Weekend Roundup: Literature Is the Antidote to Polarizing Populism

Nathan Gardels

The prolific Turkish novelist Elif Shafak charmed the crowd with her emotive humanism at a Berggruen Institute salon on literature and politics this week.

Populist extremism polarizes humanity, she argued, while literary storytelling does the opposite — it “unpacks the duality of us versus them,” weaving together the nuances and texture of actual experience that trespasses the imagined boundaries of rigid identity. Paradoxically, fiction can subvert the political reality of a tribal mentality.

In this she echoed what other writers such as Salman Rushdie have said, that “literature takes away the fear of what you don’t know,” and, as the Iranian novelist Azar Nafisi once put it, makes you realize that the aspirations and desires of others are not so different from our own.

While the diversity of identities is what comprises pluralism, Shafak advised against reifying them into singular silos. Here, she is aligned with the sensibility of Kwame Anthony Appiah in his 2018 book, “The Lies That Bind.” We should wear our identities “lightly,” he insists, since we are all, in effect, mongrels descended from mixed circumstances in our own personal histories.

As a writer who divides her time between London and Istanbul, Shafak also commented on the challenge to democracy in both places. While one has become accustomed to the fluid uncertainties of political order in the developing world, she observed, it is a shock to realize that such a “liquid” experience now also applies as well to that stalwart of stable nations, Great Britain. She worries about the corrosive consequences on her home turf as authoritarian rule deepens and endures in Turkey. “How do you deal with the censorship and fear that comes from within? How does the human being change when freedoms are lost?” she asks.

While literature can take away fear of others and invite all into a common humanity, the creative impulse of fiction is a function of the reality it is compelled to address. Whatever eternal truths literature may hold, it does not always win out in the short run.

Take the case of the explosive clash of identities in the Middle East epitomized by the Israeli elections this week. Despite the deep humanity and popularity of the many works, such as “A Tale of Love and Darkness” by one of Israel’s most famous novelists, the late Amoz Oz, the Israeli electorate yet again embraced the fear and hate-mongering politics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition.

As Merav Michaeli writes in The WorldPost this week from Jerusalem, Netanyahu has “crossed every red line,” including a demagogic pledge to annex the West Bank — the occupation of which Oz felt corrupted the very heart and soul of Israel.

Though fear and the anxiety of insecurity won this most recent election, literature of the kind written by Oz may well have the last word. As the late, literate leader Shimon Peres sagely warned already many years ago:

“Those who advocate a ‘Great Israel,’ the ones that oppose a Palestinian state … are the very ones that have created the greatest illusion in the annals of Zionism. Namely, that it is possible to maintain a Jewish and democratic state on all of the territory that lies between the River Jordan and the sea. On this stretch of land live 5.5 million Jews and 4.5 million Palestinians [In 2019, the Palestinian population reached 5.3 million and the Jewish population stood at 5.2 million — ed.] If a division of territory is not effected, within a decade, the Arab minority will have become an Arab majority. Israel will no longer be a Jewish state or, alternatively, will stop being a democratic state.

“A Jewish state is not a religious notion but a democratic one: the creation of one place in the world where the Jewish people are in the majority. Should the Jewish people lose their majority, they will turn into exiles in their own country. And the 100-year effort to build a Jewish and democratic state will have gone down the drain. And if an attempt will be made to rule, not by the strength of a majority, but by the strength of force, then we shall have betrayed the ethical values of the Jewish people.”