June Links Roundup: If This Is Success, Give Me Failure

Happy Pride Month! I have briefly paused my efforts to buy every possible gay nerd tank top, to bring you this list of lovely links.

Sometimes I look back on my Harvard undergraduate career as a conservative journalist and wonder what would have happened if I’d remained on the Federalist Society fast track to networking success. Since I’ve never sexually harassed anyone, I probably wouldn’t qualify for the Supreme Court. However, I might be a stealth political kingmaker like Kelly Monroe Kullberg, author of the Christian intellectual apologetics anthology Finding God at Harvard–and, apparently, the woman behind a slew of pro-Trump “Astroturf” groups that spread hateful anti-Muslim fake news on social media. Alex Kasprak at the scam-busting site Snopes.com conducted this in-depth investigation, published last month: “Disguising Hate: How Radical Evangelicals Spread Anti-Islamic Vitriol on Facebook”:

A coordinated network of evangelical Christian Facebook pages publishing overtly Islamophobic, conspiratorial content paints extreme, divisive right-wing rhetoric as having broad American support but is actually tied to one individual, a Snopes investigation reveals.

These pages claim that Islam is “not a religion,” that Muslims are violent and duplicitous, and that Islamic refugee resettlement is “cultural destruction and subjugation.” Just hours after the April 2019 Notre Dame spire collapse in a catastrophic fire, this network went into overdrive sowing doubt about the possible role Muslims had in its collapse. Multiple pages within this network have stated that their purpose is “message boosting & targeting.” Ten of the pages within the network explicitly support U.S. President Donald Trump in their titles and belong to an umbrella organization that “[speaks] up for a Trump-Pence agenda.” A post shared on several of those pages implores readers to “like our page and let’s roll 2020!

These pages, however, are steeped in fantastical notions of “globalist” conspiracies linking Islam, Socialism, and multi-billionaire philanthropist and Democratic Party supporter George Soros to the decline of Western civilization. Some of these pages also claim that survivors of the Parkland High School massacre in the U.S., for instance, are on a Soros-funded “Leftist-Islamist payroll.”

…Though the actual authorship of the posts within these pages is opaque, their titles imply diverse representation from a broad swath of American demographic groups, including “Jews & Christians for America” and “Blacks for Trump.” In reality, however, the pages in this network are all connected to evangelical activist Kelly Monroe Kullberg…[who] is neither black nor Jewish…

…This network, and others that employ similar tactics, can affect online discourse in several ways. First, the network serves to influence public opinion by presenting the views of a small group of activists as representative of a much broader swath of the American populace. Second, such a strategy in this case amplifies and offers a veil of legitimacy to hatred and conspiracy theories. Third, in spite of these strategies awash in misinformation, the pages within the network have attracted the financial backing of well-heeled political donors who exploit these pages and groups to disguise the origin of political Facebook ads.

Fun (or not-so-fun) fact, Kelly was one of my main sources for a 1992 Harvard Salient cover story called “The Witches Are Hunting”, describing anti-Christian bias at Harvard Divinity School. (The other source was Rich Tafel, later president of the gay conservative PAC known as Log Cabin Republicans.) With my usual penchant for flamboyant self-destruction, I declared my major in the Religion Department a couple months after ripping them a new asshole in the aforementioned conservative biweekly. And now I am a practicing witch…the gods laugh.

Republicans have perfected the one-two punch of exploiting American workers: first, hollow out their manufacturing base with predatory corporate takeovers, then channel their dispossessed rage into electing far-right demagogues. That’s the takeaway from this 2012 Rolling Stone profile, “Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital”, which remains timely as an exposé of how private equity firms are strip-mining our economy.

A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent…

…Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company’s management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.

But here’s the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it’s the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.

Now your troubled firm – let’s say you make tricycles in Alabama – has been taken over by a bunch of slick Wall Street dudes who kicked in as little as five percent as a down payment. So in addition to whatever problems you had before, Tricycle Inc. now owes Goldman or Citigroup $350 million. With all that new debt service to pay, the company’s bottom line is suddenly untenable: You almost have to start firing people immediately just to get your costs down to a manageable level.

“That interest,” says Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission, “just sucks the profit out of the company.”

Fortunately, the geniuses at Bain who now run the place are there to help tell you whom to fire. And for the service it performs cutting your company’s costs to help you pay off the massive debt that it, Bain, saddled your company with in the first place, Bain naturally charges a management fee, typically millions of dollars a year. So Tricycle Inc. now has two gigantic new burdens it never had before Bain Capital stepped into the picture: tens of millions in annual debt service, and millions more in “management fees.” Since the initial acquisition of Tricycle Inc. was probably greased by promising the company’s upper management lucrative bonuses, all that pain inevitably comes out of just one place: the benefits and payroll of the hourly workforce.

Once all that debt is added, one of two things can happen. The company can fire workers and slash benefits to pay off all its new obligations to Goldman Sachs and Bain, leaving it ripe to be resold by Bain at a huge profit. Or it can go bankrupt – this happens after about seven percent of all private equity buyouts – leaving behind one or more shuttered factory towns. Either way, Bain wins. By power-sucking cash value from even the most rapidly dying firms, private equity raiders like Bain almost always get their cash out before a target goes belly up.

Let’s wrap up with two stories about people who are trying to fix this trash fire of a planet–literally. This week’s Springwise trend-spotter newsletter profiles Europe’s first garbage-collection race, held on May 30 in Marseille. Participants included Olympic swimming champion Coralie Balmy and other world-class athletes. The Mediterranean Sea is among the world’s most polluted bodies of water.

Merging elements of a race and a treasure hunt, 20 teams, made up of two swimmers and two kayakers, aimed to collect 8 km of waste from the sea.

Le Grand Défi, or The Grand Challenge, was co-organised by the French environmental protection brand SauvagePalana Environmentand the Amos Sport Business School. It was inspired by Emmanuel Laurin and his film The Great Saphire, which featured Laurin’s 120-km swim between Toulon and Marseille, where he collected more than 100 kg of waste.

Found via the ex-evangelical blog Love Joy Feminism, this story by Karina Bland in the Arizona Republic newspaper profiles her state’s chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse International, a volunteer organization that helps kids recover from trauma. The bikers, who are vetted and trained for these sensitive situations, become big buddies for children who need to feel protected and strong again:

[A] biker’s power and intimidating image can even the playing field for a little kid who has been hurt. If the man who hurt this little girl calls or drives by, or even if she is just scared, another nightmare, the bikers will ride over and stand guard all night.

If she is afraid to go to school, they will take her and watch until she’s safely inside.

And if she has to testify against her abuser in court, they will go, too, walking with her to the witness stand and taking over the first row of seats. Pipes will tell her, “Look at us, not him.” And when she’s done, they will circle her again and walk her out.

 

May Links Roundup: Happiness Comes in a Pill

Spring flowers have bloomed in the Happy Valley, and we just celebrated Pride here in the lesbian capital of America. I do love our bohemian small-town paradise, mostly, but one aspect of granola-mom culture that I could do without is the suspicion toward Western medicine, particularly mental-health drugs like antidepressants and ADHD treatments. I was raised to feel this way too, but since recognizing myself as transgender, I’ve noticed a loosening of my attachment to the given body as more natural or safe than the altered one. I struggle to respond politely to cis people’s oft-repeated caution that “we don’t know the long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy.” Well, we do know that denial of transition-related care has severe negative effects on people’s mental health, right now. (I’m not on HRT myself but I know a fair number of folks who have benefited from it.) Simply put, I’m no longer assuming that inaction is safer than experimentation.

At Dame Magazine, Erin Biba takes a sympathetic look at the misguided anti-vaccination movement in her April feature, “Why are so many women rejecting medical science?” (Hat tip to the feminist blog Shakesville for the link.)

There are, obviously, many reasons for the growth of miracle cures and predatory medical treatments and their popularity among women. But one of the main causes is a failure of evidence-based medicine to properly study, understand, and treat women—or even to show them basic empathy. The lack of proper health care and even a basic understanding of women’s bodies has left women desperate for any possible treatment. Because why trust medical science when it ignores you and fails to treat your health seriously?

Among her examples are studies showing that doctors spend fewer minutes listening to female patients; women’s pain is minimized (especially black women), leading to under-prescription of painkillers as compared to men; and clinical tests that until recently only included males.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Congress finally passed a law requiring all NIH-funded trials to include women. It may seem shocking that drug trials with government funding only started including women in the 90s, but what’s even worse is that it wasn’t until 2016 that NIH-funded research was required to use male AND female mice in their studies and to use male AND female tissue cells in their research.

What that means is, until recently, the way that drugs work in female bodies has been largely unknown—and that drugs to treat female-specific disorders have not been developed.

While we’re on the subject of better living through chemistry: Mike Morrell is a progressive Christian writer and speaker whose blog fearlessly explores the fringes of mystical experience and ecumenical collaboration. In this post, he reprints an excerpt from Jack Call’s book Psychedelic Christianity: On the Ultimate Goal of Living. Call speculates on what the “unforgivable sin” might be, reaching a conclusion that reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story on this topic, “Ethan Brand”:

We are all sinners and we are all forgiven for our sins. By the way, let me just say that I hate the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I hate it because it implies that Christians are superior to non-Christians in that they are forgiven and non-Christians aren’t, and this is not a bit less self-righteous than simply saying, “Christians are perfect. Non-Christians aren’t.” Non-Christians are forgiven too.

Jesus said that there is only one sin that is unforgivable: blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And what is that? Well, it certainly isn’t just not being a Christian. If it were, we would all be damned; because, even if a person is baptized in infancy and a Christian from that point on, she or he wouldn’t have been a Christian before that; so, if not being a Christian was an unforgivable sin, all of us have committed it, and it would be the one sin that baptism can’t wash away.

