Dinaw Mengestu (The Bat Segundo Show #539)

Dinaw Mengestu is most recently the author of All Our Names.

Author: Dinaw Mengestu


Subjects Discussed: Writing from a woman’s perspective for the first time, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, delving into the perspective of revolutionary turmoil, Mengestu’s American perspective, how journalism helped Mengestu to pursue more serious areas in literature, “soft” fiction vs. revolutionary realities, working with alternating chapters to create narrative collusion, the shame of being impoverished, sustaining an existence on lies, the effects of trauma, when novelists writing about the other avoid abrasive fictional perspectives in the interest of attracting readers, quiet introverts in fiction, why Mengestu hasn’t written about noisier immigrants, aesthetic sensibilities, loud vs. quiet characters, imagining trauma, Mengestu’s experience of writing about characters who felt trauma before he was born, the appeal of characters who experience extreme forms of political crisis, ventriloquist-style novelists and humanism, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, exuberant characters, being tagged with the “immigrant fiction” label, deliberately keeping time and space murky in All Our Names vs. the close attention to Logan Circle in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the timelessness of discrimination, emotions summoned through general descriptive specifications, resisting the urge of writing a novel set in an unnamed country, the problems with naming too many things, the limitations of looking at events through a historical prism, unspoken American prohibitions against political fiction, politics in fiction without didacticism, European encouragement of political fiction, constraints imposed on American fiction, creating an artistic space within fiction, Mengestu’s sense of aesthetic value, arguments that books make for ways of seeing, living with hand-me-downs, how Mengestu’s characters express emotions through giving gifts, materials used to express emotional connection to other people, Emily Dickinson, monuments of America, holding onto emotion in a narrative using objects, when the personal and the political overlap, personal maps vs. political maps, having an internal map of someone you love, concrete political realities, the fluidity of love and how political realities shape it, Helen’s relationship to her parents, the rigidity of place, rituals shared by couples, relationships and silence, situations in life when words are less valuable than intimacy, language provoked from silence, silence as the ineffable pain of not knowing how to communicate, how to measure silence, the mysterious character of David, Edward Snowden, writing in a proto-surveillance state about people who watch other people, Michiko Kakutani’s review, Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Rilke, what contemporary fiction does with the brazen perspectives of colonial literature, working against Naipaul, Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim and the “great game,” Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, wrestling with postcolonialism, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s idea that there are no postcolonial errors, finding an aesthetic balance in a sentence, being a slow writer to find rhythm, and the benefits of memorizing poetry.


Correspondent: This novel does something new that we haven’t seen from you. It’s the first of your novels to feature the first-person perspective from a woman, one of two alternative perspectives in this book. The other is a man named Isaac, or I’m going to use term “Not Isaac.” (laughs)

Mengestu: Yes.

Correspondent: Because there is an Isaac and a Not Isaac. And it’s also the first to really depict this Naipaulian tableau of what seems at first to be an unnamed African country in revolutionary turmoil, almost a response to the allusion you made to A Bend in the River in the first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and also the lies that Jonas is spinning in How to Read the Air. So I’m wondering why it took you three novels before you could write partially from the perspective of a woman and also from this position of revolutionary turmoil. I mean, I’m curious how the first two novels led you to this particular point. Because I read all three of your novels and I thought this was a fascinating evolution.

Mengestu: Yeah. I think that was almost perfect. One of the best readings I’ve ever had of all three books. They are very closely intertwined. And if anything, even though this is the last book of the three to have been written, in some ways it actually precedes the other two. This was the book that actually precedes the revolutions that make the characters in the first novel and in the second novel flee. And so I wanted to go back to what I thought would be an earlier moment in history. A point that would say this is actually that very elusive, optimistic period just after independence when things seemed like they might turn out great in many African nations and then they didn’t. And the other thing was that after writing the first few novels, I realized there’s another part of me that I’d never really had a chance to explore in fiction, which was to write from the point of view of an American. Because I’m also, I think, deeply American and I grew up in the Midwest after leaving Ethiopia. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is partly a product of that. My novels oftentimes have been categorized in terms of immigrant fiction. To some degree, this is also perhaps a subconscious response to that idea, to say, Well, look, it’s not. Those categories are very limited and don’t actually say that much. And, in fact, here’s a way of seeing that narratives such as this are more than just immigrant friction and that immigrant narratives are very much a part of an American tableau. And you can’t micromanage them or faction them off into ethnic or political categories like that. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is my response to that. She is an American woman. She’s in many ways more intimate to me than the characters of Isaac are.

Correspondent: So Helen. It’s interesting that it takes a woman for you to say, “I’m an American too!”

Mengestu: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: Was it easy? She’s a young American. She’s still trying to figure out how people work and how relationships work and where one’s place is in the universe. And I’m wondering why a woman’s voice was the best way for you to really show to yourself and show to the world that you were, in fact, an American as well.

Mengestu: You know, it’s definitely because I wanted Isaac to have a relationship with someone. So the novel, when I first began it, I never knew that it would necessarily have a part in the United States when I first started writing it. I was very much concerned about trying to capture this period in Africa’s history. I thought it would be about a group of friends in postcolonial Africa on a college campus. And then as those voices started to converge around the characters Isaac and Not Isaac, I began to realize, well, of course, inevitably there was going to be a second half that took place in America. And inevitably you’re drawn to the most complex relationships and the relationship between a couple that’s almost always the most complex. You know, friends are, of course, complex. But I wanted a love story as well in this story. And, of course, if we have Isaac and I had created Helen to follow almost immediately afterwards. And in some ways, you know, I’m not — I never really had any anxiety about her gender. In some ways, she emerged into the story as quickly as the voice of Isaac did. And so as soon as I had Isaac coming into America, I realized Helen was the one to witness him first. She was the first person to see him enter this landscape and to acknowledge him and to become close to him and to kind of help create a sense of home for him. So, yeah, she just was immediate and necessary.

