Wednesday, September 13, 2017

I Hotel and the Canon of Massive Postmodern Novels


When I create canons in my head (you all do that, too, right? Build hypothetical syllabi as a way to organize all the books that are special to you?) I have a category for the great Massive Postmodern Novels, that particular type of doorstops of stylistic experimentation, paranoia, bombastic imagery, and existential unease written in the late 20th and early 21st century. Given that you can draw a pretty straight line from some of my all-time favorite books (Don Quioxte, The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, A Gentleman, and, of course, my good friend and yours, Ulysses) to the Massive Postmodern Novel, and that I generally like a challenge in my reading, it makes sense that I would have an affinity for this sub-genre. And I doubt my personal canon is all that different from other fans of the genre. I think there would be broad agreement that, if we're working in trinities, the holy trinity of Massive Postmodern Novel would probably be something like Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Underworld. But, really, who needs trinities?

With re-issues of her books Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, Brazil-Maru, & Tropic of Orange and a new book exploring her personal history including her family's internment during WWII, (which is stunning and brilliant. More on that in a Reading is Resistance post later) I think it is now time to elevate Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel to that pantheon of great massive postmodern novels. It has everything those other great novels have. Like Life: A User's Manual (which would probably be in my top five of massive post-modern novel), it uses a building, rather than a series of events or the arc of a character's life, as its center of gravity; like Gravity's Rainbow and Underworld, it uses its center of gravity to explore a rapidly changing society, and the political and cultural conflicts such change creates and/or is driven by; like Infinite Jest and much other postmodern literature, it experiments with the format and style of storytelling with sections formatted as comics, plays, film scripts, philosophy, textual representations of dance and jazz performances, and more. Finally, like nearly all of postmodernism, I Hotel also explores how meaning is made, directly concerning itself with not just telling a meaningful story, but exploring how stories become meaningful. And, as should be obvious by now, its massive. And it's brilliant.

I think there are a lot of reasons why postmodernism lent itself to these massive novels and exploring those reasons a bit will, I think, only heighten our sense of the importance of I Hotel.

Without conventions of plot and character, authors can explore just about anything; they can delve into ideas, they can play with images, they can follow digressions. They are allowed to fall into the black hole of human consciousness and root around for a while. (Sometimes is seems like about half of Gravity's Rainbow is just Pynchon seeing how far he can push an image.) That stylistic freedom also allowed writers to include experiments in form, style, and content in addition to the main plot of their book. To put this another way: a massive amount of exploration is possible when you are no longer beholden to move the plot or character development from point A to point B and some writers put as much of that exploration into single works as they could.

Furthermore, after WWII, artists found themselves, very suddenly, with an entirely different world than was known, experienced, and explored by even just the previous generation. 1927 and 1947 might well have been different planets (at least in the industrialized world) and the same for 1947 and 1987. The nuclear age. The age of mass communication, mass media, and mass entertainment. Electricity in nearly every American house. The shrinking of the globe through advances in transportation. Not only did writers find themselves with a freedom to explore longstanding universal aspects of the human condition in totally new ways, they also found themselves with entirely new human experiences to try and wrap their minds around and then present to the public. And, of course, the technology and economics of writing and publishing massive works changed. Especially in the postwar boom in the United States, publishers could afford to publish 900+ page books and many readers could afford to buy them.

One of those new conditions, at least for the authors of the books I mentioned in my trinity, was that, with the atom bomb and the Cold War, white dudes found themselves existentially vulnerable to distant powers fundamentally indifferent to their personhood.

In some ways, the massive post modern novel (as it has been generally discussed at least) is the story of white men discovering and processing the kind of vulnerability everyone else dealt with forever. This isn't “I might get killed in battle,” or the “I might be killed by the elements” that men have fetishized over the years, but the “I might be just minding my own business and have my life ended or destroyed,” kind of vulnerability that creates a persistent sense of dread that enshrouds nearly everyone else's lives. With the earlier conflicts, ma dudes felt an inherent element of agency in the risk that surrounded their stories and themselves. If they died in the wilderness, it was because they went into the wilderness and if they died in battle, it was because they went to war, and if they were assassinated by their government, it was because they were revolutionaries. Even the randomness of dying from disease you can at least partition into forces beyond humanity. But with the nuclear bomb, the Cold War, and the paranoia from the Red Scare forward, ma dudes found themselves in a world where another human could cause their meaningless death, where the mistake of another dude could kill them, where they had no agency whatsoever in the vulnerability that surrounded them. Person-driven impersonal death was something new to them. Essentially, they found themselves in an entirely new environment of personhood at the exact same moment when they were also free to write about that new environment without any stylistic or material limitations. There is a reason why DeLillo constantly returns to the image of Lenny Bruce screaming “We're all gonna die,” during his stand-up sets during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Underworld.

Narrative and economic freedom plus a slow-motion apocalypse following WWII and Ulysses plus a new world of technology is bound to produce a trend of doorstops.

Everyone experienced that radically changing world, not just the white people who had control and access to those changes but, those changes meant different things and felt differently to people outside the hegemony. (I mean, in terms of daily, personal, emotional experience, how different is the dread of being beaten to death because someone thought you looked at a white girl for too long from the dread of wondering if Russia would launch a nuclear attack?) For example, The Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R looked a lot different to those living within the United States who did not benefit from those freedoms capitalism was supposed to enshrine. Despite the atrocities committed by the U.S.S.R and communist China, you can see why there would still be appeal to the idea of an international union of those oppressed by colonial and capitalist systems for those who were still essentially experiencing colonialism. WWII made a certain kind of democracy safe for a certain population of people (I might have to add “for a certain amount of time” but our descent into fascism isn't certain yet), but if you were not a beneficiary of kind of democracy or a member of that certain population, the conflict you faced was not between “communism and capitalism” or “communism and democracy” or even “fascism and democracy,” but, quite often, between “racist and colonial systems of power and your own life and the lives of those you love.” Perhaps this is one reason the massive postmodern novel tended to be written by white dudes: that mode of expression just fit their experiences in way that it did not necessarily fit the experiences of other people. (Makes me wonder what would come from an examination of the differences between Baldwin's essays and Wallace's essays.)

