Stephen King Goes to Cairo

Posted: 4 February 2011 in Faith and Life
Tags: , , , ,

Most people would not consider Stephen King to be a prominent social critic.  But after reading his latest set of short stories Full Dark, No Stars I am thinking that maybe we should reconsider.  In four brief vignettes King forces us (as always) to look into the deep recesses of our hearts and deal with… the tragic loss of the family farm, the horror of sexual violence (fueled by the ubiquitous marketing phenomenon?), and the general disregard for human life that lurks oh so close to all of us (sleeping in our beds with us?).

In the shortest piece of this collection “Fair Extension” King introduces us to Streeter and draws us into a lighthearted (for him) tale that seems to be the comic relief of this grim selection until it too reaches up and grabs us by the throat.  Streeter has advanced stage cancer but, on his way home along a lonely stretch of road one evening, he meets a man who holds out the promise of “extending” life.  We know where this is going don’t we?

Or do we? King adds two twists that take us in a direction that is, frankly, a far less comfortable place to go. Not so lighthearted after all.

Rather than demand Streeter’s soul in exchange, this fallen “demon”–clearly not the big bad guy–offers the “extension” in exchange for…hard cash.  Fifteen percent of Streeter’s earnings from now until… Deposited in a bank account in the Caymans.  This is strictly business.  Ahh… but there is a second twist and one that “twists” the knife even deeper into our own psyche (does it not “gentle reader” as SK likes to call us?).

To get his extension Streeter has to name a person he “hates”.  The price is now clear: this is a zero sum game; your gain is, well, someone else’s pain.  Will Streeter accept?  Read the story.

(This story immediately brought to mind a more horrific tale, the title of which I cannot remember, that I read many years ago.  In that one a genius discovers a way to travel to heaven.  He parleys his discovery into a great deal of money for himself–and a great deal of pain for others.  It turns out that every time someone travels to heaven a gaping chasm–centered right in the middle of the poorest, most destitute, part of his city–opens further, swallowing everything above it.  One person’s trip to heaven is another person’s trip to hell.  And make no mistake, a trip to heaven costs quite a bit–something like 15% percent of a person’s life earnings, shall we say?).

Nearly ten years ago our local paper ran a series of articles entitled “State of Denial.” In it, the author described how those of us who live in California build our homes, run our cars and, put food on our table on the backs of people who live far from us.  Our hunger for wood strips boreal forests; our thirst for gasoline despoils the Amazon, and our craving for fish empties the seas off South America.  We are committed to “preservation” of our space but not to “conservation” of resources in a broader sense.

In other words–we “extend” our luxury, for a cost to be sure (15%?), by robbing life from those who live far away.  But do we hate them (in the way Streeter hated the one whose sad fate would seal his deal)?  You would argue no… we do not hate them.  We have not made the deal that Streeter made. But what is hate if not the other side of the coin of obsessive love of self that drives the thoughts of others from our minds.  Is hate not a disregard–a dismissal–of the humanity of the other?

Historian Andrew Bacevich reminds us of the long history of this disregard:

In a 1948 State Department document, diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.”  The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was “to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity.”  Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership.

And so we go to Cairo (or Baghdad, or Kabul, or Gaza City or Algiers, or… need I go on?) and we find that policy makers are “concerned” that a popular uprising there will destabilize world markets, will lead to disruption of oil flows or will lead to a less “friendly” regime in Egypt.  Israeli leaders condemn the US as naive for abandoning a leader who has brought stability to the Middle East.  And, as Glenn Greenwald notes, the US seems ready to support Mubarak’s chosen successor–Omar Suleiman–because he is a “stalwart ally”–having smoothed the way for extraordinary renditions that have made our lives so much safer in fortress America.

We are Streeter–we buy our prosperity with the wealth of our ancestors (itself acquired at the barrel of a gun and via the slaughter of innocents) and we seal the deal by naming that which we love (ourselves) and by extension that which we hate (the “other”–the Egyptian, the Iraqi, the Honduran, the Haitian).

I am pointing no fingers.  I own my role in the transaction.  All I can do now is seek out the demon with whom I made the wager and end the transaction–refuse to pay, renounce my “hatred”, and then live with the consequence that my “extension” will no longer be extended.

Am I ready?

  1. Lisa Schirch says:

    that George Kennan quote is one I think of often. i think it is still US policy. but the strategic communications around it much more subtle.

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