Category Archives: maunderings

Fear Itself

When I was young and first watched The Empire Strikes Back, I was, as you might imagine, enthralled. But there was one part of Yoda’s now-notorious dictum that always unsettled me: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I got the anger–>hate–>suffering equation; but I was agnostic about fear as the root of it all. I was, I should admit, an easily frightened child; I grew up into an easily frightened adult, especially where scary films are concerned. So the idea that fear could lead me to the dark side was more than just vaguely disturbing. Wait, I thought—I’m afraid of sharks. That could make me a Sith? I spent much of my childhood being afraid of the dark, and slept under my covers for longer than I care to admit. And it seemed to me utterly unreasonable that Luke Skywalker should not be terrified of facing the many threats before him, not least of which was the implacable evil of Darth Vader himself. Given that I had it on good authority (i.e. my parents) that courage and bravery was not about not being afraid, but being afraid and doing the scary thing anyway, I wondered if perhaps Yoda wasn’t asking rather a lot.

I suppose this says something about the difference between children’s and adults’ understanding of fear, and the way they experience it: I would of course later understand that Yoda wasn’t speaking of specific, circumstantial fear, which is the kind of fear we tend to experience as children—the monster under the bed, things that go bump in the night—but rather the more existential fears that have to do with who we are and how we see ourselves, and how we might continue on in the world.

It occurs to me that the bizarre arms race that gender reveal parties have become hews fairly neatly to Yoda’s dictum. The original idea, which involved making cakes with pink or blue interiors, was somewhat twee and painfully white-suburban from the start, but at least it was inoffensive—an excuse for a weekend afternoon of chardonnay and canapes. How that escalated into using alligators, go-karts, and explosives, is perhaps a question best addressed by sociologists, but let me offer a thought: at a moment in which the binarisms of gender are more and more eroded by the visibility of trans and non-binary people, and the language of trans rights becomes more ubiquitous (along with that of such detractors as Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro), the militant assertion of birth-bestowed gender is an unfortunate but not unforeseeable reaction. Were it to remain in the realm of cakes and balloons it would be innocuous, but as wildfires in Arizona and California attest, there is a not-insignificant number of people who want to assert their unborn child’s gender by literally blowing shit up.

The fear here is not difficult to grasp: the apparent upending of what has been for most people the most elemental feature of identity we have known. Gender has long been the easiest binary, and the most disconcerting one to have troubled. The thing is, anger isn’t the next inevitable step; but then, fear is not itself inevitable, unless one finds their sense of identity threatened. Then, anger is more likely, and at a moment when Facebook and YouTube algorithms will likely connect you to other angry people (like the aforementioned transphobic asshats), hatred can be a short trip. All of which might well convince you that making an explosive box filled with Schrödinger’s gender powder and setting it off in a place that hasn’t had rain in half a year is a good idea—because that’ll show those SJW snowflakes.

And suffering? Well …

The fear of which Yoda spoke was the same conception of fear invoked by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural speech (and yes, I did just mention Yoda and FDR in the same sentence—life goals!). “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” is another dictum my young self found questionable, because sharks. But of course, FDR was talking about the same nebulous societal and cultural fear as Yoda, fear born of ignorance. Fear, after all, can be galvanizing—it can inspire courage and solidarity. But when we are uncertain of what we’re afraid of, and only know that we are in fact afraid, that is when reason gives way to anger and hate. Doris Kearns Goodwin has recently pointed out that the oft-quoted “fear itself” line of FDR’s speech is really only comprehensible in the context of a line immediately preceding it: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” It was in speaking truth about the hardships facing the nation, and the difficult road ahead, Roosevelt asserted, that the blight of fear could be obviated.

And as Jill Lepore observes in These Truths, her magisterial history of the U.S., FDR employed the relatively new medium of radio to unite a nation with his Sunday evening “fireside chats”—in which he would explain what his government was doing; why it was doing it; and how it would affect ordinary Americans. In this way, Roosevelt talked the nation through the worst of the Great Depression, and was its anchor through the Second World War.

Which is why it was acutely galling to read that, in the wake of the revelations made by Bob Woodward this week, Fox News host and Trump’s putative shadow chief of staff, Sean Hannity, compared Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to FDR’s tenure as president:

Did President Roosevelt fan the flames of misery? Did he call for panic and anxiety? No, he actually rallied a nation in a time of need. He focused on making Americans stronger by staying positive, and he got to work and he rolled up his sleeves. During World War II, with the country on the brink, FDR proclaimed, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Well, those were brutally tough times. Did the media attack him? Of course not … The president’s job is to maintain order, and by the way, right the ship during and after a crisis, not spread panic, not spreading fear among the population. Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.

This, it should be pointed out, was in defense of Trump’s comments to Bob Woodward that he deliberately downplayed the severity of the coronavirus so as to avoid a panic. Leaving aside the fact that there hasn’t been a panic Trump didn’t gleefully inflame, let’s recall two points I made just a moment ago: first, FDR spoke of “fear itself” in reference to the Great Depression, not WWII (which might seem a persnickety quibble, were it not for the fact that Hannity’s historical error came during a bit titled “Hannity’s History Lesson”); second, FDR espoused radical honesty. His very first fireside chat was about the week-long “bank holiday,” in which banks across the nation were closed so that the government could instantiate federal deposit insurance in the interim. Banks had been closing all across the U.S. since the crash of 1929, with millions of people losing their savings (remember that scene from It’s A Wonderful Life?); having the president talk the sixty million people listening through the rationale for the bank holiday not only soothed their fears, it enlisted them in FDR’s project.

The best responses to any national crisis always proceed from honesty. The greatest insult proceeding from Trump’s ostensible concern about “panic” is how profoundly it condescends to the electorate.

The thing is, aside from getting the timing of FDR’s “fear itself” line wrong, Hannity wasn’t wrong about anything else—until he says, “President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.” I don’t know if we can even call this gaslighting, as gaslighting at least entails a measure of subtlety. This is simple, outright lying, mendacity directed at an audience that doesn’t need to be gaslit. Which makes me think that Yoda possibly needed a prefatory condition for fear: ignorance.

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Filed under history, maunderings, politics, The Trump Era

The Chaos is the Point

Hoo boy. Okay, so wrote this post in part as a failed effort at catharsis. I’ve been running election scenarios in my head, and none of them are happy. I don’t mean I think Joe Biden will lose—I mean I think Trump will render it all moot. I was not encouraged when I read about the “war games” played out by the Transition Integrity Project. Suffice to say, there were no scenarios that did not involve violence in the aftermath of election day.

I went back and forth about whether to post this, or relegate it to a lonely folder of forgotten musings on my desktop. But, well … misery loves company.

caravan

A truck from the pro-Trump “caravan” in Portland.

Two years ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote what I think has been the most incisive evaluation of Trump, his administration, and the phenomenon of Trumpism as a whole. It’s also one of those articles whose thesis is plainly stated in its very title: “The Cruelty is the Point.” I feel as though the “is” in that title should be italicized, in tacit response to the sort of punditry that affects bafflement or bemusement at Trump’s behaviour and that of his acolytes, and attempts the Sisyphean task of framing it in terms of everyday politics. What ideology exists in Trumpism is the ethos of resentment and revenge, in which the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s foes is not a bonus accrued in the process of political gamesmanship, it is the game. Serwer writes,

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully.

It is this cruelty, and the outrage it reliably incites, that bonds Trump to his base and makes his stubborn refusal to do anything that might disappoint them comprehensible. “Their shared laughter at the suffering of others,” Serwer says of Trump’s most loyal adherents, “is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.”

