Category Archives: wingnuttery

The Trumpocalypse Fallacy

We interrupt the planned blog post on the zombie apocalypse for the following rant about the Trumpocalypse (and why it won’t happen).

I watched the highlights of the vice-presidential debate this morning, expecting to be amused by the spectacle of (as one person in my Facebook feed put it) watching your homophobic uncle argue with your nerdy science teacher. Or the epic fight between mayonnaise and margarine. Or … well, choose your own analogy for bland vs. blank.

Instead, I find myself deeply disturbed.

Part of this discomfiture proceeds from other thoughts that have been rattling about in my head. If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you’ll know my last few posts have been preoccupied with apocalypse: most specifically of the zombie variety, but I also had an extended riff in my Pop Culture class last week on disaster films apropos of Independence Day. One of my recurrent points, which I made in my last post, was that narratives of apocalypse reflect a desire for radical change, coupled with an inability to imagine that change short of wholesale destruction. And I reflected parenthetically that this might account, in part, for the rise of Donald Trump.

Why? Because while there is a certain, deeply deluded segment of his supporters who seem to believe that he is a genius businessman who will use his deal-making acumen to fix the country, and another segment who embrace his racial politics to the exclusion of everything else, there are also those who are just so disgusted with the current U.S. government on all levels that they just want to burn it to the ground (to be certain, these are not three mutually exclusive categories—a Venn diagram would show massive overlap).

I had been mulling over a possible blog post exploring this idea: that a large part of people’s desire to see Trump elected proceeds from what Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster,” but which many ostensible Trump supporters have likened to a Heath-Ledger-as-Joker desire to “watch the world burn.” Which is itself not nihilistic, but apocalyptic in the true sense of the word: a purgation that would destroy a broken system and open space to erect a new one. Indeed, the most common mantra of Trump supporters is the assertion that “the system is broken” or “Washington is broken.” Thinking in these terms, it becomes easier to see why Trump’s many egregious enormities, his lies and erraticism, and his obvious incompetence, do not count against him—in this scenario, in which he is a bomb thrown by voters, his incompetence is his greatest asset.

Among his supporters, the sense is that he would eradicate the edifices of the smug elites, the politically correct, the “establishment.” And in some sectors of the left, Hilary Clinton is seen as anathema because she would just be a continuation of a broken and corrupt system, whereas—as Susan Sarandon said to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes—“Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode.” I make no claims for Sarandon’s credentials as a political expert, but she does give voice to a not-insignificant number of disaffected Bernie Sanders’ supporters, for whom Hilary is unacceptable specifically because she will not tear down the system as they believe Bernie would have (which is its own quaint delusion, but that’s a post for another day).

Ever since Trump became the nominee—well, since he first descended that escalator a year and a half ago, but more intently since his nomination—I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this phenomenon. More specifically, I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of people who would vote for him. One thing I’ve settled on is that the only rational reason to prefer him over Hilary (if competence and rationality factor into your decision at all) is if you embrace this nuclear option: that you think he’ll actually explode the system. I understand that line of thinking. I find it morally indefensible, but at least it has a basis in logic.

But here’s the problem: it won’t happen.

This was my realization upon watching Mike Pence’s debate performance. There will be no Trumpocalypse, for the simple reason that for all Trump’s incompetence, bluster, attention deficit disorder, and inability to absorb even the most basic elements of American civics, he doesn’t have the wherewithal to wreak the kind of havoc the apocalypticists desire.

John Kasich’s campaign performed a great service when it revealed that Trump’s people had offered to make him the most powerful vice president in history, giving him oversight of foreign and domestic policy. What would President Trump concern himself with? they asked. “Making America great again.” This offer was a confirmation of something Trump critics had suspected from the start: that he’s uninterested in the actual business of governance.

Whether Mike Pence was made a comparable offer remains unknown, but there seems to be near-unanimity among the punditry that last night Pence looked and sounded more “presidential” than Trump ever has. Indeed, one piece of wisdom that has been floating around is that Pence’s performance was good for Pence, bad for Trump—namely because, probably for the first time ever, we watched a vice-presidential candidate demur from endorsing any of his running mate’s policies, and indeed seemed to inhabit an alternative reality from Trump as he simply denied a host of things Trump has said and done in recent months (and then had the audacity to suggest Tim Kaine was the one in an alternative reality for “imagining” these things).

Conversely, I don’t see Pence’s performance as bad for Trump at all. Trump’s supporters won’t care one way or another, but I can easily imagine Republicans leery of Trump being reassured: Pence’s entire shtick was about suggesting there will be an adult in the White House, and that while Trump is out and about making America great again, he will take care of the important stuff.

Of course, it is impossible to accurately predict what a Trump White House will be like. It may be that he is so bored by the day-to-day details of governance that he essentially abdicates to Pence. On the other hand, it is just as easy to imagine him getting his hackles up at the suggestion that his VP is the one in charge, and capriciously throwing spanners and executive orders into the gears. Certainly, the biggest and most exhausting task in a Trump administration would be damage control every time he holds a press conference or inadvertently insults a foreign dignitary.

But what we need to remember is that the American ship of state is not a sprightly frigate, but a massive and fully-laden oil tanker. It does not change course except by slow increments. I’m not speaking here of policy decisions, but of the deep structure of the federal government, which employs nearly 2.8 million people; there is a huge apparatus of civil servants carrying out the business of government on a daily basis, to say nothing of juggernauts like the Department of Defense and U.S. industry more broadly, none of which would be subject to revolutionary change—certainly not by way of anything Trump (or for that matter any president) could effect.

All of which is by way of saying that Trump’s histrionics in the west wing would wreak havoc, but not with the Republic’s elemental structures. They would adversely affect the most vulnerable: the poor, immigrants, people of colour, Muslims, women; and as for what Trump didn’t inflict, it’s a good bet that Mike Pence, working in concert with Paul Ryan, would pick up the slack, dismantling Planned Parenthood, eviscerating Obamacare, rolling back gay rights, facilitating more draconian law enforcement, slashing taxes on the 1%, doing away with environmental and financial regulations, denuding access to abortion and birth control—enough of which would be consonant with President Trump’s platform that it’s hard to imagine a complaint emanating from the Oval Office (presumably redecorated in gold leaf and Roman statuary).

To say nothing of the fact that everyone standing politically to the left of Attila the Hun would spend four years offering up novenas for the longevity of Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, and Breyer.

I have little illusion that when I share my political perspectives, I’m doing little more than preaching to the choir of the forty-odd people who read my posts. And given that most of them are Canadians, this makes my editorializing that much more futile. Still: if you know an American, left or right, who sees the Trumpocalypse as a revolutionary possibility, please feel free to share my rant with them.

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We will return to our regularly scheduled blog posts soon.

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From the Decay of Lying to the Velocity of Mendacity, or, The Fiction that is Donald J. Trump

C YRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
V IVIAN. I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

oscar_wilde_portraitLike most people, as I have watched the U.S. election, I have frequently wondered what Oscar Wilde would make of it. And more specifically, what he would make of Donald Trump.

Wilde published his elegant essay “The Decay of Lying” in 1889, and then again with significant revisions in 1891. He composed it as a dialogue between aesthete Vivian and skeptic Cyril, and argues (through Vivian) that a preoccupation with reality and realism has corrupted and denuded art. What, he asks, has happened to the beautiful lie? He laments,

Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind. The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.

Like much of Wilde’s writing, the apparent frivolity of his tone and glib assertions of his narrators are just window-dressing for profound insight into our relationship to and with art and literature. What is fiction and poetry, he basically asks, if not a series of beautiful lies? Lies which, Vivian is careful to observe, transform reality itself: it is in this essay that Wilde formed his famous axiom that “life imitates art.” A superficial reading of this aphorism suggests the ways in which people chase after the latest trends in fashion as created by popular culture. Wilde’s point is however more nuanced, and makes a semiotic argument decades before semiotics was all the rage in English departments: namely, that art and literature facilitate and expand a vocabulary of expression that potentially transforms the way we perceive the world. Challenged by Cyril to prove his point, Vivian responds,

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Again, we have the distinct impression of a tongue stuck firmly in a cheek, but Wilde’s argument—lurking subtly underneath Vivian’s high-handed and ostensibly absurd assertion—troubles the assumption of art as straightforward representation, of Hamlet’s pompous direction to the players that the purpose of art “both at the / first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the / mirror up to nature.” Hamlet comes in for some excoriation from Vivian for this line, as do those who quote it unironically, not understanding “that this unfortunate aphorism is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.”

But what does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, that goes to my musing about what Wilde (or his mouthpiece Vivian) would make of this moment’s most magnificent liar. I think we might be operating now outside of Wilde’s wheelhouse, for it isn’t so much that Trump lies as that he embodies untruth. Wilde, I suspect, would be less concerned with the decay of lying than with the sheer velocity of Trump’s mendacity.

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Donald Trump Did Not Take Place

One of the greatest frustrations supporters of Hillary Clinton and those with an affection for Civilization As We Know It have had in this campaign is the double standard for honesty being applied to her and Trump. By any objective measure, as was observed by Ruth Marcus on Slate magazine’s most recent Political Gabfest, “Hillary wins the transparency Olympics.” Which isn’t to say she hasn’t prevaricated, embellished or downplayed the truth, or outright lied—just that when you tally up her untruths and juxtapose them with Trump’s, it’s a molehill dwarfed by a mountain. For a long time it seemed to me as if the media was grading the respective candidates’ honesty on a curve, with Trump benefiting and Clinton suffering from different standards applied across the board.

