September Links Roundup: The Rules Never Applied

Hey, it’s time for another round of “Jendi discovers the obvious!” I have a hard time recognizing hypocrisy. Until, and even after, reality slaps me in the face, I assume that everyone is trying to live up to their publicly stated ideals. To be fair, that’s the premise behind most liberal political satire, too. We like to think we’re doing something important when we laugh at the gap between Trump’s evangelical values-talk and his violent and adulterous behavior. But as Noah Berlatsky wrote in a recent Foreign Policy article, “Fascists Know How to Turn Mockery Into Power”. Their absurdity or incompetence isn’t a lapse in effectiveness, it’s a deliberate middle-finger to the very idea that truth matters in politics.

Similarly, it’s finally dawned on me that the MAGA crowd’s support for unchecked police power isn’t actually inconsistent with their hyper-individualism about gun ownership, mask-wearing, and paying taxes. It only seems contradictory if you believe the surface claim that all Americans live under the same rule of law. But the rules were never meant to apply to them. Beneath the surface, there are two Americas. Authoritarian policing is for black people; freedom of choice is for white people.

This dual consciousness drives the new HBO series “Lovecraft Country”, based on Matt Ruff’s excellent novel of the same name. “In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, or the Lovecraftian genre he inspired, the fear arises from the realization that ‘normal” never existed,’ feminist critic Sady Doyle writes in her Medium article “Racism Is America’s Lovecraftian Horror”. In cosmic horror, we are de-centered in the universe. Our comforting, orderly beliefs in human institutions and culture are shown to be irrelevant to the strange and heartless way that the world really works. For white people, this can be how it feels to wake up to structural racism. For black Americans, well, what else is new?

The genius of “Lovecraft Country” is that its black protagonists have no naiveté to lose. The traditional horror-show monsters are less scary than the small-town white sheriff, and can sometimes be redirected to save our heroes from their human persecutors. Referencing Lovecraft’s flagrant racism, Doyle concludes, “The idea that life comes down to either ignorance or despair did, after all, originate with a fairly malicious guy, one who probably could not come to consciousness without realizing that he’d hurt people, and who had reasons to prefer denial. Crumbling beneath the horrible revelation denies us the other possibility, the one Lovecraft himself seemed to fear most: Being transformed.”

Along those lines, in this 2016 piece from Nightmare Magazine, an online journal of horror fiction and criticism, Chesya Burke contends that “Horror Is…Not What You Think or Probably Wish It Is”. She questions how the boundaries of her genre have been drawn to exclude the black perspective: why is The Handmaid’s Tale considered horror, but not Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

What does it say to upcoming writers of color who don’t write about the middle class white family fighting against malevolent forces? What of the black writer that writes of welcoming those forces into their lives, as it is less horrific than living under white oppression?

…It is too often in the genre that horror is seen as an invasion of some outside force that must be exorcised in order to restore balance. When you see this, and only this as horror, you leave out those whose worlds are already defined by outside forces (e.g. the white gaze), and often use an invasion of another force as a welcomed reprieve from systemic oppression. When you have historically seen the black, the dark, the other as scary, you create an entire genre around fearing them and their cultures. Does Voodoo, loas or perhaps entire countries (Haiti) and continents (Africa) come to mind? When you define horror by white men, you not only exclude others, but you vilify them.

In another story about coming out of denial, novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen shares an excerpt from his new book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America in his Atlantic article “College-Educated Professionals Are Capitalism’s Useful Idiots”. This longform piece describes how the professional class (lawyers, professors, journalists, bankers, etc.) helped wealth inequality grow out of control, starting in the 1980s. A cultural divide between upper- and lower-class white Americans was exploited by the super-rich to gut labor rights.

Most liberals, like most Americans, preferred not to regard capitalists as categorically rapacious and amoral, or to imagine the U.S. political economy as a never-ending struggle in which everyone must ultimately choose between two sides. That seemed crude. They didn’t vote for Reagan, but most didn’t hate him, certainly not at first, because in their way they shared his dreamy faith in the 1940s Frank Capra movie vision of America. And to some degree, most liberals succumbed, like most Americans, to a new form of economic nostalgia that was being revived and popularized—the notion that market forces are practically natural forces with which we dare not tinker or tamper too much. Finally, affluent liberals didn’t want to think badly of all their nice friends and neighbors and classmates who happened to work at banks or in real-estate development or in the vicinity of C-suites.

Starting in the 1970s, the Milton Friedman Doctrine, the righteous pursuit of maximum profit to the exclusion of absolutely everything else, freed and encouraged businesspeople and the rich to be rapacious and amoral without shame. Indeed, the new economic right even encouraged them to wage a class war—explicitly against (traitorous white) liberal professionals and the (black) “underclass,” more discreetly against the (white) working class they were enlisting as political allies.

At Catapult, Jess Zimmerman writes about adjusting a little too well to the Great Shutdown: “It Doesn’t Hurt, It Hurts All the Time”. She discusses how she came to understand her equanimity as traumatized numbness to the emotional load of our collective crisis. When she was finally cleared to go outside, she developed agoraphobia.

Like episodic analgesia, where the brain holds pain at bay, it was a protective nothingness, a shutdown. We are all so afraid. We are all so angry. We are all so lonely for our former lives, and mourning the collapse of the future. We are genuinely in danger, from the virus. We are genuinely being endangered, actively, by a government that sees us as disposable or worse. It’s too much: a black hole, all gravity and no light. At the same time, we are relentlessly, inescapably aware of how much worse it could be, how much worse it is, for someone, for many people. How do you let yourself feel that bolus of emotions at all? How, especially, do you feel it knowing that this is what “lucky” looks like?

…What if we thought of emotional trauma the way we do physical: not as worthy injuries and unworthy ones, but as a wide class of wounds made in different ways, whose healing is unpredictable, whose scars take different forms? It is worse to die, to be grievously ill, to lose someone you love, to lose your job and fear for your survival, to not lose your job and be forced to risk your survival every day. But it is also terrible to fear the future, to be betrayed by your leaders, to see ignorance weaponized, to have your life treated as a bargaining chip by the powerful. It is terrible to hang suspended over the pit and try not to look down. The teeth of this year grind all of us. Maybe, in seeing each other’s wounds, we can let ourselves feel our own.

In the new issue of Poets & Writers, Filipinx poet and college writing professor Rachelle Cruz proposes alternatives to the traditional writing critique workshop, which can be emotionally damaging and hostile to minority perspectives.

I’ve experienced trauma during my undergrad and graduate writing workshops, when I was asked to translate myself and cultural backgrounds as a Filipinx woman and first-generation college student, and to clarify my experiences with sexual abuse and more. I was asked to perform whiteness through “imitating” white poets. I was also asked to perform my brownness and “foreign exoticness” to a white audience. I’ve been in “dead author” workshops (also known as the traditional workshop) for my entire education. Through this model, the writer is silent while the professor, or a classmate, clumsy or emboldened by the professor’s lack of guidance, begins to eviscerate the work. Everyone else then joins in.

Today I teach my classes and workshops with a very different approach…

We read “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” a short, accessible, and informative history on writing workshops from a Vietnamese refugee writer’s point of view published in the New York Times in 2017. We unpack the “invisible origins” of the writing workshop—Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) in tracing it to a midcentury American fear of Communism—and how it’s marked by whiteness. We talk about how today’s writing workshop format was informed by this fear and a move toward individualism and individual art-making. We talk about how the “gruff” (read: toxic, masculine) style of communicating feedback to students was informed by the militaristic settings familiar to World War II veterans, who were the predominant workshop attendees during this time.

Then I ask my students, “So, what kind of workshop do you want?” I tell them that a workshop is a form like any other—a TV show, a film, a poem. It can have varied yet specific uses, depending on the writer and the piece. For example, do you have a rough draft of a poem or story that you feel uncertain about? Maybe you want to be inspired by other works similar to your draft. In the Gift Method of workshop, students bring in art, poems, films, and other media that speak to the craft and content of the workshop poem or story. Students share why their “gift” reminds them of the piece. Or maybe the student has a poem or story in response to queer feminist theory. The student can assign an article alongside their piece. The workshop then discusses the workshop text alongside this article, foregrounding queer feminist theory.

If you’d like to try out some of the alternate workshop forms that Cruz and her students have developed, email editor@pw.org with the subject line “Workshop Formats”.

August Links Roundup: Love and Work

Summer has flown by at Reiter’s Block HQ. The Young Master is in wilderness camp, learning how to start fires (and hopefully put them out). I have finished a draft of the Endless Sequel! Now we are girding our loins for the likelihood of Zoom school, part 2, since the state prioritized reopening restaurants and beaches rather than beating down the virus before winter. Why can’t you all just drink vodka alone in your office, like I do? You don’t need bars to hook up. That’s why God made Grindr.