Given, then, that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not equal failure to be a Christian, what is it? The context in which Jesus proclaimed this to be the one and only unforgivable sin was one in which some scribes and Pharisees had accused him of driving out demons with the help of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons (Matt: 12:24-32, Mark 3:22-30)…

So, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is being so morally blind and confused as to be unable to see plain and evident goodness as goodness and instead to think that there must be something evil about it. It is unforgivable only because the intended recipient of the forgiveness would be unable to accept it, would think there is something evil about forgiving and being forgiven. If you are worried that you have committed this unforgivable sin, then you haven’t, because your worry shows that you care about and can recognize goodness.

What this tells us about what we should do to reach the ultimate goal is that we should be open and ready to see goodness in the place where we find ourselves. If we can’t do that, it won’t help to be in the kingdom of heaven. No matter how bad you think you are, God forgives you and blesses you, but he can’t accept and appreciate the forgiveness and blessings for you. Only you can do that for yourself.

I was watching the overhead TV at the Green Bay, WI airport (the cutest little airport ever), out of touch with the news cycle as always when I travel, when I saw video of the catastrophic Notre-Dame cathedral fire. I had to watch the repeating loop for several minutes and still didn’t quite believe it. At the time, it sounded as if the whole structure was doomed, though it appears that much has been salvaged and money is being raised for rebuilding. Predictably, there was some disagreement on social media regarding (1) whether the Catholic Church as a whole should be burned to the ground, metaphorically speaking, and (2) the unfairness of wealthy people and countries rushing to save a building when they’ve done nothing of the sort for the suffering poor. At the socialist journal Current Affairs, editor Nathan J. Robinson explains why this is a false dichotomy in “Neoliberalism and Notre-Dame”:

It seems that the fire was an accident. But it was apparently also an accident “waiting to happen.” The Wall Street Journal reports today that the cathedral had suffered “decades of neglect” and had been deteriorating and rotting. A senior adviser to the Friends of Notre-Dame commented: “For sure if the cathedral had been maintained regularly, with a higher level of funding, we would have avoided this… The more you wait, the more risks you have.” What happened, then? Notre-Dame is beloved, so much so that a billion dollars instantly poured in to fund its repairs. With the public valuing Notre-Dame so highly, why was it deteriorating and lacking in funds?

The French state owns the cathedral, and the government was unwilling to spend money on it. According to the Journal report, state officials were pushing the church to start charging admission, which the archdiocese was unwilling to do. A 2017 report said that “to the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care,” and “Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case” with one official quoted as saying “France has thousands of monuments…It will not fall down.” Famous last words.

You can see why the government didn’t want to massively increase its spending on maintaining historic buildings, though. It would have caused an uproar, at a time when the French people are already furious about economic inequality. Emmanuel Macron’s government has cut taxes on the rich and “the traditionally generous social welfare system is increasingly neglecting key slices of the populace, especially young people.”

It’s impossible to separate Notre-Dame’s neglect from austerity and inequality…

…This is neoliberalism: We are always being told that we cannot afford certain things, that even though more and more billionaires keep popping up, the government is strapped for cash and cannot possibly raise enough revenue to fund the basics.

Of course, it’s correct that historic preservation money will only be provided if public opinion demands it, and that public opinion probably isn’t too passionate about it. But why is public opinion lukewarm on historic preservation funds? Because the public has a lot more to worry about. If you’re cutting social welfare spending, then of course the public aren’t going to want you to increase funding for maintaining cathedrals. If, on the other hand, you have a functional and fair welfare state, people won’t feel that there is a trade-off between funding the cathedrals and funding benefits.

Speaking of false choices, literature and critical theory professor Grace Lavery’s e-newsletter The Stage Mirror (the best $5/month you will spend on the Internet, trust me) hosted an insightful conversation with queer/trans writers Daniel Ortberg, Molly Priddy, and Charlie Zieke about the perceived competition between butch lesbianism and transmasculinity. There’s a narrative going around in some cis lesbian circles that nowadays, young tomboys are pressured to transition to male, instead of embracing their nonconforming womanhood. The feminist counterculture narrative against “Big Pharma” informs trans-exclusive radical feminism here too. Grace frames the issue thus:

So, our topic is the narrative that sometimes gets called “butch flight,” but it’s an old and slightly tiresome phrase and we might all decide we want to use something better. The narrative, which is as old as ftm transition, is something like: we are losing our butches to testosterone and maleness. Every part of this is fascinating to me, as a fear, or as a piece of reasoning. The “we,” the “losing,” the “our,” and the notion that transition is less queer, and more definitive, than lesbian identity or butch identity. I’m interested in why people feel this way, and what political desires and interests the feeling enables or licenses.

At one point in the conversation, Ortberg, a trans man, remarks: “it’s hard when there’s a whole sense of community that’s invested in your own gender/body/lesbianness as a sort of public resource!” In my experience, this sense of entitlement to an assigned-female person’s loyalty and political labor, at the expense of that individual’s self-development, is both narcissistic and sexist. Our real enemy is toxic gender roles, not maleness.

Closing out with some femme love: the New York Times profiled doll fashion designer Carol Spencer, “The Chic Octogenarian Behind Barbie’s Best Looks”, who’s written a new memoir, Dressing Barbie, about her career at Mattel from 1963-99. Countering criticism that Barbie fosters unrealistic body image woes, Spencer “defends Barbie as a healthy alternative to video games; an engine of imagination for girls and boys, who can project onto a Barbie doll whoever they may wish to become.” My son and I agree!

April Links Roundup: Gaslighting and Magic

Happy Spring, friends! I have tempted fate this morning by putting away the Young Master’s snow pants, which means that Western Massachusetts will probably be hit by an unseasonable blizzard soon. Flowers and songbirds are still in short supply in our chilly region, but I’ve got a nice crop of links for you this month.

I had a good conversation recently with my friend the poet Charlie Bondhus about why magic “works” and what kind of formal study is needed to take it to the next level. We were sympathetic to the idea that magic is mainly about intention; ritual can be helpful as a focal point, but the specific implements can be adapted to your needs without diminishing its effectiveness. Charlie prompted me to consider whether I’m looking for a mentor to validate my practice because I don’t trust myself enough. To that end, he sent me this link to John Beckett’s pagan blog Under the Sacred Oaks: “Believe Your Experiences–Wisdom from the Shredded Veil”. Beckett observes that mainstream society gaslights us about our perceptions of hidden realities, so we’re afraid to share our stories of magical experiences. If we talked about them more, we’d discover how common they are.

Your eyes aren’t lying. Neither are your ears, or your skin, or those thoughts that are occurring in your brain but that you know didn’t come from you. Believe your experiences.

What happened is undeniably real. What it means is a question of interpretation. We have to practice good discernment. Sometimes a strange light is your neighbor playing with a flashlight at 3:00 AM. Go through all the rational explanations, and if one of them fits, so be it. The goal of discernment is to find the truth, not to convince ourselves we saw something we didn’t see but wish we had.

While all the stories in the workshops have been solid, I’ve heard a few privately that I had serious doubts about. I’m sure the person was telling the truth – the experience happened like they described it. But their interpretation struck me as unlikely. Jumping to Otherworldly conclusions is just as bad as dismissing Otherworldly conclusions.

But sometimes you run through all the so-called “rational explanations” and none of them fit. Sometimes the experience is so strong and speaks to us at such a deep level that–at least in the moment–there is no doubt it has a non-ordinary source. Maybe you could dismiss one strange occurrence, or two, or three… but by the time you get to six or eight or twelve, you can’t ignore the magic any longer.

Your experiences are real–believe them.

Your stories are true–tell them.

By contrast, it turns out, the rest of this month’s links fall into the category of “things we know that just ain’t so”. At 1843 Magazine, a spin-off of The Economist, Peter Wilson reports the “Death of the Calorie” as a reliable measure of the relationship between food and weight gain. (Hat tip to feminist blog Shakesville for the link.)

Most studies show that more than 80% of people regain any lost weight in the long term. And like him, when we fail, most of us assume that we are too lazy or greedy – that we are at fault.

As a general rule it is true that if you eat vastly fewer calories than you burn, you’ll get slimmer (and if you consume far more, you’ll get fatter). But the myriad faddy diets flogged to us each year belie the simplicity of the formula… The calorie as a scientific measurement is not in dispute. But calculating the exact calorific content of food is far harder than the confidently precise numbers displayed on food packets suggest. Two items of food with identical calorific values may be digested in very different ways. Each body processes calories differently. Even for a single individual, the time of day that you eat matters. The more we probe, the more we realise that tallying calories will do little to help us control our weight or even maintain a healthy diet: the beguiling simplicity of counting calories in and calories out is dangerously flawed.

In fact, not only are all calories not created equal, but the popularity of this metric actually contributed to Americans’ weight gain problem, because it led people to substitute high-carbohydrate, fat-free processed foods (which convert to sugar faster) for foods with naturally occurring fats that give you a longer-term energy boost.

By the late 1960s, obesity was becoming a pressing health concern as people became more sedentary and started eating highly processed foods and lots of sugar. As the number of people who needed to lose weight grew, changing diets became the focus of attention.

So began the war on fat, in which Atwater’s calorie calculations were an unwitting ally. Because counting calories was seen as an objective arbiter of the health qualities of a foodstuff, it seemed logical that the most calorie-laden part of any food item – fat – must be bad for you. By this measure, dishes low in calories, but rich in sugar and carbohydrates, seemed healthier. People were increasingly willing to blame fat for many of the health ills of modern life, helped along by the sugar lobby: in 2016, a researcher at the University of California uncovered documents from 1967 showing that sugar companies secretly funded studies at Harvard University designed to blame fat for the growing obesity epidemic. That the dietary “fat” found in olive oil, bacon and butter is branded with the same word as the unwanted flesh around our middles made it all the easier to demonise.

US Senate committee report in 1977 recommended a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet for all, and other governments followed suit. The food industry responded with enthusiasm, removing fat, the most calorie-dense of macronutrients, from food items and replacing it with sugar, starch and salt. As a bonus, the thousands of new cheap and tasty “low-cal” and “low-fat” products which Camacho used to diet tended to have longer shelf lives and higher profit margins.