I’m no longer convinced by that analogy, however, because it suggests that Trump and Clinton exist on the same epistemic continuum, one in which truth and falsity are givens. To be certain, that’s where Clinton is. Trump, however, is no longer there, and it’s doubtful whether he ever was. Rather, he has come to be the embodiment of the postmodernist moment when a fictional character steps off the page or screen into reality, and in so doing troubles “reality” as stable category. As the saying goes, if Donald Trump didn’t exist, we would have to invent him. Except—and here’s the rub—we did.

Donald Trump is a fictional character, and this is why the normal epistemic rules we apply to presidential candidates have been more or less irrelevant to his candidacy. I want to be clear: when I call Trump fictional, I am being wholly unironic. I’m not questioning his empirical, physical reality—he is a person with a history, a body, a passport and (we assume—he’s never showed us) a birth certificate—but asserting that his candidacy, and the frighteningly real possibility that he may be elected, can only be properly understood in terms of fiction.

It’s not that Hillary Clinton is being held to a different standard of truth so much as inhabiting a different epistemic paradigm entirely. She traffics in reality, and is preoccupied with policy and the quotidian details of governance, preoccupied with politics in its classic definition as the “art of the possible.” The experience she has accrued as First Lady, Senator for New York, and Secretary of State is matched by a comparable accrual of secrets, lies, gaffes, scandals (real and imagined), half-truths and embellishments, enmities and connections, losses and victories—in other words, the baggage that anyone of her prominence with so long a tenure in public life amasses. The arguments made about her dishonesty, or her cozy relationship with the 1%, or any of the other issues arising from her life spent in politics are however different in kind from the most basic principle animating Trump’s rump: that it is precisely this experience, which tars her as “establishment,” that is her disqualifying quality. Trump will fix things because he says he will. Nothing factual pertaining to his history of bankruptcies, grifting, shafting contractors and investors and banks, his mob ties, or to the very real likelihood that his net worth is nowhere near what he claims, gains any traction with his supporters, because in the end he is a fictional character.

To help explain what I mean, it’s worth remembering that Hillary and Bill Clinton have a fictional dimension themselves, but one that ultimately serves to solidify their place in the world of truth and falsity. The Clintons have provided fodder for a host of filmic and televisual depictions of the presidency, from direct fictionalizations like Primary Colors and Political Animals, to shows that have been more obliquely informed by the Clinton political saga like The West Wing and House of Cards. Such parallels don’t make Hillary Clinton herself a fiction in the same way as I’m characterizing Trump, however. Indeed, they provide a contrast to reality in the way they idealize (The West Wing), satirize (Veep), or dystopianize (House of Cards) the political life (no, “dystopianize” wasn’t a word, but it is now. Use it in good health). This contrast serves to reinforce the distinction between fiction and reality: these narratives are by turns fantasies of what we wish the Clintons could be, or what we suspect they really are.

Trump, on the other hand, emerges on the political stage fully fictional, built out of the many mendacities of his life-long self-fashioning: posing, over the phone, as his own publicist in order to mythologize his supposed playboy lifestyle; his transformation from builder to brand; his serial marriages to women whose beauty flatters his image; his emergence as a reality TV star. Trump as a human being is about as real as his hair. His persona is a carefully wrought bit of artifice that employs extant, popular American tropes that serve to paper over the inconvenient truth of his silver-spoon upbringing. He’s Horatio Alger and P.T. Barnum, and about as honest as both of them combined. But like Alger and Barnum, he has the innate ability to enthrall an audience, even those who might actively loathe the spectacle. Let’s be honest: we can’t discount the fact that at least part of Trump’s success resides in the same horrified fascination that fuels the box office numbers for disaster films. Even those of us objectively appalled at the prospect of him in the Oval Office kind of want him to win in November, just to see what happens. But that’s because we’re narrative junkies, and that’s one of the reasons for his success: he’s a fictional juggernaut now, writing a story as he goes that none of us—Doonesbury and The Simpsons excepted—could have predicted, but which continues its postmodern encroachment of fiction into reality every day.

I won’t be the first person to ascribe Trump’s candidacy to the pernicious effects of reality TV, and it’s safe to say that his ascendancy is a perfect storm of historical and cultural factors (something made risibly clear by Andrew Coyne in his recent National Post op-ed, in which he literally blames everyone). But it is painfully obvious that Trump is the embodiment of the dissolution of entertainment into reality, something reality TV has been priming us for since it first declared that it wasn’t here to make friends. Every reality TV competition has a villain and a blowhard—those characters that drive up the ratings—and Trump is both. He operates according to those rules, which have nothing to do (ironically, I suppose) with reality, and everything to do with besting the other contestants. The problem in this election cycle is the mind-numbing number of voters who are more than willing to give credence to this logic.

But why? In part because, more than anything else, Trump’s ongoing reality TV candidacy speaks to what people feel is reality rather than any empirical knowledge.

 

GOP 2016 Trump Echoes of Wallace

Make America Great White Trump Again

One can argue endlessly about whether elections have always been more about emotion than thought, truthiness rather than truth, but it is hard to deny that Trump is the ultimate candidate for feelings over facts. The entirety of the 2016 Republican National Convention was given over to how America “feels”—the speeches by the Republican not-so-luminaries who deigned to participate did not cite statistics about a crumbling economy or rampant crime, but asserted instead that Americans feel the economy is tanking, and how they feel threatened by rising crime rates. When confronted in an interview with the objective fact that crime rates are at a thirty-year low, Newt Gingrich doubled down, saying, “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel, and you can go with the theoreticians.”

And when the people delivering speeches weren’t saying that people felt afraid, they went out of their way to scare the shit out of them. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” Rudy Giuliani thundered at the start of his speech, and then went on to suggest that Obama’s tenure emboldened terrorists and criminals, and that Clinton would, if elected, blithely allow terrorists to enter along with a massive flood of Syrian refugees. “The cost of Hillary’s dishonesty,” declared Newt Gingrich, “could be the loss of America as we know it.”

“America as we know it” is an instructive phrase. It is of a piece with the “America” of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The America that people “know” is invariably different from the America that is, for the simple fact that it is too big, too complex, too disparate in every category from income to ideology, for any one person to have an objectively true perspective. But the closest one can come requires empathy, an open mind, and a grasp of history, something actually demonstrated by the current president when he addressed the blinkered nostalgia animating Trump’s slogan:

Here, President Obama puts into historical context the nostalgic idea of America evoked by Trump: the ascendant, dominant America, with a thriving manufacturing sector in which his aggrieved white supporters would have found well-paying blue-collar jobs. The problem with nostalgizing this Golden Age is twofold: first, it represents a fleeting moment in U.S. history, about thirty years—or 12.5% of America’s lifetime. The suggestion that it was some sort of prelapsarian moment ignores all of the historical factors enumerated by President Obama: that the U.S. emerged from WWII unscathed, with all of its manufacturing capabilities intact, while the other major powers in the world lay devastated by the war. (If you want to talk about American Exceptionalism, this was a time when the U.S. was genuinely exceptional, for the simple reason that its cities had not been pounded into dust). There was an economic vacuum into which the U.S. stepped, overturning its prior inclination to isolationism and embracing and facilitating the expansion of globalization. And in so doing, it prospered hugely—but sooner or later, its dominance would inevitably by challenged as other world powers dug themselves out of their postwar holes. Or in Trump parlance, they started “winning.”

Secondly, the tacit idealization of this period ignores one crucial factor, something a former professor of mine pithily summed up in the axiom “the ‘good old days’ were inevitably bad for someone.” Yes, the postwar years comprised a time of great opportunity and prosperity, provided you were white and male. Even if you ignore the blatantly racist drivel that has dropped from Trump’s mouth, his supporters have embraced a nostalgia for white America.

All that being said, Trump has been entirely vague on what version of America was “great” compared to his depiction of a fallen, postlapsarian nation that has forgotten how to “win.” Again, it’s all about the feelings: the historical facts and the contemporary reality of lower crime and a growing economy are irrelevant to a narrative of decline and fall requiring a strong man to turn the nation around. All of Trump’s critics who modify his slogan to “Make America White Again” aren’t wrong, at least not where his supporters are concerned; but for Trump himself, the slogan should really be “Make America Trump Again,” and the fact that it never was is entirely beside the point.

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A Probable Impossibility

I keep coming back to Aristotle’s principle than a writer of fiction “should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities” (Poetics XXIV). By which he means it is better to have something unreal behaving logically (a faster-than-lightspeed spaceship, for example, inhabited by believable characters) than something real behaving in unlikely fashion (an everyday Joe winning the lottery three times in as many days). Readers and audiences accept impossibilities, provided they obey the laws of story and narrative.

For some time now I’ve viewed Trump’s success as an improbably possibility: all the way along it has been technically possible for him to rise to the top of the Republican ticket and have a realistic shot at the White House, but possible in the same way that if I started training tomorrow I could win the Boston Marathon in five years. Possible, but infinitesimally unlikely.