While I have the time, I’m doing get-out-the-vote activism (check out Swing Left for projects you can do from home) and participating in an anti-racist online book group with my college alumni. Last month we read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, a masterful, bracing 600-page history of racist ideas in America. In the forthcoming September issue of The Atlantic, Kendi offers an ironically optimistic take on Trump’s presidency as a force for bringing white Americans out of denial.

He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump.

Similar to the 1850s, when a critical mass of Americans finally recognized the evils of slavery, Kendi thinks we’re at a moment of opportunity to acknowledge and strike down modern manifestations of racism: police violence, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and economic inequality. To keep the momentum alive, however, we have to remember that the rot pre-dates Trump and will not simply be solved by defeating him in November.

At the Disability Visibility Project, Stella Akua Mensah and Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthimkulu wrote in July that “Abolition Must Include Psychiatry”. While I have my doubts about the either-or framing, I agree it’s important to question the assumption that the mental health system is always a humane alternative to jail.

[B]oth prisons and psychiatric institutions: have an overrepresentation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), disregard the rights and safety of TGNC (trans and gender non-conforming) folks, use law enforcement transport/response, use solitary confinement and seclusion in cells/“rooms”, forcibly medicate folks (also known as chemical restraints), use physical restraints, offer extremely limited access to sunlight, fresh air, cell phones, news/media, and the outside world. In addition, sexual violence is routine, there is limited power to appeal legal/medical decisions, and the overwhelming majority of inmates are survivors of previous traumatic experiences. This year, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture presented a report asserting that involuntary psychiatric interventions “may well amount to torture.”

Prison culture is not solvable by ‘funding the mental health system’ more robustly. The mental ‘health’ system is fundamentally carceral, meaning that it is one of the many kindred systems that function to contain and surveil people, take away their locus of control, isolate them from their communities, and limit their freedom. As it functions in America and in all places touched by colonialism, psychiatry is rooted in torture, white supremacy, and a culture of shame and punishment.

Some articles about writers’ mental health seemed worth sharing this month. Found via the supreme advice blog Captain Awkward, Paul Graham’s essay “How to Do What You Love” challenges the way that kids are traditionally brought up to think about work versus play. The usual belief is: school is boring because grown-up work will be boring, and you do boring work to earn fun time later. Graham observes:

What a recipe for alienation. By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.”

Actually they’ve been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house…

…If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong.

…The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it.

Related to that, Lindsay King-Miller (author of Ask a Queer Chick) writes at Electric Literature that “Writing Doesn’t Need to Hurt”. (Hat tip to Jess Zimmerman on Twitter for the link.) Discussing her writer’s block while working on a bereavement memoir, King-Miller tells us not to force ourselves to dwell on trauma; it isn’t the only way to produce authentic and important work. She eventually wrote herself out of a dark place, not by endlessly dissecting her grief, but by generating tons of happy-endings fanfiction for her own enjoyment.

I’m not unique in writing past the point of comfort or safety. The archetype of the suffering artist is centuries old, a cultural memory that long predates my own idiosyncrasies. Writers are encouraged, tacitly and explicitly—no, fuck that passive voice. Writers encourage each other to steer into the pain. We value “raw” and “searing” prose, venerate brutal honesty. We say “write what scares you” but seldom “write what makes you happy.” There is so much advice about “bleeding on the page” and “cutting deeper” and, if you follow those instructions, you can end up a mess of open veins and damaged tissues.

“Writing this book almost killed me,” a writer I admire tweeted recently about her new memoir, and maybe she didn’t mean it as a point of pride, but I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who read it that way. When I was a slam poet, I watched over and over as people I loved delved into their most painful moments, live and onstage, reliving trauma with their whole bodies for the sake of a compelling performance. In some creative circles, the willingness to push oneself to the edge of a breakdown is considered vital to producing great art.

It’s not a surprise, then, that so many writers seem to hate writing—if “writing” is synonymous with “chewing open old wounds.”

…It is brave to write the thing you need to write, even if it hurts. But that doesn’t mean that the hardest writing is always the bravest. Self-flagellation for its own sake is not noble—and it doesn’t necessarily make for good art.

My guiding spirit, as I plan my next project, is Diane Nguyen from “BoJack Horseman” season 6. Unable to start writing her book of serious essays, which was meant to turn her banal family dysfunction into something productive, Diane overhears a conversation at the mall and spins it into the accidentally successful middle-grade series “Ivy Tran, Food Court Detective”.

At Medium, Kacen Callender, author of the YA transgender novel Felix Ever After, reminds us that writers are people too, even on social media. “The Humanization of Authors” notes the complexities of the power dynamic between authors and readers:

There’s an idea that authors and novelists have power and platforms, but there’s a key narrative being overlooked in the relationship between novelist and reader: authors depend on readers to buy our books for our livelihoods. There’s immediately a power dynamic placed between author and reader where we depend on pleasing the reader, many times to the point of our dehumanization. There’s also the fact that readers, bloggers, and influencers can be white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, or any other identity with privilege, and an author can have identities with no privilege. The idea that an author automatically has more power than a reader needs to be reexamined.

There’s a culture where many readers feel entitled to an author because they pay money in exchange for an author’s work. The culture implies that the reader is entitled not only to the author’s book, but to all of the author’s being. This unhealthy balance leads to situations where authors, for example, are not allowed to set healthy boundaries. Authors are vilified if they respond directly to a reader who has tagged them in a negative review, asking that they do not tag us. Authors are expected to respond to all messages. Authors are considered bad writers for not wanting to take a reader’s feedback or criticism into consideration.

Among the ways that authors are dehumanized by the social media culture of instantaneous, on-demand reactions, says Callender, is being “forced to disclose their gender or sexual identities and/or forced to share their past traumas so that readers will stop demanding to know about their lives as proof that the author is allowed to tell a specific story.”

Playwright and screenwriter Topher Payne has rewritten the cringe-worthy classic The Giving Tree to teach kids about healthy boundaries. Take a look.

When I was a Christian, I worried a lot about what made my creative work “Christian poetry” or “Christian fiction”. (Fun fact, naming your gay butt sex novel after the hypostatic union is a good start.) Does it have to be uplifting? Didactic? Contain a Christ-like character–but if it does, will this promote the misconception that human beings are our own saviors? Is it a Christian book simply because I, a Christian, am writing it? And if the book doesn’t turn out Christian-ish, does that mean I’m not a believer? (Well, in my case, yes.) In retrospect, I think I was concerned about this because I’d just become a full-time writer and I didn’t know if I deserved that privilege.

At the ecumenical online journal Breaking Ground, Tara Isabella Burton’s piece “Toward a Christian Aesthetics: Novel-Writing in an Age of COVID” addresses this very concern. The pandemic has exposed and heightened many inequalities in America. Writers can’t avoid noticing that the leisure to practice our craft depends on the physical labor of less privileged workers.

Now, more than ever, as we make public sense of a world in which the powerless are in bondage to the powerful, and in which we are all in bondage to sin, we are called not merely to account for the ways we exercise our freedom. It is a question for aesthetics as much as for politics—insofar as we can separate them, which as good systematic theologians I motion we cannot and must not do.

The questions of whether we should write and the question of what we should write as Christians are inseparable from one another and from this wider question of the theological character of right and wrong freedom—a question that both the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd protests have rendered ever more urgent.

How, in the forming of words on a page, can we exercise good creative freedom, even as we resist in both practice and product the embedded liberal notion that our individual, autonomous liberty to do, to make, to fashion, is the highest good there is?

Burton calls for a humanizing aesthetic that embraces the contingency and interconnectedness of our lives. She contrasts this with the pipe dream of unlimited personal autonomy that capitalism promises. The Christian novel will

embrace the implicit power in the authorial position by adopting not…a cynical gaze, that of the disengaged ironist, nor even the more morally palatable fury of the rightly raging prophet, but a distinctly loving one. I think that that the Christian novel can—indeed must—express anger at the world’s brokenness, and its injustice, even as it casts its attention on, and loves, the tiny details, the anecdotes, the phrases, the moments, that make each of its characters, in being fully human, fully loved by God. To zero in on a character’s foibles, their mistakes, their wickedness, their self-deception—and show us why we should love them anyway—is the greatest task of Christian art…

…And, most importantly of all, the Christian would preserve in every character depicted, however briefly mentioned, the sense that they are made in the imago Dei: that they are fully human, with their own wants, needs, desires, hopes, that each of they could, if only given space to tell it, be the protagonist of their own story as well.

…It is a commitment, too, to creating work where all characters, however minor, are treated with the respect of their full humanity, and where the narrative structure of the work reflects the imperfection and insufficiency of any one authorial or authoritative gaze. It is a commitment, too, to treating the world I write about with love—to seeing the incarnate Christ everywhere, even in the most broken or sinful characters; to seeing their God-given capacity to receive grace.

This actually has been my ideal from the beginning, as well. The problem is that I didn’t find it in the Bible, nor in the reactions of the most devout Christians to my art. Quite the opposite, usually.