But this didn’t lead to the expected improvements in public health. Instead, it coincided almost exactly with the most dramatic rise in obesity in human history. Between 1975 and 2016 obesity almost tripled worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO): nearly 40% of over-18s – some 1.9bn adults – are now overweight. That contributed to a rapid rise in cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke) which became the leading cause of death worldwide. Rates of type-2 diabetes, which is often linked to lifestyle and diet, have more than doubled since 1980.

Read the rest of this well-researched article for surprising tips about food preparation and calorie counts. For example: “The calorie load of carbohydrate-heavy items such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes can be slashed simply by cooking, chilling and reheating them. As starch molecules cool they form new structures that are harder to digest. You absorb fewer calories eating toast that has been left to go cold, or leftover spaghetti, than if they were freshly made.” Maybe the Young Master is onto something when he eats frozen ravioli right out of the package. I’m a good mom.

At The Baffler, novelist, travel writer, and Tarot deck creator Jessa Crispin complicates our Trump-era celebration of women’s anger in “Good Girls Gone Mad”. Reviewing recent books by Rebecca Traister and Soraya Chemaly, Crispin writes:

Both books assume that I should be furious at the unfair treatment Hillary Clinton received at the hands of the media during the 2016 presidential election.

Neither book considers the possibility, even for the length of a sentence fragment, that one thing making some women angry might have been the insistence by a certain segment of elite women leaders that Hillary Clinton was the feminist choice despite her having made the lives of an entirely other segment of women unlivable through her support of military intervention, the gutting of social welfare programs, and the financial ruin of our nation by the wealthy. We should only care that some commentators were mean about her pantsuits, and her laugh, and her hair…

…And of course neither book manages to explain how women’s anger is different than men’s. When a woman is angry in these books, it is because of injustice, not because of immigrants. An angry woman is working toward progress—she is not a white supremacist, or a mother trying to suppress trans rights for the sake of “the children,” or an online troll sending death threats. Readers of Traister and Chemaly would never guess that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016. When a woman is angry in these tracts, she is Elizabeth Warren, not Marine Le Pen.

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We’ve all heard about the celebrities who bribed and cheated to get their kids into elite colleges. But Elaine Ou at Bloomberg Opinion says, “Forget Bribery. The Real Scam Is Pretending That Degrees Have Value.” Parents targeted Ivy League schools, rather than “rigorous, practical” ones like MIT and Caltech, because the main advantage of a Harvard degree over an online course or community college is the hoarding of prestige by elite families. “Successful parents in the upper middle class can leave money to their children, but that doesn’t guarantee entrée into the social elite. The more reliable way for powerful parents to buy power for their children is through a name-brand, exclusive education…When something is both expensive and of no practical value, it’s clearly intended as a means of wealth transfer.”

Speaking of economic inequality, Roge Karma at The American Prospect demands a greater public return on investment from government-supported research, in “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Myth of American Innovation”. At a hearing on regulation of the pharmaceutical industry last year, New York Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that the industry justifies high drug prices and restrictive patents on the grounds that companies need money to fund future innovations, but in fact, most of these drugs would not exist without significant funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Every single one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2010 to 2016 was developed thanks to NIH’s taxpayer-funded research.

In her 2004 book The Truth About Drug Companies, physician Marcia Angell notes that for decades, the NIH has backed research into the most promising drugs in the United States to the tune of $30 billion every year. Meanwhile, executives and shareholders combined receive 99 percent of the over $500 billion profits generated by the industry’s largest 18 drug companies, leaving relatively little room for new spending on research.

For years, progressive proposals like a 70 percent marginal income tax rate or a 2 percent wealth tax, have been dismissed as unworkable and naïve. Such policies, the argument goes, will stifle the underlying mechanism that drives the U.S. economy: private sector innovation. As Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, the country’s preeminent start-up incubator, put it “if income taxes are high enough, start-ups stop happening.”

This argument rests on a story of an American economy driven primarily by genius entrepreneurs, corporate risk takers, and private innovators who could solve our society’s most pressing problems if government just got off their backs. Typically, progressives have found themselves responding to this story in two ways: they ignore it and focus on inequality, or they reaffirm it and assure the public that private innovation will continue to flourish under progressive leaders.

But the fact that some of the world’s most innovative companies are American is not because of low taxes or loose regulations. It is because America is home to the biggest venture capitalist in the world: the U.S. government. The taxpayers who fund these innovations should be compensated accordingly.

Finally, this news headline from Taiwan has gone viral as the perfect unintentional poem: “Doctors find four bees in woman’s eye, feeding on her tears”. And not just any bees–graveyard-dwelling sweat bees. It doesn’t get more Goth than that.

March Links Roundup: Sacred Arts, Imperfect Mediators

Just as today we debate “separating the art from the artist” when an influential creator’s bad behavior comes to light, the early Christians were split over the standards for mediating their own sacred inspiration. A purist breakaway group in North Africa in the fourth century contended that clergy had to be morally blameless, or else their ministry, prayers, and administration of the sacraments were not effective. Because church authorities (rather conveniently) rejected this position, we know it as the “Donatist heresy”.

The official line has pragmatism to commend it: it’s bad enough when “all your faves are problematic”, but if you have to start worrying that your baptism or absolution is invalid, your eternal fate might depend on the unknown misdeeds of your priest. That’s too much stress and uncertainty for the flock. On the other hand, I think we’re seeing nowadays that the clergy abuse crisis is retroactively undermining many Christians’ experiences of God in church. The truths they thought they knew, the love they felt in the worship and sacraments–was it all a lie? When someone or something formative for us is exposed as predatory, we may even doubt the goals, beliefs, and affections that once seemed synonymous with our “self”.

In this October 2018 article from Vox, Constance Grady asks some literary critics to weigh in on “What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster?” On social media, there’s a predictable cycle of declaring that some creator is “cancelled” because of anything from an unfortunate remark to serial predation, followed by a flurry of equally simplistic rants against political correctness. Separating art from artist was the premise of early 20th century New Criticism, which has stuck with us because it makes English-class papers easier to write without historical background. Postmodern “death of the author” theory, meanwhile, can empower readers to reclaim the text from its problematic origins. I see a similarity to the way that progressive Christians claim personal authority to talk back to oppressive Bible passages and carve out a place for marginalized people in the tradition. On the other hand, New Historicists warn that the reader is also embedded in a context that may include the same vices that plagued the creator, like racism and rape culture. We need to look at ourselves as critically as the text.

The critics differed, however, on the question of whether it’s ever reasonable for a critic to decide not to engage with art made by a predator. There are two basic arguments here. One of those arguments…says that engaging critically with a work of art is completely different from endorsing the morality of the artist… The other argument says that our time is limited, we cannot devote equal critical attention to every work of art out there, and it’s reasonable for critics to curate their choices a little…

The issue here is not just “Is this artist monstrous?” but “Is this work of art asking me as a reader to be complicit with the artist’s monstrosity?” It’s the same argument that has come up repeatedly with R. Kelly, who writes songs about sex and consent and age differences between lovers, and who has also been accused of sexually assaulting very young women and girls.

I agree with Grady’s conclusion that there’s no one-size-fits-all theory that’ll determine when to disengage from questionable art or artists. Like a dysfunctional family where love is also possible, or a church that can be both oppressive and liberating, staying or going is a very individual decision.

Over at Into Account, a new blog for lifting up the voices of abuse survivors in church, Stephanie Krehbiel has a message for anyone who’d override that discernment process: “Godly Men, Be Quiet”. Conservative church leaders lately have been making noise about #MeToo because they can’t ignore it, but their pronouncements aren’t followed by structural change or repentance. Survivor-led reform isn’t happening. Too bad:

The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.

Their business is not to lead; it is to follow. Not for a designated period of penance. Not as part of a healing ritual that they can subsequently advertise. Not as a finite disciplinary sentence.

FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

Patriarchal Christian masculinity is a powerful drug. It makes many church men believe that the world desperately needs their perspective on everything. It makes their followers believe that asking such men to step aside from leadership is somehow tantamount to cruelty. God is always calling these men to lead someone or something, even when what they know about that thing may be approximately two cents less than nothingParticularly in the evangelical world, the spiritual quality that seems to most define men like this is their ability to imagine that they hear God in the voice of their own ambition…

I am not asking men in church leadership positions to do nothing about sexual abuse. I’m asking them to devote themselves to the task of following people who have less social power than they do.

Which, you know, sounds a lot like what Jesus told us to do…

In the New York Times last month, Elizabeth Dias’ investigative feature on gay Catholic priests, “It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage,” is a heartbreaking look at scores of mostly-anonymous clergy trying to live their vocation while crushed by hypocrisy, secrecy, and loneliness. Being sexually active, apparently, is less scandalous than being honest about one’s orientation while celibate. The atmosphere is even more stifling now because church leadership is erroneously scapegoating gay clergy for the sexual abuse crisis.

Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent…

…The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.

This topic is in the news again because of the new book In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, an exposé by French journalist Frédéric Martel. On the Nonviolent Atonement blog, gay Catholic theologian James Alison offers a sensitive and well-thought-out analysis of the problem and the way forward. Alison’s work helped me tremendously a decade ago when I was tormented by the gay/Christian question.

Alison describes the book, for which he was interviewed, as “the first attempt of which I am aware at a properly researched answer to the question: ‘How and why is it that the principal institutional obstacle to LGBT rights at the worldwide level appears itself to be massively staffed by gay men?'” This is not a book about the child abuse crisis per se, but rather, about how a culture of duplicity and blackmail is conducive to all sorts of abuses and cover-ups. Most people in the system are not even aware of the big picture:

We’re not talking about one single big lie, where all these men butch it up in public until they get back behind the Vatican walls ― at which point all can relax together in a theatrical green room, let down their hair and call each other Monica, Morgana or Mechthilde while swapping hot takes about their respective beaux. Rather we are talking about endless small lies, defensive manoeuvres, acts of hiding of self, adoptions of positions, fear of loss of livelihood, betrayals of friends, disguises of love, hints of blackmail, bizarre alliances, coded exchanges and resilient creations of habitable bubbles. We are also talking about the ways this system of mendacity reproduces itself through newcomers joining in playing the game. All involved are lying to and about themselves and each other; and yet, at the same time, they both know and don’t know what each other knows.