I Hotel hits every aspect of the massive post-modern novel; the massiveness (600+ pages but at a large trim size), the stylistic experimentation, the presence of the Cold War and its attendant paranoia, the interaction with new technology, the referencing and re-mixing of existing myths and works of literature, and even an exploration of that new Cold War vulnerability, but it hits all of those aspects from a different perspective than Pynchon, Wallace, and Delillo. It's also, just like these other three books, a lot funnier than you would expect and far more heartfelt than a lot of readers expect from postmodernism. There are love stories. There are family stories. And, just like the others, there are stories of regular people trying to figure their shit out in this crazy ass world.

But that different perspective makes I Hotel especially important as Yamashita writes from a long standing awareness of that environment of personhood. Which is also, probably why the politics of I Hotel, unlike the swirling diffuse explorations in Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Underworld, are direct and overt. I Hotel explores the Civil Rights movement directly from the Asian American perspective, depicting the intellectual exploration and activism of various Asian-Americans (a term she also explores) and their allies in San Francisco in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Where ma dudes approached politics obliquely or through strange lenses and situations, Yamashita interacted with it head on. Which, of course, is part of why I Hotel belongs in this canon. For as much, as the 20th century was defined, for certain populations, by new technology and Cold War paranoia, for many other people those currents were subplots in the story about the fight for Civil Rights. I Hotel is intellectual and stylistic free play with the other major story of the 20th century besides Cold War paranoia and technological advancement beyond the human spirit: the postwar fight for Civil Rights.

Finally, one of the defining techniques of postmodernism is significance through juxtaposition. Whether it is through painting a soup can, remixing a song, or creating a pastiche through references, part of what made and makes postmodernism important is it's ability to bring disparate images, ideas, and experiences together to reveal underlying similarities and create new meaning. In many ways, I Hotel's fundamental technique is juxtaposition. Not only does she put different styles next to each other, and different life experiences next to each other, she also frequently juxtaposes other materials with her original work. In one particularly effective passage, Yamashita frames the story of a young, revolutionary couple as the woman dies of cancer with passages from Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in the Philippines and excerpts from an interview with Imelda Marcos. Cancer as an easy metaphor is completely re-appropriated into something that speaks to the internal tension of scales of injustice, to be blessed and burdened with a body while being blessed and burdened with a revolution, to know you are just one person living one life while also knowing that everyone is just one person living one life. Through this Yamashita is able to question and confront some of the stereotypes of “revolutionaries” without apologizing for the consequences of devoting your life to “revolution,” whatever that is.

When done well, juxtaposition as a literary technique turns a work into a sort of apartment building. Through the coincidence of place, with every incident being a story in and of itself, apartment buildings juxtapose the lives of strangers, creating a space that speaks to the shared experience of being a human being. By making juxtaposition a central technique around a central image of itself, and by setting those juxtapositions within the Civil Rights and revolutionary movements of the late 20th century Yamashita creates one more powerful juxtaposition, a juxtaposition sorely lacking from the other books in my canon, that speaks to a much broader human experience than is represented in ma dudes' great works, and that, potentially, paints a different way forward, both in terms of society and in terms of whatever follows postmodernism: vulnerability and power. There is probably a way to describe I Hotel as the story of the fraught love affair between vulnerability and power.

Canons are strange things. For most of our history they have been weapons, tools to assert the dominance of a certain type of expression by a certain type of person and hide everything else from the public view. They have been soldiers for hegemony. But at the same time, there is value in sorting, organizing, and even classifying human creation. There are too many brilliant, worthwhile books for any one person to read them all, so we must create tools that help us choose what work of genius to read next. Canons can be tools for the moment of selection. Furthermore, though I think there is value in reading as diversely as possible as an individual, I think there is also value in widely shared books that can act as cultural touchstones, books that, when we meet new people, we can be fairly confident they've read or are at least aware so we have something of substance to talk about.

That our current canon is so skewed by white supremacy and misogyny does not mean there is no value in an “American canon” or, even better, “American canons,” but that we must continue the process of rebuilding our national, mainstream, literary culture to better reflect the diversity of identity, style, and expression actually produced by our culture. A lot of this work has already happened and continues to happen and we have already seen great changes in what is considered “American Literature.” But the work continues. I hope elevating Yamashita's I Hotel can be part of that work.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Thoughts on Antifa

There were a lot of antifa at the rally in Boston a couple of weekends ago. I saw them as I walked from the T station to the meeting place for the march to the Common, while walking through the march itself, and once we got to the Common and learned that the Nazis had left under police escort over an hour earlier. The debate around how those on the left (and, really, in the middle) should respond to the violence on the right and the inherent violence of white supremacy started long before Charlottesville. In it's current incarnation, it probably began with Richard Spencer getting punched and with the violent conflicts in Berkeley that started on February 1, 2017. But that debate was given a different significance and a different urgency when Nazis murdered Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville. Mentally preparing myself for what might happen if I met Nazis in Boston and seeing so many antifa in the crowd, galvanized my thinking about the debate. I haven't come to any ultimate moral clarity (if such a thing is possible) but I feel I at least have the issue organized a bit more in my own head and I hope that laying (some of) those organized thoughts out in a piece like this, will provide a base from which the conversation can continue in a way that doesn't weaken our collective resolve to fight Nazis. (More on that at the end.)

I also want to emphasize that these are just my thoughts, and though they come from some experience with activism and a life of political engagement, they are just my thoughts from my perspective. Furthermore, this isn't a broad consideration of antifa history, tactics, definitions, and goals. If you want a fuller explanation and exploration of antifa, pick up Mark Bray's excellent The Antifa Handbook at your local independent bookstore.

