All posts by Kevin N Dhali

World War Z: Humanity’s “undead” mistakes

I perceive this book more as a very strong satire of humanity’s self-destructive mistakes, rather than a typical story about a foreign invasion against humanity. To better elucidate my point, I compare World War Z with Ender’s Game that we read last week. On the surface, the two works of literature seem to be thematically similar; both tell the stories of humanity fighting against an outside and abnormal force. Yet upon closer look, there are actually two stark differences between the works. Firstly, Ender’s Game draws a clear proximity between humanity and the buggers, thus emphasizing the external nature of the threat. Meanwhile, World War Z blurs the battlefields and home fronts, hence creating a frenzied chaos as the enemies strike from within the borders and localities. Secondly, while Ender’s Game portrays a successful coalition that humanity creates to combat the alien invasion, World War Z depicts individual nations’ selfish policies and disjointed international responses. Through this post, I underline the significance of the two traits that set World War Z apart as a work of literature.

Building on the first contention, it is very crucial that the author obscure the line between the battlefield and the homefront; as a matter of fact, the two become almost synonymous and one within the book. This paints an image that what humanity is facing is actually not an external threat, but rather a disease that emerges from the inside. Unlike Ender’s Game, World War Z deals not with a scenario in which humanity must unite against a common external foe; instead, it sets up a scenario in which humanity must rid itself of its own disease. In my opinion, the use of zombies actually further buttresses this claim when we consider the nature of these horrid creatures. The book explains how these undead creatures are deceased human beings who turn into cannibalistic monsters. In other words, these monsters are not as ‘foreign’ and ‘alien’ as we might have initially thought. They originate from human beings; from humanity itself. The fact that legends and folklores across cultural boundaries each have their own version of zombies further conveys the point that the zombies symbolize a common and inherent issue that all cultures are aware of. These zombies are representative of the vices and errors that humanity itself had created, yet refused to deal with in a straightforward manner. Instead, humanity chooses to sweep them under the rug of legends, hoping that they would eventually turn into forgotten myths. This book, however, delivers a story in which said myth becomes reality; the errors that humanity selfishly makes and ignores are finally exploding into a monstrous pandemic.

We are talking about racial injustice that remain unaddressed even within the 21st century, as neighbors turn against each other, ‘vigilantes’ run about shooting protesters, and cops kill civilians. We are talking about political bigotry, in which a certain presidential candidate spreads trepidation of those who are different, encourage hate crimes, and demand the closing of the borders. We are talking about climate change, in which everyday households and the everyman’s lifestyle can very well accumulate as the source for global destructions. We are talking about terrorist groups who are now capable of infiltrating communities beyond the restraints of borders, as they commit crimes against humanity from within the domestic soils. We are talking about indiscriminate air assaults and bombings, inconsiderate of their targets, in which collateral damages include hospital facilities and even weddings. We are talking about countries racing to develop weapon technologies so destructive that they become obsolete, for the aftermath offers nothing but mutual destructions  In every single one of these real-life issues, do we not see disturbing parallels to the world of World War Z? A world in which chaos and violence run rampant in the local neighborhoods, while the countries are driven by fear into closing their borders; a world in which everyone has the potential of becoming a monster, while horrid creatures massacre people in large numbers from within the communities; a world in which monsters and deaths visit indiscriminately, while advanced technology proves to be futile and useless against the ‘new’ enemy.

This is also the reason why an effective international coalition does not exist within World War Z, the way it does within Ender’s Game. Humanity is not rallying under one banner against an external foe; it is struggling to survive against cancer within its very own body. In addition, our current international regime, order, and system are also built upon humanity’s selfishness, which has now turned into zombified marauders. To me, the main question this book raise is not how the international system can resolve this issue, but rather why it fails to do so.  Political infighting, selfish individual interests, and corrupt collusions have become the motifs of many international organizations and the existing world order. Disparities stand gigantically between the Global North and South, while authoritarian regimes receive aids as long as they support a hegemon’s actions. The United Nations loftily assert itself as the body of global governance, only to undermine itself with a self-defeating veto system within the permanent security council. International Criminal Court struggles to bring justice for the global community, yet lacks the signature of the world’s biggest superpowers, including both the US and China. The world is not flat. Consequently, the international system and organizations are used to preserving the status quo in which the world is not flat. This is their idea of a stable global community. In the events that they must operate to ensure fair distribution of security across the globe, to make the world flat, they fail. The system cannot go against a crucial piece of its own foundation: selfishness and ignorance. This is why, within the books, the author depicts how various countries immediately start with the initial blame game. The Palestinians suspect the catastrophe as being a Zionist trick, while the Americans blame the Middle East conflicts for stalling US responses. Selfish policies, such as the closing of borders and apartheid-based system, then become the normative responses. The reason is simple: ignorant selfishness is what the global community and individual nations are used to.

