What I’m Reading I first heard of Heather McGhee two or three years ago when she was interviewed on one of the political podcasts I listen to. She was then the president of Demos, a progressive think-tank focused on race and economics and strategies to strengthen American democracy; I was immediately impressed by how clearly and articulately she broke down the inextricability of race and economic policy, and the ways in which Republicans have successfully sold the idea to white voters of government spending as a zero-sum game in which every dollar that goes to help Black people and minorities is a dollar taken from them—and that government programs that help non-wealthy whites are somehow stealing from them to benefit inner-city Blacks. And hence, non-wealthy whites have become reliable Republican voters who vote against the own interests in election after election.
To be clear, this is not a new insight. President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who signed the Civil Rights Act into being in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, knew that he was alienating a significant portion of his own party. “Well, we’ve lost the South,” he is reported to have said on signing the civil rights legislation; he also famously acknowledged the principle on which Richard Nixon would successfully court southern white Democrats: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
What impressed me about McGhee was how clearly she laid out the historical narrative, as well as how convincingly she argued her central premise: that systemic racism hurts everyone, white people included. I don’t remember which podcast it was on which I originally heard her, but that’s become something of a moot point as since then she’s been on all the podcasts—especially lately since her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together came out. Since that first podcast I heard, she resigned as Demos’ president and traveled the U.S., speaking to hundreds of experts, activists, historians, and ordinary people. The Sum of Us is the result, and it makes her original argument in an exhaustively detailed and forceful manner. It is an eminently readable book: personal without being subjective, wonky without losing itself in the weeds, and both rigorously historical while still relating straightforward stories that persuasively bring home the societal costs of systemic racism. The one example she shares in her interviews functions as the book’s central metaphor: starting in the 1920s, the U.S. invested heavily in public projects and infrastructure, one thing being the construction of public pools. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued this trend, using such community investment to generate jobs. By the 1950s, towns and cities across the country boasted ever-larger and more lavish public pools, which became a point of pride for communities—pools large enough, in some cases, to admit thousands of swimmers.
But such pools were, of course, whites-only. With the advent of desegregation in the mid-late 50s, courts decreed that these public pools were legally obliged to admit Blacks. Town and city councils responded swiftly, voting to drain the pools and fill them in with dirt and seed them over with grass (in Georgia, the Parks and Recreation Department was simply eliminated, and was not resurrected for ten years). Affluent whites did not suffer: there was a concomitant boom in the construction of backyard pools and the establishment of private swimming clubs, which could effect de facto segregation by leaving membership decisions to the discretion of a governing board. But non-wealthy whites were suddenly left without a key option for summer recreation, all because their communities could not countenance sharing a publicly-funded pool with their Black citizens. In what is one of the pernicious elements of systemic racism, McGhee observes, many of the non-wealthy whites who could no longer bring their children to swim in one of these magnificent pools for free probably thought that this was a fair deal—better to go without than be obliged to share with people you’d been brought up to consider beneath you.
I am at present about halfway through The Sum of Us; look for a longer blog post when I’ve finished it. Meanwhile, I would suggest that this book should be required reading for our present moment.
What I’m Watching I wrote in my last post about how much I’m enjoying rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but as Stephanie and I took a hiatus from that show to binge The Mandalorian, so again we’re taking a hiatus to watch The Stand—the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth 1978 novel in which 99.9% of the world is wiped out by a weaponized superflu nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the remaining people of the U.S. gather in two opposing communities. On one side are the forces of good, who have been drawn to Boulder, Colorado by dreams of a 108 year old Black woman named Mother Abigail. On the other are those drawn by promises of power, licentiousness, and revenge by the evil Randall Flagg, a denim-clad and cowboy-boot shod demon in human form, who establishes his new society in (of course) Las Vegas.
