With Sylvia Fredericks
Good afternoon! Today begins the first in what may possible become a series called “What I’m Reading…” Hopefully, other La Follette students, faculty, or affiliates will contribute posts about what they are reading.
It was strongly recommended that I spend my break working on something other than school, so as much as I wanted to complete an open course in quantitative research for political science and public policy, I am spending my free time reading. The best book thus far is from the “Too Good to Miss” section of the Madison Public Library: Diary of a Bad Year by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee.
Diary of a Bad Year is three part story linking the political and philosophical essays of an aged writer, the writer himself, and his assistant, Anya (an excerpt can be found here). I don’t want to just review the book, since that has been done over and over. Instead, I want to entice you into reading the book by discussing one of the essays included therein.
In “On the hurly-burly of politics,” John C, the novel’s protagonist, discusses something that happened in J.M. Coetzee’s real life. Coetzee did a reading at the library where he said, “I used to think that the people who created [South Africa’s] laws that effectively suspended the rule of law were moral barbarians. Now I know they were just pioneers ahead of their time.” The Australian published the statement initially and it garnered, as one would expect, a good deal of attention. Years later, Coetzee included the story in this work of fiction, furthering the books blurring of what is real and what is not. “On the hurly-burly of politics” is one of the shortest essays, but that one sentence – one lifted from “real” life – is profound and led me to research Coetzee and, in turn, Australian and South African politics. As someone with a strong desire to see civil liberties protected, I felt a great sense of shame (there is an essay on shame in the book as well) reading that sentence. Mr. Coetzee lived through the apartheid regime in South Africa, as a white man, and knows the circumstances that result in the suspension of laws due to “terror” as well as the resulting actions that arise from the suspension. We, the state, the sane, the Westerners, condemned South Africa under apartheid. And while we aren’t there yet, we keep moving closer to full oppression and are expected to fall for fake pledges of justice. We should know better than to repeat history. We shouldn’t be so weak that we are willing to do anything or accept anything in order to stay safe. Demonizing Islamic people does not keep us safer and only serves to make us, as a society, worse off.
Currently, there is a small controversy around Google’s Google Suggests not having any suggestions when you type the phrase “Islam is.” Google says its a glitch and maybe it is. But regardless of its actual reason for being, the response it provoked is a clear commentary on our times. Some people are arguing Google loves Islam and thus is shielding the religion from insult. Others are arguing that Google fears reprisal from extremists were it to disparage the religion with the Google Suggests responses. We probably won’t ever know why the omission exists, but that the existence provoked such a response shows a certain tenseness and brings out some unfortunate traits in society. Hopefully, it is not a further sign of impending doom to our (barely) just society.