Correspondent: And just to delineate to our listeners, who are probably listening to this turmoil and wondering what’s going on, there is an Isaac that is in the Helen chapters and there is an Isaac and what we’re calling a Not Isaac guy who goes by several names ranging from the Professor to a number of other noms in the other thing in these alternating series of chapters. I want to go back to the first question about looking straight into the face of revolutionary turmoil. This book seems to me to be the one that is the clearest. It’s not doing so through any kind of lying. It’s not doing so through any kind of anecdotal family episode or anything like that. It’s trying to stare at it in the face and, at the same time, doing so where the names themselves are not explicit. They’re more common noun than proper noun. And I’m wondering why it took you three novels just to really look at that in the face and confront it like that.

Mengestu: I think some of it was gaining more experience as a journalist.

Correspondent: Journalism helped.

Mengestu: It really did. And I never actually thought of myself as having that much of a dialogue between what I do as a journalist and what I do as a novelist. So my first novel touches briefly on the revolutionary politics of Ethiopia. But never having experienced those politics, I had to imagine a character who had experienced them at a very young age and then left the country. In my second novel, the characters are basically inventing those stories of revolutionary Africa because they were born in America. Now, having traveled through Darfur and the Eastern Congo and Uganda, and having met revolutionary leaders and having seen first-hand the effects of these small-scale and sometimes very large-scale conflicts, they all left a deep profound impression on my mind. And some of those impressions worked their way into the second novel. But I don’t think I had enough time to really sit with those images with a while, to really kind of let them become a part of my imagination. So by the time this novel began, I knew the terrain intimately. I knew the consequences of those conflicts. And perhaps more importantly, I felt like I knew how to create characters who could be responsible for violence, but were not strictly evil men. That to me seemed really important. I’ve met a lot of men who I knew were perpetrators of the violence, but at the same time you realize that to describe them or to limit their characters to only horrific terms denies their complexity. And so I felt finally mature enough and able enough to create characters who were responsible for violence, who witnessed violence, who are perpetrators of violence, and yet at the same time are more than just violent men.

Correspondent: Do you find though that having confronted so many revolutions and so much violence in your journalism that fiction is somehow cheapened? That anything you can contribute from the American vantage point is somehow sanded down? Because you do have a great subtlety with much of the prose, which is not to say that there aren’t things exploding not necessarily politically, but also personally. How do you reckon with the intensity of something like that? Or do you feel that fiction naturally needs to be a little softer in the presentation of these human nuances?

Mengestu: I actually feel that fiction does a better job for me. I think that what you can do as a journalist in the very limited space and time that you have to write one story is that you can tally up the consequences in a very linear fashion. But I think in order to have readers actually experience that level of violence on a scale that doesn’t feel purely remote to them, I think that’s one of the things that fiction can do. In writing this novel and having these oscillating chapters between Helen’s voice and Isaac’s voice, part of the intent was definitely to see what happens when you place these two narratives next to each other side by side. If it isn’t possible to see them as not wholly distinct stories or wholly distinct experiences, but actually narratives that are in constant collusion and constant discourse, the experiences of someone in Africa don’t necessarily seem that remote from the experiences of a white woman in middle America. And that in fact these characters, especially when you reduce it down to the scale of individual characters, so that Isaac becomes the embodiment to some degree of that violence and he takes that violence and brings it to America. And it’s relived, reimagined, when it’s passed onto Helen. And it seems to me that fiction is the space that allows us to do that. Imagining these characters, I thought that I could actually get into their lives in ways that I never could when I was writing journalism. I could imagine the men that I’d met in greater detail and give them, I think, a greater level of emotions than they would ever have given me as a journalist.

(Loops for this program provided by reed1415, tendeir0, and nilooy. Some music provided by Vio/Mire through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #539: Dinaw Mengestu (Download MP3)

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The Taming of Chance (Modern Library Nonfiction #98)

(This is the third entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Operating Instructions.)

mlnf98In the bustling beginnings of the twentieth century, the ferociously independent mind who forever altered the way in which we look at the universe was living in poverty.* His name was Charles Sanders Peirce and he’d anticipated Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle by a few decades. In 1892, Peirce examined what he called the doctrine of necessity, which held that every single fact of the universe was determined by law. Because before Peirce came along, there were several social scientists who were determined to find laws in everything — whether it be an explanation for why you parted your hair at a certain angle with a comb, felt disgust towards specific members of the boy band One Direction, or ran into an old friend at a restaurant one hundred miles away from where you both live. Peirce declared that absolute chance — that is, spontaneity or anything we cannot predict before an event, such as the many fish that pelted upon the heads of puzzled citizens in Shasta County, California on a January night in 1903 — is a fundamental part of the universe. He concluded that even the careful rules discovered by scientists only come about because, to paraphrase Autolycus from A Winter’s Tale, although humans are not always naturally honest, chance sometimes makes them so.