Antifa at Protests Makes Me Feel Safer
Whether it's a party or a protest, a large group of people in a relatively confined space has the potential for chaos and violence. Maybe it's someone in the crowd being a jerk, maybe it's a police officer overreacting, maybe it's an outside agitator being aggressive, but a peaceful protest can turn into a dangerous riot quickly. On our way to the rally, I was nervous because I expected a lot of marchers and counter-protesters would be relatively inexperienced, Maybe this was their first rally or their second rally after the Women's March or the Science Rally, or whatever. (For me, it had been well over a decade since I'd been to any protest or rally with the potential for conflict.) It is always great to welcome new people to activism, but there is a level of danger, when there are new people in, well, any activity. (I'm suddenly reminded of floor hockey in gym class.) With big crowds in volatile situations, sometimes inexperience can be just as dangerous as malice.

But antifa know what they're doing in crisis and confrontational moments in protests. They won't panic. They won't start running all over the place. They won't create a stampede. Knowing there would be a lot of people vastly more experienced with protests than I was, along with those who are newer, greatly reassured me.

Furthermore, had there been conflict, antifa would have born the brunt of it, allowing the rest of us to get away. Their tactics tend involve coordinated group movement and standing in place and they often attend rallies with the understanding or plan that they will get arrested at some point or at least engage on some level with either the Nazis or the police. This not only creates a physical barrier between elements of chaos and potential violence and those who are not prepared to engage with chaos and violence, it also creates an organizing principle. So, I knew that, if things got crazy and I no longer wanted to be engaged in whatever was happening, all I had to do was spot where the antifa were gathering and go away from them.

Whatever your ultimate decision about antifa and their tactics, they make protests and rallies safer for everyone else, even when they are not putting themselves between violent white supremacists and you. Furthermore, also remember that, whether you agree with their specific tactics or not, like those who sat at lunch counters during the Civil Rights movement and occupied factories during the Labor movement, antifa are choosing to risk their bodies so you don't have to.

Scale Matters
White Supremacy is a genocidal belief structure. Whether it is the overt genocide of the Holocaust or of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere or the reserved genocide of slavery in America (in which a white person always reserved the right to kill a black person even when he did not exercise that right), white supremacy believes in genocide. We forget that far less than a century ago, the KKK practiced ethnic cleansing through lynching and radical terrorism through violence and destruction. They hung people from trees. They beat them. They threatened them. They burned churches. They murdered allies who came down to help in the struggle for Civil Rights. Those extreme acts of violence are not a consequence of white supremacy, they are not an accident of white supremacy, they are not drawn from fanatical interpretations of white supremacy, they are not fringe white supremacy. They are white supremacy. In direct contrast, the violence of antifa, to date, has all been non-lethal and all been confined to direct conflicts with fascists who came to fight. Antifa have not gathered at Richard Spencer's house. They have not dragged David Duke through the streets. They have not burned down white supremacist churches. Do I really need to say that a street fight is different from a mob dragging a black man out of his house and lynching him?

Even the fake images and sensationalized reporting used to paint antifa as inherently violent essentially reveal the opposite when scale is considered. Take, for example, the images used after the Boston anti-white supremacy rally. One was of a man standing in formation holding a pole with a nail in it, an image actually from a protest in Dover, England. Another was of a young woman sitting down holding a sign that said “All My Heroes Kill Cops,” an image that is at least four years old. Or, to put this another way, after the images of a horde of torch-bearing (a clear reference to lynching) white supremacists attacking a small group of anti-racist protesters on the Friday night of Charlottesville, including hitting them with their torches, the violence of the radical left is supposedly proved by pictures of people just fucking standing there. Whatever the message of the images themselves, there is a difference in scale between hitting someone with a torch and just fucking standing there.

However, you feel about the violence around antifa, flattening the scale ultimately helps fascism by creating this false of idea of equal opposing forces. It allows you to say, “Sure, Republicans have an ideological connection to the KKK, but you could argue the Democrats have an ideological connection to antifa” as if that were in any way a balanced statement. I mean, let's try it this way: “Sure, Republicans have an ideological connection to Nazis, but Democrats have an ideological connection to people who fight Nazis.” Or, let's look at this issue using the current phrasing: Is it OK to punch a Nazi? When we reframe this question so scale is considered it becomes: Is it OK to cause brief physical discomfort with little (but not zero) risk of permanent harm to someone who believes they are allowed to kill Jews and people of color?

The Double-Standard
This flattening of scale contributes to the double-standard in our discourse that allows Republicans, conservatives, the radical right wing, and other reactionaries to get away with bad arguments and bad actions. Whenever anyone on the left goes too far (or anyone who can be convincingly associated with the left whether they're antifa, black bloc, or whatever) as seems to have happened in Berkeley more recently, it inherently threatens the entire legitimacy of whatever spectrum they can be associated with and yet somehow Republicans and Conservatives don't have to fear that same delegitimizing from Dylan Root, Cliven Bundy, or Richard Spencer. This double-standard is especially ironic given that there is a pretty straight line between small-government conservativism and Cliven Bundy's radical anti-government actions and between Nixon's Southern strategy and the overtly racist policies of the Reagan/Bush era and today's white supremacists and Neo-Nazis.

I think we can attribute part of this double-standard to the success of the myth of liberal bias. Because liberals and democrats have been inherently motivated to prove their lack of bias, they are much quicker to condemn and critique those on their side, whether those condemnations are warranted or not. For a recent example of the impact this drive has on policy look at deportations under Obama. In many ways, I'm sure he felt he had to “compensate” for the Dream Act so as not to appear, I don't know, too caring for the lives of the less fortunate or “too liberal,” so deportations increased dramatically during his administration. (Not that that changed Republican perceptions or arguments about him, but more on Republican argumentation later. Actually, more on Republican argumentation right now.)

I think the other part comes from the fact that much (if not all) of the right doesn't actually give a fuck about debate, dialog, argument, and consensus, and will say or do whatever it takes to achieve their policy goals. If they want to cut spending on the poor, they'll talk about being fiscally conservative. If they want to increase military spending, they'll talk about national security. If they want to cut taxes on the rich, they'll talk about simplifying the tax code. If they want to disenfranchise minority and other likely democratic voters, they'll talk about voter fraud. To put this another way, Republicans and conservatives only care about being in power and will make whatever argument they think will get them there, whereas Democrats and liberals have at least some commitment to a coherent worldview and are thus limited in what they can argue and assert by, you know, responding to the actual world. This raises an important question for those who argue that dialog and discourse are the only legitimate way to engage with contemporary white supremacy: what evidence do you have that the right, let alone the radical right, actually cares about dialog and discourse?

