and considerably less prosperous area called Fenland where the vote was 71% leave.  It just makes no sense to see these obviously demographic differences as purely individual choices.

So I don’t have much patience with those whose account of Brexit (or Trump) is just ‘some bad people did it.’  What kind of explanation is that?   Certainly, there are some pretty unimpressive people involved, but how did they manage to get purchase on our politics?  How did they manage to persuade people that they had their back?  Those are the interesting questions.

*  *  *

One of the things I did when writing America City was to include some vignettes of ordinary people—people involved in the great internal migration— and I tried to show how the sympathies of these internal refugees, and their failures of sympathy, are shaped by their own needs and circumstances, and change as those circumstances change.  (It’s a technique I used in an earlier book Mother of Eden, in which among other things, I tried to explain to myself why poor people often give their support to people who you’d think they’d see as their exploiters.)

It seems to me that, if you feel you need something that someone else has got, you find a way of justifying the act of taking it from them — and if that means refusing to see things from their point of view, so be it.  And if you’ve got something that other people need —and let’s face it, the money that each one of us in this room spends each year on non-essential comforts could meet an awful lot of basic human need— you find ways of justifying hanging onto it, even if that means hardening your heart.  That’s only human —in fact I think it’s quite possible that this kind of manoeuvre is an inevitable part of being in the world— but we need to acknowledge it in ourselves before we rush to judgement about the lack of generosity of others. 

Otherwise attribution bias does its work, and moral principles become tools, not for making ourselves into better human beings, but for proving how much better we already are than those other people.

*  *  *

So.  Holding up a mirror to the age of Trump, and to all the other huge upheavals that are beginning to take place in the Euro-American world as its old hegemony starts to crumble.  How do we do it?

I really hope we don’t see a lot of novels about the travails of comfortably off middle-class people whose lives have been made a little less comfortable by having to hear about Trump’s doings.  I am tired of people of my own class (the delicado class, as people call it in America City) acting like they’re the victims here. 

It is important that the real victims’ experiences are brought into the light —for instance the callous treatment of migrant children separated from their parents— but we still need to be careful not to choose atrocities selectively and self-servingly, to maintain a simplistic fairy tale about good guys and bad guys.  Immigrant children weren’t necessarily treated particularly well under Obama either, however much more charming his manners were, and however much more he resembled the kind of president we would like to be.  In fact immigration controls are always ugly, but the most liberal of countries still have them and there’s very little appetite, even among liberal-minded folk, for their complete abolition.  (I wouldn’t advocate that myself. Would you?)

One kind of novel about the rise of Trump would, I think, be one that looked under the skins of Trump voters.  I know it’s hard and perhaps some people here will think that they don’t even deserve to be understood.  But I think that’s looking at ‘understanding’ in completely the wrong way.  We shouldn’t think of understanding as some kind of reward to be given out only to people we like, or people we feel sorry for.  Natascha Kampusch needed to understand her kidnapper as a human being, not as a kindness to him, but in order to survive 8 years in which he was her only companion and the nearest thing she had to a friend— and also in order to be able to escape.     

In the following short extract from America City, I am writing speculatively about future events.  (I know that in many ways that’s much easier to do than writing about now, but I like to think that, in my own way, I am really writing about now.)  What I am specifically trying to do in this passage is to show how something as mundane and material as precipitation patterns in the mountains of California can have consequences not just for human behaviour but for the cast of human minds. And what I want to suggest to you is that what literature in the age of Trump needs to do is to illuminate the similar chains of consequences which lead in a series of steps from events in the material world —it might, for instance, be something like a reduction in global demand for American-made steel, or the invention of the internet— to changes in things like the human capacity for tolerance and empathy.

The snow used to settle up there on the Sierras, many metres deep in places, and it would form drifts and glaciers whose meltwaters flowed all summer long down into the Central Valley and into the states to the east. Some of that snow was so deep that it lasted years. But now what snow still falls will all melt off in the spring, stripping bare the rocky peaks before summer has even reached its height. And rain just runs straight off, evaporating all the while back into the air.

 It’s no big thing as far as the planet is concerned. The mountains themselves are still the same huge shapes against the sky. Earth still follows the same old track round the sun. But living things depend on small contingencies. On the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and down in the valleys, there are plants and animals that depend on streams flowing for such-and-such a time, farmers who depend on meltwater to irrigate their crops, towns that depend on water tables being replenished every year. There has only been a small change in the air, and only a small change in the way that water comes down the mountains, but an entire web of consequences are flowing out from it.

Trees die. Animals starve, or climb higher up the mountains, or wander north. And in the human world, farmers dig deeper wells, invest in costly water-saving devices, experiment with expensively engineered low-water crops, until a time comes when they can no longer borrow the money or no longer service their debts. And then they abandon everything and follow the animals north, becoming another stream, a human stream that branches and divides across America, a river of people with no money and no home, leaving crumbling buildings and rusting machinery and empty fields.

People in the north watch their arrival with suspicion and hostility. It’s dangerous to feel sorry for them, for that might mean feeling an obligation to help them, and to give up some part of the comfort blanket that everyone wraps around themselves against the frightening world. And isn’t that blanket always threadbare? Doesn’t it already feel too thin?  Yes, and if you were to look those new arrivals in the face and really acknowledge them for what they are, wouldn’t you also have to face the thing that follows behind them, the thing that has driven them north, the thing that everyone knows is moving north itself, coming closer and closer with every year?  And who in their right mind would want to do that?

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