Category Archives: Miscellaneous Musings

A Reader’s Dilemma: On Books and Racism

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Image from Wikipedia

What does one do when one is reading a book that is entertaining but turns out to be blatantly racist? Does one stop and refuse to read it? Does one relegate it to the status of those books which, as Dorothy Parker famously said, deserve not to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force? I pose this question as an ethical problem, not merely as a matter of taste.

 

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Wikipedia image

The book in question is Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan, a man more famous as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was made into a movie by the young Alfred Hitchcock some twenty years after its publication. John Buchan was a career diplomat who served in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War and as an intelligence officer in WW I. He is perhaps most famous, however, for becoming the Governor General of Canada in 1935, and by most accounts, he did a good job, as evidenced by his declaration, as Doug Saunders reports in this article, that Canada’s strength as a nation depends on its cultural diversity.

 

As one of his first public acts, Buchan created the Governor General’s Literary Awards, among whose later recipients number Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munroe, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, and Rohinton Mistry. By most accounts, then, Buchan was a fairly good guy, a champion for diversity and the arts, and a pretty good story-teller. So what am I to feel and to think when the first-person narrator of Mr. Standfast expresses open derision and contempt for conscientious objectors? Or when I read passages in which he makes fun of certain characters’ profound desire for peace, for an end to the debilitating war that has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives, hopes, and aspirations, an end to a war that has robbed not one but several generations of their hopes and dreams? What am I to feel when I see another passage which documents a disgusting contempt for the budding African movement towards self-determination, lines so replete with a complacent sense of superiority that I hesitate even to bring myself to quote them here? Such lines are particularly offensive to me because I have been reading Njabulo Ndebele’s excellent book, Fools and Other Stories, which offers a compelling view of life in Soweto, South Africa. So it infuriates me when Hannay, the narrator of Buchan’s novel, reports on “a great buck nigger who had a lot to say about ‘Africa for the Africans.’ I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.” It is significant, I’d argue, that the narrator offers neither the Sesutu words themselves, nor a translation, nor even a summary of them, an omission that renders his boastful declaration of a logical victory over the African speaker both empty and bombastic.

And yet I don’t think the answer to my anger and dismay about this is to throw Mr. Standfast across the room. Or perhaps it is to do just that, but then to go and pick it up again, after my temper has cooled, and go on reading it. Certainly my enjoyment of the novel will be less than if I had not encountered such ugly things in the narrative. After all, I would like Stevie Smith’s poems much better if I hadn’t come across baldly antisemitic sloganism in her Novel on Yellow Paper. (As it is, I like Smith well enough to have named one of my cats after her.) Rather, I think the lesson to be learned here is that racism comes in many forms; that, in all probability, it resides in every single human being. Furthermore, we must remember that we cannot eradicate racism by simply looking the other way, by trying to ignore its presence–either in our heroes or in ourselves.

Only by confronting racism dead on, by calling it by its true name without trying to excuse it, can we quash it when it rises up, as it will continue to do for the next few generations at least. At the same time, we cannot afford to dissimulate, as the Introduction to my edition of Mr. Standfast (Wordsworth Classics, 1994) does when it attempts to excuse Buchan: “Some of the language and many of the attitudes find little favour today,” the anonymous editor explains, “and have prompted some commentators to label Buchan with a number of those epithets that are fashionable among the historically illiterate. It should be remembered that Buchan was a high Tory politician, and also that the views he expresses are relatively liberal for his time.” No–this isn’t good enough. Let us admit once and for all that in this book at least, Buchan wrote as if he was a deplorable racist.

But let us also admit that the novel in question is a mere snapshot of him taken in 1919, and that it is unfair to judge the entirety of his life by this snapshot. It’s possible that he changed by the 1930s; but even if he didn’t, we can learn from his example. We can look at his works and see how very far we’ve come, and we can, without dissimulation or censorship, confront his racism for what it is: we can critique it, we can condemn it–and then we can move past it. If we choose not to, if we set the book down, then we miss out on the experience of reading it, and I’d say that would be a victory for racism, because it would shut down our capacity to explore human experience in its great variety.

I am not willing to foreclose on  such experiences. I believe that I am strong enough as a reader, indeed, as a person, to encounter racism in literature and to move past it so that I can gather a more complete picture of human culture, not as it should have been, but as it was. Distasteful as it can be to read reflections of ugliness, we must continue to do so if we want to try to understand our past and to control both our present and our future.

For me, it’s simply a matter of honesty. And so I will grit my teeth, shake my head, and continue reading Mr. Standfast. If it’s a good book, or even a spectacularly bad one, I may even write about it here in a few weeks.

