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KxBurns
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Politics and Radicalism

The title of this book begs the question, “Believers in what?” Among the belief systems in which the characters place their faith and around which they organize their lives is political reactionism. Many characters in The Believers attempt to live their lives by their political ideals. In what ways do they succeed and fail? What is the personal impact of rigid adherence to radical political principles on the lives of various characters? Are Audrey and Joel, in particular, still the radicals they believe themselves to be? 

 

Can you identify instances when characters elevate the personal over the political, and to what result? What were some moments of political disillusionment and how did the characters deal with them? 

 

How does the radicalism of the 1960s differ from the radicalism of today? What does Heller’s portrayal of these characters say about the place of radicalism in the modern, post-9/11 world? What kind of statement does an apolitical character like Khaled make about a politicized lifestyle? 

 

Karla’s husband Mike has referred to Audrey and Joel as “self-satisfied champagne socialists” (p. 68). Is hypocrisy inherent in the bourgeois lifestyle and value system espoused by Audrey and Joel? Can radical (or even liberal, progressive) agendas be accomplished by working within the establishment?

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Bonnie824
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

I don't think they are really liberal or progressive. They intellectualize these qualities and like feeling smart and superior thinkers to those around them. The way Audrey treats the people who work for/serve her or her family is very telling. She has no respect for anyone else.
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dhaupt
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

Whew that's like asking us to discuss our politics with someone, not very comfortable.

Yes I think that both Joel and Audrey were radicals, Joel proved it to me by the people he represented and the stands he took and Audrey just by her actions.

As far as the personal over the political I'll use Rosa as an example, she works where she does because it goes along with her parents beliefs but when she starts discovering what it means to be Jewish she puts the personal above the political. Also when Karla decided to have an affair she was going against the political rightness of fidelity and being an adulterer.

It's hard for me to distinguish between radicalism of the 60's and of today because I was in the middle, but I'll try.

In the 60's I think we had a lot of home grown terrorist (radicals) who wanted to change the world by violence, but we also had the hippies of that era who believed live an let live. I think radicals of the 60's were young and radicals of today are middle aged if not older or maybe the radicals of the 60's and the radicals of today are the same people.

In answer to the question of  hypocrisy, I think that yes Joel and Audrey seemed to have their cake and eat it too. At the same time they were spewing equality and social justice they are living the highlife and enjoying things most of us in the middle couldn't afford, but by the same token they did practice what they preached they just did it with more money than the rest of us and I don't know that they should have that held against them. 

 

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khager23
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

The first thing that comes to my mind about the hypocrisy in their lives is the fact that they had a cleaning lady.  I think that's a little unusual for people who are supposed to be fighting the bourgeois life and status.

 

 

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KxBurns
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Re: Politics and Radicalism


Bonnie824 wrote:
I don't think they are really liberal or progressive. They intellectualize these qualities and like feeling smart and superior thinkers to those around them. The way Audrey treats the people who work for/serve her or her family is very telling. She has no respect for anyone else.

I agree -- I think Audrey in particular uses her political activism as a security blanket that allows her to feel superior to others, especially to Jean. When Jean is first introduced, Audrey characterizes their 15-year friendship as a struggle to educate Jean and "correct some of [her] more egregious misconceptions about international affairs..." (p. 35).

 

For all her liberalism, there is a very telling scene at start of Chapter 5 when Audrey is awoken by Sylvia, her cleaning lady. Heller writes, "To offset some of the embarrassment of having an elderly Latina scrub her toilets, she usually made sure to be elaborately, importantly busy whenever Sylvia was in the house." However, "...she thought her socialist conscience could have survived a tiny bit more deference from Sylvia" (p. 85).

 

Can you think of other instances where Audrey's actions run contrary to her supposed political beliefs?

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KxBurns
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Re: Politics and Radicalism


khager23 wrote:

The first thing that comes to my mind about the hypocrisy in their lives is the fact that they had a cleaning lady.  I think that's a little unusual for people who are supposed to be fighting the bourgeois life and status.

 

 


 

Ha, great minds! I was preparing my response about the Litvinoff's cleaning lady when you posted yours :smileyhappy:

 

To play devil's advocate, what would you say to the argument that by having a cleaning lady, Audrey and Joel are providing employment to someone who could use it? Is it the fact of having a cleaning lady that's hypocritical? Or is the hypocrisy in their attitudes about their cleaning lady, which may be summed up by Audrey's efforts to appear too busy to perform Sylvia's duties herself, and her underlying feelings that Sylvia should be more obsequious? 

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KxBurns
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Re: Politics and Radicalism


dhaupt wrote:

Whew that's like asking us to discuss our politics with someone, not very comfortable.

Yes I think that both Joel and Audrey were radicals, Joel proved it to me by the people he represented and the stands he took and Audrey just by her actions.

