November 2016

Book Review: Finally Finding Love (El hombre que tardó en amar) by Silvia Núñez del Arco


Great conflict makes great art. In
El hombre que tardó en amar (The Man who came Late to Love) , Silvia Nuñez del Arco writes the story of a young woman's love affair with a--slightly--older celebrity whose marriage is for appearances only. When the protagonist becomes pregnant, the marriage of appearances produces threats which are very real. In intercalated chapters, the protagonist recounts how she fell in love, and in these reaches intense levels of eroticism that recall Emma Becker's Mr, a novel with a somewhat similar theme. 
Nuñez del Arco's novel has not been translated into English, though it is published by Penguin USA and is available on Amazon. If the story seems familiar, it is because the novel is what used to be called a roman à clef and what today is more likely to be classified as autofiction. Literature so classified is controversial because the borders between truth and fiction are not rigorously observed. "I remember things the way they should have been," Truman Capote once famously observed. His extraordinary novella, Handcarved Coffins, was presented by him and his publisher as an investigative work of non-fiction. Capote even appeared on The Johnny Carson Show and told the audience how he had been sworn to secrecy by law enforcement sources. The general concensus today is that far from being an investigation, Capote's story is "only" fictional narrative. And the most respected comment about writing in the first person was made by the 19th century French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, who said, "'Je' est un autre." (I is someone else).

I remember things the way they should have been. --Truman Capote

Nuñez del Arco happens to be married to a celebrity who also wrote about the break-up of his marriage in his own book, El niño terrible y la escritora mala (The Brat and the Bad Girl Writer) . Jaime Bayly is a Latin American television personality, author and a person who inhabits what Miami could have been and still could be. That is, the capital of Latin America, a hemispheric cultural center that ties together the English speaking North and the Spanish South. Miami's advantages--decent, but declining infrastructure, a North-South international air hub which makes the city a border town, the publishing protections of the U.S.'s First Amendment, freedom of religion, a haven from political strife and a largely bilingual population --all should have led to a world-class international city. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.
Bayly's book is a much longer work that is more journalism than a novel. Large parts of his voluminous text seem to be previously reworked newspaper columns. Or is this, like a novel in letters, a literary conceit? Nuñez del Arco's book contains SMS messages sent by the protagonists to each other. 
Moreover, Bayly's novel uses an untrustworthy narrator. That is, details of the story, taken from real life, have been changed. It is interesting to compare, for example, those details Nuñez del Arco feels are important to those which Bayly omits. One wonders how lucky Bayly was to have avoided endless transnational litigation. Defrauded in Lima by a family friend, he somehow avoided the savings-destroying powers of the Florida divorce courts. For this alone he should be grateful. But then again, there is no way to know if these matters are true or are merely part of a subsidiary plot. 
How then, should autofiction be read? Do the facts matter, as Chomsky would playfully ask? Emma Becker wrote Mr because she had been abandoned by her older lover and saw that writing their story would be a way of communicating with him. Nuñez del Arco may have had the intention of settling scores through the spectacular finale to her own novel. Bayly's journalistic text could almost be read as reportage--as long as you don't pay too close attention to the facts. For example, in Bayly's books his older daughters attended Columbia in New York. According to the Peruvian press, at least, they went to a different university. This detail could well have been changed to protect their privacy; their real names were not used either. But it just so happens that Bayly in fact has two daughters from his first marriage. To include them in his book at all is to in a real sense, to include them in a historical narrative, only a historical narrative that is not accurate. It is impossible to know what author facts the author might have changed. 
What Nuñez del Arco does, however, is take these events as the clay from which her novel is composed. That details diverge from what actually happened doesn't matter because they are irrelevant to the story. Other events are undoubtedly exaggerated--such as the finale--and what author does not relish the opportunity to answer those who once preyed on her? In that sense, the novel is both a lesson and a settling of scores. The latter must be personal, the former though, contains a familiar warning: when you fall in love, your life will be turned upside down. I found Nuñez del Arco's work to be cinematic--it would certainly make an interesting film. 
At an interpersonal level, what really happened, that is, the facts, fade with time. Not so with art. Facts fade but art survives. 

Note: When this review was first written, I did not know that Amazon had a tentative translated title for it in English. Correction made.
Michael O'Kane has translated José María Álvarez' La esclava instruída (Slave to Love) and unofficially translated Gabriel García Márquez' final short story, Nos vemos en agosto (See You Next August). He was a longtime resident of Miami. 

