Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Tattoo: The Annotated Edition

At some point in my life, I said that I would get a tattoo when I published my first book. At the time, I didn't have anything particular in mind, it was just something that seemed like a good way to commemorate, you know, a dream come true. And then, well, I published a book and the whole tattoo thing kinda slipped my mind. In my defense, there was a lot of shit going on around the publication of my book; copy edits, publicity essays, final proofs, setting up the tour, preparing for the tour, bookseller letters, and then the book came out and there was the actual tour, some interviews and other pieces, and you know, still working full time at the bookstore. (There was a fair amount in Ye Olde Personal Life as well.) The whole tattoo thing just kind of slipped my mind.

And then a couple of months ago, a few things came together. In no particular order. I am now totally in the world of what I hope will be my next novel, and the publication of An Exaggerated Murder has become more of event in my life. One of my best friends reminded me that I said I would get a tattoo when I published my first book. One of my other best friends, who happens to be a kickass tattoo artist, opened up her own shop. I read this absolutely beautiful picture book at the store, Tell Me a Tattoo Story. And, probably most importantly, I figured out how to visually cram a ton of what is most important in my prose writing life into a single image. The result, as will come as no surprise to readers of this blog or people who know me in general, is literary as fuck.

So, here is my tattoo story, or as I like to think of it (see above about the whole literary as fuck thing) the annotated edition of my tattoo.

In chronological order of their appearance in culture:

1. Illumination of the Oxford Scholar or Clerk from The Canterbury Tales

Here is how Chaucer introduces this fine fellow.

A CLERK from Oxford was there also,
Who'd studied philosophy, long ago
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed's head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,

Seems pretty spot on to me. Furthermore, my partner focused on medieval studies in college so not only is this an image of my love for books and one of the roots of English language literature, it also honors my first reader. The character of the Clerk or the Scholar also has a little bit of ambiguity which I like as well. You see, to actually be an “Oxford Clerk” or “Oxford Cleric” you have to graduate from Oxford. Until then, you are an Oxford Scholar. You could argue then, that given his love of literature and studying, that this particular Oxfordian had no interest in graduating and hoped to remain a scholar forever. Furthermore, there is some possibility that this is a reference to John Scogin (there's a reason why the name Scogin might look familiar to you) who was very learned and scholarly and also a legendary iconoclast.

2. The Narrative Arcs in Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne somehow packed about four hundred years of literary development into this 1759-1767 novel. The prosaic, narrative, visual, and stylistic experimentation in the novel are still, in many ways, ahead of its time, and that it was able to do nearly everything the great postmodern novels do, while also being kindhearted and generous is even more staggering. If you ever wondered what postmodernism would look like if irony had not become a central technique, read this book. One could argue that no other work of English-language literature came close to the challenges posed and ground broken by Tristram Shandy until Joyce and Ulysses.

One of the defining characteristics of Tristram Shandy is its use of visuals. Punctuation dances amongst the prose. When the narrator tries to describe a beautiful woman he presents the reader with a blank page on which she can illustrate her own personal version of perfection. When a beloved character dies the narrator includes a black page of mourning. When one character, Uncle Toby, makes a gesture with his cane, the narrator is so smitten with it that, rather than leaving it to the imagination or relying on the inherent ambiguity of language he includes a line tracing the gesture. These squiggles come from a passage in which the narrator is considering the narrative arc of his story. He understands that the usual narrative arc is, well, an arc, but, in the interest of accuracy, presents these various squiggly lines as the various narrative arcs of the sections of the book thus far. The scene ends up somehow being playfully pedantic (which is no small feat), while exploring the boundaries of storytelling and critique. I mean, how the fuck are we supposed to confirm whether or not these lines are accurate representations of the story? It might be Platonic meta-fiction. (Of course, that scene when Don Quixote meets a fraudulent version of himself is pretty close, too.)

The question marks do three things; first, I believe all great works of literature are more question than answer, something posed that the reader must complete; second, a culture's literature is one long dialog, and third, they turn this collection of references into a cohesive (at least in my mind) image.

3. The Last Line of Ulysses
I believe there is no more beautiful arrangement of words in the English language than, “yes I will Yes.” Joyce has stretched the novel as far as it could go at the time, taking us on a journey through just about every aspect of human life, played with language, played with style, showed the hero taking a shit, constructed new words from the roots of old ideas, and, in general, did more than anyone (except for maybe our old friend Sterne) to expand the possibility of the English-language novel and the last word is “Yes.” Not a passive “yes” not a begrudging “yes,” not a thoughtless “yes,” not even a well-I'm-stuck-with-this-shlub-so-I-might-as-well-say-yes “yes,” (though Molly does touch on that angle) not some socially enforced optimism, not some legally recommended affirmative, nor any of the other ways we use the word; but a thoughtful, intentional, even passionate “Yes.” A why-we-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning “yes.” A making-the-best-of-it-can-still-be-pretty-fucking-good “yes.” A perfection-is-boring “yes.”

