Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Are Independent Bookstores Recession Proof?

In 2017, sales were up at independent bookstores. Again. More stores are opening than closing. More stores are finding new owners or new locations. Stores are thinking less about survival and more about succession. It's damn near impossible to leave Winter Institute, the annual educational, social, and celebratory conference for booksellers without feeling rejuvenated, without feeling that the best days are yet to come, without feeling as though this network of passionate, creative, thoughtful, intelligent, and empathetic people is invincible, without feeling as though books in general and the role booksellers play specifically, is saving the world. This isn't just the afterglow of a great party (though it certainly is some of that). The sales and growth numbers don't lie. And beyond the numbers, bookstores are taking active roles in their communities in new and important ways while working on improving the flaws and weaknesses (whitenesses) in their own industry. There are data; emotional, anecdotal, and numerical that suggest independent bookselling has never been as strong as it is today and is only going to get stronger for the foreseeable future.


Furthermore, bookstores are uniquely positioned to combat the rise of American fascism. Everything about Trump and the Republican party; the disregard of science, the fundamental lack of curiosity, the fundamental lack of empathy, the pathological lying, the fear of the other, the use of rhetorical tricks to avoid actually defending their terrible fucking ideas, the fragmentation of society, and the deferral to authority is combated in some way by books and literature and reading and the people who connect those books to the readers in their community. Even beyond books, bookstores offer the safe community space, the ability to be quiet for a minute, the chance to know that humans have been through worse and survived because you can look at the books from that time, that can rejuvenate one's energy for the struggle. And that's before considering the active work that independent bookstores are doing in the community. With reading series, author events, book clubs, and displays, independent bookstores are both nodes of resistance against Trump in particular and loci for the general strengthening of our social and civic institutions. We now know what happens when we drift away from the type of community independent bookstores support. It's hard to imagine us going backwards any time soon.


Furthermore, it isn't just Trump and this particular incarnation of fascism. Even before Trump the lies of late-capitalism like the promise of convenience at all costs, the seduction of low prices, the safety and primacy of the nuclear family unit, were starting to erode. People who had been raised on screens were turning to books to escape them. The ebook revolution that was supposed to be the end of bookstores didn't happen. The algorithms that were supposed to remove all the guesswork of buying books were shown to be woefully inadequate. Even as it seems like all shopping is moving online, more and more people are re-discovering the value of talking to a human being before spending their money. Or maybe not spending their money. Because that's the other thing about bookstores that is something of an antidote to the emotional grinder of late-capitalism: it's OK if you don't buy a book every time you browse, every time you meet for coffee, even every time you get recommendations or conversations from booksellers. Maybe it's part of why no one makes a lot of money in books, but in a bookstore you are a human being who might buy a book, not always and only a potential purchase that must be “off-ramped” or “funneled” and “captured.” Which is not to say we don't need to sell you books, but that there is always more to your interaction at a bookstore than the purchase. As the crimes of Amazon continue apace, as the country and young people in particular become more progressive politically and more critical of late-capitalism, and as we continue to rediscover the value of community beyond our nuclear family and beyond our circle of friends, independent bookstores are poised to capitalize on those changes in ways maybe no other industry (except for maybe craft brewing) can.


Furthermore, something changed when Borders closed. Before that it was easy, despite all the other closures, to assume that there would always be bookstores. Sure, maybe indie bookstores wouldn't survive, but there would always be Barnes & Noble and Borders if we need a present on the way to the party. But then Borders wasn't. And then it was clear that if something wasn't done, bricks and mortar bookselling would die. Borders owed publishers millions of dollars when it finally went bankrupt and I've always wondered what the landscape of bookselling would look like if publishers had spread that credit around to the hundreds of independent bookstores that were struggling with the predatory pricing of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon, who were trying to change their model to adapt to online sales and who just needed to get to the next holiday season or the one after that to make those changes and be newly sustainable. I don't think I'm alone in asking that question. I think a lot of people with power at publishers asked that question. So the relationship between independent bookstores and publishers changed and publishers in general started to see independent bookstores not just as one, rather small, sales channel, but as partners in the grand project of books and literature. Independent bookstores drive discovery. Independent bookstores incubate writers. Independent bookstores support the small and independent publishers that often incubate writers and publishing professionals. Independent bookstores celebrate risk. Independent bookstores sustain the conversation around books. And independent bookstores create sales that end up at Amazon. When Borders revealed that a world without bookstores was possible, publishers changed their relationship in real and tangible ways, to treat independent bookstores like partners, making the entire industry more sustainable.


Furthermore, we're really fucking good at selling books now. There might have been a time when all a bookstore needed to thrive was a halfway decent buyer and the right neighborhood. But that won't fly anymore. We need to offer our community and our customers more than what they can find online. And we do. All the time. Both in person and online. Sure not every store has had to make the same adaptations to our economic reality and no store is perfect, but I'm pretty confident that you could walk into damn near any independent bookstore in the country and walk out with a book you didn't know you needed. Taken together, just about everything points to an industry that has figured out how to thrive.


But books are not rent. They are not healthcare. They are not student loans that are immune to bankruptcy. They are not car payments or gas money. As vital as they are to many of us, they are still not as vital as food. I've seen others try to inject a note of caution in all this optimism around growing sales, because, maybe those sales are only growing because the economy is. Though, for all the reasons stated above, I don't think it's just general economic growth behind the growth of independent bookstores, when the economy collapses next, who will have enough money after dealing with the necessities to buy books? Who will cut down on their coffee? Their beer? Who will drop Netflix? Who will find ways to trim their phone bill, their gas bill, their electricity bill? Some will. Many will. Enough to continue the growth we've seen over the last few years? Enough to sustain the level we've reached through this growth? Enough to sustain a viable industry through to the recovery? Are independent bookstores recession proof?