The story of how Peirce’s brave stance was summoned from the roiling industry of men with abaci and rulers is adeptly set forth in Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, a pleasantly head-tingling volume that I was compelled to read twice to ken the fine particulars. It’s difficult to articulate how revolutionary this idea was at the time, especially since we now live in an epoch in which much of existence feels preordained by statistics. We have witnessed Nate Silver’s demographic models anticipate election results and, as chronicled in Moneyball, player performance analysis has shifted the way in which professional baseball teams select their roster and steer their lineup into the playoffs, adding a strange computational taint that feels as squirmy as performance enhancing drugs.

But there was a time in human history in which chance was considered a superstition of the vulgar, even as Leibniz, seeing that a number of very smart people were beginning to chatter quite a bit about probability, argued that the true measure of a Prussian state resided in how you tallied the population. Leibniz figured that if Prussia had a central statistic office, it would not only be possible to gauge the nation’s power but perhaps lead to certain laws and theories about the way these resources worked.

This was obviously an idea that appealed to chin-stroking men in power. One does not rule an empire without keeping the possibility of expansion whirling in the mind. It didn’t take long for statistics offices to open and enthusiasts to start counting heads in faraway places. (Indeed, much like the early days of computers, the opening innovations originated from amateurs and enthusiasts.) These early statisticians logged births, deaths, social status, the number of able-bodied men who might be able to take up weapons in a violent conflict, and many other categories suggested by Leibniz (and others that weren’t). And they didn’t just count in Prussia. In 1799, Sir John Sinclair published a 21 volume Statistical Account of Scotland that undoubtedly broke the backs of many of the poor working stiffs who were forced to carry these heavy tomes to the guys determined to count it all. Some of the counters became quite obsessive in their efforts. Hacking reports that Sinclair, in particular, became so sinister in his efforts to get each minister of the Church of Scotland to provide a detailed congregation schedule that he began making threats shrouded in a jocose tone. Perhaps the early counters needed wild-eyed dogged advocates like Sinclair to establish an extremely thorough baseline.

The practice of heavy-duty counting resulted, as Hacking puts it, in a bona-fide “avalanche of numbers.” Yet the intersection of politics and statistics created considerable fracas. Hacking describes the bickering and backbiting that went down in Prussia. What was a statistical office? Should we let the obsessive amateurs run it? Despite all the raging egos, bountiful volumes of data were published. And because there was a great deal of paper being shuffled around, cities were compelled by an altogether different doctrine of necessity to establish central statistical hubs. During the 1860s, statistical administrations were set up in Berlin, New York, Stockholm, Vienna, Rome, Leipzig, Frankfurt-am-Main, and many others. But from these central offices emerged a East/West statistics turf war, with France and England playing the role of Biggie on the West and Prussia as Tupac on the East. The West believed that a combination of individual competition and natural welfare best served society, while the East created the welfare state to solve these problems. And these attitudes, which Hacking is good enough to confess as caricaturish even as he illustrates a large and quite important point, affected the way in which statistics were perceived. If you believe in a welfare state, you’re probably not going to see laws forged from the printed numbers. Because numbers are all about individual action. And if you believe in the Hobbesian notion of free will, you’re going to look for statistical laws in the criminal numbers, because laws are formed by individuals. This created new notions of statistical fatalism. It’s worth observing that science at the time was also expected to account for morality.

Unusual experiments ensued. What, for example, could the chest circumference of a Scotsman tell us about the stability of the universe? (Yes, the measurement of Scottish chests was seriously considered by a Belgian guy named Adolphe Quetelet, who was trying to work out theories about the average man. When we get to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man several years from now, #21 in the Modern Library Nonfiction canon, I shall explore more pernicious measurement ideas promulgated as “science.” Stay tuned!) More nefariously, if you could chart the frequency of how often the working classes called in sick, perhaps you could establish laws to determine who was shirking duty, track the unruly elements, and punish the agitators interfering with the natural law. (As we saw with William Lamb Melbourne’s story, the British government was quite keen to crack down on trade unions during the 1830s. So just imagine what a rabid ideologue armed with a set of corrupted and unproven “laws” could do. In fact, we don’t even have to jump that far back in time. Aside from the obvious Hollerith punch card example, one need only observe the flawed radicalization model presently used by the FBI and the DHS to crack down on Muslim “extremists.” Arun Kundnani’s recent book, The Muslims Are Coming, examines this issue further. And a future Bat Segundo episode featuring Kundnani will discuss this dangerous approach at length.)

Throughout all these efforts to establish laws from numbers (Newton’s law of gravity had inspired a league of scientists to seek a value for this new G constant, a process that took more than a century), Charles Babbage, Johann Christian Poggendorf, and many others began publishing tables of constants. It is one thing to publish atomic weights. It is quite another to measure the height, weight, pulse, and breath of humans by gender and ethnicity (along with animals). The latter constant sets are clearly not as objective as Babbage would like to believe. And yet the universe does adhere to certain undeniable principles, especially when you have a large data set.