As stylistically ambitious and complicated as Ulysses is, it's theme is actually very simple: Literature is one way to say “yes” to life.

So, to commemorate my first novel, on my right arm now is a story about the books and one of the people who have been vital to my life as a person and a writer. Now I just have to get that poetry manuscript accepted so I can get some balance with a tattoo on my left arm.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Nader & Sanders Voter for Clinton

I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and (after a funny scream disqualified the progressive Democrat running in the primary) 2004. I also voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary. As a left-wing, independent progressive, I believe Hilary Clinton is the best choice for President.

First, though I am talking primarily to voters who are planning to vote for Jill Stein (and maybe even a few planning to vote for Gary Johnson) or cast some other protest vote, I want to make clear that this isn't going to be one of those condescending “Woe betide those who repeat my mistake,” posts I've seen pop up lately as the potential impact of third-party candidates on the upcoming election is examined. I believe the assertion that Nader made Bush president is, at best, an over-emphasis  one factor out of many that lead to the Bush presidency and at worst, a calculated attempt by Democrat leadership to stifle progressive dissent in American politics and dodge blame for a disastrous campaign. But, that is the past and we are looking towards the future. (If you want me to explain that belief, leave a comment.) 2016 is a very different election from 2000 and so my decision is different. Though I am proud of my votes for Nader, this November, I am voting for Hilary Clinton. Here's why.

Jill Stein is Not Your Savior
In a lot of ways, Ralph Nader was ultimately not a great candidate, but Jill Stein has her problems too. Yes, I agree with her on many issues (more on policy agreements later) and yes I do think the two party-system is inherently destructive, but Stein has pandered to the anti-vaccination movement and is suspicious that WiFi might cause cancer. What seems to be at play here, more than anything, is Stein's attempt to woo voters who have become suspicious of government regulations through protesting corporate influence, but, to me, that is no different than Republicans and conservatives “asking questions” about human-driven climate change. The science is as certain as science can be on these issues and it is dangerous to suggest otherwise.

Secondly, a few months ago Stein herself tweeted out this graphic from one of those quizzes that shows you how much you agree with the various candidates. Obviously, Sanders was closest, but, according to her own graphic, she agrees with Clinton 91% of the time. If you're thinking of voting for Jill Stein, you really need to ask yourself about the value of that 9%. Maybe some of that 9% (like the anti-vaccination stuff) is stuff you actually agree with Clinton on. Maybe some of that 9% is meaningful difference on issues that aren't particularly important. And maybe, some of that 9% is simply Clinton putting forward what she thinks is a possible policy version of a progressive idea.

Regardless, if you are thinking of voting for Stein in this election, you have to ask yourself whether that 9% really is definitive, because there is a good chance you've fallen into the cult of personality that Republicans and Conservatives have spent the last 25 years constructing around Clinton.

Clinton is Not the Devil
I don't know if there is anyone in the history of American politics who has been subject to more scrutiny than Hilary Clinton. And what has this endless procession of investigations turned up? A person using as much power as is legally allowed to do what she thinks is right and, worse yet, a woman doing the exact same things a man in her position would. That's it. Nothing from the House. Nothing from the FBI. Nothing from the IRS. Nothing going back to Arkansas. Nothing when she was in the Senate. Nothing when she was Secretary of State. The most anyone has ever seems to find is incidents, situations, and set ups that “raise questions.” Those in power will always, always, always have opportunities to abuse it for personal gain and those who, with the best of intentions, seek to create change through that power will always, always, always, approach the line of legality, and those who get caught at that line will always, always, always, try to get prove they didn't do anything wrong. That is what political power is. Ask yourself this, if any of these many, many investigations had ever found any truly meaningful wrongdoing, would Republicans let you forget about it for even a second? Perhaps the loudest proclamation of innocence came when the final House investigation on Benghazi did not release a summary of their findings. Don't you think if they or the FBI or really anybody ever founding anything meaningful, they would be crowing about it 24/7?

The other source of distrust I've heard and held about Clinton is the idea that she will “say whatever it takes to get elected,” and that her positions are constantly changing. In terms of the first objection, trying to get elected is what politicians do. Though one could identify degrees along a spectrum, Nader said what he said to get elected, Dean said what he said to get elected, Obama said what he said to get elected, and Sanders said what he said to get elected. Jill Stein is doing it right now, having the gall to argue that Congressional Republicans would restrain a Trump presidency. You could argue that Clinton is more overtly calculated than the others, that her statements have a precision that feels dishonest, and that she always seems to speak with an eye towards plausible-deniability, and though that all could be true, I don't see how, given that 91% agreement above, that disqualifies her from the presidency. (I mean, Bill Clinton, as sitting president, used a technical definition of “sexual relations” and then deconstructed the word “to be” on national television and yet, he isn't considered fundamentally dishonest. And then there's Trump who has done almost nothing but lie his entire campaign.) Yes, she talks as if every word she says is under a malicious microscope, but that's because every word she says is under a malicious microscope. If you think that makes her corrupt and dishonest, then, as above, you have fallen into a cult of personality constructed by Republicans and conservatives. Do you really want to hang out with that crowd?

