Theory Beyond the Codes
Though it is the fate of all science fiction writers to see the futures they create slowly overtaken by the present, there are probably few who have seen the turnaround happen quite as quickly as Brian Francis Slattery. Slattery’s second novel Liberation describes in intimate detail an America that has suffered a complete economic collapse. It was released in October of 2008, mere months before the real US economy went into free-fall, dragging much of the global economy with it. And, though in real life things have yet to get as bad as Slattery’s novel, the post-collapse America which he describes, marked by a resurgent slave trade, crime-lord run cities and roaming death cults (though also inner-city communes, nomadic hippy drug dealers, and carnivalesque party communities), the book proved an eerily prescient commentary on a super-power in decline. Liberation was heavily praised by critics, with Amazon.com naming it the best science-fiction book of 2008. This carried over praise from his first novel, Spaceman Blues: A Love Song, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Slattery’s writings, both fiction and non-fiction, have also appeared in publications such as the Village Voice, Las Vegas Weekly, and the New Haven Review.
Slattery’s books are of interest to those seeking insight into both the present and the future, and not just because of his uncanny timing on matters of economics. His writing engages with the concretely cosmopolitan nature of contemporary life, tracing out the intertwining flows of goods (imported and smuggled), migrants (legal and illegal, forced and voluntary), cultures, languages, information, and always, of course, money. Even when engaging in standard science fiction tropes of dystopic wastelands and alien invasions, Slattery’s work never loses sight of the concrete effects of power, politics, economics and violence on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people (even, or perhaps especially, when those people end up becoming superheroes). The CTheory interview with Slattery asks questions about the relationship between science fiction and economics, globalization, and how eerie it is to predict the future.
Science Fiction and Politics
CTheory: I want to begin by talking a little bit about your background, and how it informs your current work as a writer. You started out as a student of political science and international relations. You completed a master’s degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and then served as senior editor on the Journal of International Affairs. I’d like to know what specific areas you focused on in your studies and where this interest in politics and international affairs came from.
Brian Francis Slattery: Well, I was an English major as an undergraduate, though one who was always interested in what life was like in other parts of the world. The interest in international affairs specifically came mostly out of a job I held for three and a half years or so, as an assistant program officer at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation [www.hfg.org], which funds social science research about violence. For me, working there was like going to school in the best sense; it seemed that every day, I was learning something new about the world, viewed through the lenses of several academic disciplines, from history to biology, though leaning quite a bit toward political science and anthropology. Given the foundation’s focus, I was reading consistently dark material — it was basically about people being horrible to each other, on individual, social, and political levels — but it was also fascinating. By the end of my time there, I felt as though a lot of simple truths in the American popular imagination about why people do terrible things to each other had been thoroughly challenged and upended for me, and the understanding that there were no easy answers was both humbling and exciting. (One of the effects of what I learned there was to make me believe, pretty resolutely, that most people are actually pretty great and have no interest in seriously hurting someone else. As widespread and horrific as violence is across the world, we have to be careful not to assume that therefore everyone has violent tendencies.) The job also instilled in me a desire to do something about it, though I wasn’t sure what. Certainly part of that impetus to get involved stemmed from the fact that I attended at least monthly meetings at Human Rights Watch, where every presentation ended with a section about what can be done.
Toward the end of working at the foundation, I started to get interested in the economic side of the argument, in part because, as a discipline, it was underrepresented in the proposals the foundation received (in retrospect, it’s interesting that was the case; I’m not sure why it was so), but always seemed to be an important underlying factor. So when I got to Columbia, I decided to focus on economic development with a strong interest in human rights and international law. That proved to be a potent combination, and I’m glad I stumbled into it. Even if there were still no answers (can there ever be?), it became a bit clearer how I could be involved, given that my strengths lay in editing and writing. Today, I edit public policy publications for places whose work I believe in, and every once in a while, I see that some publication that I was a small part of has legs; it gets out into popular discourse and affects the way people understand an issue, which is always immensely satisfying.