Even now, pundits and columnists not employed by Fox News still wonder why Trump can’t seem to grasp the fairly basic political ramifications of not presenting at least a thin façade of statesmanship and condemning violence on all sides, of saying something tepid that gestures toward de-escalation. And this after he’d actually managed to be relatively disciplined for four days. The Republication National Convention somehow managed to keep the president on a tight leash and somehow convinced him to stick to the teleprompter during his speech, and presented a carefully stage-managed spectacle specifically designed to give disaffected or alienated Trump voters a permission structure to vote for him again: trotting out every Black Trump supporter they could find, staging a naturalization ceremony for conspicuously dark-skinned new citizens, parading a veritable cavalcade of women (the balance of whom were, true to Trump’s pageant-owning past, blonde and statuesque) attesting to Trump’s kindness behind the scenes and his equitable treatment of women; all of which was by way of soothing people’s misgivings about Trump’s racism and misogyny. Don’t believe the liberal liars and Fake News, and don’t believe everything you think you’ve seen and heard for more than four years—this is the REAL Donald J. Trump.

Cue the panicking of the Chicken Littles, suddenly terrified that the Republicans had been successful in snowing the public yet again.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m afraid the sky is falling, too. I’m just not quite so worried about electoral math. If that was the only problem now, I’d sleep a lot better.

I’ve had a lot of people asked me if I think Trump can win in November. I say no, I don’t. The worry creasing their faces eases for a moment as I break down my reasoning. As we’ve seen since the 2016 election, Trump has a strangely resilient approval of around forty percent. It goes up and it goes down, but never by too much. For any other president, never once cresting fifty percent in the polls during a first term would be catastrophic, something we tend to forget in the present moment, because, however egregious Trump’s behaviour, however monumental his incompetence, and however disastrous his mismanagement of the pandemic response, the economy, and race-based civil unrest, that forty percent remains durable. That is, of course, cause for concern, as that was more or less the number he had going into 2016. But there are a handful of factors at play in 2020 that make a key difference. First, Trump is no longer an unknown and untested quantity. In 2016, it seemed a lot more reasonable to some people to give the chamber a spin and play Russian roulette with a Trump vote. What’s the worst that could happen? was asked a lot—or, as Trump said in his plea to Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” (Which is one of the many, many reasons White liberals need to pay more attention to Black voters—they’re very keenly aware of what they have to lose). After almost four years of corruption and self-dealing, and of course an economy cratered by a pandemic and a death toll pushing two hundred thousand, we’re now living “the worst that could happen.” Second, for a critical mass of unwarranted reasons (and a handful of warranted ones), Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate whose unfavourables were comparable to Trump’s. Couple that with the divisiveness caused by a bitter primary fight, and it exacerbates the problem of the third item—third party candidates, who provided safe haven for people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton (but who also believed she would still win in a walk). A possible Kanye West candidacy notwithstanding, third party candidates aren’t a factor this time around. And even if they were, anyone who bought into Trump’s spiel in 2016 about deal-making and his promises to build infrastructure and tax the rich aren’t about to be fooled again (I sincerely hope).

All of that makes Trump’s chances quite dire, even with that static forty percent popularity, and I haven’t yet mentioned the name Joe Biden. To be clear, he was never near the top of my list during the primary (Team Warren all the way!), and in the present moment I think a ficus in a fedora would give Trump a run for his money, but I’m not unconvinced he’s the person for the moment—someone whose history of tragedy and heartbreak has gifted him with the humility and empathy needed to heal a suffering nation. That, and (touch wood) it looks as though the Democrats have their shit together this time around.

Remember, Trump lost the popular vote; he won the electoral college by eking out victories of less than one percent in three key states. I’m not saying that can’t happen again, just that the factors listed above make it far less likely, at least mathematically.

And this is the point, when I’ve eased my friend’s worry somewhat, that I make their face fall by saying, “But that probably won’t matter.” Because I’m not worried about electoral math: I’m worried about Trump’s capacity to foment chaos.

Which brings us back to the ostensible confusion among some of the pundit class about Trump’s apparent inability to help himself politically by, say, condemning the vigilantism of armed pro-Trump militias in the same breath as he attacks rioters. Or possibly disavowing the ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising—these are, after all, of a piece with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. But this close to an election he looks poised to lose, shouldn’t he do the politically expedient thing?

Well, no. For one thing, as I’ve already pointed out, he loves the adoration of his base too much to ever do anything that might ameliorate their ardour. But he is also by nature a provocateur and an agent of chaos. It’s tempting to quote Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech from Game of Thrones, except that would be entirely inappropriate to the example of Trump—Littlefinger is a character of comparable amorality, but one who sees five moves ahead and foments chaos to further his own plans.

Trump, by contrast, doesn’t plan. In the present moment, chaos isn’t a ladder—chaos is the point. Chaos is an end in itself.

As we’ve learned from innumerable articles and books about Trump, his “management style” has always been to pit people against each other and see what comes of it. His multiple bankruptcies speak to the fact that, however many times he refers to himself as a “builder,” he’s never really been interested in building (indeed, his entire election campaign isn’t so much asking voters to be amnesiac about the past few years as it is an attempt to declare Chapter Eleven and start from scratch in January 2021). And there’s a reason he was so adept at reality television, a form that privileges conflict for the sake of conflict, and rewards cruelty and betrayal.

This is my fear: for months now, Trump and his acolytes have been laying the groundwork for abject chaos in November. The pandemic—or rather, Trump &co.’s catastrophic mismanagement of the response—might be the principal torpedo in the hull of Trump’s re-election, but it is also providing him his best means to disrupt the process and the results. Trump and his people have been banging the drum for weeks now about widespread mail-in voting fraud. The fact that this claim is itself demonstrably fraudulent is immaterial—the point is to make the claim as loudly and often as possible. Couple that with the fact that a preponderance of mailed ballots will almost certainly mean that the election won’t be called on the night of, but will take days or even weeks to tally votes, and there is a wide window for Trump to make mischief. I fear that the “Brooks Brothers Riots” of the 2000 recount in Florida—when Republicans organized preppie mobs of lawyers and political operatives (something Roger Stone had a key hand in, let us not forget) to harass the poll workers—will come to seem a genteel exercise. Imagine instead mobs of Trump supporters, many armed, descending on polling locations to denounce the “rigged” election; imagine also counter-protesters, and imagine what side law enforcement will take in such confrontations.

We’re seeing the first glimmers of such a scenario now. Why on earth would Trump make any move to de-escalate the violence of this latest round of protests? Why, indeed, would he discourage wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha with his friend’s AR-15, or the “caravan” who went to Portland to shoot paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protesters? As John Cassidy observes in The New Yorker,

By cheering on the members of the Portland caravan—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” he called them on Twitter—and defending Rittenhouse, despite the fact that he has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, the President has crossed a threshold. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, and power, he has gone beyond mere scaremongering and resorted to fomenting violent unrest from the White House.

It doesn’t help matters that Trump obviously sees chaos and disorder as helping his re-election prospects. In keeping with her boss’s habit of saying the quiet part out loud, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox and Friends, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

Trump thus has several reasons not just to abdicate any obligation to cool temperatures, but to actively raise them; but the central and unavoidable reason is that he knows no other way. As he has made painfully clear in everything he has ever done, his worldview is zero-sum. You’re either a winner or a loser, a predator or a mark; to be a loser is the worst fate, and so he has crafted his self-image with a single-minded determination to always be a winner, at least in his own eyes. While he obviously fears losing the presidency and, with it, legal immunity from the various investigations currently being pursued, it’s obvious that his greatest fear is being seen losing on the largest and most visible stage he’s ever been on.

And I think—I fear—he will do literally anything to avoid that.