I don't have an answer to this question. The recessions of 2001 and 2008 took their toll, but bookstores were able to survive. And we're stronger now than we were then, but every recession is different and, maybe I'm just being cynical, I think the next one is likely to be catastrophic. (I mean what happens when almost an entire generation gets slammed with double-digit unemployment AND cannot disburse a bunch of their debt through bankruptcy? How does an economy recover from that?) Could we survive that?

I like to offer answers in these posts, not as some kind of final say on the topic, but as a starting point for further conversation, with the assumption that by discussing said offered answer we can find our way to a better one. But, perhaps it's best to conclude this with a different question, one that contains the optimism I think we all rightly feel with a rational concern for what we could face. So...

How do we make independent bookstores recession proof?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reading is Resistance: Translation as Transhumance

Translation as Transhumance. That second word in the title. “Transhumance.” It seduced me from the moment I saw a picture of the cover on Twitter. I tried to deduce what “transhumance” meant from its component parts but I was wrong and only more invested in the book. I eventually reviewed it for the Los Angeles Review of Books, but found Gansell's memoir of her vocation as a translator had a much bigger impact on me than could be communicated in a review. It gave me new language for describing my relationship with works in translation. It gave me a new perspective on American English and an insight into its potential power. And, of course, because we read with our daily lives, it illuminated the political power of translation in the face of our growing fascism.

At some point in my bookselling career, I read one of those articles that talks about how little work in translation Americans read, how many Americans can go through their entire education and almost entire lives without reading a book written in another language. As a bookseller, I saw this as an opportunity to do some good in the world, to use my place in the community to move the needle a bit, and to help, in my own very small way, broaden the spectrum of reading for the American public. So, I committed to reading more translation, reading translation with more intention, and recommending more books in translation both through staff picks and in conversations.

In doing so, I learned of the joy of being baffled. It is a strange joy, one that you rarely encounter in your daily life, but one that is important nonetheless. Perhaps it is a joy unique to art, unique to moments we enter with intention. It happens in moments when I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the book, absolutely no idea how to interpret an idea or image or sentence, when I am thrown off the train of my own thoughts. Most of the time we read to understand, but there is real power in reading when you can't. Because when you encounter something another person made that is unfathomable to you, you also encounter the fact that you, as a person, are capable of creating the unfathomable. You are shifted and in the parallax between your new perspective and your standard perspective an entire world opens up. Gansel approaches this unsettling opening of perspective in a number of different ways over the course of her book, but saying a work “...allows us to see the familiar in the foreign, the foreign in the familiar, and thus to create a sanctuary where you are no longer foreign but someone who is learning.” is the best articulation I've read of reading works in translation. By baffling us, we are reminded that we spend our lives as students of the world.

In some ways, it can be easy to understand that sense of being baffled, that sense of being unsettled, that encounter with the unfathomable as an abstract, intellectual experience, one more relevant to the mechanisms of understanding, than understanding itself. Because it is an experience of intellectual difficulty, we're tempted to put it in the same mental space as the papers we wrote in college and distant from the political and emotional experiences of out daily lives. But that is to miss one point of being baffled and being unsettled. Or, as Gansel puts it: “I remember clearly how, one morning as the snows were melting, as I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand from the other. That was probably my most essential lesson in translation.” Empathy, that building block of community and society, is rooted in the ability to displace your self, to de-center your self, to know at a fundamental level, that, from a different perspective, you are the other. Reading works in translation, especially those that are unfathomable to you, might be the easiest way to create that displacement and confront your own otherness.

And once you start seeing the otherness in yourself, once you begin to imagine how you might look to those who are not conditioned by their culture to understand you, it becomes easier to see the complexity and humanity that drive your decisions, in the decisions of other people. When you internalize how you can be misunderstood, your relationship to what and who you don't understand changes. By displacing your self, you create a new space or new perspective in which it is easier to see the humanity, see the universality in the actions of other people, even if you don't understand them. Through interaction with, even celebration of, that which makes us different, that which does not cross cultures or languages, we strengthen our understanding of what does.

But, at an almost more practical level, translation is an exchange of ideas across cultures. It opens up the possibilities for how you might solve a problem or describe an experience by showing you how others solve that problem and describe that experience, often in ways and in terms you never would have imagined. It is a constant conversation about all of the options we have for being human beings on this planet; which means, it is also a constant conversation about how some systems of power, some forces in society, and some people want to limit the options you have for being a human being. Even if the different options for living that you're reading about don't feel political, are concerned more with topics that don't seem to have direct applications, it introduces you to the idea of imagining a problem from a totally different perspective. It gives you the option of at least trying to consider a problem without all of your cultural baggage lashed to your answers. Asking how someone from China or Nigeria or Iran or Mexico might solve a problem, inherently creates the idea that the American way isn't the only way and (gasp!) might not even be the best way.

Fascism, in whatever form it takes, including the one Republicans in power are working directly towards, is rooted in homogeneity, in an erasing of difference and a reduction of the scope of human life to a small set of beliefs, actions, and thoughts. Even when it is practiced at a relatively tepid level, it is based in the idea that everyone should think and believe the same things and limit themselves to essentially the same behaviors, even if it is impractical to force them to. Ultimately, contemporary Republicans (or at least those in power) think everyone should be Republican, not even in an ideological sense, but in an identity sense, in a daily lived what they wear what they eat what music they listen to way, and, barring that, they will do everything they can to ensure that only Republicans are in power. To put this a slightly different way: the primary goal of the Republican party is to ensure that only Republican solutions are adopted.