When you gang up on someone and kick them when they are down, that is assault, not self-defense, whether you're wearing all black or festooned in white supremacy symbols, but, again, when we compare violent acts against violent acts a difference in scale is obvious. In Charlottesville, four white men (some with sticks or poles) beat one black man in a police parking garage for minutes, badly bloodying him. In Berkeley most recently, we saw three-to-five men swinging their fists at one man on the ground and a much larger group, some with shields and maybe a few other weapons, pushing two Trump supporters (one of which might have used pepper spray first) out of the street and knocking them down, with one man (not the one with the pepper spray) getting kicked while he was down. From the best that I can tell from the reporting, neither resulted in any significant injury. And, unlike Charlottesville, they were aberrations during an otherwise peaceful protest (you know, according to the guy who filmed one of them) that was intentionally distorted by those on the right and sensationalized by the mainstream media because, well, that's what the mainstream media does. Both absolutely constitute assault, but assault on a different scale than was committed by the white supremacists. Furthermore, quoting from the Los Angeles Times:

“Police, and in some cases other counter-protesters, stepped in to halt the violence or escort the victims away from the area.“

Unlike in Charlottesville, both on Friday and on Saturday, other people, including those on the left, stepped in to stop the violence. Where were those “very fine people” people on the right in Charlottesville? (When antifa cross the line other antifa stop them. When fascists cross the line, antifa stop them.) But once again, the “antifa are just as bad” has gained new traction, because the left is held responsible for giving the right anything to distort, while the right is not held responsible for their distortions.

To put this another way, the liberal resistance must be perfect in all of its actions and any flaws or mistakes are seen as fundamental expressions of the failings of the ideology itself or reasons to undercut it from the middle, while the conservative, right wing resistance to President Obama was allowed to lynch him in effigy, lie about his birth certificate, and attribute all kinds of horrible flaws to him without any justification, shatter longstanding Senate norms, without delegitimizing conservative and Republican ideology. Antifa must be perfect in their ideas and actions in order to be legitimate, while Republicans can fuck up all the time, have Dylan Roots, Cliven Bundys, and Timothy McVeighs swimming around on their fringes and suffer no consequences in terms of the debate or policy whatsoever.

How Many More Traumatized Bodies Do You Need to See?
One the tenets of the nonviolent civil disobedience is that, the violent response of police to people walking on a bridge or sitting at a lunch counter reveals the violence inherent in the system to those who would not otherwise see it. Furthermore, the images of those traumatized bodies have an emotional impact on those who otherwise don't feel they have something at stake in the conflict. (Though, Sontag at least thinks it's a bit more complicated than that.) For the modern Civil Rights movement, I think there is clear evidence that those images of traumatized bodies helped shift mainstream public opinion in favor of civil rights and away from racist and segregationist polices. (Others might argue that the nonviolence would not have been effective on its own and that the various race riots and other violence or threats of violence played at the very least a supporting role, but I don't know nearly enough about the subject to comment.) Even more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement was greatly strengthened by the dissemination of images and videos of traumatized black bodies.

It is true, that images convey emotional impact, and it is true that our ability to quickly share images influences policy debates, but, at the same time, what would we have actually learned about violence, whose mind would have actually been changed, what more just policy could have come about if Cornell West got the shit beat out of him? How many more traumatized black bodies do we need to see to know that the KKK is bad? Do you have the right to demand other people take a beating to preserve our own sense of moral purity?

So Much More to be Said & Nothing More to Be Said
I've left a lot out of this post, even of my own thoughts. There is a ton of historic context around radical left wing activism, radical right wing terrorism, the codifying of racism in American policy, and the authoritarian tendencies in the Republican party. There are arguments around how we would perceive American white supremacists and fascists if they were foreigners, around the tension between protecting lives now while continuing to lay groundwork for more lasting progress, and around the nuance of particular weapons and particular physical acts. I also haven't spent any time on the idea that there is no antifa when there is no imminent threat of fascism and that the easiest way to get rid of antifa is to show up at counter-protests yourself and vote Democrat in the next few elections.

I honestly, despite all the above words, still don't know exactly what I believe the ultimate ethics are of antifa as a tactic. I think ganging up on someone and kicking them when they're down is wrong. (Pretty sure most antifa think that as well.) I also think, personally, as a white dude, if I'm in a situation in which a Nazi is attacking a person of color, I have a responsibility to intervene and in some way put my body between the Nazi and whoever he is attacking and what happens after that, I don't know. 

But despite all the nuance, despite all the disagreement, despite the different ethical frameworks, we all agree that every human life has value and that, though we need to continue to have these debates about the methods of the resistance, both as effective tactics and as moral acts, we cannot let those debates drive us apart. We cannot let our front be divided, we cannot let Nazis slip through the cracks back into open society, and we cannot let this president, his family, and the Republican party use white supremacy or anything else to turn this country towards fascism. And even if you believe all violence is wrong, even if you believe antifa are hurting the fight against white supremacy and fascism in America, even if those black masks and organized young people scare you, remember there is one absolute unquenstionable difference between antifa and Nazis. Nazis are Nazis, while antifa are people who fight Nazis. Remember what you call the people who fought Nazis the first time around?

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Triumph in Boston: Thoughts on the Rally Against White Supremacy

Triumph
Saturday's counter-protest (including the march and the rally that started at the Common) was an absolute, unequivocal, unqualified victory against racism and fascism. The numbers were staggering. And, it's important to note, a lot of college students, who swell the city's population during the school year and tend to be more liberal, weren't back in the city yet. The image was unambiguous: 30-40,000 counter-protests to 40-50 huddling in the bandstand despite the several hundred foot buffer the Boston police gave them in the surrounding area. (2017's relentless effort to produce metaphors of itself continued when a small group of loud-mouthed overconfident men were granted vastly more land in proportion to their population than a much larger more diverse group.) In fact, they packed up before most of us even got there. It took us two and a half hours to march about two miles from the Reggie Lewis Center to the Common and by the time we got there, the Nazis were long gone, having been escorted out for their own safety in police vehicles. It had to be humiliating and discouraging.