Furthermore, many are tortured by their own duplicity, not yet having achieved the perfection of polished cognitive dissonance at which some of those whom Martel interviews have obviously arrived. This matches what I have myself observed: the most venomous anti-clericalism and hatred of the Vatican comes from the mouths of its own clerical employees.

Meanwhile, the cognitive dissonance is amplified as sexual diversity has become mainstream in the outside world. Honest discussion of sexuality is the norm–except in the Church. Alison notes (a point that also emerged in the New York Times article) that unlike heterosexual men, many of the gay priests took their vows of celibacy without real understanding of their sexuality or options for healthy romantic partnership.

Church authority still teaches that a young gay person cannot appropriately be socialised into the humanisation of their emotional and sexual urges while dreaming of being married to someone they love. Indeed, far too many Catholic high schools, especially in the United States, are viciously legalistic in their attempts to apply these teachings to their employees and young charges. Further the authorities teach that such a young gay person does not have freedom of choice concerning whether to opt for marriage or a single life. They have a solemn obligation to singleness, with the threat of Hell a powerful enforcer….

Yes, the authorities really do deny there to be such a thing as an emotionally and psychologically balanced openly gay person who, therefore, might make a free choice between marriage or celibacy and so become a straightforward, honest candidate for seminary.

Now, that the official position is a lie is obvious to everyone, and scarcely applied anywhere. Even hard-line Bishops claim that they do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but instead on the basis of something they call “emotional and affective maturity.” But that effectively means that they do not believe their own teaching, for they are admitting people who their own official teaching claims not to exist. Such candidates are automatically implicated in the dishonesty of their superiors simply by being there. Furthermore, any gay candidate need only learn how to pretend not to be gay, for which many of them have had a whole adolescence-worth of training, and they will certainly find enough seminary officials who will induct them into playing “wink wink, nudge nudge,” having themselves become masters at the same game.

In short, long before any issue of a candidate’s sexual practice comes up, whether in the past, the present or the future, he finds that the one thing that is impossible is straightforward, first-person narrative honesty.

…Imitation is a much stronger force than instruction, and any gay candidate for seminary will see many others like himself already in the seminary, and will be interviewed by others like himself on the seminary staff. If in the midst of this he is presented with the instruction “You are required to be honest about being gay, and if you are gay and honest, your vocations counsellor is required to tell you that you cannot join,” he is not really being presented with a straightforward moral choice. In context, he is being presented with a hurdle, and his capacity to jump it will show whether or not he will be a suitable game player like all the others. Just in case the hurdle seems a little high, and if the vocations director likes the candidate, he may suggest that the kid is not really gay, just suffering from a transitory form of “same-sex attraction” or some other ecclesiastically convenient fiction. If the vocations director doesn’t like him, then, indeed, the fact that he is gay can be used to keep him out.

A dishonest system cannot demand honesty from its recruits, since in a dishonest system even the demand is dishonestly made and will be dishonestly received.

Alison concludes with a call for the Church to be honest with its children about God’s love for them regardless of orientation, and to bring its doctrines in line with the current evidence of science and psychology that queerness is a “regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.”

I’m afraid I’m not optimistic. But if Christianity survives as anything worthwhile, it’ll be because of folks like Alison.

February Links Roundup: Birds Do It, Trees Do It

As a good queer aesthete, I don’t place much weight on “the natural” as a prescriptive concept, but I still love a quirky story about nonhuman creatures who defy our narrow social categories. This rare gynandromorph cardinal flips the bird at binary ideas of gender, as reported at the blog Towleroad: “Half-Male, Half-Female Cardinal Goes Viral, Has a Male Lover”. Since the bi-color bird’s female side is on the left, where the functioning ovary is located, the pair may be able to reproduce. Can’t you just imagine a children’s book about that future baby bird, along the lines of And Tango Makes Three?

Not only that, but the tree where they nest could be trans. At the online magazine Catapult, nature columnist Miranda Schmidt kicks off their new monthly series “Tree Talk” with the piece “How Trees Complicate Our Understanding of Gender”. In folklore and poetry, we’ve associated some species with masculinity (strong and tall) and others with femininity (slender and graceful), but in fact, over 90% of species worldwide “are alternately termed bisexual, or hermaphroditic, or ‘perfect,’ meaning they have both male and female parts on a single flower.” Reflecting on their own multi-gendered identity, Schmidt suggests a writing exercise to reveal hidden potentialities:

Describe your gender identity without using images that are stereotypically associated with masculine or feminine things. Try it. See what you find. When I do this exercise, I always think of the crabapple tree in the yard of the house I grew up in. It was split down the middle, all the way to the ground. Its two halves grew away from each other, almost as if they were two separate trees. We never knew how it had split. The crack down the middle of its trunk was old, possibly as old as the tree itself. Perhaps it was made by the weight of its branches pulling in opposite directions. Perhaps it originated from some outside source: an axe, or lightning. I would look at that tree and I would imagine its roots, those parts I couldn’t see, grown all together, tangled up and merging in a way its above-ground parts couldn’t. Underneath, I thought, the tree would be wholly undivided.

Alongside the project of unearthing the naturalness of queerness–an understandable objective, aimed at creating political safety and healing queer shame–there’s always been its opposite, the defiant un-naturalness that Susan Sontag limns in the 58 Wildean aphorisms comprising her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”. What she finds in camp is a kind of playful generosity of spirit, a humanistic snobbery, if you will:

54. The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Food 4 Thot podcast co-host Joe Osmundson a/k/a “Joe the Science Ho” explored the dark side of gay aesthetics in his 2013 Gawker article “There’s a Nerd in the Locker Room: Sex, Beauty and Self-Love”. With wit and pathos, Osmundson tracks the changes in his self-image during a month-long membership at David Barton Gym, the hot spot for Chelsea’s rich and beautiful boys.

At DBG I spend a lot of time contemplating superficiality and the NYC gays. Many assume gay men are shallow because we essentially want to be fucking ourselves. Men naturally have higher libidos, right? Attraction is more physical to us? All this seems too simplistic to me. After a few visits to DBG, I started to think that queer people often know we’re different very young. A lot of us grow up absolutely hating the gay bit of ourselves, praying it away, hoping it would die or recede so we can be normal and happy like everyone else. When you spend a large portion of your life loathing some central component of yourself, you might want to find something that you do love. Your body is something you can make better and faster and stronger. Perhaps spaces like DBG exist because there is a road map and a space for remaking your body. I wonder what a space for doing the work to love ourselves for our minds and spirits, for our ugly bits, our complicated and fucked up internal bits, would look like…

…[I]t would be a mistake to talk about gay male beauty and sex without talking about American culture at large. In America we often define men by their ability to consume emotionless sex. Gay culture exists in conversation with American culture and so if men define themselves by their ability to consume women without attachment, why should gay men be held to a different standard?

But here is the ugly truth: we are all here at DBG to get laid, even if most of us aren’t doing it upstairs in the steam room. I do feel more comfortable in my body than before I was working out. Having facile sex would probably make me feel good, and good about myself, in a lot of complicated ways that may be difficult to undo and that might make certain types of intimacy difficult.

Last week I blogged about how Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering philosophy helps me strengthen my intuition as a writer. Kondo has been subjected to a ridiculous amount of negative “hot takes”, which at times slide into racist disrespect for her personal style and cultural traditions. At HuffPost, Margaret Dilloway explains “What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up'”. Born to an American father and Japanese mother, Dilloway recognizes her late mother’s Shinto beliefs in many of the practices that Kondo’s critics have belittled:

Kami are Shinto spirits present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects. At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort. I could consider a spatula used to cook my eggs with the wonder and mindful appreciation you’d afford a sculpture; someone had to invent it, many human hands and earthly resources helped get it to me, and now I use it every day. According to Shinto animism, some inanimate objects could gain a soul after 100 years of service ―a concept know as tsukumogami ― so it felt natural to acknowledge them, to express my gratitude for them.

“Tell the kami-sama what you’re grateful for,” my mother would say to me, referring to God or the supreme kami, “and what you want.”

I had my mother in mind when I watched Marie Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up” for the first time. In each episode, Kondo, a professional organizing consultant, instructs her clients to identify the objects in their homes that “spark joy” and devise a plan to honor those objects by cleaning and storing them properly.

She also encourages people to part ways with the objects that fail to spark joy, but not before thanking them for their service. The way Kondo pledges gratitude for the crowded houses she visits, and thanks the clothes and books and lamps that serve so much purpose for the families seeking to declutter their homes, struck me as a powerfully Shinto way of conducting life.

Full disclosure, when my Copco white plastic spatula broke after a dozen years of service, I duct-taped the handle back on and stored it in my kitchen drawer. I mean, that’s one of the longest relationships I’ve had. It’s not going in the recycling bin. Marie understands.

December Links Roundup: We’ve Always Been Here

Happy Advent and Hanukkah to my readers! This year, to honor my ancestors and the victims of anti-Semitic violence in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere), I’ve begun lighting Hanukkah candles again. As I did at his age, the Young Master loves the ritual of selecting the colors for each night, and seeing the little flames cheer up the early darkness of these winter evenings. Pro tip, this grapefruit peeler is great for extracting the wax stubs from those tiny candle holder cups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility of minority identities, and the compromises involved in translating one’s self into an alien discourse. “They” is a grammatically awkward pronoun precisely because life outside the gender binary is supposed to be unthinkable. Then, too, there is the question of why recognition matters. Who is our audience? Are we signaling solidarity to others in the tribe, or are we seeking public validation of an identity that we ourselves are insecure about?