At JStor Daily, Ed Simon writes a provocative article “In Defense of Kitsch”. He suggests that criticism of kitsch’s democratized rococo style can be traced to Protestant suspicion or snobbery about Catholic material culture. I don’t know that I buy this as a complete explanation, since American evangelicals pump out enormous amounts of sentimental tchotchkes, but I do love to read an appreciation of my favorite room at the Met, the 18th-century furniture in the Wrightsman Galleries. Mean Mommy used to make fun of my “tacky” taste for gilded furniture and porcelain shepherdesses. Well, I have a glitter-covered orchid vagina painting on my office ceiling and I’m living my best life.

Reading Treasure: Barbie Travels to the 18th Century

“Madame du Barbie” image via Reading Treasure, a Marie Antoinette fan blog (for real!)

July Bonus Links: Next Year, Not in Jerusalem

Oy, so many links this month, it’s like a Hebrew National warehouse!

QFC - Hebrew National Kosher Beef Bagel Dogs, 7.6 oz

Peter Beinart’s much-discussed article in the leftist magazine Jewish Currents this week made a compelling case for American Jews to rethink their (our?) faith in traditional Zionism. In “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine”, he begins by describing the beliefs I grew up with:

In the broad center of Jewish life—where power and respectability lie—being a Jew means, above all, supporting the existence of a Jewish state. In most Jewish communities on earth, rejecting Israel is a greater heresy than rejecting God.

The reason is rarely spelled out, mostly because it’s considered obvious: Opposing a Jewish state means risking a second Holocaust. It puts the Jewish people in existential danger…Through a historical sleight of hand that turns Palestinians into Nazis, fear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.

However, as he lays out comprehensively in the rest of this article, the historical evidence shows that the “Jewish state” has not kept Jews safe nor preserved Jewish ethical values.

With each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. With each new election, irrespective of which parties enter the government, Israel has continued subsidizing Jewish settlement in a territory in which Palestinians lack citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives…

Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex parts of the land that Israel has brutally and undemocratically controlled for decades. And watching all this unfold, I have begun to wonder, for the first time in my life, whether the price of a state that favors Jews over Palestinians is too high. After all, it is human beings—all human beings—and not states that are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God.

The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.

This doesn’t require abandoning Zionism. It requires reviving an understanding of it that has largely been forgotten. It requires distinguishing between form and essence. The essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel; it is a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world. It’s time to explore other ways to achieve that goal—from confederation to a democratic binational state—that don’t require subjugating another people. It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.

Please read the whole thing, especially if this quote raises your hackles. And then check out the essay anthology Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism, from Interlink Publishing.

The anthem of 2020 should be “Everything Is Cancelled” (sung to the Lego Movie tune “Everything Is Awesome”, of course). What other institutions can we topple? How about higher education? Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, ponders what would happen if we took conservatives’ parody hashtag “Cancel Yale” seriously:

Some conservatives think they have found a very clever way to troll the activists who push for renaming things named after slaveholders. Yale University was named after a slaveholder, Elihu Yale. If we believe in renaming military bases that were named in honor of Confederate generals, what principled argument is there for not renaming Yale University? The “reductio ad absurdum” is designed to show that activists are extremists and that carrying their principles through to their logical conclusion would result in actions that none of them are presently encouraging people to take. And it’s a silly effort to troll activists, but it raises an actual serious question: What principles do we use to evaluate what should and shouldn’t be renamed? Is renaming a university so costly as to be unthinkable?

Of course, Yale (and my alma mater, its sworn enemy) has brand-name significance to millions of people who have probably never heard of old Elihu. That’s why conservatives think the “cancellation” would be absurd–and why Robinson argues the opposite:

One reason the conservative “Cancel Yale” troll works so well is not because there’s no argument for keeping the name, but because arguing strenuously against the renaming of Yale requires Yale people to admit that they highly value being Yale people and would not want to stop being Yale people. It is demanding that those who have won in the “meritocracy” risk giving up their privileges for the sake of racial justice. (I say “risk” because I think ultimately changing the name on the sign wouldn’t change the institution’s social function much.) I’m sure the alumni of any university would fight hard to keep from having it changed, but going after Yale specifically is a satisfying poke at liberal elites who want justice as long as it comes at no cost to themselves.

One of my husband’s friends, also a Harvard grad, used to joke about how big a donation Harvard would require to change Widener’s name to “Stumpy the Clown Library”.

Now for my favorite part of the show… What does that say? Talk to ...

Meanwhile, in “Blacks in the U.”, a 1996 essay from the archives of the literary journal Ploughshares, acclaimed poet Toi Derricotte did some soul-searching about tokenism, mother-daughter individuation, and the roots of racism:

Sometimes I think that eventually every identity breaks down to some self that has to learn to live between loneliness and connection, stuck in some primal way in a spot one cannot retreat from. I don’t mean that being black can ever be a lost identity in this racist world, or that it should be. I don’t mean anything like those people who say, I don’t see color. But that in some way even our connections to the ones most like us become unsolid, unreal, and, though there is a necessity for trust and commitment, in another way we are nothing more than some kind of spirit-movement walking through the world clothed in a certain story of its life.

Perhaps this revulsion for the other is really a revulsion for my own self, my own fears of being “other,” separate and alone. Perhaps accepting this distance, even from the ones most like me, the ones I love and would like to be closest to, is really the way I will finally see us as we truly are, all of us “other,” frighteningly distant from each other, and yet needing and loving each other.

Finally, peruse the Kafka-esque saga of Nicholas Carter, a black staff writer for the game Cards Against Humanity who was involuntarily committed to a mental ward by his bosses when he objected to using the N-word in the game. He contextualizes his horrific ordeal with the history of weaponizing medical and psychological “expertise” against people of color:

In 2017 I wrote a novel about a black teenager who pretends to be white online and gets drawn into the world of hate-crimes. It explores what’s attractive about American violence and power and in the research of it I was reading a lot of philosophy, sociology, and post-colonial theory. For the first time I read Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and learned how psychiatrists in the Antilles had diagnosed the colonized people there with congenital nervous disorders after violently colonizing and repressing them, and Katz’ Seductions of Crime which illustrates the transcendent morality undergirding our life. I learned how we’re forced to pretend to be happy at work in The Managed Heart by Hochschild, and how everyone in our society takes aggression out on each other in Chancer’s Sadomasochism in Everyday Life. Richard Edwards’ Contested Terrain discussed the ways capitalists use management to control workers, and how those had evolved into a hybrid structure that utilized promotions and rewards to incentivize workers to play along. Only the most docile, loyal supporters of the company are promoted into positions of power. All you have to do is be willing to say yes.

When I heard that the majority of the owner-writers wanted to put the n-word into the game, I felt like my presence might have always been a simple permission structure for them. By occupying that space, I was implicitly endorsing them and allowing them to do what they wanted while pointing to me and saying, “but, look, we have a black guy.”

“Drapetomania” strikes again…

July Links Roundup: The Eccentric Pleasures of the Bed

Hey! It’s a month! Which one? Who cares! Time for some links.

Kittredge Cherry’s QSpirit website covers LGBTQ spirituality and art. Last month she profiled 18th-century utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, whose writings on same-sex love were published for the first time in 2013. Bentham anticipated several contemporary theological defenses of homosexuality, such as the observation that Jesus said nothing to condemn it. Bentham contrasted Paul’s asceticism to Jesus’ celebration of earthly life. He even speculated that Christ himself had gay sex. As his culture lacked a non-pejorative term, he phrased it thus: “The eccentric pleasures of the bed, whether partaken of by Jesus?” Charming phrasing–as one might expect from a gentleman who had a “sacred teapot” named Dicky.

In one of his public posts at the Shatner Chatner, his subscription newsletter, Daniel Lavery shared an excerpt from his memoir/essay collection Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Atria Books, 2020) that was particularly meaningful to me when I read the book this winter. Titled “Is Flesh a Problem or an Opportunity in the Eyes of God?“, the piece unpacks the assumptions behind an objection that trans people often hear:

Oddly, the same phrase came up over and over, although I don’t think many of these friends had spoken to one another about it: Something irreversible. As in, I’m afraid these kids are going to do something irreversible. But just what that thing was, and what irreversibility looked like outside of the usual irreversibility of time and momentum, I couldn’t have told you, because they were never quite able to explain it to me. “Something irreversible” is to polite people what “self-mutilation” is to impolite people: a quick way to reorient the conversation around their own discomfort with bodies. In both cases it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to have a productive discussion with someone struggling with a reflexive, implicit horror of flesh. Any mention of someone else’s transitioning body sends them into direct and panicked conflict with the prospect of their own transitioning body; since this is a prospect they find unbearable, it becomes immediately necessary for them to unload their own desire and disgust onto the nearest suitable target.

