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“Those who grow accustomed to oppression find it easy to be subjugated again” — An Interview with Andrew Solomon

by Magda Gradinaru

M.G. — Andrew Solomon, I have in front of me the book you wrote about your travel memories, a book that takes the reader onto a great journey about how a person can find his place in the society, in the history, or inside a political regime. I would like to start by asking you: what is your oldest memory about your first trip, a trip not included in this book?

A.S. — I remember going to the Caribbean with my parents when I was a very little kid. My father had work in Puerto Rico, so we’d go down every year and stay there for a week. My father’s local business associate told us that we could have some vast reward if we managed to catch fish with our bare hands, and so we would attempt to do that, meeting, of course, with endless frustration. The experience of being with the family in this beautiful place registered very strongly for me; I remember being so sad to leave on year that I tried to take memoirs of the place: the writing paper, a menu, a little vial of sand, an assortment of sea shells. I loved the way we were all together all the time there, and I didn’t want to let go of that.

M.G. — You connect the need to travel to the need to know that you still have an exit, a way out. Not only a metaphorical need, but a very real one, like what you felt when your father told you about the Holocaust and about the people that had no escape. This is why, as you said, you took your British citizenship: to have an alternative. Yet you have traveled to places like Soviet Russia or China, where freedom is not the most praised virtue. Isn’t this a contradiction?

A.S. — You presume that freedom is consistent — that the places that are unfree will remain unfree and the places that are free will remain free. It’s very possible that the places that seem most oppressive to us right now will be places of great freedom in the years to come. My father never imagined Germany as a place of embracing liberalism, and yet look at Germany now in contrast to the rest of the world! If you want to be safe in your patronage of the world, you need to acknowledge that freedom is a transient force in most societies. As for Russia and China, they are not places right now of great freedom, but it is only by knowing places that are un-free that you can learn the language in which to fight for freedom at home. Unfree places provide vast illumination for those of us who wish to understand freedom.

Keeping the vocabulary of truth alive in the face of a regime that wants to annihilate truth itself is a great value.

M.G. — Indirectly, your stories touch on the problem of the totalitarian regimes and on how a man can survive in a dictatorship. The art seems to be a way out, and here we have the story of the Russian Samizdat, with the censored stories circulating in an underground network. But is this form of personal salvation also a way to save the society? I’ve mentioned Russia, how did this country emerge from its totalitarian experience? Were these enclaves of resistance strong enough to build upon them a new and democratic society?

A.S. — Well everyone can see that Russia has not become a “new and democratic society.” But the artists I wrote about helped to champion reform in their country, and that act has value even when the reform doesn’t come through looking its shining best. Hope is necessary for change, but change sometimes occurs only after hope’s multiple inceptions. The society is not a glorious and democratic one, but it is perhaps more glorious and democratic than it would have been otherwise, and perhaps at some point it will become more free than it is now. Keeping the vocabulary of truth alive in the face of a regime that wants to annihilate truth itself is a great value. I feel the same way about the need for conversations about justice in the USA under the Trump administration.

M.G. — You said that the Vladimir Putin’s regime is so tough because it comes after the fall of hope. What role does hope play inside a society? Does it have a social function?

A.S. — Hope is what gives people a focused and object-oriented position in the world. It is famously the one good thing that came at the bottom of Pandora’s box. At a social level, it energizes people to keep militating for change, even when change seems impossible. But striving for the impossible is a key aspect of fixing a society; as Gandhi said, you must be the change you wish to see in the world. In no case is that possible without hope.

M.G. — The Russian people have suffered terribly during the Stalin era, why do they accept, or even embrace this new authoritarian regime?

A.S. — Children who have been abused tend to grow into adults who are abusive; those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. Russia careened wildly from the Soviet period to the Yeltsin years, when freedom became nearly synonymous with chaos and corruption. Many people thought order would be better and most just than this confusion, and so that drew them toward Putin’s authoritarianism. But more fundamentally, if you grow up with oppression, you easily slide back into it. It feels comfortable, almost—

If you grow up with oppression, you easily slide back into it. It feels comfortable, almost—

M.G. — You have met people living under totalitarian regimes, victims of terrible power abuses, but who declared themselves happy. Is it a form of schizophrenia — to detach yourself from the real life and to find happiness in your own imagination — or is there a different psychological mechanism, some sort of adaptation to the banality of evil?

