Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael J. Sandel

Short, to the point, and written in a very accessible style, The Case Against Perfection raises interesting questions about the pursuit of human perfection. Sandel makes his arguments extremely well by suggesting them, identifying possible oppositional arguments and then countering those oppositional arguments in a precise and comprehensive manner. I feel like I can learn from his writing style and adopt this style of argument in my own academic writing. His ability to make a very complex issue accessible is amazing. 

While reading this book, I found myself asking friends random questions like, “If you were pregnant and found out your baby was going to have down syndrome, what would you do?” I find this question and others like this raised by Sandel extremely interesting. Sandel argues that if we go down the road of eliminating apparently ‘imperfect’ people, like those with downs (a path we are well on the way to) we may end up producing a society that is competitive and less forgiving. If we are compelled to ‘get rid’ of imperfections in babies before they are born then people will be judged for not being perfect. Parents will also (and already are) be judged for failing to eliminate the imperfection in their child. Adults who fail to do anything to get braces on their teeth because they don’t really mind having crooked teeth will be regarded as freaks, athletes who reject performance enhancers will be dropped from the team (apparently this already happens in America), deaf parents who choose to have deaf babies will be criticised for not allowing their children a greater chance in life. These are just some examples. 

I came away from this book pretty much agreeing with its fundamental argument. There is something very unsettling about human beings’ pursuit of perfection. It’s hard to articulate logically what that is, but Sandel does it well. Perhaps we like to believe that it is human nature to want to master something (actually I think that’s more like imperialism than human nature…did the Indigenous Australians try to ‘master’ the land?), but something very valuable will be lost if we continue to ‘master’ biology and genetics. That something is human beings’ capacity to understand and appreciate that we are NOT in control of everything and there are bigger things out there at work. This is not necessarily ‘God’. Acknowledging that we cannot necessarily be in control of everything engenders a humility which is good for society. It fosters social solidarity to improve political and social structures. Rather than ‘fixing’ the individual to fit into a flawed society, working together to address social problems should be the priority. While adjusting nature to fit into the social world we have created may seem empowering, in fact, 
'Changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world, and deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. Rather than employ our genetic powers to straighten 'the crooked timber of humanity', we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings' (p.97). 

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

It’s hard to know how to review this book without drifting into what might sound like hyperbole. I want to tell you that it was possibly the most powerful novel I’ve read. I want to tell you that I felt like I lived with the characters over the three weeks that it took me to read this book and I want to go and knock on their door and say hi as if we’re old friends.

Mistry tells the story of the intersection of four people’s lives during the mid-1970s in India. Dina, a middle-class widow who clings to her independence any way she can; Maneck a university student from an idyllic hill station who has come to board at Dina’s house; Ishvar, a tailor, employed by Dina, from the untouchable class, come to the city to escape village violence and hardship, and his nephew, 18 yr old Om, also a tailor. The four form an unlikely family unit in Dina’s little house during Indira Ghandi’s “State of Emergency”.

We learn of the history of all four characters—how they got to where they are now in ‘the city’. The tailors’ stories are particularly harrowing. Mistry takes us on a tour of caste violence, where the lives of the untouchables are worth very little. Although Ishvar and Om escape to the city and take up jobs as tailors, their absolute poverty and precarious existence means they are never far away from gross exploitation and sudden violence. Yet they are both warm-hearted and unbelievably optimistic, especially Ishvar, whose warmth and gentleness has left a warm patch on my heart. I feel like I know him and he has touched me with his kindness. 

I didn’t know much about the State of Emergency before reading this book, but wow. “Beautification” and forced (and brutal and clinically dangerous) sterilisation… I can sort of understand where the government was coming from because I guess when the population gets out of hand to that extent, things become anarchic and uncontrollable. But the sheer lack of human rights afforded to anyone during this regime was staggering. Maneck’s experience with his politically active university friend Ashvar; Dina’s landlord’s thuggery; the tailors’ colourful and pretty scary experiences as urban poor all occurred because of the complete curtailment of civil liberties during that time. 

