ZAKARIA: Andrew Solomon is one of the most acute observers of our time. He's traveled the world, writing beautifully for the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and many other places; won the National Book Award for his penetrating look at depression; and won a National Book Critic Circle award for his look at the challenges facing the disabled and other disadvantaged groups.
His latest offering, Far and Away, is a collection of essays from his decades of witnessing historic change – the twilight of the Soviet Union, the turmoil of post-9/11 Afghanistan, the tyranny of Gadhafi in Libya.
Andrew Solomon, pleasure to have you on.
ANDREW SOLOMON, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: What a pleasure to be here.
ZAKARIA: You’ve been reporting for 25 years, traveling for 25 years. You talk about travel as a kind of moral imperative.
SOLOMON: It’s really drawn from the uprise of xenophobia in the country at large right now. I think that people have a very difficult time making sense of countries they've never visited. People have a very difficult time conceptualizing places that they don’t know.
I feel like, if every young person in the world were required to spend two weeks in a foreign country before they reached full adulthood – doesn’t matter what country; doesn’t matter what they did there – half the world’s diplomatic problems would be gone. So many of them arise out of the fact that people don’t understand what is specific to my culture, what is universal.
ZAKARIA: You’ve traveled to places that we think of as very scary, like the Middle East, and you approach it really as an author and an intellectual, not as an expert in the Middle East. So what I’m interested in is how do you react to, you know, the general feeling, “Oh, my god, that place is just full of chaos and violence, bloodshed and despair?”
SOLOMON: I think that, in every one of these societies, there is a large body of people, who are probably the people who watch this program, who are intelligent, thinking people, interested in and engaged with the situation of their own country and the world, and that those people are often neglected.
I started off writing about artists and going to various countries and meeting artists. Partly, I was writing about art, but more I was writing about these engaged people. And it’s been my mission ever since then to go to places we find scary and to find the human stories of people, articulate people, with a point of view, and say, this is what it is. Afghanistan is not, contrary to what people had heard, a country of corrupt bureaucrats and warlike peasants. There are a lot of other people there.
ZAKARIA: For you, Libya was in some ways the – heartbreaking, to watch that country descend? Explain why.
SOLOMON: I was in Libya in the late Gadhafi period. And life under Gadhafi was worse than you can possibly imagine. It was a ridiculous place. It was unbelievably stressful. There was nothing to be said for the system that existed. But I made the mistake of thinking that, if they got rid of that system, which was so awful, that something better would have to rise in its place.
And what happened instead is that it went into a state of complete chaos, so that even the patriotic Libyans I met when I was there have mostly tried to flee if they possibly can.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that democracy and justice are the natural default state, and if you remove all of the impediments to those qualities, that is what will rise up. And what I learned, sort of, as a personal lesson in dealing with Libya, having argued that we should support the attacks against Gadhafi, is that the natural state to which people default is not democracy and is not order but is a terrifying, violent, brutal chaos.
ZAKARIA: It’s a very difficult thing for Americans to understand because America has always had order, inheriting it from, I think, the British colonies, you know. You look at Brazil. Brazil is a country that was, when you were looking at it, struggling to create a functioning democracy. In fact, even now the struggle continues with these recent proceedings, the impeachment of the president.
What did you learn from that experience?
SOLOMON: I was fascinated in Brazil by the relationships between the classes. You know, in many places, in most places really, the wealthy live in an enclosed area, and the poor live in outlying areas. And the points of contact are relatively minimal.
Rio de Janeiro has a physical structure in which the wealthy live in the flat areas, and the poor have accumulated in the favelas, in the hills that rise above those areas. I was interested in what happens when everyone is put together. I was interested that so many of the Brazilians I met, of privilege, wanted to take on characteristics they associated with the favelas, the intensity, the music, the relationship to football that so many models have come out of there.
And I loved what Regina Case, who is, sort of, the Oprah Winfrey of Brazil, said to me. She said, “I’ve been in North America. You have a pine grove here; you have oak trees there.” She said, “In Brazil” – she said, “Have you been to our tropical rainforest? Everything is growing on top of everything else; the sunlight is being choked out, and there's still more happening than anywhere else. And just as our rainforest is making the oxygen the world needs to breathe, so this social structure creates a social oxygen of intimacy from which the rest of the world could profit.”
ZAKARIA: What are the places that – that haunt you, that remain in your memory now?
SOLOMON: I’m certainly haunted by Afghanistan. I went there thinking it would be a punishing assignment, and when I got there, I fell in love with the place. I’ll always remember walking with my translator one day. I had bought one of those little fur hats like the ones Karzai always wore. And we were walking back through a crowded market at a time when most foreigners were either U.N. or military and weren’t allowed to walk in those areas.
And Faruk (ph), my translator, said, “Why don’t you put on your hat?”
And I said, “Oh, I think, you know, going native always looks a little bit silly.”
And he said, “No, come on. Put on your hat.”
So, I said, “All right.”
And I put on the hat and suddenly everyone around us burst into applause. And I didn’t know what was happening. And one of the people stepped forward and he said, “You’re an American; you’re a foreigner, but you’re in the market with us. You are wearing a true Afghan hat. We all want you to know that you’re welcome here.” It was difficult not to fall in love with that.
ZAKARIA: What do you think of Putin’s Russia? Or is it even fair, from the way you look at a country, to call it Putin’s Russia?
SOLOMON: Oh, I think it is fair to call it Putin’s Russia. I wish it weren’t fair. I think that it’s been a terrible tragedy to see Russia revert to the kind of autocracy that it was in its much darker days. There are some freedoms that exist now that didn't exist when I first went there at the end of the Soviet Union, but there was a kind of blissful idealistic notion of where everyone was headed, and none of it has come to pass.
ZAKARIA: Do you look at America differently? Have these travels made you look at your own country differently?
SOLOMON: Travel is always both a window and a mirror. So part of what you do is to discover the other place and part of what you do is to see yourself and your own country differently.
I’ve come to understand that, while we have a great many freedoms in the United States, there are freedoms that exist elsewhere that don’t exist here. And I’ve come to understand that we take for granted many things that give people much greater joy when they’ve had to fight for them. And I’ve come to understand that American policy around the world has an enormous effect on the minutia of people’s day-to-day lives and that what we think of as sweeping decisions that are made on a broad scale in economic or military or even citizen-to-citizen terms have much more grave consequences than we often realize.
ZAKARIA: Andrew Solomon, pleasure to have you on.
SOLOMON: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.