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Friday Takeaway: Ilan Stavans

  • Ilan Stavans


Friday, January 05, 2018

‘Hell is other people,” writes Jean-Paul Sartre in his play “No Exit.” The statement feels particularly accurate in America today. Those we disagree with we portray as nightmarish, and those we empathize with we celebrate.

I have been thinking a lot about hell lately. Not as an actual place. I don’t postpone anything for the afterlife because for me there is no such thing: Death is death ... As for life, it is, in the words of Macbeth, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Visions of hell as a series of circles — as Dante depicts it in his “Divine Comedy” — strike me as a fanciful representation by a religious mind. My own definition of hell is being stuck in a situation that has the capacity to make reality unreal. 

I am trapped in Trump’s delusional mind. This frightens me. The worst features of the American character — voracious greed, an isolationist drive, a pathological desire for success no matter the cost, total disregard for human suffering — are manifest.

I understand that others saw Obama as nightmarish, too. They thought he was abrasive, imperial, anti-American. They survived his eight years by limping to the finish line. “Now it’s your turn,” they say. Didn’t Voltaire talk of “tyrannie de plusieurs,” the tyranny of the many?

It is true that we must abide by the choices we make — collective choices, that is. But it doesn’t seem altogether equal to me. Trump is childish. His modus operandi are impulsive rather than rational. He wants America not only to be first but to be independent from the rest of the world.

In the depth of night, I tell myself that maybe Trump was inevitable. The right (or wrong) forces were there for his ascent. Maybe it is true that ours isn’t the best of all possible universes. Maybe we deserve Trump. I just finished teaching a course called “Trump: Point/Counterpoint.” At the end, I asked my students to imagine America at the end of 2017 under President Hillary Clinton. How unlike ours would it be? The responses were disheartening. There would still be a Russian investigation, they said. In that narrative, James Comey would have been fired as well. And we would be waiting for a report from the same Mueller commission. Most intriguingly, a few students thought that the #MeToo movement would not have taken place under the first woman president. Should we thank the Harasser-in-Chief for that?

Either way, what is happening to the Republican Party is terrifying. They have just passed the biggest tax overhaul of the last three decades, shamelessly benefiting corporations and the rich. A travel ban targeting eight nations, six of them mostly Muslim, has been temporarily allowed by the Supreme Court. All this while the U.S. is being decimated by an unstoppable opioid epidemic. And gun violence is endemic.

In the world at large, American foreign policy is in ruins. The European Union looks at us as a joke. And the promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico has heightened the animosity our neighbors to the south feel toward us. The Syrian war wound to an end at enormous cost. Terrorist attacks took place in major cities. The Rohingya genocide tarnished Myanmar’s youthful democracy. Refugees from the misnamed Third World flooded the misguided First. 

Why are Republicans in total denial of all this? Is it because the stock exchange has gone berserk? Have they forgotten that the rest of us are watching? 

Even a cursory end-of-the-year lookback shows the degree to which civilization is really a synonym for chaos. Nature itself was furious, lashing out with hurricanes and fires. Responses to them highlighted social inequalities: Those with money got quick relief while the rest were left to simmer in their misery.

It’s the type of dystopia that used to be the purview of science-fiction writers. Now it is a common condition made worse by Trump. What about his announcement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital? Duh! Everybody knew it, but it is stupid to throw gasoline into a house on fire. The funniest part is Trump’s pledge to rescind aid to countries who disagree with him. At the doorstep of his version of hell, there might as well be a sign proudly announcing: “Everybody is entitled to my opinion.” 

Then there’s DACA, which, because I’m a teacher, touches me deeply. The situation among the undocumented reminds me of what Crypto-Jews went through under the Spanish Inquisition. A considerable number of individuals have been deported. Others live in the shadows. No doubt the country’s immigration system is broken. But inhumanity isn’t the answer. Let it be remembered that many of those who came to the United States illegally were running away from governments supported by American foreign policy.  

After the 2016 election, those of us on the side of globalism promised to fight tooth and nail, not to normalize Trump’s wickedness. We lost that battle a while ago. A friend of mine likes to remind me that in Nazi Germany circa 1939, Jews were divided into the optimists who went to the United States, Palestine, and elsewhere in the diaspora; and the optimists who went to Auschwitz.

Needless to say, disruption comes in cycles. Violence is a constant in human affairs but so is creativity. Right now, the pendulum is all the way to what many of us believe to be the wrong side. But things will swing back, I’m sure. 

Indeed, the most hopeful view of hell, by which I mean the healthiest, suggests that it is finite. It can’t last forever. That, in fact, is what makes hell bearable. 

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.