A.S. — I think that the sorrow of the world is a constant quantity. Some people are miserable even though they have everything, and some people are joyous even living in abject circumstances. But to be in a totalitarian regime is to live with a constant undertone of horror; it takes that mood spectrum and pulls the whole thing down a notch. The happiness is less happy, and the despair is more desperate. People still fall in love and have babies and enjoy much of the beauty of life, but they feel unsafe even in those riotous celebrations. And of course, they feel deeply afraid. And that is never a pleasant feeling. Some people have greater resilience than others, but an oppressive system leeches the capacity for happiness away from many people — though it likewise hatches great intimacy among those who resist valiantly.

M.G. — You have visited Romania in the late 80s, and you’ve seen that the oppression here was far beyond your expectations; by contrast the communist Bulgaria looked like a very decent country. What exactly convinced you that in Romania there was something so fundamentally wrong?

A.S. — It’s hard to say in particular, but it seemed to me that people had grayer faces and a sadder demeanor. Someone came and asked me to smuggle out a letter to someone in Europe. People seemed frightened, and whole areas of conversation seemed to be forbidden. We were sent to live for a night with “peasant families,” but the place where we went for this “authentic” experience felt utterly contrived and false. We were forbidden to walk through the city at night; there was a lot that was forbidden to us, and the people we met with seemed tense and unrelaxed, very self-conscious in their interactions with foreigners.

M.G. — I’ve noticed three different images of Romania in your book: the horrible place from your aunt’s memories, Romania in the 1980s, when the oppression was omnipresent, and the Romania that you’ve seen in the recent years, a country full of paradoxes. How do you see Romania in the next few years?

A.S. — I have developed such an affection for Romania and Romanians. And that makes me only sadder about the country’s tilt to the right. If Romania can adhere to liberal principles, it will be a shining model for the rest of Eastern Europe. If not, it stands to follow Hungary as a place that is unsympathetic to the least advantaged members of its society. I hope that won’t happen.

M.G. — The leaders of Romania’s ruling parties have recently decided that one of the most important topics on their short-term agenda is organize a national referendum for re-defining the term „family” in the Constitution, strictly as the union between a man and a woman. What are the risks of having a referendum on such an unusual and yet very sensitive topic? It seems that the question itself is meant to divide, to speculate the fears and the hate that many people feel about the “others”, feelings that they normally manage to dissimulate or to deal with.

A.S. — A bill like that would represent a step backward in a world that is moving forward. Gay marriage is now legal in so many countries, and to pass a law specifically to stigmatize gay people is regressive and cruel. Romania has real problems to deal with — poverty, lack of education, lack of jobs, lack of civil freedoms. Is there really political capital to be expended on impinging on the civil rights of a stigmatized minority?

There are hundreds of ways to rule the people. The power of hatred is one, but exploiting fears and anger is a weak government’s strategy.

M.G. — What is the political advantage in unleashing the power of hatred in the society? Can the people be ruled only by exploiting their fears and anger?

A.S. — There is nothing by which the people can only be ruled. There are hundreds of ways to rule the people. The power of hatred is one, but exploiting fears and anger is a weak government’s strategy. You can often unite people around a strategy of scapegoating, but you can also unite people around hope. In the US right now, we are in a transition from being a country united by ideals under Obama to one ruled by hatred and fear. It’s an appalling thing to live through.

M.G. — René Girard has described how the scapegoat mechanism can be used to defuse the social tensions and to restore the order. It’s a model that made a huge comeback in the last years — for instance in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, where the usual suspects are George Soros and the Middle-East refugees. As easy and successful as it may seem now, will this policy work on the long term? By permanently pointing out enemies from outside or even from inside (like the “non-traditional” family), will the society finally find its peace, or will it eventually get tired of living in constant anxiety and pressure?

A.S. — The scapegoat mechanism tends to work for a while, and then it leads to an explosion and to crimes against humanity. The Nazis, the Hutu Power movement, and a broad range of dictatorships have united in their exploitation of scapegoats, and in every instance it has failed—sometimes through the dignity of the scapegoats themselves, but more often because when you stamp out the scapegoats, the problems remain, and it becomes clear that Jews or Tutsis or gay people or the bourgeoisie haven’t created the problems of the society. Scapegoating is a lie in its assignment of responsibility to a group of people who have nothing to do with it. And lies usually backfire sooner or later.