I have now changed my thinking. A Trump presidency—or for that matter an America in which 40% of its voters think a mendacious, self-aggrandizing businessman with four bankruptcies and the attention span of a goldfish is qualified to be president—should be impossible. And indeed, the very prospect of his nomination was almost universally considered absurd on the face of it by the media’s brain trust. Those few people, like Rep. Keith Ellison, who warned that it could happen were literally laughed at.

But in the present moment, Trump’s rise has all the implacable inevitability of a disaster film. For a candidacy that privileges feeling over thought, “President Trump” feels probable, as impossible as it should be. It is tempting to joke that “he’s not the president America needs, but he is the president America deserves,” but there would be too much collateral damage in that eventuality. Whether the electorate deserves it or not, American popular political culture has been laying the groundwork for years. Keith Ellison defends his warning by citing the fact that in Minnesota, they elected Jesse Ventura in defiance of all common sense; he could just as well have pointed to the nomination of Sarah Palin as a VP candidate, the two-term reign of the Governator in California, and of course that time the country elected a former B-movie actor as president—twice.

Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” allegorizes what happens when fiction becomes all-consuming and persuasive. When the imaginary world of Tlön captures the world’s imagination, its fiction trespasses into reality:

Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly.

Donald Trump, as I have argued in this post, is wholly fictional. He does not merely lie, he is a lie, one that operates according to the rules of the “reality” of reality television. With this in mind, however, there is one ray of hope: the villains and the blowhards of reality TV may get the most attention and drive up ratings, but statistically they rarely win. Most often, the winners are the innocuous contestants, the ones who stay off the radar while working hard to make themselves valuable without drawing attention. Blowhards and villains eventually piss too many people off, and find themselves voted off the island or out of the house … or fired.

Fingers crossed for that kind of narrative inevitability.

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Winners and Losers

I watched all four nights of the Republican convention in Cleveland. All four. I did it in part so I could follow along as Andrew Sullivan liveblogged it: since he retired his epic blog The Dish, I’ve been in serious withdrawal from Sullivan’s incisive, insightful, and often entertainingly cantankerous perspective on politics, American and otherwise. But mostly I did it to bear witness to history in a way not available to those who watched the Reichstag burn down. They could not have known what was coming, that a comical Chaplinesque clown would use his influence over populist rage to vanquish the forces of the moderate establishment. The Junkers and the bourgeois conservatives assumed that Hitler would be malleable once in power, that he would be a useful cudgel to hammer the socialists, and that ultimately they could use him to their own ends.

Well, we know how that worked out.

Don’t go calling down Godwin’s Law on me. Smarter people than I have pointed out the similarities between Trumpism and fascism, including Adam Gopnik (twice) and the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan. Read them and come back to me with a denial on this point.

But that’s not my primary concern in this post. In this post, I want to talk about the idea of winners and losers, something near and dear to Donald Trump and his idiosyncratic rhetoric.

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After everything that went down over the four nights of the RNC, I find it interesting that one of the things that continues to rankle for me is his Beyonce-like entrance on the first night to the strains of Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” I’m not alone: there was a chorus of anger that the putative figurehead of the Republican Party would appropriate Freddie Mercury to his own ends. Trump’s brief shout-out to the LGBT community in his keynote speech on Thursday night does nothing to obviate the GOP’s systematic opposition to, and attempts to roll back, gay rights; it certainly does nothing to counter the fact that he chose one of the Republicans’ worst offenders to be his running mate. That he would use the music of a gay icon to accompany his entrance is tone-deaf at best, and actually obscene at worst.

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All that aside, it is utterly unsurprising that Trump would favour “We Are The Champions.” Taken entirely out of context, the song articulates what is quite obviously something close to Trump’s sense of self. If I had to guess what his favourite lyric is, I’d have to say “No time for losers!” Even if you ignore his biography to the point of his announcement on June 16th, 2015, there is no avoiding the fact that Donald Trump’s primary method of interacting with the world is to divide it into winners and losers. He, obviously, is a winner. Those people he likes and approves of are also winners (though this is a redundant observation, as one assumes being a winner is a prerequisite for the Donald’s approbation). His opponents and enemies, just as obviously, are losers. He chose to run for president because America is no longer a winner, and that is unacceptable. America has been losing for too long: to China, to Mexico, to Russia, to ISIS. His entire candidacy is about being a winner again. “We’re gonna win so much,” he famously declared at a rally, “we’re gonna win at every level, we’re gonna win economically, we’re gonna win with the economy, we’re gonna win with military, we’re gonna win with health care and for our veterans, we’re gonna win with every single facet, we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning!”

The rhetoric is childish and risible, and has justifiably come in for a great deal of mockery, but we make a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. It is less Trump’s actual words than his world-view that resonates: there are winners and losers, and if you stand with me you’ll be a winner like I am. Trump is essentially the schoolyard bully writ large, who inevitably attracts a sniggering entourage of toadies eager for the bully’s approval, people who really are just desperate to not be the objects of bullying themselves. There is no sense that making common cause with the others being bullied is an option, because winners vs. losers is a zero-sum game: if you are to win, someone else must lose, so best to hitch your wagon to the hugest, most bombastic star in your firmament.

The irony of Trump’s use of “We Are The Champions” is that, in spite of its soaring anthemic chorus, the song contains a distinct measure of pathos in its slower, quieter moments. It speaks of paying dues and suffering, of making mistakes, and—that great mark of the loser!—having sand kicked in one’s face. And let us not forget that the struggle is ongoing: “We’ll keep on fighting till the end!” Mercury sings, suggesting that “champion” is less an achieved status than a state of mind, and that the struggle never ends—a sentiment made all the more poignant by his high-profile death at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Perhaps if Freddie Mercury was still alive, still touring with Queen and headlining shows alongside the Rolling Stones; perhaps if “The Show Must Go On,” which now indelibly inflects “Champions” with an elegiac quality, wasn’t the last song Mercury recorded before succumbing to his illness; perhaps if his career had not been a great, glorious, campy fuck-you to the voices of censure, of disapprobation, of authority; perhaps then “We Are The Champions” might fit a bit better into Donald Trump’s ethos.

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But of course none of those things are true, and we can add Trump’s use of Queen to the long list of politicians completely misapprehending the nuances of songs they use while campaigning (the ultimate example of which is perhaps Ronald Reagan’s use of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984, though Paul Ryan’s professed love of Rage Against the Machine is even more cognitively dissonant). And in the long run, playing “Champions” to accompany his entrance on stage is small beer compared to his countless other outrages: fomenting anti-Islamic and anti-Hispanic sentiment, playing upon people’s fears and anxieties to further his personal brand, and basically reinventing the Gish gallop by an order of magnitude such that fact checkers quite simply can’t keep up with his mendacity, all of which have immediate and pernicious real-world effects.

But the rhetoric of winners and losers as a zero-sum game really should disqualify anyone seeking high office—or really, office at any level. If government has a responsibility, it is to the “losers.” This has been the guiding principle of all our great humanitarians and humanists, and is the central tenet of almost every single religion in history—including the Christian faith to which Trump pretends. I am an atheist, but was raised Catholic, and to this day the part of the Gospels that resonates most for me is Matthew 5:3-11, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus celebrates the meek, the poor, the peacemakers, and so on. As a witness to American politics, I have yet to see the right wing square their devout Christianity with their dismissal of the people Christ specifically sought to elevate.

Despite his ultimate fame, Freddie Mercury was a loser: a shy young man born as Farrokh Bulsara in colonial Africa (in the British protectorate of Zanzibar) to Parsi parents, whose savant-like musical skills made themselves obvious at an early age. As his fame grew, his sexuality asserted itself more and more, becoming something akin to an open secret. But it was something he reveled in in his public persona, and he was as frequently vilified as he was celebrated. In the world of social conservatism, Mercury is doubly suspect: not just gay, but foreign. And not just foreign, but born in Africa to parents of Iranian extraction.

It is perhaps no wonder that the music of Queen speaks so frequently to the underdog. Not that this is unusual in the history of rock and roll, which has so often given voice to society’s losers, as has so much of rap and hip hop. And what is blues music, if not the cri de coeur of the downtrodden? It puts me in mind of the wonderful speech Jon Stewart delivered on the occasion of Bruce Springsteen receiving the Kennedy Center Honor. He talks about working in a bar in central New Jersey, hinting at his aimless and angst-ridden youth, but that when he listened to the music of Bruce Springsteen, “everything changed … and I never again felt like a loser.” When you listen to Bruce’s music, he says, “you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem … about losers.”

I have no pithy end to this post, no rhetorical flourish. At one point I thought I could end on something like “But if Trump wins, we’re all losers,” but I think if I wrote a sentence like that in earnest I might actually have to stab myself in the eye with a knitting needle.

I came relatively late to the music of Queen: they weren’t on my radar in high school for the simple fact that no one I knew listened to them (or admitted to it). I chalk this up in part to the fact that a Catholic high school in the 1980s is about as homophobic a place as you’re likely to find. I watched the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 almost in its entirety, largely because of all the guest musicians, and ended up being transported by the Queen songbook.

After night four of the GOP convention, as I thought about going to bed, I felt I needed a life affirming anthem.

