"Dorfman’s critique is personal, intellectual, devastating, and at times bitingly funny." New York Journal of Books
Combining elements of memoir, political theory, and literary criticism, Ariel Dorfman’s Homeland Security Ate My Speech is an emotionally raw yet measured assessment of the United States after the election of Donald Trump. Dorfman, writing with a bifurcated Latino-American identity, highlights the troubling parallels between Trump and repressive regimes of the past. Specifically, Dorfman relates the election of Trump to the CIA-led coup that installed Pinochet as dictator in Chile: an event that upended Dorfman’s life, as well as the fate of the country. With corruption and repression looming, he wonders, can the United States avoid the same kind of political interference it practiced in the past?
Reflecting Dorfman’s virtuosity across genres, the essays of Homeland Security Ate My Speech are concise, yet highly original and playful; one takes the form of a letter from a sixteenth-century King of Spain to Donald Trump, praising him for his intolerance, and urging a revival of the Inquisition, while another begins with Dorfman’s memory of seeing a monster movie as a child ("I can remember gripping my mother’s hand tight") and segues into a thoughtful meditation on Trump via Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Dorfman brings a rich array of literary references to his discussion of America’s current malaise; other authors he invokes include Faulkner, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Melville, Lewis Carroll, and Dave Eggers.
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[from "Revisiting Melville in Chile"]
Santiago de Chile may seem a strange place from which to try to understand Donald Trump and how to resist his most aberrant edicts and policies, and yet, it is from the distance and serenity of this Southern Cone city, where my wife and I live part of the year, that I have found myself meditating on these issues, abetted by the insight and doubts of none other than Herman Melville.
When the Pinochet dictatorship forced me and my family into exile after the 1973 coup, the vast library we had laboriously built over the years (with funds we could scarcely spare) stayed behind. Part of it was lost or stolen, another part damaged by a flood, but a considerable part was salvaged when we went back to Chile after democracy was restored in 1990. What strikes me about these books that have withstood water and theft and tyranny is how they enchantingly return me to the person I once was, the person I dreamt I would be, the young man who wanted to devour the universe by gorging on volume after volume of fiction, philosophy, science, history, poetry, plays. Simultaneously, of course, those texts, mostly classic and canonical, force me to measure how much desolate and wise time has passed since my first experience with them, how much I myself have changed, and with me the wide world I traveled during our decades of banishment, a change that becomes manifest as soon as I pick up any of those primal books and reread it from the inevitable perspective of today.
It is a happy coincidence that the works I have chosen to revisit on this occasion are by Melville, as I can think of no other American author who can so inform the perilous moment we are currently living. Roaming my eyes on shelf after shelf, I soon lit upon his enigmatic novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and sandwiched between it and Moby-Dick, a collection of his three novellas, Benito Cereno; Bartleby, the Scrivener; and Billy Budd, Sailor.
Having just participated, as an American citizen, in the recent election that elevated to the presidency an archetypal liar and devious impostor who has hoodwinked and mesmerized his way into power, The Confidence-Man seemed like an appropriate place to start. Though published 160 years ago, on April Fool’s Day, 1857, Melville could have been presciently forecasting today’s America when he imagined his country as a Mississippi steamer (ironically called the Fidèle) filled with "a flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools!"
The passengers of that boat are systematically bilked by a devilish protagonist who constantly shifts his identity, changing names and shape and schemes, while each successive ambiguous incarnation tries out one scam after another, swindles and snake-oil-trickery that were recognizable in his dayand, alas, in ours. Fraudulent real estate deals and bankruptcies, spurious lies disguised as moralistic truths, grandiose charitable undertakings that never materialize, financial hustles and deceptions, bombastic appeals to the honesty of the suckers while showing no honor whatsoeverit all sounds like a primer for Trump and his buffoonish 21st-century antics and "truthful hyperbole." Of course, Melville’s time was not the age of Twitter and Instagram and short attention spans, so his ever-fluctuating rascal engages in endless metaphysical discussions about mankind, quoting Plato, Tacitus, and St. Augustine, along with many a book that Trump has probably never even heard of. And rather than a bully and a braggart, this 19th-century pretender is garrulous and genial. But just like Trump, he displays an arsenal of false premises and promises to dazzle and befuddle his victims with absurd and inconsistent projects that seem workable until, that is, they are more closely examinedand then, when cornered by demands that he provide proof of his ventures, the scamp somehow manages to distract his audience and squirm away. And also like Trump, he exercises on his dupes "the power of persuasive fascination, the power of holding another creature by the button of the eye," which allows him to mercilessly best his many antagonists, exploiting their ignorance, naïveté, and, above all, greed.
Indeed, Melville’s misanthropic allegory often seems less a denunciation of the glib and slippery trickster than a bitter indictment of those gullible enough to let themselves be cheated. The author saw the United States, diseased with false innocence and a ravenous desire for getting rich, heading toward Apocalypsespecifically, the Civil War that was a scant four years away. Fearful that, behind the masquerade of virtue and godliness performed by the role-playing passengers, there lurk shadows of darkness and malignancy, he was intent on revealing how the excessive "confidence" in America’s integrity, virtuousness, and "ardently bright view of life" can lead to tragedy.