Speaking of visibility in unlikely places, if you grew up in a progressive household in the 1970s, you probably remember Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castile soap. I spent many hours soaking in the bathtub, puzzling over the philosophical tracts that covered every inch of the bottle label in tiny print. These quirky paeans to the “All-One-God-Faith” included quotes from Thomas Paine, the lyrics of “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and the timeless advice: “Don’t drink soap! Dilute! Dilute! OK!” At the social justice blog The Establishment, Casey Kleczek gives a thumbnail history of the still family-owned brand in “A Soap Label to Save the World from Future Hitlers”:

Bronner’s Moral ABCs first developed in the Heilbronner home in the Jewish quarter of Laupheim, Germany where for 70 years Emanuel and his family tirelessly fine-tuned the first-ever liquid castile soap, and held the prevailing belief that “You don’t mix politics and soap.”

This stalwart rejection of incorporating Bronner’s then Zionist ideology into the family business by his strict orthodox father and uncles inspired him to emigrate to America in 1929, where he would be free to create a company of his own ideation, and mix politics and soap as he wanted.

In America, he dropped the “Heil” from his last name and became a successful consultant for American cosmetic companies. He fell in love, got married and had three children. But his life came screeching to a halt with a postcard in his father’s largely censored scrawl:  “You were right.”

For years he had been trying to convince his parents to follow him to the United States amidst Hitler’s rise to power. He managed to securely help his sisters out of Germany but was unable to convince his parents, who held the prevailing belief of the time that “Hitler would be a thing of the past.”

Within the next year, the Heilbronner soap company was nationalized by the Nazis, and the family was deported and killed in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. Not long after, Bronner’s wife passed away.

After the death of his parents and wife, a switch flipped. His very aliveness was a burden, a reminder of the fact that his parents died while he was living the American dream. He carried the weight of their deaths like a talisman with a gnawing question, “What are you going to do about it?”

The guilt and sorrow frothed into a frenetic madness. Rather than slip into mourning, he was seized by a singular charge: teach the world the Moral ABCs. All the sources of unwelcome philosophy from his youth were channeled into this hodgepodge Talmud. Mohammed, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus, Buddha, and even Thomas Paine were some of its more notable players. And while the particulars may have been unintelligible, the guiding principle was a call to rise above religious and ethnic differences and unite on “spaceship earth.”

The article goes on to give an even-handed account of the impact of Bronner’s zeal on his family, whom he neglected in his quest to spread his message. After much financial and medical turmoil, things turned around for the Bronners during the natural-products craze of the 1960s, and the rest is history.

At the Huffington Post, writer and theater performer Travis Alabanza argues that white supremacy plays a role in erasing gender diversity, in the article “Non-Binary People Aren’t a New Phenomenon”. Since the mainstream media has taken notice of trans issues only recently, there’s the implication that these identities are a new trend, and therefore shallow and insubstantial. But gender-bending identities have been named and given space in a variety of cultures, from South Asian hijra to the bakla of the Philippines. “I do not think it is a coincidence that things are often seen as ‘just beginning to exist’ when they are placed within frames of the West and/or whiteness. Did we mean to say ‘non-binary was new’, or did we just mean to say ‘non-binary is now something I see more white, western, middle class people talking about’.” Alabanza worries that this new framing will lead to a narrowing of possibilities, so that nonbinary becomes a cloned look: “skinny, able-bodied, white, and masculine of centre.”

A welcome variety of literary personalities, including Northampton’s own Andrea Lawlor and Jordy Rosenberg, are on view in Peter Haldeman’s NY Times profle “The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature”. These authors, along with other rising stars like Akwaeke Emezi and Kai Cheng Thom, discuss how genderqueer literature lends itself to a “magpie” approach to genre, with narratives that incorporate fables, poetic devices, faux-scholarly footnotes, and other postmodern techniques.

While literary innovation may be flourishing in the Pioneer Valley, traditional test-driven education is doing its best to stamp it out, writes Ryan Boyd in his LA Review of Books article “Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them” , reviewing John Warner’s new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Students’ lack of competence or passion for writing can be blamed on “how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive.” Teaching to the test–the formulaic composition assignments on topics no one cares about–stifles students’ curiosity and burdens them with economic anxiety from a young age. Students are unmotivated, not because they’re lazy and coddled, but because they intuitively understand that these assignments are merely grooming them to become corporate cogs and neoliberal consumers.

The five-paragraph essay, bête noire of writing professors, encapsulates this: a straitjacket format never seen in the wild, where actual writers have to be flexible, creative, and intuitive based on genre and audience, the five-paragraph model is wholly artificial. And since the only person who reads it is an adult who holds a grade over the writer’s head, this example of “education folklore” (Warner’s term) socializes students to obsess about grades (which research shows are detrimental to learning and merely increase anxiety) and view The Teacher as the only arbiter of quality, who judges everything according to a strict rubric. All that matters is the final score, which can be standardized, rather than the kind of rich, in-depth, guiding feedback that only experienced teachers can provide their students. In overcrowded, over-tested classrooms, students come to see every assignment as just another flaming hoop to jump through.

No wonder I did poorly on the AP English exams!

Just for fun, check out humorist Daniel Ortberg’s “Potential Names For My Short-Lived Queer Suiting Company That Will Fold Under Mysterious Circumstances Eight Months After Launching”:

If there’s one thing I know to be true in this world, it’s that anytime I click on an article that says something like “Five AWESOME Companies Making Androgynous/Non-Binary/Genderfluid/Queer-Bodied Suits for the Butch/Masc-of-Center/TenderBlenderBabyBoi In Your Life,” if said article is more than half a year old, fully half of those links will be dead and the companies in question will be decisively, yet mysteriously, out of existence. (With the exception of Bindle and Keep, it would seem; may their doors never close.) I don’t quite know why this is! My guess is that it’s a relatively small client base, suits are generally kind of expensive, especially if you want a custom fit, and the butch/stud/transmasculine/et al market covers a lot of different body types. But that doesn’t stop us from launching another round every couple of years, because hope and ignorance of markets spring eternal (see The Toast).

Create your own company name from your birth month and day! Mine is “Wolf & Ranger”. We make cowboi hats…

November Links Roundup: Whose Side Are You On

The theme for November is “I hope I can fit everything interesting I’ve read this month into one post”. But you could say that these links loosely gather around the idea of clearly facing our alternatives and taking a stand. This heightened resolve reflects the mood of the country, where progressives seem to be waking up to the fact that moderation and bridge-building are an ineffective response to fundamentalism and fascism. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be especially grateful to the Massachusetts voters who passed Question 3 by a solid 2-to-1 margin, keeping our transgender nondiscrimination law on the books.

At Pacific Standard, freelance journalist Noah Berlatsky contends that “Israel Doesn’t Show Us How to Fight Fascism–But the Diaspora Can”. He notes a divergence between the intersectional, progressive values of many American Jews, and the right-wing Israeli government’s coziness with Trump. Like many in my generation, he grew up on the belief that support for Israel was our insurance policy against renewed persecution in our home countries. But it’s time to rethink that: “Israel as a state doesn’t feel threatened by growing fascism abroad because Israel as a state isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, the target of fascism abroad…The Nazis didn’t just hate the diaspora at random either; they hated the diaspora for being a diaspora. Nazi propaganda attacked Jews as being despicable precisely because they were a people without a country.”

Berlatsky suggests we should look to the 19th-century Bund movement as our historical model instead: “The Bund and other Jewish socialist movements used Jewish diaspora internationalism as a springboard to socialist internationalism, and vice versa. Rather than seeking a Jewish homeland, Jewish socialists and communists had a vision of trans-national equality, in which workers of all nations would be liberated…When Jewish identity is centered on Israel, the diaspora is always supposed to be vaguely embarrassed because it conforms to fascist stereotypes about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, intellectualism. But is it really wrong to have ties to a community based in a shared vision of God, justice, and hope, rather than in land and blood?”

For a different perspective on the lessons of Jewish history, the Yale University Press blog editors recently interviewed James Loeffler, author of Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, about the Jewish leaders who created the modern concept of international human rights:

In writing this book, I wanted to puncture the widespread myth that Zionism has no connection to the history of human rights. Many people assume that since Zionism was a nationalist movement, it focused only on securing the Jews a homeland. Some even assume that Zionism’s particularism placed it in opposition to the universal cosmopolitanism of human rights. But the truth is that before international human rights there was the cause of international minority rights, and that project was to a large degree a Zionist one.

There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, only Zionists thought globally about Jewish peoplehood and made grand claims to be acting on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Bundism, Diaspora Nationalism, and other important Jewish political movements stopped their activism at the borders of the lands in which their leaders lived. Other non-Zionist Jewish liberals cared deeply but selectively about far-flung Jewish communities. But Zionism, because of its own ideological principles, focused on naming and claiming a global Jewish nation.

That leads to the second reason Zionists were so interested in international rights schemes. Jews were an historical anomaly—a nationalist movement comprised of a diaspora people outside their ancestral homeland. Someone else (first the Turks, then the British) controlled Palestine. So they turned to international law as a way to make claims both on behalf of the Jewish people and in service of their political aspirations for a country of their own. To be sure, not everyone agreed with these ideas, but no one could ignore them. For to protect a global minority, you had to engage with the questions of its unique collective identity and its status in international law.

While acknowledging the Israeli government’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, Loeffler argues that the international human rights community and the Left have become disproportionately focused on Israel’s sins, following a Christian theological tradition of disparaging Jewish particularity as a foil for “universal” values:

The human rights movement was shaped dramatically by the emergence of Amnesty International. As I show, its Jewish founder, Peter Benenson, went from being a socialist Zionist to a Catholic humanitarian. In the process, he set his organization—and by extension, the larger human rights movement—on a course to view Jewish nationalism as an affront to the universalist sensibilities of the liberal, Christian West. The human rights community, in other words, came to define itself as a universal Church of humanity through renouncing its Jewish origins. The State of Israel became an irresistible target, worthy of extra scrutiny and moral critique by virtue of its ties to Judaism and the Holocaust.

This was not antisemitism in the classical sense. But it was an ideological obsession with Zionism, and it saw Israel as cartoonish rogue state and icon of clannish tribalism. Thus, what we might call the “deep culture” of the human rights movement grew out of an almost missionary-like, Christian-inflected worldview, in which Israel became a symbol of the redemptive promise of human rights universalism and the failure of Jewish nationhood.