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Donald Trump, Mother Night

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Since June 16th, the day Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States, it’s safe to say that the goalposts of “conventional wisdom” have had to be moved so far, it’s entirely possible they’re currently in the next county. Comedians sent up hosannas for the rich veins of humour Trump would provide, but it was generally assumed that his campaign would be ignominiously short. When we arrived at the end of August with his poll numbers only going up, the conventional wisdom was that the end of summer would see the end of his fortunes—people would return from their vacations, start paying more attention to the news, and once that happened, Trump would inevitably fade.

Except that here we are in the middle of December, six months on from that day he rode that ridiculous escalator down to his podium to the strains of Neil Young, and the Donald ain’t going anywhere. If anything, he seems even more entrenched, a fact that is worrisome all across the political spectrum: people on the left blanch at how his outrageous, nativist bigotry has found such fecund soil, while establishment Republicans are terrified at the prospect of the lasting damage he might do the GOP (to be fair, I’m certain there are those on the right who are also appalled at his racist populism, but very few—certainly not those running against him—have been particularly aggressive in condemning him).

One of the theories that has been floated in an attempt to explain his candidacy is that he’s actually colluding with Hilary Clinton: that he’s actually a Democratic sleeper whose entire campaign is an elaborate scheme to destroy any possibility that the GOP could emerge in this election cycle looking accommodating and reasonable (as their postmortem on 2012 strongly encouraged). Those who endorse this theory—though in reality it is difficult to discern just how serious people are when they propose it—point to Trump’s previous associations with the Clintons, to the fact that they attended his (most recent) wedding, that Donald and Bill have been not-infrequent golf buddies, that Trump has made political contributions to both of them, and that in the past he has self-identified as a Democrat. And then there is the matter of the phone call between Donald and Bill in the weeks before his launched his campaign, in which, it has been reported, Bill strongly encouraged him to run for president.

To be clear, I do not buy this theory. At all. If Bill Clinton did in fact egg Trump on, to my mind all that demonstrates is that Bill is a wily old fuck who knew full well that, if Trump heeded his words, his candidacy would throw a massive spanner in the GOP gears (though just how massive a spanner, no one could have foreseen). I think it far more likely that Trump’s run is simply the product of his egoism and narcissism, the desire for a huger, more luxurious diamond-encrusted reality TV stage than The Apprentice. And however brain-dead and idiotic his policy suggestions have been, he’s shrewd enough to know that his brand of populism simply wouldn’t play with Democrats—something he himself noted in 1998, according to a new meme that’s been making the rounds of social media:

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The possibility that Trump’s campaign is all an act designed to sabotage Republican fortunes is an attractive idea on both sides of the political coin. On the left, it would give the lie to his egregious stances, and would further be a deeply satisfying thumb in the eye to all those who bought into his rhetoric. On the right—at least among those aghast at Trump’s insurgency—it would recuperate the Republican brand somewhat, to say nothing of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about the perfidy of the Clintons.

Jeb!

As I say above: unlikely. But then, I’m reluctant to make pronouncements on the Republican campaign(s) anymore.

But let’s for a moment, just as an intellectual exercise, grant the premise. If for no other reason than it makes me think of my favourite novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night. If Trump’s campaign is in fact a massive ruse, it’s scarcely less horrifying than the more likely scenario that he is serious.

mother_night-largeMother Night is a novel about an American writer and playwright “of moderate reputation” named Howard W. Campbell, living in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. His family had moved there because of his father’s business when he was young, and so he grew up as facile in German as in English—and indeed, he works exclusively in German. He married a German actress named Helga, whose father is the Chief of Police in Berlin. Howard and Helga are studiously apolitical: as Germany descends into fascism around them, they withdraw into their “nation of two,” ignoring the political and social upheavals and living the privileged lives of the well-connected and moderately famous.

One day in 1938, Howard is approached in a park by a man from the U.S. War Department, who asks him if he would be willing to serve his country as a spy—to parlay his fame as a playwright into a position within Goebbels’ propaganda agency, broadcasting Nazi propaganda in English. He would be contacted anonymously by American agents in Germany and given instructions on certain words, phrases, and inflections to work into his scripts, which would be coded messages to Allied intelligence.

At first he is reluctant, but the American agent is confident he will cooperate—because, as he says, he has read all of Howard’s plays, and that he learned from them “that you admire pure hearts and heroes … That you love good and hate evil.” Except, Howard notes, his conspiratorial new friend is blind to the real reason this job appeals to him:

He didn’t mention the best reason for expecting me to go on and be a spy. The best reason was that I was a ham. As a spy of the sort he described, I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out.

And I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler’s right-hand man, and nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside.

And so Howard W. Campbell goes from studiously apolitical citizen of a “nation of two” to famous, fulminating American Nazi. Which is how he is known to history: as a traitor who turned his back on his birth nation to spew vile anti-Semitic propaganda for one of the most murderous regimes in history. The novel, incidentally, is presented as a confession and testament written in preparation for his trial for war crimes; he writes in a cell in Jerusalem in 1961, after he has been abducted from New York City by Israeli Nazi-hunters. The U.S. government, having facilitated his escape from Europe at the end of the war, will not confirm or deny his story.

He never knew what intelligence his broadcasts communicated; he never knew what effect he had for the Allied war effort. But he became a darling of the SS and the Nazis’ braintrust, and until the end proselytized their philosophy of hate. And at the end of the war, after his wife goes missing while performing for the soldiers in Crimea, he has one last encounter with his father-in-law Werner, the Berlin police chief and inveterate Nazi who had always hated the fact that his daughter had married an American writer rather than a German soldier. “Did you know,” he asks Howard, “that until this very moment, nothing would have delighted me more than to prove that you were a spy, to see you shot?” But no longer, he says: he no longer cares, because he has listened to every single one of Howard’s broadcasts, which he started doing out of hatred, wanting to study his loathed son-in-law. But he eventually came to a realization:

“You could never have served the enemy as well as you served us,” he said. “I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I might have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler—but from you.” He shook my hand. “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”

Mother Night is an odd novel when considered in relation to Vonnegut’s other writing—odd because it is generally very low-key, lacking the verbal bombast and exuberance of such novels as Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Cat’s Cradle, to say nothing of its quiet realism, utterly unlike the others’ irruptions of the fantastic. There is no “So it goes” in Mother Night, no invitations to take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. And it has something rare in Vonnegut, something he acknowledges in a preface: it has a pretty straightforward moral. “We are what we pretend to be,” he writes, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

It is a striking variation on George Orwell’s famous observation that “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” The prospect that Donald Trump’s candidacy might be a charade is no comfort to me—not even close. In fact, I wonder if that wouldn’t in some ways be even worse. One way or another, it’s a reasonably good bet that his increasingly outrageous pronouncements aren’t sincerely held beliefs, but rhetoric designed to elicit roars of approval from the crowd to stoke the gaping maw of his ego. (Here’s a variation on the Clinton-Trump collusion narrative, Hollywood version: he started out as a Democrat sleeper, never expecting to last more than two or three months; but once he found himself on top in the polls, receiving the adoration of thousands of mouth-breathers, he embraced his new identity as conservative demagogue, and the increasingly frantic calls of Clinton staffers go unanswered). But whether his campaign is pretence, pandering, or deeply-held beliefs, its pernicious effects are the same: he has given voice to America’s id, and that’s a genie that won’t be going back into its bottle for a long time to come.

Several times in the lead-up to the Canadian federal election in October, I found myself jotting down notes toward a blog post on Stephen Harper and his increasingly noxious campaign. My principal theme was that it’s unfortunate that we have so often tended to misuse the terms “fascist” and “fascism,” throwing them at conservative figures so frequently that, when something actually approximating a fascist sensibility emerges, they have lost their power and meaning. I think the other reason Mother Night resonates when I think of Donald Trump is that his demagoguery—rallying an aggrieved nativist rump by vilifying certain ethnic and religious minorities through outright lies—has such clear analogues in the twentieth century. And, frankly, we do ourselves a disservice not to point them out.

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Paranoia’s White Privilege

At this point in my life, I can safely say that I’ve got conspiracy theory fatigue. Part of that is self-inflicted, as I spent five years writing my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postwar American fiction and film; and having staked out that scholarly turf, I’ve kept myself apprised of the currents of paranoid wingnuttery in the eleven years since, from Trutherism to Birtherism and beyond. After a time it all becomes extremely repetitive: the pronouncements of those whom Richard Hofstadter dubbed “paranoid spokesmen” are about as formulaic and predictable as pornography.

I offer this preamble by way of saying that I very, very rarely feel compelled to write about this sort of thing any more.

What twigged my interest over the last few days is a report that a group of Texan Tea Partiers have raised concerns over a series of joint military exercises that will take place partially in the state, code-named Jade Helm 15. Now, concern over a large military exercise taking place in your backyard is understandable, but of course the conspiracists are proclaiming loudly that this is a “false flag” operation designed to provide cover for the invasion of Texas and establishment of martial law. Those making this claim point to the fact that several Wal-Marts have closed unexpectedly, and have suggested that the empty stores will be used as detention camps for anyone resisting the ensuing occupation.

wal-mart

There’s more, involving dark claims that tunnels have been built between the Wal-Marts and other points to better facilitate the invasion, but I think you get the idea. Yet another installment in the wingnut chronicles, right? Except that this time the conspiracy theory has received political endorsement: Governor Greg Abbott has responded to the wingnuts by mobilizing the Texas National Guard and ordering them to “monitor” the operations to make certain they don’t overstep their bounds. “It is important that Texans,” he said, “know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed upon.” And if that wasn’t enough, Senator Ted Cruz has promised his constituents that he will get answers from the Pentagon because “when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don’t trust what it is saying.” Though if Jade Helm 15 is in fact a false flag operation designed to turn Texas into Obama’s tinpot dictatorship, I’m not certain why Cruz seems to think the Pentagon would tell him that.