It took juries for mathematicians to understand how to reconcile large numbers with probability theory. In 1808, Pierre-Simon Laplace became extremely concerned with the French jury system. At the time, twelve-member juries convicted an accused citizen by a simple majority. He calculated that a seven-to-five majority had a chance of error of one in three. The French code had adopted the unusual method of creating a higher court of five judges to step in if there was a disagreement with a majority verdict in the lower court. In other words, if the majority of the judges in the higher court agreed with the minority of jurors in the lower court that an accused person should be acquitted, then the accused person would be acquitted. Well, this complicated system bothered Laplace. Accused men often faced execution in the French courts. So if there was a substantial chance of error, then the system needed to be reformed. Laplace began to consider juries composed of different sizes and verdicts ranging from total majority (12:0) to partial majority (9:3, 8:4), and he computed the following odds (which I have reproduced from a very helpful table in Hacking’s book):


The problems here become self-evident. You can’t have 1,001 people on a jury arguing over the fate of one man. On the other hand, you can’t have a 2/7 chance of error with a jury of twelve. (One of Laplace’s ideas was a 144 member jury delivering a 90:54 verdict. This involved a 1/773 chance of error. But that’s nowhere nearly as extreme as a Russian mathematician named M.V. Ostrogradsky, who wasted much ink arguing that a 212:200 majority was more reliable than a 12:0 verdict. Remember all this the next time you receive a jury duty notice. Had some of Laplace’s understandable concerns been more seriously considered, there’s a small chance that societies could have adopted larger juries in the interest of a fair trial.)

French law eventually changed the minimum conviction from 7:5 to 8:4. But it turned out that there was a better method to allow for a majority jury verdict. It was a principle that extended beyond mere frequency and juror reliability, taking into account Bernoulli’s ideas on drawing black and white balls from an urn to determine a probability value. It was called the law of large numbers. And the great thing is that you can observe this principle in action through a very simple experiment.

Here’s a way of seeing the law of large numbers in action. Take a quarter and flip it. Write down whether the results are heads or tails. Do it again. Keep doing this and keep a running tally of how many times the outcome is heads and how many times the coin comes up tails. For readers who are too lazy to try this at home, I’ve prepared a video and a table of my coin toss results:


The probability of a coin toss is 1:1. On average, the coin will turn up heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time. As you can see, while my early tosses leaned heavily towards heads, by the time I had reached the eighteenth toss, the law of large numbers ensured that my results skewed closer to 1:1 (in this case, 5:4) as I continued to toss the coin. Had I continued to toss the coin, I would have come closer to 1:1 with every toss.


The law of large numbers offered the solution to Laplace’s predicament. It also accounts for the mysterious picture at the head of this essay. That image is a working replica of a Galton box (also known as a quincunx). (If you’re ever in Boston, go to the Museum of Science and you can see a very large working replica of a Galton box in action.) Sir Francis Galton needed a very visual method of showing off the central limit theorem. So he designed a box, not unlike a pachinko machine, in which beans are dropped from the top and work their way down through a series of wooden pins, which cause them to fall along a random path. Most of the beans land in the center. Drop more beans and you will see a natural bell curve form, illustrating the law of large numbers and the central limit theorem.

Despite all this, there was still the matter of statistical fatalism to iron out, along with an understandable distrust of statistics among artists and the general population, which went well beyond Disraeli’s infamous “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” quote. Hacking is a rigorous enough scholar to reveal how Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Balzac were skeptical of utilitarian statistics. Balzac, in particular, delved into “conjugal statistics” in his Physiology of Marriage to deduce the number of virtuous women. They had every reason to be, given how heavily philosophers leaned on determinism. (See also William James’s “The Dilemma of Determinism.”) A German philosopher named Ernst Cassirer was a big determinism booster, pinpointing its beginnings in 1872. Hacking challenges Cassierer by pointing out that determinism incorporated the doctrine of necessity earlier in the 1850s, an important distinction in returning back to Peirce’s idea of absolute chance.

I’ve been forced to elide a number of vital contributors to probability and some French investigations into suicide in an attempt to convey Hacking’s intricate narrative. But the one word that made Perice’s contributions so necessary was “normality.” This was the true danger of statistical ideas being applied to the moral sciences. When “normality” became the ideal, it was greatly desirable to extirpate anything “abnormal” or “aberrant” from the grand human garden, even though certain crime rates were indeed quite normal. We see similar zero tolerance measures practiced today by certain regressive members of law enforcement or, more recently, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s impossible pledge to rid New York City of all traffic deaths by 2024. As the law of large numbers and Galton’s box observed, some statistics are inevitable. Yet it was also important for Peirce to deny the doctrine of necessity. Again, without chance, Peirce pointed out that we could not have had all these laws in the first place.

It was strangely comforting to learn that, despite all the nineteenth century innovations in mathematics and probability, chance remains very much a part of life. Yet when one begins to consider stock market algorithms (and the concomitant flash crashes), as well as our collective willingness to impart voluminous personal data to social media companies who are sharing these numbers with other data brokers, I cannot help but ponder whether we are willfully submitting to another “law of large numbers.” Chance may favor the prepared mind, as Pasteur once said. So why court predictability?

* Peirce’s attempts to secure academic employment and financial succor were thwarted by a Canadian scientist named Simon Newcomb. (A good overview of the correspondence between the two men can be found at the immensely helpful “Perice Gateway” website.)

Next Up: Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer!

Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps, Hateful Homophobic Monster, Dead at 84

Fred Phelps is dead at 84. He claimed to be working on behalf of a religious deity, but he had more poison flowing through his veins than half the diamondback rattlesnakes in Florida. Like most venomous reptiles who live to be beheaded by the end of a shovel but that somehow elude that pragmatic instrument, Phelps found his greatest pleasure swallowing innocent mice whole. The small mammals that could not find their way down Phelps’s giant gullet became his willing accomplices and did his bidding through the Westboro Baptist Church.

Phelps was capable of striking at a distance of five states. “Troll” seems too miniscule a word for this craven and atavistic monster, who memorialized his words by picketing funerals of those he deemed immoral. There will be those, even those who stand against Phelps, who will play the “respect for the dead” card, but Phelps deserves neither esteem nor veneration. Let’s not sugarcoat the horror show. He caused insufferable grief to the families of men who served our country and those who struggled to come to terms with their natural identity. His hatred was so electric that it was capable of powering small towns in Kansas and turning innocent people into malicious beasts. Pissing on this ruthless hatemonger’s grave is a rare humanist act.

