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.