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Buchan and Hitchcock, image from the Hitchcock Zone Wiki

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An Elegy for Pat McGee

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Stock Photo of Apple I from Getty Images

I am not particularly good at keeping up old friendships: time, distance, and differing life circumstances often seem to divide me from my past, which includes all the friends that I’ve had in different periods and places during my life. Yet I remain curious about my friends, and, while I rarely think of re-kindling a friendship through awkward online or actual encounters, I am only human, and so I do sometimes use the internet to find out what some of my old friends are up to.

The other night, when I was riding shotgun during a long trek home from downstate, I looked up, for some reason, my friend Pat McGee, whom I had last heard from some seven or eight–perhaps even more–years ago. Having recently started graduate school at a somewhat advanced age, he called me, knowing I taught at a community college, to see how I managed juggling several class preparations. I remember only the long silence that followed when I told him I was responsible for five courses a semester. Actually, I don’t think I offered him much help in his attempt to manage his two classes per semester–and perhaps I was rather stingy with sympathy as well.

I’d looked him up because I wanted to see whether he’d finished his program and which educational institution he’d ended up at. What I found instead, however, was profoundly troubling: an obituary for James Patrick McGee, dated 2015. The idea that Pat had left this life without me knowing it has been something of a shock to me ever since then. An even greater shock was that aside from this obituary, which was very perfunctory, with no details, Pat seemed to have left very little trace of his life at all on the web.

I am going to do my small part to rectify that.

I first met Pat many years ago, when I was a freshman at Rice University. He was much, much older (I now know that he was only nine or ten years older than me, but of course, when you’re eighteen, that seems like so much more than a mere decade). Although he was an old guy, he still hung around Rice, probably for one simple reason: he was a nerd, a computer geek, way before there was such a term in our cultural vernacular. Because computer science wasn’t even a discipline back in the 1980s, much less a major, Pat had stayed on at Rice after getting his Bachelor’s Degree to get a Master’s Degree in accounting. Then he kind of just hung around campus looking for good conversations and interesting people.

With his black-framed glasses, short-sleeved shirt, and pocket protector, Pat looked like the quintessential 1960s NASA programmer. But he had a lot more personality than one might first presume. In fact, I have several distinct memories about Pat to share in this elegy.

Pat McGee loved Chinese food, and he had been to a great many of the Chinese restaurants in Houston. If you wanted to know anything about Chinese food, or about where to get the best Szechuan food on a Sunday afternoon, Pat was your man. I’d been going to Chinese restaurants all my life, for example, but it was Pat who introduced me to moo shoo pork.

Another tidbit about Pat McGee: I first saw a personal computer–or something like it–at Pat’s house. “Come here, Suzanne,” he said one day. “I want to show you something.” Ordinarily, I’d have been wary of a man, even one who wore a pocket protector, beckoning me to his bedroom. But this was Pat, and I knew there were no ulterior motives. He pointed me towards his desk, where an old Panasonic portable television sat. Then he opened the right-hand drawer, where a jumble of metal boxes and wires lay tangled together. “What is it?” I asked. I wish I could say that he stared at me and said, “It’s the future,” or something significant like that, but I honestly can’t remember his answer. I just remember thinking he was spending a lot of time on something that had very little practical value–but then again, that was pretty much what Pat did, so I guess it’s natural that I didn’t really pay attention to his explanation of a device that would soon change the world.

A third memory: Pat had many jobs during his lifetime, but two of them were really interesting. In the 1990s, he worked as a computer programmer of some kind at Sandia National Laboratories, which focuses on nuclear national security. Later on, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Guess which job required him to take an oath of lifelong secrecy? It was the IRS, which tells you something about our government’s priorities.

The last memory I’ll share here is simply this: I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Pat’s living room, with a handful of other young people. It was a scratchy, out-of-focus bootleg copy of the film, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. To be honest, I wasn’t able to follow the plot. Then again, there isn’t much of a plot in that movie, so perhaps I didn’t miss that much.

These are my memories of Pat McGee, and, in the absence of any other kind of accessible testament to his existence, it seems important that I share them in some form, no matter how inconsequential. And I’ll just add this: as we move into our middle years, it’s not at all uncommon to think about mortality–our own and that of our loved ones. That’s to be expected. But surprisingly, it’s the deaths of those people we once knew, those one-time friends who played a role in our lives for only a short time and then disappeared into a quickly receding past life, that can blindside us, pulling us up short and making us realize with a dull shock how temporary this life is, and how transient our passage through it can be.

And so I offer my elegy for Pat here. I realize how inadequate the gesture is, yet I cannot refrain from making it. Sometimes we wave goodbye after the train has left, when no one is there to see our handkerchief flying in the breeze. It’s just human nature to do so.

So long, Pat McGee. Thanks for the memories.

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