On the other hand, maybe Phelps’s repugnant conduct was needed to ignite a movement, to get America closer to a less bigoted society that accepts LGBT people as good and vital souls. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old man who was tortured and killed because he was gay. He was tied to a fence and left to die. It was an unspeakably barbaric act that only a sociopath could fail to shed tears over. Fred Phelps arranged for his followers to picket Shepard’s funerals and this was the beginning of his despicable actions. When Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, was asked how she felt about Phelps, she replied, “Oh we love Freddy. If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” And look how far this nation has come in the sixteen years since. Sixteen states that issue same-sex marriage licenses. 59% of America supporting gay marriage, according to a March 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll. Phelps’s life and legacy raises the unsettling possibility that some extremism may be necessary to make a more tolerant nation.

There was a time in Phelps’s life in which there was a part of his vicious core committed to doing the right thing. As a lawyer in the 1960s, Phelps devoted himself to civil rights, taking on cases that no other counsel would touch. But some baleful piece stirred inside Phelps’s tormented spirit and turned him evil in the subsequent decades. But here’s the thing about intolerance. It has a way of courting intolerance in others. I felt guiltless relish in writing the first two paragraphs of this obituary. I had many friends of varying sexualities when I lived in San Francisco. I hated Fred Phelps with every fiber of my being. The fear he stitched into the American fabric, the insurmountable pain he summoned inside people who did nothing wrong. But I also resent Phelps for summoning these vengeful impulses in the name of humanism. It all makes me want to take a cold shower, yet I feel compelled to stare fearlessly back into the beast.

Near the end of his days, Phelps was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church. He was too much even for that abhorrent entity, which will no doubt get a ride of free publicity in the forthcoming weeks. A snake is said to be a solitary beast when it isn’t mating. But it does not back away from confrontation. Its rattle is loud and aggressive, but slightly softer when it scuttles closer to humans. Time will tell if Phelps serves as an inspirational figure for more willing to saunter down the low path or just another poisonous coil dead in a forgotten cave.


Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #538)

This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.

Guests: Dorthe Nors, Blake Bailey, members of the Save NYPL campaign, Matthew Zadrozny, members of Raging Grannies.


Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.


Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?

Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.

Correspondent: Two weeks?

Nors: Yes.

Correspondent: For seven of the stories?

Nors: Seven of the stories.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.

Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.

Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?

Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?

Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.

Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?

Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.

Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?

Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.

Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!

Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.

Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?

Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.

Correspondent: A karate chop!

Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.

Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?

Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?

Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.

Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.

Nors: Exactly.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.

Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?

Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.

Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.

Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, Mooz, 40A, Tim Beets, Tim Beets, Aien, and DANB10.)

The Bat Segundo Show #538: Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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Save NYPL: How an Organized Movement to Stop the Destruction of Libraries is Being Ignored by Mayor de Blasio

It was a Wednesday in mid-March: the presumed wane of a long and relentless winter that had caused many fine minds to crack. Two buildings had exploded four miles northeast in East Harlem. Two more buildings dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge — the very framework of the New York Public Library system — were threatened by a fiendish desire for greed.

Only a few hours after the New York Public Library stage-managed a few beatific rays of sunshine in the form of the belated Lotte Fields, who bequeathed $6 million to the NYPL simply because she loved to read, imposing gray clouds drifted over the stunning stone edifice of the New York Public Library’s main branch. The twin lions rested regal as raindrops pelted upon sixty brave souls, gathering in a steady drench to protest the Central Library Plan, a scheme to close and sell off two vital hubs of the system — the Science, Industry and Business Library (known as SIBL) and the Mid-Manhattan branch — for a wasteful consolidation of books into a overcrowded space that is estimated to cost more than $300 million.


Last July, Bill de Blasio — then Public Advocate, today the chronically tardy Mayor of New York — railed against the plan, lambasting the lack of “forethought to the building’s historical and cultural integrity.” But despite the vocal admonitions from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library — which gained prominent publicity a few weeks ago through a Humans of New York entry featuring a young man named Matthew Zadrozny eating chicken that went viral, the Mayor has remained steadfastly silent. His glaring inaction, together with continued meetings behind closed doors, has forced the Committee to amp up its efforts.

“The Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library is meeting today,” said Theodore Grunewald, a dapper man of the streets with horn-rimmed glasses, a bushy beard, and a three-piece purple windowpane suit. He identified himself as the Vice President for the Committee to Save the NYPL and was fond of standing next to a de Blasio cardboard cutout, a mildly unsettling likeness reminiscent of the flattened, life-size, B-grade stars that once advertised dicey action movies in video stores.

“One of the items on their agenda,” continued Grunewald, “is, no doubt, the $350 million+ costs of this project, which consists, by the way, of selling the Mid-Manhattan Library to real estate developers, then moving that facility into the Central Research Library. But in order to make room for it, they have to remove seven levels of book stacks underneath the Main Reading Room. Those books serve the Rose Reading Room. They make it possible for scholars and researchers to do their work. Their absence from this building and the banishment of 1.5 million volumes from the key research collections of the New York Public Library to off-site storage will decimate this research library as a research institution.”

Grunewald observed that the main branch, along with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library, was one of the three greatest research libraries in the world. But unlike the other two research libraries, the NYPL is open to anyone. You do not need to show your credentials to use the facility. In many ways, this open policy makes the main branch the ultimate public library.

