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Review of Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2020, 368 pp., ISBN: 978-0316496421

In the wake of the racial justice protests of 2020, corporate leaders have joined civil society’s call for social justice and economic equality. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2020 that corporate America committed $35 Billion toward racial equity programs including a combination of initiatives to improve diversity within companies, improve access to financial services in underserved communities, and support for Black business owners (Weber Wall Street Journal, 2020). Will this be enough? For years, business ethicists have examined whether corporate social responsibility is sufficient to address social ills, and if moral leaders can pave a path through amoral markets, at best, and at times immoral markets. Homeland Elegies presents an opportunity to reflect on these commitments and consider the cultural evolution necessary to support the transition toward a more inclusive economy and society.

The central narrative thread is the relationship between Ayad and his father, a heart surgeon who is a doctor to celebrities, including Donald Trump during his real estate mogul, reality television show days. From there, the novel presents numerous themes and characters, such as the elusive American Dream, how money and finance fuel power in modern-day U.S., and how an American of South Asian Muslim descent seeks to belong in a world post-9/11.

For Ayad Akhtar, the narrator of Homeland Elegies, home is the United States. Home is also Pakistan. Home includes his parents, whose life and circumstances have led him to New York and Wisconsin. In all these places and relationships, Ayad brings us perspectives as an insider, sharing details of the texture and cadence of life in those environments, his own and that of others close to him. Home exists on multiple continents and in multiple mindsets; tracing a path traversed by Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, Akhtar appears to say, “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Whitman, 1855).

In an approximately 350 page book, Akhtar’s novel demonstrates that the multitudes we carry in ourselves can contradict, overwhelm, expand and contract based on where you call home, and whether your homeland reciprocally embraces you. The story follows the life of a hyphenated American seeking to be, and ideally be seen as, just American. Born in Staten Island, NY, the son of immigrants to the U.S. from Pakistan, the character Ayad Akhtar shares many autobiographical details of the author, Ayad Akhtar the Pulitzer-prize winning writer, while the story is a work of fiction.

Several of Akhtar’s characters embody a money-worshiped America that unsurprisingly (in hindsight) elected Trump, who represents the culmination of a fake-it-till-you-make-it ethos of American business culture. Akhtar presents Trump not only as a metaphor (“…greed and corruption so naked and endemic it could only be made sense of as the outsize expression of our own deepest desires…”) but also more simply, as a reflection of voter preference, as a man who “…felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention…”.

Akhtar’s characters offer narratives about the experiences of communities of color in the U.S. Their perspective on the politics of business, and the business of politics, is particularly relevant in the early 2020s as leaders seek to define the role of business in addressing racial justice. One such character is Mike Jacobs, a Black lawyer and agent to the stars in Hollywood whose predilection for Republican candidates puzzles Ayad. For Jacobs, the dominant ideology in American history is that “Everything was about getting rich. At least Republicans were honest about it.” This character connects the economic policies of the 1970s, and in particular Robert Bork’s views on competition law, to the struggles of minority communities today.

Bork was a judge at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from 1982 to 1988, as well as an author and law professor, among other appointments. His 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, was cited by U.S. Supreme Court’s 1979 Reiter v. Sonotone Corp decision, which helped establish consumer welfare as the dominant metric of U.S. competition law (Bork, 1978). The precedent established was that most competitive businesses strategies are fair game as long as a company’s goal is to lower prices for consumers. To that end, the free market system has allowed companies to grow, acquire, cut costs, and outsource, if the consumer benefits through reduced prices.

Akhtar’s focus on monopoly power is timely. Congress and the Federal Trade Commission began in late 2020 to reconsider, and potentially replace this dominant view, challenging the orthodoxy that the focus on consumer welfare is solely equivalent to low prices. Big tech companies are the primary focus of these initial anticipated reforms, although pharmaceuticals are also in focus. Scholars like Professor Tim Wu (2018) suggest that technology has spurred a new gilded age, and that the existing antitrust framework has not created a level playing field.

The House Subcommittee on Antitrust published in 2020 a report titled Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets, summarizing its inquiry into the causes and consequences of online competition. The report studies how Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook’s domination in digital markets has created barriers to entry not only in online marketplaces, but have also spurred a general decline in innovation and entrepreneurship. Their list of recommendations includes that Congress reassert the “the original intent and broad goals of the antitrust laws by clarifying that they are designed to protect not just consumers, but also workers, entrepreneurs, independent businesses, open markets, a fair economy, and democratic ideals.” Mike Jacobs would be pleased with the Subcommittee’s conclusions, for if all small businesses have difficulty competing with corporate giants, then it stands that minority-owned businesses will be even more disadvantaged.

For Akhtar, as well as for those who study culture and commerce, what’s at stake is how immigrants and communities of color can aspire to the American Dream without giving in to the corrupting influence of money in the process.

