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!

Could We Be God’s Alternate Personalities?

If the Trinity blows your mind, hang on for this new article from Scientific American, which posits that multiple personalities may be the key to the “hard problem of consciousness”, i.e. how the capacity for subjective experience can arise from purely physical processes. Computer engineer and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, psychotherapist and historian Adam Crabtree, and neuropsychiatry professor Edward F. Kelly argue in the affirmative for the question, “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?”

To summarize: Brain imaging shows real physical state changes corresponding to dissociated identities, compared to no changes in a control group of actors pretending that they had multiple personalities or “alters”. For instance, sight receptors were switched off in the brain of a sighted woman when her blind alter was in charge. “There is also compelling clinical data showing that different alters can be concurrently conscious and see themselves as distinct identities… The massive literature on the subject confirms the consistent and uncompromising sense of separateness experienced by the alter personalities. It also displays compelling evidence that the human psyche is constantly active in producing personal units of perception and action that might be needed to deal with the challenges of life.”

Meanwhile, philosophers of science have been at a loss to explain how the brain produces the mind. If we have to describe everything in terms of physical causes (no magical or supernatural dualism), how could consciousness arise from combining particles that lack this quality? Some philosophers have posited that all matter does possess awareness. But then how do these billions of fragments cohere into higher-level unified beings? We don’t experience ourselves as a multitude of self-aware electrons.

This is where it gets wonderfully weird:

The obvious way around the combination problem is to posit that, although consciousness is indeed fundamental in nature, it isn’t fragmented like matter. The idea is to extend consciousness to the entire fabric of spacetime, as opposed to limiting it to the boundaries of individual subatomic particles. This view—called “cosmopsychism” in modern philosophy, although our preferred formulation of it boils down to what has classically been called “idealism”—is that there is only one, universal, consciousness. The physical universe as a whole is the extrinsic appearance of universal inner life, just as a living brain and body are the extrinsic appearance of a person’s inner life.

You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize the obvious problem with this idea: people have private, separate fields of experience. We can’t normally read your thoughts and, presumably, neither can you read ours. Moreover, we are not normally aware of what’s going on across the universe and, presumably, neither are you. So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain—at least in principle—how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.

And here is where dissociation comes in. We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

Moreover, as we’ve seen earlier, there is something dissociative processes look like in the brain of a patient with DID. So, if some form of universal-level DID happens, the alters of universal consciousness must also have an extrinsic appearance. We posit that this appearance is life itself: metabolizing organisms are simply what universal-level dissociative processes look like.

This made me want to stand up and cheer. Is it heresy, for religions that believe that “God is One”? Not necessarily. This model still posits a universal consciousness that is, in some sense, more fundamental than the appearance of fragmentation. Many mystical traditions suggest that the divine unity voluntarily scattered into many forms to produce the created world, while retaining some overarching transcendent power.

For those who recoil from the idea of attributing a “negative” mental health diagnosis to God, it might help to learn that numerous folks in the multiple-personality community don’t see their condition as a disorder that should be cured by integration into a single “front” identity. The blog Ex Uno Plures and cartoonist LB Lee’s Healthy Multiplicity site are excellent sources of #ownvoices education on this topic. These authors offer philosophical and experience-based reasons why dissociation is not always, or only, a trauma symptom. Em Flynn’s piece “Plurality for Skeptics” is a good place to start:

The problem with “integration evangelism,” as many people here call the idea that all systems must integrate, is that there’s an assumption that everyone is born “normal,” and should be returned to “normal.” It’s similar to the fundamentalist Christian idea that gay people are “fallen heterosexuals,” and the cissexist idea that transgender people are altered members of their assigned gender, rather than members of their identified gender (or nongender, as the case may be). In this worldview, everyone belongs to a set of idealized “types” that are viewed as universal, and any variation from that type is either pathology or an attempt to be “different” to seek attention.

Besides, I wonder if the entire way that Western philosophy privileges monism is bound up with our besetting sins of imperialism, exclusionary religion, and totalitarian ideology. All these failures of empathy share the presumption that singularity is saner, purer, and holier than diversity. If dissociative identities are not a flaw in God, we don’t have to insist that everyone worship the same alter, or that the highest form of worship is to surrender and erase our personal wills within God’s will.

Trauma theology might be the most orthodox theology there is.

August Links Roundup: Love and Dark

Happy Lammas! This month’s harvest of links is loosely bound together by the theme of category reversal and overturned binaries (no surprise).

Over at Stay Woke Tarot, a blog that brings author Rashunda’s African-American heritage and political concerns to bear on topics in alternative spirituality, the post “Are you afraid of the dark?” challenges the color-prejudice in our conventional metaphors for good and bad. In this corner: enlightenment, “love and light”, angels in white robes. In the other: black magic, shadow side, a dark (hopeless) outlook. Rashunda’s poetic reversal of our typical language reminds me of my favorite lines from “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (LOL problematic fave): “Turn your face away from the garish light of day, turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light, and listen to the music of the night.”

Light for me doesn’t mean goodness. Or my true self. When I think of “light,” sometimes I think of the bright light of interrogation.

Someone flicking that bright overhead ceiling light on when you’re dozing off into a gentle sleep.

The searing hot sun in the desert, drying out and cracking the soil. Burning. Glaring. Parched land.

Dehydration.

The sun-bleached bones of a dead animal.

Interruption. You’re doing something “wrong” so let’s shine a light on it. Get it out into the open.

Judgement. A Renaissance-blonde angel clothed in sparkling white, ready to blow his trumpet and send us to Hell.

But “darkness” – for me – represents deep, rich fertile soil.

A womb.

Looking at a beautiful night sky.

A large, inviting void just waiting to accept creativity. Ideas.

My mom.

Having a pure black heart.

In the literary journal TriQuarterly, the personal essay “Both and Yet Neither” by novelist and essayist B. Pietras troubles a different boundary, recounting the struggles of his adolescence as a feminine boy, and his love-hate relationship with the myth of Hermaphroditus. Pietras shares how, even after he embraced his differences through cross-dressing and discovering androgyne role models in classic literature, his desires attached to conventionally macho, straight or straight-acting men. His uniqueness and his shame centered on his voice–a fraught problem for a writer, in particular, since “voice” is another word for the maturing writer’s distinctive style or viewpoint.