Left Behind Girl: How ISIS Killed Kayla


Doctors without Borders Abandoned Her;
U.S. Complicit

Arlington Heights is a tranquil place. World events seldom disturb the peace of the Northwest suburbs of Chicago until they do. On September 11, 1973, General Pinochet staged a coup against the president of Chile. Supporters loyal to the regime were rounded up and executed. One of these supporters was an American aide worker from Des Plaines named Frank Teruggi. The
Arlington Herald published a picture of his father on the front page, sitting in his kitchen, newspapers spread out before him. The U.S. Government didn't help the Teruggi family; nor did they help the family of Frank's friend, Charles Horman. The film Hollywood made about their murder was called Missing, starring Jack Lemon. The film told the story of a family betrayed by U.S. political concerns.

Thirty three years on nothing has changed. In September, ABC's 20/20 told the story of the kidnapping and execution of Kayla Mueller, an aid worker from Arizona, with family in Arlington Heights.

Kayla was helping Syrian refugees in Turkey and one day made the mistake of accompanying a friend, who had been hired by Doctors Without Borders (Medicins sans Frontières), to work on hospital computer systems inside Syria. They crossed the border using Doctors without Borders transportation. After completing the work for the Doctors, they were on their way back to Turkey when they were ambushed and kidnapped by the Islamic State. 

Doctors Without Borders abandoned them.

Despite being a humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders abandoned them. Their excuse was that Kayla was not an employee, they did not ask her to come to Aleppo, Kayla wasn't their problem.

Shame on them. This is not the first time that an organization working in the Middle East has hidden behind the "independent contractor" label in order to evade responsibility. Their abdication of responsibility led to Kayla's death. 

Kayla's parents in Prescott, Arizona were not told immediately of Kayla's capture. Like good Americans, they turned to their government for help. They had not seen the movie, Missing. Long-term American expats know that in case of trouble, the last place you want to go is the American Embassy. When a group of British hospital workers was accused of terrorist bombings inside Saudi Arabia, an American Embassy official told me, "if they were our guys we wouldn't lift a finger." 

The U.S. government did lift a finger, but not much more. They organized a SWAT-team like raid which failed. They wrote messages for the family to send Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Their pleas to a religious leader were devoid of Islamic religious content. This is like writing to the pope and avoiding any mention of Christianity. 

Most of them do not know the difference between shari'a and Shakira.

I have no doubt that the FBI hostage negotiators are experts. Most of them, however, do not know the difference between shari'a and Shakira. Tactics which might be wholly appropriate for dealing with a criminal American hostage-taker are of little use in dealing with an Islamic warlord, especially a warlord who is a graduate of our torture chamber in post-invasion Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

Al-Baghdadi reasoned that such messages were merely an effort to stall for time while the U.S. planned another SWAT team raid. 

When these good American parents visited the State Department they had their hands held as American officials threatened them with prosecution were they to pay ISIS the ransom it wanted for Kayla.

Meanwhile, Doctors without Borders ransomed its "employees," leaving the fate of the "independent contractors" to others. The United State turned a blind eye to Qatar's efforts to ransom an American serviceman in Afghanistan. These good American parents even went to Qatar to seek similar mercy, and, if 20/20 is accurate, were threatened again. 

No one at the State Department bothered to direct Kayla's parents to our allies in the region, allies who in the past have used their good offices to free prisoners being held in other countries. I cannot understand, for example, why the Saudis were never asked.

The Saudis have a religious tradition of intervening to mediate payments made to victim's family. They are no strangers to the labyrinthine web of Middle East connections. Like both the United States and ISIS, they view Iran as an enemy. Even if the Saudi government were to officially decline help, individual Saudis might have been asked on a confidential basis. This was never done. 

Even as Doctors without Borders officially refused Kayla's parents help, could they have informally helped? Of course they could have, but they did not. 

Tired of the stalling, ISIS executed Kayla. After her death, there were crocodile tears at the State Department and the Doctors hypocritically sent their condolences. President Obama even met with the family for another meaningless session of hand-holding. Kayla died, we are told, so that Americans overseas do not become targets.

News flash: Americans overseas are targets. We were targets before Iraq and we most certainly are targets of the alumni of Abu Ghraib. Ask the Israelis what they do when their citizens are captured. They negotiate. They do not leave their people behind. 

The American government's policy of failing to help American families hasn't changed since 1973. Our refusal to negotiate is naive. American policy must be changed.  

Disclosure: Kayla Mueller was my nieces' cousin. This article was originally written for and rejected by the Daily Herald newspaper in Illinois.

The Electoral College, the Chicago Cubs and a Thousand-Year Old Institution

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The last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series young American diplomats were advised to learn Osmanli, as that language would be of use were they to be posted to the still-existing Ottoman Empire. There was no such thing as Turkish and Osmanli was written using Arabic letters, from right to left.