Reading in translation is, essentially, an inoculation against this virus-like homogeneity, against the idea that there is one right way to be human, against the idea that you and those like you have a monopoly on ideal humanity. With our eyes open, looking at the world, watching people do different things, solve problems in different ways, think different thoughts, and take different joys, it is obvious that homogeneity is a fraud, that fascism is a lie, and that all those who fight for it, in whatever incarnation they fight for, do so out of fear that whatever their identity is, isn't as right as they claim. But that fear is still powerful. That illusion of safety and security that homogeneity promises is still compelling. The false equivalency of sameness with community is still alluring.

Finally, as we all know from Orwell, how we think is guided, in large part, by the language we use to think with. This is why so much effort, both in good and bad faith, is put into the terms we surround political ideas with. Often, controlling how we label something, like “pro-life” for example or “fiscal conservative,” or even more recently “chain-migration” goes a long way in advancing or hindering an agenda regardless of that agenda's merit. Language and rhetoric can be used to further or hinder a cause without actually making a point about what that cause is or what that cause would do. Furthermore, history adheres to language, allowing words to carry significance and implication that have nothing to do with the idea under consideration, but can greatly impact how we react to and understand an idea or a person. There is a reason why it was effective to refer to Hilary Clinton as “shrill.” The act of translation is a direct interaction, perhaps even confrontation with that limiting force of language. By pulling meaning from one language with one set of assumptions and one set of limits on thought into another language with a different set of assumptions and a different set of limits on thought, the translator makes us aware of these mechanisms, introduces us to the limits of our own thought, and deepens our own relationship with how language functions and how we use language to converse, argue, dictate, and think. And by developing that awareness, by building the particular skills needed to make sense of words from another culture, you also develop the skills to see through propaganda and to understand the mechanism behind an act of bad faith rhetoric and to counter it.

Ultimately, fascism has a grammar. It has a system of speaking that emphasizes fear and division and curtails curiosity and exploration. It displaces the context of the discussion so somehow, instead of arguing about the merits of an idea, you're arguing about your own patriotism or how much you value your heritage. The hyper-awareness of the mechanisms of language that comes from immersing yourself in a work whose ideas came from a different grammar also gives you the tools to see and dissect the grammar of fascism. To borrow another classic image from literature, fascism is the man behind the curtain. Reading works in translation isn't going to suddenly empower you to tear down the systems of power threatening our society, but it will give you the ability to see the curtain protecting those systems from scrutiny. And seeing the curtain is the first step in tearing it down.

Translation as Transhumance is one of those books that gets bigger the more I think about it. Even for this piece, as the core ideas have expanded as I've worked on them, I've had to discard my thoughts about the potential power of our international American English, the relationship between a language and a nation, the power translation has to dissolve political borders, and Gansel's own direct use of translation as a political act. (That last part I at least discussed in the review linked above.) Every time I took a step, the distance I could travel increased. Every time I got to the top of a mountain, I saw a higher mountain ahead of me. Every opened door revealed another room filled with more doors to open. For me, literature is an act of potential. It is an ongoing testament to humanity's potential to grow, to change, and to improve and to the joy of improvement, change, and growth. Translation as Transhumance is a change to celebrate all of it, both in the type of reading it pushes us towards and the beauty it contains within itself.

Buy Translation as Transhumance from IndieBound or your local independent bookstore.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Three Paths from the 2018 Election

Despite voter suppression in key states, a massive, unprecedented misinformation and propaganda campaign orchestrated by a foreign power in favor of and quite likely in coordination with the Trump Campaign, a mainstream media that perpetuated false equivalences and fed oxygen to what amounted to conspiracy theories, a mainstream media narrative driven, in large part, by misogynist men now accused of sexual harassment and/or assault, a thirty or so year smear campaign by the Republican party, an apathetic citizenry that had long ago mostly given up on the political process, culturally entrenched partisan identities, and, of course, systemic sexism and racism; despite all that almost three million more Americans voted for Hilary Clinton than Donald Trump. That is the story of the presidential election of 2016. Anyone who tries to spin some idea about the white working class (whoever they are) or the flaws of Hilary Clinton (which exist) or anything else is an apologist for a flaw in our constitution that benefited one party over another, trying to justify the actions and very existence of the Trump administration as legitimate, and/or hiding from a simple fact: a lot of Americans were manipulated into making a mistake.

In discussions about the future of this country over the last year, I've had one overriding, organizing principle: we will know the health of American democracy in 2018. For most voters conned into voting for Trump or staying home, it will be their first chance to make amends for their mistake. For most Americans who didn't vote as part of a general practice, it will be their first chance after learning just how fragile our democracy is. For most Democrats and liberals, it will be their first chance to get a tangible result from their new anger and organizing energy.

And there are some good signs. Democrats are flipping seats all over the country in special elections. Doug Jones's win in Alabama proves that, under the right circumstances, Democratic organizing can overcome voter suppression in even the reddest of states. Furthermore, historically, legislative power tends to shift away from the party of the President in the first mid-term election. In short, there are some reasons to believe that, for all the long lasting damage the Republican party and Donald Trump have done, American democracy isn't over yet.

But we won't know for sure until we get the results from the 2018 mid-term elections. There are a number of different ways it might shake out and we need to be prepared for as many of them as possible. Here are the three that I see and what I think we should do if they come to pass.

One or Both of the Chambers of Congress Flips
What we do next will depend in large part on which chamber flips (most likely the House) and by how much, but regardless, the first order of business (if it hasn't happened already) is to impeach and remove Donald Trump (and hopefully Mike Pence) from the presidency. If the swing is big enough, if Trump's toxicity is revealed to be strong enough, I bet some not insignificant number of Republican Senators will vote for removal. And the swing could be plenty big enough to scare whatever Republicans remain right off the Trump train. Paul Ryan doesn't appear particularly up for an actual election battle. Ted Cruz doesn't have many allies in, well, life and there is a lot of energy around getting him out. I think we can wonder about Jeff Flake's seat and John McCain's seat and I don't think Romney taking Hatch's seat is an absolute guarantee. There are also a few hundred-thousand new voters in Florida from Puerto Rico and I can't imagine a lot of those votes going to Republicans. Given how there really isn't much evidence for courage of convictions in Congressional Republicans at the moment, how many of them would actually stick up for Trump once it was definitely proven that doing so threatens their power? Even if there aren't enough votes for removal, Democrats need to make the formal effort, if for no other reason than to have receipts for 2020.