One of the other things I’m incredibly thankful for regarding graduate school was the chance to go to Guatemala for a summer; there, I volunteered at a small, local organization called Partners in Solidarity [www.partnersinsolidarity.com] doing whatever needed doing — I ended up conducting a workshop on how to solicit funds from foundations — but also constantly asking people questions about what their lives were like. The people I met there and their generosity in so many ways had a profound effect on me; it irrevocably changed the way I understood what it was like to be poor, and made me realize, in essence, that I had had to go to graduate school to figure out what many poor people already know, because it’s essential first to their survival and second to improving their lot.
CTheory: What then brought you from that to a) writing fiction, and b) more specifically writing science fiction?
BFS: I see the fiction and the day job as an editor as working in tandem with each other. The day job fuels the writing, in several different ways. It certainly has given me something to write about, even though, with both books, I was constantly struck by how much better I wished I understood something, even when I knew I was portraying certain things pretty accurately (e.g., how people migrate in and out of the United States illegally). The question of how I came to write science fiction is interesting. With my first book, Spaceman Blues, which I finished while I was in graduate school (I wrote quite a bit of it in Guatemala, actually. Many of the details in that book are taken directly from something I had seen the same day I wrote it), I was honestly unsure what genre it belonged to. It was either a literary fiction book with lots of science fiction elements in it, or a science fiction book that was really interested in playing with language. I didn’t care particularly about the distinction (still don’t), but figured other people would, so I shopped the manuscript around both literary and science fiction places. The literary places I talked to seemed sort of baffled by it; too much plot, they said, or too many characters. But Tor, the science fiction house I submitted to — based mostly on an incredible FAQ on their website, which, sadly, no longer exists — bought it, mostly due to the heroic striving of my editor, who also did my second book. And as I’ve learned more about the current state of science fiction, I understand that what I’m doing really does fit clearly into a specific branch of science fiction that deals pretty head-on with contemporary political and social issues — and the systems that undergird them — in a way that mainstream literary fiction, at least as I understand it, doesn’t seem to.
CTheory: That raises the question of your relationship to the traditional image of the major tropes and interests of science fiction as a genre. Your work doesn’t seem to be particularly focused on, or interested in, the usual science fiction obsessions of science and technology. Though your books take place under the rubric of fantastic Sci-Fi settings and conflicts (the alien invasion, the dystopian wasteland) the actual stories are as likely as not to focus on the small day-to-day moments of throwing a party, making a living, falling in love. What is it that attracted you to a science fiction that perhaps eschews in-depth engagement with its more spectacular aspects?
BFS: Great question — and the short answer is that I’m not really sure! The long answer: To me — leaving aside the constant, ongoing battle about whether or not economics is really a science, and admitting from the outset that I’m not an economist by any stretch (I don’t have a Ph.D. in economics; I’ve never run an econometric study; I’m just someone who reads a lot about economics and economic policy) — the science in my science fiction is economics, as it has been for a few other science fiction writers as well (Neal Stephenson and Charlie Stross come immediately to mind). While I’m fascinated by the mechanics of the economic system, I’m ultimately interested in how it affects living, breathing people — and given that so far, the people I’ve chosen to write about are people who, like most of us, experience the effects of economics almost like they’d experience the weather, that has dictated the level of detail about the economic system that appears in the books. (The books don’t read this way necessarily, but I tend to write from the point of view of a specific character almost all the time; it’s just that the specific character can change frequently.) I try to put in just enough detail about the economic system to drive the story and illuminate character, but I don’t want to put in more than that just for its own sake, even if I’ve worked out a greater level of detail for myself. Story and character, after all, are what give the system meaning — just like the effect on actual people is, in the end, what’s really important about actual economics — or at least what should be important. Another reason that I keep the level of detail down is that I write books in part to move people to action; I don’t so much want to give answers as ask questions, so that readers might ask questions themselves. (Also, personally, I don’t have any answers.)
That said, at some point I would like to write a book in which the natures of the plot and the characters themselves allow me to make the nuts and bolts of economic systems an integral part of the story. That story would involve centering on people I don’t usually write about — politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, and the like — and I’m looking forward to trying it, seeing where it goes.
