This is the fifth post in the Reading Women Writers series.

I finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings weeks ago, yet I found it difficult to write about until now for a couple of reasons. First, it is a very recent novel, and I don’t want to spoil it with an in-depth writing. Second, I had an unexpected reaction to it. It is well-written, the characters are developed, it feels real. These qualities make it an excellent book. Both bildungsroman and social commentary, there is an underlying darkness that at times bleeds to the surface. Being 30 in America today, the novel struck me in a way I did not expect it would when I began reading.

In the summer of 1974, 15-year-old Julie Jacobson was sent to the Spirit-of-the-Woods camp in New York, a place where precocious, artistic teens spent their vacations. Here she joins a group of campers, self-named The Interestings, who for the most part become life-long friends, and is in a sense reborn as “Jules.” The novel follows Jules and the rest of The Interestings into adulthood in the 21st century.

In the novel, as is the case most often in real life, growing up means the loss of possibilities. The idealistic aphorism about one door opening as another closes is an overstatement. At 30, nearly everyone has a fraction of the possibilities for their lives that they did at 15, or even 20. Once you reach your teenage years, each coming year brings more doors to a close. They may be doors that you never would have considered, but they are closed nonetheless.

The other aspect of growing up portrayed in the novel is relegation. For many, becoming an adult means relegating yourself to a life that isn’t close to what you imagined or hoped it would be. This is especially painful for those, who like The Interestings, were celebrated in their youth for being talented or brilliant. It is the burden of having potential and the expectations that are associated with it. One can become a slave to those expectations, and this can make even a comfortable life seem an abject failure.

This feeling, that for all but a few life will never seem as good as it was in your youth, is extremely potent at the milestone age of 30. It is an age where one feels like one foot is still planted in youth and the other in the adult world of unrealized potential and relegation. One is close enough to see the closed doors of past possibilities all too clearly.

Wolitzer also looks at friendship and love, envy, mental illness, sexual assault, AIDS, identity and belonging, and exploitation. Her characters react to the challenges of their lives and the changing world believably, facing things that many readers will have faced in their own lives. To me it seems that The Interestings is one of those novels, like Catcher in the Rye, that elicits a different reaction depending on the age and station of life of the reader.

The hottest news item of the last 24 hours is the leak of a memo revealing a top secret NSA program called PRISM that allegedly gave the National Security Agency direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Skype, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, YouTube, and PalTalk. This comes a day after the same Guardian reporter, Glenn Greenwald, broke the story of a secret court order that “requires Verizon on an ‘ongoing, daily basis’ to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.”

Domestic surveillance has been on the rise ever since the Patriot Act was passed in reaction to 9/11, but why is this the case when the incumbent President, as a candidate in 2007, claimed to be opposed to the tracking of those who were not suspected of a crime:

This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

During Obama’s administration he has signed extensions of both the Patriot Act and FISA. In the last 24 hours we have seen how these extensions are playing out. Since these acts may well legalize these surveillance actions and that technically the FISA court approves government requests, the Obama administration believes that it isn’t breaking any promises. However, the FISA court does not appear to be an instrument of restraint in the least (emphasis mine):

The Fisa court is in the habit of granting wide approval to the government. In 2012, the government requested its imprimatur for surveillance 1,856 times, an increase of 5% over its 2011 petitions. The court approved every request in both years.

There are two main reasons I believe contribute to the continuance and expansion of domestic surveillance under Obama’s administration. First, that there is an inertia to this kind of government power and it is extremely rare for an administration to give up powers it was already granted. Second, that the hyperpartisan political climate turns any act of terrorism into a political scandal. In this article I want to focus on this second reason.

Immediately following the attacks on 9/11/2001, Americans from all political ideologies came together and supported the Bush administration. President Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed. In the face of attack, American’s united.

During Obama’s administration, every ‘terror’ attack has been immediately politicized. There were 13 attacks on US consulates and embassies post-9/11 while Bush was in office. They were not heavily politicized at the time. The attack in Benghazi during Obama’s administration, in contrast, has become “nothing but a politicized smear campaign.”