Like me, Daniel didn’t see obvious clues to his transition in his childhood. His story didn’t fit into the “I always knew” narrative that mainstream discourse pressures us to tell, to persuade skeptics that our transition is more than misguided trend-following or acting-out of some other psychological problem. But his evangelical upbringing gave him another framework, the conversion or resurrection story, within which an unexpected transformation can be holy. Citing 1 Corinthians 15:

The answer, then, for Paul, is the body-that-is exists always in anticipation of and conversation with the body-that-will-be, that all flesh is not the same flesh but that bodies please God, that death is always followed by growth, that there are many different types of glory, that dishonor may be followed by redemption, that all things spiritual originate in the goodness of the flesh, that our bodies might come to reflect both where we have been and where we are going.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You was published under his previous name, Daniel Mallory Ortberg. Daniel cut ties with his family and took his wife’s last name earlier this year, when he was unable to persuade his father, megachurch pastor John Ortberg Jr., to remove a youth ministry volunteer who’d confessed to sexual attraction to children. When the church continued to cover up the situation, Daniel and his wife Grace Lavery made the difficult decision to name the volunteer publicly as his brother, John Ortberg III, in hopes that the latter would get professional help. Bob Smietana’s July 6 article at Religion News has a good summary of the saga. Grace’s Twitter timeline has a comprehensive thread documenting the church’s stonewalling and misinformation campaign. Kate Harding’s essay “Why Am I So Furious About This?” connects the scandal to our national climate of gaslighting and shoot-the-messenger. I greatly admire the Laverys’ commitment to protecting children; many people don’t have the guts to face their loved ones’ abusive tendencies and set loving boundaries.

In the socialist magazine Current Affairs, Brianna Rennix examines “The Peculiarity of Gender”, a topic that attracts a fair share of trolls across the political spectrum. Those on the Right may lean on concepts of biological essentialism or natural law, while from the Left, one may hear that gender is a socially constructed illusion. It’s not as simple as either one. The superficially liberal position calls into question why anyone “needs” to transition, at all. Are we just mistaking a social problem (restrictive gender roles) for a medical one? Rennix’s critique:

Now, one counterargument I could make is that some trans people experience deep psychological anguish because they are inhabiting a body and an identity that doesn’t feel like their own, and that this anguish, whatever its source, is the impetus for transition, and it’s the reason why continuing to publicly identify as the gender they were assigned at birth is not an option. This is the whole idea behind “gender dysphoria,” the official DSM classification…

…But I don’t think that emphasizing dysphoria is necessarily (always) the best way to respond to the question of why transitioning still matters even if gender is a construct. Characterizing being trans as a medical condition is politically useful in some respects: even though it makes it easier for people like Ben Shapiro to claim that being trans is a form of mental illness, it gives a comfortably “scientific” reason for why someone’s gender expression should be socially tolerated and why they should have access to whatever surgical and hormonal interventions they might need or want. But not all people who identify as trans experience dysphoria, or at least, don’t experience it in the same way. People relate to their bodies and identities in a multitude of ways that the standard narratives around dysphoria may tend to flatten. Making the distressing experience of “dysphoria” the threshold necessity for transition doesn’t always make things easier for all trans people, as they try to gauge whether their desire to alter their pronouns or their appearance or their bodies is “really” gender dysphoria, or whether they are miserable enough to be “really” dysphoric. Additionally, a number of trans people have written about the experience of transitioning as something that has, whether in the long or short term, increased their sense of mental distress or wrong-bodiedness, rather than lessening it. This is psychologically understandable, as pursuing something very important to you in the face of great obstacles is an emotional experience that everyone is bound to process differently, but it doesn’t fit into the narrative that transition is a “cure” for dysphoria and thus gives grist to the mills of badly-intentioned people who want to say that transitioning is inherently a form of self-harm…

…For me, the only reasonable way to think about gender identity is as a desire: a desire which may feel like an unavoidable imperative to some people, and maybe a conscious choice or settled preference for others; but ultimately, what matters is what gender you want to be. The existence of gender as a concept is important to our physical, sexual, and social lives—we do, after all, live in a society—and because of this, we all have to orient our sense of self around it to some extent, whether we like it or not. If you want to transition, it shouldn’t matter whether you have the right kind of backstory or personal history, or the correct diagnosis, or whether you have a perfectly worked-out theory of gender that neatly aligns with and endorses your wishes. On the left, I think, we should have the general principle that people should be able to do whatever they desire, as long as it doesn’t involve immiserating and disempowering others for personal gain.

It’s a long article but worth reading closely if this is a topic that you ruminate about. I always find it refreshing when a writer acknowledges the complex feelings we may have about our genders before, during, and after (is there ever really an “after”?) transition. At present, I have big boobs, chest hair, a five o’clock shadow, and Lea DeLaria’s hairdo, and I find myself fretting, “How many more shots in the butt can I take before I turn into Hale Appleman?”

For turning body horror into body ha-ha, I recommend The Family Sarnath, Jason Reuter’s satire comics that re-caption Bil Keane’s drawings for the saccharine comic strip “The Family Circus” with H.P. Lovecraft quotes and storylines. Their Facebook page explains: “Our mission at Family Sarnath is two-fold: Make Family Circus funny and raise awareness to the growing threat of the Old Ones.” (Hat tip to poet Michael McKeown Bondhus for the link.)

Finally, for another good laugh, enjoy this three-minute YouTube video skewering gender reveal parties: “Gender according to the Cis, based on their cakes”.

Stay tuned for another post with more unrelated links!

Wear protection!

June Bonus Links: My Gender Is the Abyss

What even are months anymore? Below, a potpourri of links that didn’t fit under our last themed post:

Today on the almighty internet, I discovered the concept of xenogender: an umbrella term for nonbinary genders that don’t define themselves in reference to the male-female spectrum. I think it’s beautiful that people are branching out into poetry and metaphor to capture the nuances of their embodied experience. It’s no more “precious” or irrelevant than having hundreds of words for paint colors or the taste of wine. Don’t call us snowflakes, we’re frostgender.

New York City public health officials recommend glory holes for safer hookups in the coronavirus era. According to the New York Times: “‘Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face-to-face contact,’ the guidelines state.” You heard them, thots.

On the website of sci-fi and fantasy publisher Tor.com, novelist Charlie Jane Anders is posting chapters from her new inspirational book for writers, Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories.

Writing a horrifying story on your own terms means that you can show how someone can survive, or even triumph. And meanwhile, you can cast a light on the injustice of oppressive systems. You can also choose the frame and eliminate some of the ambiguity in some situations, to make things more stark and more clear, or to make juxtapositions that illuminate how the problem started, and how it’ll be in the future.

When you’re telling the story, you get to draw all the lines.

But you don’t have to put your darkest fears on paper to be able to use creative writing to survive. Just putting any kind of story together makes you a god in your own private universe and gives you control over a whole world inside your own mind, even when the outside world feels like it’s just a constant torrent of awfulness…

…And escapism is resistance. People sometimes talk about escapist storytelling as a kind of dereliction of duty, as if we’re just running away from the fight. That’s some bullshit right there… [I]magining a happier, more just world is a direct assault on the forces that are trying to break your heart.

Tor, the queer ex-Christian abuse survivor who blogs at Speaking While the World Sleeps, put up a powerful post last month titled “‘Abusers Were Just Abused Themselves’ Was Something My Abusive Mother Told Me”. Were we siblings??

People treat abusers like they are incapable of: self-reflection, thinking about the past, internalizing new ideas, changing their mind, making decisions that they thought through. And it’s easy to be convinced of that because a lot of abusers want you to believe that so that they don’t have to change

…If anything, what being abused taught them is that the weapons exist, and just how deadly they are. They are the ones who picked them up, pointed them at us, and then, with full knowledge and understanding of the damage they would cause, smiled and swung hard. And we’re allowed to say to them: you did this because you wanted to. You did this because you made the choice to.

Tor’s partner, Clarissa Littler, blogs at An Inconsistent Universe. In the third entry in her five-part series on the book Feelings of Being, she talks about child abuse survivors’ use of metaphor and how clinicians mistake it for factual delusions. For instance, what clinicians call the “Cotard delusion” (the expressed belief that one is dead or unreal) is phenomenologically true for a complex PTSD sufferer who feels that her selfhood was destroyed or never allowed to form.

Ever wonder how “mammals” got their name? Was Linnaeus just a boob man? This fascinating paper from 1993 by Londa Schiebinger in the American Historical Review argues that 18th-century gender politics heavily influenced the system of scientific nomenclature. There are several other traits unique to the Class Mammalia, including hair, but the presence of milk-producing mammae became the defining characteristic partially because of a backlash against upper-class women’s use of wet-nurses to suckle their babies. By making breastfeeding the symbolic essence of our species, male scientists were making a statement that it was natural and divinely ordered for women to stay home with their children instead of being involved in public life. The new nomenclature also alluded to, and reinforced, the association of men with “higher” rational functions (Homo sapiens) and women with “lower” sexual and animal-like functions.

