Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, The Lacuna, contains a number of insights into world politics in 1930 through the early 1950s. At one point, Kingsolver gives a powerful analysis of the events that led to extreme investigations into the disloyalty and subversive activities of American citizens suspected of having communist ties. In the 1940s through 1950s, many who had even a passing association with persons with a connection to communism were fired from government jobs or blacklisted from working in education or the entertainment industry. In her novel, one of her characters describes the cause this way.
“Do you want to know my theory? . . . I think it’s the bomb. . . . When that bomb went off over Japan, when we saw that an entire city could be turned to fire and gas, it changed the psychology of this country. And when I say ‘psychology,’ I mean that very literally. It’s the radio, you see. The radio makes everyone feel the same thing at the same time. Instead of millions of various thoughts, one big psychological fixation. The radio commands our gut response. . . . That bomb scared the holy Moses out of us. We became horrified in our hearts that we had used it. Okay, it ended the war, it saved American life and so on and so forth. But everyone feels guilty, deep inside. Little Japanese children turned into flaming gas, we know this. How could we not feel bad. . . . Okay. We used the bomb. We convinced ourselves we are very special people, to get to use this weapon. Ideal scenario, we would like to think it came to us from God, meant for our own use and no one else’s. . . . Suddenly we are God’s chosen, we have this bomb, and we better be pretty damn certain no one else is going to get this bomb. We must clean our house thoroughly. Can you imagine what would happen if England also had the bomb, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union all had this bomb? How could a person go to sleep at night? . . . You see, this is what I am saying. The radio. It creates for us a psychology. . . . Winston Churchill says ‘iron curtain.’ Did you see how they all went crazy over that? . . . J. Edgar Hoover says this curtain is what separates us from Satan and perhaps also the disease of leprosy. . . . ‘Communism is not a political party but an evil and a malignant way of life’ – these are his words. A disease condition. A quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation.”
As I read these words I found myself drawing connections to the events of September 11, 2001 when 19 terrorists from the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and attacked America. In the 1940s, the radio had a powerful ability to shape the culture of the American people. Everyone was scared by what was broadcast on the radio. In 2001, it was television and the internet which allowed for the rapid dispersal of information and a galvanizing of public opinion. An instant fear struck America. If this can happen, what else might be possible? The internet discussions made “everyone feel the same thing at the same time. Instead of millions of various thoughts, one big psychological fixation.” America was instantly in a state of fear. It was not communism but terrorism that brought fear. It was not an “iron curtain” that galvanized the thoughts into one psychological fixation but the “war on terrorism.” That state of fear and security alert brought on by these events still affects our psychology today.
It would be interesting to interview Barbara Kingsolver and see how much comparison she was seeking to draw between this dark period of history in 1940s America and the dark mood of 2001 in America and the world. Was this consciously in her mind or was she merely seeking to remind us of the dangers of extreme thinking? Reading literary reviews suggests that other readers have made similar connections between then and now. You may want to pick up a copy of The Lacuna for yourself and consider what connections and emotions are created for you as you read this well-written story.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Lacuna. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2009.