During my first week of college, I read a centuries-old love poem addressed to someone said to be a hermaphrodite. Published in 1688 by the poet and playwright Aphra Behn, “To the Fair Clarinda” praises a person who seems to be at once a “beauteous Woman” and a “Lovely Charming Youth.” Behn’s speaker relishes the ambiguity of her subject, claiming first that, although Clarinda’s female friends might be attracted to her, they can commit no “crime” with her—that is, they can’t actually sleep with her. But then the speaker pivots, slyly suggesting that if by chance such a crime is possible, Clarinda’s “form excuses it. / For who, that gathers fairest flowers believes /A snake lies hid beneath the fragrant leaves?” (Who indeed? Only after examining the footnotes did I understand the phallic connotations of the snake.) The poem closes by celebrating Clarinda as a “beauteous Wonder of a different kind,” and—for any readers who might still be confused—by alluding to Hermes and Aphrodite.

Behn’s three-hundred-year-old poem made me sit up very straight in my seat, my mind rinsed with wonder, awed at two of the messages it seemed to encode. The first had to do with history. Clarinda was proof that people who broke the rules around gender had existed for centuries: There was a we, and we had a past. The second had to do with desire. Clarinda was proof that androgyny didn’t have to be seen as an awful, freakish thing; to some, it was a marvelous quality. Seductive, even. For the first time, I considered the possibility that “hermaphrodite”—the word I hated, the slur that had hurt me so deeply—could be a caress.

As part of my journey into maleness, I’ve been trying to pitch my voice lower on the phone when I call strangers: my legislators, customer service, political phonebanking, and so forth. I don’t know if it’s fooling anyone, but it makes me feel more confident. I think twice about every habit of speech–does it sound feminine, and is that synonymous with pleasing, deferential, childlike? Can I dial that back, without sounding unnecessarily brusque or robotic?

Captain Awkward, the world’s greatest advice blog, gives the definitive list of reasons for not sharing that “Trump is crazy” meme, in “Rule Explainer: Why We Don’t Diagnose People Over the Internet”. Besides the often-cited problem of perpetuating mental health stigma, this point really stood out for me:

Even if internet stranger diagnosing could be accurate and didn’t cause stigma, it would still be a bad idea. As soon as we distract ourselves from the harm the victim is experiencing and transfer that attention to trying to figure out the psychology of the perpetrator …who we conveniently don’t have access to and can’t question …we start leaving the victim behind…

Why the fuck

did anyone decide

that the most important thing

a victim of bullying could do

is to understand

and take care of

the mental health

of the person who is harming them? 

Why is it even a thing we think people should do? Like, at all?

Why are we trying to solve the life problems of the person who didn’t write in?

And why do we think that’s the work of our community, to the point that people know the rule about diagnosing and we still have to remind everyone (including myself!) not to do it?

I have a theory about why (you knew I had a theory):

We are addicted to redemption narratives.

We are especially addicted to stories where mean bad boys are reformed by the love and loyalty of a good lady who sees through their abuse to their true naked vulnerable heart and works really hard singlehandedly to keep the relationship going. Industries upon industries rise and fall on that one. But we like all kinds of redemption narratives and we like them a lot more than we like inconvenient ones where we have to think about victims, harm, or reparations.

One source of this addiction is “The Prodigal Son” story from the Christian Bible. Which, depending on where you live in the world, you don’t have to believe in or follow or even have ever read that book and its stories for it to have a profound influence on your culture and the stories it tells. It’s one of those sticky stories that sticks to things.

And right now we’re stuck with it.

The bare bones version: Rule-following brother was cool all along? That’s just what they should have been doing, no big deal. Rule-breaking jerk brother suddenly decides to be a little bit cool for five minutes? LET’S THROW A PARTY! Rule-following cool brother is like, hey, wait a second here, where’s my Not Being A Jerk party? Story: Yeah, you are great and everything, but let’s really appreciate this other person’s shiny new momentary coolness for a second. Cool brother: Ok, I guess. :continues following rules:

The story itself, as it’s intended to be read, is of course much more complicated and beautiful than that. The wayward son in the story has returned home of his own volition, he apologizes, he is not repeating the bad behaviors, he asks permission to return, and doesn’t think he’s entitled to anything special. The welcome he gets is a gift, freely given. The message is: Fairness is good, but kindness is much better, and we can afford to be kind. We love you and you’re still in this family even if you fuck up sometimes.

Beautiful, right?

So, is it petty to point out that his bad behavior in the story is “I was irresponsible with my inheritance” and not “I serially raped and harassed my coworkers for decades” or “I molested a bunch of the kids in my pastoral care” or “I beat the shit out of my wife behind closed doors” or “I swindled a whole bunch of people on the TV” or other crimes with actual living breathing victims?

Victims fuck up the parable, my friends. If Prodigal Son used to beat up the other brother every chance he got when they were growing up, does that brother still have to shut up and enjoy the party and rejoice and be glad his abuser is back in the fold? Are we still like “I know you never hurt anyone, but your brother temporarily, as far as we know, stopped hurting people, and he stopped squandering his money and that is really the most important thing! Stop moping and pass the hummus!” 

I just want to give that son, the not-Prodigal one, a hug so bad. Especially since I keep meeting him again and again in the letters I get here, in families and social groups where someone is mean and the answer is “just ignore him” or “get over it, already.” “Forgive him.” “Invite him to the wedding.” “Keep the peace.” “We’re a faaaaaaamily.” “The Earth Needs That Water, Besides, He Has Depression.” “What if it’s just Asperger Syndrome?

Somewhere in the game of telephone that became our cultural meta-narrative, this lovely little story was reforged into something where, if you are a certain kind of person and you abuse and bully other people, you don’t really have to apologize for abusive things you did, we as a community don’t have to have a reasonable expectation that you will stop doing those things, you can still be a repulsive entitled dangerous ass-boil of a person, but if (on the off chance you actually get caught) for one shining second you act like you might sort of try to do better, if you can make a case that you might not have completely meant it, if you can choke out some lip service that sounds even vaguely like “I’m sorry…”

We skip straight to the part where we throw you the goddamn party.

We start writing articles about how soon you can “rehabilitate your career.”

We talk about your addictions, your struggles, and we endlessly diagnose the reasons that might have made you behave like you did, literally anything that might not be “asshole made series of asshole free will asshole decisions, hurt others.”