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Isolated Thoughts: Of Bread and Patience

I have joined the ranks of those people who have turned to bread-baking during this time of self-isolation. Well, I joined their ranks a few weeks ago, but it was only yesterday that I baked a loaf of sourdough with which I was actually satisfied.

sourdough

I’ve baked a handful of other loaves, but because all of my attempts to create a sourdough starter from scratch failed, I resorted to a jar of yeast—otherwise an endangered species at all grocery stores these days—residing in my pantry. The bread was middling to good, with a handful of failures. And to be honest, with this one I still had to cheat a bit—when I saw individual packets of instant starter on a Sobeys shelf otherwise scoured clean of yeast, I grabbed a few. I fed the starter for a week (and continue to do so). And then, after finally learning what “autolyze” meant, I made this loaf.

And then, according to quarantine law, I proudly posted a picture of the loaf on Facebook.

Here’s the thing: I’ve actually long been interested in making sourdough from scratch, but have always been frustrated in my attempts to find a simple, step-by-step recipe; for basic bread, there are hundreds, but once you venture into the realm of sourdough, it’s as if you’re seeking entry into some sort of mystical society. What ingredient lists you can find are inevitably buried in lengthy discussions of wild yeast, finicky lists of the pros and cons of different flours, how best to “autolyze” your dough, how to properly feed and sustain your starter, and so forth. And by the time you get to the step-by-step instructions, they tend to break down the process into day-long increments, usually starting at nine in the morning and only culminating by early evening.

In other words: it requires patience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about patience, ever since my requisite fortnight of quarantine ended and I was able to make my first grocery shopping trip. The whole experience was bizarre, though it has since become commonplace: waiting in a fathom-spaced line outside the store because they limit the total number of shoppers inside; following the arrows that have been placed on the floor; keeping your distance from the person in front of you; waiting while the person in front of you—or the person in front of the two or three people in front of you—stares at the shelves in perplexity, looking for the product they need or trying to remember what it was, or (as is now not uncommon) trying to figure out a substitute for what isn’t currently stocked. Then at checkout, you wait in another carefully spaced line, and wait while the cashier disinfects their station and the conveyor belt before putting your purchases down.

It occurred to me then, and it’s something I have commented on to people since—especially to the cashiers and other shoppers when they apologize for how long they’re taking—that one benefit of this experience is it’s making us learn patience.

We see it on social media in the massive puzzles people are doing, or all the board games that have been dusted off, or the new crafting projects people have taken on—and, yes, in the ubiquitous baking of bread, which a busy day that takes you away from the home makes a more onerous task. Yes, part of all this has to do with finding ways to ameliorate boredom, but boredom and patience have key elements in common. After all, what is acute impatience if not an expression of boredom—with how long the stoplight is taking to change, with the person torturing the cashier over coupons, with the slow walkers hogging the sidewalk? We have, over the last few decades, become a culture that valorizes speed and efficiency and vilifies unproductiveness and lassitude. A common sentiment expressed in this period of enforced lassitude has been the anxiety over not using this time productively, as if being forced into inactivity makes one morally obliged to write that novel or screenplay, to learn a language, or finally get around to reading War and Peace or Middlemarch. I looked forward to my obligatory quarantine with the thought that I would write so damn much. Spoiler alert: didn’t happen. It took me three weeks of boredom and doing nothing before I wrote more than notes in my journal, and even then it has mostly been this blog—which as I commented in my post-before-last, is as much a coping mechanism as anything.

All of which isn’t to say that we aren’t impatient for this to all end and to get back to normal. But here’s the benefit of boredom, and the patience it necessitates: it allows us to conjure up new normals, which might have been unthinkable beforehand. It opens a mental space to recognize the fallacious elements of the very idea of “normal,” and that what we had before wasn’t an inevitable state of being. And, hopefully, it makes those of us privileged enough to be bored more understanding of those for whom “normal” was a shitshow, and to make common cause going forward.

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Isolated Thoughts: Taking Stock, Seven Weeks In

I had a bad day yesterday: I woke up to a low-grade anxiety attack and spent the better part of the day feeling sad, listless, and generally useless. Some time around 4pm the fog lifted, and I started to write, hammering out my previous post on The Last Ship and about half of another post on recent HBO programming.

This morning has been better, in spite of the fact that it’s miserably cold and pissing rain. Though in truth, I enjoy sitting in my home office on dismal, rainy days, pathetic fallacy be damned, so the rain wasn’t likely to depress me—and in fact, I just sort of shook my head at it, as if the universe was conspiring to put me in a funk. And then the words “murder hornets” popped into my head and I started to giggle uncontrollably at the sheer absurdity of it all. As I asked in a previous post: What’s next? It makes an odd sort of sense, however, that if the universe is conspiring to compound all of the absurdity of the recent weeks, its choices were limited after the President of the United States suggested drinking bleach and getting an ultraviolet enema might be a viable treatment for COVID-19. In order to truly up the ante, murder hornets were a logical choice.

It has been interesting, day after day, to see how people are coping on social media and otherwise. My partner Stephanie has broken out her guitars after months of not playing, and ordered an electronic drum pad. She taught herself “Miracle Drug” by U2, and is, as I write, in the process of recording her tracks on her laptop. Online, I see all the baking and cooking people are doing; many people are posting pictures of daily pandemic life, sharing intimate or artistic portraits of what the lockdown has meant for them and their families; many others have taken up various seven- or ten-day challenges to post covers of books or albums that they love; they share affirmations about mental health; one of my friends has asked a question for the hive mind every day of the quarantine, from favourite colour to what person, living or dead, you’d most want to have lunch with.

Though few of these things are especially new to social media, their volume, frequency, and earnestness is. At least part of that, presumably, proceeds from the boredom of being cooped up; but there is also a profound expression of shared humanity in it all. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, perhaps, as it can also serve to remind us of all the people out there we cannot see in person; but there is also a comfort to is, an affirmation that we are not alone in the difficulty of weathering this crisis.

For my part, I’ve written more on this blog in the three weeks since I started this “Isolated Thoughts” series than I had in the year and a half preceding it. I don’t exactly garner much of a readership—my posts top out at about fifty views, according to my stats—but then that has never really been the point of my blogging. I write here to work through certain thoughts, to give them an airing; it is not unlike writing in a journal in that respect, except that the public nature of a blog and the knowledge that some people will read it forces me (hopefully) into somewhat more coherence than when I jot stuff in my Moleskine.

So we keep on. Keep posting pictures of your sourdough loaves, your pets, your favourite albums, your rants and fears and loves; talk about your good days and your bad, and I’ll keep posting my isolated thoughts. I have quoted my favourite W.H. Auden poem on this blog before, but there’s that one line that utters what is, for me, one of the most profound truths: “We must love one another or die.”

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Isolated Thoughts: What’s Next?

THE WEST WING, clockwise from top left: Janel Moloney, Stockard Channing, John Spencer, Dule Hill, B

I find myself missing The West Wing. I don’t miss it because I can’t watch it (Netflix might have dropped it, but I have the first four seasons on DVD); I miss it because I can’t watch it in the way I did when it first aired, or when it was comfort food TV to rewatch over the years, or when I turned to it as solace in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The series is, of course, fantasy—liberal utopianism of the highest order that is (or was during the Sorkin seasons) unapologetically earnest and invested in the ideals of intellect, expertise, and good governance. Like all of Aaron Sorkin’s television series, it depicted extremely smart people who are extremely good at their jobs, and who place high value on the work they do. And for all of the unrealistic, soaring rhetoric spoken in perfect paragraphs, it always foregrounded the conviction that democracy functions best when forged by smart, committed people arguing with each other in good faith. At its worst, the show could be pedantic, implying that all wrong-headed people needed was one more lecture to bring them around; at its best, it embodied a credo voiced by Robert Guillame’s character on Sports Night, Sorkin’s first series: “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

Honestly, can you imagine anything that would be more anathema to Donald Trump? Any more than you can imagine Trump employing President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen)’s oft-iterated prompt, “What’s next?”