Conservatives reacted to the bombing at the Boston Marathon by suggesting Obama is a secret Muslim, calling for his impeachment, and directly blaming him for the attacks. Whenever an attack that can be labeled as ‘terrorism’ occurs, conservatives politicize it in an attempt to create a scandal hoping to score political points or to put Obama on the defensive to draw him away from other policy priorities.

This environment makes the administration more willing to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of security. A culture of fear combined with a culture of blame turns national security into political strategy. A free and open democratic society will always have security vulnerabilities. While it’s not exactly zero-sum (a pure security vs. privacy or security vs. freedom dichotomy is false), there are trade-offs. The odds of being killed in a terror attack are 1 in 20 million (in comparison, a natural-born US citizen is twice as likely to become US President in their lifetime than die in a terror attack). The political consequences of a potential attack, no matter how limited, are driving the administration to sacrifice a number of our country’s best principles for security from something that results in far fewer deaths than people imagine.

Many Eagle Scouts including myself have been fighting for this for years. While it is disappointing that BSA has not changed its adult leader policy, this is a big step towards full inclusion and we will continue to advocate for it until we get there.

The Boy Scouts of America Statement:

“For 103 years, the Boy Scouts of America has been a part of the fabric of this nation, with a focus on working together to deliver the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training.

“Based on growing input from within the Scouting family, the BSA leadership chose to conduct an additional review of the organization’s long-standing membership policy and its impact on Scouting’s mission. This review created an outpouring of feedback from the Scouting family and the American public, from both those who agree with the current policy and those who support a change.

“Today, following this review, the most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting’s history the approximate 1,400 voting members of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Council approved a resolution to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone. The resolution also reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting. A change to the current membership policy for adult leaders was not under consideration; thus, the policy for adults remains in place. The BSA thanks all the national voting members who participated in this process and vote.

“This policy change is effective Jan. 1, 2014, allowing the Boy Scouts of America the transition time needed to communicate and implement this policy to its approximately 116,000 Scouting units.
“The Boy Scouts of America will not sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, divisive, and unresolved societal issue. As the National Executive Committee just completed a lengthy review process, there are no plans for further review on this matter.

“While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting. Going forward, our Scouting family will continue to focus on reaching and serving youth in order to help them grow into good, strong citizens. America’s youth need Scouting, and by focusing on the goals that unite us, we can continue to accomplish incredible things for young people and the communities we serve.”

This is the fourth post in the Reading Women Writers series.

Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune tells the story of Eliza Sommers, an orphan that was left at the doorstep of an English brother and sister in Valparaiso, Chile. She is raised by Miss Rose Sommers — a “spinster” who lives with her emotionally cold brother Jeremy and whose brother John is a respected ship captain that travels the world — and by the Sommers’ servant, Mama Fresia:

Eliza grew up between Miss Rose’s sewing room and the back patios, speaking English in one part of the house and a mixture of Spanish and Mapuche, her nana’s native tongue, in the other, one day dressed and shod like a duchess and the next playing with hens and dogs, barefoot and barely covered by an orphan’s smock.

Eliza grows up between these two worlds. Miss Rose, who is “a woman with a past” whose “chances for making a good marriage were minimal” is determined to place Eliza in a good marriage. However, Eliza falls in love with a poor Chilean who ends up leaving her to sail for California in the gold rush, hoping to pull himself and his mother out of poverty. With the help of Mama Fresia and the Chinese sailor/doctor Tao Chi’en, she stows away on a ship to California, seeking her lost lover Joaquin.

In California with her new friend Tao Chi’en, she discovers a new world with more freedom and independence than she could have imagined. The contrasts of her and Tao Chi’en’s experiences in California with the societies of their youths — Chile and China — develop many key themes in the novel.

In both Chile and China, people’s destinies, attitudes, and freedom are determined by social constructs. Class, sex, race, wealth, reputation, birth order, and religion all constrain what people believe is possible or acceptable, with the two often being synonymous. The burdens of womanhood, poverty, and race exist both in Eliza’s Chile and Tao Chi’en’s China. When they find themselves in northern California in the early 1850s, most societal constructs had not yet developed. People, mostly men, swarmed to the area from various countries with only the desire to find gold and become rich. This California was raw and undeveloped. Eliza sees that the limits to freedom and individuality that she believed were inherent to life are in fact constructs. She realizes that there are possibilities that she once thought impossible; destiny is not immutable.