“This is one of the most remarkable and innovative buildings in the world,” said Charles D. Warren, an architect and President of the Committee. “Not just because of its great exterior, but because inside its stone frame is a steel structure like a skyscraper building. That’s what holds up the books. Not only does it hold up the books, but it holds up the floor of the Rose Reading Room. And to take those out completely diminishes the meaning and the purpose of this building.”

Warren claimed that the main branch was not in need of serious renovation. “New air conditioning. New fire suppression. That’s it.”


Mass protests usually attract disparate activists. The hope is that a passion for one cause will inspire a protester to put time in another. One protester disseminated a “gift” bag featuring leaflets for an education project that had nothing whatsoever to do with the library.

But the Wednesday rally was mostly on point. It included Citizens Defending Libraries and the Library Lovers League. Representatives from each of these groups had attended Tuesday night’s city budget meeting on libraries.

I was fond of the Raging Grannies. Despite the insinuated belligerence, the Raging Grannies were a calm and lively group of women with an affinity for music.

“Sometimes we sing against the war,” said Raging Granny Judith Ackerman. “Sometimes we sing against fracking and nuclear reactors.”

But on Wednesday, the Raging Grannies came armed with a fistful of library songs, one of which can be heard below:

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3 and 4

There is also a small book published by the Committee — The Library of Libraries — which is being sold for $5 to help generate funds for the campaign. Publicists for the Save NYPL campaign were kind enough to provide me with a copy earlier this week. The book, described as “a parable,” is written and illustrated by Simon Verity. It contains many red hearts inserted among the prose and depicts vicious rhinos roaming the inner sanctum of the library with malicious intent. The book is an elaboration on Verity’s 2013 commentary, previously published at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s blog.

All this represents the beginnings of a flourishing movement. But the more practical matter of getting an ostensibly progressive mayor to take time away from his hyperbolic Swedish programs to fulfill his pledge and avert the destruction of a major cultural part of New York remains a more grueling challenge. The Committee was a bit diffident on this point.

When I asked about the Committee’s efforts to contact de Blasio, Grunewald reported that the Committee was “working assiduously to reach out to him.” I asked if the Committee had heard anything from de Blasio’s office. Grunewald ignored this question, pointing to an online petition with 4,600 signatures. It was at this point that a mysterious gentleman named Jack, hearing my inquiries, suggested to Grunewald that “we should probably be getting these signs up.” I tried again as Grunewald excavated the many vivacious signs from the plastic wrap.

“Have you actually heard a single peep from him by email, by phone, or anything like that?”

“It is a concern,” said Grunewald. “We did reach out to the Community Affairs Office at City Hall. We’re waiting to hear back.”

But while the Mayor refuses to meet or return calls, the Committee has made efforts to cut through the high-paid lobbyists and consultants, finding some elected officials who are willing to talk. Committee President Charles Warren wouldn’t name anybody specific, but he seemed optimistic.

“We are trying to talk with any elected officials we possibly can,” said Warren. “We have had some very good meetings and we have some upcoming meetings with some of them. We would love to meet with the Mayor.”

Warren suggested that the Council and the Controller may be receptive to the Committee’s message. He also pointed to the State’s landmark authority over the main branch, which is still being litigated. It is still possible that the State could reject any attempt to modify the building’s structure. Warren noted that two court actions were holding up the Central Library Plan: one by a citizens group and one involving Weiss and Hiller (representing plaintiffs Edmund Morris, et al.).


Several protesters informed me that they would take the rally to City Hall if they had to. But what remains unclear is the timetable, the manner in which the Committee is organized, and whether these efforts have any bewitching effect beyond a popular photoblog.

It turned out that Matthew Zadrozny, the aforementioned pollo-eating beefcake, was at the rally. He went out of his way to approach me. He asked if I was a reporter. I told that him I was in a way. And we chatted.

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Correspondent: Who are you in relation to the Committee?
Zadrozny: I am working with the Committee. I’ve been with the Committee since December. I’ve been attending these protests since June of last year. And every Saturday, I’m organizing the weekly work-in protests at the library. We’re asking the public to come and protest while you work by sitting in the Main Reading Room, getting your work done with a www.savenypl.org sticker on your laptop.
Correspondent: I’ve seen those protests being announced. How much turnout? I mean, that seems more of a passive-aggressive form of protesting, I think.
Zadrozny: Well…
Correspondent: This is very active, however.
Zadrozny: Today’s protest is very active. On Saturdays, we want to garner the regular users of the library and give them ways to express their outrage at what’s happening by just getting their work done with a sticker.
Correspondent: Aha.
Zadrozny: It’s as simple as that.
Correspondent: It’s protesting for introverts.
Zadrozny: Protest…not necessarily. We encourage them to email the Mayor at savenypl.org. But we also encourage people to come out afterwards, get a drink with us, and talk about the future of the library.
Correspondent: Mayor de Blasio has remained silent. So are these protests doing any good?
Zadrozny: Mayor de Blasio, as Public Advocate, came out criticizing the plan. As Mayor, it’s true. He’s remained silent. We’re still waiting to hear from him. But we’re hopeful.
Correspondent: You’re hopeful. Why are you hopeful?
Zadrozny: We’re hopeful because he took a stand as Public Advocate and we believe that he understands the impact that this would have on the city and on local communities.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Committee was used in a political gesture rather than an actual act of true political movement?
Zadrozny: Uh…we don’t think so.
Correspondent: Why?
Zadrozny: Because we believe that the Mayor understands that this is, in many respects, an issue of equality, of opportunity. We believe the Mayor understands that if the Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry, and Business Libraries close, the amount of space in the system will be reduced. We believe that the Mayor understands that if Mid-Manhattan closes, there will be less space for students in the CUNY system to study. We believe that the Mayor understands that this is bad for New Yorkers.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Mayor has changed his mind?
Zadrozny: (pause) We’ll find out.

