On Reading fiction

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A student in my War, Peace and Strategy course recently e-mailed me, “…it is extremely difficult to put oneself into the mind of Putin.” To which I replied, “Getting into the minds of others is where reading (and writing) fiction comes in. It teaches you to think outside of your own experience or worldview.”

A decade after September 11th, I taught a politics and literature course. The course was taught as part of the political theory subfield. Previous syllabi consisted of excerpts from classic writers and theorists. Since I was not a theorist, I chose a different tact. Instead, I would look at political themes in contemporary literature.

  • The question of radicalization and political violence was explored by reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. By the way, the movie version is a disaster partly because it removes the ambiguity about the two main characters’ roles.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran (technically not fiction) looked at women’s roles under a theocracy. We used it to discuss different views of society, feminism, freedom and tolerance.
  • The Jungle is customarily read to see progressive politics or socialism. However, we looked at the universality of the working class immigrant experience and how the Eastern European experience is being repeated with recent Latin American and African immigrants.

Although I heard about the immigrant experience from my mother (a refugee from Nazi Germany), I have learned more from recent authors.

  • Ha Jin is one of my favorite authors (defined as I’ll read anything they wrote). His two books, A Free Life and A Song Everlasting describe recent Chinese immigrants’ experiences.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake tells a different tale, that of Indians balancing assimilation to American culture and maintaining their Indian identity.

One of my dissertation advisors once told me that he could not remember the last time he had read a book of fiction. All I could think of was, ‘How sad.’ He was an international scholar, including work in political psychology. I thought of how much he was missing by not allowing himself to place himself in the minds of those whose experience is different than his own.

  • Kim Richardson’s two books, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, are emotional trips to the world of Depression and 1950s Appalachia and the prejudice for someone that is only ‘slightly’ different.
  • Even though I was a student of World War 1, it wasn’t until I read fellow Coloradan Aimie Runyan’s Girls on the Line that I had more than a cursory understanding of their lives and importance. Aimie has taken on the task of telling the story of women in both World War 1 and 2, a series of enthralling books. I also recommend her two books on women in French Colonial Canada – Daughters of New France.

I can’t write about this subject without recommending two authors who may both claim to be great historical fiction writers.

  • Kate Quinn, whose The Rose Code and The Diamond Eye need to be made into movies immediately. They are high-tension thrillers about women in nontraditional roles in World War 2.
  • Ellen Marie Wiseman’s books tell the stories of marginalized women and children in the early Twentieth Century.

NOTE: Rather than clutter this with links, I leave it to interested readers to find in their local libraries or from their favorite booksellers (independent ones, if possible).

On the use of history and writing historical fiction

In my other job (the one that pays), I always caution students about using history.

The first issue is selection bias, defined as choosing your case on what you are trying to prove (the dependent variable). Given over 5000 years of recorded history, it is almost always possible to find a historical case or cases that will make your point. This is why I caution them about when anyone ever starts an argument with the term, “History shows . . .” For every case that students present, I can and do present a counter-example. This has been evident in the justifications by the Russians for their invasion and the Ukrainians for their sovereignty.

The second issue is interpretation. Even if there is agreement on which case, what that case means is subject to the analyst’s worldview. For example, when I was still a graduate student researching my dissertation, one of my cases was the Cuban Missile Crisis (or the Caribbean Crisis in Soviet/Russian journals). In 2000, I found over 130 peer-reviewed journal articles in the political science literature. As a friend in the history department told me – history told the first time is glorification, the second time it is told is revisionism, and the third time you are starting to get to the truth.

Although this is a problem in the social sciences, at least there are criteria and tests that are applied to fix both problems.

For a writer of historical fiction (my third career), it presents a challenge – how do I write an entertaining story with fictional characters and still present a true account for what happened? This is why caveats and history notes become so important.

And remember that as long as we have done our research, we are probably no better or worse than historians.

I Fear the Future

 I fear for the future.

Teaching security, I’m often asked what I see as the biggest threat to the future. Most expect my answer to be some technological change or another state. But, what I answer is my biggest fear is we have a generation that is too easily offended and does not understand how rough the world can be.

This column will probably offend.

Fear component one. I teach at a major state university where you would expect that students have a grasp on history. WRONG! Almost anything beyond their attention span (the last 5 to 6 years) is outside their knowledge base.

Fear component two. Presentism is interpreting the past based on current attitudes and values and has become the standard for my students to the degree that Orwell could not have predicted. For example, a few years ago, I was talking about the role of the hegemon and mentioned that slavery was a universally accepted institution until the British, the hegemon at the time, decided that it wouldn’t. Unfortunately, some of my students interpreted this as my supporting slavery, so I had to defend what I said to my program director. Fortunately, he was a historian and said I was factually correct.

Fear component three. The assumption of universal values. This is especially a problem for students whose experience is predominately upper middle class. They don’t understand the appeal of populists, nationalists or any other value system that is not theirs. So, if I say that much of the world still does not accept same-sex marriage or homosexuality, they call them backward or ‘stupid.’ Far be it from them, in accepting diversity to accept that cultural and historical views are not in line with current points of view.

Fear component four. Failing to understand that hard power is the way for most of the world. Last year, I was teaching a conflict course, and students asked why I thought Putin would invade Ukraine (this was before the fact). I bluntly answered, “Because he can!” Europe could not stop him, and Biden had demonstrated that the US did not have the will when he said we would not send troops. I am teaching the same course this semester, and students still don’t understand that force is a necessary component of the world.

The bottom line is that the West has raised a generation of Eloi while the rest of the world is still the Morlocks, and no degree of wishing will change the eventual outcome.