As far as the personal over the political I'll use Rosa as an example, she works where she does because it goes along with her parents beliefs but when she starts discovering what it means to be Jewish she puts the personal above the political. Also when Karla decided to have an affair she was going against the political rightness of fidelity and being an adulterer.

It's hard for me to distinguish between radicalism of the 60's and of today because I was in the middle, but I'll try.

In the 60's I think we had a lot of home grown terrorist (radicals) who wanted to change the world by violence, but we also had the hippies of that era who believed live an let live. I think radicals of the 60's were young and radicals of today are middle aged if not older or maybe the radicals of the 60's and the radicals of today are the same people.

In answer to the question of  hypocrisy, I think that yes Joel and Audrey seemed to have their cake and eat it too. At the same time they were spewing equality and social justice they are living the highlife and enjoying things most of us in the middle couldn't afford, but by the same token they did practice what they preached they just did it with more money than the rest of us and I don't know that they should have that held against them. 

 


I know, it is uncomfortable! And that's one thing I enjoyed about the book -- the way Heller exposes the contradictions in the views of her characters, which may or may not be our own views and contradictions. Of course, we can (and should) keep our focus here on the book so nobody feels called upon to reveal their own political leanings. 

 

You're right, there was some violent, militant radicalism in the 60s. While Joel and Audrey seem to have been somewhat more on the fringes of that, Lenny's birth mother Susan embodies such a stance. Can you think of any counterpart to Susan, any character representing a more modern version of radicalism? I think Hassani, the defendant Joel was representing the day of his stroke, is possibly meant to serve as an example of modern political extremism. What do the respective situations of these two characters say about radicalism now as opposed to then? 

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khager23
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

I think it's more their attitude about it, especially Audrey's. 

 

I don't think they necessarily would have to be best friends with Sylvia, but Audrey seemed sort of annoyed by her presence.

 

I've had a cleaning lady (because I suck at all things domestic) and I have never been annoyed at someone who comes and makes my apartment look normal and neat.

 

I'm guessing it's because it's a little strange to talk about workers' rights when you have a cleaning lady that you're probably not even terribly nice to.  And I'm guessing Sylvia probably wasn't paid well or getting health insurance or whatever. :smileyhappy:

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Choisya
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

I feel I have to state an 'interest' here:  I am a political intellectual and I lived and worked in London, mixing with similar people, 'movers and shakers', from the 1960s to 2004 when I retired to the country.  At no time did I meet anyone in my large left wing circle who used such bad language as Audrey and I therefore assumed that this was something she 'picked up' in New York.  She talks like a very lower class person which I found quite odd given her circumstances.  I find her an obnoxious character but I find Joel quite sympatico and more like the people I knew, who were, for the most part, kind and altruistic, anxious to make a difference to the world.  I found the language in the book very objectionable but I have been told by a New Yorker here that it is how folks talk over there. However, if any friends or relatives of mine spoke as these characters speak, I would throw them out of my house!:smileysurprised:.    

 

On the subject of the maid, I know many socialists who have 'dailies' but most treat them as family friends (in the way that I treat my gardeners as friends:smileyhappy:). As someone posted, it is a way of employing someone who needs a job but it also frees you to do more important work and Joel's work, in particular, was important. Audrey was not domesticated so her maid was able to keep the house running for the family in a far better way than she could.  Part of her objectionable character was to treat her servant badly and this perhaps said more about the shallowness of her beliefs than anything else. 

 

I found the most pleasant female character to be Rosa and this is perhaps because Zoe Heller is a Jew and understood the character she gave to Rosa whereas she did not understand, or maybe disliked, a character like Audrey. 

 

The first chapter of the book mentions the Socialist Labour League, which met in Red Lion Square at Conway Hall. This was a very left wing and Marxist group which infiltrated the Labour Party and eventually caused the split which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party, members of which then joined the Liberal Democrats.  It was a turbulent time in the Labour Party, of which I have been an active member for over 50 years.  Audrey's lack of political awareness, what she calls her (Socratic) 'ignorance', would not have been tolerated by such a group, who were fanatical in their socialist, near communist beliefs, and I did not find her socialising with them believable. Nor did I find it likely that Joel, a mainstream American socialist or social democrat, would be fraternising with them.  The conversation over Paul Robeson showed the political divide here.   Fortunately the book quickly went Over the Pond:smileyhappy:.      

 

Reviews of this book said that it was funny but I have to say that I did not laugh or smile once whilst reading it even though it could be said to be a parody of the life I once lived:smileysad:

 

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KxBurns
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

Choisya, you rightfully make a distinction between Joel and Audrey in terms of their attitudes and, I think, their motives. It seems to me that Joel is driven by a genuine desire to do good while Audrey is driven a bit more by her own insecurities.