One thing The West Wing gets right that many former White House aides and staffers have pointed to is the hectic, breakneck pace the contemporary presidency; this is something perhaps best exemplified by the series’ oftparodied but directorially bravura “walk and talk” sequences, in which meetings happen on the fly at breakneck speed through the West Wing. “What’s next?” became Bartlett’s catch phrase indicating the completion of one item of business and the imperative to move on (consonant with “what’s next?” was the admonition “break’s over!”).

I have a hat, which I purchased from the podcast The West Wing Weekly’s online merch store, that asks “What’s Next?” However, given that I bought it about two years into Trump’s presidency, the sentiment is now less about wanting to move on to the next thing on the agenda, than it is something of an expression of existential dread. The unspoken words in the middle are “what could possibly be next?” and the tone one of baffled incredulity, as the cumulative effect of the Trump presidency piles up more detritus at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.

what's next?

What’s next? The other day I vented on Facebook about Donald Trump’s new custom of holding two-hour press conferences, in which he shares the latest “news” about the pandemic and the response to it; and while he periodically gives over the lectern to experts, business leaders, and Mike Pence, these briefings are really just The Trump Show, something to substitute for his rallies, which are, along with Twitter, his preferred method of communication. He obviously relishes having a captive audience, and frequently boasts of his ratings; but he just as obviously misses the adulation of his rally crowds, and gets sulky and resentful of the fact that the handful of carefully spaced reporters won’t congratulate him on doing an amazing job and indeed have the audacity to challenge his assertions and pose “nasty questions.”

What led to my Facebook rant was the sudden realization that Trump is giving over two hours out of his day, every day, to conduct his infomercials (a recent one of which literally included a campaign-style montage of Trump looking decisive and the media looking dishonest). What surprised me about the realization was that it hadn’t happened sooner, that I hadn’t really thought “this isn’t normal” from the moment Trump started running the coronavirus task force briefings. Well, I suppose I did think that, but it was such a relatively minor blip in the overwhelming noise of the Trump Experience, that it did not register as significant. But on reflection, it serves to exemplify so much about the discordance of this moment in time.

Put simply, taking two hours out of the day to address the press is not something presidents do—that’s why they have a large staff of people, including communications directors and press secretaries, and the small armies of experts from across the executive branch and the military, whose job it is to keep the public informed. The president only emerges on occasion, to make announcements of significance; previous presidents might make themselves available at a press conference once or twice every few weeks, and they rarely talk for long, for the simple reason that they have shit to do. The American presidency, John Dickerson writes in The Atlantic is “The Hardest Job in the World,” perhaps untenably so, which is why it is typical to watch presidents age in real-time, emerging at the end of their term(s) with grey hair and wan, lined faces.

We are by now however quite familiar with Trump’s lack of interest in the job and his utter incuriosity with anything that does not flatter him: chafing at any briefing lasting more than a few minutes; aides instructed to reduce the their notes to a single page of bullet points, and to include colourful pictures and charts, and press clippings that mention Trump favourably; his contempt for expertise and his unfounded confidence in his own instincts; his lack of preparation with any scripted remarks, obviously reading them for the first time as they scroll up the teleprompter; and above all his monumental laziness, with hours of his day given over to “executive time,” which numerous anonymous sources have confirmed as essentially Trump watching cable news, about which he live-tweets.

I suppose if there will have been any benefit to the Trump saga in the aftermath of this debacle, it could well be the definitive demolition of certain myths and illusions that have sustained the status quo for so long, not the least of which is the false premise of The West Wing that the key players within a democratic system might disagree, but operate on a basis of rationality and good faith. It’s a nice thought, but Trump disproves it—not so much through his own behaviour as by the simple fact of his election, and the rise of his army of opportunists, sycophants, enablers, and cultish adherents, whose only concerns are the arrogation of more power to them and their donors, basking in the reflected orange glow of their god-king, and owning the libs.

Trump should not be possible. The fact that he was, and is, makes it difficult to find comfort in Sorkin’s idealism, not least because it exposes to me my own oblivious privilege. After Trump won, white liberals like me were stunned and caught flat-footed. You know who wasn’t surprised that a critical mass of white people would pull the lever for Trump? Everyone else—people of colour, undocumented immigrants, queer folk, women, the working poor … anyone for whom the illusion of people in power arguing in good faith has always been obviously an illusion.

 

“What’s next?” is now the most important question. What does a post-coronavirus and (oh gods, please) a post-Trump world look like? We need to resist formulation of “getting back to normal.” Normal gave us Trump.

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Thoughts on D-Day and Generational Memory

When Tom Lehrer was asked why he quit doing political satire, he famously quipped, “Because Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.” Translation: where do you go from there? What kind of parody or satire can rise to the level of the architect of Pinochet’s coup in Chile and the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia being lauded as a peacemaker?

If the years since Lehrer’s quip have taught us anything, it’s that metaphors of bars being lowered and new depths being plumbed no longer work. There is no bottom, and new normals will always provide a basis for ironic, satirical critique—even if that critique comes to feel more and more like affectless laughter in the dark. Since Kissinger’s peace prize, a B-movie actor was elected president, a subsequent president was essentially impeached for getting a blowjob, and the Terminator was elected governor of California … and that only brings us up to 2003. The fact that a critical mass of liberals would probably be happy to swap Donald Trump for either Reagan or Schwarzenegger both speaks to the fact that they had depths belied by the prior entertainment careers, but also how far down the political slope arse-first we’ve slid.

(Just as an aside: I will maintain to my dying day that Saturday Night Live missed a golden comedic opportunity when, apropos of Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign, they did not stage a skit in which the Governator debated political opponents Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude van Damme).

trump-d-day

All of this is by way of saying that, if Kissinger’s peace prize was what drove Tom Lehrer out of political satire, I wonder what he makes of the spectacle of President Donald Trump, he of the bone spurs and dictator-envy, speaking solemn words on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The layers of irony are thicker than the Burgess Shale: a president whose slogan “America First” was originally used by isolationists and Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh, who wanted to keep the U.S. out of the war; a president who has consistently attacked NATO and the European Union, both of which were established with the express purpose of preventing another war in Europe; a president who has refused to condemn neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and whose presidency has indeed proved to be a clarion call emboldening the racist and anti-Semitic right; a president whose racist populism has been mirrored in the rise of comparable alt-right groups in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and in the viler strains of Brexit rhetoric; a president who loves the idea of military thuggery but seems incapable of recognizing honour and sacrifice, who is so thin-skinned that his aides panicked at the thought of him seeing the name “John McCain” on a ship or its sailors’ uniforms; a president who is even now poised to pardon actual war criminals; a president who, sitting mere feet away from the graves of American war dead, petulantly smears the name of Robert Mueller, a decorated veteran; this president recites the prayer delivered on D-Day by Franklin Roosevelt—a president whose legacy is the antithesis of everything Trump embodies—and speaks some boilerplate platitudes before returning to his golf course in Ireland.