Perhaps even more importantly, early on the organizers tried to distance themselves from the Nazis at Charlottesville. Over and over again (because the media kept talking to them) the organizers pretended this was about “free speech” and that most of the speakers had at the very least ties to or demonstrated sympathies to white supremacy and white supremacist organizations was just, you know, a coincidence. Furthermore, unlike the “free speech” rally in Charlottesville, from the pictures I saw, the attendees in Boston didn't bring any overt symbols of white supremacy. I later learned that organizers actively discouraged attendees from bring such symbols. Furthermore, there had been statements earlier in the week that members of the KKK in Massachusetts were going to attend, but, as with the other symbols, if they did, they were too scared or too ashamed to show themselves. That, of course, is the point of these counterprotests. There is absolutely no redeeming value to white supremacy and anyone who harbors any shred of it in their souls should be too ashamed of themselves or afraid of the consequences to display it in public. And it looks like, at least to some degree it worked.  (Just going to pause here and throw in a “Fuck yeah, Boston!”)

But the biggest long-term victory came in the form of scare quotes. We are in this place right now, in large part because of how successful the radical right has been of controlling the media narrative. Whether it's the early framing of Trump's electoral college victory as rooted in “economic anxiety” or the long term myth of the liberal media, much of the responsibility for the destruction now being wrought by the Trump administration lays squarely with the media who kowtowed for decades to intimidation and manipulation on the right. But on Saturday, they began referring to the white supremacist rally as a “free speech” rally. Those scare quotes are short hand for “so-called.” For months and months (maybe years and years) white supremacists and fascists have been using the rhetorical technique of throwing the debate away from their reprehensible opinions to the nuance of free expression and, in doing so, have been able to continue to create platforms for recruitment and radicalization. But, by Saturday, the mainstream media were no longer having it. The media did not give them the benefit of the doubt. If the right wants to hold another “free speech” rally, rather than the left having to prove it is a thinly veiled white supremacy rally, the right will have to prove it's not. That is a huge victory, and as the Trump administration continues to unravel (and as Trump himself continues to unravel) inherent skepticism from the main mainstream media of right wing rallies, protests, and responses to the Mueller investigation or articles of impeachment or the 25th amendment or even specific steps by cities, states, and NGOs to counter the white supremacist policies coming out of the justice department, will go a long way in the helping the struggle.

Radical Fire
One of my first observations, as I walked from Roxbury Crossing towards the Reggie Lewis Center and while I thought back to the list of speakers at both rallies, was just how much more radical the organizers of these counter-protests were than many of the attendees. Along with antifa (more about them in another post), the place was just lousy with socialists, prison reform and abolition activists, indigenous rights activists, and Black Lives Matter activists. The speakers before the march itself were spitting fire that I doubt a lot of the attendees had heard before.

But that is, of course, how movements always start and how movements are always sustained. As much as moderates and mainstreamers like to argue for incremental change and cautious reform, almost none of those changes or those reforms would happen without the engine of radicalism organizing and fighting for so much more. The status quo only changes through immense force (whether activist, technological advance, or other) and immense force generally doesn't start with moderates. I mean, it is telling that Black Lives Matter and various Socialist organizations and not, say, the Democratic National Committee organized a protest against Nazis. But there were certainly, plenty of Democrats in the crowd.

I like to think of it as a pot of boiling water. The change that bubbles to the surface, whatever form it takes, is fueled by the radical fire on the bottom. Whether it's overtime pay, weekends, clean air, free public education, curb cuts in sidewalks, Social Security, or any other now obvious reform that makes your life better, you can thank the radicals of our past for fighting against the status quo and putting their jobs, bodies, even lives on the line for what they believed in.

Because, when you really start to drill down into what radicals on the left fight for, and what more moderate people believe is just and good for the world, the difference isn't really so great. As one of the socialist speakers put it, sure there might be differences in specific policy, there might be disagreements over nuances of theory, but when you're fighting Nazis you want to present the widest possible front. So when you start asking (or repeating) questions about socialism, Black Lives Matter, prison abolition, reparations, guaranteed minimum income or any other policy or idea that is considered “radical” I urge you to take a few minutes and research the roots and reasons for it. Is the idea of reparations today any more radical to us than the idea of the weekend was when it first proposed? Is the idea of a guaranteed minimum income really that radically different from Social Security or welfare? It is amazing how many policies you can agree on and how much change you can enact when you realize we're all starting from the idea that all human beings are valuable.

Why Boston Was Safe
When I was talking to people before the march, I told them I was 83% certain it was going to be perfectly safe. Not the strongest percentage when we're talking about physical safety, but still, pretty safe. And the reasons for my assessment were born out.

First and foremost, these men are cowards. They are perfectly happy to bang their shields and swing their sticks and shout their nonsense and attack people when they have such a numerical advantage that not a single one of them assumes any meaningful risk of harm. But, despite how vital the First Amendment is to freedom or whatever, not a single one of them was brave enough to stand within a hundred feet of the crowd of protesters and make their case. Now, I'm not saying their fear was unreasonable, but I am saying that Nazis are cowards and that, from what I saw, not a single white supremacist in Boston on Saturday displayed a fraction of the courage showed by UVA students and counter-protesters in Charlottesville. I want you to really internalize this point and think about what it means, especially when I discuss antifa later: when the left outnumbers the right in contentious and confrontational rallies, said rallies are much more likely to be safe. If the numbers are roughly even (as in Berkley and Charlottesville on the Saturday) or if there are more white supremacists (as in Charlottesville on the Friday night) there is a much greater chance of violence. That it was about 400 counter-protesters to every white supremacist meant that there was no meaningful risk of harm.

