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!

Poetry by R.T. Castleberry: “Dawn Came, Delivering Wolves”

A few years ago, the online journal Wag’s Revue published my poem “The Deer Problem”, about the sinister side of suburban wildlife management. It contains the lines “Men arrived in unmarked trucks./We were told to clear the area for that day.//They were delivering crates of wolves.” Longtime Winning Writers subscriber and Internet friend R.T. Castleberry asked permission to use the image in one of his poems. As you’ll see, he truly made it his own. I’m happy to share it with my readers below.

A Pushcart Prize nominee, R.T. Castleberry is an internationally published poet and critic. He was a co-founder of the Flying Dutchman Writers Troupe, co-editor/publisher of the poetry magazine Curbside Review, an assistant editor for Lily Poetry Review and Ardent. His work has appeared in The Alembic, Blue Collar Review, Misfit, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, White Wall Review, Silk Road and Trajectory. Internationally, he’s had poetry published in Canada, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Portugal. the Philippines and Antarctica. He lives and writes in Houston, Texas.

Dawn Came, Delivering Wolves

In clubs like Ghost,
like Corsair, like Shred
we punish our rye, sardonic as the war.
Office lights, like captions,
shine color and intent, streaking
signals into the night.
As slide guitar smear overdrives a bass,
outside speakers shiver patio tables.
Cellphone anarchists hawk
Free Zone passage, hound
soldiers staging for weak retreat.

Hungry, determined, river rangers
muscle a path from barricade to back bar.
Queasy from steam table sterno,
they settle for Tecate and nachos,
squall of a martial mixtape.
EMS drivers cluster in a low light corner,
uniforms dusty rescuing refugees from the Wires.
They count the few casualties as consolation.
Post-edit, news crews gang the tables,
tipping back Red Stripe and Japanese gin,
refreshing their taste for next day’s damage.

Up the block,
the train runs on the hour,
headlights blaring white in its passage.
Late walkers circle away from sidewalk crowds,
roll Bugler smokes on bus stop benches
The photos posted in the bar credit
actors in uniform, in military roles.
Like the world was indoors dark,
we huddle under Airborne berets,
rolling instance of combat videos.
Numbering nights—luminous, brittle,
years pass hard.

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.

 

Answering Detractors of “Black Lives Matter”

Like many other literary organizations, last week our company Winning Writers sent out an email responding to the latest incidents of police killings of black people and the protests they’ve inspired:

Winning Writers stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and all those who are speaking out, offering mutual aid, and peacefully protesting to end state-sanctioned violence against people of color. We are grieved and outraged by the police murders of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and many other African-Americans. We believe in the power of art to offer hope, inspire empathy, and correct the white supremacist American history that we were taught.
This was followed by some book recommendations by black authors and/or on civil rights topics. We received mostly positive feedback and a couple dozen hot complaints from our subscribers. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s much I can say to someone who thinks it’s a controversial statement that black people’s lives matter! I guess because I’m white and haven’t faced this first-hand, I was caught off-guard by the intense fury that this simple declaration triggers. But I remember the immaturity, economic stress, and status anxiety that led me to stake out some unwittingly racist positions as a college Republican, and I try to hope that some of our readers can also be moved by powerful stories and good arguments. I highly recommend Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race (Hachette, 2018) for thorough, accessible debunking of common errors we white people can make.
As a starting point, let me briefly address some of the most frequent objections we received:
We are stifling artistic freedom by politicizing Winning Writers.
It’s our company, folks. We can have a point of view. While we value diverse perspectives, some views are not worth entertaining. “Black lives don’t matter” is one of them. As contest judges and literary tastemakers, we strive to be fair rather than neutral. We feel that actors that claim to be neutral are often upholding (intentionally or not) the interests of the powerful and the status quo.
ALL lives matter; singling out black people is reverse discrimination.
Where did anyone say that only black lives matter? The BLM movement and its supporters focus on black Americans because they’ve been uniquely singled out for oppression and extermination for the past 400 years. All lives don’t matter equally in America. We want to change that.
Black Lives Matter is a far-left violent movement. BLM are looters and violent protesters.
The same people who say this, often say “Bad cops are not representative of the police.” Contradict yourselves much? White Americans generally get to be judged as individuals, whereas black lawbreakers’ behavior is attributed to the group as a whole. This too is racism. Moreover, protests have been infiltrated by right-wing agitators who want to stir up violence so black activists will be blamed. In the cellphone camera era, we’re suddenly seeing how often the police lie about the causes of altercations with suspects, inventing attacks to justify police brutality as a defensive measure. According to the Marshall Project, the problem is so widespread that some big-city prosecutors have “do not call lists” of cops who are untrustworthy witnesses. Be a critical thinker and double-check your news sources.
BLM wants to defund the police, which will make everyone (including black people) more vulnerable to crime.
Supporters of the current protests comprise a diverse group whose views on the police range from reform to abolition. Endorsing the movement doesn’t imply endorsing every viewpoint or action of its members. Politics is always a trade-off. (I’m looking at you, every Christian who voted for Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump because he would appoint pro-life judges.) Additionally, the catchphrase “defund the police” doesn’t always mean complete elimination, but rather, radically changing our city and state budget priorities to divert money from armed forces to human services. For a look at what it could mean in practice, see this Atlantic article by Annie Lowrey. She writes:

Defund the police…is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities. 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.

[Defund 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.

Winning Writers, and Reiter’s Block, are on board with that agenda. Want to help? One thing you can do is donate to your local community bail fund.

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.

The Poet Spiel: “Weighing In”

The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom Taylor, has spent eight decades taking aim at warmongering, corruption, and bigotry. He depicts the pleasures and absurdities of our physical existence in blunt, earthy language. He’s kindly permitted me to reprint this ever-timely poem below. Sorry to say that WordPress formatting limitations have stripped out his line indents. Check out his 2018 retrospective collection, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, for more of his work.

Weighing In

Weigh a pint of the blood
of the homo soldier

splattered on his foe

also a hero
dying for his cause
his country
what he believes is right.

Weigh the blood of the hero foe.
Weigh the blood of the homo hero.
Weigh the blood of every proud soldier
downed by friendly fire
and the blood of every proud soldier
who fired upon him.

Tell all their kids
in pints, pounds, or buckets

the quantity of their loss.

Does a pint of the blood
of the homo at war

weigh less in a jar?

than a pint of blood
sapped from his foe?
or a pint of the stuff
from your average Joe?

Compare to a pint
of dirt or sand,
a pint of gold or a pint of lead.

Weigh a pint of the blood
of the homo soldier.

Phone his mother her son is dead.

Self-portrait by the author. Used with permission.

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.