And then we tell your victims that they can pretty much suck it.

While we’re on the subject of survivor-centered redemption and healing, check out the blog Fundamentally Free, which amplifies stories of folks who have left spiritually abusive and repressive Christian traditions. In the post “Violence and the Redemption of the Soul”, Jerry Proctor describes how he found an unlikely post-Christian spiritual path in martial arts, channeling his anger into tests of endurance.

I discovered competitive combat sports in my 30s. I’d been raised to avoid fighting. Be peaceful. Aggression was wrong. Blessed are the peacemakers. When my faith crumbled, I was left with a dearth of tools to build the person I would become; the man I wanted to be. I accidentally discovered boxing, and I loved it. The bug bit me on the first day. It shaped the man I became.

I didn’t approach the sport for any reasons I could articulate. I needed exercise. But week after week, as I went back, I knew I found something I needed. It fed something more. Only looking backward can I understand what drove me. There was so much unresolved anger. There was an absence of spiritual structure, and I needed a wordless way to rebuild my soul devoid of pomposity. That’s what you get from a lifetime of submerging rage, frustration, and disappointment inside. When your only tools are pious catch-phrases and Bible verses, the anger has no place to flow. It builds up. All those constraints were gone. Fortunately, I found my training…

As a student of theology who eventually walked away from it, I acquired an allergy for bullshit metaphysics. I love the physicality of the martial arts. It changed me without a lot of talking. My strength, my reflexes, my timing, my cardio. Training changed me without a lot of verbiage wrapped around why I wanted to change, or what I wanted to become.

Real Social Skills is a very smart blog about boundaries, power dynamics, resisting ableism, and thriving as a neurodivergent person. Their post “Don’t order people to feel safe” pinpoints a subtle kind of manipulation and doublespeak in social justice workshops, a problem that I’d sensed but never been able to articulate.

Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”

“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.

No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us.

When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do…

…We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters.

People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time.

Riffing on J. Halberstam’s book title The Queer Art of Failure, columnist Laurie Penny at The Baffler teases out the implications of my favorite comfort TV in her post “The Queer Art of Failing Better”. Last year, Netflix rebooted the early-2000’s makeover show “Queer Eye”. The Fab Five’s interventions are not just for straight guys anymore; one of my favorite episodes was devoted to a black church mama and her shy gay son. But there are plenty of interventions for their original constituency: stalled-out straight dudes who need to be taught how to groom themselves instead of waiting for their wives and mothers to do it. It’s this burden-shifting of female emotional labor that Penny sees as the show’s real subject:

On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism. I am absolutely here for it, as long as we all get paid…

…What the Queer Eye guys seem to be gently teaching their subjects (and, by extension, their viewers) is that it is possible to live well without a woman to take care of you—and if you’re lucky enough to have one offer to do so anyway, maybe you should show her some consideration by picking up after yourself and learning how to apply the business end of a comb. When you put it like that, it sounds simple. But two thousand years of socialization and half a century of profit-oriented self-dealing throw up a few mental hurdles.

This show isn’t about how to win at life, but how to fail with style. It’s about giving straight guys permission to be more gracious losers. It helps that the show doesn’t actually have winners. This is not the ruthless, dick-smacking, alpha-primate pursuit of victory-for-victory’s sake that provides a plot line for most American reality television as well as for American politics, presuming you can still see clear water between the two. No, this is an oddly compassionate exit interview for the middle-managerial caste of straight dudes who are no longer steering a culture that prizes their skill set above everyone else’s…

…The crisis of capitalism is also, as theorist Nancy Fraser puts it, a “crisis of care”—of reproductive labor. The work that the world most urgently requires is work that women have traditionally done for low wages or for no wages, and this is work that cannot be effectively automated or subsumed within the profit model. Someone has to do the dishes.

This is not to say, of course, that the subjects of Queer Eye are first-order victims of global capitalism’s concerted campaign to hollow out working-class life. These men are not marginalized, but they are nonetheless living in the margins of the lives they had perhaps expected. There are people with far more pressing problems than simply having no idea that clothes don’t live on the floor. In their own way, though, these men are quietly drowning, and a lot of the people who love this show the hardest have spent years of our offscreen lives trying to serve as—or at least to inflate—the life-rafts.

Actual queers in today’s America, on the other hand, often have more serious problems than learning to use a laundry hamper. For trans and gender-nonconforming people, along with right-wing efforts to roll back civil rights at the state and federal levels, we have to deal with left-wing “contrarian” thinkpieces disputing our identities. Trans writers and well-informed allies (including the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBTQ activist organization) roundly condemned Jesse Singal’s Atlantic Monthly cover story on desistance and the supposed pressure on trans kids to make irrevocable medical decisions. Now, journalist Noah Berlatsky has compiled a list of links debunking the biases and inaccuracies in this prominent feature story. See, for instance, Alex Barasch’s response piece at Slate, asking why we continue to privilege cis parents’ anxiety over life-saving care for the majority of trans youth who don’t freely choose to revert to their birth-assigned gender:

[O]nly a specific subset of detransitioners—namely cisgender women and girls who misinterpreted mental health issues or more general gender nonconformity as signs that they might be trans, only to realize later that this was not the case—are of interest to Singal and the media writ large. Those who are intimidated back into the closet, those who are battling intense stigma both internally and institutionally, those who begin the process only to find that their insurance won’t cover their transition—none of these people are given a voice. I know more than one trans man who might have been counted among Singal’s tomboys who were saved from themselves if profiled in their mid-teens—never mind that they were repressed, miserable, and would in fact go on to transition. But such is the double standard of the piece. A fourteen-year-old who outgrows her dysphoria is celebrated, her self-knowledge taken as definitive; a fourteen-year-old who seeks to transition is still in flux and must be given time to change their mind.

Finally, to end on an upbeat (?) note, for fans of this blog’s Murder Ballad Mondays. At CrimeReads, an affiliate of Literary Hub, detective novelist Mark Billingham explores “Why the Best Country Music Is Crime Fiction”: “At its best, country music…seems to me to do what the very best mystery fiction can, and arguably should do. It can tell dark, dark stories, and wrap them up in an entertaining package, turning an often twisted narrative into an earworm. It can reveal unpleasant truths while it keeps your foot tapping.”