World War Z has brilliantly depicts a nightmare that is so close to reality. This is not your typical zombie-chasing fictional stories. Instead, the true horror of the story lies within its close relevance to our reality. Indeed, there is an ‘undead’ disease lying in waiting for humanity; a disease that we have created ourselves and for ourselves. Said disease knows no geographical boundaries, and stalks behind every culture and nationality. Should we fail to address this corrupting disease that is born out of corrupt human practices, then a ‘zombie’ apocalypse is really not a farfetched concept.

Ender’s Game: Fighting a War or Struggling for Power?

As I read this book, I thoroughly enjoy the author’s use of paradoxes and ironies. They truly get my mind gears turning, and posit numerous questions about the nature and desires of humanity. Specifically, I am able to derive a lot of commentaries and interpretations on the notion of power, and its role within human civilizations. In the beginning, the Ender’s Game seems like another compelling sci-fi story about humanity’s fight for survival against invading aliens. Yet, as we continue to read it, the readers discover how much deeper the book really is; it deals not just with military confrontations between two warring races, but also with the daily manifestations of power struggles.

As Colonel Graff picks up Ender for enrollment at the Battle School, I realize that the seeds of conflict have long begun to sprout. Peter’s contempt and envy towards Ender create an ongoing conflict that persist from the very beginning of the novel until the end of it. This kind of envy-driven conflicts also occurs within the Battle School, as Ender’s jealous peers isolate him and even bully him. A stark irony immediately surfaces, as humanity isolates and attacks its own hero for the sake of individual interests and gains. Furthermore, Ender is continuously finding himself in a position in which the only way for him to progress as humanity’s hero is by turning against his own peers and superiors, as exemplified by Ender’s conflicts with Bonzo. In other words, humanity’s hero is not a beloved hero who everyone roots for; humanity’s hero must abandon his own humanity, and become more powerful than the rest of humanity. Humanity’s hero is not of humanity.

This paradox then raises the question of what exactly is the main objective of this war? If the objective is to survive and win the war, then why is humanity not rallying under one banner and unanimously support its own champion? Why is the book focusing so much more on the regular internal conflicts within the academy and military ranks, as supposed to the battles with the buggers? This is when I synthesize that humanity’s collective survival and victory in the war is not the end goal; instead, the end goal very much pertains to individual gains and interests.  Humanity is not trying to find a hero to save itself; humans are racing to become the ultimately powerful hero. What matters is not winning the war, but where will the individual actors place within the power ranking after the war.

This kind of commentary and synthesis become very relevant to the way I perceive conflicts, even within today’s modern era. Often times, war is neither about fighting dangerous extremism and terrorism, nor is it about ensuring survivability through self-defense, despite many politicians claiming these as the reasons for military engagements. War is just a game that one plays in order to attain a prize outside of the game, similar to how we play games in an arcade in order to trade in the coupons for real prizes. That is also why we select certain games that we want to play, correlating them to the kind of prizes that we want. This translates into the realm of international conflicts, as countries and international communities focus on certain conflicts more than others based on what personal gains they can derive out of them.

To conclude, I want to bring up a very interesting quote from the novel: “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.” A similar theme can also be found within The Ugly American, as Deong decided to frame his old friend Colvin for “poisoning” milk supply, despite Colvin’s genuine attempt to actually understand and help the Sarkhanese people. If one actually becomes capable of understanding the adversary, should diplomatic negotiations not have been the next obvious step for conflict resolution? In the realm of international relations, why is ‘understanding to defeat’ still a more prevalent norm in comparison to ‘understanding to co-exist.’ As displayed by Ender’s Game, the reason is actually quite simple: conflict serves as a faster means towards power struggles and power reorientations, and ‘more’ power is the ultimate destination. Wars and conflicts are not agencies for surviving; they are agencies for thriving. Wars and conflicts are not agencies of ideologies; they are agencies of political plays. Wars and conflicts are not about black vs white; they are about portraying things as black and white in order to get more gold and silver.

