Monday, January 23, 2017

Reading is Resistance Vol 1

One of the big differences I've noticed between the growing resistance to the Trump presidency and my activism in college is a general acknowledgment of the need for members of the resistance to care for themselves, to make sure that everyone does what they need to do to be mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy. The idea of resistance (perhaps even revolution) is seeing its members not as soldiers in an army, but as human beings fighting to make the world a better place; whole people with needs, wants, talents and weaknesses, and who are also supposed to benefit from that better world.

Of course, ideally we try to find things that do both; actions that directly contribute to the resistance and energize and sustain us. For some, going to protests and rallies is energizing. (If anyone is energized and sustained by running committee meetings or drafting municipal legislation please stand up. We've got a lot of stuff for you to do.) For me, reading can be that dual action, that activity that contributes to the resistance while energizing and sustaining me.

Furthermore, we as individuals can't do everything. A big part of the success of the #smallacts movement is that it breaks the difficult, relentless effort of activism into chunks that nearly everyone  can fit into our lives. Along those lines, we also have to find what we, as individuals are best at, and how to use that talent, expertise and wisdom, together with other people and their talents to have the greatest impact. You will be shocked to know that, after several seconds of consideration, I decided that as a bookish person, a reader, and a writer, I hope to use my expertise in the world of books to help the resistance however I can, by sharing what I know about reading, how it can connect to the resistance, and, of course, recommending the weird and challenging books to get through this weird and challenging time.

For this installment, I'm going to focus in on reading techniques, the ways we can read that will help develop the skills we need to resist the Trumpocracy.

Cultivate Context
Yeah, let's not have this anymore.
To me, one of the big reasons why conservative ideology is still politically effective despite being shackled to racism, bound to dogmatic religious thinking, and committed to policies and economics that have definitively failed, is the ability of conservative pundits and politicians to remove contemporary debates from their historical context. The way Republicans talk, you'd think all of our current federal regulations were foisted on the public by Bill Clinton. Every law is a story, a story about debate, lobbying, amendment, and negotiation. This is not to say that every law or every regulation is effective, but that, at some point, someone thought it would make the world or some part of it a better place. For an easy example, find pictures of major urban areas before the EPA. We have the Environmental Protection Agency because, at some point, many Americans and enough federal legislators and executives believed society benefited overall from protecting the environment. More frustrating, for me, is how we have actively forgotten the policies that contributed to the invention of the middle class after the Great Depression and World War II. (FYI: It wasn't low taxes and a balanced budget.) In short, the only way contemporary conservative policies win debates (when they even are debated as quite often these ideas are taken as articles of faith) is to remove them from all context and discuss them as axioms.

In many ways, reading is all about context. We learn from information and exploration through images that are arranged in relation to each other. Interpretation is driven by extrapolating what these events, these images, and even these words mean because they are in the context of these other words, images, and events. Often, however, that act of contextualizing is automatic, perhaps even unnoticed, because it feels like you're just reading. But if you read with that idea of contextualizing at the front of your mind, you both see the process and improve your ability to make connections across time and space.

Those connections across time and space, between the past and the present, between cause and distant effect and between people who never interact on a daily basis, are exactly what conservatives need us to forget for any of their points about tax rates on the top income earners, trickle down economics, and government regulations to make any sense at all. Reading intentionally builds that contextualizing skill so that you always ready to respond to a statement from the government or an argument about say, health care, with the necessary follow up questions and research to establish their context.

Become an Expert in Something
A portal to expertise hides in the back of nearly every work of popular nonfiction: the bibliography. The bibliography or works cited, is a list of other books and primary research; the time-consuming, expensive primary research upon which so much rests, and exactly the kind of research vulnerable in a malignantly anti-intellectual government. Furthermore, as funding is cut, as scorn is heaped on experts, as they are removed from positions and not consulted when their knowledge will be useful, their impact on our culture will wane.

One way to resist the de-knowledging of society is to become knowledgeable yourself. To replace, as much as you can, the absence of experts in mass media and government with the presence of expertise in your life. Furthermore, buying (when you can) and requesting your library carries these primary source or more scholarly works will support (at least a little) some of that un-glorious but vital scholarly work. Furthermore, there's always the chance, depending what you focus on, that some bill or statute or referendum (especially at the municipal and state levels) will touch on your topic and if that is the case, you will be ready to write letters to the editor and speak at meetings. (And the more of us that become experts in something the more likely citizen-experts will be around for every issue that comes up.) So, follow something that catches your eye in a book you're reading to its primary source and because an expert on it.

Develop Your Ear for Bullshit
Alternative facts” happened on Sunday January 22, 2017. The day before, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, out loud and into a microphone for all to hear, the utterly laughable, easily disprovable assertion that Trump's inauguration had the highest attendance in history. We all saw it. We know that's not true. When pressed to explain why the White House Press Secretary would blatantly, even casually, lie to the American people in his very first and thus heavily symbolic appearance, Conway said that he just presented with “alternative facts.” And, even if you're not terribly politically engaged, or even if you are but are conservative, any reader will hear something off about that phrase. The word “fact” by definition, implies an absence of “alternative.”

But as with all things, sorting through meanings to find concealed deception (though, honestly, if they think this conceals deception they think very little of the American people) is a skill that needs to be learned and developed. Close reading isn't just an academic exercise, it is an exercise in getting beyond the first layer of meaning, of identifying phrases that seem odd, and of blocking the verbal jujitsu those in power use to sound like they're saying one thing when they're actually saying its opposite. It might be taking things too far to say that all deconstruction does is apply a bullshit detector to the book you're reading, but not much.

But close reading is a skill that erodes when you don't use it. So dust off the old lit crit and start reading your books with an eye for the layer beneath, so it is easier to see what Conway, Spicer, and Ryan are hiding. If you weren't an English major, and want to develop this skill, there are, of course, plenty of books, both popular and academic that explore the technique, but I would also recommend finding a book or two about your favorite book (or at least one you're very familiar with) and reading those. That will show you an example of close reading in the context of something you already enjoy.

Find your skill, take your small act, and keep reading.

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