As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, last term I taught a fourth year class on pandemic fiction; I did not include The Stand, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the few actual pandemic novels written prior to the 21st century, mainly because it is way too long (almost 1500 pages) to shoehorn into a semester-long course. Given its significance to the topic, however, I did record a short lecture in which I ran down the key themes and plot points (which you can watch here if you’re so inclined). But one of the things I found interesting in retrospect—I first read The Stand in high school, and then read it again when King published the unexpurgated version in 1990—after doing all the preparatory reading for my course, was how King transformed a story about a biological catastrophe into a Manichaean light v. dark, G v. E, cosmic battle royale with Mother Abigail as God’s surrogate and Randall Flagg as Satan’s proxy. While the novel meditated at length on the nature of civilization and how one pragmatically goes about rebuilding after the apocalypse—with 1500 pages, how could it not?—it is obvious that it’s the metaphysical war that most interested King.
We’re slightly more than halfway through the new adaptation, and quite enjoying it. It was quite badly reviewed; and while I can agree with some of the complaints, it has been on the whole well-adapted to the screen, and (mostly) well-cast. Alexander Skarsgard is at his menacing best as Randall Flagg, James Marsden is all wry southern charm as Texan Stu Redman, Greg Kinnear plays the professorial Glen Bateman with the right balance of pomposity and insight; Whoopi Goldberg basically plays Mother Abigail as a devoutly Christian Guinan with a head of white dreadlocks; my favourite however is Brad William Henke, who plays the mentally disabled Tom Cullen with a guileless, earnest simplicity that avoids stereotypes (those who watch Justified will recognize Henke from season two as Coover Bennett, a similarly mentally delayed character whose disability manifests instead in sociopathic violence).
There is much that is left out, and much that could have been done better, but on the whole it is a pretty satisfying adaptation of an intriguing but flawed novel (“intriguing but flawed” is how I’d characterize most of King’s oeuvre, but I suppose that is to be expected when you churn out an average of two brick-sized novels a year). If you like The Stand, or are just amenable to Stephen King more generally, I’d recommend this series.
What I’m Writing I recently dusted off an article-in-progress that had been mouldering for a year or two, on zombie apocalypse and celebrity; in a fit of energy I finished it and submitted it to a journal. I now have another that I’m looking to finish, on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and nostalgia. Given that I’ll be doing that novel in both of my classes over the next two weeks, it seems an ideal time to return to it. Given that it is also about apocalypse, though of the non-zombie variety—and indeed about a civilization-ending pandemic—I’ve been trying to rewrite my introduction to put it in the context of the past year. It’s been slow going, not least because finding the right balance between the personal and the objective can be tricky when your aim is to submit it to a scholarly journal. But the overarching argument—that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world in which the main characters are actors and musicians travelling between settlements to perform Shakespeare and classical music comprises a nostalgic desire to return to a pre-postmodern humanism—is, I think, a strong one. I just have to fill out a core section in which I discuss humanism in a more granular way.
(This process will also be useful, as it will give me a lot of lecture material).
On a related subject, I’ve also been working on a new essay on Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I have an article on Pratchett and his campaign for assisted dying coming out soon in a new collection; I’m trying to carry that momentum forward on a handful of Sir Terry essays, but the one I’ve been focusing on is a reading the Discworld novels in the context of the philosophy of American Pragmatism and what I’ve been calling the “magical humanism” exhibited in a lot of contemporary fantasy.
As much as I love Sir Terry’s writing, I find it difficult to write about it in a scholarly manner, for the basic reason that I find it difficult to find a focus and not end up running off madly in all directions. The essay I wrote for the collection, which came in way past deadline, needed to be cut from nine thousand words to six thousand (one of the essay’s blind reviewers said something to the effect of “this is obviously a piece of work gesturing to a much larger theory of Pratchett’s fiction,” which was at once both gratifying and true). Part of the problem is the iterative nature of the Discworld’s world-building: each of the forty-one novels is a standalone narrative, and with each new installment, Sir Terry modified and refined aspects of that world, but also returned to the same themes and preoccupations in such a way that it is close to impossible to discuss the political and philosophical preoccupations of a given novel without being obliged to reference a dozen others.
This isn’t the most conducive thing for my intellectual temperament, which at the best of times is digressive and inclined to run down whatever rabbit holes I find, until I realize that, several paragraphs of writing on, I’ve found myself discussing an entirely different topic. (Presumably, devoted readers of this blog will have noticed this). That being said, however, it is a pleasure to lose myself in this topic … not least because I increasingly see Sir Terry’s humanism as a necessary antidote to our present toxic political moment.