But then, wacko-bird is as wacko-bird does.

Senator Ted Cruz - Lynchburg, VA

Even here, with elected officials getting in on the paranoia, I can hardly colour myself surprised. Considering the accusations and charges thrown at Obama from the highest levels of the GOP, the invasion of Texas seems like small beer.

No, what’s gotten under my skin in reading this most recent conspiracist argle-bargle is the realization that this kind of paranoia proceeds from a position of privilege. “Paranoia,” let’s not forget, is a psychological designation and entails, among other things, a high degree of delusion and fantasy. Paranoia is by definition contingent upon context. To put it another way: a 1950s housewife living in Topeka who becomes convinced that the government has her under intense surveillance and will soon send the secret police to arrest her is almost certainly paranoid; by contrast, a mid-ranking member of Stalin’s Politburo in the 1930s who believes this is just exercising common sense.

In his excellent book Empire of Conspiracy, Timothy Melley marks out conspiracy-theory based paranoia from more pedestrian manifestations by identifying it with what he calls “agency panic.” The term is a deft little double entendre referring to the fear on one hand of “agencies” like the ATF, CIA, FBI, and so forth (or more classically, the Illuminati or the Freemasons); and on the other hand, the fear of losing one’s individual agency at the hands of a conspiratorial group or organization.

But let’s return to the Texas conspiracy and run down a checklist of fears it expresses that are common to most such conspiracy theories:

  • Agency panic
  • Military occupation and martial law
  • Constitutional abuses
  • Mass incarceration

As I said above, I don’t willingly return to my dissertation topic without significant motivation. But what inspired me to sit down with this topic was my sudden anger at just how obscene this kind of conspiracy theory is after a year that has seen the events of Ferguson and the current unrest in Baltimore, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the increasingly unavoidable fact that police forces across the U.S. are implacably and systemically set against urban black populations. I don’t mean this in the sense of “how dare you float a conspiracy theory when there’s racism you should be paying attention to,” but rather that all of those elements that comprise conspiracists’ paranoid fantasies are quotidian realities for African-Americans. Agency panic? Black agency has been systematically denuded by agencies from HUD to local police forces. Military occupation and martial law? From a strict legal perspective, no; but from any practical estimation, urban blacks are constantly subjected to a militarized police force, something that was on terrifying display in Ferguson last summer (as I wrote about in a blog post then). Randy Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop is as damning an indictment of this fact as any I have encountered. Constitutional abuses? The War on Drugs, which has disproportionally hurt African-Americans, has all but dispensed with the Fourth Amendment. Mass incarceration? I don’t feel this one needs any explanation, as the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, again disproportionately affecting black Americans.

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

The paranoid fantasies emerging from the right wing of the American political spectrum have always had a disturbingly racist character, and while organizations like the John Birch Society are Exhibit A, the Birchers are by no means sui generis. If I have to point to the highest-profile paranoia on the American right, the NRA unavoidably takes the top spot, with Wayne LaPierre playing the mouth-frothing role of their paranoid spokesman. Everything in his many, many screeds is framed in terms of governmental intrusion and overreach—the slightest hint of a suggestion of a longer waiting period or a restriction on magazine capacity gets characterized as a plot to disarm Americans in order to pave the way for a totalitarian socialist government. Whether LaPierre actually believes his conspiracist bloviation or is just cynically playing on the credulity of his organization’s membership, it nevertheless feeds an insatiable appetite. When I earlier compared conspiracism to pornography, this was what I was thinking of.

But as any even casual observer of NRA rhetoric knows, second amendment fundamentalism is a whites-only club. When Cliven Bundy defied federal agents who wanted him to stop illegally grazing his cattle on government land, and was supported by heavily-armed “patriots,” he was the darling of Fox News in general and Sean Hannity in particular. When Bundy let his mouth run and revealed he was an unreconstructed racist, watching Hannity backpedal was amusing; but really, if he was being honest, he shouldn’t have. Everything about Bundy’s standoff, from Fox’s initial valorization of his bold defiance of government agents, to the fact that said agents responded peacefully when faced with armed citizens, screams white privilege. A counterfactual floated by any number of people at the time wondered how the situation would have been different if Bundy and his supporters had been black.

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It would take a particularly torturous and disingenuous argument to suggest it would be no different. Fox News and Bundy’s other boosters in the right-wing media would have condemned it as armed revolt; the fact that Bundy was breaking the law in grazing his cattle on government land would have been repeated ad nauseam; and the “patriots” in the scenario would have been the agents of law enforcement. And had Bundy et al been black, it is highly doubtful the government agents would have backed down.

All of this is by way of saying that right-wing paranoia about government is just that—paranoia. The Cliven Bundy fiasco was not in itself a manifestation of conspiracism, it just shared its DNA—the Fox News crowd was quick to jump on board because it perfectly encapsulated the kernel of the conspiracist narrative, i.e. a dictatorial government seeking to run roughshod over a good old boy’s rights (rights which, in this case, he didn’t actually have—but whatever). The touchstone moments of right-wing conspiracism, most notably the catastrophe at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, are not cumulative indicators of systematic government aggression but examples of massive cock-ups. Meanwhile, the actual grist for the paranoiac mill, such as the NSA’s massive, and massively unprecedented, surveillance of digital communication does not seem to figure into the right-wing paranoid mentality. No one in those corners seems inclined to claim Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning as martyrs to the cause.

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Meanwhile, what this past year has continually showed us is that precisely the kind of governmental behavior that animates conspiracist fantasy has been deployed for decades against actual people. A right-wing website, apropos of Jade Helm 15, poses the hypothetical “What would happen if martial law was declared in America?” If actual martial law were declared, that would be shocking, and would go a certain distance to vindicating the paranoia of a vocal minority. But what is not shocking, or at least doesn’t make the news unless there’s a police killing and/or riot, is that a certain segment of America lives under de facto martial law, their rights of privacy and personal autonomy constantly contravened; and in every confrontation with law enforcement, whether it’s for a broken taillight or loitering, black Americans know they are under threat of deadly violence. That’s not paranoia: that’s everyday reality.

To be genuinely paranoid, you have to have the freedom to concoct imaginary enemies.

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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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I blame Mike Harris for Rob Ford. No, really.

I hadn’t planned to write anything about the ongoing Rob Ford debacle. It doesn’t really fall under the scope of this blog, for one thing, but I also didn’t really feel I had anything to say that wouldn’t just add to the noise. It has been fun to take shots on Facebook and laugh at the savaging he’s been receiving on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but I didn’t really think it was worthwhile to add to the growing chorus of concern and condemnation, even as a native Torontonian who has been absolutely appalled by the tragicomedy. Schadenfreude (or “schadenford,” as the new term goes) can be fun, but there are limits. I keep thinking of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes: after a while, the gag becomes vaguely uncomfortable, even as you’re fascinated by the prospect of just how much longer this can go on.

Every day, it seems Rob Ford steps on a new rake. To say he’s become a sideshow isn’t entirely accurate, as it suggests he hasn’t always been a sideshow—something to which I suspect anyone familiar with his antics as a councillor would attest. At this point he is train-wreck theatre, with his brother Doug in the dual role of stage manager and co-star. It mesmerizes the audience and provides fat Stewart/Colbert bait as everyone wonders what he’ll do or say next, what will be revealed next, and just how long he’ll soldier on. Ford himself is a sideshow in something resembling the literal sense of the word, but one so fascinating that we mistake him for the main stage. When all is said and done he will be a textbook case of delusion and dishonesty as inextricable elements of addiction, and little more.

What worries me, and what made me sit down to write this, is the possibility (or probability) that Rob Ford the man will distract from the more vital questions arising from Rob Ford the phenomenon. First and foremost is the steadfast support he continues to enjoy in the face of his myriad transgressions. As the allegations mount and the full, shocking scope of his illegal behaviour and associations becomes know, one starts to wonder exactly what it would take for his base to turn on him. It has happened among many of his erstwhile supporters, from his former allies on Council to conservative columnists like Margaret Wente—but these are people who fall a little too neatly into the category of “elites,” whom the brothers Ford have defined themselves against.