All the more reason to identify as “Eldrigender: A gender (or possible lack thereof) which is dark, nebulous, and ultimately unknowable. Derived from the word “eldritch.'”

June Links Roundup: Cop Out

I spend a lot of time on trans Twitter, where the acronyms “AMAB” and “AFAB” (assigned male/female at birth) are common. So when I started to see “ACAB” show up in people’s feeds, I was like, what gender is that? No, white boi, it means “All Cops Are Bastards”.

Folks are saying that, of course, because of the recent police murders of African-Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, and the courageous protests that continue to fill our cities. For the first time I can recall, mainstream discourse has taken up the idea of defunding, or even abolishing, the police force as we know it. Even LEGO stopped advertising their police minifigure sets for a day or two.

I don’t know what a society without any police would look like, but radical change seems necessary. I’m learning a lot about the systemic problems with how America trains its cops, and the racist roots of the current institution. This long-form exposé at Medium, “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop” (anonymous for safety), describes how police are indoctrinated to cover up their fellow officers’ misconduct.

Let me tell you about an extremely formative experience: in my police academy class, we had a clique of around six trainees who routinely bullied and harassed other students: intentionally scuffing another trainee’s shoes to get them in trouble during inspection, sexually harassing female trainees, cracking racist jokes, and so on. Every quarter, we were to write anonymous evaluations of our squadmates. I wrote scathing accounts of their behavior, thinking I was helping keep bad apples out of law enforcement and believing I would be protected. Instead, the academy staff read my complaints to them out loud and outed me to them and never punished them, causing me to get harassed for the rest of my academy class. That’s how I learned that even police leadership hates rats. That’s why no one is “changing things from the inside.” They can’t, the structure won’t allow it.

And that’s the point of what I’m telling you. Whether you were my sergeant, legally harassing an old woman, me, legally harassing our residents, my fellow trainees bullying the rest of us, or “the bad apples” illegally harassing “shitbags”, we were all in it together. I knew cops that pulled women over to flirt with them. I knew cops who would pepper spray sleeping bags so that homeless people would have to throw them away. I knew cops that intentionally provoked anger in suspects so they could claim they were assaulted. I was particularly good at winding people up verbally until they lashed out so I could fight them. Nobody spoke out. Nobody stood up. Nobody betrayed the code.

None of us protected the people (you) from bad cops.

This is why “All cops are bastards.” Even your uncle, even your cousin, even your mom, even your brother, even your best friend, even your spouse, even me. Because even if they wouldn’t Do The Thing themselves, they will almost never rat out another officer who Does The Thing, much less stop it from happening.

The anonymous author goes on to say that the good things he did as a cop didn’t require him to be armed and dangerous:

The question is this: did I need a gun and sweeping police powers to help the average person on the average night? The answer is no. When I was doing my best work as a cop, I was doing mediocre work as a therapist or a social worker. My good deeds were listening to people failed by the system and trying to unite them with any crumbs of resources the structure was currently denying them.

It’s also important to note that well over 90% of the calls for service I handled were reactive, showing up well after a crime had taken place. We would arrive, take a statement, collect evidence (if any), file the report, and onto the next caper. Most “active” crimes we stopped were someone harmless possessing or selling a small amount of drugs. Very, very rarely would we stop something dangerous in progress or stop something from happening entirely. The closest we could usually get was seeing someone running away from the scene of a crime, but the damage was still done.

At Vox, historian Khalil Muhammad explains “How racist policing took over American cities”, based on his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2019). Because the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery contained an exception for people convicted of a crime, Southern states after the Civil War aggressively criminalized everyday behavior by black Americans. Then white social scientists in the late 19th century looked at the higher conviction rates for black people and concluded that they were inherently criminals. This assumption underlay the creation of the modern police force. Muhammad notes, “The same basic idea that in white spaces, black people are presumptively suspect, is still playing out in America today.”

In The New Yorker, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor asks “How do we change America?” Why are the same police reforms proposed after every death like George Floyd’s, to no effect? Taylor sees the roots of our current unrest in (among other things) 1990s Democrats’ betrayal of black voters:

The nineteen-nineties became a moment of convergence for the political right and the Democratic Party, as the Democrats cemented their turn toward a similar agenda of harsh budget cuts to social programs and an insistence that African-American hardship was the result of non-normative family structures. In May, 1992, Bill Clinton interrupted his normal campaign activities to travel to South Central Los Angeles, where he offered his analysis of what had gone so wrong. People were looting, he said, “because they are not part of the system at all anymore. They do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.”

Democrats responded to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion by pushing the country further down the road of punishment and retribution in its criminal-justice system. Joe Biden, the current Democratic Presidential front-runner, emerged from the fire last time brandishing a new “crime bill” that pledged to put a hundred thousand more police on the street, called for mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes, increased funding for policing and prisons, and expanded the use of the death penalty. The Democrats’ new emphasis on law and order was coupled with a relentless assault on the right to welfare assistance. By 1996, Clinton had followed through on his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Biden supported the legislation…

The 1994 crime bill was a pillar in the phenomenon of mass incarceration and public tolerance for aggressive policing and punishment directed at African-American neighborhoods. It helped to build the world that young black people are rebelling against today. But the unyielding assaults on welfare and food stamps have also marked this latest revolt. These cuts are a large part of the reason that the coronavirus pandemic has landed so hard in the U.S., particularly in black America. These are the reasons that we do not have a viable safety net in this country, including food stamps and cash payments during hard times. The weakness of the U.S. social-welfare state has deep roots, but it was irreversibly torn when Democrats were at the helm…

This points to the importance of expanding our national discussion about what ails the country, beyond the racism and brutality of the police. We must also discuss the conditions of economic inequality that, when they intersect with racial and gender discrimination, disadvantage African-Americans while also making them vulnerable to police violence. Otherwise, we risk reducing racism to the outrageous and intentional acts of depraved individuals, while downplaying the cumulative impact of public policies and private-sector discrimination that, regardless of personal intent, have crippled the vitality of African-American life.

At the Atlantic, Annie Lowrey unpacks the phrase “Defund the police”. Short of abolition, this could mean diverting much of law enforcement’s massive budget to the social safety net that could actually prevent crime.

As a general point, the United States has an extreme budget commitment to prisons, guns, warplanes, armored vehicles, detention facilities, courts, jails, drones, and patrols—to law and order, meted out discriminately. It has an equally extreme budget commitment to food support, aid for teenage parents, help for the homeless, child care for working families, safe housing, and so on. It feeds the former and starves the latter.

…[Defunding the police] would mean ending mass incarceration, cash bail, fines-and-fees policing, the war on drugs, and police militarization, as well as getting cops out of schools. It would also mean funding housing-first programs, creating subsidized jobs for the formerly incarcerated, and expanding initiatives to have mental-health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls.

IMHO, social workers remain problematic so long as they’re mostly white middle-class women with the power to take children from poor, neurodivergent, disabled, and nonwhite families. But at least they don’t carry tear gas.

 

What Do People Do All Day?

Remember this book? I still have my 1968 edition with Blacksmith Fox, Grocer Cat, Eli Cottontail the Farmer, and their equally hardworking housewife partners. Essential workers, all. No Hedge-Fund Hedgehogs or Insurance Inchworms here. The great pandemic of 2020 has highlighted the importance of the blue-collar and public-sector workers who are not paid anywhere near their true value.

For those of us with the privilege and duty to stay home–either suddenly under-employed, or trying to work and educate our children without the social structures we’d depended on–we’re collectively reckoning with the role of work in our identity. What were we doing that was so important, that it’s worth making heroic efforts to keep it going? When it’s a battle to make our children concentrate on schoolwork, what kind of learning should we prioritize?

Forced into a virtual world of infinite Zoom meetings, many of us have instinctively turned to old-fashioned, hands-on activities: arts and crafts, baking, gardening, needlework. Tending the homestead is how we spiritually nurture ourselves when the apocalypse is at our door. It’s a protection ritual, drawing the life force of the earth into our bodies and imaginations. I’m wary of the gender essentialism in terms like “the divine feminine” but even I can’t help noticing that our current popular pastimes were historically women’s work. Could the ancestors be guiding us to counterbalance the toxic machismo of our government?

Why didn’t I make time for this before quarantine? My regular workload has only increased since the lockdown, so it’s not a matter of scheduling. I felt childish, girlish, sitting down by myself to paint dollhouse furniture during the “workday”. Sitting in front of the computer, on the other hand, counted as “work” whether or not I was using the time productively.

Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, skewers the American cult of productivity in his essay “Animals Are Pointless, and We Should Be Too”.

A big part of the right’s opposition to the lockdowns, and its desire to open up the economy again as quickly as possible despite the risks, comes from its staunch opposition to “paying people not to work.” (This is one reason they don’t like paid family leave, too.) There is a cult of work: We must produce, produce, produce, and if we are not producing we are bad. The “ethic” part of “Protestant work ethic” is important: Work is supposed to be a positive good rather than a necessary evil.

