Friday, April 28, 2017

Q&A with Amos N. Guiora

Amos N. Guiora is the author of the new book The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust. His other books include Cybersecurity and Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism. He is Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.

Q: You write that this book ended up going in different directions than you initially expected. What were you thinking you would write, and why did that change?

A: When I began the project, I began it as a traditional law book, and in the first and second drafts, I found it to be boring for the writer. How do I make it more interesting?

I was preparing for a marathon with my running partner. You have hours to kill. The more stories I shared with her, the more I realized there was a story to tell here, and simultaneously to this, my father, a healthy 86-year-old, fell. I realized he was cognitively impaired, and that I knew very little about the Holocaust and my parents’ experiences.

I put it all together and I thought, why not write something that’s law-based but tells a story about my parents as a way to honor my parents and use their experiences as a way to address a very important legal question. It came out to be personal, historical, legal, but not [only] legal.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I thought long and hard about the title. There’s great significance to titles. I came to the conclusion that the bystander commits a crime, and the crime he commits is complicity. Why not address it head-on, and point the finger at the bystander. There’s a [recent] story in Detroit about a child drowning [that exemplifies this].

Q: You propose criminalizing bystander complicity. How exactly would that work?

A: Take the case in Detroit. Those standing there with a cell phone in their hand are in a position to dial 911, alert law enforcement. Failing to do that is a criminal act. I went back and forth on the extent of liability. I decided the most appropriate punishment was a financial penalty…

Q: How do you apply the lessons from the Holocaust to today’s world?

A: …I’ve been an autodidact on the Holocaust. [The top Nazis] don’t really interest me. The lesson learned is that if not for the bystanders, I don’t think the evil that was perpetrated would have been perpetrated. The Eichmanns of the world benefited from the complicity of bystanders. That for me is the lesson.

I think it absolutely applies to society today…the failure to act on behalf of a vulnerable victim significantly endangers the vulnerable victim. That to me, for me, is the primary lesson to be learned.

As my father was dying, I said, I’ve got to finish this before he dies. I’m in a race against time. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed; he died before I finished. But out of nowhere, all the wires for three days, two years ago, recrossed, and I was able to interview him about this stuff. It was out of nowhere.

He did not allow me to videotape him; he was conscious of how he looked and would not allow me to tape him. I feverishly took notes as he spoke for three days. He disagrees with my theory. When he was on the death march, the villagers didn’t owe any duty to save him. My mother also disagrees.

Q: So that was the only time he talked about it?

A: Except when I was 12 years old. We were canoeing…he told me his story and her story and took me home…

You write a book like this, you uncover family stories, how he escaped and how he was saved. It’s a lovely story but it’s not true. He told me he was liberated by Tito’s [forces] and a Russian jeep showed up to save him. That’s not true. He hiked through the mountains, with no coat. He never shared that with me.

I know because I met with a Hungarian historian who asked how my dad got through to Sofia. I said a Russian jeep. He said that’s not true, he walked in horrible conditions. I said my perception of my father was that he couldn’t make his way from the living room to the front door without my mother. It turns out not to be the case.

I was a rude 15-year-old, and I said [to him], You never play golf. He said, I survived the Holocaust, don’t you think that’s enough? The book is an attempt to honor my dad through the lens of the bystander. There’s a lot of personal [information] in it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just had [another] book out [recently] on cybersecurity, and one on Earl Warren. This one took four years to write, longer than the previous ones…there was so much family history in it.

It begins with the drowning of my cousin. It has never been discussed. It’s an unimaginable family tragedy. The first picture in the book—my mother took that picture the day before he drowned. The question of the bystander for me is not an abstract academic question, it’s deeply rooted in me. A child drowning is so awful.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the book?

A: Whether people agree or disagree with my conclusion, I leave to the reader. What’s important is that the issue be discussed. I try to make it accessible through the personal stories of my parents.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Amos Guiora will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York on May 22.

April 28

April 28, 1926: Harper Lee born.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

April 27

April 27, 1945: August Wilson born.

Q&A with Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy, photo by Phil Crozier
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of the new book The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved By Accusing Others of Advantage. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Republic and The Atlantic. She is based in New York and Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of writing about privilege, and how do you see the concept of privilege changing in recent years?

A: Around the time of the 2008 recession, I started seeing a lot of privilege call-outs (as in, “check your privilege”) appearing online, on blogs and, especially, in blog comment sections, which were in many ways the precursor to social media as it exists today.

I began writing about the phenomenon of privilege accusation on my blog  (under the tag YPIS, for “your privilege is showing”), but in the course of researching the book, realized extends to other arenas as well: college admissions, cultural criticism, and politics.

What interested me wasn’t online trolling as a broader phenomenon, but rather the specific subset that presents itself not as trolling, but as self-righteous defense of (often absent) marginalized parties.

A culture had developed online where no matter the context, every topic, every cultural object, every political debate had to be discussed in terms of privilege. What struck me was both how ubiquitous the phrase (and framing) had become, and how empty.

With “privilege” functioning as, in effect, a synonym for “bad”, “wrong”, or “oblivious,” its function as a catch-all insult seemed to eclipse its use as a description of society’s structure.

While the hierarchies the (progressive) privilege framework refers to is real, and is really a problem (that is, racism, sexism, etc., exist), it’s not clear that the great privilege-awareness project (with its focus on privileged individuals’ self-presentation) does terribly much to address it. If anything, it makes things worse.

As for how the concept has changed in recent years, what happened is, a concept that has generally been used to refer to wealth and family connections, to a life of luxury and ease, has come to be used to describe every possible form of unearned (and, often, earned) advantage.

Q: In a recent Washington Post review of your book, Carlos Lozada wrote, "Someone needs to book Phoebe Maltz Bovy on one of those television shows featuring people who have the most awful jobs in America, because she has just completed a project so soul-crushing that I can’t imagine anyone ever doing it again, certainly not voluntarily." Was it soul-crushing?

A: It wasn’t soul-crushing! As I understood that part of his review in context, Carlos Lozada was saying that online arguments (and comments sections), which are many (not all) of my sources, are – especially, perhaps, for writers – painful to read. The dregs of discourse.

While I sort of get that when it comes to internet comments on my own writing, I don’t think it’s viable, at this point, to pretend such sources aren’t a big part of what the cultural conversation these days consists of.

Law professor Ann Althouse explained this in a blog post about the review better than I could, but basically, the idea is, online squabbles are sources worth looking at.

Also, as a practical matter, for nearly all the time I was working on what wound up being the background research for the book, and then on the book itself, I was also working.

The embarrassing fact is, I’m someone who has chosen to use some spare time reading blog comments sections and Twitter arguments, because I find many of them genuinely interesting.

Q: Where does feminism fit into the concept of "privilege"?

A: So very many places, particularly since the election, and the great feminist post-election reckoning.

One way to look at it is, feminism exists as pushback against male privilege. (Or, as I’d prefer to put it, against sexism.) What happens, though is that internal feminist debates quite naturally tend to involve highlighting the relative privilege of some women over others.

Within feminism, this is necessary – feminism can’t just be about CEO numbers. But movements have porous borders, and online, it’s often not clear who’s who. Criticisms of so-called elite feminism are sometimes about a needed reprioritization within feminism, but one finds the same sort of rhetoric from anti-feminists.

Put another way: It’s one thing to think women minimum-wage workers should have more of a voice relative to (say) Sheryl Sandberg than they do. It’s another to say that Western feminists have nothing legitimate to complain about, and that it’s fancy and oblivious to care about having women in leadership positions.

The fact that women – even privileged ones! – face sexism gets lost. Women – as a group, and certain individual public figures – remain the face of “privilege,” even while maleness remains one of the major forms of unearned advantage.

All of these issues – which I discuss at length in the book – have become if anything more of an issue since the election. Paradoxically, ever since Hillary Clinton lost, she’s become that much more the symbol of privileged feminism.

Q: Given the arrival of the Trump administration, where do you see the privilege debates heading?

A: I think – and I get into this in the Afterword, which I wrote just after Trump became the GOP nominee – Trump has managed to make the “privilege” approach work in his favor.

Building on preexisting strains of right-wing populism, domestic and international, he’s successfully cast his opponents as “privileged”, his fans (and straight white Christian men generally) as underdogs.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Fiction and non-fiction, both about academia, both still very much at the Microsoft Word document stage…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Here’s where I’ll reiterate that systemic injustice – racism, sexism, wealth inequality, and more – is real. These are phenomena that need to be addressed more, not less. My issue with “privilege” isn’t that it’s given too much of a voice to historical underdogs. It’s that it’s done the opposite. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Ruth Behar

Ruth Behar is the author of a new novel for older kids, Lucky Broken Girl, which is based on her own childhood. Her other books include Traveling Heavy and An Island Called Home. She is a cultural anthropologist, and she lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Q: You've said that you first wrote the story of your childhood accident and its aftermath from the perspective of an adult looking back. What made you decide to write it from a child's viewpoint?