[May 7, 2014 UPDATE: The New York Public Library abandoned the Central Library Plan, opting to renovate the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue instead. The main library is no longer under threat.]


Julia Angwin (The Bat Segundo Show #537)

Julia Angwin is most recently the author of Dragnet Nation.

Author: Julia Angwin


Subjects Discussed: How much we’re being spied on, the great American historical tradition of spying on needless people, Jay Feldman’s Manufacturing Hysteria, why post-9/11 surveillance is worse than all previous forms, comparisons between the NSA and the Stasi, privacy as a confusing construct, climate change, life mediated by the technological existence, wading through content, a period in American culture where people wore pink and turquoise, when all life choices become part of a permanent record, personal data being shared among companies, Lane v. Facebook, Inc., Sean Lane’s surprise diamond ring exposed by Facebook, Google Street View collecting the names of wi-fi networks (followed by Android), Faraday cages, wrapping your phone in aluminum foil, the black helicopter lifestyle becoming more legitimate, not having access to the data that online giants create, disputing your credit vs. disputing your terrorist status, the informal lack of statute of limitations over stupid things you expressed years ago, giving civil liberties to terrible people, the price of free speech, comparisons between the Stasi and the NSA, how Google changes the way that you browse, switching to DuckDuckGo, people who are attracted to convenience, canned food, local food, fair trade coffee, whether it is possible to vote with our dollars, the convenience of ordering goods through your phone, the hidden costs of convenience through ordering diapers, acknowledging your phone before acknowledging your spouse, using a credit card with the name of Ida Tarbell, when alias are uprooted by people who know your name, automated fake names, MaskMe, attempting to organize a birthday dinner using encrypted instructions, the new responsibility of defending your online territory, hacking, Tor and privacy, the problems of privacy software having no consumer market, the importance of open source software, GitHub, the glacial pace of anonymizing traffic, Sarah Abdurrahman’s detention at the Canadian border, Yassar Afifi being harassed by the FBI over a Reddit comment, the difficulties of Muslim Americans being able to express themselves in the present law enforcement climate, the World Press Freedom Index 2014 issued by Reporters Without Borders with the U.S. dropping in rank, journalism as a tightrope involving the illusion of press freedom, confidential information, meeting with Jacob Appelbaum, the deeply ingrained habit of taking your phone wherever you go, “To Protect and Infect,” Angwin’s inability to get data from data brokers, and the benefits of using encryption badly.


Correspondent: We’re in a room. I don’t think we’re being spied on right now. But that may actually change. Well, we do have our phones.

Angwin: You know what? First of all, we have our phones. And I’m sure there’s a camera here somewhere.

Correspondent: Anyway, let’s start off and look at this from a historical standpoint. Between J. Edgar Hoover’s harassment of dissidents in the early 20th century and the American Protective League — a volunteer organization during World War I that spied on “persons unfriendly to the government” — with the exception of technology that enables spying to be done faster, the so-called “dragnet nation” that you identify fits in with this regrettable American tradition. There’s a wonderful book by Jay Feldman called Manufacturing Hysteria, I’m sure you’re familiar with it, that’s a good overview of this. What makes any of the post-9/11 developments any different?

Angwin: Well, what we have post-9/11 is better spying technology, first of all. And it’s cheaper. So we have much bigger dragnets. And that’s why I called my book Dragnet Nation. Because we see this new kind of surveillance, which is vast, computerized, and impersonal, right? You’re not a suspect. You’re not even a customer of the company that’s tracking you. You have no relationship anymore with the person who’s spying on you. And it used to be that spying was hard enough that, although there were many regrettable incidents of spying on the wrong people, it still took effort on the part of the spies to do that.

Correspondent: There’s the Stasi comparison to the NSA, which we’ll get into in a little bit. But I am curious about this. You get into the relationship between privacy and behavioral economics quite a bit. It seems to me that there’s a voluntary impulse on the part of most Americans. You bring up experiments from Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti, where people are less willing to pay for privacy when they don’t already have it. You also bring up Dan Ariely’s findings on irrational compulsion to keep doors open — I talked with him; he’s a blast — when you try justifying why you, Julia, still have a LinkedIn profile. And one of the ultimate problems here is that, well, we have to be part of these services in order to get a job that will allow us to pay our rent and feed our families. We have to use social networks to keep in touch with our family and our friends. So honestly, it seems to me that we’re complicit in this devil’s bargain. So what do we do? Is there a way to exist with this dragnet culture without giving everything away?

Angwin: Well, you know, the thing is that you’re right. Privacy is a very confusing construct. No one wants to pay for it. No one really understands what it is. It’s kind of murky. But the thing is that we’re in a situation. I think what everyone can understand is the idea that you do want certain things to be within a certain channel. Like the way that you portray your day at the end of the day to your spouse is different from the way that you would portray your day to your boss, for instance. These are just very simple examples. But I think everyone can understand that not all audiences are the same. And so we’re in this world where you really can’t trust who the audience is. It’s most likely that the whole world is your audience. And so that’s sort of the fundamental psychological problem that we have. Now when we talk about the aversion to paying for it, as Alessandro has demonstrated, we are just unwilling to pay for things we don’t have. And since we basically perceive that we have no privacy, we don’t want to pay for it. But we’ve had this experience in the past with the environment. We had a really dirty environment. We lived with a lot of pollution. Our rivers caught fire. Our air was filled with soot. And no one wanted to “pay” for that. And then as a society, collectively, we actually figured out ways to adjust that situation so that now we don’t have as much rampant pollution. So we have dealt with similar types of issues.