Wars and conflicts are the crane game, and power is the toy prizes that we desperately want. Once we understand how to pick up the prizes, then surely we will play the game.

Season of Migration to the North: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Season of Migration to the North has definitely been one of my favorite books in this class. The main reason being that it addresses very eloquently and creatively an issue that has been swirling around inside my head, especially in light of recent national and global events. I choose to label that issue as the ‘global hypocrisy of ignorance.’

The novel starts with the narrator coming home from Europe and recounting his stories and experience to the curious villagers of Wad Hamid. While he tries to convey the message that Europeans are inherently the same with the villagers, the narcissistic narrator hypocritically demands the attention of others, as he goes around visiting every family to tell the tale of his foreign journeys. The narrator elevates himself on top of a self-erected pedestal, as he believes that his European education and experiences have made him “important, … continuous and integral” (6). Certainly, the narrator does not portray himself as the same with the rest of the villagers, thus contradicting his statement about the equality between European and Sudanese civilizations. The narrator’s annoyance at Mustafa’s silence early on and his later cynical comment towards the narrator’s study of English poetry further exposes the hypocrisy. He perceives Mustafa’s attitude as undermining and degrading the supposedly ‘special’ status he attains through  foreign education.

Meanwhile, Mustafa is a character who voluntarily adopts the European education as a kid and goes on to achieve academic successes abroad, only to bring aggressions upon the European society through his sexual conquests of white women. More interestingly, his seduction technique relies on his romanticized depiction of Sudan; he takes advantage of the women’s desire to view the unknown as exotic and different to the European culture that they are accustomed to. By doing this, Mustafa is actually committing his own act of hypocrisy. The fact that he has to peak the interest of others by romanticizing his cultural background with mysterious hyperbole actually underlines his acknowledgment that the Sudanese civilization is inherently the same with the European culture. Mustafa becomes even more hypocritical when we observe how he seems on the outer surface to be a supporter of British imperialism, as described by the University lecturer, while deep inside he actually bears an ardent desire to invasively retaliate against the European community.

Thus, on one hand we have a man who tells others that the Sudanese and Europeans are the same, but demand special treatments for his European education. On the other hand, we have a man who is aware of the similarities between the two civilizations, but decides to tell tales of fantasy about Sudan to the Europeans. While the author has created the narrator and Mustafa as foils towards each other, they are actually just two sides of the same coin. Their hypocrisy, although portrayed differently, is actually the same; it  is a hypocrisy fueled by ignorance and self-interests. This could also be the reason for the author to return the focus of the story back to the narrator in Chapter 3 following Mustafa’s demise; to me, it conveys the underlying message that the two have coalesced within the same arena of hypocrisy. Both being men of intelligence, the narrator and Mustafa chose to cease in pursuing the deeper truth, and instead reinforce the generalized stereotypes. The narrator upholds the stereotype that Europeans are more educated, sophisticated, and advanced, while Mustafa manifests and exploits the mysterious fantasies of an ‘exotic’ Sudan. They both decide to do so in order to serve their personal interests. Relating this book to Max Havelaar, we can also be critical and posit the argument that Multatuli wrote the book not to abolish colonialism, but rather to make it more humane and more properly institutionalized. Some can even go that he wrote the book out of personal interests, having been removed from office in Lebak. Is this not also a hypocritical act in itself? Furthermore, if we look at the modern context of Indonesia, then we would notice how the country is rampant with corruptions and poverty. Just like how Salih tries to warn the readers not to quickly assume that Sudan became much more progressive after the British left, I too want to point out that not all is good in Indonesia after the Dutch left. Similar to how the previously prejudiced Mamur regained power in Sudan and turned against the concept of meritocracy, Indonesia is also ridden with corruptions, collusion, and nepotisms. In a way, corrupt Indonesian government officials are colonizing their own people.