 

July Bonus Links: Open Borders Edition

Hello again, fans. The fascist nightmare engulfing our country merited its own links post, so here you go. At the risk of putting myself on a government watchlist, I must say, never have I felt less enthusiastic about the patriotic celebrations of July 4th. I believe in what America ought to be, but am realizing that–structurally, intentionally–that is not what America is. (White person discovers the obvious, Episode N+1.)

My readers probably don’t know that “Jendi” was not my legal name–until last month, when the Hampshire County Court made my 40-year-long dream a reality. (Long story, of course having to do with my mother, not the point.) Now I am in the middle of the arduous process of changing all my official documents, which must be done at various far-flung government offices in a particular order and sometimes at ridiculous expense. Folks, I am shitting bricks till my expedited passport comes back from the State Department. Not because I plan to go anywhere, but because it’s suddenly occurred to me how creepy it is, that we are all technically imprisoned within the borders of the nation-state where we happen to be born.

George Mason University economics professor Alex Tabarrok makes “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders–Completely” in a 2015 article in The Atlantic. After citing statistics that immigration raises GDP, Tabarrok adds:

Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike. The immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe.

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other, but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

Economic data is easy to massage to fit one’s political views, certainly, but it’s worth questioning why conventional wisdom and government policy currently encourage the free movement of capital but not the free movement of workers.

At the leftist political journal Jacobin, Domenic Powell lays out a program for the Democrats to implement meaningful immigration reform in his article “How to Abolish ICE”. The piece suggests strategies we can try at the local level, such as pressuring our law enforcement agencies to stop sharing data with ICE and to end agreements whereby ICE rents space to detain immigrants in our jails. The article also recommends that Congress set up an immigration court system that is independent of the Justice Department, to stop treating all undocumented people as presumptive criminals.

If you’re in Massachusetts, call your state representatives and Governor Charlie Baker to pass the Safe Communities Act, which cleared the Senate in May. Also see this article from Colorlines about “How You Can Support Detained Immigrant Families”. From protesting to donating to making phone calls, there’s something for nearly everyone to do. I’m hosting a birthday fundraiser through Facebook for the National Immigration Law Center.

Meanwhile, white evangelical Trump supporters are doing their best to destroy what’s left of Christianity’s reputation. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified tearing immigrant children from their parents by citing Romans 13, saying that everyone must obey the laws because “God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Progressive Christian blogger Fred Clark, a/k/a Slacktivist, deconstructs this interpretation in “Romans 13 and the Gettysburg Address”:

[N]ote the full enormity of what Sessions is doing there. He’s not just invoking the Bible to justify this one policy, but to justify — as beyond question and beyond criticism — any and every policy. Yes, specifically he’s claiming the divine right to put children in cages, but more than that he’s claiming to be an agent of God and therefore that whatever he does is divine, and that we mere mortals have no choice but to submit and obey…

…The idea of “the government” that Sessions is asserting — and attempting to sanction with scripture — is not compatible with the idea stated by our greatest Founding Father, Abraham Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Slacktivist remarks that most Christian political philosophy, be it liberal or conservative, makes the mistake of treating “the government” as an entity separate from “the people”, something that was true in St. Paul’s time but not in our modern democracies. (As humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote at the end of his political satire Parliament of Whores, “In a democracy, the whores are us.”)

We don’t have a king or a Caesar, we have usWe are, in this time and place and in this system — however imperfectly realized — the authorities appointed as servants of God to do good.

We must not irresponsibly reject that appointment by reading Romans 13 as though we were first-century subjects of an all-powerful emperor. We shouldn’t be reading that passage for wisdom about our accountability to government, but for wisdom about our accountability as government.

Otherwise we’re conceding the argument to Jeff Sessions and other would-be rulers claiming a divine right to demand our submission. That will make us accountable to him to obey whatever he tells us about children in cages. We need to turn that around. We need to demand that he be accountable to us, and that if what he does is wrong he should fear us, for we have authority and we do not bear it in vain.

It’s been a disappointing year for progressives at the Supreme Court. I’m especially worried about how the Court has been chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, because the Republicans have been trying for decades to rig the system by disenfranchising poor and nonwhite voters. In the Husted case, decided last month, the Court narrowly upheld Ohio’s shady plan to purge voters from the rolls based on their lack of response to an easy-to-miss mass mailing. Over at Slate, commentator Mark Joseph Stern describes the battling jurisprudential philosophies of Justices Sotomayor and Alito in “Sam vs. Sonia”. He thinks the conservatives are winning:

In the legal battles between state officials and Americans who believe their suffrage is under siege, whose voices matter most? Those of lawmakers complaining about the difficulty of performing their duties, or those of minorities who feel their most fundamental right has been suppressed? Which side deserves the Supreme Court’s empathy? Through Alito, this court has clearly picked a side, elevating the voices of state officials who insist that their purges and gerrymanders do not block equal access to the ballot. Its favoritism will have dire consequences for decades to come.

Poor judicial decision-making comes as no surprise to the folks at the socialist journal Current Affairs, such as writers Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni, who explore the quirky and arbitrary power of individual bench-sitters in their article “Judging the Judges”:

Knowledge of the individual personalities of judges is such an important feature of the legal system that it operates as a skill in a lawyer’s toolkit, one that can be paid for. Supreme Court clerks who choose to go to big law firms after clerking on the court receive massive bonuses, often hundreds of thousands of dollars. The main asset they bring to their new firms is their firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of a particular Supreme Court justice’s mind. Large firms understand the strategic value of knowing a judge personally—what they like, what they dislike, what considerations will make them most likely to agree with you.

With judges wielding such concentrated and individualized power over cases, courtrooms quickly become stages for bizarre legal farces. Lawyers make arguments they don’t believe, that the judges know the lawyers don’t believe, but everyone has to play along. Only the judge has the power to decide when the game will end, and how. Let’s say, for example, that your client lost a case because they didn’t show up for a previous hearing. They likely missed that hearing for some reason that a normal person would find totally understandable: They didn’t have a lawyer at the time, they don’t speak English that well and didn’t understand what the hearing was for, they couldn’t get time off work, the bus got stuck in traffic on the way to the courthouse. But under the applicable statute, it’s likely that none of these perfectly rational and comprehensible explanations are admissible. In this situation, you know, and the judge knows, the real reasons the client missed the hearing. But you’ll have to try to make an argument about something totally different, something that this particular judge might choose to accept, even though they know that your argument has little to nothing to do with the reality of the situation.