I used to get outraged at George W. Bush’s blithe ignorance, but that was before I knew what was coming: first Sarah Palin as a potential VP, but then Trump himself, someone not just ignorant but functionally illiterate. I’m hardly a monarchist, but I do admire Queen Elizabeth’s capacity to deliver a diplomatic fuck-you, as she did in her choice of gift for Trump: a first edition of Winston Churchill’s history of WWII, something entirely appropriate for the occasion, but also painfully discordant with this president’s aggressive, ahistorical ignorance. Back in the halcyon days of late 2016, such a gift might have encouraged the naively optimistic—those poor souls who fervently wanted to believe that assuming the office would transform Trump—to hope that Trump would read and learn. But that was then and this is now, and so the subtler insult of the gift—the Queen gave him the abridged edition—is lost in the mere fact that simply giving Trump a book, any book, is to draw attention not just to the fact that he doesn’t read, but to his arrogant incuriosity. The Queen could have given him a boxed set of the Harry Potter series and made the same point.

The Queen’s gift and the insult it delivers, sadly, is a potent symbol for the present moment, in which the felt history of WWII and its transformative effects on the 20th century have become abstract and mythologized. I teach a class on American literature after 1945, and I always begin with a lecture on the sea-change wrought by the Second World War. I ask my students: where do you think the U.S. military ranked, globally, in size and strength in 1939? My students are astute enough to recognize that, if I’m asking the question, there’s a trick in there somewhere. But they’ve also grown up in a world in which American military might is indomitable, and if they know anything about WWII, it’s probably through movies like Saving Private Ryan that depict the vastness of the U.S. war machine. So … Fourth? they say, tentatively. Fifth? A more audacious student might suggest tenth.

No, I reply. Nineteenth. And by 1945, a scant four years after Pearl Harbor, they were rivaled only by the Soviet Union. And then went the way of the rest of the century. Without a grasp of the war at mid-century, one cannot properly understand what came next, and indeed what is happening today.

American troops approaching Omaha Beach.

D-Day occurred 75 years ago, which means that the youngest person who stormed those beaches or parachuted in behind German lines would be 93 years old today (assuming they didn’t lie about their age). We’re on the cusp of losing the last of the Greatest Generation, and when the last of those people die, so too does the generational memory they carry. We’re already seeing the effects: there’s an awful lot of reasons for the rise of the alt-right, but baked in there is a cultural amnesia, a collective forgetting that isn’t just about the passing of the generation that fought WWII, but an erosion of historical consciousness. Ask any student of mine and they’ll tell you (presumably with an eye roll) that I reliably harangue pretty much every class I teach at some point about the need to read history. The last few years I’ve taught Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, an alternative history that imagines what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, had run against FDR in 1940 and won. I taught the novel once before, when I first started my job at Memorial, but it didn’t get much traction with students. Now, however, I assumed it would grip them with its eerie prescience: a story about a populist celebrity with autocratic and racist tendencies upsetting an establishment politician with the message “America First.”

But no. It did resonate with a few students, but overall the reaction was meh. A colleague of mine has also taught the novel a few times in recent years, and he reports much the same response.

In my very first year here at Memorial, I taught Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow in a first year fiction course—a Holocaust novel that takes place with time reversed, the conceit being that only when witnessed backwards can the Holocaust be understandable. Backwards, it becomes a story of German munificence, in which they call down smoke and ash from the sky to create inert bodies, into which they breathe life and send them on trains out into the world. My argument in lecture was that Amis works to defamiliarize the narrative of the Holocaust as a means of combatting the way in which repeatedly hearing a story inures us to it, and reawake the reader to the pure unthinkability of the atrocity. I cited Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful as texts that perform a similar function, but by that point the blank expressions on my students’ faces made it clear that defamiliarizing the Holocaust was a bridge too far when mere familiarity was lacking.

To be clear, I don’t blame my students. They have grown up in a culture that has de-emphasized history, both within the educational system and without, and terms like “Nazi” and “fascist” have more traction as online insults than as historical actualities. Millennials are understandably more preoccupied with the future, given that the realities of climate change mean they may not have one. But if the future is to be secured, it must needs be with global and internationalist solutions—we’re well past the point when nation-states can turn inward. The European Union was hardly a perfect construct, but it emerged from the recognition that the world would not survive another conflagration like WWII. Now that that memory has faded, the EU looks to be on a knife’s edge, and nativist autocracies have been making a comeback worldwide. We should of course honour the sacrifices made by those who fought and died 75 years ago, but more importantly we should remember the collective sacrifices of nations mobilized to large-scale action, and the ways in which alliances and cooperation made the defeat of Nazism possible.

The generational memory of WWII is fading. Let’s lose the platitudes about freedom and sacrifice and the why of it all, and honour the dead by not forgetting the how.

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Of zombies and rabbits

Warning: spoilers ahead for Watership Down and The Walking Dead.

Watership Down

I have done a lot of thinking and writing about zombie apocalypse and what I’ve been calling (in my as-yet unfinished scholarly articles on the topic) the “spectre of catastrophe.” So imagine my surprise when, after watching a recently-dropped limited-series show on Netflix last night, I had a weird revelation.

Much zombie apocalypse, but most especially The Walking Dead, is essentially based on Watership Down. Or, rather, not based on Richard Adams’ 1972 novel about rabbits—but the uncannily similar tropes and themes are somewhat illuminating.

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I watched all four episodes of the Netflix-BBC co-production, and quite loved it. The one major downside to this version is that the animation is quite terrible, and makes it very difficult at points to differentiate between the characters. On the upside, voice-cast is truly staggering: James McAvoy as the reluctant leader Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as the runty Fiver, whose oracular visions prompt them to flee their warren at the outset, Gemma Atterton as Clover, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, and a host of others like Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Chan, Tom Wilkinson, Rosamund Pike, Mackenzie Crook, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Simon Adebisi from Oz), and Ben Kingsley as the menacing General Woundwort. But for me the standouts were John Boyega as Bigwig, a bruiser  who has to learn subtlety, and, in one of my favourite bits of voice-casting ever, Peter Capaldi as the caustic and sarcastic seagull Keehar.

I read Watership Down when I was in high school and loved it; but I am also of the generation of children who were absolutely traumatized by the 1979 film, which doubled down on the violence and death in the novel to create an animated spectacle that I think was burned indelibly on my young cerebral cortex (even doing a Google image search made me tremble somewhat). My experience in this regard is not uncommon, given the number of parents who thought, “Oh, a cute film about bunnies,” little knowing the horror they were about to visit on their children.

watership down 1979watership down 1979 - 2

The 2018 iteration retains the novel’s sensibilities with regards to the precarious existence of prey animals, but dials back the violent visuals. It still builds tension extremely well: we are never not aware of how vulnerable the rabbits are all the time, and indeed the prologue to the first episode relates the rabbits’ creation mythology in which the sun god Frith punishes them—the earth’s original animals—for their proliferation by introducing a host of predators to cull their numbers.

So basically, they live in a word where everything wants to eat them—dogs, foxes, cats, owls, hawks, and, of course, people … and when people don’t want to eat them, they want to domesticate them and put them in cages as pets. More pernicious, however, is humanity’s rapacious need for land, which is what drives Hazel and Fiver and their small band of believers from their warren to start with. Fiver has visions of death and destruction that baffle him, but which we recognize as backhoes callously digging up the land for the construction of a new subdivision with no regard for the society of animals living below. Hazel and his tiny band of followers get out, and later on hear of the destruction from the warren’s sole survivor.

watership down 2018

But … what does this have to do with zombie apocalypse, you ask? Good question, though I will draw your attention to my above observation that everything out in the world wants to eat these rabbits. Leaving the safety of their warren and its environs, Hazel et al are exposed and endangered, and every step they take into the unknown world is one that could end suddenly with claws and teeth.