Despite the horrors and general bleakness I’ve partially described, the four characters probably would not have come together under other circumstances. The brief time they lived together in Dina’s home was a time of unexpected joy and happiness for all of them. For Maneck and Dina especially, it was the most wonderful time of their lives. I wanted it to continue forever. For the tailors, they probably knew, like everything else in their lives, that happiness and security could not be permanent. Of the four, they were by far and away the most adept at the ‘fine balance’ of hope and despair required to get on with life. 

This book made me cry and laugh. There are times when it felt like I was punched in the stomach. There were times when I had to put it down to just chill out for a second. Mistry has written a story with horrors and despair that could easily have been sentimental or sensationalist. Instead it was poignant, funny and beautiful. This is a sad story, but it’s also a really happy one.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

I’m a huge fan of Barbara Ehrenreich and bought this book because I knew I’d enjoy it. And I did! I read most of it on an 11-hr train journey from Wellington to Auckland. I feel like Barbara and I would be really good friends. I feel as though we’re ‘on the same side’ in life—her values and ideas seem to mirror mine and she articulates many of the things I feel. Her 2009 expose of ‘positive thinking’ and its detrimental effects on US society, Bright-sided, for example, gave language to what I (and many others, it would appear) had been feeling for years regarding the positive thinking boom. I was so, so glad that she wrote Bright-sided.

Bait and Switch is an investigation into the situation of unemployed white collar workers, with a focus on the corporate and financial sectors. Barbara (I’m going to call her Barbara because I feel like she’s my friend. Also, it’s easier to spell.) goes undercover to look for a work, much like she did in her best-selling Nickel and Dimed, where she explored the world of the working poor in the US. For Bait and Switch, she created a partially fictional resume, but had to maintain elements of her real employment history so she could apply for work she was actually qualified for. Over the course of about a year, she could not find any work in her chosen field, which was PR.  

This book was criticised for being unrealistic and for the experiment being shoddily prepared for and carried out. I suppose this criticism is founded, because she certainly seemed completely clueless, whereas you would think that unemployed white collar workers would have a better idea of how to go about seeking work in their industry. She was, after all, looking for work in a field she had never worked in (therefore with no connections, and no real knowledge about where to look).

Nevertheless, she does well to illuminate the bizarre industry of career coaching and gives readers a glimpse into the depressing world of people (usually over the age of 35) who, having been ‘let go’, cannot find work despite having years of experience and a university education. She goes to numerous meetings for the ostensible purpose of ‘networking’, but which end up being classroom situations where by the unemployed sit listening to a career coach telling them, in impenetrable jargon, what they need to do to become more employable. Most of the industry is infused with positive thinking style mumbo jumbo that individualises people’s problems and places the blame for long-term unemployment squarely on the job-seeker’s shoulders. If they change their attitude, they will surely get a job.

One of Barbara’s main points was that the reality that working-class people have always lived with is now a reality for many of the middle-class. Put simply, that reality is: working really hard does not mean you’ll be rewarded. The belief that hard work will eventually result in a lifestyle that will enable you to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour is a deeply entrenched assumption of the middle-class, originating from a Protestant work ethic, according to Barbara. This assumption, which lies at the foundation of the middle-class existence, is crumbling and the emotional and psychological repercussions on individuals, is enormous. How did this come about? Corporations seem no longer to see employees as people who deserve respect and dignity as whole human beings (with families, loved ones, lives outside work), or as long-term investments that will actually benefit the company, but as interchangeable objects of productivity.

“Organizations that used to see people as long-term assets to be nurtured and developed now see people as short-term costs to be reduced… [T]hey view people as “things” that are but one variable in the production equation, “things” that can be discarded when the profit and loss numbers do not come out as desired” (David Noer, cited in Bait and Switch, p. 225)

Towards the end of the book Barbara argues that university professors, doctors, lawyers and teachers do not face the same kind of situation as corporate workers because they are professionalised and therefore sell their skill as opposed to themselves, which is what corporate workers ultimately have to do. As I was reading this book, however, I was struck by the feelings of worthlessness and lack of dignity that many corporate workers she wrote about feel…these are exactly the same feelings that casual academics experience. That she failed to mention the plight of casual and/or short-term contracted academics, while shedding light on how wonderful it is to be a professor, was extremely disappointing. The precarious nature of work facing those in academia right now is no different to the situation of those in the corporate world. The pain and confusion of not being wanted or needed despite having spent years and years devoting oneself to the field is real, regardless of industry. The next book Barbara writes should be about this.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

This is a mysterious story that had me scratching my head in spots and peeking out from behind my hands in horror in others.  