At times, this peculiar trade in niche arguments feels thoroughly demented. If the judge wanted a bribe, that would at least feel normal. Everyone wants money. But what judges want is some strange intellectual product. Maybe they want you to cleverly contort the facts into some tiny legal box. Maybe they want to be convinced that doing whatever you’re asking them to do will quickly vanish the case from their docket and free the judge up to go to lunch. Or maybe the judge made up their mind about the case the second they glanced down at the paperwork, and is now simply idly watching you dance.

The fact that legal arguments are usually completely divorced from reality is partially a function of the law itself, and not solely the judges. That said, nothing prevents judges from acting like rational, normal people instead of playing games with people’s lives and making lawyers jump through hoops.

What, then, is the answer? Not “impartiality”, which the authors believe is an impossible ideal. They argue that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum should put less faith in the judiciary to drive social change:

If we aspire to a form of democracy where there is an actual connection between the organizing efforts of the general public and the subsequent behavior of our elected officials, pushing for reforms to make our elected government more responsive to popular concerns is a better route than relying on distant elites to undo the mistakes of other elites. When you put power in the hands of unaccountable elites, you never know what they will do with it.

While it’s not a cure-all, it would also help to reform and diversify legal education, so that judges are not so out of touch with the real lives of the ordinary people before them:

Part of the problem, of course, is that judges are separated from poor litigants by class and, often, race. If we want more judges to exercise discretion in an empathetic direction, it seems crucial to diversify the pool of judges, perhaps directly through quotas, or indirectly by reducing social and financial barriers to entry in the legal profession. Also important is changing the dominant ethos of legal education, which overwhelmingly privileges the pet concerns of legal academics and corporate clients over the kinds of issues that affect the vast majority of the people caught up in our courts.

I second that remark about legal education. Personally, my journey from young libertarian to armchair radical began 21 years ago when I started a clerkship with a New York State appeals judge. He happened to be a progressive, which made my transformation smoother, but what really opened my eyes was the case summaries themselves. Our staff attorneys would write summaries of the legal briefs and the trial record, so we could quickly handle the cases that didn’t present any important legal issue and focus on the knottier ones. For the first time, I was reading true stories of what it was like to live in dangerous public housing, or be sentenced to 5-10 years for selling $10 worth of crack. Relative to my peers in elite schools, I’d felt underprivileged; now I saw how privileged I was compared to other people in my neighborhood, let alone the city. We never read those kinds of stories in law school. That’s outrageous. I do think we brought about some positive changes and did justice in our limited way during my 3-year tenure. The courts alone won’t save us, but wherever you are, do what you can.

July Links Roundup: Repent, Harlequin

So many links this month, we’re doing two rounds: literary and political.

Notable science fiction and horror author Harlan Ellison passed away last week at age 84. A giant in the speculative fiction community, Ellison was also controversial for his verbally abusive outbursts and the sexual violence in some of the stories he wrote and championed. There’s no question that he’s one of my problematic faves. This memorial essay by Cory Doctorow focuses on the positive side of Ellison, while other writers on Twitter reminded us of his history of mistreating women, such as groping author Connie Willis onstage at WorldCon in 2006 (see these threads by Bogi Takács and Jasmine Gower, for example).

I see both sides of the man in his work when I reread it now, 30 years after he first blew my mind with “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. (One of the scariest stories I’ve ever encountered, right up there with Lisa Tuttle’s “Closet Dreams”; read at your own risk.) My husband and I both tried to get through Ellison’s iconic Dangerous Visions anthologies a couple of years ago, and had to quit because we were nauseated by the pervy-ness and rapey-ness marketed as bold innovation. On the other hand, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, his classic tale of quixotic but meaningful resistance to tyranny, inspires me in a whole new way as our country comes closer to fascism than ever before in my lifetime. And when I worry that my life is meaningless, I remember the defiant existentialism of “The Cheese Stands Alone” and resolve to move forward anyhow.

As the debate over Ellison’s literary legacy shows, interpretation of a text is never fully open-ended nor fully closed. In the space between, a community of readers develops: people joined by a common sentiment that the text is worth debating, critiquing, and absorbing into their lives, but differentiated by the unique alchemy between that text and their personal imagination. I don’t picture the exact same “Harlequin” that you do when you read the story, and the life circumstances that the story illuminates for you may be similar, but not identical, to mine. In their Harvard Divinity Bulletin article, “What the Gospels Share with Fanfiction,” MDiv student Jade Sylvan suggests this is also true about Scripture, which is one way to explain why we have four canonical Gospels instead of one. Like queer fans who write and share Kirk/Spock slash fiction to reappropriate a mainstream story for an under-represented group, early Christians told varying stories of Jesus to make him relevant and liberatory for their particular audiences.

If scripture is seen as a dialogue, it stands to reason that it would require being embraced and reimagined by different authors in different times and places—even by authors with different points of view. As I have learned about Luke’s pagan slant (e.g., the divine insemination) and Matthew’s messianic additions and how their calculated redactions suited their unique conditions writing in the Roman Empire during the first or second century, I have wondered if we might also see the synoptic Gospels as creations of authors who loved and respected the traditions that came to them. They were taking up the story and filling in the gaps to find the truths that their specific communities want and need…Likewise, in contemporary fanfiction, authors reimagine stories and texts to find the truths their communities need. In doing so, they feed the subculture so that it might grow strong enough to become self-sustaining, to upset the mainstream, to remake the world.

Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery epitomizes the trope of the fan who takes enthusiasm a little too far: furious that her favorite romance writer has killed off his main character, she kidnaps the author and tortures him into resurrecting the character in a sequel. However, on the Ploughshares blog, Natalia Holtzman invites us to rethink the moral calculus of this famous novel, taking a closer look at the protagonist’s aesthetic snobbery and contempt for his fans. Is it actually a projection of the writer’s worst fears about himself, that makes Annie appear so monstrous? This post made me want to read fanfiction from Annie’s point of view. King’s plot is attention-grabbing because of the unlikely gender reversal. In real genre-fiction fandom, it’s far more likely to be male fans having violent tantrums because Dr. Who is female and Star Wars has a black hero.

