Via Basel: Caste, A Masterpiece
In October, 2016, at a social gathering in my building I met a couple who lived in the suburbs but came downtown for weekends. They were lovely, well read, and we hit it off right away with our common interest in history and books in general. That was the first and last time I saw them, but before I departed they suggested emphatically that I should read The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, first published in 2010. I followed their advice and was not disappointed. The author was a Pulitzer Prize winner for national reporting when she was at the New York Times, and the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It filled a gap in my education of American history regarding race by following the story of three Black Americans from the south to the North (New York City), the Midwest (Chicago) and West (Los Angeles) from the 1920s to the 1960s and beyond. She had researched it for fifteen years, interviewing thousands before narrowing it to three individuals. The book was fascinating, informative, and great storytelling, and I in turn recommended it to many others.
Fast forward to 2020 when the viral pandemic was soon followed by a sharp economic downturn and as if these were not enough, the social and racial unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder. I have alluded to all that in previous posts. Not surprisingly there rose an interest in books relating to the issues of systemic racism, and I read several excellent ones in the first half of this year. Then on July 5th the name Isabel Wilkerson caught my attention in the New York Times Magazine in the Sunday newspaper. There was an excerpt form her forthcoming book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It gave me a taste of what was to come, and right after the publication in early August I was reading it.
You have to forgive my hyperbole, but if you are going to read one non-fiction book this year or the next or even the next few, this should be it. Of course, I am in good company since its superlative reviews range across the spectrum from the New York Times, to the Wall Street Journal, and from the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times and a multitude of others. This book is scholarly with a lot of research and references but also touching and down to earth with its human stories, including the author’s own. What it clearly shows does not allow for tangential or cynical interpretations. She lays out with unvarnished clarity the global hierarchical systems in three continents with different timelines and backgrounds but essentially the same rigidity, inhumanity, and destructive capacity for all involved, oppressed and oppressor. Individually, we are aware of the millennium’s old caste system of India, the short lived horrors of Nazi Germany, and the centuries of abhorrent slavery followed by systemic discrimination of the Jim Crow Era and well into the 20th century in the American South, with its lingering effects felt today in every corner of America. It is altogether different to look at the big picture from a wider angle and broader perspective for the reader to come to a simple and devastating conclusion. To paraphrase Wilkerson, the core problem is not one person, or group or party, but is deep in the human heart of all of us.
As an Orthopedic Surgeon I am very familiar with a “cast.” Although their word origins may differ (“caste” and “cast”), there is similarity in sound and consequences. A cast is rigid, fixed, and used temporarily for immobilization of parts of the body to help healing. Over the last several decades my specialty has been utilizing a cast less and for shorter periods and emphasizing early protected mobility. We even have a name, “cast disease or disuse or atrophy,” for its problems. Motion and activity is natural and promotes healing in general. In the same way the rigidity of hierarchical systems that entraps people at birth for whatever reason and does not allow for upward or downward mobility in society is detrimental to their health and in Wilkerson’s words…The Origins of our Discontents.
I am in awe of the talent, tenacity, and insights of the author who has written two books so far, ten years apart, that are destined for the highest status in the pantheon of historical literature. Whether enough of us will look deep into our hearts, reflect, acknowledge, and make amends to this grave injustice is the determining factor in alleviating our discontents and the healing of our wounds. In my humble estimate, unfortunately, based on present day observations, we are far from reaching that seminal point. I was struck by a similar realization from an opinion piece, “When A Heart is Empty” by David Brooks in the New York Times stating that “[t]o accurately size up a human situation you have to project a certain attention that is personal, gentle, respectful, intimate and affectionate–more moving with and feeling into than simply observing with detachment.” He concludes with this indictment: “Far from softening to one another, the whole country feels more rived, more hardened and increasingly blind to lives other than our own.” If we continue on this path, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, writing, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family, and now, semi-retired, he is exploring new avenues in medicine, education, and social engagement.