What’s important to keep in mind about Watership Down—and what I’d either forgotten in the intervening years, or (more likely) never grasped to begin with—is that it is essentially a dystopian story. It’s about the violent and capricious destruction of a society and the harrowing journey to find a new safe haven. And for all of the monsters populating that landscape, the greatest danger posed to our main characters is other rabbits—just as, in your average zombie film, the true threat isn’t from the dead but from the living.

Over its eight and a half seasons, The Walking Dead has driven this particular theme home … again and again and again. And again. My biggest beef with the storytelling in TWD is that it hasn’t done much to break from the narrative formula of zombie films: which is to say, the panic and flight following the initial outbreak, fighting one’s way through the undead hordes to sanctuary, respite within that sanctuary for a time (whether it be a mall, a military compound, a pub, or Bill Murray’s house, as in Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, respectively), until something happens that forces you to leave and once again brave the world without. TWD reiterated this narrative season after season, always with a new safe haven (Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, Terminus, Alexandria) and a newer, badder big bad to contend with (the dead themselves, their own weaknesses and infighting, the Governor, the Wolves, cannibals, and of course Negan).*

All of which leapt to mind as I watched Watership Down. Hazel and his small band encounter two other rabbit warrens, each of which offers a chillingly dystopic vision. In the first, all of the rabbits are well-fed and welcoming, and our heroes gorge themselves on a massive pile of lettuce and leafy greens and carrots deposited nearby. It seems too good to be true, and of course it is—though only the clairvoyant Fiver sees as much, and refuses to join his fellows at the feast. Bigwig threatens Fiver, warning him not to spoil this for the others, but when he marches off in anger he finds himself caught in a wire snare—because that’s the deal at this warren, they get to live comfortable and well-fed lives, in exchange for one of their number being taken on a regular basis for the local farmer’s pot. And this has become the ethos of the warren: they reject the usual stories told by the rabbit bards that celebrate speed and cunning, instead offering sermons on the virtues of gratitude and complacency, and not questioning generosity that keeps them well-fed.

Dystopian visions of complacency range from the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey to Aldous Huxley’s self-medicating society in Brave New World. The devil’s bargain Richard Adams introduces in Watership Down allegorizes more explicitly the dangers of trading freedom for comfort. While there is no obvious correlative in zombie apocalypse narratives, I did think of the Terminus episodes of TWD. Desperate to find safe haven and suffering from hunger and thirst, Rick Grimes et al follow signs leading to a settlement calling itself “Terminus,” which promise safety and comfort and welcome. The promise proves to be merely a lure by which the people of Terminus draw in the unwary and proceed to kill and eat them, trading their humanity for safety and plenty (the first thing some of Grimes’ people encounter is a wholesome-looking women presiding over a grill heaped with meat).

TWD-Terminus

Ewwww.

Aside from Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare, the rabbits make their escape without much difficulty, and are joined by Strawberry (Olivia Colman), who tells them that no one in the warren makes friends because they know they might lose them to the snare. At the same time they are eager to welcome newcomers to the warren, as greater numbers lessen the chances of being taken next.

More terrifying, and more actively threatening, is the second warren—an authoritarian regime called “Efafra,” overseen by General Woundwort, in which most of the rabbits—largely females—are essentially held captive in terrified thrall to a quasi-military hierarchy sustained by Woundwort’s chosen “captains,” thuggish rabbits who take pleasure in tormenting the others. Their cruelty is its own reward, as they revel in their authority and privileges. The parallels between Woundwort and Negan, and Efafra and the Sanctuary are fairly obvious, but that likely has mostly to do with the ways in which both stories show how despotic societies are sustained by a cult of personality surrounding the leader, his willing subordinates chosen for their own talent for cruelty, and a cowed populace. Of all the threats faced by Hazel et al, greater than an entire ecosystem seemingly mobilized to snack on them is the threat of other rabbits in thrall to violence. Holly, the lone survivor of the original warren, tells one of Woundwort’s captains that he lacks “animality”—that what Efafra has done is emulate humans, and in doing so, has given up what we might call a basic rabbit-sense.

Not, perhaps, the subtlest of messages, but one that resonates strongly in a world where humans are depicted as thoughtlessly destructive, and the Efafran rabbits are genocidal, determined to exterminate any neighbouring warrens that might compete for resources. As stated above, I was struck by the critical mass of voice talent recruited for this remake, which poses the question of why remake Watership Down in the present moment (aside from Netflix’s voracious need for more and more content, of course)? There are, I have to imagine, many answers, not the least of which is the pressing need to reassess our relationship to the natural world, coupled with the apocalyptic preoccupations of so much popular culture. Richard Adams wrote Watership Down at the dawn of the environmental movement in a moment that saw the first celebration of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. All of the themes baked into the narrative have, sadly, only become more acute and immediate in the intervening half-century. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when a recent retelling of Adams’ story resonates with the various other catastrophic narratives I’ve been writing about.

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*To the show’s credit, it has broken this cycle since settling in Alexandria and making contact with the various other settlements in the area. Since the defeat of Negan and the Saviours this past season, TWD has opened the possibility of a more nuanced and open-ended narrative evolution.

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Blogging, or The Intrinsic Value of Shouting at an Empty Room

I’ve been a very bad blogger. Every so often I go through a burst of energy and put up a handful of posts in quick succession, but it’s been some time since I posted on a regular basis. Certainly this past year has seen a lot of inaction on this site. If it weren’t for my Game of Thrones posts with Nikki Stafford, I’d have put up next to nothing.

Which isn’t for lack of wanting to. I have journals full of notes chronicling my thoughts on a host of topics, many prefaced with the hopeful header “possible blog post”; and I have a folder on my desktop containing an embarrassing number of half-completed posts that I just couldn’t make work to my satisfaction, or which languished until their subject was no longer current.

One of the reasons for my blogging absence has been one of the more epic cases of writer’s block I’ve experienced in my adult life. There have been a variety of factors contributing to that (which I won’t get into here), but one of them is the way in which writer’s block gets worse the more you don’t write. I haven’t posted much this past year because of writer’s block; but one of the reasons I’ve had writer’s block is because I haven’t been posting to this blog.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my level of blogging activity is a bellwether of my productivity more broadly—sometimes I just don’t really have anything to say here, but am getting a lot of writing done in other arenas—but there’s something to be said for keeping the pump primed by posting relatively clear and coherent arguments or meditations.

What is this blog for? It certainly isn’t aimed at a large audience. If my ambition was to write for thousands of people, I’ve failed miserably here. Fortunately, that has never really been a concern. Most of my posts garner in the neighbourhood of fifty readers, which likely corresponds to the number of my Facebook friends actually interested in what I might have to say on a given topic. The Game of Thrones posts tend to top out at about one hundred and twenty readers. Three years ago, I made it to three hundred and fifty with a pair of posts about that whole David Gilmour thing, and Margaret Wente’s entirely predictable response to it. And the most readers I’ve ever had was for a post I wrote, apropos of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, about The Wire and police militarization, which garnered twelve hundred readers—mainly because a friend of mine posted the link to Reddit.

So, I’m hardly swaying anyone’s opinion on such matters as Donald Trump, as I can say with a great deal of confidence that everyone who read my previous point probably agrees with everything I said. The fact that I’m almost invariably preaching to a (very small) choir has occasionally bothered me. Why go to the effort of parsing my thoughts if I’m not reaching people who will disagree with me, or whom I can engage in substantive, meaningful debate?

That thought underpinned a lot of my more self-defeating capitulations to writer’s block, at least as far as this blog was concerned. But lately I’ve been thinking about it in a different way: less as a means of engaging in a broader conversation, than as a conversation with myself. What I’ve been missing this past year is the exercise of thinking out loud. On my old blog I once compared blogging to shouting at your empty kitchen to something you hear on the radio. I think that analogy holds: articulating thoughts, giving them form and shape, is a valuable exercise even when no one is listening. The difference between writing things out in my journal and composing a post is that the latter is technically public—meaning that the act of composing takes precedence. Only a handful of you are actually reading this, and fewer still will have read this far. For those who have: Hello! I am happy that you’re interested enough in my thoughts that you’re still with me.