 

That is some great info about the Socialist Labour League. I'll be adding a thread for additional links of interest soon -- it would be wonderful if you could post the info there, too!

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LucyintheOC
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

Choisya, on another thread I posted that at no time did I laugh while reading the book, nor did I find it "comic" as it was referred to in the author's cover letter. Thank you for posting your thoughts about this because I felt like I, perhaps, missed the proper perspective.
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Choisya
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

Thanks Lucy.  I wonder if it is anything to do with our attitude towards politics and politicians?  As politics was my working life, as well as my social one, I did not (do not) regard politics or politicians in a cynical way.  Running your country, making and changing laws is a serious business for serious people, whichever side of the political divide they are on.  I am therefore always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong, always remembering that when folks like me 'muck things up' we can do comparatively little harm whereas politicians can ruin their country - what a responsibility to have!

 

How do you regard politicians?  Do you find them funny in real life or do you generally take them seriously?  This might explain our attitudes towards the 'humour' in the book.

 


LucyintheOC wrote:
Choisya, on another thread I posted that at no time did I laugh while reading the book, nor did I find it "comic" as it was referred to in the author's cover letter. Thank you for posting your thoughts about this because I felt like I, perhaps, missed the proper perspective.

 

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dhaupt
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

[ Edited ]

Choisya,

I'm going to respond to a question you asked Lucy. First I've never been "involved" in politics other that to voice my opinion by my vote.  I find most politicians unreliable and say anything to get elected. I rarely get emotional about an election and usually vote for the lesser of two evils. I guess that's a very pessimistic way to look at who rules my country etc.. but alas it's how I feel.  

Thank you for your great comments and your links, as in other clubs you continue to educate all of us.

Message Edited by dhaupt on 10-21-2008 09:57 AM
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Choisya
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

[ Edited ]

Thanks Kx.  Yes, I see Joel as a typical altruistic politico-lawyer and I do not judge him harshly because he had 'affairs' - I rather take the French attitude towards politician's peccadilloes:smileyhappy:.  Audrey to me was a 'groupie', a parasite. They are as common in the political world as in the musical one. 

 

Yes, I will repost that SLL information and anything else I can think of which may be relevant although I don't want to bore the pants of folks here with English politics!:smileyvery-happy:. I was quite relieved that the book moved quickly Over the Pond and did not go into the minutae of socialist politics in the UK because I do not feel that Americans, on the whole, have a good grasp of the difference between socialism a la The Labour Party and communism a la the former USSR.  Audrey and Joel may call themselves socialists but it is likely that they were, in the milieu of New York, social democrats who held views rather to the right of British socialists like myself. What self-respecting American Democrat would advocate nationalising the 'commanding heights of the economy' for instance, as the LP have done in the past.  Why, you are having hissy-fits over nationalising a bank or two:smileyvery-happy::smileyvery-happy:.

 

It is also interesting that Ms Heller started the novel at a party in Gower Street, in the heart of the Bloomsbury area.  This is also a place well known to intellectual socialists and is particiularly associated with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.  The modernist buildings of London University are nearby and Russell Square, much frequented by Americans, has some wonderful old hotels, like the Russell.  However, I did not think that the people at this Gower Street party lived uyp to the reputation of their surroundings! 

 

Someone had posted earlier that the 1960s were a time of radical politics in the US and I would like to hear more about that?  Over here, despite the intellectualised radicalism, which polarised political views left and right, it was a time of 'Peace & Love' hippies without shoes walking the Streets of London with guitars, The Beatles, Rock 'n roll, Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood et al (not to mention the odd 'joint or two... Nothing earth shattering happened politically because too many folks were either contemplating their political navels or in a music and/or drug induced dream.   I came to London at the height of 'Peace & Love' and enjoyed it immensely:smileyvery-happy:'Those Were The Days My Friend....'

 

 

 


KxBurns wrote:

Choisya, you rightfully make a distinction between Joel and Audrey in terms of their attitudes and, I think, their motives. It seems to me that Joel is driven by a genuine desire to do good while Audrey is driven a bit more by her own insecurities.

 

That is some great info about the Socialist Labour League. I'll be adding a thread for additional links of interest soon -- it would be wonderful if you could post the info there, too!


 

Message Edited by Choisya on 10-21-2008 10:57 AM
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dhaupt
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

Choisya,

The 60's were a very turbulent times in the USA, we were in war in Vietnam which is where most of the violence stems from. The establishment (government) had many verbal opponents who didn't stop at verbally opposing the war but went on to become some of the most terrifying homegrown terrorist of our time. Several different groups were formed this is a link to some information about some of them.  http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/small/exhibits/sixties/radical.html 

And here is another link about the time in America. http://library.thinkquest.org/27942/index.htm

I wish it would have been just love and peace and walking barefoot with flowers in our hair over here, I envy you that part of it. 

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Choisya
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Re: Politics and Radicalism : Vietnam.

