This morning I finished Moshsin Hamid’s Exit West, which was a lush and delightful novel – a story about migration and love and coupling suffused with a sensibility of magical realism and keen observations of human nature. Just a delight.
And a valuable counterpoint to the news of the day, which is just increasingly discouraging. The usual array of right wing commentators is taking aim at the Parkland kids, because apparently, it’s no longer beyond the pale to attack teenagers who survived a brutal mass shooting at their school and say their friends torn apart by semi-automatic weapons. Laura Ingraham is making fun of them (and being rightfully chased from public view, at least for a little while); Ted Nugent says they have “no souls” and will not pay any price, because those who actually listen to him are beyond help; Rick Santorum complains that they should do something useful like learn CPR (?) instead of having the nerve to suggest that perhaps the United States should consider reasonable restrictions on high powered weapons that make this kind of thing so much more rare in other modern nations; and it goes on, and on, and on. I suppose I should be glad that these kids are actually forcing everyone to keep talking about the American willingness to see its children murdered because a gun manufacturer’s trade organization has bought so many politicians, but it’s hard not to focus on what’s still the same every time we see a bunch of citizens mass murdered and collectively conclude, “Well, that’s gonna happen sometimes.”
But it’s part of a larger disturbing feature of American life these days; apparently, compassion and empathy are off the table. The same voices that are yelling at children for complaining that their friends are getting shot down in random acts of mass violence are also complaining that poor people deserve their lot, that immigrants fleeing war torn lands should get lost and solve their own problems, that border crossers should be left to die in a desert, and so on, and so on.
What happened to us? Okay, maybe nothing happened to us and we were always a bit like this (our history gives plenty of examples) and we’re just being louder about it these days. But I can’t remember this much ugliness in our public life in the past. It’s like some beast that was lurking under the surface now feels emboldened. We have actual, literal Nazis parading in the streets (and across our social media channels), we have people comfortable with the shocking frequency of police shooting black men in the back, and I just don’t remember it being quite this bad before.
And no, it’s not entirely American; we’re seeing the same thing in Britain and France and other European countries. I feel like some mass psychosis is loose in the world.
Is it too hard, too frightening, for us to allow ourselves to feel compassion for the suffering, to empathize with the people whose lives are far more fragile and violent than those of us who won the birth lottery and live in modern, wealthy nations? I think it is frightening. I think that kind of empathy forces us to think about our lives, think about how much we have, and how that affects other parts of the world, think about whether than gives us a certain responsibility to our brothers and sisters around the planet, and that is an uncomfortable thought.
Which, interestingly, was one of the themes in Exit West. Hamid posits a completely fantastical development which enables migration all over the world, and as a result, the entire world must adapt to the migrants appearing everywhere. It’s ultimately a very optimistic book; the world does adapt to it. It’s also not a pure fantasy; the adaptation includes fantastically cruel acts, death, disappointment, and hurt. But the adaptation does happen.
Because ultimately, that’s what we do – we adjust and adapt as our circumstances change. The real question is how much of our humanity we will shed during the tough parts.