When the United States was founded, the new country sent a diplomatic mission to
La Serenissima, as the still-existing Republic of Venice was known. America owed a debt to Venice, for it had borrowed elements of the Venetian electoral system. More than one pundit has written that the Electoral College is an 18th century artifact but its Venetian provenance is much more ancient: at the time of the American embassy to Venice, the Venetian republic was more than a thousand years old. It was the oldest democracy on the planet and one of the reasons for that longevity was a system of elections designed to make it difficult for anyone to rig or steal an election.

That system, with modifications, became the Electoral College. Today, with supporters of Hillary Clinton urging abolition of the Electoral College (as did supporters of Al Gore in 2000) it is important to remember that there is no such thing as national elections in the United States. Therefore, there is no such thing as the "popular vote." Hillary did not win "the popular vote" because there is no popular vote.

The point, often forgotten, is that despite the fact that we all Americans carry blue passports (or at least, the 15% that bothers to travel) and federal laws now reach into places they never previously did, the country is composed of fifty separate statelets. These statelets elect the president.

I use the term "statelet" because the term "state" has been ground into meaninglessness, for except in rather isolated circumstances, the term is as meaningless as the term "county" is within a particular statelet. Statelet law is meant to be comprehensive and penetrate all areas of daily life within the state: counties are administrative districts for the enforcement of those laws whose boundaries are set for convenience. The fact that you can still have "dual sovereignty" prosecutions without violating the nationwide prohibition on double jeopardy is a lingering reminder of the existence of these statelets, each one in so many ways -- under the Constitution, at least -- a country in its own right.

After Roosevelt, after the expansion of federal criminal, regulatory and administrative law, this is something that is often forgotten. Except for foreign relations, each statelet, under that owner's manual called the Constitution, is left to legislate with wide discretion.

It wasn't that long ago that a governor of a statelet could refuse the demand of another statelet to turn over an accused; it wasn't that long ago that each statelet could set its own drinking age—and many did—not to mention set the speed limit on its highways while a statelet like Texas could grant a driver's license to a driver who had had his revoked in another statelet.

These days, there is but one remaining area where the statelets are supreme, and this is the national election process. There is not one national election, there are fifty elections. Richard Nixon understood this when he pledged to travel to all fifty states in 1960 while John F. Kennedy focused on those highly populated statelets that are well-represented in the electoral college.

The number of electoral votes granted a state changes with variations in the national census. In 1960 New York had 45 votes, today it has only 29. New York has a larger population today than it did in 1960, but that growth has not been as great as the growth in other statelets.

There are good reasons to abolish the Electoral College, but understand that once it goes, federalism goes with it. There is no real reason to maintain the added, unnecessary expense of state legislatures—after all, each district has a congressman to represent it in the national Congress, and that is where the real laws are made.

The Constitution originally proscribed only two crimes, but now crime has been federalized. Why do you need state courts given the extensive, capable system of federal courts? The savings to be gained by abolishing state courts and all state legislatures is in the billions of dollars. If federalism and its institutions like the Electoral College are no longer needed artifacts from the past, why keep paying for the illusion? Why maintain expensive, dual systems of government when one is enough?

Some might argue that dual systems are "needed." Why? The United States Congress is certainly capable of enacting laws that apply in the main to a locality. That locality even today has a representative who can argue for or against the passage of any law. No one argues that federal law is somehow incomplete when it comes to governing American territories such as Guam, Alaska or Hawaii before 1959 or even, once upon a time, the Canal Zone.

Federal legislators are just as competent as their statelet counterparts when it comes to legislating for local conditions. Why pay for these extra legislators? To what end?

There is already an enormous overlap between federal and state courts. State courts could be incorporated into the federal system since there would no longer be a need for a duplicative court system.

You can argue that other democracies elect their national leaders directly and you would be right. But these other countries do not have duplicative court systems, save for a few outliers. There are national elections, a national legislature and national courts, not a duplicative, competing union of fifty associated statelets.

Some might complain that this would lead to an untoward expansion of the federal government, but these fears are misplaced. Wholesale incorporation of state law into the United States Code would simplify the transition, though Congress' Judiciary Committee would have to work hard to harmonize state laws. This is not as daunting a task as it seems, since in any event federal law always trumps state law. 

So if that trumping is what bothers you about the Electoral College, fine. Abolish it. Few countries in the world have such an expensive, duplicative legal system as does the federation of North American statelets. If you want a single country that elects the president by a popular vote, do away with federalism.

The Electoral College is, for better or worse, an integral part of that system. The Venetian Republic did not survive Napoleon and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series this year. Change is in the air. If you get rid of the Electoral College, federalism will likely not survive either. Instead, you will have another country, one that does not exist today. Whether that country will be better or worse is anyone's guess.  

