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Entering the Scary "Lacuna" of American Politics

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By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

I finally finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's latest brilliant novel, "The Lacuna," and it's the kind of book that engenders discussion on a wide variety of important topics.

For those who haven't read it yet, the sweep of the book -- which, clearly was composed during the CheneyBush years, for good reason -- is epic in scale. Dealing with several decades of Mexican and American history, from 1929 to the early 1950s, it touches on the end of empires, the pandering mass-media, the use of fear by demagogues to herd the sheople, the pain and isolation of gays pre-Stonewall, and much more. (The title refers to the hidden entryways that can lead one to different levels of understanding.)

As Kingsolver has demonstrated in many of her earlier novels and essays ( "The Poisonwood Bible," "Animal Dreams," "Bean Trees," "High Tide in Tucson"), she is a committed author with a vibrant social conscience. But she's also a beautiful writer qua writer, one who can grab you by your emotional lapels and pull you into her created world and characters.


Her fictional lead character, Harrison Shepherd, is a captivating creation. We meet him as a strange, introverted young boy, and follow his convoluted path through his rich teenage years in Mexico, where he winds up working for and living with the painters Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo and the revolutionary socialist leader Leon Trotsky. (Shepherd's story is fictional, but these historical figures and their adventures in Mexico are accurate.) Following World War II, Shepherd evolves into a successful writer of romantic histories derived from Mexican sagas about Cortes and Montezuma, for example, and then becomes a victim of the budding McCarthyite "Red Scare" of the late-1940s into the '50s.

The falling empires in the book include the Mayan and Aztec, the Spanish, the British, the Soviet, and, by clear implication, the American. The historical bell tolls for all nations and religions with ambitions of empire, most of which are laid low by their own internal contradictions, the humongous costs, and the corruptions and moral decay as they seek to conquer and, through brutal repression and wars, dominate more and more territory and peoples.

In "The Lacuna," the hyped-up fear of Stalin's "godless communism" conquering nation after nation (in the years right after the U.S. had led the fight against rampaging Naziism) created a paranoia and a national hysteria against anything foreign and liberal and questioning. This response was like a voluntary de-braining, accepting the most simplistic rubbish as fact without even checking to find out the truth of the matter. (Sound familiar?)

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I grew up in the late-1940s and 1950s in the deep South, in Florida, the second state to secede from the Union. I can verify that what Sheperd went through in the book is what I, as a teenager, observed as key elements of the zeitgeist of the time:

* To listen to or play any kind of foreign music -- what we today would subsume under the category of "world music"-- was seen as evidence of one's "communist" sympathies, and there would be social, political and sometimes physical penalties to pay.

* To even favorably mention the concept of condominiums was to be flagged as a "socialist" or "communist." Same risk of penalties.

* Playing "folk music" was to risk negative consequences, for harboring "communist" views. (The great Pete Seeger came to play a concert in Miami when I was about 12 or so; the outcry from the rightwing was so intense, and the threats of violence so real, that the owners of the large hall in which he was to appear canceled the show. Seeger performed for far fewer at the local Unitarian fellowship.)

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* At least in the South, and elsewhere as well, expressing sympathy for downtrodden, persecuted African-Americans was taken as clear evidence of "communist" tendencies. In the early 1960s, for example, even in relatively "liberal" Miami, I received serious death threats as a college editor when advocating desegregation of the university and equality of treatment regardless of ethnicity.

* The level of ignorance in great swaths of the population was so deep that a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Florida (who emerged victorious) could rile up voters by telling them, in leering tones, that his opponent's sister "was a well-known <i>thespian</i> in New York City" and that his opponent was "known to have <i>matriculated</i> in college." The mostly small-town audiences would eat up this kind of demagogic innuendo and misdirection.


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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)

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