And the novel ends in a quietly terrifying way. As the light of the last lamp expires and a sick old man, one final quarry of the Confidence Man, is "kindly" led toward extinction, the narrator leaves us with this disturbing forecast: "Something further may follow of this Masquerade."
Those words pester me, because the "something further" that we are living today is a grievous circumstance that Melville could not have anticipated: What if somebody like the slick Confidence Man were to take power, become the captain of that ship of foolsin other words, what if someone, through his ability to delude vast contingents, were to assume control of the republic and, like mad Ahab, pursue the object of his hatred into the depths (in Trump’s sea there are many white whales and quite a few minor fish) and doom us all to drown along with him?
* * *
If Melville was not concerned with the possibility that his Confidence Man might become a demented, uncivil president, he did bequeath us, nevertheless, three short masterpieces where the protagonists rebel, each in their own special way, against an inhumane and oppressive system. By reading once again the novellas Bartleby, Billy Budd, and Benito Cereno, I hoped, therefore, to discover what guidance Melville might provide those of us who ponder how to fight the authoritarian proclitivies that Trump and his gang epitomize as they seek total and uncontested power to radically remake America.
I began, obviously, with Bartleby, the Scrivener.
"I would prefer not to": Those are the emblematic words with which the protagonist, a copyist for a Wall Street lawyer (who is also the bewildered narrator of the tale), invariably responds when asked to perform the most minimal tasks but also when offered a chance to better or protect himself, to the point of losing his job, his housing, and, eventually, his life, as he ends up starving his body to death in prison. When I first read this novella in my youth, I saw it, not incorrectly, as an allegory about Melville himself. At the time of its writingin 1856, just before the experimental and uncompromising The Confidence-Man was publishedthe author (whose Moby-Dick had sold poorly and been, in general, misunderstood when it appeared in 1851) was struggling with his own refusal to accommodate his style and vision to the commercial literature of his age, a refusal that corresponded with my own 1960s ideas about not selling out to the "establishment." Though I was able to grasp, as many readers have since it first appeared, that this radical rejection of the status quo went far beyond a defense of artistic freedom, delving into mankind’s existential loneliness in a Godless universe, it is only now, beleaguered with the multiple dangers and dilemmas that Trump’s authoritarianism poses, that I can fully appraise the potential political dimensions of Bartleby’s embrace of negativity as a weapon of resistance.
Not because his ascetic withdrawal, passivity, and "pallid hopelessness" are what the majority of Americans who voted against Trump need in these times of bellicose regression. It is, rather, the specific way in which the protagonist posits his rebellion that may serve as a model for those of us who feel threatened by the aggressiveness of this president, who, like Ahab, is "possessed by all the fallen angels." What disarms, indeed leaves Bartleby’s employer “unmanned,” is that the scrivener’s responses are unwaveringly mild, "with no uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence." Bartleby’s individual intransigence was insufficient to change the disheartening world in Melville’s time, but it is a great place from where to start an active resistance in ours.
Imagine "I would prefer not to" as a rallying cry. Sanctuary cities and churches: "I would prefer not to help hunt down undocumented men, women and children." Indigenous tribes and veterans and activists: "I would prefer not to step aside when the tanks and the pipelines roll in." Civil servants at federal agencies: "I would prefer not to enact orders to destroy the environment, eviscerate the public school system, deregulate the banks, devastate the arts, attack the press; I would prefer not to cooperate with unjust, misguided, stupid, contradictory executive orders; I would prefer not to remain silent when I witness illegal acts that violate the Constitution," and on and on we could go, on and on we must go, if we are to be free. If every opponent of Trump were to adopt this stubborn and placid refusal to go alongeach deed of collective defiance always begins with somebody individually saying "No!"our belligerent president would find it difficult to impose his will, though we should expect a great deal of executive pressure against and persecution of those who stand in his way. Indeed, there are far too many signs already that dissidence, criticism, recalcitrance, whistleblowing, and protests will be met with the full force of the state.
Table of ContentsINTRODUCTION: GRIEVING FOR AMERICA
PART ONE: THE RISE OF TRUMP
1. Phillip II, the sixteenth century Spanish Monarch, writes to his Excellency Donald Trump
2. America Meets Frankenstein
3. My mother and Trump’s border
4. Latin American Food and the Failure of Trump’s Wall
5. Faulkner’s Question for America
PART TWO: THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY
1. Now, America, You Know How Chile Felt.
2.The River Kwai passes through the Latin America and the Potomac: what it feels like to be tortured.
3. Words of encouragement for Donald Trump from James Buchanan, the worst President in U.S. history.
4. A message from the end of the world.
5. Mission Akkomplished: From Comrade Bush to Tovaritch Trump.
PART THREE: MODELS OF RESISTANCE FROM THE PAST
1. Martin Luther King marches on
2. Searching for Mandela.
3. The Truth that Made Her Free
4. Reading Cervantes in Captivity
5. Revisiting Melville in Chile
PART FOUR: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
1. Homeland Security Ate My Speech.
2. Alice in Leftland: Will You, Won’t You Dance?
3. They’re Watching Us: So What?
4. How we overcame tyranny before.