[ Edited ]

Thanks for reminding me of that Debbie - although I marched against the war and there were several protests in London it did not, of course, impact much upon us politically especially as our Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, refused to join America in the conflict.  Perhaps because of the war, we also had a number of American musicians and artists come over here and they added a great many positive 'vibes' to the Peace & Love scene.  I remember people like Joan Baez, Judy Collins and the Canadian Leonard Cohen with great affection.

 

Thanks too for the excellent links. 

 

Come to think of it, there was no mention of Vietnam in the 1962 chapter of the book.  Would Joel have been eligible for call-up or might he have been a draft-dodger?  Perhaps a question for Ms Heller?   

 


dhaupt wrote:

Choisya,

The 60's were a very turbulent times in the USA, we were in war in Vietnam which is where most of the violence stems from. The establishment (government) had many verbal opponents who didn't stop at verbally opposing the war but went on to become some of the most terrifying homegrown terrorist of our time. Several different groups were formed this is a link to some information about some of them.  http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/small/exhibits/sixties/radical.html 

And here is another link about the time in America. http://library.thinkquest.org/27942/index.htm

I wish it would have been just love and peace and walking barefoot with flowers in our hair over here, I envy you that part of it. 


 

Message Edited by Choisya on 10-21-2008 10:47 AM
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Opusquest
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

I didn't find anything in the book amusing.

 

The book made me think and I read the whole book but other than the fact that it made me think I can't say that reading the book was enjoyable at all. 

 

It might appeal more to those interested in politics and radicalism. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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lamorgan
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

I feel that Audrey believes in the socialist platform, but she doesn't truly know what exactly it is. She obviously has some self-esteem issues. Why else would she work so hard to degrade those around her if not to make herself feel powerful?
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PiperMurphy
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

I'm a little bit relieved to see others comment that they didn't find the humor in the book. I wondered if I was missing something. The politics of the 60s weren't funny just like today's politics aren't. I've tried looking for satire, but that isn't working for me either. The characters in the book seem to be a group of very unhappy people.
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thewanderingjew
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Re: Politics and Radicalism

I grew up in the sixties and I don’t  know if my memory is accurate, (historians will know), but in my memory the sixties were overwhelmed by the Viet Nam war, anti-war demonstrations, the free-for-all at Woodstock, the murders of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald. The culmination of the 60’s was the tragedy of Kent State in 1970. I remember those incidents with more clarity than I do the incidents of the radical groups like The Weathermen or SDS or the Chicago 7 etc.
I think that may only be my personal take on it, because I do remember the fear that spread all over about those groups, (the black panthers and SDS, The Weather Underground, for instance) that preached and carried out violence, but I remember being removed from it perhaps because we didn’t have 24 hour news coverage and we only got news a few times a day for brief periods and we cherry picked what we watched and heard or perhaps I was in denial. 
In a more personal way, I remember the 60’s more as a time of slogans like “make peace, not war”, a time when free love became prevalent, a time when drugs like marijuana were hip, when students staged peaceful demonstrations and girls had long hair and didn't wear makeup and wore flowers in their hair. The prevailing thought of the young was that they could spread peace through love.
The “photograph http://www.may4archive.org/nyt_95.shtml of an anguished Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of one of four students killed (at Kent State) by the National Guard during demonstrations there” stays forever in my mind as the culmination of that era. Guns were turned on unarmed students and, finally, the world was up in arms. For me the government seemed more radical than the groups.
The sixties was an era of liberalism that ran amok and violence without end. All of us, activists or not, had a bit of the flower child or the peacenik in us, whether it was the way we wore our hair in protest or those who marched or those who defied the drug laws and cavorted at Woodstock. We wore peace symbols and made victory signs in greeting. We eschewed materialism and adornments. Isn’t it odd that it was this very outspoken, free-loving, live-simple, non materialistic, non-violent protest, element of society from the early 60’s, that is the very generation that appears to have ushered in the “me generation and the silent majority.”
Our radicals today include our educators, our religious leaders and our athletic and entertainment world, including journalists, all those with a bully pulpit from which they spread their ideas. They are by and large peaceful. There are, however, those from within and without who are violent and Oklahoma City and 9/11 have surely highlighted that. These radicals use spectacle, terror and death to get our attention rather than street corners and leaflets. Rather than using music with a message to get their point across, they use weapons and hostages. To them happiness is judged by the number of casualties.
If there was an event today, we would be saturated with the interviews from the demonstrators, repeated coverage of all the incidents and constant commentary from talking heads so that by the time the day was over, we wouldn't know if there had been one or a hundred demonstrations from the way the news was presented. It is not hard to get coverage because there is 24 hour news and they have to fill the void with something. I think activists of the Audrey and Joel ilk today, would know exactly how to use the media effectively, to get their point across.
twj