At Media Matters, a site that fact-checks conservative misinformation, Parker Molloy wonders, “Media keep talking about ‘identity politics’. But what does it even mean anymore?” It’s become a cliché, even among some liberal pundits, to blame Democrats’ election losses on a divisive and narrow focus on special-interest groups: Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and so on. But Molloy says we’ve just been conditioned not to notice the “identity politics” of Republicans, because their preferred identities (white, Christian, male) have been held up as universal norms for centuries. Molloy cites an academic psychology paper that found that white Christian homogeneity demarcates Republican party lines and gives force to identity-based political appeals, more strongly than any similar appeal to race/gender/sexual identity among Democrats.

Along those lines, acclaimed novelist Tayari Jones debunks the myth of the moral middle in her Time magazine article “There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground”:

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call the “good people on both sides” phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we could agree on a nice program of indentured servitude? Instead of subjecting Japanese-American citizens to indefinite detention during WW II, what if we had agreed to give them actual sentences and perhaps provided a receipt for them to reclaim their things when they were released? What is halfway between moral and immoral?

…For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war too. They know there is no safety in the in-between. The romance of the middle can exist when one’s empathy is aligned with the people expressing opinions on policy or culture rather than with those who will be affected by these policies or cultural norms. Buried in this argument, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that these policies change people’s lives.

As Americans, we are at a crossroads. We have to decide what is central to our identity: Is the importance of our performance of national unity more significant than our core values? Is it more meaningful that we understand why some of us support the separation of children from their parents, or is it more crucial that we support the reunification of these families? Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? Should we agree to disagree about the murder and dismemberment of a journalist? Should we celebrate our tolerance and civility as we stanch the wounds of the world and the climate with a poultice of national unity?

This piece came at a crucial time for me. I’m not sure how to feel about friends from my evangelical days who seem open to my identity journey, but attend churches that want to erase my existence. I don’t expect everyone to pick solidarity with me over their faith or their church family. I’m not that important in their lives. But I’m starting to resent the expectation that I honor their fence-sitting as a broad-minded vocation. Don’t try to make me concede that your Christian friends are “loving” and “good”, when they would not be that way to me.

At Longreads, “Theater of Forgiveness” is a powerful essay by Hafizah Geter about the intergenerational trauma of African-American women, and how it can be compounded by a religious culture that makes them swallow their anger. A nonthreatening, peacemaking response to racist violence is a logical survival strategy in a society that fears Black strength, but those suppressed emotions plagued her family with broken health and abusive relationships.

Being Black in America means having a historical relationship to forgiveness. If the law of Audre Lorde holds true and “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Christian forgiveness was never designed to tackle white supremacy, only pardon it. Christianity emerged from our slave masters. We were forbidden to read, but could pray. In the face of this new, white god, our ancestors looked for solace and hope. Slaves were entitled to nothing, not even their anger. Performing forgiveness became a crucial aspect of slaves’ lives. They held forgiveness in their mouths as both salve and armor. But if Christianity is the master’s tool, then surely white supremacy is its house and the Christian ideal of forgiveness will never be able to address, dismantle, or truly forgive white supremacy.

How, in the 21st century, do we escape the theatre of forgiveness?

I am trying to trace the trickle-down effect of suppressing Black rage through forgiveness in my family. How my enslaved ancestors must have chewed on their rage like cud until it was unrecognizable enough to be called forgiveness. How that rage tumbled through our bloodstream, generation after generation. How it made our men mean and our women the only thing America would possibly let them get away with breaking. How our women raised other people’s children by themselves, and arrived home too tired or too shattered to save their daughters from the grown men they themselves loved. How rage has sent us imploding. How rage grips my father’s people, turning our men into tripwires until both our traumas and our resilience are passed down from generation to generation. Over and over, I see how white supremacy and altered expectations of justice have forever molded the Black American side of my family.

Over the course of the essay, Geter recounts childhood torments at the hands of a cruel aunt. Yet without minimizing or excusing her, she ends with a compassionate awareness of her aunt as the fierce protector of her abused siblings. It’s something more complex yet more fair and satisfying than simple “forgiveness”, no sentimental forgetfulness here. Geter concludes:

No, we should not abandon the work of forgiveness, but I do believe we should honor our forgiveness by raising the price on it. I do not want to live with a hard heart, but I do want limits on turning the other cheek. I want us to stop offering our injurers unconditional salvation and offer that to our children and ourselves instead. I want us to unmangle what religious white supremacy has done to our sense of justice and self-worth.

Finally, via Harvard Magazine, here’s a link to a cool New Yorker story by Margaret Talbot, “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture”. Turns out that Greco-Roman sculptures were often painted in colors we might consider garish, but the evidence has been repeatedly ignored because we’re so invested in the aesthetic of white rational purity we picked up from the Renaissance. Art restorers even scrubbed paint traces off antique statues to make them more marketable to collectors and museums. Moreover, many portrait sculptures were originally colored with a variety of skin tones, unsurprisingly since the Roman Empire once stretched from Scotland to North Africa. The ancient Greeks actually considered dark skin a sign of superiority in men, since it meant they spent a lot of time outside doing healthy athletic things. Read the whole article to see photographic and video reconstructions of classical art in all its flamboyant hues.

Inner Rings and Structureless Cliques

New York City and Harvard: competitive, glamorous, heartbreaking environments that together formed the landscape of my youth. In college, I used to brag ironically, “I’m miserable in the most prestigious place in the world!” Then as now, I took some satisfaction from the fact that I’d never have to wonder “what if”. I had been to the mountaintop, and although life still held a lot of suffering, at least I wouldn’t be tormented by regrets for some road not taken to the Big City.

Legendary places like these, with their gambler’s promise of insider success, continue to exert a magnetic pull on me, stirring hope and self-recrimination (what if I tried harder? what if I changed my whole personality?) despite knowing full well that their path to the top is neither possible nor enjoyable for me. I’m not a greyhound, and the racetrack’s metal bunny wouldn’t taste good if I caught it. But I can’t stop the twinge of wishing for it.

At such times I think back to one of my favorite C.S. Lewis essays, “The Inner Ring”, a lecture he gave at the University of London in 1944. Lewis points out the universality of the discontent and self-blame I felt in college–the intuition that someone, somewhere, has discovered the secret of belonging in this community where you remain an outsider. However, this intuition is illusory. You will never actually arrive at the center of society because it doesn’t exist: it is a “place” wholly defined by your fear of missing out. “The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.” Moreover, in the process of trying to get there, you will inevitably make moral compromises to please higher-ups, and turn into someone you never planned to be. “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

However, there is one secret society worth belonging to, Lewis says–the modest company of people who care about their work for its own sake, and do it well. The size of the group is self-limited by the number of people who share these values, but it’s not intentionally exclusive. Only there will you find the real sense of belonging that is friendship.

Oddly enough, though their ideologies and backgrounds are in most ways quite opposite, this was also the central message I found in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead when I first read it at age 13. With no hope of popularity, I was free to go gonzo on my art. This may be one reason I am not tormented by anxieties about success or audience reach, as a poet–whereas I am very much haunted by them, as a fiction writer. My poetry-writing self was born a lot earlier, in the solitude of pre-adolescence, while my fiction-writing self dates from my 30s, when I had relationships that could be lost.

Lewis’s piece pairs nicely with feminist theorist Jo Freeman’s 1970 lecture/article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Reacting against the aforementioned ills of hierarchy and elitism, progressive and feminist communities have favored nominally egalitarian “structurelessness” without defined channels of authority. (I can attest to the popularity of this approach, with all the flaws that Freeman describes, in my K-12 education in the 1970s-80s.)

But, says Freeman, no group can truly remain unstructured. Organizing principles and power centers inevitably emerge. The problem is that when structure is entirely covert, there is no way to hold it accountable. Power acrues to those who already have more social capital than other members–for instance, the ones who are more popular, better connected to other members, more charismatic, or advantaged by class and education.

Moreover, a group that wishes to have a political impact cannot remain at the level of a “structureless” clique. (Freeman was specifically discussing how to turn women’s consciousness-raising groups into effective feminist activism.) Either the local group disintegrates, or it becomes subsumed into the agenda of the few national-level organizations that do have the structure to collaborate on a task.

As long as the women’s liberation movement stays dedicated to a form of organization which stresses small, inactive discussion groups among friends, the worst problems of Unstructuredness will not be felt. But this style of organization has its limits; it is politically inefficacious, exclusive, and discriminatory against those women who are not or cannot be tied into the friendship networks. Those who do not fit into what already exists because of class, race, occupation, education, parental or marital status, personality, etc., will inevitably be discouraged from trying to participate. Those who do fit in will develop vested interests in maintaining things as they are.

The informal groups’ vested interests will be sustained by the informal structures which exist, and the movement will have no way of determining who shall exercise power within it. If the movement continues deliberately to not select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.

Freeman’s piece concludes with guiding principles for a democratically structured group. These include clearly delegated and distributed authority, rotation of tasks, equal access to resources, and widespread sharing of information. Her recommendations are still relevant to activists today.

October Links Roundup: Mx. Personality

October…my favorite season. The days turn cold and dark, the leaves change color, and Mr. Tech Support and I will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I am filled with an unusual sense of wellbeing because I sold three copies of my story collection at a Straw Dog Writers Guild reading last night and now have enough money to buy a new trans boi shirt from Androgynous Fox. (Speaking of which, this Dapper Boi button-down is the best. Make more colors!)

My forced exposure to psychological tests a decade ago convinced me that “personality” is a contestable concept. (A belief which, needless to say, did not improve my score.) The self is situational, changing over time, and wearing different personae depending on the norms and trust level in a given social setting. Attempting to quantify it as a fixed trait, like eye color, can erase the impact of interpersonal stressors and make the subject feel powerless to change.