Don’t get me wrong: a large audience would be nice, but I’m not about to do all the things necessary to broaden my appeal. To be honest, I’m not even sure I know what those things would be (aside from employing more clickbait-y titles and keeping my posts more succinct. Yeah, that’s not happening).

I do however want to do more with the blog, and write more, and more frequently. One of my favourite series of posts I’ve done is when I taught a course on The Lord of the Rings two years ago, and did a series based on my lectures. I intend to do something similar this fall: I’m teaching a fourth-year seminar course I’m titling “Revenge of the Genres,” which will deal with texts that play with the “genre” appellation in a variety of ways. I’m planning to do a series of posts for each of the texts we cover, which will hopefully fuel discussion both in and out of the classroom. I’ll say more about that course closer to when we begin in September.

Revenge of the Genres

I’ve also got, I’m sorry to say, a cluster of Trump-themed posts on the back burner. Yes, I know … we’re all suffering from Trump fatigue, and I encourage people to actively avoid reading them. They’re more for my own benefit, to clarify my own thoughts more than to make specific arguments.

And I’ll be picking up the threads of research I had intended to do over the past few months. I won’t say much about that now, other than that it involves zombies, crowds, and soldiers.

That’s all for now.

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Paris 1919, Paris 2015

paris1919CORRECTION: It was pointed out to me that the Treaty of Versailles dealt specifically with Germany. The partitioning of the former Ottoman Empire, which I discuss below, was performed by the Treaty of Sèvres. Apologies for the inaccuracy.

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Out of a handful of books that I habitually recommend as “required reading for the modern age,” I probably most frequently proselytize for Margaret MacMillan’s magisterial history Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. It chronicles the negotiation and signing of the Treaty of Versailles, that notorious document that now reads like a roadmap of the twentieth century. I’ve been thinking a great deal about that book in the last few days, as I watch the flow of confusion, argument, and fear in my various newsfeeds.

MacMillan, then a professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto (she is now at Oxford), wrote Paris 1919 in the late 1990s, and at first had difficulty finding a publisher. After September 11th, 2001, however, she was beating them off with a stick: people looked at the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, and watched the ramp-up to the invasion of Iraq and asked a series of questions: how did this happen? why did this happen? who are these people, and why do they hate us? In the triumphal decade that spanned from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the two towers, when America had apparently emerged as the world’s sole superpower and Francis Fukuyama could smugly announce the “end of history,” no one wanted to read a lengthy, detailed history about a treaty that effectively set the stage for the twentieth century’s bloodiest conflicts. But the West’s rude awakening on that crystalline Tuesday morning made MacMillan’s book and others like it hot property.

Why? The Treaty of Versailles is most notorious for imposing humiliating and punishing reparations on Germany, a punitive measure that served to fuel the rise of Hitler and National Socialism. But among the other provisions for the victorious allies was the carving up of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. The western powers divvied up the oil-rich territory into mandates, arbitrarily setting down new borders without consideration given to tribal affiliation, sectarian division, local geography, or for that matter history. Versailles basically drew the lines of what today is Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and of course Palestine.

MEimageModernMiddleEast2

I bring this up because it is so frustrating to see so many assertions, about Syria, ISIS, Iraq, and the monumental clusterfuck that region has become, made with no regard to history, and the role the West has played in bringing us to this Gordian Knot of tangled alliances, loyalties, motivations, and intentions. If the twentieth century has any lesson for us, it’s that every time the West intervenes in the Middle East, we make things worse. Always. The Treaty of Versailles imposed arbitrarily drawn nation-states on a volatile region with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Britain and France governed their mandates in the region through bribery, violence, and the stoking of sectarian and tribal rivalries. The oil-producing regions did not benefit from their resources, as Western stakeholders took the lion’s share of the profits. When the secular, democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossaddegh of Iran moved to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, Great Britain and the U.S. orchestrated a coup in 1953 and installed the dictatorial Shah, who would rule with an iron fist for almost thirty years. When he was finally ousted by the fundamentalist regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini , the U.S. encouraged their ally Saddam Hussein with money and arms to prosecute a war in which millions died on both sides, during which Hussein used American-supplied chemical weapons against his own people. When Hussein went a bridge too far into Kuwait and was routed by the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. encouraged rebel factions within Iraq to rise up, but did nothing to support them. Saddam crushed them.

I won’t rehearse the idiocy of Operation Iraqi Freedom, other than to point out that the incompetence of the occupation gave rise to a large number of disenfranchised men with combat training who now form the core of ISIS. And all the while, even as bloviators vilify Islam and paint all Muslims as potential threat, the West remains faithfully allied to Saudi Arabia, the site and source of the most virulent strain of fundamentalism, Wahhabism, looking the other way while they pour huge amounts of money into ISIS. If for a significant number of people in the Middle East the U.S. is the Great Satan, the House of Saud is the Only Slightly Lesser Satan.

And they are our ally and partner in arms deals.

All of this is by way of saying that when you see people on Facebook or elsewhere asking why their tax dollars should go to support refugees from Syria, you might want to not-so-gently remind them that we in the West have profited hugely from that region in the ninety-six years since the Treaty of Versailles was formalized. And that every time we’ve poured our blood and treasure into military interventions, we’ve only made things worse for the people living there.

Nor is this all a form of geopolitical victim-blaming. France suffered a horrific attack from dehumanized monsters, and it is always a blow to the soul to see such terrible things unfold—and it is always more distressing when it takes place somewhere we consider safe. But we should also remember that there was a similar attack in Beruit the day before, and one in Ankara a month ago, and remind ourselves when someone starts honking off about the “clash of civilizations” that Islamist extremism has disproportionately harmed Muslims.

And it is those people who are fleeing. As a much-retweeted Twitter post pithily said, “To people blaming refugees for attacks in Paris tonight. Do you not realise these are the people the refugees are trying to run away from..?”

refugee-tweet

I don’t know what a solution in the Middle East looks like, but it cannot have fear and hatred as its starting point. The West deserves to have some skin in this game, by which I don’t mean we’re owed, but that we owe the world at large to help these people whose house is on fire. And when your neighbour’s house is on fire, as FDR famously said, you don’t haggle over the price of your garden hose. The Paris attacks were specifically designed to make us fear, and to translate that fear into suspicion, paranoia, and ideally hatred of Muslims. That’s what they want. Why on earth would we want to hand them such an easy victory?

Always remember that the road to peace begins with compassion.

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Some thoughts on the Hugo Awards and Puppies who are Sad

hugoI’ve been reading a lot over the past few days about the ongoing controversy about this year’s slate of Hugo Awards nominations. For those unfamiliar with the Hugos and what’s currently going on right now, here’s the thumbnail sketch: the Hugos are one of the most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy (SF/F); the nominations and awards are voted on by the membership of Worldcon; last year was considered a banner year by many because of the number of women and writers of colour represented among the nominations; this year is experiencing a Gamergate-like backlash, in which a group of very vocal writers and fans successfully lobbied the Worldcon membership to nominate their slate of choices; they did so, in the words of one of their more vociferous agitators, to strike back “against the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.”

This movement, for reasons I haven’t discerned (nor do I care to), has labeled itself “Sad Puppies,” the architects of which are writers Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia. The group has spawned a more vitriolic spinoff called (of course) “Rabid Puppies,” led by Gamergate doyen and general aresehole Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day (a sad excuse for a human who believes in repealing women’s suffrage and who referred to the talented N.K. Jemisin as a “half-savage”).

