“Like Beads on a String”

Kurt Vonnegut

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Living With the Mau Mau

Mau Mau Terrorists in Kenya

Things change. I remember during the 1950s reading horror stories of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. There were ghastly tales of what the Kikuyu were doing to British settlers. Around the same time, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was taking place. I still remember reading—was it in The Reader’s Digest?—of the Communist Secret Police (the dread AVO) taking captured Budapest prisoners and grinding their living bodies into hamburger meat. For themselves? To feed to their pets?

Not too much time passed before Jomo “Burning Spear” Kenyatta, one of the leaders of the Mau Mau, was named President of an independent Kenya in 1964. Then, after the Hungarian Revolution was ground into goulash by the Russian Tanks of Nikita Khruschchev, Hungarian President János Kádar developed a reputation as being one of the most enlightened Communist satellite leaders—without in any way sacrificing his Marxist/Leninist credentials.

We are perhaps facing a similar situation with the changes wrought by the Arab Spring. Groups that had been associated with terrorism may perhaps turn out to be our Middle East allies of tomorrow:

Amid chaos and uncertainty, the Islamists alone offer a familiar, authentic vision for the future. They might fail or falter, but who will pick up the mantle? Liberal forces have a weak lineage, slim popular support, and hardly any organizational weight. Remnants of the old regime are familiar with the ways of power yet they seem drained and exhausted. If instability spreads, if economic distress deepens, they could benefit from a wave of nostalgia. But they face long odds, bereft of an argument other than that things used to be bad, but now are worse.

These are the observations of Hussein Agha and Robert Malley writing in the November 8, 2012, issue of The New York Review of Books in their excellent article “This Is Not a Revolution.”