Second, every year Boston hosts at least two events that require managing tens of thousands of people: the Boston Marathon and the Fourth of July, so the city and the police force have long institutional knowledge for dealing with crowds. As boring as it might be, crowd control logistics play a big part in whether or not protests are safe. Where you put barriers, how far apart they are, how many officers you have and where you put them, are all boring, technical details that can have huge impacts on whether or not a protest is safe. You can see the value of police experience with logistics because of the stark contrast between Boston on Saturday and Phoenix on Tuesday. If I'm being very generous, I suspect the sudden use of tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, and flash-bang grenades by the Phoenix police came from the goal of keeping the counter-protesters and the Trump rally attendees separate, but the police were simply not prepared. I'm sure many of them will believe that tear-gassing a crowd of ten thousand plus peaceful protesters who had been standing in the heat for hours and hours was the safest option, but, they were either totally unprepared or totally unwilling to actively manage the crowd exiting the rally. Their lack of crowd control experience created an extremely dangerous situation and we are very lucky no one was seriously hurt either directly by the police (all of those "non-lethal" weapons can be very dangerous to the elderly, the very young, and people with specific conditions like asthma or allergies to any of the ingredients in the chemical weapons) or in the chaos created when tear gas suddenly shows up and thousands of people start running. (My less generous interpretation is that the same thing happens whenever tear gas is deployed. A few things were thrown at police in body armor, helmets, and riot shields, so they overreacted.)

But, on the police side, at least as importantly was that it was made clear, at least from my interpretation, that the police were willing to arrest the white supremacists as well. It matters that the white supremacists were told they were not welcome. I know it sounds weird to say that committed to arresting people who commit crimes was important, but Charlottesville got so dangerous because the police did not intervene in situations when the white supremacists were assaulting people. We don't know what would have happened if violence had erupted, if the Boston police force would have stuck to their statement and arrested people on both sides or if they would have done what police departments usually do and just arrest the nearest black person to the incident, but the fact that they gave that impression was important.

Finally, Massachusetts has strict gun control and prohibits open-carry. I don't care what you say about the Second Amendment, carrying a fucking assault rifle in a public place in general, and to a protest specifically, is a fucking threat. It is a confrontation. It is a tactical act of intimidation. It is an assault on free speech. It is an act of violence. Furthermore, we know whose side the men playing soldier are on. As overwhelming numbers bolster Nazi confidence for violence, so does knowing they essentially have a militia armed to the fucking teeth ready to step in and “act as peacekeepers” or “protect free speech” if it looks like those who oppose white supremacy might have the upper hand. Furthermore, just at an emotional and psychological level, a bunch of dudes walking around with fucking assault rifles inherently raises the stress level, and thus greatly raises the odds that adrenaline overrides clear thinking. Which means that perhaps the easiest way for cities to prevent violence, at all significant levels, at their protests is to ban open carry at them. Because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the First Amendment (you know, what this is supposedly all about) has no meaning when the Second Amendment is given free rein.

Final Takeaway: Saturday Kicked Ass But This is Far from Over
There are a few images that will stick in my mind from Saturday's march. The “Ruck Neo-Nazis” sign from the Rugby Players Against Racism group. The live-action demonstration of intersectionality as, along with the more generic condemnations of racism and white supremacy, there were signs for Black Lives Matter, refugee rights, immigrant rights, prison reform, LGBTQ rights, and dozens of other groups and ideas threatened by white supremacy. People swing dancing in the empty street to the music from the marching band. The number of Porter Square Books customers I saw in the crowd. (Good job, team!) The strange energy when we finally got to the Common and thousands of people who had geared themselves up to drive Nazis from their fucking city found themselves with beautiful free Saturday afternoon in Boston. But the image that hit me the hardest was a middle-aged to older black woman, who had climbed up the side of a dumpster to get a better view, filming the march with her phone, saying over and over again, “Thank you. Thank you all.”

But it's important to note: white supremacy is the idea that white people have the right to do whatever the fuck they want. This fight is far from over. And though they may not use “free speech” rallies as a cover for recruitment events going forward, the most radical and most dangerous of them will certainly apply lessons from Saturday. There were reports of people taking pictures of DSA women to dox them later. I definitely saw two white men, walking perpendicular through the march filming people. Maybe they were innocently documenting a historic event, but I got a weird vibe from them, and it is just as likely they were recording the faces of the “enemy.” White supremacists see themselves in a war and they will take the lessons of this defeat and apply them to their next actions. Furthermore, because of the white supremacists in the federal government, like Jeff Sessions, our resources for fighting this specific kind of terrorism are being greatly curtailed. I am so lifted up from Saturday's march, but I am also profoundly afraid at what will happen next.

Boston is a weird place. Despite being the cradle of the abolitionist movement, it is still profoundly racist. And whether that racism reflects itself in busing policy, gentrification, school funding, or the n-word, it is still something we will struggle with. But Boston made a statement on Saturday: white supremacy is not welcome here. Maybe it wasn't the bravest statement. Maybe it wasn't the most enlightening statement. Maybe there can be further discussion about how to make these statements. But it was an absolutely necessary statement and because Boston made it, it will be easier for other cities (like Phoenix) and other places to make their own version of it.

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P.S. There were a ton of antifa at the counter-protest on Saturday and seeing them helped galvanize my thinking about antifa. Look for those thoughts later this week or next week.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading is Resistance: On Free Speech & Nazis

As of writing there is a rally planned by a bunch of white men for Saturday on Boston Common and, as of writing, the supposed theme of this rally is “free speech,” and I guess it will be just coincidence or something that only white men and maybe a few white women will attend this rally. As a bookseller and a writer, the idea of free speech is not just important to me, it is vital to who I am. Protecting and providing access to ideas I disagree with is one of the fundamental responsibilities of being a bookseller and the ability to express whatever is in my mind in whatever manner I see fit, whether other people like it or not, is fundamental to being a writer. Furthermore, there is power in being around ideas that make you uncomfortable, that challenge your world view, that you disagree with and, both as a bookseller and as an author, I do feel it is also my responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be uncomfortable. But (so no one has to be nervous while I build my argument) the First Amendment right to free expression does not, in any way shape or form, apply to Nazism or white supremacy.