M.G. — A phenomenon becoming increasingly present in Romania these days is the social depression, leading to massive emigration. Romania has the second highest emigration rate in the world, after Syria. What are the effects of depression when the “patient” is an entire country? How can people get to the point where they totally lose their hope?

A.S. — Well, this is as I’ve said before. Everyone is brought one notch lower by abject circumstances. The treatment is to try to build social justice such that people will want to save the place they come from rather than escape to someplace else. But that will take a more optimistic leadership, and broader prosperity, and a rising rate of employment, and an end to racism — all of which is to say that it is not an easy path under any circumstances. Some of those who leave may be glad to go, but many will find themselves pining for Romania, and a certain number will immigrate right back.

M.G. — After Donald Trump’s election, you said that you’ve made a promise to yourself, to remain shocked and revolted, and not to adapt to a regime that you think is essentially bad. How about the American people, how did they adapt to the new reality?

A.S. — Well, I think it would be vain for me to speak on behalf of the American people, but Trump’s popularity is low, and I and many others have not only remained shocked but have become ever more shocked. The country feels more divided than I can ever recall, with people who can’t understand how we could possibly have Trump as our president and other people who think he’s doing a great job. It’s not simply that the two sides disagree; it’s that people on one side cannot fathom how people on the other side could possibly feel as they do. My own belief is that America’s role as a global leader is over; we have ceded that high ground to other powers, and had nothing in return but a laughable government led by an idiot.

Alas, Trump doesn’t have the wits for sarcasm. He likes strongmen, and wants to be one himself. What you are hearing is the flapping of his ego in the wind.

M.G. — Donald Trump came back the other day from his “historical” meeting with Kim Jong Un. The US President keeps praising his North Korean opponent, saying that he would like to be respected and listen to, just like Kim Jon Un is by the North-Koreans. Is this just sarcasm?

A.S. — Alas, Trump doesn’t have the wits for sarcasm. He likes strongmen, and wants to be one himself. What you are hearing is the flapping of his ego in the wind. He would like to be free from criticism because he’s too fragile to withstand it. Where other presidents have expected a balance of praise and attack, Trump wants to be envied and adored by the world. I hope the American system of checks and balances will keep him from achieving totalitarian authority, but I think left to his own devices, he would eliminate all of his opposition much the way that Kim Jong Un has done.

M.G. — Going back to your book: you describe the travel and the travelling need as the opposite of depression, because it forces you to come out of your problems, to open yourself. Yet, in the last decades we are witnessing a new type of tourism, compulsive and surrogate, called city break. What are the ingredients of an authentic travel experience?

A.S. — A tourist goes to look at another part of the world, but neither changes it nor is changed by it; a traveler is open to being transformed by his experiences. Of course, no one is one without the other; every tourist is changed by what he sees, and even the most cynical traveler experiences moments of sheer spectatorship at the wonders before him. I believe that if everyone in the world were obligated to spend two weeks in a foreign country before the age of thirty, that half the world’s diplomatic problems would be resolved. Those who cannot afford to visit another country could visit another city or province, even another neighborhood. The essence of travel is to accept the existence of otherness, the fact that people in different places make different life choices and have different traditions. It’s an urgent matter that we accept this, that we understand that everyon else doesn’t really want to be like us.

M.G. — And still depression exists, even among travelers. Anthony Bourdain, an extreme passionate traveler, has committed suicide a few weeks ago.

A.S. — I just wrote a piece about Bourdain and the designer Kate Spade. Mental illness affects many of us, and there is no exception for the people who are travelers I think travel helps us recover from our fear of otherness, but travelers are restless spirits, and restlessness is associated with anxiety, even with depression. Anthony Bourdain was a wonderful traveler and a remarkable man. I am deeply saddened by his death. I don’t think he died because he had lived so fully in the world, but I do think that living in the world ultimately failed to affect an underlying depression. I have said that travel is an opening outwards, while depression is a curling inwards. The ability to open outward is a wonderful one; it is the opposite of depression, but the two can coexist. And the strain of being so public as Bourdain was can be devastating.

(Link to original, in Romanian)