After that it depends on who is president, and what the actual composition of Congress is. There are two bipartisan fixes to some of the mistakes in the ACA that seem like an easy place to start if that hasn't happened already. (Two bills that were theoretically promised in return for Susan Collins' vote on the tax bill.) Same goes for a clean DREAM act and a reauthorization or restart of CHIP if it also hasn't passed. (Of course, this is assuming those bipartisan bills and apparent commitments stay that way, which, there is real reason to doubt that Republicans would maintain their support for these bills if they would be passed by a Democratic Congress.) It looks like Congress will also have to ensure that the upcoming census is both fully funded and fairly run, which might be the most important under-the-radar issue of the moment. And then there's the recent tax bill that Democrats should at least try to do something about. We could also, I don't know, start passing legislation to prevent this from happening again by requiring all presidential candidates to publish their taxes before the election or formalizing the norms around conflicts of interest or creating some kind of election review process. There is only so much Congress can do, especially if Trump or another Republican is President, but I think there are lots of small places where steps can be made to solve some of the problems created by the Trump Presidency.

And then, it's gear up for 2020, not just for the presidential election, but for state and local elections. A big part of why we're in such a catastrophic mess right now is that Republicans in 2010 weaponized redistricting to disenfranchise American voters because Republican policies cannot win on merit in the marketplace of ideas. (This redistricting also aided the takeover of the Republican party by its radical right-wing by protecting fringe candidates who won in low-turnout primaries.) Big state-level wins in 2020 will allow Democrats to reform our redistricting procedure so Red Map strategies can never happen again.

Republicans Control Both Chambers in a Relatively Close Vote
Through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and, well voter decision, despite everything Republicans (you know, the ones who supported a fucking child molester) and Donald Trump (you know, the fucking serial sexual assaulter) have done to this country, they retain power. The cultural and systemic racism is too entrenched, the electoral system is too rigged to favor a rural minority, Russian misinformation muddies the waters, the inertia of voter apathy is strong enough to keep people home, and the mainstream media doesn't take the lessons of 2016 to heart. The rage and energy and organizing we've seen since November 2016 just isn't strong enough to overcome the structural flaws of the Constitution, racism of so many white people, and authoritarianism of the contemporary Republican party. I have been holding out hope for American democracy. Especially with the Democrat wave of special elections, I am hoping that the election of Trump is essentially an extreme stress test and that the actual majority of American citizens will assert themselves. But, it might not happen. The vast majority of Americans might not be able to overcome the fact that the framers of the Constitution did not foresee massive population concentration in urban centers. 

If that happens, I think the blue states need to explore how best to take care of their residents. Even if the majority of Americans vote for a Democrat and even if Democrats pick up a ton of seats, Republicans will act like the election is a mandate in their favor because they always act like everything is a mandate in their favor. They will say it is a ringing endorsement of everything they and Trump have ever done despite what all the other evidence shows and then they will finally finish destroying the New Deal and returning America to the capitalist feudalism they love so fucking much. State attorneys general will need to explore and pursue legal action to ensure that their residents receive the Social Security and Medicare benefits they have been paying into their entire working lives. States will also need to explore how to replace federal spending in a way that doesn't overburden their residents with new taxes. Blue states already pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal spending so there is a chance they can simply transfer some of the tax cuts the Republicans will ram through Congress to their own budgets, especially those blue states (New York, Massachusetts) that have significant financial sectors. There might also be a general willingness in blue states to pay higher state taxes if people know the money will go to programs they believe in.

Furthermore, the blue states should find a way to band together to provide universal healthcare to their residents. Most of the American people live in blue states and most of the American economy is in blue states. California alone is a larger economy that most countries. A joint effort by the blue states should have more than enough population and economic clout to provide universal health care in some form. I mean, they'd be way bigger than Canada and Canada can do it. If they're able to significantly recoup much of the extra funding flowing to the federal government, they can probably offer free higher education too and maybe fund a transition to renewable energy. Maybe even subsidize childcare while they're at it.

Unfortunately, this is likely to create an even wider gulf between blue states and red states and it's hard to know exactly how wide that gulf will get. Will we see another great migration? How tense will the relationship between the states get? How much poorer will the red states get if Republicans at the federal level successfully remove the social safety net? And how will red state Republicans use federal power to punish blue states? Let me be clear about this: I think this would be a tragedy and I think the poor and vulnerable in red states would bear the brunt of this tragedy. But at some point, you have to give people the policies they vote for. Democrats and liberals from blue states and blue cities can't keep protecting everyone else from Republicans if we want American democracy to survive the Trump administration.

Also, if this happens, you can leave. I don't like the idea of leaving because the Americans most negatively impacted by this bullshit don't have the privilege of leaving, and a brain, money, and energy drain is likely to leave the less powerful even more vulnerable. For all it's flaws, I think the American project is still worth fighting for and I think, despite Trump, there is some evidence that we are relatively close to some major humanitarian and cultural breakthroughs. But I am not you. I am not responsible for your family and your well-being. I don't know what resources you have or don't have. I don't know what a fulfilling life means to you. I also don't know if I could lead a fulfilling life in that America. America was founded by people who had the privilege of leaving their home countries for a better life and if I'm not going to condemn those immigrants, I'm not going to condemn you.