Such caveats are thoroughly considered in “Who’s Got Personality?”, Deborah Chasman’s Boston Review interview with Merve Emre about her new book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (Penguin Random House). Their dialogue explores reasons for the continued popularity of these unscientific metrics, the test creators’ struggles with women’s changing roles in the mid-20th century, and the gender and class hierarchies that the test perpetuates:

If you look at the statistics around the [thinking vs. feeling] indicator, it is true that women tend have a stronger preference for feeling than men. But what I think is so dangerous about MBTI is that it claims that those personality traits are innate; it naturalizes the feeling-work that women do when really it is often a function of much larger structural dynamics. That women were often tasked with doing the affective labor of social reproduction has very little to do with biology and everything to do with the way that the household has been set up and theorized as a private space—where feelings are managed—as opposed to the public space of material labor and of work…

…Not everybody gets the privilege of thinking of oneself as a unique individual, somebody who has a rich inner life or even a highly differentiated set of preferences that are worth talking about and classifying. Even before you get to typing people using the indicator, a type system has already sorted them—there are those who get to have access to personalities and those who don’t.

Today, still, by the logic of this particular indicator, people who are white and wealthy and powerful and male get to think of themselves as personalities. The indicator really works to perpetuate that. When I went to the reeducation program, one participant was this wonderful man, a college counselor from a small, Midwestern school, who was telling us that 70 percent of his students were first-generation immigrants, they were the first people in their families to go to college, they were overwhelmingly from lower-income households, many of them were women and students of color. He was telling the talent coach that for many of these students the questions on the test are simply inscrutable—they ask you to imagine these scenarios where, say, you are planning a vacation and you have to figure out whether you plan everything ahead of time or you just go spontaneously. Or at work, you have this huge project and your boss is a thinker and you are a feeler, so how do you go about making decisions. His students found the minds of those decision-makers impenetrably bourgeois. He asked the talent coach what he should tell them when they say they have never gone on vacation, never been able to afford to go on vacation, or that in their workplaces people don’t cooperate—they are just told what to do and to punch in and out. Her response was striking: well, this is the pool of success, and if they want to swim in it they just have to learn, they just have to acclimate themselves to this language, to these ideas. MBTI continues to be classed and raced and biased in all sorts of implicit ways. It was explicit in the ’40s. It is more implicit now.

For a more contrarian take on self-help, life coach Pace Smith recently blogged about a dangerous omission in spiritual talk about the virtue of love. In “Why I Hate Compassion”, she writes:

If you hang out with spiritual people (and you do), you’ll hear a lot of talk about compassion. Supposedly, it’s pretty awesome. If we can just practice infinite compassion for all beings at all times, we’ll reach enlightenment and all dance around as joyful radiant beings of light.

Take this Dalai Lama quote, for example:

“We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens we will have no regrets.”

Does that make you feel peaceful? If so, you can stop reading now, and pass this article along to a friend who suffers from Infinite Compassion Syndrome.

If the quote makes you feel anxious, and makes you question whether you’re truly doing as much as you can, then I’m talking to you.

“Judge nothing, you will be happy. Forgive everything, you will be happier. Love everything, you will be happiest.” – Sri Chinmoy

Sounds great in theory, right?

But would you give this advice to a woman in an abusive relationship?

Would you tell her to forgive, to let go of judgment, and to love no matter what?

Yes, I know, I post a lot of links on this topic… If I have any consistent “personality”, it’s this: I can’t avoid probing for the weak spot, the thing that is left out, in any belief system. Is deconstruction a wounded trauma response? Was the neo-conservative phase of my teens and 20s an attempt to shore up fragments of absolutism against the inevitable ruins of whatever I trusted?

Back in those days, I was pro-life–largely because it scared me to think that my mother, or any mother, should have the power to decide whether I was a “person” or not. (Heck, she was never convinced of that after I was born.) But when I realized I didn’t trust the religious conservatives who shared my views, nor agreed with them on anything else, it caused me to question my position. Gabrielle Blair, who blogs at Design Mom, recently posted this Twitter thread (unrolled on her blog) with a convincing argument that the most ethical way to reduce unwanted pregnancies is to hold men responsible, commensurate with their real biological role in the problem. Excerpts:

Did you know that a man CAN’T get a woman pregnant without having an orgasm? Which means that we can conclude getting a woman pregnant is a pleasurable act for men.

But did you further know that men CAN get a woman pregnant without HER feeling any pleasure at all? In fact, it’s totally possible for a man to impregnate a woman even while causing her excruciating pain, trauma or horror.

In contrast, a woman can have non-stop orgasms with or without a partner and never once get herself pregnant. A woman’s orgasm has literally nothing to do with pregnancy or fertility — her clitoris exists not for creating new babies, but simply for pleasure.

No matter how many orgasms she has, they won’t make her pregnant. Pregnancies can only happen when men have an orgasm. Unwanted pregnancies can only happen when men orgasm irresponsibly.

What this means is a women can be the sluttliest slut in the entire world who loves having orgasms all day long and all night long and she will never find herself with an unwanted pregnancy unless a man shows up and ejaculates irresponsibly.

Women enjoying sex does not equal unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Men enjoying sex and having irresponsible ejaculations is what causes unwanted pregnancies and abortion…

…Stop protesting at clinics. Stop shaming women. Stop trying to overturn abortion laws. If you actually care about reducing or eliminating the number of abortions in our country, simply HOLD MEN RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.

What would that look like? What if there was a real and immediate consequence for men who cause an unwanted pregnancy? What kind of consequence would make sense? Should it be as harsh, painful, nauseating, scarring, expensive, risky, and life-altering…

… as forcing a woman to go through a 9-month unwanted pregnancy?

In my experience, men really like their testicles. If irresponsible ejaculations were putting their balls at risk, they would stop being irresponsible. Does castration seem like a cruel and unusual punishment? Definitely.

But is it worse than forcing 500,000 women a year to puke daily for months, gain 40 pounds, and then rip their bodies apart in childbirth? Is a handful of castrations worse than women dying during forced pregnancy & childbirth?

Put a castration law on the books, implement the law, let the media tell the story, and in 3 months or less, tada! abortions will have virtually disappeared. Can you picture it? No more abortions in less than 3 months, without ever trying to outlaw them. Amazing.

For those of you who consider abortion to be murder, wouldn’t you be on board with having a handful of men castrated, if it prevented 500,000 murders each year?

And if not, is that because you actually care more about policing women’s bodies, morality, and sexuality, than you do about reducing or eliminating abortions? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

At the cultural webzine Popula, Sarah Miller reflects on the dangers of going along to get along, in “The Movie Assassin: How ‘The English Patient’ almost ruined my life”. As a young film critic at a Philadelphia newspaper, Miller thought the much-hyped movie was pretentious and dull (I agree), but her mentors insisted that any smart person should love it, and leaned on her to write a positive review. She did, and moved on to a successful freelance career writing things she didn’t really care about, until one day the money dried up and she had an epiphany:

I thought a lot about my lying review of that racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie. I thought about how at the time, I was proud of myself for having the courage to make shit up because I was afraid to disagree with someone I wanted to impress, and also afraid of not making money. That one decision had led to a lot of other similar ones and had eventually ended up as an agreement with myself to spend over 10 years of my life being a different person than the one I had planned on being and feeling smug about being good at writing crap and then even actually starting to think the crap was good because of the money I was given to produce it. I look at all the people in tech who are convinced they are saving the world, that what they do matters. When the money goes, and it will, that feeling will go with it.

If you write thousands of sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with what you think or feel those sentences are still what you will become. You can turn yourself into another person. I turned myself into another person…

…It often strikes me that it is considered immature to be unable to believe bullshit. Think about the word globalization. It doesn’t mean cultures mixing, fusion cuisine, or a fun wedding of a rich Sri Lankan to a poor Swede. It doesn’t even mean free markets. It means access to new markets and especially access to cheap labor so rich people can make more money. That is all it means. If you happen to gain from side effects (see fusion cuisine, above) you might want to notice what everyone else, including you, is losing. But try saying that at a dinner party. Everyone would just feel sorry for you.

I just can’t stop thinking of—hmmm—The English Patient. This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?

Becoming poor was such a small price to pay to stop being so fucking dumb. I used to hear the saying “Politics is the art of the possible” as benignly self-evident. Now I know it is chastising, smug, and cruel. It’s not about cooperation. It is about agreeing that some people’s lives don’t matter. If you hear anything else in that saying, you’ve never wished you could just die because you couldn’t figure out how to make money.

Want to discover two great poets who understand why writing matters? Check out this conversation betwen Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith in Granta. At the time, both were shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Forward Prize, which Smith won. Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) is a lyrical meditation on recovery from alcoholism, in dialogue with the Persian mystical tradition of his ancestors. Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), a fierce and tender book on being black and HIV+ in America, combines the energetic rhythms of performance poetry with the complexity of literature on the page. As the editor of Divedapper, Akbar is also an extremely generous promoter of other contemporary poets. Follow him on Twitter to find your next favorite poem. In the Granta piece, I especially loved Smith’s discussion of the challenges of writing a joyful book (his forthcoming collection Homie):

I turned to my favorite writers of joy: Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Angel Nafis, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison. I turned to Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle and all the folks I dance and sing too. I learned two things I think. One was to allow some more grief into the poems, not to sully the joy, but for the grief to be comforted. I think in my two previous collections grief led while joy attempted to triumph. I think that is surely a fine way to write joy. We all love an anthem and anthems require a little blood. With this collection, I think joy is the center and grief seeks out joy as a place of respite. Some of the drafts at some point felt a little cheesy, so I had to dig a little deeper into that brightness I distrusted and find what was being confessed. I think poems confess something. The second thing I learned was to surrender to ecstasy.

May we all write in such a way that our grief can be comforted.

September Links Roundup: Manspread Your Novel

Ahh…September. The days grow colder, my brain wakes up, the Young Master begins first grade (!!). Time to get back to drafting the Endless Sequel.

If, like me, you write slowly, perhaps you’ve heard that self-critical voice in your head. The one that says the book really IS taking a thousand years to get to the point–it doesn’t just feel that way because you’re squeezing in an hour or two of writing every week, in between washing stinky boy socks and throwing out your saved letters from 2006. The voice that’s always nagging you to hold their attention, be more fun, give them what they want.