Correspondent: Well, we do have climate change and rising waters. I hate to break it to you. (laughs)

Angwin: The problem with the environmental comparison is we didn’t adequately capture all the threats. But of the ones that we saw on the ground, like the rivers catching fire and the air being filled with soot, we containerized those. We basically said we’re willing to live with a certain amount of particulates, but not our rivers catching fire.

Correspondent: So inevitably in the question of privacy, it seems to me that we’re going to have to find a compromise solution, if we find any solution at all.

Angwin: We’re going to have to find where we are going to draw the line. Right now, it’s really kind of a Wild West. On the commercial side, there are very few laws that regulate our commercial entities that collect data about us. And then as we’ve seen since Edward Snowden’s revelations, the government side possibly didn’t have the oversight. Congress was surprised at what they were doing. And so both sides feel a little Wild West.

Correspondent: Well, you had mentioned a little bit earlier about this idea that what we portray about ourselves online, our virtual selves, doesn’t necessarily match our real selves. Is there enough in that to counter the problems of all this data scooping? Of all the stuff that we are willfully giving up? Of all of the search results that Google grabs? Of all of the little details on Facebook that we share? Is there anything about that separation that is positive? That might actually be used to fool the authorities who are happy to go ahead and scoop scoop scoop?

Angwin: Right. So when I did this book, I tried to answer the question of what can we do about everything. Exactly what you’re saying. Is there something we can do to protect ourselves in this world of indiscriminate surveillance? And I tried a whole bunch of strategies and one of my most effective strategies was what you’re describing. Which is basically spreading disinformation about myself. Which sounds a little unethical. (laughs)

Correspondent: Especially since you have a problem lying, as you say in the book.

Angwin: I do.

Correspondent: Although you’ve been very good about outing yourself as Ida Tarbell, just for the record.

Angwin: Right. So I did struggle with this idea of lying about myself online. And I went through certain steps to try and understand whether I felt that it was ethical. And in the end, I decided that I was in a situation where what was being done, collecting all my data, was also unethical and that this was my best strategy. And so given those constraints, I was willing to do it, but only within the legal limit. So I didn’t do anything illegal, I’d just like to point out. But I did create fake identities and spread disinformation about myself. And I did find that this was an effective counterstrategy. I think the question we have to ask as a society is: Do we want to live in a society where everyone is doing that? Because I think that that is unfortunately not going to be pretty.

Correspondent: Especially since we promulgate the George Washington notion. “I shall never tell a lie!” Well, in order to actually have an honorable existence that is, in fact, claimed by corporations, we do have to lie now. And we all have to feel like a criminal. And that’s just incredible!

Angwin: Yes. Right. So that’s actually what indiscriminate surveillance creates. It creates this thing where everyone says, “Oh, I have nothing to hide.” But the truth is that there are enough laws out there that, if everything is known about you, you have broken some law somewhere and there is now going to be this opportunity for discretionary justice, right? You are in the crosshairs because you’ve spoken out against some government official and they will have an opportunity to have something on you. And so we do have now the perfect tools for any bad politician who wants to do that.

Correspondent: We’ve only been talking for a little bit, Julia. But I have a feeling that you are someone who likes to stare into the bleak truth while maintaining some hope of optimism. And I’m wondering. Okay, let’s say that most Americans are placed into this existence where they constantly have to lie and spread misinformation. What would that do to are digital identity? To our digital culture? To our national culture? I mean, is this a reasonable expectation of what the next five, ten, twenty years will bring?

Angwin: Well, we did have — think about it. Our life online, living in a world that’s so mediated by all this technology, is really new. And basically in the first ten years of it, it was so awesome. Because we were empowered as citizens and individuals and as consumers in ways that we never had been before, right? Remember the days where you had to call every airline to get a fare. Now you know…

Correspondent: Kayak.

Angwin: They’re all competing. And so we have, as consumers, really benefited from this. But the problem is now that the tables are turning. We had kind of our ten years of fun. Now that the companies have got better weapons than we do. And now they’re going to spread in just the same way that you notice that it’s harder to get a good fare these days — and no one has proved it yet, but there have been so many rumors that they are tracking which fares you search for and then they lock it in at some higher price. And of course that is technically perfectly possible. So even if no one’s doing it now, somebody will. So the problem is that the companies are going to start organizing in their own way, spreading a little disinformation to shape how you behave and then as a natural countermeasure, we’re all going to start doing the same. Now what this does is actually very similar to pollution, which is what I was saying before. It pollutes the common environment, right? The idea of the Internet was that it was this amazing place where we could all have equal access to the world’s information and it was incredibly empowering. And it still is. But the more we pollute that environment, with propaganda on the company side and propaganda on the individual side…

Correspondent: Mutually assured disinformation.

Angwin: It is mutually assured disinformation. And it’s something that we have to think about as an environmental problem, I think.

(Loops for this program provided by SintheticRecords, kneegwahh, ebaby8119, and ferryterry.)

The Bat Segundo Show #537: Julia Angwin (Download MP3)

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