Republicans Control both Chambers of Congress Despite Getting 40%ish or Less of the Vote
Because of gerrymandering and because of the likely unprecedented voter turnout in Democrat leaning and heavily populated districts, it is entirely possible that Republicans will narrowly hold on to a majority of seats in both chambers, while getting historically blown out in total vote count. Given the distribution of population, it is entirely possible for 60% or more of the vote to go to Democrats without control of either chamber shifting. If that happens, as above, Republicans will act like it's a mandate in their favor even though it is a clear statement of opposition. Paul Ryan will look us directly in the eyes and say it's clear the American people support his platform. He might even believe that.

If that happens, we march on Washington, D.C. and occupy it until Trump or Pence or whoever ends up being the President (it would still be a Republican) is removed from office and somehow replaced with a Democrat. We turn that momentum, we turn that energy, we turn that organizing power directly on Republicans in Congress. We bring proof of the popular will directly to those who are trying to crush it. If you can't make it to D.C. go to the closest Republican office. Hell, go to the closest Republican Congress person's house.

You might say that looks like a coup, but, well, yeah, it does, but so does a radical authoritarian minority acting like it has a mandate. But here's the thing. It will be clear to Republicans from that result that gerrymandering can only protect them for so much longer. Depending on how the state races hash out, it could signal the end of their state level power and their ability to gerrymander themselves to victory through 2020 and beyond. It reveals the farce of their claims to any legitimacy. And then they will make sure no fair and free election ever happens again. If this happens in 2018 and we don't take to the streets, I don't think there will be a legitimate 2020.

And the tools are already there. If #BlackLivesMatter, the Women's March, Run for Something, Indivisible, Swing Left, MoveOn, ActBlue, and even Our Revolution and organizations directly affiliated with the Democratic Party, picked a date, we could easily fill the streets.

Would this mass protest work? I have no idea. Congressional Republicans are just fine ignoring the will of the people. I think many of them are also just fine with fascism as long as it's their fascism. I don't know if, when you look at the long arc of human history and governance, liberal democracy progressing towards a truly humanist system of power is actually just a fluke of the last 50 or so years and we are now reverting back to our more standard feudalism. But I do know that if democracy is going to die in America I want to make sure we go down fighting.

Want to help that first path happen? Send a little money to Swing Left's district funds. This money will go to whichever Democrat ends up winning the primary, giving them an immediate boost in resources.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Reading is Resistance: On Tyranny and the Anti-Trump Cottage Industry

The United States of 2017 is not Germany of the 1930s. Our recent martial traumas do not include a humiliating defeat from a bordering long-time adversary. Our economy is not in free fall. We are not subject to destructive sanctions. Our status on the world stage is different. We have technology that allows for the quick organizing of opposition and the spreading of information, as well as an information technology infrastructure that is difficult to control. Even with the massive wealth disparity, as a population, we have more money. Democracy itself is an older, more developed system of government.

There are many reasons why the United States might avoid the rise of fascism in this country when Germany did not, but perhaps the biggest one is that Hitler already happened. We can correlate the strategies with the outcomes. We can compare what Hitler (and Stalin and Mussolini and Franco) did with what the Trump administration is doing. Unlike the Germans of the 1930s, we can say, “Oh, this is the same thing that Hitler did to discredit the press.” Of course, some people are refusing to believe the signs and, of course, some people are quite comfortable with the rise of fascism in America if that fascism embodies white supremacism and/or narcissistic capitalism and/or a theocracy based in their Christianity, but they do that in opposition to what is obvious to the rest of us. In short, we are prepared to prevent a Hitler in this country in ways the Germans simply could not have been.

That is the thesis of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and, in many ways, of the study of history itself. By knowing how Hitler came to power, by studying the failures of people, not just in Germany but around Europe and, even in the United States (haven't forgotten you, you America First assholes), we can avoid those failures and prevent that rise of power today. As a document, On Tyranny is a pretty handy tool. You can read it straight through, use it as a starting point for greater research, build your life around it, or even just leave it in your bathroom as a constant reminder of what is at stake and what you can do about it. It's the kind of little book that can be life changing in big ways and small ways. I would go so far as to say, even if we do prevent the rise of fascism in the United States, there's a lot in this little book about just living a fully engaged life. (Implying that living a fully engaged life is a barrier against fascism, which has merit. I do wonder about the weight of sadness Trump supporters constantly carry with them.)

But that isn't what I really want to talk about. As important as it is to build anti-fascism into our identities through books about fascism, On Tyranny connects to another trend in America since the 2016 election, one that has been driving me fucking nuts, and one that speaks more to the reaction of Republicans today than any thread of human history.

Publishing is (for many good reasons) a slow industry. It takes a long time to make a book and so it inherently takes a long time to respond to trends and social changes. (Which is also often a good thing.) Publishing is also (for less good reasons) an under-capitalized industry. Books are expensive to produce and under-priced (if you've got all day, I am more than happy to talk about that), which means that publishers often don't have a lot of financial flexibility. This leads to a lot of different practices, but it also means that it is very difficult for publishing to respond in a timely manner to current events, even when they know that response could ultimately be profitable. (Sure, while we're talking about books being under-priced, I'd be happy to explain why the industry could easily churn out a million adult coloring books in, like, six months.)

And yet, within months an entire cottage industry of anti-Trump and resistance literature, like On Tyranny, sprung up. My publisher Melville House (which has some experience in this) crashed an anthology of responses to the election, a history of antifa, and a book about impeachment and has more on the way. Their book on impeachment wasn't even the only one that came out this Fall. There were so many of these books coming out that PSB had a rotating activism/resistance display that was extremely popular with our customers. This really isn't about publishing, but as I saw these books piled on our new nonfiction table, as I thought of the energy it takes to move the wheels in publishing, and as I connected that energy to other events in the world, like thousands of us stupidly throwing money at Jill Stein's recount, an idea emerged that really stuck in my fucking craw.