We’ll end this link-around with some writing advice from two well-regarded contemporary authors. I have not yet read Rita Bullwinkel’s story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object, 2018), described in this interview by Sadye Teiser at The Masters Review as “deadpan disaster” fiction, but I felt liberated by her depiction of her creative process. I’m working on embracing both the obscurity of my literary “brand” and the weirdness of my writing. In response to a question about her “craft choices”, Bullwinkel said:

I don’t think of writing fiction as a series of choices. I think of it as compulsive, and something I can not help but do. I would write if no one told me to, and, indeed, let me be clear, no one is telling me to write, no is making sure that I write anything but me. And, I think, because of this, because writing is a thing I do to please myself, to remind myself that I am living, that I don’t allow my mind to get in the way with how my writing should or should not be. It is, simply, the things I am circling, written in the style in which I circle them. Even my earliest stories had some of the same mannerisms, and were circling some of the same things. It’s not that I think I haven’t gotten better. One must believe they are getting better, that their mind is becoming sharper, but, I’ve never had a conscious thought while writing about what kind of style I wanted to write in. The brilliant writer, Diane Williams, when once asked why her stories are so short, replied something like, “I am a pear tree. I make pears. I would be equally happy if I bore walnuts, but I don’t. Only pears to see here.” I feel similarly.

I am a huge fan of Alexander Chee’s novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and am looking forward to reading his new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, sometime this summer. In this interview by Santiago Sanchez at Lambda Literary Review, he shares wisdom on many topics, including the market for queer art, your imagined audience versus your real one, and the pressure to represent your minority group and/or be confined to your personal identity demographics when writing fiction:

I don’t know how we can preserve our complexity in life and in art by not being willing to write about the world around us. I am not against people who are not me writing a character like me—I just want them to do it well, and for it to exist alongside my own work. And not to replace me, or speak for me.

The book exists in part because I have always felt the question “How autobiographical is this?” has been a way of not talking about what a book is about. A way of focusing on the writer that is a way of not focusing on the writer, that neglects what the writer has done in favor of a narrow psychological interpretation. I was approached by so many young writers of color for interviews and I kept saying to them, “please write about me instead.” To review me, not just interview me. And many have as a result. So that’s another way to preserve our complexity—to ask our communities to not just see us but to give us witness on the page, to write criticism, to be the queer critics of color we need.

Sometimes, when I read a truly outstanding book, I’m tempted to say, “That’s it. I’m hanging up my pencil. I thought I was writing fiction, but I can’t write like this, so why bother?” Then, I remember that this is exactly the opposite reaction I would want people to have to my work. I don’t want to induce competitive despair! Few responses make me happier than hearing that I inspired someone else to write. Chee feels the same way:

I think once you think of yourself as a public figure telling a story, you start to believe you don’t owe the reader what you owe them. You lose some of your humanity, and possibly the part that makes you a writer. What makes me happiest in this is that so many people have found their way to writing after reading my work. So for me it is about that only. I made some good people feel possible to be themselves, and that’s the best thing there is.

Follow Chee on Twitter and listen to his guest appearances on the Food 4 Thot podcast.

Quick Links to Support Immigrants’ Rights

Through an inhumane and dubious interpretation of immigration law, the U.S. government is currently separating innocent families at the border and locking up children in detention centers. For once, the Nazi comparison so over-used in Internet debates seems terribly apt. Brianna Rennix explains the situation in “Understanding the Administration’s Monstrous Immigration Policies” in the leftist political journal Current Affairs:

Children are NOT being taken from their parents simply because the government wishes to prosecute their parents for illegal entry and the children cannot accompany them to jail. That makes it sound like these separations are simply incidental to a separate enforcement policy that the government decided to pursue.

The reality is actually just the opposite. The Trump administration’s decision to prosecute parents for illegal entry was taken in order to create an excuse to separate mothers from children. As I’ve said, the irritating problem the Trump administration has been struggling to overcome, with reference to the many thousands of bona fide asylum seekers that come to the border, is that a) lots of them are moms with kids, b) kids can’t legally be kept in more restrictive custody than absolutely necessary, and c) there is a federal court decision, legally binding on Trump administration, that states that when you release children from detention who are detained alongside their mothers, the mothers have to be released too.

This is what Trump and Sessions have meant when they have talked cryptically about “loopholes” that are “forcing” them to release asylum-seekers into the interior. There are lots of asylum-seeking moms that the government would otherwise have preferred to have kept locked up in hidden border facilities, without any meaningful ability to recruit counsel, for the entire duration of their cases. But because these moms had a child detained with them, they couldn’t do this.

Separating kids from moms thus serves two purposes. One is deterrence. It’s designed to send a gruesome message to women contemplating fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico: If you come here looking for protection, we will take your child away from you…

The second and perhaps even more critical purpose of family separation is to ensure that moms who are still brave enough and desperate enough to come here will lose their cases. There are not nearly enough competent immigration lawyers along the border to meet the needs of all the people who come to ask for asylum. In the past, when the government was forced to release moms with kids, these families could go settle anywhere in the country they chose, and have their case adjudicated in the local immigration court in their new place of residence. Because they weren’t detained, they had the ability to actually recruit a lawyer to help them. And a lot of them settled in parts of the country, like California or New York, where the immigration judges actually, you know, sort of care about people not being murdered, as opposed to border judges, who are mostly looking for any colorable reason to say “no” to a case. Now that the government is starting to separate moms from kids on a large scale, it is possible we will start to see moms detained in border facilities for the entire duration of their cases. They will be unrepresented and facing unfriendly judges. They will lose.

I think it is important to understand that these family separations are not just a byproduct of brute over-prosecution of “illegal” entry. Rather, they are part of a concerted strategy to allow the government to avoid granting people asylum, and to circumvent the courts’ few, limited attempts to legally impose humane limits on their treatment of asylum-seekers.

Rennix points us to the New York Times’ June 14 staff editorial that includes a list of ways to fight these horrific policies. Some options:

Find out who represents you in Washington, and let them know you want the practice of family separation to end. Ask them to support bills that will help reunited children already taken from their parents and also prohibit future removals. Those include the Senate’s HELP Separated Children Act and Keep Families Together Act

The proposed Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would require the government to appoint counsel to unaccompanied children, and it’s important to ask Congress to support its passage. Until then, there are several nonprofits providing vital free legal aid that need financial support: The Texas Civil Rights Project; the Florence Project in Arizona; and Kids in Need of Defense and The Young Center, which work nationwide. Lawyers might also consider lending their expertise. The Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is helping families with supplies and humanitarian relief.

