He expresses the relief many felt that there was a literate person in the White House in place of the cloddish George W. Bush, a person who had developed the empathy that reading great fiction gives us, the window into the lives of others that broadens our humane understanding. Hence the monumental disappointment of some Obama enthusiasts to the continued militarization of American life and especially regarding the drone strikes, which are so cold-bloodedly destructive.
When Marilynne Robinson described fiction as “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification” she was stating something almost everyone would agree with. We praise literature in self-evident terms: it is better to read than not to read, for reading civilizes us, makes us less cruel, and brings the imaginations of others into ours and vice versa. We persist in this belief regardless of what we know to the contrary: that the Nazis’ affection for high culture did not prevent their crimes....The recently leaked Department of Justice white paper indicating guidelines for the President’s assassination of his fellow Americans has shone a spotlight on these “dirty wars” (as the journalist Jeremy Scahill rightly calls them in his documentary film and book of the same title). The plain fact is that our leaders have been killing at will.
How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.
I love Cole's thoughtful, imaginative, meditative way of writing. He is seeking not so much to bring forth new information--because we all know what is going on no matter how much we try to hide the facts from ourselves-- as to suggest ways of dealing with circumstances where we feel powerless or actually are powerless. We can start with emphathizing with ourselves and extending that empathy to others. Shelter ourselves and each other instead of drawing away. This is not a particularly original idea, but it's one that can't be stated often enough, and I like the way Cole states it.