Why the fuck were any Republicans actively supporting the Trump administration? Americans are so desperate for any kind of resistance to Trump, especially from Republicans, that even mostly meaningless gestures, like Jeff Flakes's, inspire rounds of praise. I mean, imagine if Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain, all of whom pride themselves on their independence and don't particularly need the Republican party establishment to maintain their power, formed a new party right after the election. Or, if not right after the election, some time after it became clear the Russia meddled in our election and that an investigation of the Trump campaign was underway. Or at any point in the year, when the Trump administration did something terrible.

First of all, they would be swamped with applications from Republican strategists, pundits, and staffers. (You know, all the Republicans that are on MSNBC.) I think they would also see other people in Congress (Jeff Flake most likely) join them or at least express sympathy for their cause. They would probably have also been joined by a number of other anti-Trump Republicans, like Ana Navarro, Evan McMullin, and potentially even Mitt Romney. I know I would have called Mass Governor Charlie Baker to let him know he had a new option. But even if just those three in Congress switched, they would immediately become the three most powerful people in Washington as the Republicans would be unable to accomplish anything without them. Sure, Mitch McConnell would almost certainly retaliate by removing them from their committees and refusing to bring any of their bills to the floor but nothing he could do would make their votes any less valuable.

And how they would be praised! Doing this would have pretty much sewn up Time's People of the Year. The entire right-of-center world be talk endlessly about “a new path for conservatism” or something. And think of the New York Times profiles! They'd have to establish a special pension just for copy editors rendered only able to think in synonyms for “brave” and “principled.”

But most importantly, their new party would have been drowning in money. Not just from those who might eventually join said party, but, well, from everyone who has been donating in special elections, donating to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and other organizations actively fighting against the Trump administration, and buying copies of On Tyranny and all of those other books in that anti-Trump cottage industry. The American people have been and for the most part still are desperate to spend money to oppose Trump and a Republican splinter party could have raked in a fuckton of it.

And here's what sticks in my craw. They didn't. Not only did they not form a new political party, they didn't even leave the party to become independents. Not only did they not become independents, but they rubber stamped all of Trump's cabinet nominees, even those who were obviously unqualified and obviously crony appointments. (And they continue to rubber stamp catastrophically unqualified nominees in a way that will cost taxpayers for decades to come. Looking at you unqualified federal judge who is going to get every single one of his decisions appealed.) But they didn't just rubber stamp his appointments, they let their colleagues drag their feet in investigating the election, they did nothing about his raft of toxic executive orders, and they only responded with any amount of courage on anything after massive, sustained, almost unprecedented push back from their constituents.

I mean, if we still have a democracy at the end of this, someone is going to have to lead whatever is left of the Republican party and there are a half dozen or so people who could have grabbed that role. (Who could still grab that role!) It would be so easy and yet they didn't do it. And this is one of the things that keeps me up at night. Not a single fucking one of them did a single meaningful fucking thing. The power was there for the taking. The money was there for the taking. If publishing can turn on a dime and create a whole cottage industry, politicians whose organizations are designed to respond to the whims of the people should have been able to also turn on a dime and capitalize on this opportunity. Shit, if the founders of this new party published a “statement of principles” or something as a book, that would have been the bestselling book in 2017. By a wide margin.

I'm a lefty, so to me, this reveals the fundamental rot at the center of the Republican party. To me, this reveals how decades of coded racism, rhetorical judo, fact-denial, and crony capitalism has rendered even those Republicans ostensibly independent from their party, unable to understand and respond to Trump's threat to America. To me, this fits right into the progress of the Republican Party into a cash cow for con artists scamming old people, authoritarians, theocrats, and narcissistic capitalists. That not a single fucking one of them took this opportunity, to me, is just proof that the process that started with McCarthyism and picked up steam with Nixon's Southern Strategy is reaching an end point. But you can write that off as just anti-Republican bias if you want.

But even if you do, you can't deny one major fact. The American people are so hungry for anti-Trump action that even a slow-moving, under-capitalized industry like publishing can respond quickly to that trend and churn out books like On Tyranny. At the very least we have to ask ourselves why politicians in general and Republicans in particular have not.

I generally like the wrap these pieces up in a way that connects reading to resistance, to show how the act of reading in general and reading specific books give us the tools to fight against the rise of fascism. But this piece is really more about the book industry than the act of reading itself. And the book industry is kinda strange. On the one hand, it is driven by storytelling, by perhaps the fundamental human trait. On the other hand, the contemporary American book industry is relatively new, developing in and around WWII when a perfect storm of lowering material cost, universal literacy, and unprecedented economic growth created an entirely different type of demand than books had ever had. Even then, you'd probably have to argue that publishing is almost entirely different now than it was after WWII, late capitalism having threshed what had been hundreds of publishers into a concentrated handful of tiny fragments of massive other non-book corporations, surrounded by dozens of small presses doing much of the cultural labor. Furthermore, it's hard to know exactly how much of a direct short-term impact book culture and thus the book industry actually has on American society. Sure, many of the most popular and critically acclaimed TV shows and movies started as books and, sure, I would argue the recent growth in great television comes from television applying the storytelling techniques of books and novels, but, all too often, the wider popular culture doesn't know about the bookish origins of their favorite movies and shows and isn't familiar enough with contemporary print storytelling to identify its influence on TV and movies. And, of course, we've all see those dire statistics about who reads books, who buys books, and how many books are read and bought each year.

Regardless, books are fundamental to culture even if their impact isn't always visible, and the health of the industry and what comes out of it says something about American culture. I don't think publishing has ever made a clearer statement. The American people want leaders to fight Trump and they are willing to pay for even the illusion of that fight.

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Unified Theory of Twin Peaks

This is going to be kind of a crazy statement, but puzzling out the madness in Twin Peaks: The Return and fitting it into Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me is relaxing compared to puzzling out the madness of our world and trying to fit a life of activism and art around the demands of our capitalist society.