More and more I am coming to believe that political entities of a certain size reach a tipping point at which they become unwieldy, increasingly prone to dysfunction, and ultimately unmanageable. I started pondering this question while watching U.S. politics: wondering whether the sheer size of that country obviates federal solutions when the social, cultural, economic, and ideological faultlines run so deeply. When you have a not-insignificant minority and their elected representatives irrevocably convinced that government is the source of all their ills, it should surprise no one that those elected representatives are going to do everything in their power to sabotage the workings of government. Whatever the validity of their beliefs, when a critical mass of anti-government activists get into government, and do whatever is in their power to gum up the works, the assertion that government is incompetent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The current crisis in Toronto, though on a much smaller scale, proceeds from much the same problem. Rob Ford would fit in well with the Tea Party, at least in terms of their anti-tax fundamentalism (some of the social conservatives might take issue with drug use and the acknowledgment of the existence of cunnilingus). Certainly, when reading the words written by those in support of Ford, the most common theme is “I don’t care what he does, so long as he keeps my taxes low.” While I can certainly sympathize with taxation frustration, this particular expression of it strikes me as a pernicious form of NIMBYism, given that Ford is no longer simply an anti-tax crusader, but is actively damaging Toronto. He has made the city a laughing-stock and deeply hurt its reputation, and his stubborn refusal to step down or even temporarily step away is a huge monkey wrench in the Council’s ability to actually govern the city.

What is even more troubling, however, Is the increasing certainty of Ford’s connection to the world of drug crime. Back in May when the crack video was still just an allegation, I commented to a friend of mine that, ultimately, substance abuse was the least problem in the firmament of Rob Ford’s shortcomings. My friend vehemently disagreed, saying he would be less bothered if crack use was all there was to it, but that if the allegations about the video were true—as we now know they were—then in hanging out with the dealers, Ford proved himself unfit to be mayor. The picture of him standing with drug dealers is a picture of him standing with the enemies of the city. Doing drugs while proclaiming oneself a paragon of law and order is egregiously hypocritical, to be certain—but then, addiction follows its own twisted logic and we should be sympathetic to anyone so afflicted. But as that picture showed, and as more evidence that has surfaced shows, Ford is more than an affluent drug user shielded from the origins of his illicit substances by money and privilege. He is, rather, entirely imbricated with the very criminal element for whom he declares to have “zero tolerance.”

It is this crucial element that makes the lower-taxes-at-all-costs constituency so patently selfish. Never mind the fact that Ford’s claims about just how much money he has saved the city are dubious at best; surely, even if he was the relentless cost-and-tax-cutter he portrays himself as, the spectacle of a mayor actively involved with the drug underworld must give everyone pause.

Except apparently not. Which brings me back to my question of size and tipping points: if nothing else good comes of this ongoing fiasco, hopefully it will inspire a certain amount of measured thought and consideration about how we arrived at this impasse, and how, precisely, Rob Ford could ever have been elected. As Emmett McFarlane recently observed in a Globe and Mail op-ed, the current situation highlights the flaws in Toronto’s policies and procedures (not least of which being the absence of an impeachment option). But it also has served to highlight the deep divides at work in a city that became much too large about twenty years ago.

I find it eminently appropriate to blame Ford’s election on that other great Ontario conservative blowhard, Mike Harris. The amalgamation of Toronto with its neighbouring municipalities is what made Mayor Ford possible. The creation of the “megacity” also proceeded from the kind of deep antipathy to Toronto that animates Rob Ford. Aside from the simple logistical fact that amalgamation meant an Etobicoke councillor could run for mayor of Toronto, it also provided the constituency that elected him and which continues to be vocal in its support.

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How Toronto voted in 2010. (credit: torontoist.com)

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A slightly more nuanced map showing the same thing. (credit: Prof. Zack Taylor, UTSC)

One of the most pernicious aspects of amalgamation is the degree to which it facilitates precisely the NIMBYism of Ford’s base, insofar as it makes the city large enough to establish literal and figurative distance between the suburbs and Toronto proper. “Toronto” as an identifier is a catch-all, but in truth people from Scarborough or Etobicoke often identify more closely to those former municipal entities. Certainly, Rob Ford’s tenure so far has served to highlight this division, as his entire mayoralty (and indeed his entire tenure as a city councillor before that) has been about ginning up resentment against the “elites” of downtown, who get depicted as latte-drinking intellectuals and bohemians who think themselves entitled to use your tax dollars howsoever they please. That he succeeded in getting elected and continues to enjoy a significant amount of (very vocal) support speaks to the success of this strategy, which in turn speaks to the very real resentments (how much these resentments are justified is beyond my expertise to comment upon) fracturing the GTA’s civic psyche.

I really have to wonder: if amalgamation had never happened, and Rob Ford had become mayor of Etobicoke, would his constituents be quite so sanguine about his behaviour? If it actually was happening in their backyards, would they still be so steadfast in their support? Of course, much of what has happened was quite literally happening in their backyards, but that is what I mean about figurative distance: Ford might be the champion of suburbia, but as Mayor of Toronto, all of the symbolic fallout from his transgressions is associated with Toronto. He has become the physical embodiment of his political rhetoric, a thumb in the eye of smug downtown Toronto. In a perverse way, the damage he has done and continues to do to the city is perfectly of a piece with his entire political philosophy, which has been driven by hatred for the very city of which he has become mayor.

http://torontoist.com/2010/10/which_wards_voted_for_who_for_mayor/

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Ender’s Game and Empathy

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Warning: the following contains spoilers for Ender’s Game.

If I had to sum up my reaction to the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in a single, Simpsons-inspired word? Meh.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the film was underwhelming, any more than I should be surprised at how un-disappointed I was by this fact. I know there are many who, repulsed by Orson Scott Card’s homophobic rhetoric, want the film to bomb; I also suspect that there are many devoted fans of the novel who hoped (whatever their thoughts on Card’s politics) that the film would be a triumph. I myself am however quite satisfied at the fact that the film will likely pass from the public consciousness with nary a ripple, which is to my mind a more potent rebuke to Card’s anti-gay vitriol.

It is tempting to think that the novel is simply not amenable to adaptation, but there were enough high points in the film to suggest otherwise. The overarching problem is that, while generally well made and was at some points visually stunning, the whole exercise proved rather affectless. I can’t in all honesty lay that at the feet of the actors, either—there weren’t many weak points, and Asa Butterfield did as great a job as Ender as was possible, given the limited range of his material. In a cast comprised largely of children (or young adult) actors, this is no mean feat.

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One of the novel’s crucial themes lies in the consideration of what makes a brilliant battle commander and, concomitantly, how to make a brilliant battle commander. Ender Wiggin, we learn at the outset, possesses the ideal genetic balance: intelligence, audacity, ruthlessness, charisma, imagination, and empathy. It is this last element that the novel teases out so brilliantly and the film completely botches—mainly because the novel demonstrates how Ender’s capacity for empathy develops, how it makes him understand his enemies, and how it brings him close to the brink of madness, in a series of well-developed sequences and encounters. The film, by contrast, chooses to elide most of those experiences in favour of having his adult keepers say repeatedly that his empathy makes him brilliant. The moment from the novel—replicated faithfully in the film—in which Ender makes this point explicit, confessing to his sister that his ability to love his enemy is what makes him so effective at destroying him, comes after a long series of protracted war games at the orbital Battle School. The film chooses to truncate those war games into a handful of scenes that are woefully inadequate in communicating Ender’s development as a commander.

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It goes without saying that when adapting literature to film, a significant amount of the source material has to get left out. The secondary storyline in the novel about Ender’s siblings Peter and Valentine is entirely excised: Peter, so powerful a character in the novel, is reduced in the film to a few moments of screen time, enough to establish his violent and abusive tendencies. Valentine plays a larger role, though not by much—representative in the novel of Ender’s violent and empathic tendencies, they become little more than ciphers in the film. That being said, it was not this elision that marred the film, but the lack of any sense at all of Ender’s development as a commander: his adaptive abilities, his overcoming of the various stigma he’s given, earning the trust and loyalty of his soldiers, and above all the increasing isolation he suffers as his reputation and authority grows.

And honestly, it would not have taken much to correct this lack. I don’t often argue for films to be longer, but they could have easily added fifteen or twenty minutes to Ender’s Game—especially considering that that extra time would have mostly been devoted to the Battle Room, a zero-G environment in which the recruits learn and practice tactics in the fighting of mock battles. Few people who have read the novel would dispute that the Battle Room is Orson Scott Card’s greatest imaginative creation—to the point where the novel has been put on a variety of military school or officer training curricula in the U.S. It is here that Ender proves his mettle, as Colonel Graff, the commandant of Battle School (played by a satisfyingly gruff Harrison Ford in the film), sends him into battle against increasingly ridiculous odds.

Rendering the Battle Room cinematically was always going to be the most challenging dimension of adapting the novel, and the filmmakers did a superb job—which makes it doubly frustrating that we don’t have much action unfold here. The cinematography captured the dizziness and vertigo that I have to imagine would afflict anyone in zero-G.

But again, we don’t get enough of Ender’s development, which I would argue is crucial to the story. Everything that follows after he leaves Battle School for Command School is rooted in the lessons he learns there, and the profound ambivalence he develops for his own talent. What makes Ender’s Game such a good novel is its refusal to glorify violence and warfare, which is not to say the battle sequences aren’t thrilling to read. Even (or perhaps especially) the mock warfare of the Battle Room, however, takes a constant toll on Ender physically, emotionally, and psychologically. At the same time, we see the machinations of the military as they manipulate Ender and his fellow recruits, changing the rules of the game on the fly, moving the goalposts, selectively isolating or tormenting (or lauding) their charges, like a huge, elaborate psychological experiment. When some of the officers have scruples, others acknowledge the monstrosity of their project—and, if they are to defeat the alien threat, its necessity. In the novel, Colonel Graff resigns himself to facing charges of war crimes … if they win the war. In the film he phrases it more bluntly, barking at his adjutant that destroying Ender psychologically will matter not at all if they’re all exterminated by the aliens.