This sort of hypocrisy indeed persists very prevalently even within today’s global community. For example, in light of the Paris attacks, some decide to once again generalize the Muslim community as terrorists and engaged in hate crimes and persecutions against believers of Islam. Meanwhile, many others decide to come to the defense of the Muslims, sharing numerous Facebook posts about how Islam is not a religion of violence, and applauding Reza Aslan’s defense of Islam against stereotyping news anchors (https://www.facebook.com/issambayanofficial/videos/731193436971783/?pnref=story). Although it is certainly good to see that many people are embracing the values of acceptance and religious tolerance, I still have to question whether these people truly understand what Islam is about. Certainly, if you want to argue against stereotypes that equalize Islam with terrorism, then you should probably have your own well-informed understanding of what Islam’s tenets truly are. Yet, I truly doubt that many of my Facebook friends have ever taken  one course on Islam, or even read the Qur’an or other books on Islam. Even I who grew up listening to the Muslim morning and evening prayers in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, must say that my knowledge of Islam is very limited. Then, how come these people on Facebook seem to be much more vocal than me? That being said, without properly researching and learning about the subject, are they not also creating their own versions of generalization? This is similar to how Mustafa’s former professor defends him in court for murder by saying that Mustafa himself is a victim of a greater clash between two civilizations, and that the European culture is actually more violent and brutal than the Sudanese. Some people also decide to defend Islam by claiming that Christianity and other religions also stem violence. Are they not also supporting some other forms of generalization in order to debunk a targeted generalization?

Following the Paris attack, Facebook has also decided to implement a feature that allows Parisians to check in on Facebook and let their friends know that they are safe. Furthermore, Facebook creates a French flag filter that could be implemented on users’ profile pictures in order to show solidarity and support for Paris. Many people decided to use the features as a form of support. Yet many others have also correctly criticized these features as being evidence of the media once again displaying preferences towards the values of certain lives over other lives. They correctly point out that such response by the global community was nowhere to be seen in the light of the Beirut bombings and terrorist attacks on a Kenyan university. At the same time, however, I believe that the hypocrisy still persists. I went back to check news media coverage of the Beirut bombing and Kenyan university massacre, and I found a good amount of outlets publishing their stories. My question is, where were those critics the day before the Paris attack? Why did they themselves not share  and talk about those news coverages on Beirut and Kenya before the Paris attack? Just like how most people changed their Facebook profile picture filter to make themselves feel good about doing “something,” those critics (many of whom still do nothing to donate or send aids to victims of all tragedies) are also raising their voices now to make themselves feel good also. It’s all about self-interests, self-justification, and selfishness. Truly, we live in such an ignorant, selfish, and hypocritical world.

A Nonsensical World

Solo is indeed a strange novel. To be frank, I did not know how any author could possibly develop a decent and interesting plot about a blind man who is nearly 100 years old. Indeed, I saw Ulrich as the oddest choice for a main character, for what could this plain everyman offer to us as lessons in conducting the grand schemes of international relations. At first glance, I suspected Dasgupta of creating a nonsensical fictional world, only to realize later on that perhaps it is my own world and reality that have become nonsensical.

We now live in a world where the scheming and designing done by those in the highest echelons dictate the flow of everything else. We rank factors and individuals based on their potential to benefit or to harm our cause, as top officials negotiate intricate plans to secure strategic assets. Yet, the objectives of our notion of international relations become blurred, as nations’ grand strategies simply strive to be ahead of each other. It does not matter what kind of lead that we have, as long as we are leading; it does not matter how the everyman lives, as long as our civilization is more advanced than those of our neighbors. This is the kind of world that we live in now, where individuals and resources become mere assets and pawns to strategize a victory without real victors.

It is because we live in this kind of world that Ulrich’s story may seem unappealing and lacking in prominence. After all, what kind of use does a blind ancient man have to contribute to the society; we have, after all, paid him for his services with the “golden watch.” This story has truly served as a reminder to me, a student of International Relations, that the world has begun to forget about the very basic essence of ‘relations’ itself. Our international order has failed to truly coalesce different parties into a concert, but instead encouraged rivaling coalitions. It has thrown the humanity, the very focus of Dasgupta’s Solo, of international relations into the “great black ocean of forgotten things.”

Regardless of what kind of crucial climacteric is unraveling within the international stage, international relations should never forget the normalcy that would be affected within the everyman’s life. Regardless of the main character  growing old and becoming blind, his daydreams still connect to the dynamic struggle of young souls elsewhere. Our world needs reforming, for there is no point in accumulating strategically-valuable assets in order to establish regimes, only to later topple those regimes due to insatiable desire for conflicts.

Indeed, international relations can be the facilitator of a better life for global citizens, or the harbinger of death; they are “simply two halves of the same thing.” It is time to focus on the lives of all individuals involved, instead of just geopolitical analysis. If others think that this is too idealistic of a view, and that the value of life could actually mean less than something else, then surely our “world itself has become nonsense.”