Massachusetts voters should also keep tabs on the progress of the Safe Communities Act, which passed the state Senate and will have to be voted on by the House before the fiscal year ends June 30. This bill would prevent state and local law enforcement from being deputized to support Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Call your representative today! Luckily, House Ways & Means Chair Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez is a supporter.

The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition explains:

State and local police should use their limited resources to fight crime, not immigrant community members and their families. The bill would bar police from arresting or detaining a person solely for federal immigration enforcement purposes, or participating in U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations or raids based solely on immigration status. It would also prohibit agreements to deputize state and local officers as federal immigration agents, co-opting and taking away resources from local communities…

The bill ensures that constitutional principles are upheld equally for citizens and non-citizens, by requiring a warrant to arrest a person on behalf of ICE. It also requires notice to immigrant detainees of their legal rights – in a language they understand….

[The bill] prohibits Massachusetts law enforcement agencies and the Registry of Motor Vehicles from providing information to any federal registry program based on religion, national origin or other protected characteristics.

Finally, if you’re having trouble deciding which advocacy group to support, ActBlue will distribute your one-click donations to eight of the top organizations working to protect kids at the border, including the ACLU and United We Dream.

June Links Roundup: Trust Me, I’m a Policeman

The police, a small presence in our family’s everyday lives, occupy a large territory in the imagination of the Young Master, now age 6. Storylines about catching robbers emerge from his daily playtime with Lego Batman and the superhero’s assorted friends and enemies. Internet cartoon series like Chu Chu TV, friendly uniformed animals in “Zootopia” and Richard Scarry’s Busytown, and gifts of police-themed clothing reinforce the message that police are fun and friendly people with cool noisemaking vehicles.

Meanwhile, his parents’ perspective on the police is evolving in the opposite direction, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and radical history books like Lies My Teacher Told Me. We are sometimes at a loss about how to impart a nuanced point of view to such a young child. On the one hand, we want him to feel safe approaching an officer for help, if he’s ever lost or in danger in a public place. On the other hand, we don’t want him to buy into the myth of benevolent state power that went unchallenged even in our progressive urban secondary schools.

I’ve taken the opportunity, on a few occasions, to put the Lego cop in our handmade brick “prison” and tell Shane that officers have to obey the law like everyone else. If they don’t, they stop being cops and become ordinary people who go to jail. (The shockingly low percentage of grand jury indictments, let alone convictions, is a discussion for another day.)

This week in The New Republic, in his article “Rough Justice: How America became over-policed”, political columnist and bestselling author Mychal Denzel Smith reviews two books on the history of modern policing and its troubling roots. The first professional police force, in Victorian Britain, grew out of efforts to quell Irish uprisings against the English colonizers. In America, the earliest uniformed officers were hired by Southern cities to prevent slave revolts and enforce laws against black literacy.

The motto “to protect and to serve”—adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1955 and later used by others around the country—has been a highly effective public relations tool for the police, as it obscures the main function of their work, which since its inception has been to act in an adversarial manner toward the wider community. “Police often think of themselves as soldiers in a battle with the public,” Vitale writes, “rather than guardians of public safety.” This has held true through the last century and up to the present: in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which the Chicago police killed ten protesters during a steelworkers’ strike; in the raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969; in the killing of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old black man whom the Sacramento police shot at 20 times on March 18, 2018, in his grandmother’s backyard. No matter what other responsibilities police have assumed, they have consistently inflicted violence on the most marginalized people in society and maintained the economic, political, and social dominance of the ruling class.

The literature reviewed in this essay does not call for abolition of the professional police force, but instead argues that we have gone astray by making the police the first or only responder for social problems caused by poverty and poor mental health care. “Most perceived threats to Americans’ safety—urban gun violence, foreign terrorist attacks, immigrant crime waves—result, in fact, from American policies or are created wholly out of our imaginations.”

Perhaps the most feared law enforcement arm at this moment is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a federal agency with a more recent and dubious pedigree than your neighborhood patrolman. In a March feature at The Nation, Sean McElwee argues convincingly that “It’s Time to Abolish ICE”.

ICE has become a genuine threat to democracy, and it is destroying thousands of lives. Moreover, abolishing it would only take us back to 2003, when the agency was first formed.

ICE was a direct product of the post–September 11 panic culture, and was created in the legislation Congress passed in the wake of the attacks. From the start, the agency was paired with the brand-new Department of Homeland Security’s increased surveillance of communities of color and immigrant communities. By putting ICE under the scope of DHS, the government framed immigration as a national security issue rather than an issue of community development, diversity or human rights.

That’s not to say America’s deportation policies only got bad in 2003, nor that it hasn’t been a bipartisan project. When he was a senior advisor to then-President Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel wrote that Clinton should work to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” When Republicans gave Clinton the chance to do this with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, he jumped at it.

IIRIRA set up the legal infrastructure for mass deportations and expanded the number of crimes considered deportable. Clinton’s blessing also harshened the political atmosphere around immigration. As recently as 2006, Democrats still explicitly used anti-immigrant sentiment as a campaign tactic. During his failed Tennessee Senate run, Harold Ford Jr. ran ads warning that “Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price.”

Even Barack Obama, while he made pains to distinguish between “good” and “bad” immigrants, presided over aggressive deportation tactics in his first term in order to build support for a path to citizenship that never came.

The central assumption of ICE in 2018 is that any undocumented immigrant is inherently a threat. In that way, ICE’s tactics are philosophically aligned with racist thinkers like Richard Spencer…

…Next to death, being stripped from your home, family, and community is the worst fate that can be inflicted on a human, as many societies practicing banishment have recognized. It’s time to rein in the greatest threat we face: an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

American law enforcement seems to be getting it wrong on both ends: destroying innocent families, but not taking the threat of misogynist violence seriously, despite the fact that the eventual perpetrators of mass shootings nearly all started with harassment or assault of intimate partners. In her October 2014 Harper’s essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps”, prominent feminist writer Rebecca Solnit (you may know her as the originator of the term “mansplaining”) details how warnings of societal dangers go unheeded when they come from a woman. Environmentalist Rachel Carson, Freud’s incest survivor patients, Woody Allen’s stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, and Anita Hill were among the many truth-tellers deemed “hysterical” for challenging the status quo.

