Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reading is Resistance: On Free Speech & Nazis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

There is a Story Here: On the Book of Disquiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like my bookish writing? Support my work on Patreon.