Here in Massachusetts, yesterday the number of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases grew 30 percent overnight and will probably top 400 today. Most non-critical facilities are now locked down. And so, with a lot of new-found time on their hands more people than ever in my suburban neighborhood are out and about, enjoying the spring weather — biking or walking alone, as couples, with dogs or kids, and actually stopping to talk. Amid all this tsuris, it’s exhilarating to see such stirrings of a community makeover.
The good news doesn’t stop there, so let’s get on with my facile attempt to divert you from your apocalyptic musings. Instead of enduring a pitch for my work this punishing month, find here a public service announcement of sorts.
Liar’s Candle, a novel by August Thomas, New York: Scribner, 2018, 310 p. IBSN 9781501172847
When I learned of this book late last year, it struck a chord. It was the first recent political thriller I had encountered set in Turkey, as is part of one I published about six months later. And so, to compare notes, I gave it a read and found that our books are different animals with kindred spirits. Here is my book report.
The title of August Thomas’s debut international thriller comes from a Turkish proverb, “A liar’s candle burns only until dark,” an appropriate motto for the full helping of duplicity that Thomas serves up. This fast-moving tale whips the reader between locales in Turkey and the US, plus a brief, tense incursion into northern Syria. Changes of scene are datelined, dispatch-style, helping to keep one oriented as the action shifts from one exotic setting to another, for example the presidential palace in Ankara, a hotel in Istanbul, a city in far-eastern Turkey, a monastery in Syria, and even into ancient cave dwellings. Thomas also regularly transports us across the Atlantic to an even more inaccessible location, CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There we find hard-boiled uber-spy Christina Ekdahl remotely rattling the cages of agents and diplomats working in Turkey in the service of American national security and her own self-serving designs.
Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound), ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95. Also available in eBook and audiobook formats.
The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the mid-20th century, computers were (mostly) women who worked calculators and slide rules, tasked with tabulating data and solving numerical problems. Nowadays, says Douglas Rushkoff, computers run us as extensions of applications that abuse us for fun and profit. Rushkoff has had it with the soul-sucking “innovation economy”; to retrieve the human agency and dignity that technocracy has usurped, he proposes not a revolution but a renaissance of pre-industrial, even pre-enlightenment, societal values. Rushkoff emerged as an early member of the digerati, but has since been a longstanding critic of those who control digital media and manipulate its users, not to mention capitalism itself. Now a professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and podcast host, he’s quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society” by organizing the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains by imagining and building human-scale alternatives to giant financial institutions, public corporations, and their enablers. Given how overarching and well-wired global capitalism is, that’s a tall order, but Rushkoff asserts that the battle can be won if we stick together.
After suffering a cheeseburger infarction, Donald Trump finds himself queuing toward eternity. He shuffles up to the Pearly Gates in a foul mood for not being accorded élite status. Not relishing taking a deposition from the addled gentleman, St Peter sloughs him off to Paul, his Deputy Secretary for Lost Souls, who asks Donald to name three things that qualify him to enter the realm of eternal peace, harmony, and brotherly love.
You know those little green-and-white USDA Organic labels you find on organic produce? What if someone told you that their adhesive transmits a powerful drug into the edible that over time can render humans sterile? It’s true, they say; they’ve seen the lab reports, and go on to assert that this is a plot by USDA and agribusiness interests to decimate nutritionally savvy people as a way boost sales of poison-laden GM food products.
Insidious beyond belief, you think. You’re pretty sure it’s a crock, but your doubt gene says “What if…?” and you decide to check it out. You email people to ask if they’ve heard it and some of them do the same. Someone finds a truther blog with a long discussion thread about it and lets you know. Alleging scientific credentials, certain discussants proceed to hypothesize about the chemistry and physiology of the attack vector and argue about that. Others point to connections between certain USDA political appointees and Big Food. The rumor has become a thing, and even if you post refutations that get shot down, you’re now part of it.
For a big, strapping nation like the United States of America to be obsessively fixated on foreign-born evildoers is really quite strange, especially given that it has so many of its own. Other than 9/11, all terror attacks in the US since 2000 that weren’t thwarted or aborted involved firearms. Even if you include mass shootings that didn’t receive the Government’s Terrorism imprimatur, how many mass killings can you cite that were committed by undocumented aliens or foreign infiltrators?
Not that there aren’t foreigners who have bones to pick with America. According to Statista, nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives due to the US invasion, the ensuing resistance, and subsequent conflicts with ISIS invaders. From the start of the Iraq War in 2003 under GW Bush to his exit from office in 2009, 105,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, peaking at nearly 30,000 in 2006. During Obama’s first term, civilian deaths totaled 93,300, hovering at less than 5000 per year.
When ISIS stormed into Iraq in 2012, deaths escalated; 20,000 in 2014, remaining above 13,000 until steeply declining to 2500 in 2017. US Military deaths for those 15 years totaled 4541, peaking at 904 in 2007. Overall, 44 Iraqi noncombatants fell for every American soldier who died there. This is the so-called Price of Liberty, paid by innocent Iraqis, traumatized veterans, bereaved military families, and American taxpayers, at the further cost of eternal vigilance over everyone by our intelligence agencies.