Well, ask that voice: when was the last time you saw a novel favorably described as “sprawling” that wasn’t by a man?

At Electric Literature, Jessica Shattuck’s manifesto “Why Women Should Do More Literary Manspreading” gave me some new tools to fight this self-undermining mindset. The piece is subtitled: “Stop self-editing and let yourself ramble like a man.” Certainly, in the later editing rounds, all writers have to consider tightening up scenes and pruning plot elements that don’t fit the final shape. But Shattuck takes aim at a form of self-censorship that particularly plagues writers socialized as women. We have been trained to worry about taking up too much space. People socialized as men expect that an audience will listen respectfully when they hold forth about their expertise and special interests.

There is a particular magic to an immersive and sprawling novel, and a thrill in following a confident writer on a scenic route through his imagination’s wilderness. Of course they can be terrible too — overlong and self-indulgent, stuffed with showy displays of information and smug postmodern tricks a reader is likely to skim over. But either way, many of these novels are met with both critical and sales success. Apparently readers are willing to follow a good writer down a long and winding road.

So why are so few of these novels written by women?

…As Meg Wolitzer postulated in her 2012 NY Times essay “The Second Shelf,” if a woman “writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.”

…Men tend to be less inhibited by lack of expertise or authority — if Philip Roth wanted to write a whole chapter about the inner workings of a glove factory, why not? If Jeffrey Eugenides wanted to delve into the origins of the Nation of Islam in Middlesex, who was going to question his authority?

Women, on the other hand, have long been told to watch what they say (or, more often — in church, in synagogue, in public in general — not to say anything at all). We have had to earn our credibility through quantifiable mastery, and even then, been frequently questioned or doubted. We have been encouraged to trim and edit our physical appearance, from whalebone corsets to bikini waxing. No wonder we are strict self-editors — in art as in life.

So go ahead, imaginary friends: tell me everything you want me to know about 1980s horror films, Jewish theology, bondage, and comic books.

The Christian literary journal Ruminate featured this intriguing reflection by Renee Long on rightsizing your self-image, “Reconciling Humility and Self-Worth in the Age of Ego”. Her touchstone is the weekly benediction at her church: “Be brave, because you are a child of God. Be kind, because so is everyone else.” Whereas conservative Christianity conditions us to abase ourselves in order to see Christ in others, Long concludes that healthy humility means resisting the American culture of lists and rankings. “It is possible to recognize the sacred in others, in all things, without having to weigh it against our own value. We can lie down, spread ourselves out on the floor of the universe and look up. We can see the infinite spectrum of light without having to dim our own shine.”

Taking up space is a pressing self-acceptance issue for me and my perimenopausal body. I’ve got feminist theory up the wazoo, but at a gut level (pun intended) there’s a strong belief that uncontrollable change equals failure. America’s culture of food moralism reinforces this. The Angry Chef is a lively contrarian blog about “exposing lies, pretensions, and stupidity in the world of food.” Author Anthony Warner takes aim at pseudoscience behind food fads and panics. In his post “Heart of the Problem”, he compares conflicting studies on the benefits of low-carb diets, and suggests that once basic nutritional needs are met, our food choices actually don’t make much impact on health and life expectancy. In developed (industrialized) countries, personal lifestyle obsession becomes a distraction from structural inequalities.

Everywhere, despite our wealth and secure food supply, people experience stress, stigma, pain and hurt. Or they are forced to live in inadequate housing, eat contaminated food, drink poor quality water or suffer a lifetime of inequality. They will get sick. They may use food as a comfort or an escape. Others will use alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs. They will develop disease and disorders, often in ways that will end their lives early. Is it really so surprising that these factors dwarf any tiny differences in the macronutrient composition of their diet?

This is why, when it comes to population health, anecdotes about the miracle properties of this diet or that are stupid and misleading. Look at me, I feel great because I eat low carb. Or Paleo. Or Keto. Or Mediterranean. Or DASH. Or vegan. Or clean. Surely if it works for me, it can save the world.

No. You feel great because of your privilege, your nice house, your dietary freedoms, your lack of stress. You feel great because you are lucky, your friends and family are lucky. You have never experienced the crushing stress of a marginalised existence. You don’t know what it is to live in constant fear of violence. You feel great precisely because you are free to choose your diet, buy your exclusive ingredients, and care enough about yourself to do so. That is why you are healthy. It has nothing to do with your food.

This is lifestyle drift in action. We know what really determines health – the deep and vicious inequalities that taint developed societies. But instead of trying to address these things, we imagine that if we impose the dietary choices of the privileged on those who are suffering, they will be transformed. And so every diet followed by a member of a privileged elite is touted as the solution, but none of them are. The only real solution is giving everyone a better life.

It is not food that is kills people early. It is poverty, stress and broken lives. No dietary change can insulate people from these things. The reason why we have not yet discovered which diet is best, is because within a society that has enough food to eat, any diet that rich people eat is associated with optimum health. And the reasons why have nothing to do with the food itself.

Along those lines, at NPR’s food feature The Salt, Alan Levinovitz in “What Is ‘Natural’ Food?: A Riddle Wrapped in Notions of Good and Evil” suggests that the coveted moniker is more of a symbolic or spiritual concept than a scientific one. Until the 18th-century Romantic movement, people believed processed foods were healthier and higher-status. Food restriction was the province of religious ascetics who, rather than trying to get closer to nature, wanted to transcend it. Nowadays, people are more afraid of unregulated corporations putting chemicals in their food, and nature seems benign by comparison. But the line between synthetic and natural is even hard for philosophers and scientists to draw.

Take the philosophers. Joseph LaPorte of Hope College specializes in the language we use to classify the natural world and has written extensively on the idea of “nature” and “naturalness.”

“To be sure, natural doesn’t mean safe,” he told me. “Nature produces some of the most formidable toxins in the world. But when it comes to packages of chemicals, as they exist in foods or fragrances, nature is a good bet, or at least a clue, because co-evolution often suggests its safety and efficacy.”

Not so fast, says York University’s Muhammad Ali Khalidi, also a philosopher of science who specializes in classificatory language. “Something very recent might be safe,” he points out, “and something that’s been around for hundreds of years could be very dangerous.” Case in point: Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, has long prescribed herbal remedies that contain dangerous heavy metals. Smoked meats, a mainstay of non-industrial food production, are now known to increase cancer risk.

Nor is the lack of consensus limited to the safety of natural food. Scientists also disagree on whether it makes sense to distinguish natural from synthetic products at all. Richard Sachleben, an organic chemist, told me flat-out that all chemicals are natural. Petroleum, he explained, was originally algae. Coal used to be forests.

Maybe natural is just shorthand for “what you see is what you get” or “ingredients I can spell”?

Samantha Field’s blog post “Sin Is Not Just a ‘Heart Issue'” and Adam Kotsko’s post “We are not the ones we have been waiting for” similarly question what Kotsko would call the neo-liberal dogma that individual choices are the main driver of social change. Field discusses the controversial movement to ban plastic straws in restaurants, which disability activists argue would adversely impact them without making a real difference to the environment.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

Kotsko challenges the common journalistic framing that “we the people” collectively lacked the will to stop global warming, when these decisions were actually made by identifiable politicians and business leaders.

This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

Several important articles this summer took on the topic of disparities in women’s healthcare. Writing in The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters surveyed stories about health-care gaslighting in “The Doctor Doesn’t Listen to Her. But the Media Is Starting To.” Celebrities like TV star Lena Dunham and tennis great Serena Williams spotlighted the problem of doctors dismissing women’s symptoms that turned out to be life-threatening. Lili Loofbourow at The Week wrote about “The Female Price of Male Pleasure”, asking us to question the assumption that painful intercourse is natural for people with vaginas. This disregard leads critics to minimize #MeToo stories as simply normal (bad) sex.

I’m speaking, specifically, about the physical sensations most women are socialized to ignore in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually “viable.” Have you looked at how women are “supposed” to present themselves as sexually attractive? High heels? Trainers? Spanx? These are things designed to wrench bodies. Men can be appealing in comfy clothes. They walk in shoes that don’t shorten their Achilles tendons. They don’t need to get the hair ripped off their genitals or take needles to the face to be perceived as “conventionally” attractive. They can — just as women can — opt out of all this, but the baseline expectations are simply different, and it’s ludicrous to pretend they aren’t.

Finally, because I love a good “Fire your mom” post, enjoy this salty advice from Lori Gottlieb’s “Dear Therapist” column at the Atlantic, in which a pregnant woman asks whether she should let her abusive mother be her midwife:

Sometimes when people come to therapy, they want my advice on a question they’ve already answered. The person already knows that she wants to leave her abusive boyfriend, or switch jobs, or not go on vacation with her cruel sibling, but still she asks, “What should I do?”

Why do people ask a question to which they already know the answer? Often it’s because they don’t trust themselves, because, through no fault of their own, their inner voices have been distorted or silenced. Given your history, I imagine this is what has happened to you, too.

…Becoming less visible to a volatile mother served as protection from her ire, but an unintended consequence was that you also became less visible to yourself. Your inner voice became muted, while external voices became amplified. So if people tell you to “let go of the past”—a past that’s as recent as two years ago, when your mother walked out of your wedding—you can barely hear the inner voice that says, If I can’t trust my mom to be there for me at my wedding, I can’t trust her to be there for me after my child’s birth. The calibration is out whack, and now’s the time to fix it.

One of the best things you can do to prepare for motherhood is to start trusting your inner voice more. Becoming invisible may have been a useful strategy when you were a powerless child, but the good news is that now you’re an adult with full agency, and becoming invisible won’t only be counterproductive—it will be impossible, because, like it or not, you’ll be very visible to your baby. Simply by watching you live your daily life, your child will learn a lot about relationships, and you will have the wonderful (and healing) opportunity to show your son or daughter what an adult who trusts herself and isn’t besieged by self-doubt looks like—starting with trusting the answer you already have deep inside about bringing your mom in as your midwife.

TL;DR: Run, mofo!