Past and Future
Agents of the lords of global commerce are set up on the other side of the road watching a laptop hooked up to a satellite dish by electrical wire and a coat hanger, exchanging baht for rupees, colones for a small commission. They’re moving an undisclosed sum out of the New Dominion and into an account in Kyrgyzstan that carries the name of a man who does not exist. We’ll put your money anywhere you want it, however, you want it, the agents say. Who’s going to tell us not to?
-Excerpt from Liberation
CTheory: One of the major themes in your writing is the importance of — and inescapability from — history, both as a sort of force (Liberation‘s ‘vibe of history’ is an active player in events, coaxing and demanding different actors take action in specific ways) as well as simply in the form of the individual history of places and people. Your portrayals of New York in Spaceman Blues is really a patchwork of the histories of different communities, made concrete in the architecture of the city. In Liberation the rise of the ‘New Sioux’, a movement of indigenous peoples to reclaim stolen land plays as a kind of return of America’s repressed. First of all, what role do you think these meditations on history play in your work?
BFS: The understanding of history as a vital force shaping the present, at both individual and social levels, is clearly a bit of an obsession for me, and it was at first something I was pretty much unaware of until other people who read Spaceman Blues pointed it out. I don’t think, however, that history is so much impossible to escape from as it is impossible not to reckon with at some point; that said, I also think that it can be reckoned with, contended with, answered to. There’s always hope.
I suppose, though, that in Liberation, I kept coming back to the theme of history as an active force because I was writing about what could be considered a major turning point in history, particularly a turning point in an economic regime, in which the people living through it were very much aware that they were reckoning with what had come before; to understand what was happening and what to do about it, they had to have some sense of how they got there. To get a bead on that idea, I looked to accounts of real-life examples — times when people knew that times were changing — and saw that many people really did understand that what they were going through was, on some level, historic; that is, answering to history. You saw this sort of thing all across Central and Eastern Europe with the collapse of communism, and now, political and economic events there are often judged by how much better, worse, or the same they are compared to the communist era. You also see the way a handful of leaders — Vaclav Havel, or Viktor Yushchenko — have become in some sense symbols of change, and unfairly or not, much of what they’ve done is measured against the symbolic ideal. I was really interested in that, too — how a human being becomes a symbol, and how the person copes with that, intentionally creates it, or uses it once they’re aware that it has happened. It’s interesting stuff, and for me, it’s very much grounded in recent world history, even though so much of Liberation is, well, kind of freaky.
CTheory: Following along from your suggestion earlier that you write a form of science fiction in which the science at play is economics, it’s clear that one of the major themes in your stories is the impact of globalization, specifically focusing on the rise of transnational mobility. Even as the stories are mainly set in America, the characters are always bound up in a network of global flows. In addition to the recurrent accounting of the immigrant experience (almost all of the characters in Spaceman Blues have unique experiences of migrancy), your main characters are frequently involved in the acceleration of these flows, working as smugglers, people movers, information brokers. What is it that brought you to this as a major theme? What is important about telling these stories?
BFS: Some of what got me there was the desire to get beyond the popular idea of immigrants and poor people as either heroes who overcome astounding odds or victims of the forces that shape their lives. I suppose the root of that desire lay with my own extended family, who to this day identify as much with their countries of origin — Ireland, Italy, and Ukraine — as they do with the United States. But especially when I was writing both books, I could see all around me — from living in New York, to going to Guatemala and Zambia, to moving to New Haven, Connecticut — that neither the hero nor the victim narratives were giving migrants enough credit. Migrants, at least the people that I’ve met and had a chance to talk to, were reacting to the challenges they faced with astonishing fluidity, subtlety, and cleverness. In Guatemala, I met dozens of people who routinely migrated between the United States and Guatemala (almost always illegally) to do seasonal work. Their ambitions — which complicate the immigration narrative in the popular American imagination — were not to leave Guatemala and start a new life in the United States, but to improve life for themselves and their families in Guatemala, and the reason the constant migration worked wasn’t the level of the wages of the jobs in the United States, but the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Guatemalan quetzal, which at the time stood at roughly 1 to 7. Involving the exchange rate in a long-term personal economic strategy is not the sort of thing that Americans are accustomed to thinking about — it is in some ways rather sophisticated stuff — but it was a regular part of the Guatemalan’s day-to-day lives. And then there was the informal currency market that I used in Zambia to exchange my U.S. dollars and South African rand for the Zambian currency, the kwacha.