She fell in love with freedom. In the Sommers’ home she had lived shut up within four walls in a stagnant atmosphere where time moved in circles and where she could barely glimpse the horizon through distorted windowpanes. She had grown up clad in the impenetrable armor of good manners and conventions, trained from girlhood to please and serve, bound by corset, routines, social norms, and fear. Fear had been her companion: fear of God and his unpredictable justice, of authority, of her adoptive parents, of illness and evil tongues, of anything unknown or different; fear of leaving the protection of her home and facing the dangers outside; fear of her own fragility as a woman, of dishonor and truth. Hers had been a sugar-coated reality built on the unspoken, on courteous silences, well-guarded secrets, order, and discipline. She had aspired to virtue but now she questioned the meaning of the word.

Eliza sees California as “a blank page; here I can start life anew and become the person I want.” California’s society burgeons and new hierarchies and restrictions emerge, but both Eliza and Tao Chi’en see them for what they are and realize that they are capable of more than the destinies that society has constructed for them.

Guatemala in the News and The Bean Trees

Last week I wrote about Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees as the second novel in my Reading Women Writers series. I wanted to briefly revisit it because of the recent news from Guatemala:

On Monday, a Guatemalan court ordered the country’s government to apologize to the Ixil population for the crimes of José Efraín Ríos Montt, a dictator who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for his role in war crimes committed between 1982 and 1983.

The verdict concluded that the army, under the command of Ríos Montt, had engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Ixiles, a small Mayan ethnic group. In that sense, it finally offered an answer to the thousands of victims’ families who had pleaded for justice since the 1980s.

The characters of Estevan and Esperanza are of that Mayan ethnic group, as well as the other undocumented refugees that Mattie protects in her sanctuary. Their daughter Ismene was kidnapped by the government in an attempt to blackmail them into revealing the names of the other members of their teacher’s union so they could be found and killed. They and others fled to the United States, but without paper documentation to prove their lives were in danger they are unable to be granted asylum. The ABC News/Univision story linked above addresses the question of the Reagan administrations role in supporting the Guatemalan government and consequentially their torture and genocide of the Ixiles:

Reagan’s administration ultimately decided to ignore the warnings, and indirect assistance was secretly resumed through the CIA. “Overall, U.S. intelligence, training, political support and assistance to the Guatemalan government and military in the early and mid-1980s uncritically supported counter-insurgency strategies that targeted civilians, in the cities and in rural areas like the Ixil Triangle,” Geoff Thale said. “U.S. policy makers of that era bear some responsibility for the human rights abuses that took place.”

In the novel, Estevan describes to Taylor one of the torture practices enabled by U.S. involvement:

Then out of the clear blue sky he said, “In Guatemala City the police use electricity for interrogation. They have something called the ‘telephone,’ which is an actual telephone of the type they use in the field. It has its own generator, operated by a handle.” He held up one hand and turned the other one in a circle in front of the palm.
“A crank? Like the old-fashioned telephones?”
“Operated with a crank,” he said. “The telephones are made in the United States.”
“What do you mean, they use them for interrogations? Do you mean they question you over the telephone?”
Estevan seemed annoyed with me. “They disconnect the receiver wire and tape the two ends to your body. To sensitive parts.”

“I don’t know exactly how to say this,” I said. “I thought I’d had a pretty hard life. But I keep finding out that life can be hard in ways I never knew about.”
“I can see that it would be easier not to know,” he said.
“That’s not fair, you don’t see at all. You think you’re the foreigner here, and I’m the American, and I just look the other way while the President or somebody sends down this and that, shiploads of telephones to torture people with. But nobody asked my permission, okay?”

Kingsolver wrote about this 25 years ago, and only now has it been meaningfully addressed in at least a small way. It should remind us that whether the U.S. government is trying to “contain communism” or fight a “war on terror,” there are human costs to our actions. Enabling and supplying a dictator to massacre his people just because his government is not communist, or is more secular, makes us complicit in their crimes.

Photo of Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala from Wikipedia

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