As with so much of the reaction to what's happening this piece will be a little raw and I can't promise the best structure or that I have considered and accounted for all possible counter arguments or implications of my argument. Furthermore, in terms of a bookseller's specific role in how and what information and opinions are accessible in their communities, I will honestly say that I still feel a tension between the authors around the edges of this movement and with those who might be considered enablers of this movement (Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reily immediately spring to mind), who don't explicitly talk about white supremacy, who I, personally, wouldn't want to stock on my shelves and that responsibility to get whatever book a reader wants for them, without any judgment. There is a point where the debate becomes more nuanced, when the arguments around free speech and bookselling become more fraught and when we'll be faced with either/or decisions without an obvious answer (and I'm not counting the "do I need to make this money" as part of this nuanced point because, well, I don't believe that money has any real relevance whatsoever to this issue) and I'll be honest right now, that I don't explore that point in this post. Even in a brain dump like this, I just don't have it all settled in my head enough to share. 

A lot of you who read this will already agree with me, and if you've been following this issue, you'll see a number of familiar points, some of which have been made far more eloquently than I ever could by cartoons and other images and tweets. As a white dude, I see it is as my responsibility to talk to other white dudes and as writer I see it as my responsibility to create prose that might pull someone back from the edge, refine another white dude's understanding of what they are doing in the world, tweak an attempted-ally's behavior, or, at the very least, add the privilege of my voice to existing arguments. Finally, I also recognize that, historically, the types of ideas and expressions that are censored by the government have been those that I would consider protected under the First Amendment. Most of the time, when the government (or whoever) seeks to restrict expression, their goals have been to either silence dissent or police sexuality. With all of that said, I'll say this again: The First Amendment right to free expression does not, in any way, shape or form, apply to Nazism or white supremacy.

I think it's important to start by exploring exactly why the First Amendment and the right to free expression is important. Then I'm going to talk about the types of speech we already restrict. Finally, I'm (hopefully) going to pull that all together into something coherent. Finally, (for real this time, sorry for all the preambles) I should probably reiterate that this post (and really all my other posts, tweets, etc) reflect only my opinion. OK.

On a political level, there is inherent value in allowing for competing, disagreeing, divergent, even mutually opposed ideas to be expressed freely and without restraint. Debate, discourse, conversation, are the laboratories of human political, social, and artistic ideas. Allowing dissenting views to be expressed leads to better policy and creates the opportunity for consensus in a way that is simply not possible when ideas are restricted by the government. Furthermore, there is value to interacting with ideas you disagree with even if you don't reach consensus. Not only is your idea strengthened and your understanding of it deepened through your defense of it, you are able to see the nuance that makes the opposing idea legitimate and perhaps adjust your own assumptions and assessments of the idea, even if you don't agree with it. In theory, something positive could come from debating the value of an idea I agree with, like a federally administered minimum income, with a “small-government” republican even if we never reach a consensus or agreement.

Free expression is also vital to a society, because, ultimately, humans are communication animals. Our lives are defined by what, how, and who we communicate with. It is absolutely vital to our personhood that we be able to express ourselves. (Hang on to that word, “personhood.”) Not being able to express who you are is fundamentally identical to not being able to be who you are.

But, even with that, American jurisprudence, and well, basic common sense acknowledge that you can't say always say whatever you want whenever you want. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is, of course, the go-to example, because when you shout “fire” in a crowded theater, you risk causing a panic that leads to physical harm or death. (It should also be said, that even if everyone knows there is no fire, you still interrupt the experience the audience and your asshole ass should be thrown out even if maybe it shouldn't be arrested.) But you can also can't tell lies about someone that hurts them. Depending on the person, you also can't even share true things (like, say, a sex tape) if sharing that true thing causes them harm. You also can't call someone up in the middle of the night and threaten to kill them. You also can't (I'll throw in a “technically” here, because dudes get away with it all the time) tweet rape threats at people. Another classic ethical formulation is “You have the right to swing your fist right up until it hits my nose,” and we, as a society, have decided that some speech counts as hitting a nose.

First, and many other people, usually people of color, have said this better than I have, but I'll put it in here anyway: there is no consensus between the idea “I am a person” and the idea “No, you're not.” There is no middle ground. There is no compromise. There is no negotiation. There is no chance to grow through debate between these two ideas, because one of them assumes the other doesn't actually have personhood to grow. Nothing the whole free exchange of ideas thing is supposed to do can happen between “I am a person” and “No, you're not.”

But more importantly, white supremacy is a death threat. As clear, as distinct, as dangerous, and as damaging as calling someone on the phone and threatening to kill them. Holding a Confederate flag is no different from standing outside the home of a person of color and dragging your thumb across your throat. The fundamental idea of white supremacy, no matter how apologizers and adjacents try to soften or mitigate it, is that white people have the right to kill other people. Naziism was based on the idea that white Germans had the right to kill Jews, Romany, homosexuals, and others. The Confederacy was based on the idea that white people had the right to kill black people. Every Nazi flag is a death threat. Every Confederate flag is a death threat. Every Confederate monument is a death threat. Every school, street, park, highway, whatever, named in honor of a Confederate general, soldier, politician, or hero is a reminder to all people of color that a whole lot of white people still want the right to kill them. The n-word out of the mouth of a white person is a death threat. Every racial slur out of the mouth of a white person is a death threat. And death threats are not protected by the First Amendment.

The debate over white supremacy is over. There is a reason why there are no statues of Hitler in Germany, why Mein Kampf was banned until very recently, why Nazi symbols are only in museums. No one gains anything from white supremacy's presence in our marketplace of ideas. And it's presence is a constant, relentless threat to well-being and lives of millions of Americans. If you want to argue that Nazis and other white supremacists have the right to express their white supremacy you need to look a person of color in the eyes and tell them they don't have the right to feel safe in their own country. If you can do that, well, then I guess I'm done exchanging ideas with you.