Ender’s Game, in this respect, functions as an extended ethical debate: what cost survival? The final bait-and-switch, in which Ender destroys the aliens’ home world while under the illusion that he is playing just one more training simulation, carries so much more force in the novel precisely because we have been witness to his ambivalence and anxiety about his own monstrosity. In the end he becomes a monster in spite of his ambivalence—that he has that decision taken away from him (or that he’s encouraged to make it under false pretenses) is the final, most egregious injury dealt him by those in command. In the film however, in spite of some powerful acting by Asa Butterfield, the emotional impact of the “reveal” (to say nothing of its surprise) is fundamentally subverted.

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There have been a number of reviews of the film and commentaries of the novel apropos of the film’s release puzzling over this central question of empathy. Most crucially, a lot of reviewers and critics have expressed a frustrating cognitive dissonance between a novel that celebrates Ender’s capacity for empathy with an alien species, and its author, who seems incapable of similar empathy for certain fellow humans. What do we make of that? I raised this question last winter when I taught Ender’s Game in a third-year SF class, and I also asked how we deal with a novel whose author expresses a hateful worldview and advocates criminalizing a sexual lifestyle practised between consenting adults. I’m not really any closer to answering that question now than I was then. An obvious approach would be, as a significant number of people have advocated, boycotting his works (and also this film, which obviously I did not do). It poses a knotty question: do I teach Ender’s Game again? (I had put it on my SF course’s reading list before discovering the full extent of Card’s political activism). I’m loath to put more money in his pockets, something requiring thirty-odd students to buy his novel would do. But as I hope this review has made clear, Ender’s Game is a fantastic book to teach, precisely because of its ethical dimensions.

A recent article by Jonathan Rauch made what I thought was an excellent point: that screeds like Orson Scott Card’s various fulminations against gays and the “gay agenda” might rouse the homophobic passions of a few, but more and more—as LGBT individuals become increasingly visible, vocal, and heterosexual anxiety becomes thus increasingly allayed—such intemperate assertions are recognized for what they are, paranoid and ludicrous hate. As Rauch writes:

Some of the things [Card] has said are execrable. He wrote in 2004 that when gay marriage is allowed, “society will bend all its efforts to seize upon any hint of homosexuality in our young people and encourage it.” That was not quite a flat reiteration of the ancient lie that homosexuals seduce and recruit children—the homophobic equivalent of the anti-Semitic blood libel—but it is about as close as anyone dares to come today.

Fortunately, Card’s claim is false. Better still, it is preposterous. Most fair-minded people who read his screeds will see that they are not proper arguments at all, but merely ill-tempered reflexes. When Card puts his stuff out there, he makes us look good by comparison. The more he talks, and the more we talk, the better we sound.

Considering Rauch’s words, I have to wonder if the controversy over Ender’s Game isn’t perhaps something of a gift—both for the cause of forwarding gay rights, and for those of us who teach these sort of things in the classroom. The thought of putting money in Card’s pocket makes me vaguely ill, but I also cannot deny that whatever his politics, the man wrote a damn good novel … and that however much money I make for him putting it on a course (anyone know the percentage the average author gets in royalties? Times about $12 for the paperback, times, say, thirty-five students?), I have to hope that raising these issues in the classroom more than outweighs the mischief he can do with the $65 dollars or so my class would earn him.

Perhaps I’ll even show clips from the film.

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Political Dystopias and Half-Baked Hegelianism

I’m no expert on German philosophy (or any philosophy, really), but the current state of U.S. politics has come to seem to me a rather spectacular vindication of Hegel’s theory of history.

As I watch the drama of the U.S. government shutdown unfolding, I do so with a feeling of incredulity I’m certain I share with many, if not most, of my fellow Canadians. This incredulity takes a variety of forms, not least of which is the bafflement at the apocalyptic terms with which a relatively mild and definitively conservative form of health care is being described. To listen to Ted Cruz and the rest of his “suicide caucus,” you’d think that what was on the table was a proposal to replace the Pledge of Allegiance with daily readings from Das Kapital.

That’s the larger-scale incredulity. On a procedural scale, the question is, depending on the questioner, “How is this happening?” or “Why has this never happened before?” The latter question is better framed as “why has this never happened in this way or on this scale before,” as government shutdowns have occurred several times in the past, most famously when Newt Gingrich’s Republican-majority House sought to punish Bill Clinton in 1995. The House of Representatives has periodically shut down the government for various reasons at various times, and were that all that was happening now, it would not be as worrisome as it actually is. It is worrisome now in a way it has never been before, because it is emblematic of dysfunction that has been growing at an alarming rate since the Clinton presidency. The answer to the first question, “How is this happening?” is simple: it is built into the parliamentary rules of the U.S. government. The shutdown is only symptomatic: in the last five years, we have seen parliamentary procedure in the form of the filibuster being used more than in all of U.S. history combined (well, OK, not that much—but as the graph shows, it has been used a lot); and for those who have the romantic image of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you should know that actual physical filibusters are rare—the “filibuster” now entails cloture motions, which simply use the threat of filibustering to prevent a motion from coming to a vote. (Ezra Klein explains it much better than I can here).

filibuster graph

That’s as far as I’m going to go in explaining American governmental dysfunction, because it’s been hashed out ad nauseum elsewhere, and besides, if you don’t believe me on the face of it, nothing else I’m going to say here will make sense. I will go one step further however and say that, as much as I’d love to do a “plague on both your houses” thing, I can’t. Because it’s the Republicans who are to blame—more specifically, a rump of the party that has receded so far into its epistemic closure that it has become genuinely delusional, and it has the cohort of the party that might otherwise be reasonable running scared.

And so: all of the parliamentary problems built into the U.S. constitution that have rarely, if ever, provided impediments to the functioning of government because lawmakers were too genteel to employ them? They’re now in play. All of the tacit understanding of unwritten rules that has informed executive and legislative behaviour for the balance of U.S. history has been abandoned. I’m no tipadgippergreat fan of MSNBC host Chris Matthews—I think he’s a blowhard and a bully whose political inclinations bend toward whatever president sends a thrill up his leg—but he has a new book that interests me about his time as a staffer for Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House during the Reagan years. The subtitle is “When Politics Worked,” and the overarching premise seems to be that politics “worked” back then because politicians observed those unwritten rules—that Tip O’Neill, as Joan Walsh observes, “recognized that Reagan had won a big mandate and ought to be able to enact much of his program—and then be stuck with the results if they turned out badly.” Though ideologically at odds with Reagan, O’Neill was willing to acknowledge the will of the people in electing him, and by the same token let Reagan own the consequences of his policies, good or bad. As has been repeated by many people lately: Obama won the election. The Affordable Care Act has been made law, and was effectively ratified by the Supreme Court. Perhaps, as so many Republicans are claiming, it will be utterly disastrous. But rather than letting that play out, they are doing quite literally everything in their power to kill it with fire.

Which brings us back to Hegel.

My crude understanding of Hegel goes precisely this far: each society at its inception has embedded within it contradictions either invisible or ignorable; but as it develops, these contradictions become more and more glaring, harder and harder to ignore, until they develop into a conflict (which might be violent but not necessarily so), the resolution of which provides a new synthesis … and this new synthesis has its own minor contradictions, which eventually become glaring, and so on. The example I give my theory students when teaching this is that famous line from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” And I ask: what are the two problems with this assertion? One, it leaves out women; and two, the author of this document, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison pointed to this when he said of the Declaration that “In the beginning was the word, and in the word was the contradiction.” Almost a century before that, Frederick Douglass wrote one of the most poignant essays in the history of American letters, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, observing that the great American narrative of revolution and independence was effectively meaningless to an indentured population. It is pretty simple to offer an Hegelian reading of American history: its founding documents contain some pretty profound contradictions, which came to a head in the Civil War; the resolution of the Civil War, with the indignities of Reconstruction and implementation of Jim Crow, was far from perfect, and brought about a new set of conflicts with the Civil Rights Movement. Each time there were improvements, moving the U.S. forward, but also the seeds of new conflicts and problems.

In this vein, it is difficult to not see the antipathy of Tea Party conservatism as the most recent manifestation of these contradictions. The election of Barack Obama was seen by many (myself included) as a moment of both historical and symbolic closure; my favourite editorial cartoon after the election was by Tom Toles, which featured Obama walking up to the White House under the Declaration’s assertion of all men being equal, with the footnote “Ratified November 4, 2008.” At the same time however, the lingering unresolved racial divide in the U.S. was exacerbated by Obama’s election—and however much Fox News and their fellow travelers howl in outrage whenever one of us lefties plays “the race card,” the particularly vicious vitriol directed at Obama has edged into race-baiting too often—and the Tea Party right is far too monochromatic—for it to not be based at least in part in unreconstructed white panic.