The currency traders, operating out of corrugated metal shacks, did rapid, intense business in four different currencies: the U.S. dollar, the rand, what was then the Zimbabwean dollar, and the kwacha — and I was astounded at how much figured into their evaluations of how much each currency was worth against the other. They knew what the official exchange rates were, but also a good deal about the political and economic situations of the countries involved, and their expectations for the future affected how much of a certain currency they were willing to take on (one could say put in reserve). I got a better rate for my U.S. dollars than I would have at the bank, but a worse rate for my rand, and this was because of the currency traders’ evaluation of U.S. and South African politics and economics compared to those of Zambia. It was the same kind of thinking you tend to see in the pages of The Economist.
But the attention to criminal activity in particular, crazily enough, began from a combination of people I met in New York and elsewhere and that famous article by Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” which got me onto a string of reading books and articles about the connections, both conceptually and practically, between government, business, and organized crime, and between the formal and informal economies generally. The most compelling stuff I’ve read is the stuff that understands the formal and informal economies — or, put more sharply, legal and illegal activities — as parts of a larger system, and I suppose I like writing about people who live in the gray areas between legal and illegal work because it’s my sense that they have the clearest view of how the system works, and how they can survive, and perhaps prosper, within it.
CTheory: So then what do you see as the future of this globalizing world? How are people adapting to it? What sorts of new identities and ways of living do you see it giving rise to? How is it experienced differentially by different actors?
BFS: I don’t have a vision of the future that I carry around in my head so much as a sense, when I go to certain places, that what I am seeing is the future; that is, that there are certain places in the world that it’s easy to imagine more places looking like forty, fifty years from now. Miami, for example, feels a bit like the future to me in a lot of different ways, from its aggressive multilingualism and serious mixing of cultures to its position as a banking capital for a different continent (I’ve heard Miami referred to as “the capital of Latin America” in that regard) to its crazy real estate market to its potentially precarious situation regarding the effects of climate change. Guatemala City felt that way also — it was easy to imagine more places becoming like it. There’s a whiff of the future to me in New Haven, CT, which I live just outside of. Other places I haven’t been to (yet!) but have read about also seem like the future: Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example, or Lagos, Nigeria, but also Youngstown, Ohio, which has made headlines recently for its brave public policy solutions to the death of its manufacturing base. Perhaps a better way to put it is that those places aren’t so much like the future as they are making the future.
Regarding the idea of new identities and ways of living that the future might hold — that’s a tough one. Any guess that I would have about the future is overwhelmed by my sense that the world is becoming a more chaotic and unpredictable place, or perhaps it has always been so and now it’s just that people — and leaders — are more willing to acknowledge it. In the 20th century, in the public policy realm, one saw a lot of sweeping visions for creating societies, for good and horrific ill, from Stalin’s five-year plans to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (not that I’m even remotely comparing Johnson to Stalin). One doesn’t see that kind of thinking now, and ultimately, that seems to be due to an increasing awareness that, as Marvin Gaye says at the end of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” God knows where we’re headed. It seems to me that there’s turmoil ahead, and as for how people are going to react to it (getting back to the previous question): another reason I’m so interested in migrants, transnational criminals, informal currency brokers, and other people living on the desperate margins of our economic system — which is to say, most of the people in the developing world and many people in the developed world as well — is because I think they see what’s coming more clearly than many of us in rich countries do. They are already reacting in ways that more of us may have to, in a few years, a few decades, if (it’s tempting to say “when,” but that would be presumptuous) the kind of chaos that’s already a part of their daily lives is part of ours, too.