Apparently this is the third year that Sad Puppies has attempted this; from what I gather, this year they were successful to a large extent because they gained momentum off Gamergate. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the Hugo Awards, or really to any literary awards. I haven’t read any of the novels or stories being pushed by the various puppy-related groups, and so can’t pronounce on their quality or lack thereof. But in my reading about this controversy, I came across a rationale written by Brad Torgersen for why the puppy-ization of this year’s awards is necessary, and it so perfectly summarizes the kind of narrow, reactionary thinking that was on full display during the Gamergate idiocy that it is worth parsing.

Basically, what Torgersen seems to be lamenting is a sort of false advertising: SF/F no longer delivers to fans what they expect, and what its packaging would appear to promise. To make his point, he offers an analogy so torturously obtuse that I really just need to quote in its entirety:

Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.

Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else. Still cereal, sure. But not Nutty Nuggets. Not wanting to waste money, you eat the different cereal anyway. You find the experience is not what you remembered it should be, when you ate actual Nutty Nuggets. You walk away from the experience somewhat disappointed. What the hell happened to Nutty Nuggets? Did the factory change the formula or the manufacturing process? Maybe you just got a bad box.

So you go back to the store again, to buy another box of good old delicious and reliable Nutty Nuggets!

Again, you discover (upon returning home) that the contents of your Nutty Nuggets box are not Nutty Nuggets. The contents are something different. Maybe similar to Nutty Nuggets, but not Nutty Nuggets. Nor are the contents like they were, with the prior box. You dutifully chomp them down, but even adding a spoonful of sugar doesn’t make the experience better. In fact, this time, the taste is that much worse.

Two bad boxes in a row? Must have been a bad shipment!

Return to the store. Buy another box. Bam. It’s not Nutty Nuggets.

This time, you add bananas, sugar, and berries. This only makes up for the deficit a little bit.

Return to the store again for yet another box. Yup. It says NUTTY NUGGETS proudly on the packaging. You are sure in your heart that you love and adore Nutty Nuggets! And yet, the magic is gone. This is not the cereal you first fell in love with. The box may say NUTTY NUGGETS but you won’t be fooled any longer. Nutty Nuggets are dead. Or at least they are no longer of any interest to you.

So, you reluctantly turn to another brand. Maybe Freaky Flakes or Crunchy Bits? You give up on Nutty Nuggets, and you let some other cereal woo your taste buds. A cereal that is reliably what it claims to be on the outside of the box.

That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.

Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.

Do you see what I am trying to say here?

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to point out the most obvious flaw in this analogy, but I’m going to anyway: you don’t consume stories and poop them out as you do with breakfast cereal. If your favourite packaged food product changes its ingredients, you’re pretty much shit out of luck. But your beloved space operas and bare-chested barbarians haven’t disappeared: there they are on your bookshelf, or at the library, waiting for you to read them again.

I’d love to be able to say that Torgersen’s jeremiad is disingenuous, but it feels way too earnest. Given that he is himself a SF/F author of some note, one might expect him to be not so … well, ignorant. Lamenting the fact that SF/F is different today than in previous decades, in part because it incorporates new voices and preoccupations, is like complaining that we haven’t had any good new Elizabethan plays lately. Literature reflects its historical moment, but it also reflects the way in which its authors engage with their literary milieu. Torgersen writes: “SF/F literature seems almost permanently stuck on the subversive switcheroo. If we’re going to do a Tolkien-type fantasy, this time we’ll make the Orcs the heroes, and Gondor will be the bad guys.” To which I say: why not? What’s wrong with that? The Lord of the Rings will always be there for you to read. It spawned a huge number of imitations, which ranged from artful homage to derivative dreck, but at a certain point writers of talent are going to transform the genre because they don’t see the point in simply recapitulating the formulae of the writers who influenced them. Neil Gaiman is fond of saying that he became a writer because he wanted to write The Lord of the Rings and was always annoyed that Tolkien beat him to it. So he wrote Sandman and American Gods instead, and we’re the richer for it because he did not simply give us a new variation on Middle-Earth. When Time magazine called George R.R. Martin “the American Tolkien,” they were correct in the spirit of the compliment and utterly wrong in terms of the substance of A Song of Ice and Fire, a series that has done as much to change the parameters of fantasy as The Lord of the Rings did to establish them.

He goes on to list other representative “subversive switcheroos”:

Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.

Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?

A few points here. First, a fatal contradiction: the adventuresome spirit of SF/F Torgersen ostensibly celebrates here is utterly absent from his argument. His entire rationale is really about advocating Boldly Going Where We’ve Totally Gone Before.

Second, when he claims that these themes are on “permanent display,” I think of that West Wing episode when the president, having listened to a series of impassioned arguments in favour of an anti-flag burning amendment, is compelled to ask, “Is there an epidemic of flag burning I’m unaware of?” Perhaps I just don’t read widely enough, but I have seen no such “permanent display.”

Third, and most important, is the canard that animated the Gamergate idiocy: namely, that the introduction of new voices and new perspectives, some of which you find not to your taste, entails the wholesale destruction of what you love, whether it be gaming or SF/F. Anita Sarkeesian produced a handful of video essays critiquing the representation of women in video games. As such critiques go, they were pretty mild—mainly just taking images from a slew of games and letting them speak for themselves. Given the vitriol with which her videos were met, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d advocated dictatorial censorship of the gaming industry, incarceration of the game creators, and fines to be levied on those who played them. But of course she didn’t—she just suggested that we be aware of the often unsubtle misogyny of many video games, that perhaps this was something that should be curtailed in the future, and further that the gaming industry would do well to produce more games that female gamers—an ever-growing demographic—would find amenable.

The canard underwriting the kind of hostility Sarkeesian experienced is the idea that this is all somehow a zero-sum game. The gaming industry is vast, and SF/F boasts an ever-growing readership, but the gamergaters and Brad Torgersens of the world seem to believe that for every new novel featuring a transgender hero, or every new game lacking half-naked female victims, that they somehow lose something—that their world shrinks. Torgersen seems to believe this will contribute, ultimately, to the “unraveling” of SF/F:

We’ve been burning our audience (more and more) since the late 1990s. Too many people kept getting box after box of Nutty Nuggets, and walking away disappointed. Because the Nutty Nuggets they grew to love in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, were not the same Nutty Nuggets being proffered in the 2000s, and beyond.

He goes on to say that “there may not be enough cohesive force to keep SF/F tied together as a whole.” Seriously? Seriously. I translate this as “The SF/F that I like isn’t being written in great volumes any more, which therefore means that the genre is in its death throes.” The reductiveness of this kind of thinking is truly sad, as it implies yet another canard—that one can’t do sweeping, epic, Tolkienesque fantasy, or bombastic space opera, and introduce the elements Torgersen derides. Except that you can, and writers do, all the time. It might not precisely be Tolkien or Heinlein, but the last time I was at the bookstore (yesterday), Tolkien and Heinlein were still quite well represented on the shelves.

Yes, SF/F has changed. It is changing. It will continue to change. The generic boundaries defining it have blurred as authors and the reading audience grow more inclined toward crossing those boundaries, as more young adults cut their teeth on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, “literary” authors like Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro venture into the SF/F realms, and prestige television like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones make people less prejudiced toward genres long ghettoized as “pulp.” But then, that opening up of SF/F breeds resentment among those fans who see such changes as encroachment of interlopers, and they take on the querulous tones of an old man yelling at the rest of us to get off his lawn.

sad cat

My cat is sad because he just can’t even with the Sad Puppies.

 

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