Obama cartoonThat being said, the implicit and explicit racism underlying the backlash against Obama is just one of the contradictions being exacerbated by the present conflict. What underwrites the current legislative showdown, as I suggested above, is the fact that the system has provided the means for a stubborn and uncompromising minority to bring the government to a screeching halt—and if the debt ceiling is breached, it won’t just be the government. Hopefully I’m not overextending the metaphor too much when I characterize this as a perfect Hegelian storm, wherein the social and cultural contradictions have managed to employ the systemic contradictions. One way or another, I find it difficult to imagine that the U.S. government is going to look the same when all is done … my lefty heart is gladdened to see that Obama et al seem to be determined to hold fast, come hell, high water, or default, having come at last (I hope) to the realization that any compromise now only leads to further hostage-taking in the future (as it were).

The problem (one of them) with Hegel however is that he has a pretty relentlessly upbeat conception of history as inevitably progressive. The “syntheses” emerging from conflict, he suggests, are invariably positive … perhaps this is my deficient understanding of his work, but I don’t think he tends to account for the possibility of devolution, or a new synthesis that resolved previous contradictions in a negative or regressive manner. Andrew Sullivan, one of my favourite political bloggers, says again and again that the current Republican party should be ashamed to call itself conservative, as they are anything but. As he says in a recent post, “[Republicans] are the real Alinskyites and Obama is the real conservative,” i.e. Republicans have become a party of radicalism and revolution, the antithesis of traditional conservatism. I agree with that to a point, but beyond that point I think the radical Republicans are quite literally ultra-conservative: they demand stasis, absolute and paralytic cultural stasis, but want it to be of a sort they imagine to have existed fifty or one hundred years ago. Or possibly even before that: the rollback of gay rights, civil rights, the New Deal, scientific advances, and general social progress they seem to desire is really nothing short of terrifying.

And who knows? The direst predictions about breaching the debt ceiling say it will precipitate a global economic meltdown; in my more cynical moments, I wonder if the suicide caucus is genuinely suicidal, desiring precisely that kind of crisis, which could blackmanpotentially dissolve the federal government’s authority and fracture the union. Perhaps I’m being overly bleak, but then, as someone steeped in dystopian fiction, my mind has some well-trodden pathways it can take. The novel that keeps popping up for me now is Richard Morgan’s Black Man, which I wrote about on my old blog, and which I taught in my SF class last winter. In his imagined future, the United States has fractured into three parts: the Union, which is closely associated with the U.N. and Europe, and which comprises the northeastern states; the Rim States, the western states on the Pacific, which have entered into a loose federation with the rest of the Pacific Rim; and the Republic, the main swathe of Middle America, what we would call “Red States.” In the novel it also goes by the derogatory name “Jesusland,” and is precisely what that name suggests: a theocracy that rejects evolution, gay rights, women’s rights, where teaching creationism is the law and abortion a felony.

At times like these, it’s hard to think of Morgan’s vision of the future without feeling a little shiver of recognition.

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Wente on Gilmour (because none of us saw that coming)

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For the record, Toni Morrison could totally kick Hemingway’s ass.

Once the scope and scale of the reaction to David Gilmour’s comments became clear, is was also clear that the chances Margaret Wente would not put in her two cents in her weekly column were slim to none. Huge surprise: she’s pro-Gilmour, anti-feminist, and if you weren’t certain what her response would be, her opening sentences put that uncertainty to rest: “How does an obscure Canadian author become an international sensation overnight?” she asks, and answers: “Easy. Just insult some feminists!”

Yes. Some feminists. Because the range of responses was limited to a narrow, shrill band of men-haters who haunt Wente’s imagination and, presumably, the imaginations of her devoted readers. And for the record, it is this latter group that makes me inclined to say something more on this topic: however often I promise myself I’m just going to ignore her—to avoid feeding the troll, as the saying goes these days—I can’t help but remember that there are people out there who take her words as unalloyed truth and imagine that she is a brave and besieged voice of reason in the midst of leftist hate, as opposed to a lazy, sinecured columnist who writes the same argument over and over, and even then sometimes can’t be bothered to use her own words and ideas.

Or perhaps the horde of Wente admirers is just what haunts my imagination.

Nevertheless, no matter how much I know she’s just poking us with a stick to goad a response, I can’t help pointing out where she’s being misleading, mendacious, or simply wrong. Take for example this seemingly mild defense of Gilmour, which is actually just an excuse to reiterate her biggest complaint about current English curricula:

Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more). As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.

If by “testosterone-safe zone,” she means courses devoted exclusively to male writers, you don’t actually have to look too hard to find them—you just have to look early, as in chronologically, to find numerous courses on the U of T 2013-2014 undergraduate schedule dedicated entirely to dudes. That their names are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton doesn’t exactly obviate their gender. After that? Well, the women start to creep in. They’re sneaky that way. But what Wente doesn’t say (as I’m sure it never occurred to her) is that the presence of names like Austen, Gaskell, Eliot, and the Brontës on nineteenth-century literature courses isn’t some feminist conspiracy to eclipse the dudes, but an honest and scrupulous attempt to construct curricula that offer a representative range of authors well-regarded and widely-read in their own times (even if George Eliot and the Brontë sisters did have to assume male pseudonyms). Ditto for the twentieth century.

Her suggestion that people wishing to study Hemingway at university are shit out of luck comes as rather a surprise, as I just wrapped up a unit on A Farewell to Arms. Before that? The Great Gatsby, another Gilmour-approved novel. And on Tuesday, we start The Sound and the Fury … and while Gilmour had nothing to say about Faulkner, I have to imagine he wouldn’t complain about that one. But here’s the thing: having devoted the first half of my C20 American Fiction course to a holy trinity of the American fiction canon, I was compelled to offer some balance, and the second half will be Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Julia Alvarez. Not out of some politically-correct, milquetoast liberal guilt, but because I owe it to my students to offer some sort of representative balance. Filling out a survey course is always a mug’s game, especially when you have thirteen weeks to cover an entire century. So you do the best you can, and in the end there is always room to teach your passion.But it’s not about what the professor loves, it’s about how best to give your students a wide range of ideas, styles, voices, experiences, personalities, worldviews, and vocabularies. That, ultimately, is why the humanities are so crucial: they offer the opportunity, to paraphrase critic Denis Donaghue, to encounter lives more richly imagined than our own. And, I would add, lives we would not otherwise encounter unless we devote our own to traveling all over the world.

But to return to Wente’s harrumph, re: Hemingway. As I said, I just taught one of his novels. But I suspect she’s using Papa metonymically here, having him stand in for the broad range of proud literary masculinity currently getting the short shrift. Is what she says true, my own class notwithstanding? Are these white hetero men, as Patrick Buchanan suggested in another context, an endangered species? Let’s check out the current undergraduate course offerings for U of T English’s 2013-2014 school year.

Well, OK … I don’t see any listings for “Testosterone 101” or “Guy-Guy Lit.” And yes, many of these courses include women authors. Well, not the first-year course “The English Literary Tradition.” Nary a woman to be seen on that list. Or how about “Literature in Our Time”? Seven authors listed, but only two women, Virginia Woolf (whom we’ll call an honourary guy-guy, as she is Gilmour-approved) and Sylvia Plath. Moving on to second-year classes, “The Novel” gets a little more estrogen-heavy with five women (Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison) elbowing onto the course with seven men. Then we come to three sections of  the course “American Literature,” whose C20 readings do not, in fact, include Hemingway but do feature William Faulkner, Richard Brautigan, Cormac McCarthy, and such Gilmour-approved guy-guys as Fitzgerald and Philip Roth. Moving on to third-year courses, “Modern Fiction to 1960” gives us yet more Faulkner, as well as Malcolm Lowry, whom I suspect is a guy-guy. (Just so it’s clear, I’m not mentioning every hetero male on these courses, just the ones I imagine Gilmour would approve of. Nor, for that matter, am I mentioning most of the actual courses offered). In “Twentieth Century American Literature,” hey—Hemingway! As well as even more Faulkner (wow, U of T loves it some Faulkner), more Richard Brautigan, more Philip Roth, as well as Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Raymond Carver. “Contemporary American Fiction” features more Roth, more Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. Fourth year course offerings, admittedly, seem to feature fewer guy-guys, except for the fact that there is one course devoted exclusively to Ezra Pound, who was perhaps the ultimate stereotype of the guy-guy (once comparing the pen to the penis and ink to semen. Ick).

All of which is by way of pointing out that Margaret Wente, once again, really needs to do a little research before she honks off. Does the U of T undergraduate English curriculum—as well as most in the country—make a point of offering women’s literature? Yes. Does it attempt to balance canonical, male writers with women, with authors or colour, and with other traditionally marginal groups? Yes. Does it do so to the utter exclusion of the aforementioned canonical male writers?

No. No, in thunder. And if people like Margaret Wente would spend the five minutes it would take to actually peruse course offerings rather than screaming in outrage the moment they saw courses with titles like “Gynocentric Approaches to Modern Literature,” (not actually a course) they would know that.

*

One more thing (he said, putting on his Columbo voice).

Did anyone else notice Wente’s little bit of implicit racism in the passage I quoted above? To repeat, (italics mine) she says that courses in “guy-guy” writers are “vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers.” Catch it? Apparently “guy-guy” also means emphatically white and, weirdly, non-Canadian. There are no macho, straight-up hetero black authors? (paging Richard Wright). Caribbean authors? (V.S. Naipaul would be surprised by that one). African, Asian, South Asian, or Canadian authors? (Because on this last one, I can think of at least one Governor-General award-winner who would protest). To “testosterone-safe zone” I suppose we must also append the sign “whites only.”

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