In Washington, in front of thousands of cameras, the chairman of the Federal Reserve tilted his head toward the ceiling, let the lenses of his glasses catch fire in the spotlights, and explained the situation in a way that only economists could understand. Then he controlled himself and said, “For the foreseeable future the dollar is no more, but we are all still here and must do what we can in the chaotic times that are sure to come.” He apologized, resigned, apologized again to the United States of America and to the world. As a man who treasured precision in a way that maddened all who knew him, this was how the chairman split the difference between what he thought people wanted to hear and what he was thinking. Were he speaking to his own people, an audience of rationalists gleaming with a lack of emotion, he would have said that this is a bad day for humans, but that history has seen many currencies come and go. We are not the first or the last. Everyone should relish the interesting times we live in, the changing of an epoch, the chance to start over. In the mountains, mere hours from where we stand, bears kill for food under trees pointing at the sky; off the coast of Chile, whales swim through cool water; on the ocean floor, tectonic plates shift apart and the seam bleeds magma that boils seawater and scabs into stone. These things the death of the dollar can never touch.
-Excerpt from Liberation
CTheory: It’s somewhat ironic that you describe your vision of the future as chaotic and uncertain, given how eerily presciently Liberation turned out to be, with its description of a post-economic meltdown American dystopia coming out at the exact time that the American economy was in the process of an apocalyptic meltdown.
BFS: Yes. The timing of that was extremely eerie, and at the time, it really creeped me out. Still does.
CTheory: Not to ask you to play futurologist, but do you think that this image might contain more than a little truth in it? Though things have rebounded a little since then, do you think that this is the beginning of the end? Is America over? If not, what is America’s future, either as a global superpower, or simply as a functioning state?
BFS: Well, the seed for Liberation was planted in my head very much as a result of my day job: There was about a six-month period around 2004 or so during which I read sober policy paper after sober policy paper that ran some fairly standard projections of various economic indicators, from GDP growth to government budget concerns, and concluded that the U.S. economy simply could not sustain its then-current path. Some form of downturn, to these various authors, was inevitable, and the only real questions were how fast it would happen, how far we would fall, and how painful it would be. These writers weren’t running around with their hair on fire about it or anything, either. Really, the fact that they reported their conclusions so clinically, so dispassionately, made it all the more chilling. So, yes, the image might certainly contain some truth to it, but I haven’t reached that conclusion due to any original thinking on my part. It’s because I’ve read a fair amount of stuff written by people who know a lot more about the economy than I do, and many of them have said so.
Now, clearly in Liberation I pretty much turned the knob for economic downturn up to 11, but that isn’t because I actually think things are going to go that badly (nor, as I hope is obvious, because I want them to). There were a lot of reasons I wanted to do that, but most appropriate to this question is that I wanted to attack the concept of American exceptionalism, the idea that, in essence, the United States can get away with things that other countries can’t because we’re the United States. In economic terms, that meant running up deficits and debts that other countries (e.g., Argentina) would not be able to sustain. Unlike Dick Cheney, I don’t believe, at all, that there’s no limit to the deficits the United States can incur (it is heartening that our current administration thinks the same thing). I don’t think we’re too big to fail. I don’t believe that, if we were to stumble economically speaking, that the rest of the world would necessarily rush in to save us; I don’t think that the rest of the world relies on us as much as the popular U.S. consensus on this point seems to think it does. With the caveat firmly in place that there’s no predicting the future, I’m persuaded by those projections that see the United States’ status as economic superpower diminishing over the coming century as other countries’ stars rise. It seems that some serious fundamental change in the current situation would have to happen to avert that, though given that one such change has already happened in my short lifetime — the end of the Cold War — you obviously can’t rule it out.
What’s interesting to me is that, while the projections of U.S. decline appear to me to be fairly standard in the economic literature and even in non-U.S. news outlets like The Economist, it’s not something you hear in the popular U.S. media at all, or at least not seriously. It really goes against the grain of popular American thought to speculate that our best days, economically speaking, are behind us. People who say such things are labeled as doomsayers or defeatists, and I think that’s a shame. So I wanted to do what I could to plant that idea in people’s heads, through an avenue they might not expect. I’m getting ahead of myself here, but I think some contemplation of the idea is really useful, and offers as many reasons for hope as for despair.