Part of the fun of Twin Peaks, and similar works of art, is that, by leaving so much ambiguous, by not drawing connections between all of the different events and images, by leaving questions unanswered, Lynch and co invite, even encourage, us to fill in the gaps on our own, to come to our own conclusions, and to fight about those conclusions with the passion of things that are really important to you in the moment, but bear no long term consequences.

So, here is my “Unified Theory of Twin Peaks,” written mostly to give me a way to keep thinking about Twin Peaks and as a way to think about something that is meaningful, but not in the same way as thinking about antia or the literature of resistance or the novel or other art I'm working, drawing from both series, the movie, and both of Mark Frost's accompanying novels. My theory won't answer every question about the world, but I think that is actually part of its strength, that it “explains” things while preserving that Lynchian ambiguity. For a big example, it won't necessarily explain the ending of The Return (though it implies a theory), but it might provide some avenues for consideration. (And also, stay tuned for a Stranger Things cameo.)

Here goes.

There has always been a spirit world existing alongside our own world that sometimes interacts with us. Our spiritual, magical, and religious traditions are evidence of that interaction. Those traditions were, in large part, collections of techniques we used to get that world to help us in some way and to protect us from those aspects of that other world that would harm us. We asked the spirit world for rain and for good harvests and for easy births. We asked the spirit world to keep disease away from us and our animals and to protect us from the attacks of our enemies. Because that world follows different rules than our own, our interpretations of that world flow from our own specific cultures and belief systems. (In Twin Peaks, drawing from Hawk, this other world is described as The Black Lodge and The White Lodge.) As humans got better at technology, we relied less and less on the spirit world to contribute to the success of our endeavors. Why sacrifice a perfectly good goat to a fickle spirit when you can just use fertilizer, crop rotation, and pesticides to ensure a good crop? Or, to put this another way; before modern hygiene we needed beings from the spirit world to protect us from bacteria and viruses. Afterwards, we didn't. A border that had kept relatively thin by constant exchange, got thicker and thicker until, by the early 20th century or so, the only meaningful interaction between our world and the spirit world most of us experienced was in dreams.

Splitting the atom changed all that. The nuclear tests traumatized the border, both creating a new permeability and distorting the nature of that permeability. (I could probably make up some fun quasi-multidimensional physics to “explain” why that would be, but this post is already long enough.) Furthermore, we still continued to interpret our interactions with the spirit world through our current world view. Therefore, all the UFO sightings and alien sightings (which were fundamental to the founding of The Blue Rose Project) weren't beings from outer space but entities that slipped through the new holes in the border between our world and the spirit world. Because we were looking outward to space at the time, we interpreted them as coming from space.

This fundamental act of trauma on the place, coalesced a force of trauma in the spirit world into its own independent entity: BOB. I think we could make the case that BOB is actually an aspect of Joudy that was broken off by the nuclear explosion and that's why, unlike say The Fireman, The Woodsmen, or the various dopplegangers, tulpas, and homunculi, he needs a human host to exist in our world. Perhaps Joudy had a plan for BOB, perhaps BOB was always something Joudy had prepared and was just waiting for a moment when the border between the two worlds was vulnerable to send him in, but given how localized BOB ended up becoming, I don't suspect that was the case. However powerful Joudy actually is, I suspect that, like us in our world, Joudy was also just trying to figure out what it meant to split the atom.

Obviously, the government was watching the test very closely. “Blue Rose,” is the name of the ongoing investigation into the strange phenomena that followed the nuclear blast, especially those phenomena that we originally suspected to be extraterrestrial. (In a way, they were.) From the Secret History of Twin Peaks, we get the longer arc of the story of The Blue Rose project, and specifically it's relation to longtime Twin Peaks resident Douglas Milford, but nothing in that necessarily contradicts my theory.

This traumatized border doesn't exist in a vacuum. The border has always been thinner at some places than others such as Twin Peaks, specifically the cave with the map in the mountains and the Ghost Wood Forest. This is one reason why so many strange things happen in Twin Peaks and might even be why BOB eventually found its way there. Perhaps being that close to the spirit world made BOB more powerful. This thin barrier had other impacts on Twin Peaks as well, most notably with Douglas Milford, Margaret Coulson (the Log Lady), and The Great Northern. We might also be able to conclude that the trauma of the nuclear test actually punched a hole through the barrier, at the circle of trees that Cooper uses to enter the Black Lodge. From The Return, we can assume that Las Vegas (which as Atomic City makes perfect sense), Buckthorn, South Dakota, The Dutchman's Lodge, and maybe even Odessa, TX were older nodes of interaction between the worlds. And, we can also assume that so was New York, because there's clearly a portal in the glass box. Perhaps also Buenos Aries as that's where Philip Jeffries disappears from.

Everyone in both worlds had to figure out the new relationship. The reason why it often looks as though characters are just wandering around in a new space is because that's exactly what they are doing. The spirit world continued to evolve and change even after we stopped interacting with it, so the figures we would expect from our traditions have also changed. This is on top of the trauma created by the nuclear blast. Entities in the spirit world have new and shifting responsibilities and powers and a big part of Twin Peaks is less about people figuring this shit out and more about entities of the spirit world, like The Arm, The Evolution of the Arm, The Fireman, and The Woodsmen, figuring it out.

Finally, it's clear that, though the story of Laura Palmer was the center of gravity, this isn't just her story. She ends up being a linchpin for the events we see, but, especially in The Return, you get the sense that there is a lot more happening out in the world in relation to these forces than what we see. For example, from The Final Dossier we learn that Philip Jeffries might still have been pursuing Blue Rose investigations with Ray Monroe, so what's up with that? There's also the monster that comes out of the glass box in New York. As far as I've seen, it's still out there. And how was The Double able to set up such a massive crime syndicate? In some ways, the Twin Peaks story was never about people so much as it was about forces and spaces.