Anwell is a young boy growing up in a small town, Mulyan. His parents are seen as the ‘kooks’ of the town, and as a result, he doesn’t have any friends. His parents are in fact more than kooks—they are nasty, cold and negligent parents, but more about that later.

The story opens with Gabriel, at the age of 20, dying. He reflects on what led him to his current situation and through his narration we are drawn into the story of his childhood—a childhood of sadness and horror. Or simply a story of someone who suffered a dreadful mental illness for most of his life? It becomes clear that this story is open to interpretation. Gabriel and Anwell are, after all, the same person.

One day when Gabriel is about 10 years old, he is in the back yard playing on his own when he meets a boy of around about the same age—Finnigan. Finnigan is a wild and unruly boy with unkempt hair and old, dirty clothes. He never mentions his home or family and he doesn’t go to school. Gabriel is in awe of Finnigan and desperately wants to be his friend. They make a pact (or a ‘packet’, as the delinquent and unschooled Finnigan calls it) that Finnigan will carry out all the bad deeds that need to be done so that Gabriel can remain angelic. In this way they become the perfect and complete blood brother, the yin and the yang.

Mulyan is then terrorised for years by an elusive arsonist. It is apparently Finnigan and the only person who knows this is Gabriel. Gabriel’s father sets out to capture him out of a desire to humiliate the local policeman more than a desire to keep the town safe. Gabriel’s father is a cold bully and his mother is a basket case, but not in a nice way.

Gabriel, or Anwell (he is Gabriel only to Finnigan and himself) grew up with a severely mentally handicapped older brother. When Anwell was seven years old, his brother died under his watch. This, I believe, was the catalyst for Anwell’s decline into mental illness. His family environment was the perfect incubator for going crazy, but his brother’s death, which he blames himself for, pushed him headlong into madness. In this sense I read Gabriel as an unreliable narrator. His version of the facts is a creation of crazed mind. This is a story of a person with a horrible imaginary friend—an alter ago—who can be blamed for all the bad things that occur (or the bad things that Anwell does, or imagines). But this doesn’t really explain Anwell’s own horrific actions towards the end of the story. Instead, only questions are raised: How much of it actually happened and how much of it was imagined? Was there even a series of arson attacks on the town or was this a fantasy of Anwell’s? 

So where does Surrender come into all of this? Surrender is Anwell’s dog. The dog is like Finnigan—he is untamed and free, everything that Anwell wants to be but is not.  After Surrender is caught killing some kids (baby goats), he is condemned to death by Anwell’s father who commands Anwell pull the trigger himself. This is a very harrowing sequence in the novel and also the point at which a few things come together. First of all, we see Anwell’s father for the comprehensively cruel and heartless person that he is. Importantly, this is also the point where Anwell and Finnigan become one. Anwell decides to ‘surrender’ Surrender to Finnigan so that the dog escapes being killed. Unsurprisingly, instead of staying in the forest with Finnigan, Surrender follows Anwell home. Anwell tells himself that it’s only Surrender’s body that is being shot and that his soul is with Finnigan. The impossibility of separating good from evil is embodied in the shooting of Surrender and with this Anwell’s struggle to compartmentalise his good and bad sides finally wear him down. This failure triggers the desperate and tragic final act—after years of repressed guilt and shame over his brother’s death, he takes out his loss in the most gruesome manner, perhaps also as a way of revenging his brother against neglectful and callous parents.

I’m still digesting this book. I can’t explain massive chunks of it. Like Evangeline? Not sure where she fits into the story… she was a point of contention between Gabriel and Finnigan, but I’m not sure of the significance of her other than being another reason for Gabriel’s general humiliation in life.

I recommend this novel because it is beautifully written and will mess with your head a little (a good thing now and then, don’t you think...?) It was quite scary in some spots because I knew that something terrible was going to happen but I couldn’t predict when or what. With Finnigan looming in the background the spectre of evil was omnipresent. This made for quite a dark and somewhat terrifying story.