Friday, November 11, 2016

How the Light Gets in

It's Remembrance Day in Canada, the wind is howling through my windows and I am trying very hard not to cry. I wish I could tell you that the tears I am fighting are born of patriotic pride and memories of sacrifice because that's what today is supposed to be about, right? I wish I could tell you that I spent hours constructing some kind of meaningful Facebook post about not taking freedom for granted because it isn't free and the blood that paid for it and all that loss and I'm sorry I can't.

A man who is the physical embodiment of everything I loathe in human nature has just been elected President of the United States and a man who represented everything I cherish most -quiet thoughtfulness, passion and sensitivity- has just passed away. I can't help but feel that we are on the cusp of entering a new Dark Age. An age of anti-intellectualism. An age of ugliness. Leonard Cohen fought on the front lines of that war. He fought for me. Today I choose to remember him.

Leonard Cohen was a poet. He was a lover. He was a slave to song and vice.  He wrote aching, messy and simple explorations of truth. That's what drives poets, you see, this search for capital "T" Truth. It is an acknowledgement that the human condition is far more complex and deep than the great avatars of capitalism would have us believe. We are not plunderers. We are explorers. Our own hearts are the edges of a map labelled with "here there be monsters".

Donald Trump is a lie. He is the antithesis of poetry. He is a game show host who's greatest accomplishment was telling the contestants, with a self-satisfied grin, that the game is rigged. He perpetrated one of the most diabolical acts of hypocrisy in modern history by convincing people that a man who has never done one minute of public service,  never given a single dollar to a real charity, has never been poor, hungry or tired from hourly wage-work is a champion for the dispossessed. Convinced people that a man who looks down from a golden penthouse in New York City cares about the plight of the man who opens the door for him. Convinced people that he is going to change a system that he, himself, has profited so monumentally from. His ascendancy is the sad, unintentional consequence of racism, inequality and fear. He is what happens when we reject love. He is what happens when the terrorists win.

It is windy and cold here on the last day of the week.  The sun is trying in vain to break through. Could there be a day more pregnant with pathetic fallacy than this one? All of the haunting bagpipes and solemn expressions of people standing rigid and chilled at cenotaphs. Holding their children, trying to stay warm and dry and suitably deferential. Is it just the past that passes before their eyes? Is there any acknowledgement that we may have just collectively taken a few steps down the same road that led to those cold statues and walls filled with the names of dead young people?

The word "Change" has been spoken so often lately it has lost all meaning. It has been spat onto dirty rustbelt carpets by people who still love the idea of a country that is as much of a fairytale as the reality television they drink themselves to sleep in front of every night. It has been promised by the lords on high, fat and bellied up to a table heavy and plentiful with the fruits of someone else's labour. It will all trickle down, they say, like the grease running down their chin, lapped up by the starving dogs waiting at their feet.

Poets change things. Art and beauty change us. Leonard Cohen spoke of the crack in everything. It's how the light gets in. I need a little light right now, Mr. Cohen. Because I sense a change coming.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Futility of Fighting for Freedom

I was only three months old the day Saigon fell to the People's Army of Vietnam. Much too young to comprehend the images on television of helicopters landing on the rooftop of the U.S. embassy carrying the champions of democracy and heroes of capitalism safely away from the evil communist victors. My newly minted brain couldn't handle context and complexity so I did what most people of my generation did; concocted a one-dimensional dark fairy tale version of this war. It wasn't hard, the Hollywood propaganda machine was more than happy to supply me with the American narrative. It went something like this:

Helicopters and damaged men. The rattle of M-60's and the creeping terror of an unseen enemy. The Viet Cong were demons spawned in the darkest jungles of Indochina where they perfected the arts of torture and interrogation. What chance did Willem Dafoe have, really?

It turns out he had a much greater chance of survival than the average Vietnamese civilian. Over 600,000 non-combatants lost their lives -many in extremely brutal fashion- as the war surged through Laos and Cambodia. Ten years before American audiences watched the death of Sgt. Elias, gnashing their collective teeth in impotent rage, Vietnamese refugees poured into the United States. For these "boat people" the war never really ended. Forcibly evicted from their own country they landed on the shores of the nation that promised to protect them only to be enslaved by a Capitalist system with baked-in inequality and prejudice.

The nameless narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel is our tour guide through these turbulent times. A tour guide with a very unique perspective. He is a communist sleeper agent, educated in America and embedded as a close advisor to a South Vietnamese General. He is a self described "man of two minds", with the gift and curse of seeing events from multiple perspectives. It is through his eyes that we see the true tragedy of this war and the hypocrisy of it's architects. The North Vietnamese saw themselves as freedom fighters liberating the downtrodden from the oppression of Capitalism and foreign corruption. That didn't stop them from throwing thousands of people into reeducation camps after the war and implementing destructive policies of mandatory agrarian labour. The allies charged with beating back this communist aggression weren't much better. They routinely used CIA sponsored torture techniques to route out communist agents and when they realized they couldn't compete with the Army of North Vietnam in the arena of jungle warfare they decided to kill the jungle. The chemical defoliant they used poisoned the landscape for generations.

The Sympathizer injects something badly needed into the Vietnam narrative: Sympathy. With a deft hand Nguyen guides the reader down the rain sodden roads of history and makes us feel something for everyone involved. It all culminates with a baptism through pain which reveals a universal truth to both the narrator and the reader: The concept of freedom is fluid, and fighting for it is ultimately futile.