It seemed to start slowly, the feeling of alienation. First it was simply exasperation and amusement at the unhinged rantings of Glenn Beck. Then Sarah Palin’s polarizing campaign. But it slowly turned into something more sinister, with violent rhetoric and calls to revolution — on both the left and the right — being a common occurrence. After the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords this weekend, I began to feel like I didn’t recognize my country anymore.
Whatever the motives for the shooting end up being — if we ever hear them in a coherent way — the fact is that the shooting did not come out of nowhere. Tension had been building for a long time. The reason the scaremongers and the vitriolic were so quick to be blamed is because people recognized how hate-filled our public debate has become. When you rally hate and disgust in other people, for the sake of viewership or political advancement, it’s difficult to control the results.
I’m not the only one who feels bewildered about the way things have turned out over the last several years. But the state of confusion is one I recognize, from a long lifetime of reading:
“Metropole” by Ferenc Karinthy
“Metropole” is my favorite book about alienation. The plot is very simple: a man falls asleep on a plane, and he wakes up in the wrong country. He loses his passport, can’t find his way back to the airport and can’t make himself understood. When the town is suddenly caught up in a revolution, he has no idea which side he should be on. The book is skillful enough in its portrayal of a lost soul that the alienation can come from anything: a spiritual breakdown, a bad travel experience, an emotional loss. But as the book was written in communist Hungary during the 1970s after failed revolutions, it has a particular resonance when you’re feeling lost in your own home state. Not understanding what people around you are saying, not recognizing your neighbors as being such. It’s a beautiful book, one of my all-time favorite novels, and I find myself thinking about it again and again as I watch the news.
“This is America? The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas” by Rusty L. Monhollon
Though it’s now easy to forget, Kansas has a revolutionary past. From its skirmishes with slave state Missouri over abolition to its populist leaders and rabble-rousers, it has a bloody but politically engaged past. But by the mid-20th century, Kansas had become incredibly conservative, leaning anti-civil rights and pro-Vietnam War. When the student activist demonstrations began at the University of Kansas in Lawrence — generally mild and sparsely attended compared to other campuses — the government responded with force, and two were killed. The protests to those deaths became so fierce that the national guard had to be called in. To most of the state, the violence and anger came as a complete shock. Kansas likes to retain its image of innocence and purity, but it was forced to confront the injustice and rage that goes along with it in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“Zift” by Vladislav Todorov
The communist takeover of Eastern Europe happened so quickly, and was so devastating, that it’s no wonder I keep pulling these books off the shelf during times of political uncertainty. In “Zift,” a man nicknamed “Moth” is released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence and finds his country of Bulgaria, now a communist state, completely unrecognizable. The book follows him through one night of terror and mayhem, where everything, even friends and family, are unrecognizable. Todorov was obviously raised on a steady diet of American noir, and it shows in the pacing, the language, and the shadowy depths of every alleyway, every street corner. It’s not just the witty “Moth,” but the city of Sofia, that, despite 20 years of oppression, endures.
“The Safety Net” by Heinrich Böll
In 1960s/’70s Germany, the Baader Meinhof gang was engaging in political acts of violence and assassination. And while Heinrich Böll was not sympathetic, he was empathetic to a generation growing up under the weight of World War II, and seeing the same people who participated in that war now leading the nation. His novel “The Safety Net” responds to the state of paranoia that existed, created not only by the violence but also by the German media and leaders desperate to demonize this generation of activists and sensationalize their politics in an effort to sell more newspapers and push their own political agenda forward. In “The Safety Net,” a politician under grave threats sinks into his paranoia, shutting himself and his family off behind the wall of police, guards and security advisers. The novel has more of a psychological state than a plot, but the desperation and fear that clouds the atmosphere of the work is very reminiscent of today’s television-induced hysteria.
“Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life” by Nina Eliasoph
Let’s all just admit that being politically active is not cool. You avoid the white guy with the dreads who wants to talk to you about the species die-offs and, here, will you sign this petition and maybe consider a small donation? That apathy is something of a unique characteristic of American life, and it leaves the political forum wide open to the impassioned, the crazy, the angry, the vitriolic. Reasoned debate doesn’t happen because we are “busy,” we no longer believe that voting makes a difference, and we would much rather retreat into our homes and pretend like the political process has nothing to do with us. Eliasoph has written a wise book about how this happened, and how much energy it takes for us to break out of this mindset. Released a few years ago, it deserves a second look, especially now. We’ve seen what happens when the unreasonable are the only ones willing to speak out. It’s time for an end to alienation and apathy.
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut.