Posts Tagged ‘justice’

House of Sand and Fog

August 2, 2015

UnknownMassoud Behrani, 56, is a California garbage man. He used to be an air force colonel; in Iran; fled with his family when Khomeini took over. A man accustomed to deference, now he works demeaning jobs while running through the family’s savings to keep up appearances of prosperity for the sake of his daughter’s marriageability.

This 1999 novel, by Andre Dubus III, starts off when a life-changing break comes. Unknown-1With the last of his funds, he manages to buy a nice bungalow very cheaply at auction, after the county seized it for nonpayment of taxes. Behrani believes he can triple his money and use this as a springboard into a dignified real estate business.

But . . .

Then we meet the property’s dispossessed former owner: Kathy, 36, with a history of substance abuse which she seems to have more or less overcome. Her husband (whom she met in rehab) has left her, and she is hunkered down, just trying to hold things together. When she’s dunned for a puzzling business tax, she goes to the county and files paperwork explaining she owes no such tax. Thinking that’s the end of it, Kathy discards, unopened, subsequent letters from the county tax office.

imagesOne lesson of this book is: don’t ignore mail from tax authorities.

So Kathy suddenly finds herself ousted from her home by sheriff’s deputies. She goes to a legal aid lawyer. Turns out the county screwed up, big time: had the wrong address. But Behrani insists he’s now the legal owner, won’t budge, and tells her she should go sue the county.

A fine mess. Dilemmas of justice are often not right against wrong but right against right. Behrani isn’t entirely in the right, but he has so much invested in this bungalow, not just money but hopes and dreams, that his unwillingness to kiss it off is at least totally understandable.

Of course, this story is only beginning, and portends no good outcome. Especially once Lester is in the picture.

Unknown-2He’s one of the deputies, and he’s really fallen for Kathy. They commence an affair. Lester feels ready to ditch wife and kids for her. And he wants to help get her house back.

Things “spiraling out of control” is a cliché, but that’s what happens. One thing leads to another. Lester is not a bad person – actually noble in some ways. Nor is he a psychological “case.” Just a pretty normal, ordinary guy. But one thing does lead to another.

Yet I had trouble quite buying it. I know how good people can have lapses of judgment – been there and done that myself in fact. And up to a point Lester’s actions almost make sense, until they don’t. Finally he crosses the line and does something he absolutely shouldn’t. I thought an inner voice ought to have screamed No! But I guess, in the moment, people can ignore such voices. And the reader, already suspecting this story won’t end well, now knows it will end very badly indeed.

Unknown-3Storytelling is as old as language. Something in us craves it. Why? We evolved as the most social of creatures, our very lives dependent upon interaction with others. And it’s to help in that, to help us understand people, that we love stories. It’s why we read books like this: to understand a little better what makes people tick.

Yet ironically it often makes me feel like a Martian. One thing we do when reading a story is to compare ourselves to its characters, measuring ourselves and our lives against them and theirs. And it’s like I live in a bubble, antiseptically, cordoned off from real life lived by real people, like those in House of Sand and Fog.*

 But maybe it’s just that I had the operatic drama in my own life decades ago – so long ago that it’s as though it happened to a different person.

images-1* Recently I ate dinner at a bar (long story), next to two guys who, fueled by more beers than I could imagine drinking, were having heated guy talk. Very ordinary guys. And again, beside them, I felt totally like a visitor from Mars.

Why Both Left and Right Are Wrong

June 26, 2014

The Left’s calling itself “progressive,” while in some ways annoying, isn’t entirely wrong. A key element is caring about other people, including those outside the traditional ambit of human concern (our own families and tribes), and even sometimes including non-people. UnknownThis is indeed progressive; this widening of human concern, working toward a better, fairer world, with lessening conflict and violence, compared to the past, reflects very real progress. It’s ironic that another typical attribute of the “progressive” temperament is denial of such progress.

It’s because being critical and cynical flatters the Left’s intellectual vanity. Indignation is a satisfying emotion. To be an optimist, on the other hand, to believe well of others, and that we’re making progress, seems just too sappy. It isn’t hip.

The Left views market capitalism with hostility, as though it’s some kind of perverted system artificially imposed by a conspiracy of a few to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest; which could be changed if we wanted to. Not a single element of that catechism reflects reality. A market economy is merely the natural, indeed inevitable, way that any bunch of humans interacts. Yes, with friends and family, we do a lot of sharing. images-1But otherwise if you have something of value – be it an object, or your labor – you won’t give it without getting something in return, indeed the most you can get (bar fraud or cheating). That is in fact merely justice (a word the Left loves). Striving to do well for oneself isn’t wrong; mostly people do that by creating value for others who’ll pay them for it. And this is how we’ve made a better, richer world — by people putting in efforts in order to improve their own situation. Is this the “greed” we hear so much about?

And the Left’s conception of justice tends to omit what ought to be its principal component: deservingness. While they do insist no one deserves to be poor, they meantime seem to deny that anyone deserves to be rich. At least they don’t see any entitlement to keep riches one has earned.

The right is less confused about the economics, but frankly tends to be grinch-hearted. images-2Its conception of justice is flawed in mirror-image of the Left’s – believing that when people don’t succeed it’s because they didn’t deserve to. That the less successful are basically slackers and moochers (this is why Romney’s infamous “47%” comment was so resonant). The right doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge how much luck determines one’s situation. And if the Left is overly obsessed with inequality, the right is too complacent about it.

Even cave people were humane enough to take care of the sick, infirm, or injured. Today’s right no longer seems to regard this as a fundamental societal obligation. Part of the problem is that the whole issue of helping the needy is crapped up by the fact that the great bulk of “help” goes to people who aren’t needy at all (look at the farm program, for example, most of whose subsidies go to millionaires). Unknown-1This blatant milking of the government teat tends to taint all such spending.

But we are a very rich society that can easily afford to take care of those less fortunate – if only we focused on just that.