A: I had the idea in the back of my mind for a long time to write the story from a child’s viewpoint. As a young woman, I wrote short stories with magic and myth woven into them. But I gave up that writing to become a cultural anthropologist, always drawing on my rational mind to write essays and books for adult readers.

In recent years I’ve come back to fiction. I tried writing an adult novel, but was unhappy with the result. I set it aside and sat down and started writing the story of the accident with the child as the narrator. Memories came flooding back.

What I wished had happened otherwise, I took the liberty of inventing and making sweeter and more magical than in real life.

And the child’s voice came easily. I surrendered to that voice, which I found refreshingly honest and bold. It was a voice, as the expression goes in Spanish, “que no tiene pelos en la lengua,” which literally means “not to have hairs on the tongue.”

When I finished the book, I felt so grateful to have been able to tell a story I’d carried around for 50 years.

Q: How did you remember all the details you recount from the 1960s? Did you need to conduct additional research?

A: I have vivid memories of the long months I spent in the body cast as well as the long months of learning to walk again. I drew on everything I could recall—and the lingering trauma that still exists in my body—to write Lucky Broken Girl.

I had been the kind of child, and later became the adult woman, who was obsessed with the family history. Throughout the years I collected stories, old photographs, and memorabilia from my grandparents. I built up a huge archive that helped me conjure the cultural context and the Jewish-Cuban diaspora history that informs the book.

And I have traveled to Cuba, gaining a strong sense of the home we lost and feeling the weight of the nostalgia of those who left, like my family, with little more than a suitcase to start a new life in the United States.

One of the most concrete ways I put myself back in the era of the 1960s was by drawing on popular music, recalling how I loved the song, “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” Sure enough, those go-go boots from the song became an important symbol in the book.

Q: How did you come up with the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: My original working title for the book was “The Accident,” but it was vague and didn’t convey Ruthie’s experience. I then thought of “The Broken Girl,” but that didn’t feel right either.

It occurred to me that Ruthie was a girl who was both broken and lucky. She couldn’t leave her bed, but she got to go on an amazing journey of self-discovery during the year she was a convalescent.

I started calling the book “Lucky Broken Girl.” I realized it was an unusual title and didn’t expect it to last. I’d heard that most authors don’t get to make the final decision on their book titles.

But my editor loved the title, as did everyone on the marketing team, and it stuck. I’m glad I got to keep it. I love how it’s contradictory and makes you wonder from the start how it’s possible to be both lucky and broken.

Q: You and your family had arrived in the United States from Cuba, and much of the book deals with the experience of being an immigrant. With the current focus today on immigration issues, what do you hope readers take away from your story?

A: At this moment in history, we are experiencing a disturbing rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. We need to counter this trend by building more bridges between individuals and communities. The stories of immigrants, all immigrants, need to be told and heard, so our shared humanity can rise above the misperceptions.

Lucky Broken Girl is an immigrant story but it isn’t limited to my own Cuban immigrant story. There are intersecting immigrant stories, shown through Ruthie’s friendships with a boy from India, a girl from Belgium, a neighbor from Mexico, and a physical therapist from Puerto Rico by way of the Bronx.

She also has a close relationship with Baba, her Polish Jewish grandmother who finds refuge in Cuba on the eve of the Holocaust and then has to uproot again to the United States. All these immigrants are finding their way in the United States and are contributing to the moral and cultural fabric of the country.

I hope readers will take away new understandings of the immigrant experience and develop greater empathy toward the plight of those who, at great emotional cost, must leave an old home to create a new home somewhere else.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new middle-grade novel that takes place in Cuba. I’m afraid to say too much about it just yet, except that I’m very excited to be writing fiction again.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The fact that it took me such a long time to write a novel about my childhood accident will, I hope, give other writers the push they need to get going on telling the stories they’ve been carrying around.

It truly is never too late to write a story that’s from the heart. If you’ve been contemplating writing a novel about your childhood story, sit down and get started today!

To learn more about Lucky Broken Girl and the other writing I’ve done through the years, please visit my website.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 27

April 27, 1898: Ludwig Bemelmans born.

April 27

April 27, 1759: Mary Wollstonecraft born.