Another character from the novel, Riaz Rind, a hedge fund founder and philanthropist, unapologetically takes advantage of loopholes in the financial system to amass billions. He does well by doing good, applauded by the media for his “compassionate finance” approach after buying distressed mortgages in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 (“GFC”), and later selling those repackaged loans as securities to municipalities to finance infrastructure projects. Rind donates his fortunes to his foundation, the fictional Riaz Rind Philanthropic Trust, where he seeks opportunities to “change conversations and improv[e] lives.”

The conversations and lives Rind wants to improve are those of Muslims living in America, which have been particularly challenged since 9/11. As Rind and Ayad chat over a drink prior to a gala Rind hosted for a Sufi Islam order in New York City, the billionaire describes his philosophy of using media to promote the best of the Muslims living in the U.S. Rind explains: “Do what they do. They [the white majority] push the minority of their best in our faces and then pretend that’s the whole picture. We need to do the same. Shove the best of our minority down their throats.”

Ayad later discovers, however, that Rind had been funding his foundation through an elaborate scheme that sounds familiar to episodes from the GFC. (Spoiler alert) Rind’s hedge fund targeted municipalities with sales of junk debt on which the bankers took out short positions (to protect themselves against a downside risk). The complex transactions hearken back to the Jefferson County, Alabama interest rate swap scandal revealed around 2009, which eventually put that municipality in bankruptcy (Taiibi, 2010), as well as the short-selling practices for which many Wall Street banks were criticized, that helped fuel the GFC. In this case, Rind was targeting municipalities that had blocked Muslim communities from constructing new mosques in those districts. He used the sale of junk debt, and subsequent fiscal fallout, as retaliation for those discriminatory acts that were otherwise left unaddressed by the criminal justice system.

What Jacobs and Rind represent is minority communities who are playing by the unspoken rules of capitalism at its extremes. They seek to get ahead financially, but also to use business prominence to gain respect in a world where money talks. In a conversation with Zakeeya, a federal investigator, about Rind’s deals, Ayad expresses his disbelief at the potential illegality of the transactions: “I mean, honestly, what you’re describing doesn’t really sound any worse than what Goldman was doing in 2010.”

“Your friend’s no Goldman Sachs….wrong color,” Zakeeya responds.

Rind had aspired to exhibit the best of the Muslim population living in the U.S. In doing so, he seems to have emulated the worst of the majority.

Capitalism appears in the novel almost as if it too is a character in the story, influencing people in their chosen paths, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. The opportunities presented by business, not unlike those present in the U.S. today, test the moral conviction of Akhtar’s characters, pushing them to act in accordance with what they believe it means to be American. The author leaves the path for ethical leadership open for those who may choose to take it.

Some may feel optimistic about business ethics in light of the recent consensus that stakeholder capitalism has beat shareholder capitalism (at least on paper) and that policymakers today seem to have a clear-eyed view of the ills of capitalism. As the gears of democracy continue to grind, perhaps our lawmakers and corporate leaders are hearing people’s woes in considering systemic reform, such as antitrust and competition law.

I also see optimism in Ayad Akhtar, the author, and his ability to express, criticize and ultimately, be heard about his views on his homeland. In the novel’s coda, Ayad, the character, is on stage at a college campus talking about his latest book. During the question and answer session, an audience member confronts him, lamenting that the focus of Ayad’s work is criticism of America. “I mean, if you don’t like it here,…I don’t really understand why you don’t just leave….”

“I’m here because I was born and raised here. For better, for worse—and it’s always a bit of both—I don’t want to be anywhere else…America is my home,” Ayad responds.

Akhtar likely did not write Homeland Elegies for a business ethics audience, but the work speaks to a diverse set of readers seeking to contextualize the sociopolitical news of our time. Even researchers who spend much of their day connecting the dots among disparate data points will enjoy how Akhtar connects stories among seemingly disparate characters. Fiction provides an opportunity to reflect on the human impact of economic policies, and this novel’s narrative style makes it exceedingly relatable.

References

  1. Lauren Weber. (2020). Companies have promised $35 billion toward racial equity. Where is the money going? (Wall Street Journal)

  2. Matt Taibii. (2010). Looting Main Street How the nation’s biggest banks are ripping off American cities with the same predatory deals that brought down Greece. “Rolling Stone Magazine”

  3. Robert Bork. (1978). The Antitrust Paradox

  4. Subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law, Majority Staff Report and Recommendations. Investigation of competition in digital markets (2020).

  5. Tim Wu, The Curse of Bigness in the New Gilded Age (2018).

  6. Walt Whitman. (1855). Song of Myself, 51. Leaves of Grass.

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Correspondence to Azish Filabi.

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Submission to Journal of Business Ethics, Books (and more) section Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies (2020).

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Filabi, A. Review of Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. J Bus Ethics 173, 229–231 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-021-04851-y

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