I do not think this way, because I have been to the aquarium. And I have watched schools of fish just go around in circles for hours and hours. They do not have a point. They do no work. They just exist. Plants are the same. It is not always easy being a plant, but there is a lot of down time. We should take much more of a cue from the flora and fauna that surround us. Once you have the basics, it is enough just to bask in the sunshine and potter around. And if your “contributions” dry up and you do crosswords all day, that’s okay too. You matter. The ducks matter… Life is beautiful in and of itself, and I do not need the old folks to produce scholarly papers in order to care about keeping them alive.

Nature is patient. A mother robin has made her nest right under my second-floor patio. She’s very good at “sheltering in place” on top of her babies. I feel comforted when I walk out the door and see her plump little body resting on the woven twigs.

Poet Sabrina Orah Mark weighs the merits of academic job-hunting and sourdough baking in “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over”. It’s the latest installment of her column Happily at The Paris Review, which focuses on fairy tales and modern motherhood.

In fairy tales, form is your function and function is your form. If you don’t spin the straw into gold or inherit the kingdom or devour all the oxen or find the flour or get the professorship, you drop out of the fairy tale, and fall over its edge into an endless, blank forest where there is no other function for you, no alternative career. The future for the sons who don’t inherit the kingdom is vanishment. What happens when your skills are no longer needed for the sake of the fairy tale? A great gust comes and carries you away.

…I send my sons on a scavenger hunt because it’s day fifty-eight of homeschooling, and I’m all out of ideas. I give them a checklist: a rock, soil, a berry, something soft, a red leaf, a brown leaf, something alive, something dead, an example of erosion, something that looks happy, a dead branch on a living tree. They come back with two canvas totes filled with nature. I can’t pinpoint what this lesson is exactly. Something about identification and possession. Something about buying time. As I empty the bags and touch the moss, and the leaves, and the twigs, and the berries, and a robin-blue eggshell, I consider how much we depend on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves. I consider how much we depend on these tasks so we can say, at the very end, we succeeded.

…Over the years I have applied for hundreds of professorships, and even received some interviews. I’ve wanted a job like this for so long, I barely even know why I want it anymore. I look at my hands. I can’t tell if they’re mine.

“Of course you can tell if your hands are yours,” says my mother. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I have no real job,” I say. “Of course you have a real job,” she says. “I have no flour,” I say. “Fuck the bread,” says my mother again. “The bread is over.”

And maybe the bread, as I’ve always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone is changing color. Our criteria for earning a life, a living, are mutating like a virus that wants badly to stay alive. I text a friend, “I can’t find bread flour.” She lives in Iowa. “I can see the wheat,” she says, “growing in the field from outside my window.” I watch a video on how to harvest wheat. I can’t believe I have no machete. I can’t believe I spent so many hours begging universities to hire me, I forgot to learn how to separate the chaff from the wheat and gently grind.

I doubt I’ll ever learn how to scythe wheat, but I have been ordering bulk frozen cookie dough from the cafeteria of a local university that’s closed for the spring semester, and I can attest that my home-baked cookies are more popular than my writing. This Grace Paley poem is evergreen.

May Links Roundup: Hypersane or Hyperactive

May the Fourth be with you! As month #3 of my captivity begins, I am falling back on my lifelong strategy of outrunning my emotions through frenetic activity. I haven’t yet succumbed to the sourdough bread baking trend on social media (I don’t like sourdough enough to work for it) but I have made very good banana chocolate chip muffins and several indifferent watercolor paintings, while plugging away at the Endless Sequel. Meanwhile, the Young Master spends his days happily digging holes in the backyard. Who’s homeschooling whom?

The Harvard Divinity School alumni magazine offered some trauma-management ideas from different faith traditions in their article “Walking the Pandemic”. For that overwhelmed feeling, Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens recommends the meditation practice “Tilopa’s Six Nails”:

Don’t recall. Let go of what has passed.
Don’t imagine. Let go of what may come.
Don’t think. Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t examine. Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t control. Don’t try to make anything happen.
Rest. Relax, right now, and rest.

Jesuit priest Francis X. Clooney, a Hinduism scholar, finds parallels to the stories of Easter and Passover:

In the Christian story, the narrative of death and resurrection can be rephrased as wisdom or advice for people who don’t want to commit to being Christian or don’t want to come to church or any of that. It’s the understanding that we are finite beings and that even when there’s no pandemic we live only a certain number of years and then we’re gone. However painful it may be to strip away the stories and the progress and the ‘busy-ness’ and say, ‘I see myself in April 2020 under these constraints and concerns,’ there is an abiding peace in the rediscovery of the moment in which we’re living. It’s the realization that we are more than this. This is not the end of our story.

To live by this kind of hope is not just saying, fancifully, ‘I hope things get better.’ It’s a deep understanding that, whatever the difficulty of the moment, if we face it and don’t run, we will pass through. To echo the Passover feast, we shall leave the slavery of Egypt and cross the Red Sea.

If traditional religion is not your thing, visit Speaking While the World Sleeps, the blog of a queer ex-Christian sexual abuse survivor. In this March post, “Getting Through When It’s (Not) the End of the World”, blogger Tor shares what they learned about managing apocalypse anxiety, back when they were evangelical.

If you can, if at all possible, try and figure out what future you would want out of this moment. Since it will pass, since you will reach a point where you will feel better than you do right now, sometimes the worst moments are knowing that you believed it was the end when it wasn’t. You operated like there was no more future, and then the future happened. Conceive that your future self exists: where do they want to be after this moment in time?…

…You are moving through time, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I put this one last because maybe it’s obvious for other people, but this one is something I’ve clung to my whole life. When I was being bullied in school, it was often on the walk home from the school bus, and I would tell myself: every step that I take I am moving through time and space and then I will be home and this will be over for the day. Take a breath: another second passed. That second will accumulate into more seconds and those seconds are creating a history that you are living through and then it will be done. It will be done, and you will have survived.

The other day, I recalled the title character’s advice from the Netflix comedy series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, about how she survived 15 years of captivity by a cult leader: “Do you think you can handle this for 10 more seconds? I learned a long time ago that a person can stand just about anything for 10 seconds, then you just start on a new 10 seconds. All you have to do is take it 10 seconds at a time.”

While we’re itching to return to normal, it’s worth reflecting on the ways that “normal” wasn’t optimal. What do we want to take this opportunity to change? This article at Pocket by psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton explores the concept of “hypersanity”, suggested by the writings of psychiatrists R.D. Laing and Carl Jung. Both thinkers believed that deeper truths might be found on the other side of “madness”, i.e. the breakdown of mental processes and beliefs we took for granted. Burton summarizes:

It is not just that the ‘sane’ are irrational but that they lack scope and range, as though they’ve grown into the prisoners of their arbitrary lives, locked up in their own dark and narrow subjectivity. Unable to take leave of their selves, they hardly look around them, barely see beauty and possibility, rarely contemplate the bigger picture – and all, ultimately, for fear of losing their selves, of breaking down, of going mad, using one form of extreme subjectivity to defend against another, as life – mysterious, magical life – slips through their fingers.

Need a radical shift in perspective? Enjoy the Sexual Minorities Archives podcast (with transcripts for those of us who don’t like podcasts) and the Gay Art History reference site for a different angle on familiar cultural icons and events. (Download the section on Achilles for some cross-dressing bisexual adventure.) I also recommend the Advocate’s article “19 LGBTQ Hindu Gods” with the caveat to be wary of cultural appropriation. If you feel drawn to working with one of these figures, but you’re not from the ethnic or religious tradition where they originated, first read a book like Lasara Firefox Allen’s Jailbreaking the Goddess to understand your responsibility to that community.

April Links Roundup: Let’s Talk About Anything Else

Week Three of my captivity: We have decided “The Magic Schoolbus” counts as homeschooling. I have a slight crush on Ms. Frizzle (that sultry voice!). Doing a 500-piece Harry Potter jigsaw puzzle despite not caring about Harry Potter or puzzles. Bought four pints of ice cream today, even though only weird flavors like Whiskey Hazelnut Latte were left. At least that’s what I think it’s called; I could hardly see because my face mask was fogging up my eyeglasses. For some reason I thought this was a good time to start binge-watching “Bojack Horseman”, perhaps so I’m not tempted to consume the alcohol-laced desserts too fast. Also have a slight crush on Mr. Peanut Butter.

If you want more coronavirus news, it’s at the end of the post. I thought we could all use a distraction.

