Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Zeitoun on the road

December 25, 2012General

It's easy to feel that common sense is superior to the law. Common sense, after all, is nuanced by experience, alive to changing conditions and to context. It's the kind of human intelligence we cannot program into machines. Laws, however, are precisely the kind of inflexible rules that machines can master. (Lawyers, I've heard, find it easy to compose algorithms, which exist in a rules-based realm.)  In that way, law are inferior. And no doubt many of us think, from time to time, that a Solomon-like human would work a lot better than the volumes upon volumes of law.

The trouble is that when people are free to make laws themselves, relying on common sense, they often don't turn out to be quite up to Solomon's level. Worse, in times of fear, they're more likely to treat outsiders with prejudice and cruelty.

I bring this up after listening to Dave Eggers' Katrina book, Zeitoun, on the drive up from Florida. It's a slow and deliberate book, building, story by story, the life and histories of the hero of the book, a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and his wife, Kathy. So as not to spoil the book for you, I'll just say that Zeitoun is a good and generous man who, eventually, is mistreated by authorities operating, apparently, outside the law, a la Guantanamo. This is not fiction. And it's not hard at all to imagine the people who mistreat Zeitoun bowing en masse to a totalitarian leader who promises to protect and advance them.



It's a terrifying book, and I have no reason to doubt what Eggers writes. What's more, he gives all author proceeds of the book to the Zeitoun Foundation, which is dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans. Nonetheless, I do have serious questions about Eggers' reporting. He provides a meticulous day-by-day portrait of two people's lives, including hundreds of encounters, complete with gestures and dialog. I do not know how such a thing can be reported. I just drove more than 1,300 miles with my son over a span of two days. We talked quite a bit. And if you asked me to resurrect even one sentence from our trip, I'd fail. Our words did their communicating work (or play), and now are gone.

Zeitoun reminded me of the dystopian America in Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which I read as part of my Coursera course on science fiction and fantasy. Doctorow describes San Francisco as a Homeland Security police state following a terrorist attack. Again, the absense of law gives sadists and thugs the chance to take things into their own hands--and to feel righteous while doing so. 

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