The graphic shows the flag of the Serene Republic of Venice.  

The Night of, Better Call Saul, A Naked Singularity, Goliath

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Works discussed:

  • The Night Of, HBO
  • Better Call Saul, AMC
  • A Naked Singularity, de la Pava
  • Goliath, Amazon Television

The Night of

It seems you can't turn on the television without running into a story about appointed down and out lawyers playing their assigned roles in what is known as the criminal justice system. These recent works highlight harsh, painful world of courthouses full of desperate people who cannot pay. In The Night of, John Tuturro plays a lawyer who grinds out a living representing the dregs of society.

Soon after he lands a dream case, a big firm lawyer badmouths him and offers to represent a taxicab driver's son who has been accused of murder for the low, low rate of $50,000. The taxicab driver doesn't have that kind of money, which in
The Night of, an otherwise highly realistic show, materializes in an utterly unrealistic fashion.

The high-flying television soundbite lawyer steals the client (query, can a case of no value, from an economic point of view, really be stolen?) in order to stay in front of the cameras, only to quickly dump the accused when he won't accept a plea.

Shockingly--this would never happen in real life, folks--the celebrity lawyer agrees to cough up $25,000 to Tuturro, the lawyer who had the case originally, and assigns an associate to assist with the defense. The writers were almost unerringly familiar with the real life of legal practice, but this financial solution is a deus ex machina trick. 

Every time I read a story about a lawyer who "so believes" in his client he has agreed to take the case for free, I want to throw up. The next line usually is something about taking the case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court takes between 150-250 cases of the hundreds of thousands filed every year in the United States. They decide which cases they will take; you do not, no matter how much you believe in your client's cause. 

And that is what it is, a cause. If you want to do charity work, fine. This is laudable. But charity work is best performed, or funded, by wealthy people. Legal work cannot be funded by people who have no money, regardless of their noble motives. And such cases should certainly not be funded by solo practitioners because to do so, in a real sense, only steals from the few paying clients the solo might have. 

In real life, poor lawyers do charity work. And the judge would make the celebrity lawyer squirm a little before assigning the public defender, unless the celebrity lawyer's firm contributes to the judge's election campaign. That is real life.

Better Call Saul

Jimmy McGill, the lawyer who becomes Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul (and later in that paean to the American health care system, Breaking Bad) also lives in the hardscrabble world of appointed cases. These are criminal cases that the public defender cannot handle because of conflicts of interest or other reasons. The pay is low--sometimes as low as $500 for a felony, a case on which you are expected to do a full investigation. There is usually no one to pay for the investigation and the courts really do not want you to push too hard. The sooner you realize that the criminal justice system for the most part is due process theater, the earlier you will be able to keep your cynicism in check.

But Jimmy sees a way out of this life. He starts drawing up wills for elderly clients. They are lonely and take up much of his time, but he sees that they are being cheated by a nursing-home chain. He meets with residents in person to sign them up as plaintiffs. The Bar usually bans in-person solicitation, and certainly prohibits any kind of in-person business solicitation by attorneys in health care facilities.

It is just a question of time before Jimmy gets penalized for these activities, despite the fact by he is seeking justice for the cheated seniors. Justice doesn't matter. Jimmy will be punished and he will be thrust back into that hardscrabble case by case world of the appointed attorney. Perhaps this series is more about the hidden American class system than it is about anything else.

A Naked Singularity

Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity is a novel about a New York City public defender who gets dragged into committing a crime himself. The author was (or still is) a public defender in Brooklyn and the novel unfailingly describes what this kind of life in the law is like. Along with the two television series cited above, it is highly recommended for anyone interested in the world of due process theater. 

...and just when I thought it was over: GOLIATH

Just when you thought the entertainment gatekeepers had deigned, "enough of all of this" Amazon Television came out with a new web television series starring Billy Bob Thornton, Angela Jolie's ex and Academy Award winner for Slingblade.

Billy Bob's lawyer saves on office rent by reviewing pleadings in a saloon after telling the bartender (a Northwestern graduate) to "leave the bottle." Later, he is accused by the mother of a client who does not want her son to accept the prosecution's five year plea deal.

Billy Bob thinks it's a good deal--her son is facing fifteen years in prison--but mom is upset because Billy Bob can't remember her son's name. Mom then rushes out, promising to get her son "a real attorney" because obviously Billy Bob doesn't "care."

What Mom doesn't understand is that, just as I here have been unable to remember the name of the characters in this short review (except in the case of
Better Call Saul) her son's name doesn't matter. How good a person he is simply doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is the police report and what the paid actors at trial--whether judge, police officers or informants--have to say about him. The result is inevitable.

His name is what doesn't matter.