Globalization, Cosmopolitanism, Morality
…The smoke smells of apple and warmth, it drifts into him, loosens his legs, his shoulders, and he and Daoud talk of neighborhood politics, how the Greeks are ceding land to the Arabs, how the Central Americans are making things interesting, fleeing wars and governments full of thieves, coming here to open restaurants and sell real estate. The neighborhood gets better all the time, Daoud says. It is evolution. There is talk of Daoud’s family, of his upbringing in Egypt, the sun-blasted shores of the wide Nile and the moneychangers in Cairo. Sometimes they say nothing; they just sit there smiling and smoking and eating vegetables…
-Excerpt from Spaceman Blues: A Love Song
CTheory: The focus on globalization gives a deeply multicultural bent to your narratives. Characters and locations embody hybrid lives and identities. The question, which I always find myself asking whenever we try to capture this hybrid, multicultural character of contemporary life is: how do we do this without lapsing into the touristic acquisition of different cultures; a kind of ‘starbucks’ cosmopolitanism which for exoticism as another commodity to be traded. How do we engage artistically with different cultures (and with the always already present mixing of cultures) while ensuring that we do justice to their robustness and history (once again, always the question of history)?
BFS: Well, first of all, I don’t know how good I am at avoiding entirely the trap you describe, though I certainly try. Again, though, at least when I’m writing, it’s the same simple trick: focus on the individual characters — unique people — and try to let them be as complex as the people I actually know, people I’ve met. I think people always feel like they have more than one identity, both in the way they think of themselves and the way that society views them (I’m sure, somewhere along the line, my opinions of this were shaped by reading a bunch of anthropology), and there are aspects of those multiple identities that they embrace and other aspects that they resent — and part of their lives is figuring out how to juggle them.
Ultimately, I’m less interested in trying to develop a grand statement about multiculturalism than I am in just trying to show how real people are working it out in practice. There’s a flea market in New Haven every weekend near where I live. I go there now and again to buy clothes and CDs, but I end up hanging out there just because it’s so great. There are people from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the West Indies there. Everyone’s there to buy and sell things, from kitchenware to winter coats to sheets to stereo equipment, and there is nothing cooler than seeing everyone just go about their business, seeing how they do it, haggling in multiple languages, joking around. It’s people keeping who they are, yet finding common ground at the same time to get something done. And while you can point to all kinds of examples of people from different cultures in conflict with one another, it seems to me that the norm is the opposite — people just figuring out how to live with each other, and the ways that they really do that are much more interesting and illuminating to me than the theories about why they do it.
CTheory: Finally, your work is clearly concerned with the potential violences and inequalities of this system of globalization and transnational migration. What do you think is necessary, both in terms of modes of analysis as well as policy prescriptions, to deal with this new globalization in ways which might limit its violence and exploitation? What sort of role does fiction (specifically science fiction) potentially play in describing this process, and providing us with new ways of thinking about it, and new forms of practice within it?
BFS: The link between science fiction and public policy is more well-established than it first appears. There’s that now-famous quote from Paul Krugman that (I’m paraphrasing) he became an economist because it was as close as he could get to Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory, and that anecdote gets at a deeper connection, that science fiction and public policy share a fascination with understanding and describing how social systems work or don’t work. As someone who’s attached, however tangentially, to the world of public policy, I’m pretty compelled by the typical arguments that economists would make — at least, the arguments for which there seems to be good evidence — that, say, making tougher immigration laws doesn’t dissuade people from trying to immigrate; it just makes the illegal immigrant smuggling more expensive, dangerous, and violent. I also think there’s a kernel of truth buried in the idea that what made our recent round of liberalization so exploitative in places was that the liberalization wasn’t evenly distributed; that is, capital was liberalized, but labor was not, so that people with money to play with could make a killing, while people who didn’t have money were stuck where they were. That gets to what is to me an extremely convincing argument that Krugman made a few years ago that the economic system we more or less still live under had the effect of making the rich ever richer while shutting out the poor. The Economist was fond of running a series of counter-articles showing that, generally, levels of income had risen all over the world — that the poor had become less poor over the same time — but even they would admit that, at the same time, levels of inequality had risen. And as a professor of mine in grad school said, it’s inequality, not poverty, that “makes young people throw bricks and set buses on fire.” It’s that passion — and, to go back to something we said earlier, that sense of chaos, of people in trouble, trying to find a way out — that fiction can capture and depict, and use to draw readers into thinking about public policy in ways that might not have before.
