Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Reading is Resistance: The Handmaid's Tale and How You Felt the Last Eight Years

“Now you know how we felt for the last eight years.”

There's a lot of baffling shit going on, a lot of people doing and saying a lot of things (New things! Every day!) that just fucking baffle me, but for some reason, this idea that I've seen expressed here and there in social media has stuck in my brain like a burr.

On the one hand, your feelings are your feelings and I have no right and really no ability to contradict you. On the other hand, what the fuck is wrong with you? How could a conversation about gun control that lead to roughly zero policy change, feel like watching human lives torn apart because of a compulsion to deport people who did not come to this country in your preferred manner? How could “I think we should talk about guns after twenty children were murdered,” feel as bad as watching a father get arrested and deported after dropping his kids off for school, or watching a foreign scientist or student potentially have her career ended by a hasty and unconstitutional travel ban? At most, over the course of the eight years of Obama's administration, some of you might have had to buy health insurance, but also, some of you who had lost jobs, got them back. How does that compare to watching a President openly fleece taxpayers for trips to Florida, while using the office of the president to enrich his own family, while quite likely having an unsavory, probably unethical, perhaps even illegal relationship with a tyrant? Is this just a misunderstanding of scale? Do you not believe that we could feel this anxiety for the lives of strangers? Do you not believe we are worried about the solvency of this nation? Or were you really this afraid that someone would take your guns, even though no one threatened to take your guns?

Like so many other book clubs, my book club recently read The Handmaid's Tale. A few things stood out to me on this re-read; the lyricism of the prose that I did not appreciate the first time, how exhausting it was to read as the empathetic stress of its world is so close to the real stress of our world, and how Atwood described the conservative mindset through the Commander. Through the Commander (or rather through Atwood's portrayal) I feel the gap between my mind and that mind has closed somewhat.

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.
Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some.
The idea of society as zero-sum is old and whether it takes the form of social Darwinism, nationalism, or various and sundry justifications for hyper-capitalism and other economic theories dressing themselves up as market based, it is still bullshit. But it is compelling bullshit. There are zero-sum gain situations in our lives and humans have--at times and even in some places today--lived in zero-sum societies, but today, the United States is not a zero-sum society, nor has it been for ages.

But the validity of the idea of a zero-sum society isn't what struck me about this quote and isn't why I've included it in a post about how conservatives felt under Obama. If you believe that idea, then “If someone's life is getting better, someone else's life must be getting worse,” logically follows. And if we follow that, we get “If someone who is not me is doing better, there is a chance I am doing worse.” From there you get, “The lives of gay people just got better, and I am not gay, therefore there is a chance my life got worse,” and “The lives of some undocumented immigrants just got better and I am not an undocumented immigrant, therefore there is a chance my life got worse,” and “The lives of some transgendered people just got better, and I am not a transgender person therefore, there is a chance my life got worse.”

Or think about how the Black Lives Matter movement was perceived. Nothing about Black Lives Matter was necessarily opposed to law-enforcement or police officers. Critique is very different from opposition. I would argue that adopting the reforms in Campaign Zero would actually be good for many if not all police officers, making their jobs easier and safer. But the zero-sum lens creates opposition when there is none or, when the dynamics are complicated, reduces them to opposed forces. So conservatives saw the movement as anti-police because to be “pro” something, even if that something is “pro-no-more-black-men -being-extrajudicially-executed” means you must be “anti” something else.

The end result is that even though, to my thinking, the civil rights and other policy advancements under the Obama administration (limited as they were), broadly improved American society or, at worst, had no negative effects on those who were not directly impacted by them, the fact of an other's benefit made them feel as though something must have been taken from them.

Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. Just a fluke. All we've done is return to Nature's norm. 

Boy, some people really do love the idea of “norms” and “natural” ways of being, and isn't always an interesting coincidence, that, despite the innumerable ways human beings have lived and do live today, with so many different practices and priorities, rituals and social structures, taboos and celebrations, that out of all that expanse of humanity, and with all the times you totally fuck up, forget to go the gym, get a speeding ticket, fail to produce enough graduates with the education needed for contemporary employment, YOUR way of life just happens to be the “natural” one. I think if you're reading this blog, you probably don't need to be convinced of the bullshit of this, but the bullshitness of the idea is not the point.

If you believe there is a natural way of living, then anything that intrudes on that way of being isn't just an inconvenience, it is an assault on your humanity. If you believe marriage as recognized by the secular government is, naturally, only between a man and a woman, then allowing any other type of civil union to be recognized by the secular government is not a tangential policy change, but a de-humanizing of the system of government. In terms of this value system, exactly the same kind of de-humanizing I see when they threaten to separate families caught at the the border.

Perhaps he's reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all. 

Of course, in our society, white men don't necessarily need to do anything to reach this state in their minds; from how heroes are portrayed in mass media, to how specific leadership styles are valued or not, to more overt reactionary thinking, the message every white man receives every day is some of version of “you have earned this.” When combined with an idea of a “natural order” and as assumption of a zero-sum society, “not getting everything you want” or “being asked to do something you might not want to,” or sometimes even “seeing other people publicly disagree with you” or even “seeing other people get something you are not right this very fucking second also getting” regardless of the motivation and intentions of those experiences, amount to an attack on or perhaps even a trauma inflicted on their fundamental being. So universalizing background check policy for all ways a gun might be bought and sold isn't a rather banal common-sense policy tweak to decrease the opportunities for criminals to legally purchase guns, but a negation of their very being.