Obviously, this doesn't specifically explain everything: why the green glove? What's up with owls? Where was Major Briggs? Where is Philip Jefferies? What was the deal with the Woodsmen? But it provides a structural explanation: the border between the spirit world and our world was totally fucked, a fundamental evil traveled to the wrong world, and everybody who is good is trying to figure out a way to stop it. Laura Palmer was clearly one attempt to stop BOB. So were all the efforts to reach Agent Cooper. So was, I think, the Log Lady. Some of the things that might seem random are really just attempts by the forces of the spirit world to deal with BOB that don't go anywhere. To put this another way: Twin Peaks is a story about brainstorming solutions to a traumatic problem.

Two things I like about this “unified theory.” First, it doesn't exclude further exploration and explanation. Even if we assume this explains the overall state of the world, we can still ask questions about, say, electricity or Chet Desmond, or sheriff Harry Truman and we can still come to different answers that are consistent with this world. In many ways, this unified theory simply gives a structure for answering and exploring these other questions. Second, it opens the world up to further exploration, even if Lynch is done working within it. Imagining Philip Jeffries as a kind of Constantine in the spirit world? Have at it. Web comic following the reincarnated Log Lady (or the Log itself using the death of its caretaker to create a new human host body for itself)? Yes please. An anthology collection of stories imagining other stuff coming out of that weird box in New York? Why not? What are the Chalfons up to? Somehow Diane gets back and teams up with Tammy to shred the patriarch? Obviously that's a thing that should happen. I'm sure one of you could come up with something. If we can have dozens of novels, comics, and video games set in the Star Wars universe (some of them quite good, many of them at the very least fun and enjoyable) why can't we have something similar from the Twin Peaks universe?

Secondly, it also preserves the possibility that the ending was actually a fairly traditional, if obscured, dramatic twist ending. Like this: What we have been watching was not the interaction between the spirit world and our world, but JUST THE SPIRIT WORLD. Why should we assume that this other world is radically different from ours? Wouldn't it make as much sense if it were just slightly off, if it were an uncanny valley version of our world? I mean, did we see any other animals at all besides owls. There's a lot of talk of the “pine weasel” in season 2, but do we ever seen one in real life? Does anyone have a pet? Do we ever see a dog? Isn't that really weird? So, when Cooper wakes up as “Richard,” he has actually passed through a border (in the basement in the Great Northern) into our world. Rather than one of us going into the spirit world to solve one of our problems, an agent of the spirit world has come into ours to solve one of theirs. So the ending is actually an agent of the spirit world (which would have no problem with a dead guy in the living) using a human equivalent (the older Laura Palmer) to finally solve the problem of BOB in its world and maybe succeeding or maybe failing.

Or something else entirely. Storytelling often relies on a series of assumptions that make sure the plot moves towards a satisfying conclusion. The villains always have bad aim, the hero never catches malaria, and the crazy plan works exactly the way it is supposed even the parts that only have, like a 1% chance of success. But in Twin Peaks, it seems to me like David Lynch has jettisoned those assumptions and essentially shown us a “slice of life,” story with everyone just trying to figure shit out, at a point in time when shit was getting really weird. Which creates a very different kind of satisfaction, when we got to that final scream, one based not on closure, but on potential.

Bonus Stranger Things Tie-In

Let's set the Twin Peaks and Stranger Things in the same world, shall we?

So, obviously, the Upside Down is the spirit world in Twin Peaks. It doesn't look like the “spirit world,” because access to it is not through one of the existing permeable borders that has been shaped by human thought and culture. In essence, the Upside Down, is what the spirit world looks like when it's appearance is not shaped by a transfer of culture facilitated by older, longer used portals. Because a new gate was just ripped in a random location, we can enter the spirit world as it is, and beings of the spirit world can escape it without adopting a mediated form. It is, of course, also possible that the spirit world has geography just our world does, even if it operates in a different way, and the Upside Down is just in a different “place” in the spirit world than The Black Lodge. (I still prefer to think of the Shadow Monster as being Joudy's true form.) If we go with the “they're also just trying to figure shit out” theory from above, then we could be watching just another version of the spirit world figuring out how to handle its traumatized border. Maybe some beings in it feel as though the nuclear bomb was a direct attack and the opening of the gate was an opportunity for a counter attack. Perhaps there are those in the spirit world who want power over our world again. Perhaps the spirit world is becoming a dangerous place to live and some of its residents are thinking of immigrating.

But, because I'm having fun, I want to take this imagined world one step further, obviously by extrapolating from recent research into the neurology of meditation.

From above, before science solved most of the day-to-day problems of survival, humans got help from the spirit world. We interacted with the spirit world through spells and rituals. Essentially spells and rituals consisted of specific words said and/or bodily movements taken and repeated in specifically delineated intervals. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn't and when washing our hands kept us from dying with more consistency than performing spells, we stopped performing spells.

Meditation (the repetition of certain words and phrases in a certain bodily position at specifically delineated intervals) produces special kinds of brain waves (theta waves) not seen in daily life. (Knitting can as well, which is, yep, specific bodily movements repeated in specifically delineated intervals.) Therefore, it wasn't the words or movements or even the sacrifices of the spells or rituals that made contact with the spirit world and leveraged its help, but the special brain waves the spells or rituals created.

Eleven doesn't need meditation, spells, or rituals, to engage the brain waves that interact with the spirit world. Thanks to super science, she can just engage them. That's why she can “travel” to listen in on conversations, find people from pictures, throw people around, tear open a gate, close a gate, and interact directly with the beings from the spirit world. Whatever Papa and the other scientists did to her brain, turned her, literally, into a mage.