We are still in an era of battles over who will be granted the right to speak and the right to be believed, and pressure comes from both directions. From the “men’s rights” movement and a lot of popular misinformation comes the baseless notion that there is an epidemic of groundless accusations of sexual assault. The implication that women as a category are unreliable and that false rape charges are the real issue is used to silence individual women and to avoid discussing sexual violence, and to make out men as the principal victims. The framework is reminiscent of that attached to voter fraud, a crime so rare in the United States that it appears to have had no significant impact on election outcomes in a very long time. Nevertheless, claims by conservatives that such fraud is widespread have in recent years been used to disenfranchise the kinds of people — poor, non-white, students — likely to vote against them.

On the subject of sexist double standards, I resonated a lot with Jaya Saxena’s article last month in the literary journal Catapult, “The Rose Quartz Ceiling: When It Comes to Love, Men Are Praised for What Women Are Simply Expected to Give”. Now, I know it’s not fair to blame my perceived gender for all the emotional labor I get hornswoggled into providing, but there’s a reason why it only takes a 10-minute ride for me to hear about my Uber driver’s difficult childhood. (The writer in me may be sending mixed signals: “Tell me more!”)

Writing about the stated moral of the film “Moulin Rouge”–“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”–Saxena observes:

The only people who sing that line in the film are men—lovestruck, idealistic men who are championed for being so emotionally open. But as women, we slowly learn, the greatest thing we are expected to do with our lives is love and be loved in return. No matter what else we might want to do, this is the height to which we’re expected to aspire. Men who love are enlightened beings, heroes of musicals. Women who love are just doing their job, what we were born to do. And so we hit the rose quartz ceiling.

While some interpretations of crystals vary from source to source, the rose quartz is always the stone of unconditional love. Its pale pink translucence is said to pull at the heart and fill you with light and softness; remind you of your love for others, your love for yourself. It also “carries a soft feminine energy,” as opposed to the “masculine,” aggressive energy of other stones.

These ideas are intertwined, that it is the realm of the feminine to love and be loved. The rose quartz is the stone of motherhood, the ultimate archetype of a love that is supposed to be constant and freely given, no matter if it is ever reciprocated or even acknowledged. Whether or not you identify as a woman or a mother or in any way feminine, to associate the binary of love and hate with any other binary assumes that it’s only naturally accessible to some, requires a leap for others. Even the most generous readings of the crystal’s properties, which say we all have both masculine and feminine energies in us, still buy into there being a dichotomy. It is always the feminine side that is expected to sacrifice, to love without condition…

…To be a good mother, the supposed higher calling of any woman, is to love no matter what. The giver of unconditional love has to do the work of love, and it has to be given freely and openly and constantly regardless of what she receives in return.

This is reasonable to expect of parents, both mothers and fathers. But it’s also easy to use the act of “unconditional love” as an excuse to treat the woman giving it like shit. Kind, soft, giving: That’s just how women are. Whether you’re arguing from witchy empowerment or benevolent misogyny, the conclusion is the same. Love is feminine—not just a woman’s job, but her nature. Why expect anything else of her if this is what she was made for?

I asked my partner if there were conditions to their love for me. “Yeah, like, if you murdered my parents, I’d probably stop loving you,” they said. I love them. I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine a life for myself in which we do not love each other. But I do know there are actions that would make loving them impossible. Maybe I would still feel something like love for them, but I would stop loving as an action. There are conditions to my love. There are things that would make me abandon it, not because I wanted to, but because I had to.

Because the only person I want to have unconditional love for is myself.

Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman, editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, for the link. Follow her on Twitter.

As I wrote in my last post, I have a love-hate relationship with the daily meditations from the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality course that I’m teaching this summer. This week, not so much love. Trauma recovery is walking a tightrope between blaming the world and blaming the self; between the victim mentality that caused some of my family to turn into real-life Miss Havishams, and the Christian doctrine (espoused in today’s meditation by no less than Kierkegaard and Joni Eareckson Tada) that God tears us down to nothingness in order to rebuild us. I won’t worship a God who acts like a cult leader, breaking and brainwashing us to soften us up for his “love”.

Laura LeMoon’s post last month on the social justice blog The Establishment, “Why Me? Incest, Suffering, and Why God Isn’t My Answer”, addresses the failures of this theodicy.

There is a common thread amongst most major religions that god knows best and god has a plan. To an abuse survivor, this is like being told to accept being out of control when we often feel like having no power got us abused in the first place. Trust and surrender are hard for people who have experienced an egregious breach of trust and that “surrender” means giving up agency or the ability to fight back or say no. And while I’m sure there are many abuse survivors who have been able to surrender, I am not one of them, and it should not be required for us…

…When religions tell us as survivors that “god knows best” or “just let go,” it sounds like reasons abusers give children as to why they must inflict pain and suffering upon them. When god calls for us to blindly trust, how could an adult abuse survivor not think of when their abuser told them “I’m doing this because I love you; I’m doing this because you wanted me to; I’m doing this to help you.” It can’t be an expectation of abuse survivors that they just let go and accept that god knows best, because we might feel like this is something that allowed us to be hurt in the past. For whatever reasons god “allows” incest to happen, we will probably never know while we walk this earth.

Maybe everything that happened to me was just random; like a tornado that skips one house only to eviscerate another. With a number of years of intensive therapy under my belt, I’ve learned that the “why” becomes not nearly as relevant as the “how.” How are you going to move on? How are you going to let go of suffering, of victimhood? How are you going to believe you’re worthy of a healthy, safe, happy life and people in it who treat you accordingly?

That’s how I feel too. In today’s journal, I wrote, “Suffering doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just an experience.” I still believe in the benefit of looking at religion through a survivor liberation theology lens, but mainly to deconstruct what isn’t healthy, not as a new foundation. What does that imply for the Cross–is Christianity inherently limited by making a trauma story its central image? Refocusing on the human life of Jesus, as liberals do, doesn’t help me, because the problematic values we draw from that story, the moral ideals of passivity and self-erasure, are still (in my view) dictated by the Cross as the supreme interpretive guide, and by our own unprocessed histories of victimization. And yet, I continue to pray.