The point of this kind of exercise, of using a character presented in fiction as material for hashing out the expressed feelings of those I disagree with, is to help build some kind of common language, a starting point, or some basic agreements from which a broader dialog works. This is a major part of why book clubs work and why books are such a powerful tool in generating discussion and personal growth. Every book is a potential common language, starting point, or basic agreement. Every book has the kind of critical discourse that helps us grow as people and citizens, built in, waiting to be engaged.

But it's hard to see how what I've hashed out might help me communicate with someone who claims they felt like this while unemployment dropped at record rates. When a natural order is assumed, it's almost impossible to prove that no such thing exists or has ever existed. When you start from different, perhaps even opposed, fundamental assumptions about the state of the world, logic won't help you talk across those assumptions. Regardless of how well we employ the techniques of logic, I'll walk away feeling like you were completely irrational and you'll walk away feeling like I was completely irrational, because logic renders different conclusions when it starts from different assumptions.

Perhaps then, it would be better, somehow to start with a book. What would happen if someone who “felt like that for eight years,” read The Handmaid's Tale? What would they see in the Commander? Would they see any reflection of themselves? Would they see how there is almost no gap between contemporary anti-choice ideology and the status of Handmaids in the society? Or would they latch on to subtle distinctions to prove that, sure they're all for “traditional American values,” but they'd never let something like that happen? And what if they said that, and you looked them in the eye and said “Tell, me how Trump is different?” And then they laughed at you for not seeing what was so obvious to them. What do we learn if they simply refuse to engage in the text, dismiss it out of hand, insult it as snowflake literature for SJWs? Of course, no mind is ever so simple. Most likely the reaction would be completely different from what I'm imagining. Which would probably be the best possible outcome. Books have a way of drawing out what we never realized was there in the first place, revealing fears, prejudices, assumptions, and even strengths we didn't know we had.

P.S. I was trying to be generous in my interpretation of that expressed emotion. Some of the people who believe we feel now as they did under Obama are racists, homophobes, and general bigots. I didn't spend any time thinking about their feelings and their motivations for their feelings, because, frankly, I don't fucking care what they think or feel. Sure, no human is a monolith and no human is without the potential for future redemption, but we've been coddling these fucking assholes for as long as we've had a United States of America and I'm done with that particular extension of empathy.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Galley Lag Part Two of Infinity

As I've pointed out before, I get more galleys than I can read, let alone write about and too often, great books don't get nearly as much attention or as many sales as they deserve. So, if for no other reason than to slightly assuage my readerly guilt, here is a raft of galleys (the astute bookseller can probably guess when I started compiling this list, but, well, I had a book I wanted to finish writing, so this post got bumped down a bit.) I'm really excited about even if I don't get to write about them. (Some of which might even be available for purchase now.)

O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno

I've written about Zambreno's brilliant and archetypal postmodern novel Green Girl before so I was excited to see this galley come through the store. The description is even more intriguing as O Fall Angel is apparently inspired by a Francis Bacon painting.

Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America's Origins to the Twenty-First Century by Geoffrey R. Stone

So much of the momentum for the misogyny and homophobia in our society are drawn from the various Christian views and sex and sexuality. Our framers didn't get everything right, but they were absolutely right when they (despite what some might say) went to great length to separate church and state. But does historical truth, logical empathy, fair jurisprudence, and basic respect for the lives of one's fellows humans stop them? Of course not, there's a chance someone somewhere might be enjoying sex. So far, what is most fascinating about this history is how fluid the conservative ideologies are. Conservatives like to pretend that their beliefs are steadfast bedrocks with long lineages, but really it took Christianity a long time to figure out how it felt about sex and many of those things, homosexuality and abortion in particular, were assessed differently over time. In fact, the prohibition against abortion in the United States is actually fairly new, not really gaining momentum until the mid-1800s.

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life by Nato Thompson

Seeing Power was so good, Thompson's latest was already on my pile, but then we had to form, lead, participate in, and maintain a resistance movement (perhaps even revolution) against a nascent kleptocracy. Given how brilliant Thompson is about the way art arts in our contemporary world (and that I started my Reading is Resistance column on this blog) this is now a must read.

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson

This one came to me as a bound manuscript (which is still, irrationally, a little exciting) along with a note, not from the publicity assistant or someone from marketing (not to knock those publicity and marketing letters as they can often be very helpful) but from the editor who describes the book as “what I believe to be the best book I've ever edited, out next year.” I don't know anything else about the book, but I do know that editors, as a genus of humanity, tend to value honesty. That's all I need to know to put this on my list.

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radke

This is a graphic memoir by one of my publishing friends and has steadily (and rightly I think) been building buzz and momentum. What I especially like about it, is that, even though there are a few big and a few painful moments, as there are in every life, the idea of a search for identity is essentially assumed. You don't need a traumatic moment to put some effort and thought into figuring out who you are and how to be the best version of that person you can be.

: The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie

Everything Matters! is one of the books I've been handselling for years. It is perhaps the only optimistic story about the end of the world and, along with its exploration of relationship, drug abuse, mental illness, and economic stagnation, and thus, an important book, one that I think is a major step towards whatever happens after postmodernism. I also, really liked his next novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles with its exploration of authorship, identity, and fame. Given that his publisher is reissuing Everything Matters! with a new cover and his sending him to the West Coast to reach a new audience, hopefully it will get the support and attention a writer of Currie's caliber deserves.

Recitation by Bae Suah

It had been a while since I'd read a Deep Vellum book, so I asked twitter which of the handful I should read next. Kenny Coble said I should read Bae Suah. He answered first and somehow I haven't read anything from Korea yet.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood wrote two of my favorite recent poetry collections and is producing some of the strangest and most unsettling poems in English. She has also cultivated a really interesting social media presence. For those facts along her new book, which is a memoir, would go on the pile. But the title. And look at that cover. You'd think it was an Alissa Nutting novel.