Lessons from a Dark Time

Adam Hochschild
University of California Press ($27.95)

by M. Lock Swingen

With the skillset of a resourceful journalist, the far-ranging scope of a historian, and the passionate fervor of an activist, bestselling author Adam Hochschild shares the stories of gutsy and bold individuals from across the world who have taken a stand against authoritative governments, spoken out against social injustices and inequalities, and dared to demand change. In Lessons From a Dark Time, Hochschild collects and updates over two dozen essays and pieces of reporting from his long career; the subjects of the articles range from a Congolese center for rape victims, a Finnish prison, a California gun show, a stroll through a construction site with an ecologically pioneering architect in India, a visit to the snowy ruins of a gulag camp in the frozen tundra of the Soviet Arctic, and a day on the campaign trail with Nelson Mandela.

Additionally, Hochschild examines the writers he loves and how they informed his own work, from Mark Twain to Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, and John McPhee. Oedipus-like, Hochschild seems to struggle with the triumphs and shortcomings of his own literary elders and masters. Working more as a historian than a journalist in these essays, Hochschild examines the personal lives of his forebears and judges whether they are unforgivably tainted with the evils of history. If our elders do not live up to the ever-changing standards of our own time, must we commit patricide in the name of the present-day greater good? It is an anxiety that seems to haunt Hochschild’s investigations into his own literary heritage.

In his essay on Joseph Conrad, for example, Hochschild investigates the biographical fingerprints smudged on the pages of Heart of Darkness, that infamous novel depicting colonial rule in the Congo in the nineteenth-century and the phantasmagoria of an entire economy founded on the whip, the gun, and forced labor. “No doubt Conrad drew part of Kurtz from deep within himself; that is what gives the reader a tinge of uneasy empathy with Kurtz’s boundless ambition and his vision of himself as the apostle of ‘the cause of progress’ among awestruck savages,” writes Hochschild. “But Conrad clearly also took aspects of Kurtz from various men whom he encountered or heard about in the Congo.” The essay ends with a troubling tug-of-war between virtue and malevolence as Hochschild tallies Conrad’s own conflicting impulses. Damningly, as Hochschild notes, Conrad was a conservative in politics: He loathed labor unions and had no use for the socialist idealism in which many of his more intellectually inclined friends had great faith. And yet at the same time Conrad proved to be one of the very few writers of his era that managed to depict the horrific underbelly of the colonial project. Whether you agree or not, Hochschild ultimately finds Conrad redeemable in his essay.

Archeologically-minded, Hochschild demonstrates an instinct to burrow to the origins of things, such as the genesis of the modern surveillance state in the United States. Indeed, Hochschild dedicates an entire section of his collection to this single pursuit. In “The Father of American Surveillance,” for example, Hochschild traces the life and career of Ralph H. Van Deman, a United States Army officer, who found himself immersed in the Philippine-American War at the turn of the twentieth century. Now largely forgotten, the conflict in the Philippines was a counter-insurgency war, and for that type of combat the military did not need cannons or fortresses but intelligence information. Hochschild explains how the military placed Van Deman in charge of what was then called the “Bureau of Insurgent Records,” a post that would transform Van Deman into the founding father of American surveillance. Hochschild goes on to write that Van Deman’s “assiduous spying in war and peace would span half a century and three continents and presage a vengeful nastiness eerily familiar to us today: racial stereotyping, the smearing of political enemies with fact-free rumor, and charges that those who opposed U.S. government policy were unpatriotic or treasonous.” Another more personal essay about government surveillance documents Hochschild’s look into the revelation that the CIA in the 1960s and early ’70s had been secretly controlling supposedly independent organizations like the National Student Association, and offers a warning on what can happen when a country loses control of its intelligence services.

Hochschild also traces the origins of modern-day political activism, which brings him to the historical figure of William Wilberforce, an eloquent, widely respected leader of the British abolitionist movement during the 1780s. In “Sunday School History,” Hochschild examines how “the early British abolitionists invented virtually every organizing tool I had seen used in the movements against segregation, the Vietnam War, and apartheid: the political poster, a campaign logo, the consumer boycott, the very idea of an organization headquartered in a national capital with branches around the country.” Although Hochschild praises the men and women who spearheaded the consumer boycott of slave-cultivated West Indian sugar, he is swift to scrutinize the personal character of Wilberforce, who Hochschild deems to be too idealized in popular literature and film. Writing about the historical inaccuracies and embellishment of the 2006 British-American biographical film Amazing Grace, for example, Hochschild argues that the film misleadingly portrays Wilberforce as a modern liberal. “In yet another misleading episode,” Hochschild complains, “Wilberforce, talking to his future wife, appreciatively mentions the sugar boycott and the way she is taking part in it. In real life, however, deeply uneasy with any uncontrolled expression of popular will, he opposed the boycott. He also believed women should obey their husbands and should have nothing to do with politics or the movement.” As with the investigations of his literary forebears, Hochschild seems unwilling to let stand any patina of myth, legend, or hagiography surround a historical figure.

The author seems at his best when he is walking shoulder-to-shoulder with living, breathing people as he tries to understand what motivates them, what makes them demand the change that they do, what lies at their heart’s core. In his essay “The Brick Master,” for example, Hochschild profiles the eccentric British architect Laurie Baker, who spent most of his career in India and made his reputation by shirking the Indian desire to imitate Western standards of architecture and building material. Relaying a quip of Baker’s from a lively conversation between the two, Hochschild writes that “the trouble with Indian policy-makers is that ‘they haven’t the faith in their own materials’ . . . Everyone who can afford it wants to use only concrete, steel, and glass.” For Baker, the hierarchy of building materials is reversed:

He is profoundly hostile, for example, to glass and steel: Making each requires large amounts of fossil fuel, and in Kerala [where Baker lives] the steel has to come from other parts of India. He also hates plaster, which he regards as a costly prestige item that does nothing except cover up a handsome wall of bricks made from local clay.
Bricks he loves. Standard red bricks do require energy to make, but in the brick-maker’s kilns of south India, he points out, much of the fuel would not be used for much else: brush, tree branches, and scraps of palm wood too small for lumber.

Baker has not turned his back on the modern world, however, as Hochschild makes clear later in the essay. The homes and offices that Baker has built have running water, electricity, telephone lines, and sometimes even garages. And yet in Baker’s embrace and love of brick, mud, and bamboo, in his insight that letting hot air escape is wiser and even more beautiful than air conditioning, Baker has accomplished what desperately few people in the global South have managed to do: He has been selective and economical about what he has appropriated from the West.

Like George Orwell, another literary forefather written about in Lessons From a Dark Time, Hochschild does not shy away from making bold political interjections in his narratives and storytelling. Sometimes, it is as if the narratives and storytelling are mere scaffolding for these brief sunbursts of polemic: “After spending much of my life writing either about forms of tyranny that we’ve seen vanish, like apartheid in South Africa or communism in the Soviet Union, or that belonged to earlier centuries, like colonialism or slavery, it is a shock to feel the ruthless mood of such times suddenly no longer so far away.” Indeed, everywhere in the pages of Lessons From a Dark Time there are premonitions and warnings about the current political unrest of our own time. For the reader of this collection, there is no guessing whether she should read the content and subjects of these essays as an allegory for the current political landscape and its dark discontents.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019