Next, though it is true that Clinton's policies and beliefs have “evolved” over the course of her political life it is important to note how they have evolved. For the most part, as the country and the Democratic party have gotten more progressive since Bill Clinton moved it to the right during his “triangulation” phase, Clinton has followed suit. Yes, her policies have changed over the decades, but they have almost always changed to agree more with you. Yes, the policies Clinton espouses now and those on the Democratic platform are more progressive than when they started due, almost entirely, to the pressure created by the Sanders's campaign, but shouldn't we count that a victory? Why, exactly, would Clinton or any Democrat listen to progressives if she gets no support even after incorporating some progressive ideas into her platform?

Ultimately, if a bill to raise the minimum wage landed on Clinton's desk, she would sign it. The same goes for steps towards universal health care, paid parental leave, solutions for climate change, affordable higher education, and regulations for Wall Street. Is the fact that Hilary Clinton once opposed gay marriage really so damning, so unforgivable, so untrustworthy, that you will vote to prevent nearly every policy that you would like to see adopted? Does the fact that she voted for the Iraq War when the Bush administration was lying to us about weapons of mass destruction especially disqualify her from holding office? Does that one vote completely invalidate all of the potential good that could come from her presidency? (And seriously, if hawkishness is an issue for you, why the fuck aren't you talking about the Obama administration's drone war?) If the answer is “yes,” than you are acting exactly like someone who plans to vote for Trump while not actually believing what he says about walls and Muslims.

Finally, it is important to elect a woman to the presidency, just like it was important to elect an African-American man. Waiting for the perfect “first woman president,” will mean never getting a first woman president. Besides, being less than perfect hasn't stopped us from electing white men, so I don't know why it should stop us from electing Hilary Clinton.

Trump, However, is Probably The Devil
For as bad as George W Bush was, at least he did not fundamentally threaten our political process. Trump does. He does not care about the truth or politics or democracy or policy or really anything besides his own ego. He will absolutely abuse his powers as president and I don't think there is any evidence that the Republican party, should they retain control of the House, has a fraction of the basic political courage and moral decency to impeach him when he does. (If they did, they would not be supporting him now.) He will do nothing about climate change, nothing about poverty, nothing about equality, and he will undo what little we've accomplished over the last eight years. He will sow discord in our military leadership, he will demolish decades old alliances, his impulses will threaten the world economy, he will empower tyrants, and he will empower white supremacists. People of color will die from a Trump presidency. They will be killed by police, by the National Guard, and by their neighbors. Even now, while the election is still going on, he is sowing chaos and I am truly afraid that there will be violence if he loses as well. This isn't about lesser-of-two-evilism; this is about survival.

There are serious questions about Jill Stein's ability to be President, Donald Trump is a life-threatening phenomenon, and Hilary Clinton, perhaps history's most scrutinized politician, is probably going to do a bunch of what you want anyway. What else do you need?

But How Do I Work for a More Just Political System?
It is clear that the two-party system isn't good for democracy, but it is also clear that, at least in this election, presidential politics is not the place to fight against it. So, if that is politically important to you, you should vote for Hilary Clinton in this election and run as a third-party candidate for local office at the next opportunity. As Republicans and conservatives have known and exploited for decades, local politics provides opportunities for change not available at the national level. Run for city council. Run for school board. Run for sheriff. Run for district attorney. By changing the political landscape in your city, country, or district, you can be begin changing the political landscape of the country.

Second, support progressive candidates in Democrat primaries, but still vote Democrat in the general. As I mentioned above, the Sanders campaign had a huge impact on the state of Democratic party, but that impact is only meaningful if Clinton wins the presidency. Once again, why should Democrats pay attention to independent progressives if there's nothing to show for it when they do? If we show Democrats they can with with progressive ideas they will support progressive ideas.

Third, work to reform election law. The landscape of American politics looks a lot of different with instant-run-off voting and though this really should be a national issue, most election law is handled at the state level. So work to put a referendum or something on your state's next election ballot.

Concluding on a Tactical Level
Finally, on a tactical level, I don't think we should underestimate the impact of progressives voting straight-ticket Democratic in 2016, 2018, and 2020 in national and state level elections. Meaningful victories in the next three elections for Democrats could turn the Republican party into a minor party, especially if Clinton wins by a landslide. The only reason why they have any power at all today is because Democrats and Progressives went to sleep in 2010, letting Republicans take control of state legislatures in a census year and thus gerrymander a congressional map that lets Republicans maintain a substantial majority of House seats despite the American people voting overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates. What could fill the vacuum of power left behind by the collapse of the Republican Party?

In short, the fall of Republican Party is an opportunity for progressives and independents to remake the American electoral landscape to better reflect the will of the American people and a vote for Jill Stein will do nothing to advance that cause.