One final point on the legitimacy of the white supremacist free speech argument: do you really believe they would permit criticism of their white power if they took over our government? Do you really believe they would encourage a vigorous exchange of opinions in a free marketplace of ideas? Do you really believe a black person would be able to express themselves freely under David Duke? Of course, not. Protests would be outlawed the next day, monuments to people of color would be torn down, and every MLK street, school, and park would be renamed. They'd confiscate every history book, defund every college they accused of “indoctrinating” the youth, and arrest every activist of color they got their hands on. Because this has never, not for one second, actually been about free speech, and those who repeat that argument have (at best) been conned. Every argument about the sanctity of free speech is (at best) a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of building ideas in a society, but is far, far more often, a simple smoke screen to give them a chance to recruit more sad, scared, and angry white men to their hateful cause.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

There is a Story Here: On the Book of Disquiet

There is a story here. I know it doesn't look like a story, that it doesn't have the plot you expect from a story or the characters you expect from a story or the relationships you expect from a story or the arc of events you expect from a story, but I assure you it is a story. It is a story about the course of consciousness, the nature of thought, the self's consideration of the self, the existence of the brain in the world. It is a story about figuring shit out, about our inability to figure shit out, about the mechanisms of understanding both the grand abstract concepts that drive art and philosophy and the bullshit your boss does in the office, and it is a story about the limitations of those mechanisms, the gears of the mechanisms, the grease of those mechanisms.

The thing is, unlike most stories, we all experience this story every day. We all think about the shit that happened to us and we all think about the best way to think about the shit that happened to us, and sometimes we come to conclusions and sometimes we don't and sometimes we come to different conclusions later that make those first conclusions look really fucking stupid. This is a story about how we are and how we become meaningful. But to see The Book of Disquiet as a story, to see it as distinct from a fictional diary or collection of disconnected musings you need to learn to read it as a story.

Not all books can or should be read in the same way. This is one of those ideas that sounds strange, but once put into context, is almost obvious. You would read a collection of poetry differently than you would read the next installment in your favorite fantasy epic; you would pay attention to different details, keep different types of information at the forefront of your mind as you read, and react to your own reactions differently. You read a collection of essays differently from a collection of short stories, a work of literature differently from a work of entertainment, a work you have some doubts about differently from a work your best friend swears by. Furthermore, you can even read the same book differently, depending on the context. For example, you read a book differently when you read it for a class or for a book club from when you read it for fun. Some books, the books I often consider the greatest books, need to be read differently from every other book, and one of their responsibilities and one of the definers of their greatness is that they teach you how to read themselves. So The Book of Disquiet, rather than starting with some kind of introductory passage that would try to frame this as a collection of diary entries or, at least, as a collection of distinct units, begins with a story. A story about how the “author” came to meet “Vicente Guedes,” the “writer” of everything else that will follow. Furthermore, the opening image of the first “entry” is of a “hidden orchestra” and a “symphony” or, to put it another way, of a particular type of human expression in which a series of distinct acts come together to create a unified experience.

This is a story because, directly and indirectly, through confronting the concept and through atmosphere created by the prose, the book returns again and again to one particular idea, and explores how that idea describes the narrator's experience with the world. The narrator may not change, the events may not change, the rising and falling action we associate with a plot might not happen, but the nature of this idea changes and does go through the rising and falling action we associate with a plot. In a way, the book feels almost like someone worrying at a loose tooth, but that is a story. There is conflict, there is tension (will the tooth fall out?), and ultimately, there is resolution. The concept, of course, is disquiet. Disquiet is a mercurial idea, and the narrator rolls it around in his hands, bending and stretching into different shapes, but, if I had to define it in some kind of, uh, definite way, I'd say that Pessoa's disquiet is the parallax created by the separation between existence and observation, from the fact that observing what happens and how you feel about it is distinct from what actually happens and what you feel about what actually happens. Disquiet names the perpetual Heisenberg uncertainty principle that is an inherent aspect of consciousness itself. There is a synapse between us and the world and disquiet is the emotion we feel when we think about that synapse.

This is a story about disquiet in the exact same way that In Search of Lost Time is a story about memory. The difference, of course, is in the angle of approach. Proust takes the long way (perhaps, the absolute longest way), showing the accumulation of memory over the course of a life and how the force of memory guides and shapes a life as a way to consider the ideas that describe memory. It is a long, slow build up that climaxes when a small moment triggers the emotional experience of what the fact of having memory means. It takes Proust thousands of pages to set up this climax because memory is a book with thousands of pages. (I, for one, think it's worth it.) Pessoa just goes right at it, his narrator confronting the idea directly and rarely with any kind of “real world” connection. In a way, this makes The Book of Disquiet read more like a work of philosophy or even of literary criticism (there is a lot about the act of writing in here as well), but, in a way, you can arrange any good work of philosophy into a story about an idea if you want to.

But, just because this is a story doesn't mean you need to read it as a story. Along with teaching you how to read themselves, great books also support multiple reading methods, giving readers the power to find their own best experience with the text. You could also read The Book of Disquiet as a devotional or a book of hours. You could keep it at your bedside to read upon waking or before going to sleep. You could read it front to back like a story, or you could wander through it. I think you could also get tremendous value out of it, even if you never finish it, even if you just keep circling back to the passages that most resonated with you. The Book of Disquiet is a story, but it is a story that gives your the freedom to read it as though it is not.

I've dogeared hundreds of passages. I have had my breath taken away hundreds of times. The primary motivation for writing this post wasn't necessarily the argument that the The Book of Disquiet is a story (though I think it is and I think that argument gave me the chance to have some interesting thoughts about how we read and what we consider a “story”), but that when I experience this kind of brilliance in a book I want to write about it. But I didn't want to just essentially string of bunch of blurbs together and call it a post. There can be a kind of diminishing return when you gush about a book. At some point you don't really add to your argument and at another point people can start getting suspicious and at a similar point you can set expectations so high a first impression of disappointment will follow them throughout the rest of the book. The Book of Disquiet is a masterpiece, a cornerstone of much twentieth-century fiction, an often perplexing but also delightful book, and as much as it deserves praise, as much as it deserves blurbs and handsells, it deserves essays more.

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