Gay literary fiction author Garth Greenwell was all over the news at the beginning of 2020 for his new book Cleanness, a sequel to his award-winning debut What Belongs to You, about an American teacher in Bulgaria whose sexual encounters reflect his existential crisis of both wanting and rejecting intimacy. In this interview at Craft Magazine, Greenwell shares insights about, among other things, the connection between queerness and literary technique:

I’m interested in the way that the shapes we make in art can mirror or resemble or question or complicate the shapes we make in pleasure. One of the things that interests me about queerness in art is I do think that novel affective and sexual arrangements demand novel forms…

[T]he idea that I hear in fiction workshops espoused as an ideal of good narrative-making is that you have a story that has a dominant plot and subplots, and you have a story that has a through line, you have a story that has a center. All of those things are fundamentally monogamous, they’re fundamentally predicated on the idea of life as monogamous, as life being drawn to a single affective center. Well, what if life doesn’t look like that? Then it seems to me that your story could have a very different shape.

And yes, I guess I am interested in the idea, it’s a very old idea, that fundamental idea we have of ideal structures in art as gendered, and that they are connected to sex. That’s an idea I encountered first as a music student in the 1990s reading feminist musicology, that many of our ideas of musical structure basically seem to resemble male orgasm. Feminist musicologists and feminist music theorists [were] sort of asking, what would music look like if instead of taking the experience of the male orgasm as our primary experience of transcendence, we took the experience of female orgasm? What would that look like? How would that change what art might be? That seems to me a really profound question and one that it’s not the kind of question you answer, but that you might explore in art. To me, it’s a question that unsettles my sense of what art can do. The way that I feel like I grow as an artist is by seeking out questions that unsettle my sense of what art can do.

Greenwell also pushes back against the pressure to create unambiguously “positive” representation, saying that as a gay teen in “pre-Internet Kentucky”, even tragic literature about homosexuality was liberating because “it gave me a sense of my life as accommodating of dignity.” He concludes:

I think the relevance of art to our lives is always endlessly mysterious, and never corresponds to a one-to-one relation of “I need a story to suggest to me that my life can be bearable and I can have the life I want to have.” I don’t think that’s how art works, and I think it’s really important to remember that. Any time we feel, as I think as a culture we are expressing this very much, very often, that we can place those kinds of claims on art—we cannot. It is illegitimate, I think, to ever tell an artist they have a responsibility to represent reality in a certain way.

AU: America’s AIDS Magazine last month profiled 80-year-old artist and activist Jack Fritscher, a former Catholic seminarian whose eclectic projects included the 1972 book Popular Witchcraft. Fritscher said: “During the Sixties sexual revolution and the Catholic Church’s Vatican Council revolution, it seemed worthwhile to research witchcraft as another evolving theology in American pop culture.” I was struck by his description of creative synergy:

I am not a Satanist. I’m a journalist. I’m also a magician. As an erotic writer, I conjure sex magic to seduce readers into transformative orgasm by casting the ‘spell’ of words into erotic runes that burn the reader down.

Another gay elder, prolific children’s book writer-illustrator Tomie dePaola, passed away last month. His distinctive artwork, with plush rounded forms and gentle colors, was a fixture of our 1970s childhoods. I particularly remember cherishing The Cloud Book and The Clown of God. When Shane was a toddler, a friend gave us a board book of dePaola’s Strega Nona, about a witch with a magical pasta pot (#lifegoals). See his complete bibliography on his website.

Poet and nonfiction writer J Brooke recently won Columbia Journal’s Womxn’s History Month Special Issue contest with eir excellent, nuanced essay “Hybrid”, about the many permutations of eir gender identity from childhood to middle age. Now the parent of a young trans man, Brooke reflects on the similarities and differences in how they both express their masculine sides. E describes an epiphany from reading Chas Bono’s transition memoir in eir 40s:

Born a boy in a female body, Chas eventually realized he needed to transition into a man. With such similar early years, I wondered, for the first time, if I’d denied myself my true gender. And, if I had, now what was I supposed to do about it?

…Exploring with a therapist whether I still wanted to be the male I’d wanted to be back in my teens, I discovered that while I would have blinked my breasts away at any point in my life, my aversion to surgery would keep me from an elective double mastectomy. As for facial hair, I’d outgrown my desire for it along with my silver spoon shaving years. Learning how testosterone alters the brain, I didn’t want that either…liking the wiring of my female-male brain, however it’s been fused and formed over the years. And, while I’d once perfected peeing while standing, I didn’t wish a penis appended to my body. I was born male and yet no longer felt wholly male; I had morphed into something other.

My favorite poet-mystic Ariana Reines lays down some astrological wisdom in her March 23 New Moon Report. Writing about our new default state of enforced solitude and quiescence, Reines declares:

In order to handle it, the luckiest among us—those of us who are staring down the barrel of nothing worse than boredom and loneliness—are going to need skills and commitment on the level of the great yogis and saints, of deeply committed artists—simply to remain sane, or rather to attain sanity.

What we are facing right now is death.

And somehow I wish neither to give comfort about this fact nor do I wish to scold you about those people and causes to whom and to which you should be devoting your copious spare time and, very likely, dwindling material resources.

There are things I could say about what artists know about being alone, about the transubstantiation of loneliness into solitude that has guided us spiritually since the Buddha first left his wife and kids to wander and sit under that tree . . . and long before that . . . I could preach to you about the touchless touch of the unified field, the negative space that unites us all, about the substance of our love and longing dilating like the auras all about us, about the immanence of God and the reality of angels, about how lucky we are to have the internet and how lucky we are to finally have a chance to learn how to use it for good instead of evil . . .

But I need to remind myself and you that what we are facing is death. It’s not just that people we love will die, but that every time we wash our hands and every day we don’t go outside, mathematically, fewer people will die. We have been drawn into a new calculus. But it isn’t just this either. I suspect we’re also moving into the death of the era in which any of us belongs sitting quietly alone in a room. Whatever America has been, and whatever we have been, we are facing its death.

And in another sense we are all pregnant and this is our lying-in…

…And what about solitude’s products? What about great works of art? These lonesome productions of genius seem to me now like melancholy miracles of an epoch that has devoured without pity the real genius of this place, by which I mean Earth—the cultures, animals, plants, and spirits—hundreds and thousands of spirits, of every description and disposition—that have lived and even thrived here. It has occurred to me that art simply returns to the world some of the abundance it has given us, in the same way that in elder cultures song and ritual would do, and it has occurred to me that art restores balance to the world, which is tilted on purpose, and that there is something about this gift—compelled as it is from us—that is especially hard to accomplish with things set up the way we’ve organized them since the Industrial Revolution.

We cannot live without art, but the Promethean force required to bring it forth is immense, is even sick, an index of our greater sickness. It takes a quantity of human grit to accomplish anything great that I don’t see how any school could teach. And now everyone gets to have a taste of it: what it means, and what it takes to be thrown back on yourself, and to summon out of absolutely nothing, less than nothing, some kind of treasure, some kind of nectar on which not only you but others might feed, something deeper than food and older than even ideas and without which your soul would die.

Need a laugh? How about art produced without tears? Janelle Shane’s neural networks are here for you. Neural networks are computer learning programs that look at large data sets to generate other possible examples of the same genre–sometimes accurately, sometimes hilariously off-kilter. Here, the AI has applied itself to in rem jurisdiction lawsuits, a/k/a “Court Cases That Sound Like the Weirdest Fights”.

One of the quirks of the US legal system is that in certain cases the court will set up a case against inanimate objects–something to do with the process of seizing contraband or dangerous goods…

Some of the strangest have included:

United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film
United States v. One Book Called Ulysses
United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton
United States v One Solid Gold Object In The Form Of A Rooster
Quantity of Books v. Kansas
South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats

Those are the real ones. The REAL ONES.

What would they be like when imitated by a neural net?

A couple of months ago, the AI’s United States v. Two Packs of Filthy Watermelon Pretzels sounded like a farce; now it’s a description of the stripped shelves at Walmart. What a world.

I’ll give the last word to horror novelist Chuck Wendig, whose funny and foul-mouthed writing advice brightens my Twitter feed. He wants to remind us that “None of This Is Normal”:

You cannot meet abnormality with increased normalcy. It just doesn’t work. There’s no countermanding it that way. We’re told we can be more productive, that we’re all work-from-home now, but lemme tell you: this isn’t your average way to work-from-home. This isn’t how to accelerate productivity. It’s like being told to work-from-home during a locust plague and a forest fire. “Just sit there and do the work, head down, don’t look outside, definitely don’t match eyes with Baalzebub, who is currently stalking the neighborhood next door with a SCYTHE made of BITING FLIES. It’s fine! Ha ha ha! Haven’t you always wanted to learn how to crochet? Now’s the time! Just ignore the screaming!”

It’s hard to concentrate when everything is so strange, so broken, so dangerous. It’s like being told to paint a masterpiece while on a turbulent flight. It’s just not the time.