It really hit me in graduate school, and still hits me now, how removed the public policy conversation is from the public eye. It’s very important, and at the same time, it’s very technical and very dry, and the news often has a hard time conveying both the importance and the nuances of the conversation to the general public, even when it’s honestly trying to do so. So one thing that I try to do, and that I know other writers try to do, is to dramatize and humanize that conversation — to give it flesh and blood, and if necessary, blood and guts — to make it engaging and to try to show the problem without offering an easy answer (I have no answers). In doing so, though, we’re effectively just following the instructions of Richard Rorty, whose essay, “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” came along at just the right time for me, sharpening my desire to write fiction about the world into a real need to use fiction to write about social problems. He argues — again, I’m ridiculously oversimplifying — that human rights activists had in some ways taken their work as far as it could go by using the legal, rational tools they’d been using for decades. To expand human rights further, it was now necessary to appeal to people’s emotions — to get them to care by putting them in the positions of people they weren’t accustomed to thinking about. If it’s okay to do so, I’d like to quote the last passage at length. Rorty writes:
If one follows Baier’s advice one will not see it as the moral educator’s task to answer the rational egotist’s question ‘Why should I be moral?’ but rather to answer the much more frequently posed question ‘Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?’ The traditional answer to the latter question is ‘Because kinship and custom are morally irrelevant, irrelevant to the obligations imposed by the recognition of membership in the same species.’ This has never been very convincing, since it begs the question at issue: whether mere species membership is, in fact, a sufficient surrogate for closer kinship. Furthermore, that answer leaves one wide open to Nietzsche’s discomfiting rejoinder: That universalistic notion, Nietzsche will sneer, would only have crossed the mind of a slave — or, perhaps, the mind of an intellectual, a priest whose self-esteem and livelihood both depend on getting the rest of us to accept a sacred, unarguable, unchallengeable paradox.
A better sort of answer is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins ‘Because this is what it is like to be in her situation — to be far from home, among strangers,’ or ‘Because she might become your daughter-in-law,’ or ‘Because her mother would grieve for her.’ Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe, powerful, people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people — people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.
To people who, like Plato and Kant, believe in a philosophically ascertainable truth about what it is to be a human being, the good work remains incomplete as long as we have not answered the question ‘Yes, but am I under a moral obligation to her?’ To people like Hume and Baier, it is a mark of intellectual immaturity to raise that question. But we shall go on asking that question as long as we agree with Plato that it is our ability to know that makes us human.
Plato wrote quite a long time ago, in a time when we intellectuals had to pretend to be successors to the priests, had to pretend to know something rather esoteric. Hume did his best to josh us out of that pretense. Baier, who seems to me both the most original and the most useful of contemporary moral philosophers, is still trying to josh us out of it. I think Baier may eventually succeed, for she has the history of the last two hundred years of moral progress on her side. These two centuries are most easily understood not as a period of deepening understanding of the nature of rationality or of morality, but rather as one in which there occurred an astonishingly rapid progress of sentiments, in which it has become much easier for us to be moved to action by sad and sentimental stories.
This progress has brought us to a moment in human history in which it is plausible for Rabossi to say that the human rights phenomenon is a “fact of the world”. This phenomenon may be just a blip. But it may mark the beginning of a time in which gang rape [Rorty was writing specifically here about the war in Bosnia] brings forth as strong a response when it happens to women as when it happens to men, or when it happens to foreigners as when it happens to people like us.
When I read this, it felt like a mandate. I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded, at all; I’m one of those people who, when he looks at his own writing, sees nothing but the failures and the flaws. But I’m trying.
Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” in Bringing the State Back In eds., Peter Evans , Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Richard Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality” in Belgrade Circle, ed., The Politics of Human Rights (New York: Verso, 1999) 67-83.