And so, I want you to know, you shouldn’t expect yourself to be somehow a better, more productive person in this time. You can be! If you are, more power to you. That doesn’t make you a monster. But if you’re finding yourself unable to concentrate, that’s to be expected. That is normal. Normal is feeling abnormal in response to abnormality. You must be kind to yourself and to others when it comes to what we think people can and should be able to accomplish during this time. Ten million people are out of work, suddenly. People are sick and dying. The thing we crave at a base level, human interaction, is suddenly fraught and fragile. Hell, everything is fraught and fragile. We’re only realizing now that it was fragile all this time.

Maybe I won’t try to finish my novel by Easter.

March Links Roundup: Uptown Rat

Uptown rat…You know I can’t afford to buy her trash…

The quintessential New Yorker, the subway rat, turns out to have distinctive neighborhood populations just like the Big Apple’s human residents. According to The Atlantic, “New York City Has Genetically Distinct ‘Uptown’ and ‘Downtown’ Rats”. In 2017, a genetics grad student at Fordham sequenced the critters’ DNA, with the goal of controlling the vermin problem by understanding their migration patterns.

Manhattan has two genetically distinguishable groups of rats: the uptown rats and the downtown rats, separated by the geographic barrier that is midtown. It’s not that midtown is rat-free—such a notion is inconceivable—but the commercial district lacks the household trash (aka food) and backyards (aka shelter) that rats like. Since rats tend to move only a few blocks in their lifetimes, the uptown rats and downtown rats don’t mix much.

When the researchers drilled down even deeper, they found that different neighborhoods have their own distinct rats. “If you gave us a rat, we could tell whether it came from the West Village or the East Village,” says Combs. “They’re actually unique little rat neighborhoods.” And the boundaries of rat neighborhoods can fit surprisingly well with human ones.

(True New York rats understand Times Square is just for tourists.)

Rats get a bad name, but humans right now are casting doubt on the superiority of our species. Last month in #MeToo news, the Christian humanitarian organization L’Arche disclosed that their revered founder, the late Jean Vanier, had sexually exploited a number of women under his spiritual direction. Founded in France in 1964, L’Arche is a network of intentional communities where non-disabled people live in fellowship with those who have intellectual disabilities. Catholic theologian and popular author Henri Nouwen had a spiritual awakening there and was pastor of a L’Arche community in Ontario for the last 10 years of his life. The Catholic magazine America reports:

Mr. Vanier is accused of sexual misconduct with six adult, non-disabled women who sought spiritual direction from the late activist, author and philosopher. According to a press release from L’Arche USA, the investigation “reveals that Jean Vanier himself has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims.”

According to the release, the inquiry “has found the allegations to be credible.”

…The L’Arche founder’s behavior seemed to repeat the pattern of abuse initiated by his mentor, according to the investigation. Father Philippe had been Mr. Vanier’s “spiritual father,” who inspired him to begin his ministry with disabled people. The pair met in 1950, when Mr. Vanier, then in his 20s, joined L’Eau Vive, a community for theology students in France founded by Father Philippe. Two years later, Father Philippe was called to Rome and removed from ministry, ostensibly for unspecified health reasons.

Some scholars suggest that Father Philippe was removed from ministry then because “for his unorthodoxy and exaggerated Marian mysticism, which was based on an experience he had in prayer in 1937.” That theology appears to have been used in Father Philippe’s promotion of sexual practices in his spiritual counseling.

According to L’Arche: “At least a decade before the founding of L’Arche, Jean Vanier was made aware of the fact that Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual director, had emotionally and sexually abused adult women without disabilities. This abuse happened in the context of Philippe’s spiritual direction in 1951/1952.”

Mr. Vanier had maintained for years that he did not know why Father Philippe had been removed from ministry in 1952…But the new investigation reveal[ed] that was not true.

Followers of the clergy abuse beat may notice similarities to the late Mennonite pacifist theologian John Howard Yoder, a similarly revered figure in progressive Christian circles, who is believed to have harassed or abused some 100 women in the guise of intimate spiritual counseling, as summarized in this 2015 article in The Mennonite.

For a broader analysis, The Revealer magazine’s March 2020 special issue examines “Religion & Sex Abuse in and Beyond the Catholic Church”. I found the article “The Guru-Disciple Relationship and the Complications of Consent” especially thought-provoking: can there even be “nonconsensual sex” in the context of a relationship where the disciple has voluntarily sworn complete submission to the guru? When does victim advocacy become an imposition of our own values on someone else’s religion? Personally, this is the point where I feel we’re making an idol out of tolerance and pluralism. But radical feminists might say the same thing about kink. The piece left me wondering if there are any formal checks on a guru’s power in this system, like a safeword in BDSM. I don’t think it’s cultural imperialism to advocate for accountability structures within the guru-disciple relationship, just as we (theoretically!) have rules against abuses in the military, despite the expectation of obedience to your commanding officer.

Queer Christian activist Kevin Garcia brings the clarity with his new blog post “We Consented to Our Own Abuse”, about how non-affirming churches gaslight LGBTQ people into believing that suffering and exclusion are “loving”.

I called myself disgusting. I called myself sinful and gross. I thought these things about myself. And it made me cry that I tried so hard but couldn’t change.

But I was told, if I would just hold on, hold on and wait for God’s best for me to show up, then I could stay a part of this beloved community.

In my community, uniformity of thought was so important. Uniformity of feeling was also fairly important. We had to all show this outward sign of God’s work in our lives. JOY! PEACE! KINDNESS! That was the fruit of the spirit. But if your joy didn’t look like their joy, if your peace didn’t look like their peace, then they would apply their own form of “kindness” in order to get you there. They’d wanna “love on you.”

I was made to believe that if I didn’t belong, I would never feel happy because I’d be outside of God’s presence. On top of that, I was also told that I’d go to hell if I chose to live outside what they said was God’s will.

And anytime I got “loved on,” to be honest most of the time it hurt.

Love shouldn’t hurt.

But I didn’t know that. I was taught that I had to make a sacrifice for the kingdom of God. I was told that what I had to offer was not acceptable to God, who I was, the way I loved and the way I connected with others was sinful. What was weird is that I wanted this thing I was told was sinful. “A king gets to make demands that seem unjust to us, but He’s the king. We don’t get to question that sovereignty.”

Read the whole thing and prepare to cry. Kevin is so right: “it is worth everything to be free. It is worth everything to rediscover your infinite connection to Love.”

Sorry to beat a dead rat–er, horse–but stories like this February item from Raw Story cement my conviction that evangelical Christianity has lost all moral credibility: “White evangelicals are set to undermine Native American adoption protections”. In 2016, a Cherokee/Navaho toddler was placed for adoption with a white evangelical couple in Texas, but the federal Indian Child Welfare Act first requires authorities to search for a Native adoptive family from the child’s background (though not necessarily related to him). Only if no such placement can be found, is the child eligible for adoption outside the tribe. The white couple is challenging this law:

By this point, the tribes have relented and allowed the adoption to go through. But the Brackeens are now pushing for the invalidation of the ICWA altogether — a law that was meant in part to rectify the long and brutal history of the U.S. government separating Native families. A district court has agreed the ICWA is unconstitutional, but the Fifth Circuit partially reversed the decision. The Fifth Circuit is now rehearing the case en banc, and it may ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.

Another Supreme Court case to watch this term is Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which could potentially create a huge “religious exemption” to anti-discrimination laws. Vox reports:

Fulton asks whether religious organizations that contract with Philadelphia to help place foster children in homes have a First Amendment right to discriminate against same-sex couples…The plaintiffs in Fulton include Catholic Social Services (CSS), an organization that used to contract with the city to help find foster placements for children but that effectively lost that contract after it refused to comply with the ban on discrimination. CSS claims it has a First Amendment right to continue to do business with the city even if it refuses to comply with the city’s anti-discrimination rules.

…A decision for the plaintiffs in Fulton, moreover, could have implications that stretch well beyond foster care. The Fulton case involves an especially sympathetic plaintiff: a Catholic organization that helps vulnerable children find homes. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor of that plaintiff, it could potentially establish that a wide range of government contractors, from social service providers to military contractors, may discriminate if the company’s owners claim a religious justification for that discrimination.

As the article explains, the plaintiffs are asking the court to overturn their 1990 precedent Employment Division v. Smith, which held that the “free exercise of religion” provision of the Bill of Rights isn’t a broad license to opt out of any laws that incidentally burden but don’t target religious practices. The difference seems to be political rather than legal–Smith was a Native American fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, in a religious ritual.

In secular rat news, the website Follow the Money reports that “between 1989 and 1998, Dutch multinationals paid over one million guilders (close to half a million euros) to prominent climate sceptic Frits Böttcher (1915-2008), with the explicit goal of sowing doubts about climate change and humanity’s role in it. Böttcher used the money to set up an international network of climate sceptics…The doubt created led, among other things, to a lack of political support for regulatory measures with regard to CO2 reduction during the 1990s.”

Image result for gay rat images

Take over the planet, boys. The humans are done.